The Mahjong Girls

Growing up in Stuyvesant Town—a large apartment complex on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—was more like Peyton Place than you would think. It seemed that everyone knew each other. The complex stretched from 14th Street to 21st Street and consisted of a multitude of 13 story buildings. Stuyvesant Town was built in 1948, and was geared for returning vets and their growing families. My parents and other young families moved in, creating a common bond—something you don’t find today. There was a sense of camaraderie and belonging among the new residents who were often either Jewish or Catholic that is absent today. My mom and a few of the Jewish ladies formed a ladies group that met once a week at each other’s apartment, to play Mahjong (a Chinese tile game) and they became known to us as The Mahjong Girls. When it was my mom’s turn to host, we were always in a frenzy—frantically vacuuming and dusting, putting out hors d’oeuvres, nuts, chocolate, drinks, etc. When the first doorbell rang, my older brother and I were exiled to the bedrooms. Since I did not have a room of my own, the evening was particularly magical because I got to watch TV in my parents’ bedroom and eat the goodies my mom would bring into me during a break. Mahjong seemed to be the exclusive domain of Jewish ladies and I don’t think the Christians played it. Now, each Mahjong girl had a distinct personality—and where we didn’t know much more about them, my brother and I invented personalities. There was Ethyl, Anita, my mom, Shirley and Sarah. Anita was chubby, and had a gravely voice, so my brother and I imagined her as someone obsessed with cookies and imitated her voice asking, “Do you have any cookies?” She had two sons, Jay and Steven, who my brother (Gordon) and I played with. Their son Steven was odd, and nobody could really put their finger on what was wrong with him. But, years later Gordon and I came to the conclusion that he was probably autistic. My brother and I could sometimes be pretty cruel, not directly, but looking back I see that our funny games were born of jealousy. On the surface, Anita seemed to have a charmed life, but one day, we found out that her husband, Sydney, was “visiting” somewhere for an extended period of time. Since Stuy Town was somewhat Peyton Place like, we found out through the grapevine that he was actually in jail for perjury. So, from then on, my bro and I referred to him as “the criminal” in our conversations (again, just between us). Unfortunately, their son Steven inexplicably was found dead one day—a real tragedy. Now Shirley, who also lived in our building, was a very stylish and refined beauty whose husband, Bill, was a commercial artist. Their apartment was impeccably decorated and she was the height of fashion. She had blond tresses that she wore in a tasteful upswept hairdo, which never looked out of place. However, Gordon and I had a theory that her hair was not real, and was, in fact a wig—that underneath her golden faux locks, she actually had “black, kinky, greasy hair.”

My family’s circle of friends went beyond our building too. And, just like Peyton Place, gossip abounded in Stuyvesant Town. Since we considered our family so imperfect (and it was, but probably not much more than some other families), we hated seeing seemingly perfect families. One such family was headed by the matriarch, Marion. She was a pillar of the community, always traveling on vacation, head of this or that committee, beautiful apartment, and seemed to live a “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” existence. But, one day, we heard through the gossip mill, that Marion and her husband were getting divorced. I remember sniggering with my brother about that, and being not so secretly thrilled that the perfect Marion was, indeed, human like the rest of us.

It’s so strange that although my memories of growing up in Stuy Town, with my very dysfunctional family, are not particularly great, I still have dreams every so often. I dream that I am somehow still living at 455 East 14th Street, in apartment MG, but I am my age now. Sometimes my parents are there too (the age they used to be) yet it seems perfectly natural. These dreams are never happy ones, but somehow I have them periodically—although less and less as I get older. My brother and friend Janet (who lived across from me) have these types of dreams too, which is so curious, since our childhoods were less than idealistic. But somehow, although there were many painful memories, there were actually some good ones too and, in spite of myself, I find reasons to laugh and reminisce about them. I guess these dreams somehow represent a time of innocence, although imperfect, innocence nevertheless.

Guilt and Love

I have come to the realization that no matter what I do, no matter how much money I send, it will not be enough. Kind of like alcohol for the alcoholic, there is never enough. But last weekend something came to me, something that my friends had told me for quite some time, something that I knew in my heart of hearts—that I just could not keep giving him money above and beyond what we agreed to. Initially, it started out with $100 a month, but that was not enough. Then his dad agreed to $200 a month to be doled out incrementally by me as I saw fit. Of course I would have saved money by giving him large chunks at once, but I knew the money would be gone within a week or two. However, it is usually gone by early in the month anyway, then the incessant, relentless, phone calls start—multiple in one day. Then last weekend I just stopped taking my boy’s calls, not listening to his messages, and deleted them. This has been very difficult to do this, but I know that the minute I listen to him or hear a phone message, my resolve will crumble. In speaking with my wise friend, Janet, she made a good analogy. When I told her that my giving him money relieves the fear, guilt, and anxiety. She said giving him money is like an addiction; the anxiety and apprehension build up and is relieved only when I send him the money he requests. It is a tremendous relief, and I feel better temporarily, but it starts to build again, and the only relief is when I send him money again. Although there is an overwhelming sense of relief, I also have a sense of tremendous resentment, which equals anger. Then the cycle starts again, over and over. Just like an addiction, I needed to just stop this cycle because it is no good for him because he will never get the help he needs and no good for me because I am continually being drawn into his chaotic world. It is a symbiotic, sick relationship. I have to be strong, and I pray to God that this is the right call and will not result in a tragedy because I will never forgive myself. I just have to trust in the Lord that He knows what I don’t and will some day lead my son out of this never-ending maze to a better life.

Jamaican VBS Trip 2015

My 2015 Jamaican VBS Experience

Since I am new to the bible, church in general, and West Town Community, when I saw that there was a VBS trip to Jamaica I questioned whether or not I was qualified to go. I didn’t think that I had anything to contribute, but Joyce said that was not true, so I jumped in, even with lingering doubts. I figured although I couldn’t really share my biblical knowledge, I could at least document the trip in pictures. So, that was my contribution. I believe that everyone on this trip had a unique talent, that when taken alone would not have been enough, but together each one of us contributed in our own special way. It made for a united front and a great team.

We arrived Tuesday, July 21st with no incidents and were warmly met by Bernard and Kingsley. Although Kingsley was our van driver, he is also a pastor. After getting settled into the hotel, Kingsley brought us to a local fast food restaurant for some Jamaican fare. Creature comforts such as air-conditioning were basically absent in most places, except in our actual hotel room. But, we became acclimated pretty quickly—we had no choice. I was a little nervous about sharing a room with two other ladies, but my trepidations were quickly allayed—we had no problems at all. Each one of us automatically adjusted to a morning schedule: I was the early riser, Joyce showered the night before, and Sheree waited for me to finish. I totally enjoyed sharing deeply with my roommates about very personal experiences in my life. I think we bonded very well and that was a blessing. Joyce was the peacekeeper and our liaison when we questioned certain decisions we were not sure of and averted any problems. We simply voiced our concerns to her and she would, in her very diplomatic way, bring them to the powers that be, with good results.

Wednesday was the beginning of our interactions with the VBS children. Unfortunately the VBS supplies that were sent off to Montego Bay somehow never arrived. But, I was so impressed about the way our team handled that challenge and rose to the occasion. One would never know that they were basically making it up as they went, with amazing results. Our team was very resourceful and just made do (without complaints) with the few supplies we packed into our luggage. Regardless, the children had a wonderful experience due to the team’s commitment, as evidenced by all the smiles in the pictures. As I took the pictures I saw over and over again, how each team member instinctively knew what to do. I was very impressed by how well Ellie and Taylor interacted with the children by not only face painting, but by just playing with them. Jacob was such a blessing and helpful too with whatever activity he was required to assist in. He basically kept his eye on the children and was the “enforcer.” Somehow, our team knew when to switch off from indoor crafts and bible study to outdoor activities, according to the age groups. I do feel that the VBS at West Town model was a good guideline and that was very helpful. That night, our plan was to have dinner and attend Kingsley’s church to hear him preach. Of the restaurants where we ate dinner, I most enjoyed this particular local place recommended by Kingsley. He brought his daughter, Grace Ann, who was on her own vacation from medical school. The food was presented family-style at tables outside. We all ordered a variety of yummy Jamaican food such as Jerk Chicken, Jerk Pork, sausages, breadfruit, Festival, and other specialties. It all came to the table in foil and we just shared the abundance of delicious dishes. After dinner we attended Kingsley’s church to hear him preach very passionately. The service was vastly different from what we are used to—much singing and fanfare.

It must be said that our trip was greatly enhanced and helped along by Philip’s amazing travel and life experiences. He was definitely our MacGyver—the “go to” guy who could solve almost anything. I felt such a level of safety and security with Philip on board; he really kept the trip safe and us in line. In addition, our seating was upgraded which was wonderful.

Thursday was a similar VBS day, but I especially enjoyed it because the activity level was not so structured. Each day I needed some alone time to simply transfer the days’ pictures from my camera to my laptop, thus making room for the next day. There were no time constraints so I sat by the pool table, where the Internet was strong, and downloaded my photos. I even had time that day to edit a few pictures and post on Facebook. After this, Joyce and I did some exercise (Yoga and walking) then leisurely prepared for dinner at The Pelican, an upscale restaurant. Kingsley showed us a $1000 Jamaican bill, which was actually worth about $10 in American currency. Strangely (it seemed to me) that the picture on the bill resembled George Bush, which made me laugh and laugh at that. I enjoyed this day the most because it was so relaxing.

Friday was my birthday and it was the best to date. Of course everyone wished me Happy Birthday and then we left for Church. But what made it amazing and unforgettable was, while sitting in church waiting for the day’s activities to begin, the beautiful children suddenly surrounded me and broke out into a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday, complete with hugs. It was a total surprise, very moving, and almost brought me to tears. I think that was actually the highlight of my trip.

Friday afternoon, after VBS, we took a trip to the Straw Market to buy some souvenirs. I picked out a lovely blue elephant necklace, and was about to pay, when Joyce just said, “This is your birthday present.” How nice was that! Then I bought a pair of earrings with the Jamaican colors, negotiating a lower price, of course. I was told that bargaining is actually expected and part of the process. Usually a fair price is actually ½ of the original asking price.

In the evening we went to Pizza Hut, of all places, but couldn’t get in—there were absolutely no tables. So, Joyce, Sheree and I went back to the hotel where Sheree treated me to the delicious Jerk Chicken served poolside with breadfruit. When the rest of the gang returned with the pizza Joyce informed me that they wanted us to go up to the top floor to have some. When I got there, another Happy Birthday was sung and frosted cupcakes appeared. I just had to have some pizza and cupcakes too, which were really moist and good. Even Joyce partook of the cupcakes and pronounced them excellent. I had not had so many Happy Birthdays in forever. What a memory.

Each morning, Joyce, being the first one out the door, would bring us our coffee. Then once outside we would have more coffee and toast poolside, before we left for the VBS. We became friendly with the two ladies (Woneeta and Tadesha) serving us and I took a group shot.

The Jamaican food graciously served to us in the church basement each morning and afternoon was incredible. Every day before the activities began we would go down the stairs and be fed an amazing array of typical Jamaican foods. I had heard of breadfruit but I actually tasted it on this trip. The selection was incredible and every morning it was different. The first day, they served a traditional American breakfast—bacon and eggs—but subsequent days were more adventurous. The lunch was just as delicious and varied from day to day. One of my favorite dishes was Ackee and salt fish; amazing. Ackee is actually a fruit but one would never know it because of the way it was prepared. The graciousness of the kitchen staff and the Jamaican people made this trip so memorable.

Another observation was that there was no “rushing” the way we have in the States. The attitude seems to be “whenever we get to it.” That took some getting used to for a Type A personality like myself, but by the end of the trip, I think I adjusted as much as I was capable.

I must give a shout out to the “Walmart” of Montego Bay, Mega Mart. All I can say is WOW! I could’ve spent my vacation perusing the isles in this store, which offered a multitude of every food imaginable, from traditional American foods to Jamaican specialties. In addition, as with Walmart, they sold everything under the sun one could possibly want. The selection of foods was even better than I’ve seen in the States. They even took American dollars, and so we didn’t really have to change over our money. They did give you change in Jamaican currency. It was so funny to see $400 for an item (in Jamaican money) but was a fraction of that in American dollars.

There were many pranks perpetrated by the kids, and adults as well. I cannot speak to that part of the trip since, luckily, I was not the recipient of any of them.

Saturday we had a free day, and went to a luxurious beach and hotel resort called Sunset Beach. We immediately boarded a glass bottom boat, where you could see all the sea life by looking at the bottom of the boat. Unfortunately, I got very seasick but luckily had not had much to eat yet and it worked out. I just stopped looking at the swaying bottom and looked out over the horizon as suggested by our guide, Jerome. Our captain also had very strong political ideas, which he unabashedly voiced while navigating the choppy waters. Our co-navigator, Sleepy, just ignored the outspoken Jerome and didn’t say much. Woody, Tim, and Philip jumped overboard and swam in the water and under the boat. After that we had an unlimited, decadent feast for about an hour. Joyce, Sheree and I swam in the ocean, relaxed, walked the beach, did some tubing, and finally met up with the rest of the team. We were exhausted going home, but still found time to go swimming at the hotel. All in all I had a great day.

Sunday was a different experience attending church where the VBS was held and the children and adults were in their Sunday best. Services in a Jamaican church are quite different from our own. There is much singing, praising and hand clapping and the passion is palpable. Unlike West Town where we can basically dress as we want, there is a strict dress code—jeans and shorts are not allowed at all. Woman must wear a skirt or dress and men must wear long pants. I noticed that many of the women (especially older ladies) wore hats too. Of course, there is no air-conditioning, which presents its own challenges. We sat by the windows and overhead fans, which provided some relief.

When we returned, I told everyone that I wanted to take a few group shots with me included at about 3:15. I wanted us to at least be in our dress clothes. I set up the tripod and we took a few regular shots and one goofy one, which is really my favorite. We were all scheduled to go to the 2015 Youth Congress that evening, but Jacob had an ear infection from swimming, which required his dad, Steve, and Philip to get some medical attention for him. We agreed to pick the boys up at the hotel, after the ceremony. So only Pat, Woody, Tim, Joyce, Sheree, Taylor, Ellie, and I attended the ceremony, which turned out to be an amazing celebration of youth in Jamaica. The opening songs by the Youth Choir were so inspirational and a delight to the ears. I have to admit that, although I was tired from the day and I really didn’t want to attend, I was happy that I did go in the end. It was an experience that I would not have wanted to miss.

We finally went to dinner at the Pelican again. I had their version of Ackee and salt fish and thoroughly enjoyed my last real Jamaican meal for a while with relish. We finished packing most of what we could and went to bed. What a busy day.

Monday, July 27th, our departure date arrived and I could hardly believe that the week went by so fast. We got up early, finished all the packing, went for breakfast by the pool, and bid a goodbye to the hostesses. We arrived at the airport and said a fond farewell to Kingsley. Everything went smoothly thanks to everyone’s cooperation as a team and Philip’s watchful eye. When we finally arrived at our final destination in Atlanta (after going through an abbreviated version of Customs, thanks again to Philip), Joyce and Philip were surprised to find their family there to greet them. Bill took both Sheree and I back to West Town, where we had some American food.

In conclusion, it was a great trip and I loved the way we came together as a team despite a few glitches early on. We worked any potential problems out, overcame some real obstacles (no supplies), and adjusted accordingly. I’m pretty impressed with us.