This past holiday season was exceptionally joyful for my family. On Dec. 27 my niece, Erin Winter Russak, who was born in Santa Monica as it happens, gave birth to her first child, Jeremiah Jacob. But at 39 Erin’s pregnancy was far from smooth sailing.
First, it was an in vitro fertilization, which is amazing medical technology. And second, J.J. arrived seven weeks premature. At 4 pounds 4 ounces, he’ll still in the hospital with various tubes, but the great news is mother and child are doing great. (One day J.J. will learn the advantages of arriving “fashionably late.”)
J.J.’s the toast of the entire clan, including my sister, Brenda, and her husband, Dave, who are grandparents for the second time, while yours truly is now a two-time great-uncle. (My eldest niece Jennifer and her husband David have a terrific 19-year-old son, Brandon.) Naturally, the joy is also overflowing in Erin’s husband Ben’s family in New York.
Being an uncle occasionally includes babysitting. Unfortunately, my track record is somewhat spotty. During my hippy days Brenda and Dave asked me and my girlfriend, Liz, to baby-sit then 7-year-old Jenny in their Playa Del Rey house so they could take a trip to Europe. The caveat was that we hold a yard sale to help expedite Brenda and Dave’s move to Santa Monica when they returned.
I should note that Jennifer was born deaf due to German measles contracted in the first month of my sister’s pregnancy. But smart as a whip, Jenny read lips like a champ. I should also note that Liz and I had two Samoyed dogs, both of which Jenny adored. So what could go wrong, you ask?
Well, the yard sale went off spectacularly but the success was soon overshadowed. Even though the backyard was fenced, the dogs managed to dig a hole and, like Steve McQueen, make their “great escape.” The problem was Jenny followed suit, the mention of which still gives me chills.
For seven long hours Liz and I scoured the neighborhood. We posted fliers, went door-to-door and finally called the police. Except they said only after 24 hours would they help search. Can you say nightmare?
What was I going to tell Brenda when she called from Europe? “At least the yard sale went great!” But just before sunset, and like out of a dream, one muddy dog crawled through the hole beneath the fence. A minute later the second arrived.
Liz and I held our collective breaths when an equally muddy Jenny appeared. Needless to say, for the rest of the house-sitting, when the dogs were outside they were chained and we never took our eyes off Jenny.
Fortunately, I was more careful when I babysat Erin. But I remember vividly how troubled she was by all the homeless in Santa Monica, some lying in doorways. “Where are their parents?” she asked, concerned beyond her years.
Decades later now, Erin’s a parent. And since Brenda and Dave live close by, once J.J. comes home let the doting begin.
So what will this precious newborn grow up to be? It’s a ways off, but his first word might very well be UTLA (the teachers union). Erin has been a special ed teacher in L.A. Unified for 12 years, while Brenda and Dave were teachers, counselors and principals in the district before retiring. Jennifer and David also worked for LAUSD.
Both Erin and Ben have master’s degrees, so education will likely be in J.J.’s genes. But so might music. Ben’s late father, Jerry, performed in the original production of “Zorba the Greek” on Broadway and later became a renowned voice teacher in Manhattan. As for Ben, years ago he wrote and performed in a successful punk band but now he’s a passionate urban planner.
Sports could also be in J.J.’s DNA. As a teen, Erin was a pre-Olympic gymnast while her father, Dave, and his five brothers growing up in Iowa were all jocks.
Part Jewish, part Catholic, with lineage from Iowa farmland to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with all J.J.’s diversity, the important thing is that he grow up to be a healthy and happy. One thing, he has a smart father who in all the chaos didn’t forget Erin’s birthday only days after J.J.’s birth. Erin smiled, “I already got the best present of all.” This great-uncle says, “Amen to that.”
Jack can be reachedat facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth email@example.com.