MIA

Progress is being made, albeit slowly, on my essay collection. As “they” say, life gets in the way. In the meantime, one of my short stories was just published. Check it out at https://flashfictionmagazine.com/blog/2017/10/07/passing-road-summers-evening/.

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The Consequences of Forgetting the Sardines

I love vignettes like Eva Silverfine’s ‘The Consequences of Forgetting the Sardines’ that just build and build and then boom! I’m sure many husbands, myself included, will feel a little guilty for sometimes – sometimes mind you! – being a bit like the antagonist. – Ken, Editor, Spank the Carp

Check it out at http://www.spankthecarp.com/issue30_ott.html

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Under Construction

I am taking a little time out from posting essays here while I put together various ones I have written into a collection that I plan to publish this fall. The manuscript is off to an editor (yes, even editors should be edited), and I am getting some help with cover design concepts. In the meantime, one of my short stories (500 words) will be published on June 1st. I will post the link when the story is available online, and I hope you will take a few minutes to read it.

Posted in Brooklyn Days | 4 Comments

The Tree of Life

The slide showed a dirt road enveloped in a misty shroud. At the side of the road a beautiful red flower with a yellow lip stood out against the wet green blades of grass. Pebbles glistened. “What is it?” I asked Ryan. “A weed,” he replied.

I am not very good at remembering the names of plants and animals, but many of my friends take pride in their familiarity with the biota of home and beyond. There is a branch of biology involved in the naming and identification of organisms, taxonomy; implicit to this discipline is the field of systematics, the classification of organisms. Biological classification is hierarchical—species are grouped into genera, which, in turn, are grouped into families, and so on. Theoretically, at the end of the search for the natural order is the one tree of life.

For six years I worked in a systematics lab as a technician. I did not become as well versed in the field as did the graduate students around me, but I did acquire a basic vocabulary. The words are long and their meanings complex, but a few words provide a basic orientation. Plesiomorphies are characters, or qualities, that species inherit from their primitive ancestors; synapomorphies are new, unique characters that two or more species may share. It is synapomorphies that establish relatedness among groups.

Biologists come to their disciplines with different motivations, and, as most of us are influenced by the work we do, they take from their disciplines perceptions about the world. Being an organized type, I found the promise of a natural order alluring. However, systematics is not only about existing patterns but about how they came to be—in other words, historical lineages.

Ryan told me excitedly one day that he had learned that his mother’s family had been in the United States since the seventeenth century and had been an original Maryland family, receiving extensive land grants. His family could trace its roots to some great Norman ruler. “Of course every family has its distribution of kings and scoundrels,” he quipped. “Your name is probably polyphyletic”—a term for species having similar characters but derived from different lineages. “Names that refer to trades usually are.” We returned to our work, each pursuing his piece of the tree—Ryan writing his tome on a group of beetles, I measuring the length of moth legs.

Gracile dendritic arms merge to form a heavier limb, which, in turn, joins with other branches to form a stout bough, and so on—until the trunk of the tree of life finds root in Mother Earth. Indeed, there may be one tree of life. From it we can learn about evolution and relatedness; from it we can learn about chance and circumstance. New buds, new limbs, old limbs, full limbs, sparse limbs, dead limbs—but not better limbs.

I am a weed that grew in Brooklyn. I delight in our plesiomorphies.

 

Originally published in Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative

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A Confused Child

On an airplane flight some years ago, I had one of those candid conversations one has at times with a stranger. I was reading The Fellowship of the Rings, and our conversation began there, went on to good and evil, and then turned to religion. The stranger was a Jesuit, and he was deeply interested in Judaism and assumed I had a much greater understanding of my own religion than I did or do. At one point he asked me what I found to be the most difficult aspect of my religion. I doubt I gave him the type of answer he expected. I said, “As I child I used to wonder what the Jews had done to make so many others hate them.”

I was a child of a generation to whom the Holocaust was real and recent. I also was a child growing up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn in the 1960s, which made me a double minority—White and Jewish. It was an odd position to be in among my classmates, who were mostly Black and Puerto Rican. The other Jews in their world were teachers and shop owners. At times my Jewishness earned me unwanted favoritism from teachers—making life among my peers a bit difficult—but for the most part my peers saw me as separate from the world of the Jewish adults they perceived as having all the power and wealth. I remember clearly one day when a classmate, upon seeing LBJ on the TV screen, said something—probably not very nice—about him being a Jew. I knew little about the larger world, but I knew enough to respond “they wouldn’t let a Jew be president.”

I was pretty confused as a child about what it meant to be a Jew, even though my parents started sending me, with my siblings, to the local shul when I was eight or nine. I think much of this confusion wasn’t any different from a child’s general confusion about the world—negotiating its unknown rules and complicated fabric. Judaism just added an extra layer, particularly because it was different from so much of the world I saw around me that had to do with Christmas, Easter, and Jesus. I remember once, at a very young age, I volunteered to sing a Jewish Christmas song in class. Oy gevalt! Was I mixed up!

I also attributed various family values to Judaism. At school fights among girls—and between the sexes—were not that uncommon. When some of my more pugnacious classmates would try to goad me into a fight, I would declare it was against my religion. After all, to my mind, this must have accounted for how the Holocaust occurred. I don’t recall how I reconciled this view with the Six Day War.

My family moved before I entered middle school, and there I found myself surrounded by other Jews, and that in itself was a perplexing experience—the unwritten rules were quite different. On through high school, college, work, and living in multiple states—at times I encountered nuanced, and not so nuanced, anti-Semitism. Through most of that time, though, being Jewish was not part of my self-identity; I found it largely irrelevant to my life except when others didn’t. When I moved to Texas, though, I was motivated to learn more about Judaism because I was raising my children in an environment in which religion, that is, Christianity, permeated everyday life, including the public school system. For the most part, people I’ve met in Texas have been curious albeit ignorant about Judaism. Admittedly, I assert my Jewishness here on a one-person mission to promote awareness of diversity.

In ways there is not much distance between who I am today and that young child, confused as to why a group she belongs to by birth is hated by people she does not know and who do not know her. This is the face of prejudice, though, and I can’t help but think of all the children who are seeing it today.

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The Day of the Dress

I am looking in the mirror and wishing I knew how to dress myself up a bit—you know, put on some makeup, do something different with my hair, add a little flair. The grey hair, the bags under my eyes (compliments of my father’s genes), and sag under my chin (compliments of my mother’s genes) are making me look a bit worn. Problem is I never learned to apply makeup or hair products. I grew up in the natural woman era and subsequently never bothered to learn about these more traditional embellishments. And that worked for decades. Now I’m dealing with the reality of aging.

When I got my first job out of college, in a county planning office, I didn’t have much money to spend on a work wardrobe. My meager salary went to rent, utilities, transportation, and, oh yeah, food. Two other young women who were hired at the same time seemed to have more financial assets, and both dressed very well. One of them, Brett, and I became good work friends. Brett knew all about clothes and makeup. With her long blond hair, gold jewelry, well-made clothes, mascara and blue eyeshadow, she always turned the heads of our mostly male, mostly middle-age department. Brett could have taught me about makeup, but she always said that with my dark features I didn’t need any, unlike her with her “disappearing” blond lashes and blue eyes.

The thing that amazed me most about Brett was how charming she could be to everyone and how that gift illuminated her path wherever she went. Then, when we were alone, she would relish belittling everyone in the office and sharing her most intense dislikes. For me, who still struggles with keeping my emotions from expressing themselves clearly on my face, this was simultaneously fascinating and disturbing.

I cycled through my office clothes pretty much every week, recombining which blouse I wore with which dress pants or skirt. One day I finally took out a dress I’d bought some years earlier but rarely wore, an Indian print cotton. I’ve always been modest, and the deep-V neckline of the dress was a bit too revealing. I got out a safety pin, closed the V up as high as I could, and went off to work.

Well, even with a safety pin the empire waist dress and V neck accentuated my ample bosom. Suddenly I had attention I had not known, nor desired, from my coworkers. Perhaps I had been dressing like a slouch. There was an abundance of good mornings, and suddenly my officemates had something to say to me. The day was surreal—I was the same person but, apparently, the rest of my office didn’t see me in the same light.

The next year I found another job with the county—in the water quality analysis lab. There I wore my scrungiest clothes under my white lab jacket because small splatters of acid were always a hazard.

Brett and I didn’t stay in touch very long. Ours was a work friendship, and I had an intuitive inkling of the path she was leading me down. Anyway, she had become rather occupied with luring away her mother’s boyfriend.

Looking in the mirror, I put some moisturizer on my face, clip up my hair in its perpetual twist, and shrug at myself. In my youth I endeavored to be seen for my mind, not my appearance. Likely, it is too late to change.

                                            Photo credits: Beth Alderman, Leland Ott

 

Posted in Virginia Days | Tagged | 8 Comments

Post

For someone who writes, I’ve been keeping a lot of thoughts in my head, not focusing on articulating them. Part of this results from having work deadlines to meet, but another part reflects my trying to digest my own thoughts and those of others at a time when so many have so much to say.

One of the disturbing elements of this election cycle has been that words, and the concepts they embody, have been vulnerable to transformation. In some circles, facts and fabrications have become synonyms. Truth has become repetition of a lie. Speaking civilly is called being politically correct; speaking rudely is called being honest. Being working class is not an economic designation but an educational one. When I grew up in a working-class family we aspired to becoming well educated. But now that I am, although without any of the wealth or power I thought requisite, I am considered part of the elite.

The election has taken my focus away from my writing—it has made it feel trivial. I hope to move beyond this juncture—this post is a small attempt to give myself license to return to my writing, however trifling it seems at times. But writing is affirming and healing—it reminds me that we can ensure the integrity of words by using them carefully and honestly. It reminds me that evilness can worm itself from the openings made when words and the intentions behind them are not married. It reminds me that we must keep our souls intact and carry on.

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Suburban Heights

Having finished my college degree, I moved to Northern Virginia to live with my boyfriend. We were going to play house. Hollis had a small construction business, and I found an entry-level job in the county government. We rented a very suburban dwelling with trees in fall foliage. Looking out onto the other suburban homes from the big bay window in the breakfast nook conjured up my worst fears of housewifedom.

We arranged what little bit of furniture we had, trimmed bushes and raked leaves in the yard, and took in a stray, pregnant cat. Then, we almost took in Hollis’ grandfather.

Grandpa had moved from upper New York State to his son’s home in Virginia. He had grown afraid of being alone—of his failing health and local hooligans. He brought with him some furnishings and a long life’s mementos. There was no room in his son’s home for all this, so Hollis invited him to store his belongings in the large basement of our rented home.

Grandpa would take the bus from his son’s house to ours to sort through his possessions. When I came home from work, he had just barely arrived. He showed me vases and scraps of paper; whatever I admired, he gave me. I learned to keep such appreciations to myself. As I worked in the kitchen, Grandpa would follow me around, telling me how he and his wife had managed their domestic affairs. Inevitably I would invite him to stay for dinner. Soon he was spending the nights too. He hung some of his paintings over the bed in the guest room. Slowly, very slowly, he sorted through his lifetime.

Every few nights Grandpa would return to his son’s house. When he came back to ours, he would complain to me—his daughter-in-law was out working so the house was unkempt and dinners were late; the house was cold; his teenage grandchildren were uncivil. How different had been the home he had headed. Somehow, the men in his life remained faultless. They denied him nothing.

Grandpa spent more and more time with Hollis and me. In our seemingly big house I now had little privacy; more so, I had become the old man’s companion and felt I was becoming his caretaker. I became resentful.

In the early spring blooming azaleas and dogwoods added color to our well-manicured suburban lawn. For some months Grandpa held onto his place in the house as if riding a bucking bronco. He tried to remain the gentleman while having to accept so much less than what he had expected for his old age. Here he was, staying either in his son’s uncomfortable house or in that of his grandson, who lived with his girlfriend of all things. I imagine disappointment came not from the particular circumstances but having arrived at the point of having to accept them. Reprieve came from another son who lived in California.

Over the next years Grandpa went from one son’s home to another. Even though Hollis and I had gone our separate ways, I wrote Grandpa notes on cards with pretty pictures of flowers in vases.

One autumn I received in the mail Grandpa’s wooden crumb duster, the one he and his wife had used for fifty years. Along with it came a note from a granddaughter telling me of his death and how much he had appreciated my notes over the years. I looked out the window—bare branches against a gray sky. There would be leaves in the spring.

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September 11

Yesterday I attended a birthday party for the about-to-be-11-years-old daughter of some friends. Arriving at the party, I was reminded of a similar one for my own sons years ago. We had the party at the same riverside park, where we celebrated several birthdays. Our boys’ birthdays are separated by one month (and five years), so when they were young, we split the difference and held joint parties.

The scene was not unlike that of our sons’ parties, except the children were mostly girls, whereas ours were predominantly boys. We arrived a bit late; cake just had been served, and faces showed traces of chocolate. Someone called out “presents!”, and a tight huddle formed around the birthday girl, barely leaving her elbow room, as she opened her gifts and the group appraised them. As swiftly as the gifts were opened, once it was a fait accompli, the children ran back to the river.

The river, the Blanco, had more water than usual in it for this time of year. Some years we had forwent having our sons’ party there because the water was so low we were concerned about its cleanliness. The landscape of the river has changed since those days—two record floods in 2015 have scoured much of the banks down to the limestone. Amazingly, a stand of cypresses remains intact. The scene is still beautiful yet a reminder of the power of natural forces.

Just as there were years ago, lots of parents were at the party—parents with infants, parents with school-age children, the grandparents of the birthday girl—family and friends and new school acquaintances enjoying a lovely day at the river.

Of all the parties we have had there, why had I thought of this particular one? Because it was fifteen years ago, and yesterday I remembered it as just a day or two after 9/11. (Upon checking, I learned it was five days after.) Like so many of us, I proceeded through that day in a fog. After reaching my father in Brooklyn immediately after the attack, I could not reach anyone else in my New York family—my mother who lived in lower Manhattan, my sister who worked there, or my brother who lived on the west side with a clear view of the towers. I could not watch the live reports, but I listened to the radio.

I remember we deliberated with other parents whether we should cancel the party and decided nothing good would come from doing so; furthermore, we weren’t ready to explain the depth of what happened to what would have been disappointed children. I went ahead buying the food, little party favors. And then the day of the party the families came, the adults still numb. We could barely speak, knowing that our world, our children’s world, had changed forever. But we all went through the motions. There was playing in the river, a barbecue, birthday cake, the gifts, and before the party was over, the piñata. I’m sure we all laughed, as we did every year, about the first birthday party I had hosted in Texas, when I thought piñatas came filled with candy, and the young children were baffled when nothing fell from the enormous hole they had made.

Yesterday I watched the parents of the birthday girl work to keep the flow of the party going—it is a job, to manage the food, make sure no gifts are lost, make sure no child is left at the river unattended. This party will probably pass unremarked in the memories of these girls, just as that one fifteen years ago has probably joined a blur of river-birthday-party memories in the minds of my boys. Yet it remains with me, when we carried on with everyday life in the face of so much loss.

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The Unveiling

“Do you need to go?” my younger sister asks as we hug hello in front of the cemetery’s office. “The bathroom’s around the side of the building.”

We are gathering for my father’s unveiling, the traditional Jewish ceremony within a year of death during which the newly placed tombstone is literally unveiled of a sheath of cloth. Okay, we pushed the date a little beyond one year, but for my father Judaism was more about habit than a divine system of beliefs.

We linger until most of our group arrives—the route to my father’s grave is convoluted—but eventually we are pressed to move on by the cemetery employees managing traffic. A New York cemetery on Sunday suffers internal traffic jams as well as lost souls.

We reassemble graveside and await the stragglers to arrive. My brother’s ex greets me, “How was the traffic?”

“Not bad,” I reply, not really wanting to talk traffic.

“Whaddidya take?”

“The L.I.E.”

“The Southern State was bad,” he tells me. “A lot of beach traffic.”

My pseudo-stepsister, the daughter of my father’s lady friend of thirty years, is talking about her mother’s funeral. Like my father’s, her mother’s body had been wrapped, according to tradition, in gauze. “I always feel like she’s looking down on me, saying ‘What, you couldn’t bury me in a nice pantsuit?’”

Finally, all assembled in our Sabbath best on an unusually hot June day, we begin. Our young, round rent-a-rabbi, sweating profusely, begins with the customary prayers, which none of us understand because they’re in Hebrew. Then the man who never knew my father begins to speak of him.

“I have read many words inscribed on tombstones, but I have never seen these particular words. These words tell me much about the man: ‘honest, caring, giving.’ These words tell me Irving was a real mensch. And that is why, a year later, I see such a group willing to schlep all the way out here to show their love and respect one more time.”

Such a group the rabbi must see: my father’s four aging children; my older sister’s companion in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed since a stroke; my brother’s ex, who has brought his mother; and my obviously goy husband. Three of four grandchildren are attendant—their Jewish heritage obviously diluted. My mother, who left my father almost forty years earlier, has come. And my pseudo-stepsister and her husband have brought Mary, the heavily accented, partially deaf woman from Haiti, who home health care, and perhaps the divine, had sent to my father when his infirmities demanded round-the-clock assistance.

At the end of the service we all scour the ground for a pebble; to place one on the headstone of the deceased is another tradition. Let this be an important lesson—pebbles in a Jewish cemetery are a hot commodity, so plan ahead and bring one from home.

My younger son, in tears, clings to me.

“Why are you crying?” my mother asks him. “Are you thinking about your own mortality?”

“No mom,” I seem to have to explain. “He’s sad.”

Some of us wander behind my father’s stone to visit his parents’ graves. Now on a cemetery outing, we decide to visit my father’s sister’s grave. She passed away only weeks before the unveiling. My two older siblings, who had attended her funeral, head off in opposite directions. I don’t know how each of us decides whom to follow—probably a decision borne of proximity—but I follow my older sister.

“He’s going the wrong way,” she asserts with annoyance. I look over my shoulder and see my brother motioning for us to follow him. “This way,” he insists.

Eventually all paths lead to the graves—my aunt, her husband, and their only son. My older son arrives with my brother—he has shed his dress shirt and boasts his sleeveless muscle shirt.

Once back at the cars we rearrange the passengers and all drive a distance to a restaurant–bar that is in view of our old home in Rockaway. We had decided our father would have liked the setting—sitting on a deck over the bay in which he spent hours fishing without success.

My younger sister anxiously rearranges tables to claim them.

My niece maximizes the distance between her and her mother. “I wish she would calm down. She’s driving me crazy.”

“This is miserable,” my brother complains. “How could it be this hot? It’s only June.”

The heavily accented waitress, more accustomed to drunken diners, grows impatient with our deliberations over the menu. “Whaddayagonnahave?” she prods.

Other guests arrive, most wearing shorts. An old friend refuses to eat; instead, she recounts how she’s been violently ill all week from food poisoning. Our oldest guest, in her nineties, has been told we are getting together for a party because funerals make her too sad. She comes up to me, inches from my face, and asks “So what have you been doing to feed your soul?” I lose sight of my younger son and find him at the bar, where I’m told he’s ordered a martini, shaken not stirred. The bartender thinks he’s cute, so she has served him a Shirley Temple instead.

The hot afternoon wears on. Finally, all soaked with sweat, a few of us with frayed nerves, we begin to say our farewells.

I don’t know what others may think of the rag-tag assembly in remembrance of my father, but I know it would have suited him. He accepted his unconventional, extended family, and he welcomed our friends. He was honest, caring, and giving. A man who struggled to read, who worked with his hands, who scantly made a living, and who spent years with limited mobility and eventually blindness could raise a minyan any day of the week of those who truly loved him.

Mensch: (Yiddish) a decent human being, a good and honorable person

Schlep: (Yiddish) to haul something or oneself

Minyan: (Hebrew) quorum necessary for religious services

Photo by Pamela Hundt Reid

Photo by Pamela Hundt Reid

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