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Mom

The best way to get to know your kids, especially if they are teenagers, is to drive them and their friends, teammates and classmates. If your daughter texts you from school and asks, “Hey, Mom and/or Dad, can one of you drive three of my friends around?” don’t hesitate.

The answer, of course, can’t be what you might think. You can’t say, “Yes! Of course, that’d be great.”

You’ve got to play it cool, because the moment she catches on to the fact that you actually have ears and are listening to the conversation in the car, you’re done.

Yes, I know the temptation, after a long day, is to pick up only the kid that you’re responsible for, the one whose clothing you washed for the 10th time this week and whose teeth are straightening because you brought her to the orthodontist for yet another visit. However, the rewards from just a tad more effort more than tip the scales in favor of the few extra miles.

The key to making this supersecret spy mission work is not to let them use their phones, to take routes where cell reception is poor or, somehow, to encourage conversation. If they’re all sitting in the back seat, texting other people or showing each other pictures on one of the social networks, then the effort, time and assault on your nose aren’t worth it.

Seriously, anyone who has driven a group of teenagers around after a two-hour practice should keep a container of something that smells more tolerable nearby. When it’s too cold to stick my head out the window or when the smell becomes overwhelming, I have become a shallow mouth breather. But, again, if the conversation goes in the right direction, it’s worth it.

Put four or five or seven, if you can fit them, kids in a car, and you might get some high entertainment. If you’re quiet enough, you might learn a few things about school or your kids.

“So, Sheila is so ridiculous,” Allison recently declared to my daughter. “She only talks about herself and her feelings. Have you ever noticed that? She turns every conversation into a story about herself. I mean, the other day, she was telling me about her brother, and her story about her brother isn’t nearly as interesting as my story.”

At that point, Allison then talked about her brother and herself for the next five minutes.

Tempted as I was to ask about the story Sheila told about her brother, so I could compare the stream of stories about Sheila’s brother to Allison’s, I knew better.

The boys also enter the realm of the car social laboratory experiment after a game or practice.

“Hey, what’d you think about the movie in French?”

Wait, they watched a movie in French? Again, you can’t ask any questions or everyone retreats to their phones or remembers that the car isn’t driving itself. You have to be inconspicuous or you will be relegated to the penalty box of listening to one-word answers from your suddenly sullen sports star.

“You did well in that presentation in English?”

A presentation? English? Quiet! Quiet! You have to breathe normally and act like you’re giving all of your attention to the road.

Once the car empties and it’s just your son or daughter, you can ask specific questions. You might want to mix up some of the details, just so it doesn’t seem like you were listening carefully.

“So, you had a presentation in history?”

“No, Dad, that was in English,” your son will correct. Then he may share details that otherwise would never have made it past a stringent teenage filter.

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On the eve of this year’s Mother’s Day, I have a question to ask you. Do you ever think of your parents as people? Sounds like an odd question, but I mean thinking about them in terms of the times they live through, their private satisfactions, their fears and phobias, the experiences that mold them and so forth. We know the facts they choose to tell us about their lives but not their deepest thoughts and feelings.

We can’t ever really know them, even though we grow up in their home. Most of us consider them as loving to us, making our lives comfortable, caring for us when we are sick, instructing us how to behave, making our favorite birthday dinners. But there is more to their existence than their interactions with us.

I sat down to try and picture myself in their shoes.

I know that my father met my mother when he accompanied his older brother to the home of his brother’s fiancée for the first time. There, coming down the stairs in a red dress, was the sister of the fiancée, my mother. To hear my father tell it, he was struck instantly and forever by Cupid’s arrow. Although he was only 15, the sight of her took his breath away. So we know what my father was feeling, but how about her? Did she catch sight of him and feel the same overpowering love at first sight? Was she coming downstairs merely out of curiosity to meet her older sister’s intended, then to slip away for the afternoon with her friends? Did she have nervous or polite conversation with my father? What did they talk about? By the time she was 15 and he was 17, he had persuaded her to get married during her lunch hour in Manhattan’s City Hall. They prevailed upon two men in a nearby barbershop to be their witnesses and to swear that they were both of age. They then returned to work and to their separate homes that night.

My father was triumphant, I know, because he told us so, for now he had the love of his life as his own. Did he have any idea what that meant? You know, the stuff about making a home, supporting and caring for a wife? And my mother, my always and eminently practical mother? How had he convinced her to do this without telling her parents, her brothers and sisters, especially her older sister with whom she was dearly close? Hard as it is for me to picture, she must have been wildly in love.

Theirs was a youthful marriage that worked. They were seldom apart, only during the workday, and they eagerly reunited in the evenings. I could sense the quickening of her breath as we heard his key in the front door. And they began their nightly nonstop conversations as he entered the apartment. My sister and I fell asleep each night to the hum of their voices coming from the kitchen.

My dad was born in 1904, my mother in 1906, so they had both lived through World War I. My dad was lucky to be too young for the draft, but how did he feel seeing his older brothers marching off to war? And my mother? Was she worried about the fate of her older brother? I never asked them.

My parents decided everything together. My mother was more assertive about her opinions, but if my father didn’t agree she would back off. And while he seldom disagreed with her, when he did he was not reticent to let her know. They lived through the Great Depression, but I don’t know if they worried about money or job security. Were they afraid? There was no unemployment or health insurance then. Did they have nightmares about standing on breadlines? I never asked.

I do know that by 1939 they started their first business with all the life savings they had managed to scrape together. Then came Pearl Harbor and World War II. Once again my father was saved, being just beyond draft age. Did they feel threatened by the attack and the war? What were their thoughts and feelings? How did they cope with the stress? I came along then, but at no time in their lives did I think to ask.

Now, of course, it is too late.

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By Elof Carlson


My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic.

She had been married before in a traditional Jewish arranged marriage to her father’s business acquaintance. He told his daughter, “Ida, this is Max. He will be your husband.” She had two children with her husband, my half-brother Ben and my half-sister Sadie. The marriage failed and eventually they separated, and the children were placed in a Hebrew orphan asylum in New York City.

My mother tried to get her children back, but when she stormed the desk of a charity worker she was instead committed as insane to Pilgrim State Hospital. After three months she was released, and one winter day in Manhattan as she sold key rings on the streets, she tried to warm up in a hotel lobby. The doorman told her to warm up downstairs in the employee’s room. There she met my father, a Swedish-born, lapsed Lutheran,  merchant mariner who settled in New York City. He took her to dinner and they began a courtship.

Max obtained a divorce and my parents were married in New Jersey. A year later, my brother Roland was born and a year and a half later, in 1931, I was born.

I began to realize my mother was different when I was about 5 years old.  She would get hysterical. She had fights with our father. When she got angry at our behavior, she would smash dishes on the floor and we would scoot under the bed. I got used to meals left half-eaten at restaurants or movies whose ending I did not get to see when she would leave, because she thought people were staring at her or talking about her.

But I also realized she was very protective. My brother was born with a congenital heart condition. She made sure he did not exert himself and took us to the parks to play rather than to play with neighborhood children. She took us to art shops and museums, or cooled us off during heat waves by going back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry.

She took us to bookstores and shared with our father, an elevator operator, the importance of learning and the arts. Every day she would take her violin and play for us for an hour, especially the music of Stephen Foster, Fritz Kreisler and other light classical selections. When we were teenagers, she began going out in the evening and playing as a street musician.

I think my father stayed in a bad marriage because he did not want to see his two children also ending up in an orphan asylum or foster home.

I learned from my mother that she was not insane all the time. She had her good days and I never doubted her love for us. She encouraged our efforts at art and praised our passion for reading. I also admired her ability to do a lot with very little money.

She liked to visit her daughter in California and would get a one-way ticket by train, get off during a rest stop, play her violin for donations from passengers and continue on until she got to California. She only took a sneaker bag for her clothes and her violin case as luggage. It taught me how creative I could be when I lacked the traditional ways to do things.

When I was at Tougaloo College teaching in an all-black school, I found the library had no books or journals on human genetics. So I called the medical school in Jackson, Mississippi, and arranged to bring four students at a time in my car to its library. I taught the students how to use the “Index Medicus” to select articles. We read together taking notes at the library table. I learned about my students’ lives during the car trip to or back from the library.

I would not have improvised had it not been what I learned from my mother.

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

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Ursula Costanzo and her husband, Vince. Photo from Ursula Costanzo

By Rachel Siford

The Miller Place and Mount Sinai communities are coming together to support a fellow resident in her time of need.

Five years ago, Ursula Costanzo, of Mount Sinai, started the parent Facebook group, Mt. Sinai/Miller Pl. Moms, which has more than 2,600 members.

She started the group to unite the communities, since they don’t have a town center. Group members share information, ask questions and have friendly discussions. If someone needs a repairman or landscaper recommendation, the Facebook group is the place to go.

In May, the wife and mom suffered an aneurysm and a stroke, which has since kept her in the hospital and rehab facilities. Costanzo is currently at St. Johnland Nursing Center for rehabilitation and has had various surgeries.

Now, Costanzo’s close friends and other administrators of the Facebook group have pulled together to create a fundraiser to help the family with medical and childcare bills, as her and her husband’s insurance only covers so much.

On Aug. 16, the nine-person committee will present Rock the Range at Willow Creek Golf & Country Club in Mount Sinai from 2 to 7 p.m. The event will have a barbecue, raffle and live music.

“Ursula has been one my best friends for 15 years,” Melissa Goodman, of Mount Sinai, said. “It was mine and my husband’s idea to start this fundraiser because Ursula always liked to help people and has always been so altruistic.”

Denise May, one of the Facebook group administrators and close friend of Costanzo’s, said the event will be a fun community day, which is what Costanzo is all about.

“Ursula is one those happy, dynamic people who runs in a bunch of different crowds,” May said. “She is a very happy, positive person.”

May is also in charge of a GoFundMe site to benefit the Costanzo family. The site has already raised more than $3,400. Their goal is $20,000.

Eight local bands will be playing at the event, and Goodman added there will be grand prizes at the fundraiser, like a television and vacation packages.

“She is a wonderful mom, a wonderful person and a wonderful friend,” Goodman said. “Everyone loves her; that’s why everyone is helping out.”

Costanzo’s other close friend, Cynthia Liendo, of Mount Sinai, is in charge of the ticket sales. She said the committee is expecting between 200 and 400 people.

“She really, truly cares about people and went out of her way to smile,” Liendo said about Costanzo.

A stroke survivor will speak at Rock the Range.

Costanzo’s friends and family said she is fighting hard to get through this.

“She volunteers at school, the kids are familiar with her and she has many friends,” Liendo said. “Her absence has really been felt.”

Tickets for Rock the Range are $25. Children 5 and under are free. For more information and/or to purchase tickets, contact rocktherange4Ursula@gmail.com.