When we were young, we were only allowed to shop at second-hand stores or in the sale rack at discounted department stores. In fact, usually in second hand stores, we had to look for the clothing marked down as well. A bag for a buck. All red dotted items half off. My mom would instruct us, “Only pick out things with the red sticker on the tag.”

She knew every good Church and charity thrift store within a 20 mile radius of where we were. Even vacationing with my grandma in Connecticut, she had several on her list. Sometimes the whole gang would pile into the car and go off to the “Hole in the Wall” which my dad and sister renamed “Hole in Head” for no particular reason. Perhaps because my dad was never a fan of shopping.

When I was young, I absolutely hated thrift stores. I hated the smell. I hated sorting through the pilled cloths, full of imaginary germs. I was always worried that someone would see me inside. I sulked around, picking up clothing with two fingers and giving dirty looks. I desperately wanted to go to the mall, to buy a fancy sweater from Abercrombie and Fitch.

But my mom was a dedicated thrifter way before it was cool. A way to save money and still get good quality clothing, she said. She was practical. She reminded me that if someone I knew saw me in this church thrift store, they were probably shopping there too. I never believed her. I hid behind shoe racks anytime the door opened. This went on for years.

After college though, thrifting (maybe surprisingly) became my hobby and my passion. As a penny pincher by nature, I understood something that I was too self conscious to realize when I was young. Second hand is better, more sustainable, cheaper and more fun. The variety! The finds! I’d scour church thrift stores before kids in Brooklyn knew what they were. (This is a lie, I am sure, but I was sad when my favorite church was run over 8 years ago by college kids, and all the fabulous five dollar leather jackets I used to find were swooped up by someone else much faster than me.) I still picked and grimaced, but this time with purpose and resolve. I would search racks for hours. Look through tables of clothes. I would be the girl who said “7 dollars!” when I received a complement for my boots.

The last time I visited my mom in SF for her birthday, my sister and I told her she could pick whatever she wanted to do for her day. First, as most moms often do, she bought herself a gift (a little backpack at a store in Chinatown) and thanked us all afternoon for the present she paid for herself. Then, afterwards, she wanted to do our favorite girl activity: hit the stores. For my mom, this obviously didn’t mean Bloomingdales. Her first choice was a Goodwill outlet, so not even the Goodwill, but a store that was even cheaper than that, with buckets of used shoes without a match. You paid by the pound. Nothing organized. All on the conveyer belt. The second was a bit farther away, a thrift store donating to cancer research, a great cause but a crazy establishment. I found a bunch of bloody tissues on the dressing room floor.

The funny thing about my mom: when she wants to dress up, to make something an occasion – I have never seen anyone as put together and as classy as she. On the flight to attend our wedding, for a fancy Christmas dinner, for a formal event, she steps out looking like a Chanel classic. Earrings to match. Perfect cashmere sweater. Classy, head to toe. When we gush, when we complement her, when we touch the soft fabric and marvel at her beauty, she always replies in the same way “oh this?” and shrugs it off, rolling her eyes, “just something from the Goodwill.”

young mom and me. Photo Credit: Susan Kandel
Mom at Christmas, 2016, Cambridge, MA

“I’ll wait in the car”

My dad was a good sport. He always picked me up from swim practice. He always drove me to the mall. For life in suburbia, parental quality was measured in a parent’s willingness to get in the car and pick up their kids. My dad was always there.

He would bring a book, usually something on Japanese history or Buddhist philosophy. No matter what we were doing, he’d say, “okay, I’ll wait in the car.” Sometimes he’d be sitting there for hours, he claimed. When he forgot his book, he’d admonish himself, shaking his head, “I should have known better” as I finished a three hour goodbye to my latest best friend at swim practice.

In typical dad fashion, he also saw it as his responsibility to fill all our vehicles with gas. As a collector of old beat up cars and with two daughters who “knew” how to drive, he would often spend the whole afternoon taking different cars from our driveway to the gas station and back. When he got sick and couldn’t drive anymore on his medicine, it was so important for him to fill the car for us that my sister and I risked our lives in one of the most harrowing journeys to the gas station I think we’ll ever experience. With him behind the wheel and his oxygen tank in the back seat, he pulled out of the driveway straight into a bush, unsuccessfully tried to swipe his grocery store rewards card into the machine, and then forgot his credit card twice at the pump before collapsing back into the car. The drive back was as scary as the drive there.

But we knew how much these things meant to him. He had been doing them all our lives. Even at his most sick, he still wanted to care for us the way he knew how. He still wanted to drive us around. He still wanted to wait in the car.

Cactus Pants

When I was younger, my mom would always buy my sister and me the exact same gifts: matching stuffed animals at first, clothing a little later. We would both get the same dog, or polar bear or stuffed rabbit. For other holidays, we would receive the same Valentines or Easter baskets – the same stuffed dog but with a flower or heart instead of the plaid scarf, depending on the season. Always in two. Always the same.

My mom made Valentine’s Day and Easter two of my favorite holidays when I was young. I loved dressing up in the most flowery frou-frou dress she could find, with a matching ribboned straw hat, and heading to my nana’s looking like an 8-year-old 90s style prom star, with my matching 4-year-old sister as a side kick accessory.

Recently, my mom gave one of our old matching stuffed dogs to my niece. And my niece is joyously carrying out her mom and aunt’s tradition of over-the-top and out-of-the-box fashion choices with red sparkle high heels and her own large collection of tutus she models and changes every day.

When I was young, the frilly matching dresses had their limelight for a good while before I became an angsty tween and started my exposed midriff phase that lasted too long. When the subsequent gift ideas plateaued, my mom adapted. We, as a family, adapted. We all started giving each other the opposite of froofy formal wear: we started gifting matching pajamas instead.

What started as my mom buying these things for my sister and me morphed into us buying them for her. Every Christmas, three new pairs of matching pink cat pajama bottoms would appear under the tree. We’d all head out to our suburban TJMaxx or Marshalls separately, and end up buying nearly the same thing for each other on the other end. Before there was a social media phenomenon of people wearing matching Christmas PJs at home, my mom, my sister and I were wearing, exchanging and switching our nighttime wear constantly for years, surprisingly on trend.

Now, in another country, an entire continent and ocean away from them both (they live in SF) during this crazy pandemic, I am comforted by this memory as I sit in a pair of furry cactus pajama pants I bought for myself and my sister the last time we saw each other, more than a year ago now, in a Marshalls down in New Orleans. I usually buy a cozy pair of socks or lounge pants for her or my mom right before any anticipated visit, and always get the same reaction of joy and excitement that I feel myself when I purchase them. This is what brings us together. This is what keeps us in each other’s thoughts. When I call now, my sister and I are still, almost 30 years later, wearing the exact same outfit on the phone, enjoying our lounge wear in our separate lockdowns, apart but still the same. Always wearing the same.


My husband is using online retail therapy to cope with this pandemic. His purchases are mostly baking, cooking or gardening related. Yesterday, I came downstairs to find a box with a full greenhouse tent for the backyard, waiting to be unpacked.

This week he also decided to buy a number of different seeds: chili peppers and tomatoes primarily.

The tomatoes make me most excited.

When I was young, my dad had a prized tomato garden. It was his passion. He would watch the weather channel religiously to try to anticipate the first frost, always worrying about his crop. Each season, we’d have multiple one gallon buckets full of unripe, green tomatoes crowding our basement in order to protect them from the cold.

With so many plants, my youth was spent eating tomatoes like apples, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had an endless supply, given to neighbors, friends and the occasional passerby.

His question to his tomatoes and to their consumers: “are they rich and full?” This was a phrase in my family for years, for anything, really, that was produce related. Whenever we’d bite into a grape or a kiwi or an orange slice. “Is it rich and full?” I am still not even sure what it means.

Juicy, ripe, healthy looking, I suppose. My dad had an eye for these things. He was easily critical of other people’s vegetable gardens – if it was a bad year, if the plants needed stakes, if they didn’t have enough water, what kind of flowers were seasonal vs. annual, or too weak for the New England climate.

When we went for walks, he’d point out expensive shrubs, knowing quickly how much a garden cost based on what was inside.

These things never mattered to me much when I was young. I took it all for granted. My dad’s endless encyclopedic knowledge of gardening. But now I wish I knew more. I wish I knew the names of certain plants, or what can flourish where. There is something beautiful about tending to something while it grows.

That’s why I was so happy when, today, in a long list of tomatoes from all over the world, in different colors and sizes, I correctly selected the picture of the ones I knew best. The ones I wanted most for our new greenhouse. “Native to North America.” The ones from his garden. The ones able to grow rich and full.

Pretty Bird

The other day, we pointed out to our toddler friend that six bright green parrots had landed on a tree outside our holiday home, and were happily squawking by our window for a good part of the morning. She was thrilled.

These bright green birds excite me as well, having seen them now several times. Are they native to The Netherlands or did they escape a pet store long ago to thrive in this wet grassy land, their coats matching the landscape?

When I was younger, the birds I knew best were my pets – a pair of mating cockatiels named Mr. and Mrs. Pretty Bird. Their hobbies were screeching, pooping and endlessly reproducing. While Mr. Pretty Bird sauntered, Mrs. Pretty Bird waddled. My youth was spent watching their babies hatch and grow, their family easily multiplying quicker than ours for the few years we had them.

My parents thought it was mean to keep them in a cage, so the flock would fly around the five rooms of our house, perching on our curtain rods, and pooing on our carpets. Sometimes the whole group would enthusiastically attempt a shoulder landing on an unsuspecting neighbor dropping by, or a friend visiting for lunch. When one bird launched, the rest would follow. At night, I’d hear them take off in explosions of noise and feathers, only to end their journey flying directly into our bathroom mirrors or dark unshaded window panes where they’d slide to the floor and wait to regain their energy to do it again.

My dad loved them. Every night, he would microwave a large bowl of popcorn, settle into his barcalounger, turn on the evening news, and wait as the bird family descended to share a meal. He would delicately move his hand to grab fistfuls of popcorn among the hungry bird bodies as they nipped at his fingers, less willing to share. This was their nighttime ritual, him in his chair, them in the bowl – the whole bunch of them covered in half eaten kernels and lit up by the changing TV channels in the dark of our living room.

I thought of this when I watched the six green parrots sit outside our window on a tree. I wondered if they also had a family before. I wondered if they ever lived in a home with newspapers under every window and ate popcorn with a dad watching TV.


The bulbs from our indoor white hyacinth bloomed on Christmas, and despite being rainy for days before and after, Christmas day was sunny.

I am not a particularly religious person, but I do think I have become more spiritual over the years. Anyone who has lost someone to some dreadful accident or to some awful disease, won’t respond well to the phrase “everything happens for a reason”. Unfortunately, I think bad things happen to good people for no reason at all. And it’s awful. There is no other work-around for it. There is never anything right to say, or justification to give. It’s just bad. I like the Dutch expression to offer strength, to cope, to continue on, to manage. That’s all one can wish for on a particularly bad day.

But now after the initial pain has dulled and my own life continues chugging along after losing my dad, I realize I cope differently, believing in a bit more magic.

A couple days ago, we realized a beautiful large moth was perched inside our windowsill. It seemed curious to me that 1. it had managed to get inside despite having all the windows and doors closed for days, and 2. that it had escaped our cat’s attention, the household’s aggressive bug hunter. This moth, that I’d preferred to imagine as a gorgeous butterfly, was sitting in stillness, looking out our window.

My dad always called all the spiders in our house “his friends,” and insisted that we let them live, resulting in endless cobwebs and daddy long-legs in every corner and crevice of my childhood home. Growing up Catholic, my dad was a Buddhist during my time with him, and didn’t believe in killing anything. We lived amongst the bugs in our house, and when he was sick, always keeping his humor, he told us that after he was gone, “when we see a pencil drop, or a butterfly land, that was him.”

So, we let the moth out the door into the wintery world, and I followed him onto the balcony. He didn’t go far, landing close to a different window a bit farther from where he’d come, but now outside. I stood with this moth for awhile, in the rain, thanking him for visiting. Telling him we were okay without him. Telling him I loved him very much.

I know this sounds kooky. It is. But the idea of reincarnation often brings me comfort. Likely, this moth was not my dad. But what my dad has taught me, both in his life and after it, is to be more kind to living things. To appreciate them more, to be more grateful for a spider, or a butterfly. I stood in the rain for awhile watching that moth, and looking out into our backyard. And told him again, in the middle of this pandemic where we often feel alone, “we’re okay.” Then I left the moth to sit there by our house, and went back inside.


My dad had three pairs of shoes: his LLBean duck boots, and his black slippers – one pair in suede, and the other in leather. The leather ones had hard plastic soles and were deemed his dress slippers; he’d wear them to formal events accordingly.

Growing up, I never thought of this as particularly strange. I can’t think of a time he wore sneakers, for instance. During my childhood, he was at one time a limo driver and at another, a country club bartender, so he did own one pair of shiny tuxedo shoes for work, but otherwise there was nothing in between. He went to the supermarket in his slippers, to weddings, to restaurants.

The two sets always sat by the door, ready for their next event. Before we’d go out, he’d pick accordingly. Sometimes he’d ask to make sure. “What type of thing is this? Should I wear my dress slippers?”

I think now that my dad was ahead of his time. Today, shoes seem obsolete when considering the comfort of working and bunkering from home. Everyone has a pair of dress slippers now.

Inspired by him, whenever it’s not raining, I put on my “formal” slippers and step onto the balcony, or into the grass, to enjoy the rays.

I like to think he’d approve, as I stand outside in my PJs for all the neighbors to see, me in my formal slippers, ready to take on the day.

Our Cat

Our gray cat’s name is Duman which means “Smokey” in Turkish; there are many hookah bars and weed shops around this fine country acting as his namesake.

Since my husband and I don’t have children, we care deeply about our throw pillows, our new yoga equipment, and our cat. I am so grateful for him these days when seeing other human beings is rare. We talk to him, we talk about him, and we live to celebrate his little cat achievements.

The main news of our household lately relates to his new automatic cat feeder. Like his dad, Duman is a huge food enthusiast. He meows every morning and every evening for roughly two hours before mealtime, desperately reminding us, his parents, that he exists and needs to be fed. During the day, sometimes, he will randomly run to his bowl, and sniff hopefully at it, looking inside in an earnest attempt to will kibble inside.

So, to take the pressure off his extremely busy parents (who mainly sit around eating chocolate on the couch these days), we spent weeks agonizing over an automatic cat feeder to buy. We finally settled on one in a shape of a circle with six bowls that reveal themselves at different times of day (pre-programmed!), offering him kibble meals every morning and evening at set times.

This was not only exciting for the cat, but exciting for my husband and me as well. Every time he meowed, we’d explain to him that food from his new magical contraption would come out in a given amount of time. Then, when it did indeed open and beep, all three of us would sprint to the feeder, marveling at the amazing technology before us. For a few days in the feeder’s initial debut, Duman was hesitant about the whole operation, which meant my husband and I were the only ones prompted by the noise. We’d stop whatever we were doing, in whichever room we were doing it in, and congregate together looking at the kibble emerge.

“Wow, there it is again,” we’d nod, until the next time.

A Memory From America

“I seem to get along better with the squirrels,” my dad said, taking a long drag of his cigarette and looking out onto his backyard.  He blows out and continues, as if finishing the other half of a sentence that wasn’t spoken out loud, “…so that’s the other thing. These guys are all my pals now.”

His bird feeding had progressed to a new level of insanity that was surprising, even for me.  The backyard was a small patch of grass, right before a large parking lot nearly three times the size. The lawn, if one was generous enough to call it that, had one single scraggly tree. My dad had put roughly six bird feeders in it, weighing down each little skinny branch with 9 pounds worth of seeds. He explained that the squirrels were annoyed because they couldn’t get easily to the bird feeders, so for them, he had placed about a dozen mountains of expensive designer grocery store nuts at the bottom of the tree, piled among the Buddha statue covered in bird poo.  He proudly reveals that these piles come from a separate outdoor storage closet that is full of enough nuts, bird seed, peanut butter and crackers to feed a large metropolitan zoo.

I had come to his house for the weekend from my apartment in NYC, taking the train and then a bus from Springfield that drives almost everywhere around rural America before taking you where you’d like to go. My dad picked me up at the bus station, behind a Chinese food restaurant in a parking lot outside of town, and we headed back to his place.

When we arrived, I was always mixed with emotions – the feeling of being comfortable and back in the cocoon of his lunatic land, and feeling deeply overwhelmed by how lunatic that land has become. After ten minutes without a cigarette, he starts to get antsy, so I throw my bags down and we go outside to catch up.

On the balcony, he explained his latest problem: the amount of food he is throwing out onto the lawn all day has attracted more than just birds and squirrels. Raccoons are now popping by, seagulls have travelled from the ocean more than 130 miles to visit his lawn, pigeons have come from big cities to get a taste of his delicacies.  And, not unpredictably perhaps, the neighbours in his shared condo have complained.

I look out onto the lawn, and wonder, as I often do when visiting, where he can go from here.

The Day My Niece Was Born

Sometimes there are things in life that feel like fate, and I like to think my niece’s bold 10-day-late entry into the world in the middle of the pandemic was so.

My sister was having spaced contractions for a while at home and was waiting for the hospital to open up, since it was full. (I didn’t know this was possible.) So we were video chatting while she ate donuts and wondered why she was still pregnant, and I packed up our apartment for a pending move. In sorting through all my crap, I had found this letter my dad wrote to his parents in 1967 when he was stationed in North Carolina in the air force, during the Vietnam War.  It radiates with the spirit of him, almost 20 years before I was born. My sister actually copied the letter for me to have, and I had rediscovered it. Both of us, I think, forgot what it said. (Like me, my dad was very prolific in his writing, and there is also a digital archive of his wisdoms from his facebook years.)

 I read this particular letter to my sister Wednesday night, and very soon after I hung up, her contractions started becoming more intense. Two hours after she entered the hospital, peanut was born. Popped right out.

The letter my dad wrote to my grandparents is long and full of his quirky rants. I think it’s likely he was very stoned. It starts with an argument about why his parents should listen to the Beatles.  But the part that got me (and likely got my sister):

“I guess I’m feeling misty and sentimental tonight, but I’d really like to say that I really dig and appreciate both of you. […] Because in our family, one good thing is that everyone is actually part of the other. And that’s so good and one doesn’t realize until he is away. Everything is so cool and complicated and sad and comical and thoughtful in our home and I hope we all realize that even if we’re poor or whatever, that there could be no realer or truer of better home in the world.”

He signs off “I’m gonna grow a mustache. Anyway love, Dave” and then, “P.S. I think women are a lot stronger than men”.

My first niece made me realize how much of who you are must be genetic. At two and a half, she has all my dad’s mannerisms, all his same interests and likes.  The movie Aladdin, Chinese food, flashlights, calling people “screwballs”, the beach, eating endless amounts of chocolate cake. She loves to be eccentric, which is also something they share.

And we are all quite enthusiastic as a family, when we want to be. I believe I am objectively more so than most people; I like to yell and flail my arms and am often told to quiet down when I get too excited (which is often).   When I get to see friends or when a baby is born, or when I get to see a kitten cross the road. For new life in the form of a tiny baby. Peanut. These things bring me so much joy. And I think the world needs more enthusiasm, The Netherlands especially.  Some more pizazz. A bit more flare. My older niece learned the phrase, “Thaaat’s exciting!” a few months back, in her tiny two year old voice, and I went around saying it in the same tone for weeks. But my sister and I do say that often.  I don’t think I got that from my niece,  I think she probably got it from us.

I wonder what Peanut will think of this world. If she will find it exciting. I think it is. The news is certainly not dull lately. My dad would say, “your problems are unique.” and we, as a world, really have a lot of unique problems these days.

But, stay excited, friends. Grow a mustache.