Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Jitterbug

One of my earliest and fondest childhood memories was watching my mom and dad do the Jitterbug. They were good. And I was in awe.

I believed that they had won some championship when they were in high school. They were champion Jitterbuggers. This may have been entirely something I just wanted to believe, and even as a young teenager, watching them at my Bat Mitzvah or a cousin’s wedding, I would banish the thought that I should check to make sure this was true.

They were championship Jitterbuggers. They won the Carrie Kaufman Championship. That’s all that counted.

But I wasn’t alone in my awe. People would actually pull back on the dance floor to watch my parents; much, I thought, like people pulled back to watch George Bailey and Mary Hatch doing the Charleston before falling into the pool.

My parents were movie star Jitterbuggers. And it was a wonderful life.

They tried to teach me a few times. It didn’t take. Here’s the thing about dance: it’s incredibly sexist. When two people dance together, one has to be the “boy” and one has to be the “girl.” So when my parents tried to teach my brother and I to Jitterbug, I would inevitably have to be the “girl.” And it’s not that I didn’t really want to be the girl. Well, it’s not totally that I didn’t want to be the girl. It’s that the anchor, the real talent of this Jitterbug team, was my mother. I didn’t have a chance of being that good. It was easier to be the boy. But my parents couldn’t get their imaginations around it. So the nights we tried always ended with me not learning how to Jitterbug.

But I was still in awe.

My children are dancers, and they’re pretty good. They are “serious” and they plan what year they’re going to be on So You Think You Can Dance. This is encouraged by my mother, who may never have been a dance champion, but who wanted to be.

I have seen the feeling I had for my parents’ Jitterbugging in my children’s eyes. But it wasn’t for dance, it was for singing. One of my most cherished memories as a mom is singing to them as they took a bath, and watching them fall completely silent as they stared at me with awe.

I am a champion singer. I’ve won the Dixelaney Championship. That’s all that counts.

My children don’t think I’m a very good dancer. This may have been encouraged by my ex, who always laughed at me when I danced. I suspect the laughter could have been because I dance with abandon, and my ex doesn’t do well with abandon. But I am completely open to the prospect that I may not be a very good dancer.

So my children were wondering the other day how they got to be such good dancers. I’m holding back the information that their sperm donor’s brother is a choreographer. TMI on the sperm donor for now. So I told them that grandma and grandpa were dance champions.

They were in awe.

So last night, when my parents arrived for their week long Dixelaney Birthday and Chanukah visit, the girls asked them to Jitterbug for them.

Let’s stop and do some background here for a second. You may have noticed that I have been writing about my parents’ Jitterbugging days in the past tense. They were great Jitterbuggers. They’re now in their early 70s, and while there are plenty of people in their early 70s who can dance, if not all night, then at least half the night, my parents aren’t them.

My mother, for about 30 years now, has been dealing with a muscle tissue disease in the Lupus family. That’s apparently about as specific as one can get with Lupus. She started off with Raynaud's Syndrome which is still prominent. My father jokes that she’s an All-American: her fingers start out white, turn red and then turn blue. I worry about her when she comes up during December. It’s cold in Chicago. It’s not cold in Las Vegas, where they live and where I grew up. But their granddaughters are here. And their granddaughters were born just days before Christmas. My mother hasn’t missed a birthday yet. Blue fingers be damned.

But it’s not just the fingers. This is a muscle tissue disease. The heart is a muscle. The lungs are a muscle. She has a pacemaker and is frequently short of breath.

She does not Jitterbug. Anymore.

Here’s the thing, though: you wouldn’t know my mother was sick just by looking at her. Yes, when we are out (usually, with my daughters, shopping), she will occasionally stop and hold onto something, or someone, and catch her breath. On what she calls her “bad days,” we have to use the handicap sign so she doesn’t have to walk so far into the store or restaurant. But any suggestion that perhaps we should stay home, that she should rest, is met with a blank, uncomprehending stare. Why in the world, she seems to be thinking, would you even suggest that?

My parents go out all the time. My parents go out more than I do. My parents, as older people, go out more than I ever did.

Shortness of breath be damned.

My father is another story. He has been strong as a mule all his life. His only issue is that he’ bit overweight (come on, my dad READS this blog) and has developed type 2 diabetes. Still, he has never been on insulin and doesn’t do much to watch his food intake and it hasn’t bitten him in the ass in the way something like that can scare the hell out of you. At least not yet.

This summer, he had back surgery. Spinal stenosis, to be exact. When he checked into the hospital, the nurse asked my mom about the last time my dad was in the hospital. Her answer was, “Never.” Which is why it was surprising that he had some trouble recovering. At one point, he passed out, and my mother had to grab a phone to call an ambulance while trying to hold him up.

And then, a couple of weeks ago he got the flu. He couldn’t seem to shake it, and today, after traveling to Chicago, he was pretty logy. I have certainly seen my dad sick before. But I’ve never seen him stay sick.

I am trying not to worry about this. I am trying not to think that all the years of not watching his blood sugar and not losing weight are catching up to him. This could be just a really pesky flu. But maybe it will at least scare him into making some changes.

OK, let’s get back to the Jitterbugging. There are few things in the world more important to my parents than their granddaughters. Aside from each other (they’re coming up on their 51st anniversary), I’m not sure there’s anything or anyone more important to them than their granddaughters – including me. (OK, maybe my brother. They always loved him best.)

So when the girls, excited by my nostalgia, and wanting to make a connection to their own passion, asked my parents to Jitterbug for them, Bernie and Barbara happily complied. With a caveat to the girls that they wouldn’t make it through the whole song, we found a version of “In the Mood” on YouTube, and the three of us watched them.

They were good.

And I am still in awe.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

No we're not. We're Jewish.

It was the first week of November, 2008. Barack Obama had just been elected president a couple of days before. And California’s gay marriage law had been annulled.

It was one of those rare times in my house when the TV wasn’t tuned to Disney or PBS Kids. We were watching the news, and a story about California came on. The girls were just about to turn six. I wasn’t sure how much they would understand, but I told them to be quiet and watch the TV.

When it was done I explained to them that gay people are not allowed to marry in most states in this country. I explained to them that California had decided to let gay people get married. And I explained to them that in this election, California had become the first state in our history to take away rights it had given to its citizens.

Then I said, “This is important because we’re a gay family.”

“No we’re not,” said Delaney, with utter certainty. “We’re Jewish.”

I had no answer.

For my daughters, at this point in their lives, being Jewish was a matter of identity. They had no notion of this force people call “God.” But they did celebrate Shabbat every Friday at their Jewish Community Center preschool. And they knew they were different, that most of the people in their kindergarten classes were not Jewish.

For them, also, being gay was a matter of identity. They have two moms. They do not have a dad. And there was only one other child out of 80+ kindergarteners who could say the same.

So, for them, being Jewish and being a gay family were sort of the same thing. We ARE. And we are.

And they’ve never hidden or been ashamed of either of those facts.

Fast forward to December 2011. They are now in third grade, halfway through their elementary school years. (And, yes, I’m very maudlin about that.) Somehow Dixon got into a conversation with two girls in her class about church.

“I don’t go to church,” she said. “I’m Jewish.”

The little girls’ reactions were apparently to look at her in shock and horror.

As Dixon related it to me later, they said to her, “You hate God.”

And, as she told me later, she just looked at them and thought, “You people are crazy.”

My first response was, “Welcome to the world of small-minded people.”

My second response was, “They were shocked that you were Jewish, but not that you have two moms?”

“They’re kinda new,” she said. “I don’t think they know that.” Then she flashed my grandfather’s mischievous grin. “But I might tell them tomorrow.”

This conversation threw me back to sixth grade in Las Vegas, when, at recess after show and tell, I was cornered on the playground by a little blonde Mormon girl named Shana and two of her equally blonde friends. For as long as I could remember, my mother had thrust a menorah in my hands every December for show and tell. I believe sixth grade may have been the last time.

“You killed Jesus,” Shana said to me, her face twisted up in triumph.

“I didn’t kill Jesus,” I said. “I didn’t even KNOW Jesus.”

I don’t remember the specifics of the rest of the conversation, but I do remember thinking exactly what Dixon thought oh so many years later: These people are crazy.

Some time ago I looked back on this and realized that growing up it didn’t matter what I was taught about Judaism. It didn’t matter whether we kept kosher or not. It didn’t matter how much I understood who Jesus was and why we didn’t believe he was the son of God.

What mattered was this: I knew I was different. And I was taught to be proud of that.

And that is partly why it’s easy for me to be gay. I don’t value and yearn to be part of the mainstream. I’m not chasing some idea of what I’m supposed to be. And I really don’t care what people think of me. There will always be little girls and big girls telling me I killed Jesus. And there will always be people telling me that my sexuality is an abomination.

These people are crazy. I’ve known that since I was 12.

Dixon is just about to turn 9. Last week, we were walking down the street, enjoying a holiday festival of shopping in Andersonville – a neighborhood of Chicago with a rather large lesbian population. Out of the blue, Dixon said, “Next Halloween, I’m going to be a menorah, because I’m proud to be Jewish, no matter what anybody says.”

Then she started singing Hava Nagila. Loudly. And she asked me to sing the words she didn’t know. The three of us were walking down a street full of holiday shoppers belting out an old Yiddish folk tune. I don’t know if either of the girls noticed some of the looks we got. If so, it didn’t make them stop.

They’re proud to be Jewish. They’re proud of their moms. They’re proud to be different. And they’re not going to let these crazy people tell them what to do.

And the conclusion I came to is that it really didn’t matter whether Delaney understood, three years ago, the distinction between being Jewish and being gay. What she understood is that we are who we are.

And we are.