When I was planning my first vacation with my then-boyfriend/now-husband Ben to Nantucket, my South African, Jewish mother — whom he was meeting for the very first time — handed him a newspaper clipping: Apparently, there was only one orthopedic surgeon on the entire island (should I happen to sustain serious injury over the 4-day trip).
Ben is a recovering WASP from Maine (though he loves reminding me that he gets Holocaust reparations because his lone Jewish relation, his grandfather, was a Holocaust survivor from Austria. His grandad emigrated to Maine so it was go Goy or get none, thus Ben’s religous in-betweenness). Anyway, Ben was shocked — shocked — by my mom’s over-cautionary gesture. If there were warning signs that Jewish families are, hmmm, “different,” this was like a three-alarm-fire siren. To me, it was another day at the office. I told him: You ain’t seen nothing yet. Consider him warned.
When I was in college in New York City, about once every 4–6 weeks, I would get mailbox slips instructing me to go to the campus post office to collect a package. While in line, I would watch my friends rip open care packages from their parents filled with Cup o’ Noodles, gum, various homemade treats, handwritten letters, socks, etc. What might I have in store, I used to wonder excitedly.
But hope against hope, month after month, my care packages were always the same: A box bursting at the seams with multiple Ziploc bags, each containing 15–20 neatly folded-over newspaper and magazine clippings my mom saved for me in the month prior. These would include, say, a death notice about some idiot who used a hairdryer while still in the bathtub and, doh!, got electrocuted; or a girl who got her finger bit off by an alligator while lazily hanging her arm off the side of an airboat in the Everglades. Darwin Awards-type stuff. In the margins of the bathtime-hairdrying article, it would say — in barely-legible cursive:
“This is deadly! Never do!”
And on top of the don’t-feed-the-Everglades-alligators article was the notation:
I affectionately termed these plastic pouches “Nag Bags.” In them, were articles with titles like, “Bicycle Helmets Now a Requirement in South Florida” with a scribble in the margin that read:
“See, I told you! Now it’s law!”
My mom was thus referring to the time my family sat at a Miami Pizzeria Uno a decade earlier, enjoying 2200-calorie pan pizzas — potentially more life-threatening than roller skating sans helmet. She was lecturing us on why we should always wear bicycle helmets, even when roller skating or roller-blading — and how she cannot believe it is not a legal requirement. I remember my sister and I rolling our eyes at each other and mom getting really annoyed with us. It would become a family joke: We would give each other a toy helmet as a gag birthday gift or if someone fell, another would ask, in a pronounced South African accent, “Were you wearing a helmet???” So, this was sweet redemption for mom, Miami Herald style — the ultimate “I told you so” in black and white.
I used to shove these nag bags in the bottom drawer of a dorm-room bureau and ignore them for months. Then one night, say searching for my roommate’s hidden snacks, I would happen upon them and my OCD would kick in like an adrenaline shot. I would spend the next few hours (usually around 1am-3am) maniacally and resentfully going through these piles. I felt it was somehow dishonest or disrespectful to just ignore them or, as my father would secretly urge, “just throw them away.”
Maybe I was a bit superstitious, too, like my mom, who was SURE that if she hadn’t sent me an article about an unlikely way to die, I would most definitely die that exact way. If she hadn’t sent me the article about the Japanese businessman in Kyoto who died eating the region’s legendarily poisonous blowfish at $200-a-pop, I too, a college sophomore with no independent income, would likely have traveled to Japan rather than Cancun that spring break and played culinary Russian roulette with the potentially lethal local delicacy. (Having gone to Cancun instead that year, I can honestly say that East Asian blowfish poisioning would have been a far more enjoyable way to spend spring break).
And did I know there was a deadly listeria outbreak linked to raw, packaged spinach in western Kansas a full month before the USPS delivered this warning to me? I mean, thank goodness I only ate frozen yogurt, bagels and tuna melts those four college years!
In 1998 (I was 23), I went parasailing with my older sister on a family vacation. My parents were there, my mother nervously snapping pictures on her beloved Kodak Disc from the safety of shore. Parasailing was okay. I didn’t love it and felt no need to do it again. Over a decade and a toddler later, I received an email warning me of the dangers of the unregulated parasailing industry. How irresponsible it would be for me, a mom, to go parasailing ever again, the note cautioned/guilted. And did I know how many people DIE each year doing this unregulated vacationer’s delight? (Roughly 8, it turns out, between 2009–2015, which is kind of great odds given between 3 million and 5 million people parasail every year.)
The only thing this helped me realize (beyond just how far away I was at the time from an adventure-filled beach vacation given I had a 3-year old and was pregnant with my second) was that Jeff Rossen of “Rossen Reports’ and my mom would be soulmates.
I could hear my mom in my head — stationed off the Gulf of Mexico as his special envoy for The Today Show — reporting in an elegant South African accent about how between .00000026% and .0000004% of parasailers died between 2009–2015, bemoaning the terrible odds of survival and then sending it back, tearfully, to the studio.
As I grew older, married and had children of my own, the nag-bags continued. But after seeking some therapy for my OCD, I instructed my mom to stop mailing the nag bags to me — doctor’s orders. (for real) After a few continued indiscretions on her part, and a few firm reminders on mine that she was defying doctor’s orders (cardinal sin in Jewry), she finally desisted. She stopped mailing them. And began emailing them, often in all caps, non-sequiturs and all:
On Nov 21, 2014, at 7:30 PM, Sally Strul wrote:
“GRACO IS RECALLING A LOT OF STROLLERS BECUSE KIDS ARE GETTING THEIR FINGERS CAUGHT IN THE MECHANISM WITH SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES…AMPUTATIONS. IS THE SURFACE RHYS AND ZOE PLAY SOCCER ON SAFE?”
When I don’t respond or simply make fun of her all-caps style of communicating, I get this:
There was a piece on NBC NEWS ADOUT ARTIFICIAL TIURF [sic] FOR SOCCER FIELDS BEING CARCINOGENIC. THEY ALSO SAID NEW York pARKS HAVE STOPPED USING IT
Sorry about the capitals. I’m too tired to retype it
After a measles outbreak somewhere, she emailed to ask if I was vaccinated for measles as a child and I told her it was kind of on her watch, to which she responded:
> Subject: Measles
> Date: Mon, 2 Feb 2015 22:38:54 -0500
Then you may well need a booster shot
Go to your dr ASAP. The do a test for antibodies to see if you are immune or not. You need to do this as measles is very infectious.
Sometimes, she even emails me content from “The Today Show” or their website after the show airs, warning me what Rossen and his cohorts warned her of in the 7am hour:
Please don’t be annoyed that I am sending you this, but read the segments about antibiotics and also about ADHD, maybe also the one about natural or organic skin products
You probably know all of this, but they could be important so I sent them anyway
From: TODAY Healthy Living <email@example.com>
Sent: Thursday, May 5, 2016 3:43 PM
Subject: Overusing antibiotics: What you need to know
Recently, she learned how to nag via text. This was received last week, half-way into her current TransAtlantic cruise with my dad. She was in the middle of the ocean. Maybe “relaxing” on the Lido Deck?:
Just a few nags
Keep some and delete others
Always keep your seatbelts fastened on a plane as there can be sudden turbulence which can cause injuries especially the kids
There are great white sharks in shallow water on the beaches of California. ..not a lot but there have been occasional attacks on people wading in shallow water
Is there s carbon monoxide alarm at your building pool
You and Ben should have Hep C tests the next time you have blood tests
That is all! !!!
Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE Smartphone
Despite major advancements in technology, every time she visits, in strange and small increments, a few physical clippings still manage to appear: say, during a Broadway show intermission; or at a family dinner, 5–10 of these beauties still somehow make it onto the table. “These are NOT nags,” she insists. “They’re interesting!”
And sometimes they are interesting — and they have certainly mellowed, along with their giver (an article listing the “Top 10 Restaurants Right Now in Croatia” is a lovely read, and though I am dying to visit, I have no plans to go there any time in the foreseeable future, nor have I ever discussed my desire to go with her.) Of course a few “101 Ways to Die” articles still manage to make appearances, amidst clippings from travel magazines and recipes on how to make chocolate mug cake in the microwave —with “for the kids,” scribbled in the margin.
These nags still cause some level of anxiety for me, albeit of a different sort: They trigger my FOMO (Fear-Of-Missing-Out) that we will not travel overseas in time to sample those ten amazing-sounding Croatian hot spots before they are no longer in vogue or, worse, descend into mediocrity.
Hating the game, not the player (who I happen to love) — and thanks to some good old ridiculously overpriced Upper East Side therapy — I can now accept these unruly scraps of paper without losing my shit (but still rolling my eyes and looking pleadingly to my dad for help, who signals, with his vacant expression in return, “I’m too old to get in the middle. You’re on your own now, kid”). And I have learned the fine art of skimming. Only occasionally do I feel the need to, say, type into my Google Notes all twenty of some random South Florida magazine’s list of the best books of 2016 or “10 ways to keep your children hydrated in summer.” Just in case …