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


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.

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.