MEA CULPA

This is a sincere and ashamed apology.  I have been so busy with my own preoccupations: complaining, teaching, writing fiction, and now, blogging – that I have done the unpardonable.  I forgot that Monday, November 11th was Veterans Day. Armistice Day. Poppy Day.  The day that all civilized people should remember.  The day we devote to the memory of those who fought and died in our wars.

When I was a child there seemed something holy about the day: my own father in an overseas cap, a poppy in his lapel, the absolute silence at eleven o’clock, even the traffic stopping on Bedford Avenue! There was the occasional person weeping openly on the street and being comforted.

I had a brave father and a brave brother; my father, a gentle Hungarian immigrant, who was a naturalized citizen, enlisted in the American army and fought in the Argonne Forest and the trenches in France during World War I.  Papa didn’t talk about the war a lot, but he belonged to a Jewish War Veterans Post.  It was his single social “club.”  He wore his precious overseas cap and marched in parades on patriotic holidays.  When Mama quarreled with him, which she frequently did, and he lost his temper and shouted at her, she would roll her eyes and mumble  “shell-shocked” and shake her head.  Mama notwithstanding, Papa was a gentle man and I loved him very much and knew he was not shell shocked.  But I could never truly imagine Papa as a soldier.

My kid brother, Arnold, an unhappy teenager in a poverty stricken home in the 1950s, ran away at sixteen and enlisted – lying about his age.  Sent to Tokyo, he was trained as a military policeman and served honorably.  When war broke out in Korea, American troops from Japan were immediately deployed there and he was declared missing the second week of the war.   Arnold, who shared terrible knock-knock jokes with me.  Arnold, whom I loved.  Missing!

This tragedy essentially destroyed our family; my gentle beloved brother who loved to clown – and even in a grim household could make us laugh – was no more.  My novel, IN A COLD OPEN FIELD (Black Heron Press 1991) tells his tragic story, and the even more incredible story of how my distraught orthodox Jewish mother tried to arrange supernatural “deals” to “save” him, through the Gypsy fortuneteller she met in a Coney Island storefront on Mother’s Day, 1951.

Next to that book on my bookshelf sits the handsome blue velvet case the U.S. Army sent with the Purple Heart Medal for Bravery that Arnold was awarded posthumously. To keep his medal company, I have tucked in Papa’s silver medal for service in the American Expeditionary Force in the Argonne Forest and elsewhere in France.

But so preoccupied was I with self this year, with the minutiae of my own small life, I did not mark or remember Veterans Day appropriately.  I have been thinking about Papa and Arnold all day today, and now, of course, writing this.  I resolve that today shall be my own personal Veterans Day, on which I take note of the great great loss of loved ones, not only my kin.  Next year, if I am around to mark the occasion I shall do it properly and on time.

I have not forgotten those I loved who fought in the wars. I love them still and they mean much to me.  They are with me tonight as I write.  I feel their blessed presence forgiving me my lapse. They were always kind.

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A VERY GRATEFUL OLD LADY GIVES THANKS

I know it’s rushing the season, but I would like to give thanks today on this blog.  I need to thank the incredibly large number of thoughtful New York Times readers who took the trouble to respond to my earlier essay printed in “THE NEW OLD AGE.”  In this essay, I ranted about being old, almost blind, sick, and NOT wanting to be a burden to my dear, caring family.  These are truths. Boy, did I get advice!

Hundreds of readers responded – from all over the world. Some scolded me (not harshly, but scolded, nonetheless.  I mean, I am 86 years old!) for ingratitude, or for still being trapped in the problems of an impoverished childhood, or for being selfish.  Psychoanalysis was recommended, and antidepressant medication, and religion, and other folks just suggested I had to acquire more generosity of spirit.  Passivity and acceptance were advised, and greater parental thoughtfulness. I needed to be aware that there were worse fates than mine. My children could be alcoholics or drug addicts or just inattentive, I was cautioned.

So I was reprimanded because I admitted that I minded being a burden.  On the other hand, people did not agree about my frankness; some commended it and admired my honesty and thought they would one day feel the same way.  Others disagreed  strongly. Many NY Times readers spent a lot of time recounting their own unhappy histories and struggles. A lot felt that their parents had not appreciated them!  Handicapped folks wrote to me generously offering their own useful survival tactics. Some of the comments were a little harsh and some were bitterly humorous, but overall I would have to say–ungrateful old lady that I am–that there was a huge generosity of spirit in these comments. After all, who am I?  A name in a newspaper–and they took the time and the trouble to try to help me. To correct me. To guide me.  And to point out all the errors of my ways.

I am overwhelmed by all of this and by the single truly remarkable serendipitous benefit: An old friend, with whom I started my teaching career more than sixty years ago – in a Harlem junior high school – wrote to the editor who put her in touch with me.  In the 1950’s, we were each putting a husband through college.  I was writing my first published novel – about the lousy racist school we worked in: COME BACK ON MONDAY (Abelard Schuman 1960) . What a joy to find this dear friend again.  We have already e-mailed, and talked by phone.  She sounds so very much the same. Finding her is the capstone of this incredible adventure, which I have enjoyed enormously.  

Being a writer, for me, means engagement, complications, misunderstandings, problems, and criticism, as well as being ready to reveal my eccentricities. The point, after all, is the prose.  Words. My words, carefully considered and selected and arranged, the precious treasure offered by the writer.  

So I conclude with gratitude here, not unmindful that I have been blessed in many ways, one of which is that I am getting to tell the world about all the ways in which I am ungrateful. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all! 

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86 AND THE CITY

On November 6, 1927 a little girl was born – me – to impoverished Orthodox Jewish parents who needed a boy.  They already had a girl.  One girl is enough, but you take what you get.  They got me.

I grew up to be a bigger, noisier me–opinionated and truculent. They wanted me to marry early. Instead, I insisted on going to college, Brooklyn College, because it was free.

My parents never understood me nor I them, but we loved each other in our chaotic way.  We differed on almost everything.  We fought about almost everything.  In the end, I like to think they were moderately proud of me.

I celebrated the exact anniversary of 86 with my eldest child.  The Indian dinner was her idea – we had lived in India long ago and loved the cuisine.  She was getting out of work in a neighborhood with many good Indian restaurants.

“Come meet me,” she said.

“But it’s dark and I’m blind,” I protested.

“Take a taxi,” she said.  She’s a wiseguy.

I am a Depression child, congenitally unable to take taxis.  Stingy.  What the uncharitable call “cheap.”

“Come,” she said. “Meet me on 28th Street.  Take the #6 train at Union Square. Ask people for help.”

Off I went. Blind and careful.  New Yorkers are kind to white-haired, distressed ladies wandering in the dark.  I made it, to Union Square, to the #6 train, to 28th Street – and there was my daughter.  Triumphant.  “See!” she said.

“No,” I said, “but I came anyway.”  We went through the unfamiliar streets – I do not know the east side of my city at all – to a Chettinaad restaurant, Anjappar, which has an unfamiliar cuisine –  and how we overate, treating ourselves to southern Indian delicacies.  We had mutton sukka vartival  and and dosa stuffed with potato curry and wonderfully spicy chicken and eggplant.  Lassi washed it down.

Then, we went to Spice Corner to buy Indian sweets, and then we strolled along from 29th and Lexington Avenue to 23rd  Street and Sixth Avenue.  Only then did I succumb to the corruption of a cab – I wasn’t up to subway wandering by then. But in spite of the extravagant taxi ride, it was an absolutely grand NEW YORK BIRTHDAY.  I wonder where I’ll celebrate 87?

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A CHILDHOOD MEMORY: THE GOOD GERMANS

In the 1930’s when I was a child, my father could not find a job, so we went on Home Relief.  We moved into a cold-water ground floor apartment in Williamsburg, a crowded, Brooklyn slum. There was a two-burner heater in our living room for which my mother refused to buy kerosene.  “Cold,” she insisted, “is better for your health. Did you ever hear of an Eskimo who sneezed?”  I knew of no such Eskimo. So I shivered but kept my mouth shut for I was aware that the world was a dangerous place.

Our lives literally touched bottom in that basement.  My mother’s parents lived nearby with their unmarried children. Often, I would return home from school just in time to catch the last few words of an agitated conversation, followed by abrupt silence at my appearance.  Sometimes, their talk ended in weeping.  Red eyed, uncles and aunts stood around awkwardly wiping away tears or dabbing at their noses.

Not my grandmother. My grandmother wept openly without embarrassment. Born in a Hungarian shtetl, she cried freely for the victims of the world while her American children tried to conceal their grief.  Sometimes the crisis was so urgent, that the agitated discussion I’d interrupted continued in Yiddish, which we youngsters did not understand.  Or the grown-ups sent us out into the street where we could hear nothing. Though exiled, we knew the evil they were talking about.  How could we not know?  It was in the air, on the the very breath of the world: ADOLPH HITLER AND THE NAZIS. They were the bad Germans.  Those bad Germans were unimaginable monsters.

We didn’t know any bad Germans personally.  The only real Germans we knew personally were the single immigrant family upstairs, the Kalbs, a truck driver and his wife and their three small sons.  To me they were an endless source of fascination: their strange speech, their blondness. Because they did not keep kosher, I could not eat anything they offered me; nor even take a drink of water from a trefe glass.  All this made them more attractive, made them more wonderful. They lived in the midst of a Jewish enclave, and no one ever explained why or how, but they were our neighbors. And they were good Germans, my parents said. My one big mouth uncle disagreed strongly, insisting that there were NO good Germans and loudly spelling out the word N-O!  I never liked him anyway.

When the Kalbs spoke English, I could barely figure out what they said.   Mama and Papa talked to them in their own language.  Papa called them refugees,  a sad word, because it meant they could never go back to their country where everyone spoke their language. Never. How scary that was!  What would I do if I lived in a country of strangers who didn’t speak English?   I couldn’t imagine.  I watched the Kalbs with awe and admiration. When Mrs. Kalb became pregnant, we were all excited. “What they would like is a  baby girl,” Mama said.  “But they will be glad to have a healthy boy.  You must wish for a girl for them.”

Oh, how I wished.  I wished and I wished. And  then — my wish was granted.  The whole block was delighted when the beautiful, blonde baby girl was born.

I felt a special connection because I knew it was my wish that was granted. I had wished so hard. Then to my great dismay and bewilderment, they named the baby “Enemy.”

I was very upset.  It was a stupid name. It didn’t seem right to me at all. How could they give this cute little baby with golden curls, who everyone in the neighborhood loved so much, such a hateful name?  And why? Did they want her to grow up to be a bad German?  A Nazi? I was nearly frantic with worry, but I didn’t dare ask about it.  It was not the kind of question I could ask my parents.  It was too embarrassing, too personal.  I’d get a clop in punim for such a question.

I made up my mind to never never call the baby by that terrible name.  Never!

Secretly, I resolved to carefully watch these complicated and puzzling people.  I would see what they did, and somehow, if I could I would protect the baby. If necessary, I would report them to a policeman even though I had never talked to one and was really afraid of policemen.  I began to spy on the Kalbs. I was constantly alert.  I had eyes everywhere.  But I never caught them doing anything suspicious to the baby. They seemed to love her. It was totally bewildering. Yet every time I heard someone call her name, “Enemy,” I was reminded of my mission.

I kept my vigil for many weeks till my first school field trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.  There, we were instructed  to line up double-file beside a beautiful display of purple flowers. The large sign said they were related to buttercups, but they didn’t look anything like buttercups.

“These are windflowers,” the guide began to explain. “Windflowers are very famous and lovely flowers known since ancient times.  People called them windflowers because it was believed that the blossoms were opened by the wind.  The flower’s name is Latin from the original Greek. Different varieties and colors and sizes of this very same plant are found in many parts of the world.  The ancient Romans knew the windflower, and the Chinese and the Japanese, too.  Medicines were made from this plant.  It was supposed to heal bruises miraculously.  Its true name is – the ANEMONE!  Watch my lips and listen carefully to the way I pronounce it.  ANEMONE! A-NEM–O-NE! A-NEM-O-NE! 

“A-NEM-O-NE!  A-NEM-O-NE!  We obediently chorused, I loudest of all, my heart gloriously lightened.  No policeman would be necessary. My Germans , the Kalbs, were truly good Germans.  Anemone – how very beautiful the baby’s name had become!

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THE CONTEMPORARY GRANDMOTHER

I am, I’m pleased to say, a contemporary grandmother.  I married, had children who married, and they had children.  In that singular way, I accomplished this incredible feat. I’m pleased to say it because it confirms that I am still very much alive!  Some days I’m not quite so sure.  For a woman of indeterminate age, I am fairly ordinary and undaunted, which means I am loud and somehow holding on. 

 I spend my days doing the things I love – in between massive searching for objects I have temporarily misplaced like my eyeglasses or my pills.  My memory is a sieve through which each day is finely strained: Like Pablum.

My extensive leisure time is often passed walking in New York City, the adventure capital of the world – which I enjoy immensely.  I wander slowly.  And eavesdrop avidly.

 I listen often to my collection of vintage music.  I have Sinatra’s best recordings and Pete Seeger’s, too.  Not a day goes by without some of each.  Sometimes my grandchildren “listen to the funny music” to humor me.  They will perhaps learn some day; the current “pop” music they listen to – AND WATCH – is execrable, but I love them and they will learn.  I shut out current music in my mind. It’s not music.  It’s noise.

I am moderately tall, and erect, but alas, not statuesque, the result no doubt of my Hungarian peasant background.  I have long wished I was aristocratically tall, but what can one do about unselective forebears except perhaps forbear (I am much given to bad puns and worse jokes.) People often say I am a funny person. I do not choose to pursue that line of thought.  I am merely me.

 Still, I have noticed people turning to look at and admire my posture.  My skin is smooth except for many tiny lines about the eyes, lines mind you, not heavy ropy wrinkles.  My teeth, of course, are all my own, impeccably dentally assisted, and I have a warm, understanding smile not the phony just-the-lips stretch.  I smile readily; I am basically a happy person.

My brown eyes – yes, I would have adored blue or green, but those damn genes did untold mischief – are bright with bad jokes, which I have always  joyously mistaken for wit.  I am in good health, and when some mishap occurs so that disgusting bodily functions need adjusting, I take care of the problems without public acknowledgement.  It’s nobody’s business!  I even prefer not revealing much to the doctor, but  alas, often he guesses.

I neither cook nor bake.  I prefer not to.  The handsome cross-stitched sampler on my refrigerator – not embroidered by me – reads GOD BLESS BIRD’S EYE!  I like the motto: Just like fresh only faster! My household chores are done by a cleaning service, while I’m away.

I have enough money, which I NEVER discuss. An impoverished childhood left me basically stingy!  How much things cost always seems too much.  But I have learned to keep silent about my stinginess. It embarrasses other people.   All except when it comes to taking taxis!  I am congenitally unable to use anything but PUBLIC transportation.   My gifts for my grandchildren are rarely sensible. Why would they be? Their parents should provide those.  I love being a babysitter for my grandchildren.  They are truly beautiful and remarkable and I’m ready even at this late age to take on any stupid challenger who doesn’t agree!

I am something of a jokester, too, but that should be evident  by now.  I am a proud and happy though stingy GRANDMOTHER! 

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A JOYOUS CELEBRATION OF THE LIFE OF THE ANTHROPOLOGIST OWEN M. LYNCH! FRIDAY, OCTOBER 25, 2013, AT FACULTY HOUSE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

It’s been 50 years since the young anthropologist, Owen Lynch, first came to dinner in our small, dark Columbia University apartment and played with our young children. He‘d returned many times since – often fresh from a trip to India – and the children loved him; most adult visitors, particularly “serious” scholars paid scant attention to them.  Children were interruptions.  Not to Owen.  No person was an interruption to him. 

In time he became a prominent and distinguished South Asian scholar, professor, and activist.  He was the authority on the Dalits of India, formerly known as “The Untouchables”- the poorest and most downtrodden of India’s vast population.  This, for Owen, meant doing his fieldwork living and working with them – and writing about them.  And eventually becoming their advocate. He did this with power and eloquence.  He published THE POLITICS OF UNTOUCHABILITY in 1974 and for the rest of his life he championed their cause.  In him, they had a dauntless defender.

In recent years, Owen had been seriously ill and his family had cared for him.  He died in April of this year. The intervening months since his death have allowed healing time for family and friends thus enabling this happy celebration of his life!

 And it was, indeed, happy!  Beginning with charming sibling reminiscences and family anecdotes, old friends’ memories, interspersed with poetry and music that he loved, all followed by a wonderful luncheon of Indian delicacies!  And camaraderie!

 Owen was a presence there among us at Faculty House as he had been all along, a quiet, forceful presence in our lives.  How lucky we were to have known him!

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MY EYES BETRAYED ME; I COULD HEAR BUT NOT SEE BRITTEN’S “MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM”

There I was, lucky enough to be at the glorious Met, in the third row.  My generous daughter had splurged on a ticket for me.  She and her husband were also going, but they were sitting in cheaper seats in the back.

First, I demurred politely and insincerely. “You shouldn’t have.”  Then I accepted happily. 

That was a mistake.  

A nearly blind person should never sit in the third row in almost total darkness, surrounded by laughing, engaged, enthusiastic neighbors, all of whom can see. Lots of small kids and their parents happily sat up front all around me, transfixed, beautifully behaved.  I was the only malcontent.

 I’d reread the text on my reading machine.   I love the play! It is indeed, magical.  My favorite characters, of course, are the mechanicals.  I’m a sucker for clowns. But the whole comedy is romp, on the page and onstage – when visible.

 I heard beautifully and, if I had been listening at home that would have sufficed.  But the lighting was such and my seat was such that I saw only darkness.  The frustration of having everyone around me watching the  “mechanicals” while I listened but saw nothing was overwhelming.  I was the most disappointed kid there.

 It made me more jealous and resentful than I think I’ve ever been.    How come…?   Who knows?  It’s my fault, not Shakespeare’s, nor Britten’s, nor the Met’s.  It was certainly not my generous daughter’s fault.  I just didn’t want to be blind at this performance!

 Okay, I know, I know.

 Asinine thinking.

 Pun intended.  Shakespeare would have liked it!     

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