An unexpected gift came my way for the long Labor Day weekend in the form of a broken toe. Bummer, one might think, but for me it was a blessing to take a break from my ‘to do’ lists and labors.
The accident happened Wednesday night as I stumbled into the kitchen to get some water in the middle of the night. Normally I keep water by the bed, but the well had run dry.
There is one step in the main living area of our contemporary home. It’s been there since I moved in to the former art studio in1988. It has a two-inch think piece of slate on top of it. It is the only step from the kitchen back to the bedroom and I hit it. Hard.
Our gentle-natured golden retriever barked uncontrollably until he realized it was me crying out a few choice words. Hubby ran into the hallway thinking a burglar had broken in. I don’t think any of us got back to sleep. I know I didn’t.
I looked at my ‘to do’ list on Thursday morning as the toe next to my big toe was turning brilliant colors and simply laughed out loud.
Going to the gym, taking a long dog walk in the park, window washing and ridding our home of cobwebs for a Tuesday evening party were all crossed off.
Instead, I sat with our sweet dog, Tucker, by my chair with feet up on the ottoman in the living room I now realize I barely live in. Instead of being angry with myself, I turned my journal, listened to some Ted Talks and NPR podcasts, daydreamed and vegetated.
With a Birthday Party looming on September 6 for our beloved neighbor Dr. Thomas A. Fitzpatrick, I pulled out the paper plates and plastic utensils and decorated a bit to stretch my legs. That was it. I doubted my party-goers would judge me on a few cobwebs and dirty windows, and if they did, as the saying goes, “life is too short.”
On Saturday, I waltzed into my sisters’ home for her husband’s 60th surprise party, found a comfortable chair and iced while guests came to me instead of helping her in the kitchen and keeping drinks topped off. My brother brought me ice for the toe. My sister brought me a glass of wine. My niece made me a plate of food. It was lovely.
As I limped into Chestnut Hill Quaker Meeting on Sunday I told members of the Hospitality Committee that I would have to sit out helping with the monthly community luncheon. Instead, I sat at a table and chatted with a first-time visitor who just moved to Chestnut Hill from New Jersey and listened to her story.
On Monday, I went with my husband and dog to the park and sat on a bench and just enjoyed the day while they walked. I did not bring a book or phone. I just enjoyed the gorgeous weather and watched park users taking a break from their labors.
Because of this mishap, I have actually gone into my Google calendar and scheduled in mental health breaks throughout the day and week in an attempt to embrace this gift I had been given in the form of a broken toe.
When not icing her toe, Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf tells the stories of business owners, non-profits and retirees. She can be reached at Barb@CommunicationsPro.com or 215.990.9317.
“Life may not be the party we hoped for,
but while we’re here we may as well dance.”
Jeanne C. Stein
I was at the corner grocery store buying some early potatoes. I noticed a small boy, delicate of bone and feature, ragged but clean, hungrily apprising a basket of freshly picked green peas.
I paid for my potatoes but was also drawn to the display of fresh green peas. I am a pushover for creamed peas and new potatoes.
Pondering the peas, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation between Mr. Miller (the store owner) and the ragged boy next to me.
‘Hello Barry, how are you today?’
‘H’lo, Mr. Miller. Fine, thank ya. Jus’ admirin’
them peas. They sure look good.’
‘They are good, Barry. How’s your Ma?’
‘Fine. Gittin’ stronger alla’ time.’
‘Good. Anything I can help you with?’
‘No, Sir. Jus’ admirin’ them peas.’
‘Would you like to take some home?’ asked Mr. Miller.
‘No, Sir. Got nuthin’ to pay for ’em with.’
‘Well, what have you to trade me for some of those peas?’
‘All I got’s my prize marble here.’
‘Is that right? Let me see it’ said Miller.
‘Here ’tis. She’s a dandy.’
‘I can see that. Hmm mmm, only thing is this one is blue & I sort of go for red. Do you have a red one like this at home?’ he asked.
‘Not zackley but almost.’
‘Tell you what. Take this sack of peas home with you and next trip this way let me look at that red marble’. Mr. Miller told the boy.
‘Sure will. Thanks Mr. Miller.’
Mrs. Miller, who had been standing nearby, came over to help me.
With a smile she said, ‘There are two other boys like him in our community, all three are in very poor circumstances. Jim just loves to bargain with them for peas, apples, tomatoes, or whatever. When they come back with their red marbles, and they always do, he decides he doesn’t like red after all and he sends them home with a bag of produce for a green marble or an orange one, when they come on their next trip to the store.’
I left the store smiling to myself, impressed with this man. A short time later I moved to Colorado , but I never forgot the story of this man, the boys, and their bartering for marbles.
Several years went by, each more rapid than the previous one. Just recently I had occasion to visit some old friends in that Idaho community and while I was there learned that Mr. Miller had died. They were having his visitation that evening and knowing my friends wanted to go, I agreed to accompany them. Upon arrival at the mortuary we fell into line to meet the relatives of the deceased and to offer whatever words of comfort we could.
Ahead of us in line were three young men. One was in an army uniform and the other two wore nice haircuts, dark suits and white shirts…all very professional looking. They approached Mrs. Miller, standing composed and smiling by her husband’s casket. Each of the young men hugged her, kissed her on the cheek, spoke briefly with her and moved on to the casket.
Her misty light blue eyes followed them as, one by one, each young man stopped briefly and placed his own warm hand over the cold pale hand in the casket. Each left the mortuary awkwardly, wiping his eyes.
Our turn came to meet Mrs. Miller. I told her who I was and reminded her of the story from those many years ago and what she had told me about her husband’s bartering for marbles. With her eyes glistening, she took my hand and led me to the casket.
‘Those 3 young men who just left were the boys I told you about.
They just told me how they appreciated the things Jim ‘traded’ them. Now, at last, when Jim could not change his mind about color or size…they came to pay their debt.’
‘We’ve never had a great deal of the wealth of this world,’ she confided, ‘but right now, Jim would consider himself the richest man in Idaho.’ With loving gentleness she lifted the lifeless fingers of her deceased husband. Resting underneath were 3 shiny red marbles.
We will not be remembered by our words, but by our kind deeds.
Life is not measured by the breaths we take,
but by the moments that take our breath.
Today I wish you a day of ordinary miracles ~
A fresh pot of coffee you didn’t make yourself…
An unexpected phone call from an old friend…
Green stoplights on your way to work…
The fastest line at the grocery store…
A good sing-along song on the radio…
Your keys found right where you left them.
IT’S NOT WHAT YOU GATHER,
BUT WHAT YOU SCATTER
WHAT KIND OF LIFE YOU HAVE LIVED
Growing up with two older sisters and a younger brother, each about two years apart, I longed to gain entry into ‘the big girls club.’
My brother, Kevin, was in a club – and room—of his own.
We three sisters shared a room, although I was a bit isolated on the top bunk and viewed as the baby girl in the family.
The oldest, Karen, and second child, Patrice, tended to pal around together, only grudgingly taking their “baby sister” with them to play outside or down in the basement. Two was company; three a crowd.
Dressed in their starched white cotton shirts and navy blue Catholic school uniforms with lunch boxes in hand they marched off to school as I stayed behind, longing for the day when I would get my own lunch box and join them as part of the ‘big girls club.’
The big day finally came. Looking back on a faded family photo of the three girls in front our twin house, lunch boxes in tow, I felt pure joy at finally joining my two older sisters on the walk to school and a closer glimpse into ‘the big girls club.’
Once there, I hesitated at the classroom door, looking at a nun whose wrinkled face scared me to no end. On that first day Sister Egidia asked me to stand up in front of the whole class and shared with the newcomers that she had taught my mother. Gosh, she was ancient. I felt so humiliated by being singled out and upon returning home vowed never to return to school again. Of course that didn’t happen.
What did happen that year opened my eyes to the disciplinary actions those nuns meted out on any given day. Early on in first grade, Charles Beaver was given a bar of soap and told to eat it to clean out his dirty mouth. He took a bite and spit it out and was sent to the principal’s office. We never found out what happened there. Then came the day that Sister found a brown bag containing an egg salad sandwich abandoned in the rear coatroom.
When nobody fessed up to owning the lunch, Sister made each student take a bite of the sandwich. Gross. To this day I can’t even look at egg salad without my stomach churning. Yuck. Here I was finally in the ‘big girl club’ and I wanted out – big time. Kindergarten was a piece of cake compared to this.
My next entry into the ‘big girl club’ came later that year. Up until this time, I had believed in Santa Claus. Just before Christmas, I saw my two sisters snooping around in our parents’ bedroom. Hovering at the door I asked what they were doing.
“Shh, get in here or we’ll be found out and in deep trouble,” Patrice said. I hesitated, but wanted in on the ‘big girls club.’ They then showed me toys stashed under he bed and clued me into the fact that Santa did not exist. While I was devastated inside, I was also happy to be invited into ‘the big girls club.’ After the holidays were over, I was again banished to the little girl’s club because my mother found out that they had shared the fact that Santa did not exist.
The next time I remember coming back into the ‘big girls club’ was when I got my first training bra. Being the third girl, I typically got hand me downs, but somewhere around 11 years of age, my mother took me and me alone out for my first bra. I wore it proudly as an outward symbol that I had gained entry into the ‘big girls club.’ My sisters laughed when they saw it as it was just a ‘training bra’ and not the real deal like the ones they modeled behind closed doors in our room.
On my 12th Birthday my membership into the ‘big girls club’ became official. That morning I woke up to discover “I had become a woman.” My sisters were thrilled and congratulated me.
I was somber most of the day, fearing that everyone coming to my first boy-girl party that night would be able to tell. I let my best friend, Donna Fitzgerald, in on my secret, but none of the other party goers.
I do remember we turned the lights off and played spin the bottle in the basement briefly until my father flipped the light switch on at the top of the stairs and threatened to come down.
I also remember visiting the powder room every half hour or so to check that everything was in order and I wouldn’t be ‘found out’ by the boys.
In my sisters eyes I was officially ‘in’ the big girls club, but it was a membership I now wanted no part of – but at this stage had no say in the matter.
“Always go to the funeral. People remember.”
Those two lines of an essay a fellow memoir writer had written about following the death of her husband immediately jumped to mind recently as if the essay had been written and read yesterday.
The reality is they were written and shared a year ago by a widow reflecting upon her husband’s death and the funeral. She wrote about how people came up with excuses, but how important it is for the living to feel your presence as part of this larger community mourning with and for you.
So when my husband’s cousin, whom I had been exchanging texts throughout the morning regarding a possible hospice visit to see his mom, our Aunt Elinor, had actually called in the early afternoon, I knew why he was calling.
“My mother just passed,” he said tearfully.
“I’m so sorry,” came the natural flow of condolences, while my mind was racing ahead to the next exchange. It was a Thursday afternoon. They are Jewish. I knew from the death of my beloved mother-in-law, Anne, 15 years ago that the funeral would likely fall on Sunday.
“When and where is the funeral and who can I call?” I asked, while thinking ahead to how to manage covering my tracks with a long scheduled talk on Sunday.
The annual Goddess Gathering, a group of diverse women from all walks of life, were meeting at a lovely hotel for tea, a Goddess ceremony, storytelling, and to hear a talk I was co-presenting titled “Return to Refinement: Beauty and Fashions Through the Ages.” These women were dressing up and wearing hats.
It is a talk I had developed and given many times on my own, but one which I had recently co-presented with a Goddess I had worked with for the past two years to control a skin condition.
And so when the Sunday date and time and South Jersey location were given and dutifully written down, I didn’t offer to go “if I could get out of the talk.” My immediate response, based on that essay, was: “Brad and I will be there.” Period. No if, ands, or buts.
“Always go to the funeral. People remember.”
And so I ended the call, shared the news with my husband, who then called his sister and started the informal phone tree and e-mails to the many cousins. There were 150 or so at one time. My mother-in-law had been very active with the group and was one of the founders and even came up with the name of the newsletter, “What’s Buzzin’ Cousin.” The 4-page black and white text only newsletter (with the exception of the original What’s Buzzin Cousin masthead) was a monthly publication that now comes out quarterly, photocopied and mailed by a smaller group of cousins, who, like me, keep up with family news via this sweet piece of nostalgia that I immediately rip into when it arrives. There is no FaceBook or Twitter feed. This is our lifeline to the lives and deaths and comings and goings of various members. Typically the front left side of the page has an obituary, then it moves into blurbs about who visited relatives in Florida, or an award a child garnered, and even the deaths and rescues of our Golden Retrievers.
My next phone call was to one of the organizers of the Goddess Gathering, a horticultural therapist I had met through a mutual friend years ago, and someone whose energy and lust for life I admire.
I explained the situation and that there was no way I was not going to the funeral. I had already committed. The words from that essay had struck a cord with me when it was read, and remains with me now.
While in a fog at a boyfriends’ funeral in 1982, I did come away with a sense of who showed up and were part of the fabric that wove together the mending of my soul. The same holds true for my mother in laws’ funeral, and how cousin Rob, Aunt Elinor and Uncle Norman, Uncle Buddy and Gayle were with us in her room just hours before she passed. She was unconscious at that point and highly medicated after the ovarian cancer that had been in remission for a year came back with such a vengeance that she turned to me before the others gathered to say “no more…no more, Barb.”
They and so many others were with us at the funeral. Cousin Rich who owns Maplewood Music Studio, and his brother, Sam, who happened to be in from California, sat down and recorded the music to Anne’s favorite song, “Imagine” by John Lennon, that played as her casket made its way down the center aisle of the synagogue at the conclusion of the service.
My next phone after speaking with Cheryl was to Rachael. We had recently turned the talk into a webinar and she had totally revamped the presentation, adding much of her own material and personal sketches she had illustrated from her days as a fashion major in college.
“Sure I’ll do it, but it won’t be the same without you,” she responded.
There was no discussion about skipping the funeral and going to the Shiva afterwards. Zero, zip, nada.
“Always go to the funeral. People remember.”
And so we went to one of the most difficult funerals I have witnessed since the death of David, and then Anne. The Rabbi was spectacular and was on staff at the retirement community where Aunt Elinor and Uncle Norman had been for the past seven years.
Seven years, I thought, where had that time gone. Brad and I had been regular visitors despite the frontal lobe dementia that made Aunt Elinor.
On one such visit, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Barb, get me out of here…get me out of here.”
My husband and I both commented on the way home from Voorhees, New Jersey to Flourtown that we thought she meant “get me out of this body and this life.”
So cruel this disease that had robbed my maternal grandfather and our family for nearly 20 years, and one that is holding our family hostage with my father’s loss of memories.
At the service, the Rabbi talked of catching glimpses of what Elinor had been like when she first moved into the retirement community; playing bridge with the ladies, regular appointments at the hair salon, happy hours and dinner with new friends and old.. He then spoke of the unspeakable and what we all witnessed in the form of the dementia robbing her of her spirit.
Visitors came sporadically toward the end, yet Norman stood by her side as he had for nearly 60 years of marriage. He did get some brief respite when she laughed while watching reruns of a sitcom titled “Always Love Raymond”. Why that show touched her I don’t think we will ever know.
Cousin Max, a publisher in New York City, cried openly after the rabbi’s opening pray. He then was the first of the two sons to deliver a eulogy based on his remembrances of life in the Chamelot era, when Elinor was at the top of her game, and Norman, an osteopathic physician, came home from a long day at his practice to be with family. He talked about their trips and growing up in a simpler, carefree time. He outwardly sobbed talking about how proud he was when she had been named head of the Mathematics Department at Cherry Hill High School, and he cried remembering a retirement filled with tennis in Florida, touring near and far, and winning trophies in bridge tournaments. Tears rolled down my cheeks remembering the brunches she would attend at my late mother-in-laws, and how we would both get silly after a round, sometimes two, of Bloody Marys that my brother-in-law would fix.
Max paused several times to compose himself, reach for the tissue box, and blow his nose. And then it was over. And we all sighed. But it was not over.
Next up came Robert, a physician, who gave an equally moving and tearful eulogy. There was something about seeing these grown sons cry along with the tie-in to my father’s struggle with dementia that caused me to lose it – big time. Not only did I cry, I blubbered; blubbered like a baby for Elinor, for Uncle Norman, for the sobbing sons, for Anne, for my father and his dementia, and the closing of this chapter of the Russian Jews who had made it safely to America so many years ago.
After the service, I could not ‘chit chat’ with the other mourners but had to leave the lobby and sit in the car for a good cry before the burial. I almost didn’t leave the car when we arrived at the cemetery, but the words again haunted me.
“Always go to the funeral. People remember.”
And so I soldiered on, huddling on a cold, rainy March day burying Aunt Elinor, saying the Mourners’ Kaddish, and going back to the retirement community for kosher deli and conversation. We sat for a time with a very vivacious 97-year-old Aunt who shared the family stories, and her daughter, who had contacted me recently to capture her mother’s stories. I could not help myself from pulling out a camera to take a photo of Aunt Eve and Max and Amy’s daughter, also named Eve. The two had never met. I felt it needed to be documented, along with a photo of Eve and her grown daughter because “you never know.”
Once during the afternoon, when another cousin commented how great I looked, I thought back to the Goddess Gathering and what they were doing and how Rachael had stepped up to the plate and Charlotte had stepped in to set up the projector and how on some level, these women knew the words the essayist had written.
“Always go to the funeral. People remember.”
Barbara Sherf is a personal historian and legacy planner who can be reached at 215.990.9317 or CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.
Education by Inclusion CEO Chetan Bagga carrying books for resale.
Who would have thought reselling books and electronics could be such a lucrative business and result in scholarship money for needy students? Flourtown resident Chetan Bagga, a Columbia University graduate, ran the numbers and started Education by Inclusion (EBI) about a year ago.
The home page of their web site offers this comment to customers.
“We are a socially conscious online bookstore with a simple promise – everything you buy contributes to a deserving student’s education. This year, you’ve made over 100,000 purchases toward scholarships. We sincerely thank you! Let’s keep the momentum going.”
The startup company, based in Huntingdon Valley, has 15 employees and has just awarded its first scholarship in the amount of $40,000. EBI hopes to reach the $1.5 million mark in book sales by the end of this year.
Not bad for a 28-year-old former management consultant turned entrepreneur with social responsibility leanings.
“I do believe in making money and living well, but also in giving something back. I think you can do both,” said Bagga, EBI CEO. While he had many clients, Bagga wasn’t finding the work rewarding. He and colleague Michael Goldenberg, 26, decided to start a company with a cause.
“Now we make money and are giving a percentage away to students who might have been excluded from going to the college of their choice,” said Bagga, in his serene style. One such student, Javier Ramos, whose father was recently laid off from the Camden County Fire Department, is pursuing his dream of attending Fordham University due to the scholarship distributed by Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia.
“I’m not sure if I would be hear right now,” said Ramos, 18, by phone during a break in his psychology classes. “I feel like this is a blessing that just fell into my lap.”
Founded in 1995 at Germantown Friends School under the original name of Summerbridge, Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia provides disadvantaged students from Philadelphia’s under-resourced schools with the education and supports they need to access higher education.
Jean Fitzpatrick, a neighbor of the Bagga family on Creek Lane, who is involved with the Breakthrough, invited Chetan’s parents, Paul and Kushi, to a fundraiser a year ago.
“Our mission resonated with them. They realize how education can change lives and decided to support Breakthrough,” said Fitzpatrick, who had only high praise for Chetan. “He is a fine young man. He is a graduate of Columbia, has held high level management positions in Princeton and New York, but decided to take a step back and give back. He recognizes the gifts he has been given and is now giving back at a remarkably young age. It’s been very refreshing,” she said.
Two Breakthrough Board Members are from Chestnut Hill; Susan Fleming and Anne Marie Corner. Fleming talked about working with EBI and Bagga.
“One of the great things about Chetan is that he thinks outside the box. The scholarship he established has given a real boost to Breakthrough’s students and teachers. Everyone at Breakthrough is delighted to see Chetan’s dedication to our mission,” said Fleming.
Bagga said he needed an outside agency to work with that already had an infrastructure in place to process the scholarship.
“I didn’t want to just select a candidate on my own. I was looking for an entity that already existed and had a rigorous selection process and I found it in my own backyard. Next year we hope to give away four scholarships,” said Bagga.
Described over and over as a ‘big picture guy’ Bagga was doing a more mundane task this past Saturday; picking up books left over from the annual rummage sale at St. Paul’s Church in Chestnut Hill. He will sell the remaining books online, giving a portion of the proceeds back to the church.
“The reality is that I can get up to four times the amount online as they would bring at a book sale, but I understand there are reasons to have a book sale — like bringing visibility to an organization and building community,” said Bagga.
Upon graduation, Bagga worked as a management consultant from 2004 to 2009, but he had a yearning to start his own company and to give back.
“My entire life was in a thumb drive and I just felt like is this all there is? I wanted to create something that would have an impact on society. I guess it comes from the way I was brought up as my parents and grandparents were always proponents of giving back,” said Bagga.
Giving back is something that Bagga witnessed as a young boy. In India, his grandfather owned a bank and started a charitable foundation to fund a school. Chetan’s father, Paul, owned a number of fast food restaurants before starting a business in the alternative energy field. He too has given back in terms of helping to establish EBI and to make the connection with Breakthrough.
As for his son’s accomplishments over the past year, the elder Bagga said he is proud of Chetan.
“Giving back is a trait found on both sides of our families. Chetan is doing this by example. We are very proud that at such a young age he has decided to do this,” said the elder Bagga.
In addition to funding the Breakthrough scholarship, EBI has established relationships with 36 local colleges and universities whereby the institutions turn books over to EBI and a portion of the proceeds goes back to the school for their scholarship programs.
“Our goal is to branch out to schools beyond Philadelphia and work on a national basis, and then an International basis,” said Bagga, while giving a tour of the 25,000-square-foot warehouse.
The mostly used books are shelved in sections by institution, with employees sorting, working on computers, packaging books and placing them in huge bins to be shipped to customers all over the world.
Wearing a traditional Sikh turban, t-shirt, shorts and sandals, Bagga typically works in the front office managing the operation with Goldenberg. Goldenberg has a Star Trek-type central control station with several computer screens blinking and buzzing charting the best rate EBI can get on a book and the current inventory.
“I guess I’m the geek,” Goldenberg admitted, while punching in some numbers and showing off the software system he developed for EBI. “I really like this side of the business; controlling the supply and demand.”
After hours, Bagga recharges by swimming, biking, listening to music and dancing with friends.
While Bagga wears the traditional Sikh turban, he said he does for cultural reasons.
“I’m not so much religious as I am a believer in the cultural values within the Sikh community,” said Bagga.
As for keeping his mostly 20-something staffers happy, Bagga believes not only in hiring people who also have an interest in giving back to students, but in sharing a portion of the profits with his young team.
“At the end of the day here everyone has ownership in terms of sharing revenues and scholarships. It makes sense to give employees equity in the company,” he added. “I’m excited about the possibilities of where Education by Inclusion is going.”
To learn more, go to www.buyve.com or call 215- 995-4105.