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Kleinberg Special GreetingsI was not yet 2 years old but already had the holidays (and everything else) well in hand, if the depiction on that year’s family greeting card is to be believed.
As always, my mother’s deft lines captured something uniquely right about each of us, the message drifting up from chimneys lining the bottom edge and the red and green highlights added by hand.
Merry Christmas!

the cards we’re dealt…

playing card by DorothyIn a cupboard, in a box inside another box, in a small plastic bag, are four little paintings. They were a class assignment, I remember my mother telling me, in which the students had to design playing cards. Each of the four is entirely different from the others, executed with a precise hand in flat paint on a hand-cut card.

Whether the images were copied or suggested or imagined entirely, I cannot know, but Dorothy was good at this. She played cards — something she later gave up in her marriage to my father — and perhaps was able to envision the pleasure of laying a hand face down on the table to show the glossy repetition of her design.

She was 28 or so, a bad marriage behind her, the war a distant rumble and the man who would become my father as yet unmet. Now free of her mother’s house and her husband’s control, she sought self-discovery and redefinition.

That period of about ten years, between her divorce and her pregnancy with me, may have been the happiest and most intense of her life. She took classes, plunged headlong into a poorly-considered and ultimately ill-fated love affair, took a job at Lockheed (the only job she ever held), had good friends and a horse, and fell in love with the man who would be her husband for the rest of her life. Right there, at that time, she didn’t just play her hand, she created the deck.


first Christmas

I was 10 months old at my first Christmas and this was the holiday card my mother drew and hand-colored that year. As always, her caricatures capture something essential and true and include wonderful details: my father’s tiny bow-tie (I never saw him wear any other kind of tie), my mother’s red “hair” and pearls, the candy canes and holly in the lettering and the tiny row of Christmas trees that connect the three figures.

Merry Christmas!

May 30

jik to DAK at 86May 30. My mother’s birthday.

In our family tradition of handmade cards, this was the ‘card’ I gave her when she turned 86, in 1997. Over some weeks, I had sewed and stuffed the numbers and covered every inch of the surface with fabric paint, concerned that it would be fully dry by her birthday.

Dorothy had already slid quite a way down the slippery slope of dementia, no longer able to cook or drive, requiring my father’s help with shopping and cleaning and the many small decisions that form the underpinning of each ordinary day. But she was still able to express herself, recognized most people and took pleasure in choosing her clothes and working in her art studio. Her ability to gauge time and sequence was damaged, but her birthdays were always an occasion much anticipated and enjoyed.

98And we did celebrate that birthday, somehow. There was probably a restaurant dinner and cake and candles. My father would undoubtedly have given her a small wood carving, sanded smooth, initialed and dated. I don’t remember the particulars except for joking that we would keep the big 86 and turn it upside down and use it again when she turned 98.

But she didn’t make it to 98 and neither did my father. In fact, that would be the last of our birthdays we celebrated as a family. That May, just before my mother’s birthday, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer; he would be gone before his own birthday in December.

Although, in those early days, there was no reason to be without hope — certainly my father’s choices erred on the side of hope — if my mother understood, she was in denial, and I was plunged into a terrible and surprising grief.

But we did what our small family had to do. We pulled together, faced each day with a measure of good cheer, managed the sad business of my father’s illness and worked together to assure my mother’s care in the years ahead.

The progression of her decline seemed to protect Dorothy from a sense of loss — a small gift to us both.

We celebrated her birthday together five more times, each one marked with a special meal and, of course, a handmade card.
. . . . .
jik to DAK, 1997, 12″w x 13″h

Happy Mother’s Day

February 26…

birth announcement by Dorothy KTheir Christmas card had pictured Dorothy’s bulging belly.

A couple of months later, this one — hand drawn, hand colored, my mother’s red hair, my dad’s strong chin, and, pink-blanketed, me.


their second ChristmasTheir first Christmas together was spent on their honeymoon and by the second, they were ready to sign the card Red & Les & 7/9. (The 7/9 is me.) The hand-colored card is drawn in my mom’s characteristic line, her red hair showing in the candle flame, the angles and postures capturing something distinctive about each of them.

Though unimaginable in my father’s home, Christmas was a lively feature of Dorothy’s secular Jewish upbringing. If my rabbi’s-son father tried to dissuade her from sending Christmas cards, there’s scant evidence of his efforts — or his success.


honeymoon 1946It wasn’t until sometime after my mom moved out of her house, when I began in earnest to sort through the remaining volume of cartons and files and scrapbooks, that I came to fully appreciate the celebratory trail that our small family had left. It stretched across the 50-plus years that my parents had been together and then beyond, into the six years my mom and I remained, without my dad. In all those years, perhaps not more than a dozen occasions were celebrated with store-bought cards, and while we scoffed at the “Hallmarketing” of the holidays, we nonetheless used those same events as excuses for own exchange.

The trail begins here, with my parents’ first Christmas card, December 1946, which also celebrates their marriage. The slightly caricatured features — my mom’s red hair, my dad’s bald pate and cleft chin — were already in evidence and would recur in Dorothy’s drawings and cards through the decades. Here she’s crowned with a bit of holly, while the ball and chain around his ankle is decorated for the season.

This practice, this habit, these illustrations of emotions too complex to say aloud were a legacy to me. They mark every page in the unwritten picture book of our family history; more than anything else, they are a testament to creativity.