Welcome to my world of Art and Personal History and my own Point of View. In particular, I would like you to check out my new book, An Untenable Fragrance of Violets, A Trilogy with a Sequel…Books I, II and III are out and Book IV, The Sequel, will be along momentarily. I invite you to read the random pages gratis on Amazon.
In my time I have been a desperate housewife, an overwhelmed young mother, a starving artist, a battered woman, a warrior in a child custody war, a Feminist, a Hamptons gallery owner, a paralegal and legal advocate and activist, a home builder and ancient barn renovator, a garden designer, and now an author.
I have butted heads with bullies and sociopaths, hope and psychosis, chauvinism, mind control, brainwashing and familial alienation; criminal trespassers, disloyal friends, unscrupulous businessmen and frivolous lawsuits for millions of dollars. Still, I have managed to survive.
I have been denigrated, accused of misrepresentation and lily gilding, and cast out of my family by my children because of the machinations of a former spouse, the father of my six children, who is known to all and sundry as ‘Grandpa Foxy’, he and his wife, the quintessential wicked stepmother of my children are known as ‘The Foxies’… all of which suddenly strikes me as amusing if it weren’t so awful, amusing because of the coincidental modus operandi of Fox News, the fervent lies and vicious untrue statements and allegations of the likes of Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin that are repeated ad nauseum until the rabid minions of followers join in the chorus as though it were all true. It is a simple well known fact about mind control, that if you repeat something over and over again to people who have no other source of information but your words, that ultimately they will see them as truth and they will not be dissuaded, even by fact and evidence. It is a sickening part of public life today, and is seen here as a microcosm of that larger syndrome.
Here I am embarking on a voyage into the twentieth century, joining peers and grandpeers in a new art form. Now that I am a published author, I can convince myself that I have the creds to offer my ideas…
1943 1944 From Book I… From Book I… June, 1970
My mother dresses me in overalls, a T-shirt, unembellished business socks, no ruffles, and polished oxfords; my Mary Janes and ruffled socks are not for school, just for special occasions. I watch her tug on her undergarment, and wonder anew at its purpose, Mommy’s naked body is neatly put together, and not unpleasant, familiar and comforting to gaze at. I run my hands down my own slight frame as I watch transfixed. It is not all that different from mine, except for a few bulges that I do not possess, nor wish to. She deftly drops a simple rayon slip over her head, and I stare, fascinated as it floats into place as if it knows the way. Next, a cream colored blouse with slight delicate floral embroidery across the chest, and a collar that is strangely long, looking remotely like floppy rabbit ears hanging there, until it turns into a bow under my mother’s deft touch.
Nylon stockings, carefully applied because I am told, of the war, and high heeled pumps, the ones I step gingerly into on evenings and weekends, when I am permitted to play dress-up with my mother’s things, when I lose myself in the aroma of my mother, in her clothing; the war, again. Strangely enough, she keeps these stockings in the tiny freezer part of the refrigerator, at the top, having been told that this keeps them from getting those sudden and devastating ladders, crawling up, or down, slowly and fatefully leaving their nasty track that renders them useless. They should be called tracks, I muse, not ladders. I have watched fascinated, holding my breath, as they inch along on their magical journey to nowhere. Stockings are difficult to obtain now, another of those wartime rationed commodities.
Last, the neatly fitting tailored suit jacket. She finishes with the proverbial paisley or flower-patterned silk scarf, deftly wound and curled and tied, and pinned to her suit collar with the usual bejeweled pin, part of a set, e pluribus unim that sports earrings and necklace. Sapphire to match her eyes, gold to echo her hair, pearls to complement her porcelain skin. Now, a touch of lipstick, and a bit of scent, and the metamorphosis is complete. I stare up at her in awe, breathing in the exotic aroma so that I can remember it until I see her again. That familiar feeling of approaching abandonment is creeping into my chest, in direct proportion to her degree of readiness. Soon, I will be devastatingly alone, again. It must be because of the war, I think. I have to work, you see, because Daddy is away, because of the war. The only thing I know of war is that everyone talks about it continually, Daddy is missing, and Mommy is unhappy. Otherwise, I have no idea of what this thing is, this miasma that envelops all of our lives with its ineffable sense of gloom and terror.
All at once her demeanor changes; she has donned her day persona, pulled out of the air, from the secrets of the murky closet or the unyielding chest of drawers. She is suddenly an elegant woman of the world, esteemed teacher, and she is off to her own wars, off to teach her hoards of to me faceless students who take her from me each day. She has put on her workday self, along with her outfit. I feel my stomach sinking, my eyes tear. I hastily wipe at them, and swallow to get control. It seems for some reason to be imperative that I do not allow her to see my discomfort, know my feelings. The elegance is her cover, her superficial coating of a confidence I can sense she does not feel. She glances at herself in the big round mirror above the mahogany art deco dresser in the bedroom, turning and preening, and she whispers, I wish Daddy could see me. I see you, I whisper back invisibly, but she is already walking toward the door, her huge handbag over her shoulder, her bulging briefcase under her arm. I follow obediently, grabbing onto the corner of her jacket.
A faint memory of Daddy flits across my mind, and then it is gone.
At first, I can’t quite recall it all, but it presses at my consciousness, an instant replay; a little blurry. The scene has repeated again and again until it is indelibly etched onto my brain. I have seen it frequently over the years, and never know when once again unsummoned and unwanted, it will appear once again.
There I am in my new Red Riding Hood raincoat that gives me delicious shivers as I think about Grandma and that wolf and I somehow summon up vague simultaneous thoughts of terror and goodies which survive in a confusing non sequitur of hovering memories. My mother’s enthusiasm leads me to believe that it is undoubtedly a possession to be cherished. Just like the one in the story.
From that day to the present, try as I may, I cannot recall the rest of the apartment on Holland Avenue in the Bronx where we lived for my first year. Neither can I recall any part of our time there; except for the repetitious iron bars of the fire escape, its pattern and cadences appearing as I look from the window. I am, of course, only one year old. I remembered quite clearly, however, my mother lifting me up and unaccustomedly holding me very tightly, so that I know something is different, maybe even amiss, and carrying me to the window. The sash is raised and we look out on the fire escape, the orange and rust and black iron slats and ladders rising endlessly out of and beneath each other. Beyond them, three stories below, the ancient concrete sidewalk slopes steeply away from us. On that sidewalk, sparkling and dapper in his crisp newly issued army uniform, his narrow sculpted Errol Flynn mustache lifting quixotically to one side over that familiar rakish grin, his captain’s cap doffed cavalierly in mock salute, his overcoat casually over his arm stands my father. He blows a kiss, waves, turns on his heel, and jauntily strides down the hill and out of our lives for five long years. The little I am able to recall of Holland Avenue is a faint image of the streets lined with stores of all kinds, walking up and down the cracked paved concrete hills with my mother, the stone walls, paths and hills and trees of Bronx Park West across the street, and the clatter of the elevated trains.
But now a few short years later my mother on her way to work drops me off to be cared for this day after an obnoxious bus ride across the Bronx and rushes off. Hansel and Gretel Nursery School, says the whitewashed wood plank sign propped up in front of the sparse yard, littered with toys. It has dark blue trim, and a rudimentary painted image of a boy and a girl holding hands. I have barely recovered from the noxious fumes of the traffic, and the pungent crush of strange bodies, when I am made to sit at a long low table on miniature chair, like and so unlike the one at home where I play with my dolls, and forced to eat icy cold runny soft-boiled eggs and congealed cream of wheat, although my stomach rebels, and my internal core is reduced to stone. There is a war on. Think of all the poor starving children in Europe.
Then, according to regimen, all of the other parentless-for-the-day children sit on small potties, placed randomly around the classroom, pants and panties around our ankles, until we perform. This is our morning activity. Those who do not, are left to contemplate their failures, until they persevere. It is a great time to exercise the imagination, disappearing into other more interesting inner worlds of the mind. Our caretakers are away in their usual covert place somewhere else, but I can see them past the half open doorway of the adjoining kitchen, clutching coffee cups and pastries, conversing and laughing, a world removed from their charges, who obediently follow a rigid and controlled schedule with very little care involved, waiting for the day to pass. It passes very slowly. Finally, they feign great critical sighs for our inadequacy, and we are released from this particular activity, stiff from the lengthy time in that forced position, red circles engraved by pressure on our collective bottoms.
Later, our clothing resettled in its proper position and recovering quickly as children do, at least on the surface, we all wander out to play on the grounds, where most of the other children obediently swing or slide. I am the renegade, subservient to my imagination, disinterested in mindless play, finding assorted treasures in the dirt, in the sparse brown grass, buttons and pieces of rotted wood, bottle caps, shiny, flaking mica rocks, and a sort of Bronx beach glass, really weathered broken bottle shards, dreaming up new scenarios and art forms from sand and stick and stone. Whatever are you doing? Stop that immediately, wash your hands, find a toy, and join the other children. Nice little girls don’t do that. Let me push you on the swings. No, no, just the thought of swings makes me queasy.
Be good, now, I am warned; whatever is wrong with you? Why can’t you play nicely like all the other children? What is this pressure, this necessity to be like everyone else?
Sometimes they do force me to swing, and I endure this torture, which culminates usually in what little breakfast I have consumed being left on the playground floor, behind a bush, or in a sand bucket, if they have been fast enough. They never learn, they are determined to convert me to a happy swinger. They are determined to force me to conform to their particular image of child. Then the afternoon activity, more a respite for supposedly hardworking teachers than something of value for already bored children, a compulsive mass nap on folding army cots with scratchy wool blankets, sleepy or not, the lights dimmed and the window shades lowered so that only the tips of the trees are visible in the yard, and finally Mommy arrives, worn and cranky after her long day of teaching and dealing with routine technical nonsense, to take me home. When she sees me, her face softens, and a wide smile appears.
We walk slowly, hand in hand, to the bus stop. Her hand is soft and cool and pliant, as always; the feel of it is engraved on my memory, I can feel its touch whenever I am sad or ill. Her hand is love, security, and I cherish its brief tenure attached to mine. Warmth infuses my body just to be near her. Already the day has faded to a faint gray receding blur. I wish to cling to her, to never have to let go, but I know that is not going to happen. Did you have a nice day, she asks sweetly, her voice filled with love, and I nod yes, because I don’t know what else to say that will not create more havoc than I am ready to deal with. My eyes give me away, huge and dark and sad. She tries not to notice, cannot face discord, dismay, in her barely tolerable, tightly controlled existence. The lines from the corners of my mouth to my chin are getting deeper; I look like a marionette, I think, when I look at myself in the bus window, the world darkening behind it as we pass under the elevated train structure. I open and close my mouth a few times experimentally, noticing that yes, strangely enough, I am turning, the opposite of Pinocchio, into a puppet. No, I think gravely. I will never let that happen. I know Pinocchio very well, since my mother takes me to see each and every child’s movie and show that graces the theater. I am on first name basis with Dumbo, Babaar, Snow White, and Cinderella, and an assortment of adult musicals; The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, and Pollyanna, Anchors Aweigh. Meet me in St Louis, Louis, I sing inside my head, meet me at the fair, I sing silently, remembering. I will never forget how Dumbo lost his mother, and Babaar, and there is Madeleine, the French orphan who lives with nuns in an orphanage, twelve little girls in two straight lines, which all fill me with terror. Mom was forced to leave me in the care of the nuns at the church on our corner a couple of times when the baby sitter didn’t show and she had to leave for work. I am quite certain that I don’t want to be sent to an orphanage and be cared for by nuns.
On the last Friday of the month, I know the routine. I guard my secret knowledge tightly, allowing only the slightest suggestion of a gleeful grin to sneak across my face, which is otherwise engraved with that eternal image of sadness. I am constantly asked with grave concern, even by strangers, what is the matter, dear? We exit the rocking bus, and begin our voyage now on foot down the cracked cement hilly sidewalk. After a brief stop at Manufacturer’s Trust Bank on the corner, we continue our walk, past Safeway and the dry cleaners, the Chinese laundry, Cristedes and Rexall, Mommy waving gaily at those proprietors who are nearly family, who have managed to steal a moment in a tedious and hectic existence for a breath of fresh air, this late winter afternoon, which sports a hint of Spring merged with the smell of melting snow mixed with traffic fumes. The somber stentorious disembodied voice of a newscaster relating the news can be heard continually spewing out the serious word of the day. The United States government has interned a million Japanese evacuated from miles and miles on the coast, I hear, what does that all mean? Everyone has a radio on; radios are never turned off. Everyone listens, continually, to the solemn deep serious voices that give the blow by blow recount of the affairs of the world in these difficult and dangerous times, one ear cocked at all times. Life is precarious, these days, and the future unknowable. A bit of information filtered through the screams of distance and secrecy is a treasure.
Whistle while you work, I sing loudly, off key as I skip down the sidewalk, Hitler is a jerk. Mussolini is a meanie and the Japs are worse. This is the verse that is going around my school, a variation on the ditty sung by the seven dwarfs of Snow White. I wish to drown out the deep serious voices and their mournful rant of doom and gloom. My mother winces and I have no idea why. It is obviously a secret, another secret. Mom has a lot of these secrets.
The immense filthy flatulent bus expels a huge noisy black puff of noxious exhaust, and glances exchanged, a titter ripples across the pedestrians and shopkeepers who are united in wartime angst, a welcome respite from tension, stress, and tightly contained days. The bus continues on its way, rumbling and snorting. I continue skipping down the hill. I am now singing my daddy’s song, in a rasping deep throated imitation baritone. From the halls of Mont-e-zu-u-ma to the shores of Tri-po-li … the words roll senselessly from my mouth like a fountain of multicolored jellybeans … we will fight our country’s ba-at-tles, on the land and on the sea … My new mantra, louder and louder, becoming more and more distorted as the meaningless words are repeated mindlessly, breathlessly, over and over again, jolting, bouncing with each breath as I go ahead skipping with abandon as we nearly reach the corner. Don’t fall, be careful, sternly reprimands my mother, but she is smiling, thinking of other things. I believe that she is thinking that she is glad that he sent another record.
We follow the delightful fumes of pastry, which have at first blended with and then overwhelmed that of the bus exhaust as we have reached the corner, and enter the corner store, and Mommy is counting out her ration coupons, butter, eggs, milk, sugar, smiling happily. We are in Handscomb’s Bakery, and the heady combined aromas of baking, bread and cake and pastry, overwhelm the senses. Always for me this smell is associated with the feeling of love. My mother hands over her bounty of coupons and a small amount of money, retrieved from what is left after she has deposited her precious paycheck in the bank, and I receive my token of love, a Lindser tart. Sometimes, only rarely, she buys two. That’s how much she loves me. A Lindser tart, a concoction of raspberry jam between two giant circles of shortbread, a smaller circle cut out of the top one exposing the raspberry, the entire thing coated with powdered sugar, is a symbol that becomes engraved on my DNA, enmeshed in my atavistic memory for future generations, proof of love.
My mother takes my hand and we begin the long walk to Grandma’s house. It is an especially long hike for me, at five years of age, anyway. Down the long winding back road behind our red brick apartment building, under the fire escapes and past the dark cold institutional laundry room. It’s shorter this way, she says. This road is a kind of driveway, with parking spots on the building side, chain link fence covered by privet hedge and ivy hiding private homes on another street. What is a private home, I ask excited, not really caring. I am excited because we are going to Grandma’s. That means noodle soup and pletsela and apple cake. It’s not pie it’s cake, I am repeatedly told. There is a difference, even if it looks like pie. Pletzela are cookies made from leftover cake dough.
Maybe, if I’m lucky, Grandma will save me one of those teenchy little yellow eggs that she sometimes finds in the chicken, and cooks in the soup. If I am good, I get to eat the little yellow egg. I am not exactly certain just what that little egg is doing in the chicken. And what has happened to the shell and the gooky stuff? Maybe, I can watch the magical incantation of the lighting of the Friday candles for the Sabbath, Grandma’s head covered by a shawl as she rocks back and forth nearly inaudibly mouthing that familiar supplication. Maybe Grandpa will come home early from shule, and play with me. Not really play, like other days, because that would not be proper, but tell stories and hold me on his lap. You don’t play on the Sabbath, I know that. We have reached the end of the austere red brick city of Parkchester, the macadam walkways and chained in lawns, and we are almost there.
Then that last turn around the corner, real houses, a normal street, and there is the Kosher butcher beneath the apartment in a taxpayer Mommy calls it, a two-story storefront with living space above, hence the name, she explains patiently, teacher for the moment; it pays for the taxes on the property, or something, she answers my insistent curiosity impatiently. I’m not certain just what a tax is, but fearing yet another lecture, keep this to myself, but I know this place. This is where Grandma gets her chickens. I go with her sometimes on Friday morning, when I am staying with Grandma and Grandpa, when there is no one else to watch me. Today, there is no school, and so I am with my mother. It is a special day for me. No nursery school, just my mother and me, just girl time, my mother calls it. Girl time is all there is for us with Daddy still away. So we are going to Grandma’s house for dinner. The shop is closed now, because it is almost sundown on Friday, and soon the Sabbath will begin. My mother squeezes my hand, and we walk faster, swinging hands back and forth, bouncing a little as we walk. Every so often I find myself in the midst of an uncontrollable skip.
I glance in the darkened window, and think about my last visit there with Grandma. In the back of the butcher shop, is an old man with a long black beard, wearing a white coat that comes nearly to his ankles. Only his once highly polished black shoes show beneath the blood spattered coat, covered with the fine dust of many feathers. Feathers are all over the room, large medium and small fluffy wispy ones. The only job this man has, except for the ax thing, is to remove the feathers from the freshly killed chickens. In my naiveté I do not realize that a living creature has been killed just for my dinner. Grandma chooses the one she likes in the magical hidden back room, and he whisks it away with a flourish, its head, complete with pointy yellow beak, and long lolling neck flopping behind, and begins his job. I look from face to face, in order to gauge the mood of my compatriots, and both Grandma and the chicken flicker are serious, their faces austere and expressionless. They seem to be somewhere else in time and place. I watch, fascinated, as feathers fly in all directions. Soon it appears to be snowing gray chicken feathers, like when you shake one of those glass snow scene balls that hold the piles of papers down on Mommy’s desk. Grandma looks at my awed face, my huge eyes, and laughs, her entire body shaking with mirth. I join her, and soon, we are all laughing, including the stern-faced chicken flicker. The feathers stick to our wet faces, and cling to our clothes.
The entire time, they speak in that strange guttural language, Yiddish, that I hear most times when the entire family is together at Grandma’s house, or when Grandma and Grandpa are there together, and my mother. I recognize a lot of words, and understand some of it, but I cannot speak this language; the sounds get tangled between my tongue and my lips. I do believe that they laugh a lot, and they also argue, and scream at each other, a lot. Mommy says that this is because they love each other so much, but their loud voices frighten me, loud noises always frighten me. Sometimes I feel the need to hide under the dining table, already set for dinner, where I retire with a plate piled high with pletzela or apple cake when things get too loud for me. The ancient white embroidered table cloth hangs down almost to the floor, hiding me completely. No matter what happens, I feel loved, as long as there is cake left on my plate.
The bearded man in the long white coat carefully places the yellow egg with the small package of gizzard, neck, heart and liver, into the chicken. He throws in a few extra chicken livers, after a few murmured words from Grandma, shaking his head, yes. Grandma is going to make chopped liver. I feel a great smile taking over my body. My mouth is in a continual state of juiciness, as I think about the different delicacies that await me. He unrolls a length of reddish brown paper from a thick brown tube, and deftly spreads it on the huge wooden table, wrapping and folding and turning the chicken until it is a neat package, tied with a length of twine cut from a massive ball of the stuff that sits on a steel pipe attached to the table. He pulls two wiry-looking yellow three-toed chicken feet from somewhere under the paper, and wraps them separately. Grandma smacks her lips, and he smiles. Later, Grandma, Grandpa, my mother and all the uncles will fight over those feet. They will lick them and suck them and chew on them, with lots of noisy gusto. The thought makes me shudder. Don’t they know where those feet have been walking, and in what? Have they never been to the zoo? He takes Grandma’s large shopping bag from her, and carefully shoves the wrapped chicken down into the depths of it. After many polite exchanges of pleasantries and formalities, good wishes and blessings for all of their kin, alive and dead, they nod to each other, and we take our leave. My last sight is of him sweeping the shop, and once again he is enveloped in a cloud of soft feathers, like someone just shook the glass ball again.
Now, we go home to begin cooking. If I am lucky, Grandma will make an apple cake, and I will get to watch in awe as she peels the apples in one long fluid motion, leaving a single long curling strand of apple skin, which I am then permitted to eat. Then, I get to watch her make the dough for the crust. I stand close to the large wooden table, balancing, trying not to touch the surface. My nose barely reaches the top of it. She first makes a huge mound of flour, measures exactly one half of a jelly jar, the ones with the puffed out bottom, of sugar, onto the middle of the pile. Then she takes her fist and makes an indentation in the center of the pile, cracks an egg into that, and adds a dollop of oil. How much do you add, Grandma, I ask, making apple cake recipe notes in my head for the future, when I will make my own cakes, or maybe I will just tell Mommy about it so she can make some of those awesome cakes for us at home. A szhmenia, she says matter of factly. A szhmenia? I ask. What’s that? That’s how much you add. Isn’t that what you asked me, she says with surprise? Well, Grandma, I ask, what exactly is it, how do you know how much it is? Grandma holds her hand out, and places her thumb against her other four fingers which are all together, and she says a little bit testily, THIS, is a szhmenia. It’s just like a bissel, but different. A Szhmenia, she states emphatically! She takes my own small hand and attempts to place my uncooperative fingers in the correct position, finally giving up, kissing first my small hand on the inside and then closing it into a fist, on the knuckles, then the top of my head. Don’t worry, momala, a szhmenia is just a szhmenia. Oh, I answer aspiring to exude knowledgeability and wisdom, as if this was something I should have always known, that was automatically a part of my inherited store of knowledge.
She rolls out immense sheets of dough the size of the kitchen table on which she is rolling them, spreads them on even more immense cookie sheets, fills them with her suddenly appearing mixture of apple filling from an immense glass bowl, and covers it all with another sheet of dough. Great quantities of these filled cookie sheets materialize, and are rotated in and out of the steaming oven until every counter and table space is covered with the now cooling tins. It is as though she is being helped by the Sorcerers Apprentices, who are juggling and carrying apple cake cookie sheets instead of pails of water. She sprinkles them with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar. Later, as the odor of apples, sugar, cinnamon and cake fill the apartment, intoxicating me with their joyous promise, I watch as she cuts square after square, and I am speechless with wonder because each one is the exact size as the last, and she piles them on platters in two three, four five layers, towering creations of architectural and gastronomic delight. Grandma is a sculptor.
Later, the pungent comforting odors of chicken soup and apple cake mingling in the air; grandma begins the task of making noodles for her soup. She repeats the mounding of the flour, and the punching of the center, and the breaking of the egg, this time, eggs, but there is no sugar. Once again, she punches and kneads and finally rolls it all out with her long worn wooden rolling pin, and then the best part. She takes a long heavy knife from a drawer, and begins slicing noodles, so thin and fine and even, that I wonder how she is able to do it, but suddenly there is a mound of ultra fine noodles, chopchopchop chopchop, which she throws into a pot of boiling water. I take reams and reams of mental notes for my future. It looks so easy, Grandma, I say, do you think I could do that? Grandma smiles, and moves on to the next task, the chopped liver. Sometimes, when I stay over, grandma has a giant pot boiling on the stove, all night, and the strangest smell comes out of it. What’s that cooking all night, asks the nosy visitor, wrinkling that same freckled turned up nose? Gefilte fish, says grandma, smacking her lips. Do you remember that big fish, the carp, swimming in the bathtub yesterday? That is him, she says. I experience a moment of sadness for the executed fish. Sometimes, when grandpa is not there, she grates horse-radish and beets and mixes them together with vinegar, to put on the top of the cold fish cakes. Usually grandpa does this. I shudder, because I haven’t yet developed a taste for this particular delicacy, along with pickled herring and sliced onions in cream sauce.
Look what the postman brought you, says my mother, holding out a worn manila envelope, covered with the familiar strong black smartly angled slashes of alphabet letters that create names and addresses. I recognize my name, and our address. My mother, the consummate educator, has already taught me to read, to write both cursive and script. I recognize his sloping scrawl. Do you want to open it? I shake my head, no, looking downward.
I sit at a miniature replica dining room table placed in the corner of the bedroom that I share with my mother in our tiny wartime construction apartment. I am aware that she is watching me. I look with some awe at her familiar bronze chestnut hair swept up from the back, and twirled around to form a pompadour in front, then fastened in that familiar ’40s do. I can sense her sky blue eyes gazing tenderly at me, watching me at play. The table is set with tiny flower-patterned porcelain dishes and elaborately pattern stamped tin tableware; an assortment of porcelain-faced dolls in delicately hand-tailored ruffled dresses sit around the table as if waiting for refreshments. I am the mommy in this scenario, waiting to feed my babies. I may play at being mommy, but carefully wrought bronze sausage curls brought up to the rear of my head and held by a large taffeta bow, of pink, yellow, apple green and forget-me-not blue plaid, clearly define me as the child. One of my dolls wears the exact replica of my own outfit, an organdy pinafore, of pale yellow, embroidered with tiny rosettes and miniature pale green leaves, over a soft cotton dress with Peter Pan collar and short puffed sleeves. My mother has carried on the tradition of the old country, where you were a scholar, a teacher, a farmer, or a tailor. Her father and his father were farmers and furriers, tailors, her mother a seamstress. Although she is a teacher, atavistic memory, or just plain DNA has persevered, and her exquisite needlework does her ancestors proud.
My mother carefully rips the package open, removing a small round black disc. Daddy has sent you another song, she says, feigning delight, when it is easy to see that she is feeling only loneliness and despair. Do you want to hear it? Yes, I nod, obediently, and she pulls a shabby and faded nearly colorless square suitcase from beneath the bed, and opens the simple latch, producing a small phonograph. She takes the tatty electrical cord and plugs it into the wall. She places the black disc on the spindle, in the center of the turntable, and turns a black knob to a mark stamped on in tiny white letters against the faded brown faux leather. Meanwhile, I patently ignore both my mother and the phonograph, as with intense deliberation, I go through the elaborate charade of feeding each of the dolls tiny spoonfuls of air moving the spoon from miniature china cup to pursed porcelain lip.
There is a sudden burst of noise, a scraping, scratching sound, and a rough disarming static, and we both jump, startled, looking at each other. I giggle, and my mother smiles softly, indulgently, as our eyes lock. I can literally feel the current of love that passes between us. All at once we hear that familiar deep rich baritone, strictly a capella, from the halls of Mon-te-zu-u-ma to the shores of Trip-o-li, we will fight our country’s ba-at-tles, on the land and on the sea …
My mother wipes at a tear that trickles across her cheek, threatening to land on her only silk blouse, which she wears with each of her carefully tailored suits when she teaches her classes at P.S. 76, across the Bronx. In a corner next to an ancient Singer sewing machine, and an assortment of colored threads and sewing implements, there is an entire library of patterns: McCalls, Butterick, Vogue. She cannot pass a fabric store without entering, and despite vows of abstinence, never leaves without some fresh pattern or woven treasure tucked resolutely under her arm to add to her growing collection, visions of completed sewing projects dancing in her mind, creating a momentary respite from thought and daily stress. Some intense inner force has directed her to carefully choose the particular fabric she has used to create her smashing suit, from the vast stash of worsteds, wools, gabardines and more, that are carefully stored in dresser drawers, closet shelves, in an assortment of bags and cardboard boxes. My mother’s collections are everywhere.
I go back to feeding my dolls as if nothing has occurred, my face a tight mask. There has been no package, no record, no song; I have not heard the voice of my father, whose face I would not even remember if I did not have photos placed all around me; a dumb black plastic record is not my father. I force all thoughts of Daddy and records and songs from my mind. I am totally engrossed in my occupation, being the momma, and a great feeling of tenderness flows through me. But an instant later, a strange heat unexpectedly begins to seep through my body, up into my face. I am aware that I am clenching my eyes and cheeks. I cannot identify or control the emotions that rush up in me, but suddenly I am grabbing the disc from the twirling turntable, the needle is scraping across it, the grating, irritating sound is meshed with that of my fingernails skittering over the disc and I have knocked it to the floor, where it shatters, splitting into several jagged sections. There is a moment of absolute silence.
My mother carefully picks up the pieces. Daddy will send you another record; don’t worry, she says, with tense studied patience. It’s okay. I understand, she says. She puts one hand on her chest the other encompasses the cracked pieces of the record. Her face says that she feels as though a similar crack has begun to travel across her chest. She takes a deep breath, and continues blindly with her efforts to clean up the broken plastic pieces. Life goes on, she murmurs. There is a war on. She shoves the suitcase with its phonograph back under the bed. She leaves the room, overcome with emotion. I can feel that she does not want me to see her upset. I hug my own chest, needing to feel her arms around me, needing to absorb her warmth, to feel her consolation, but I am alone. Except I have my babies.
After my mother leaves the room I take a deep breath and purse my lips, sticking out my chin. I continue resolutely to pursue my favorite and customary occupation. I slip into the kitchen, push a chair over to the cupboard, and scan the assortment of foodstuffs in colorful cardboard boxes, finally choosing one. It will be baby food, anyway, no matter what its actual purpose was meant to be. Somewhere in another room I can hear the soft desperate sounds of my mother’s sobs. Ignoring them with quiet deliberation, I climb down, and carefully open the top of the box, spooning out two tablespoons of flakes, and then reverse my steps to return the box to its home. I add a few drops of water, fetched from the bathroom tap, to the flakes, mixing the mess until it has a creamy consistency. I proceed to feed my babies, for real, stuffing the truly nasty stuff into their delicate porcelain faces, between their tiny teeth, and down into their stuffed cloth bodies. I murmur customary little words of love and endearment, encouragement, and consolation so familiar to me, as I perform my maternal chore. I am so engrossed in my activity that I fail to hear my mother return.
What are you doing, asks my mother with a sharp edge to her voice, those dolls will be ruined. Already, a dark stain is spreading across their muslin chests. The actual value of material things appears to have a most serious importance. They’re not dolls, Mommy, I answer scathingly shaking my curls; they are babies, my babies. I kneel and put my arms around the bunch of them, drawing them together, pulling them out of their seats onto the table, upsetting the carefully arranged dishes, and sob into their collective meticulously fabricated artificial hairdos. And I will spoil them if I want to. And babies need real food, not just air, I think silently. Babies don’t need packages, and songs on records, babies need both a mommy and daddy. And babies need lots of hugs. Fat choking tears are welling up in a giant bubble in my chest; threatening to flood my cheeks. I don’t want any more presents, says the tiny voice in my head, I just want my daddy. I am unable to express these feelings out loud; they stick in my throat in a great loathsome lump.
I watch as my mother steels herself against the advent of my great sobs and sluices of tears that refuse to appear. I imagine that this is how she feels, missing Daddy, emotion welling up inside of her threatening to split her face, to explode from her mouth, her nose, her eyes, because this is how I feel. But I am as still and rigid and cold as one of my porcelain dolls, my face frozen into its familiar mask of sadness. I gulp silently and take a huge breath.
When I grow up, I say in my tiny singsong telling a story voice, mimicking my favorite storyteller, my mother, I’m going to have lots of babies; real babies. And they will have a mommy, me, and a daddy. And they will all be together, always, and they will love each other, and take good care of each other, and never be apart. The end, I say firmly.
My mother pulls me onto her lap, wraps her arms around me, her cheeks damp, her eyes dreamy and soft, her voice crooning love. When Daddy comes home, she says tenderly, we will buy a great big house in the country. Her eyes are somewhere far away as she reaches out to a side table piled high with papers and pulls out a huge familiar stack of magazines and pages neatly ripped from some of them, and we start looking through them. This is a familiar and comforting ritual to me, and I am very willing to play this game, sitting close to my mother, the warmth of her seeping into me through the fabric of our clothes, included in her world. Look at this, and this, and this. We dream about rooms, colors and patterns and fabrics, collections and accessories, French doors, furniture and patios, ponds and streams and waterfalls and gardens.
What about my baby sister, I ask her getting excited, joining her dream with mine, my brother. Can we get babies, too, real babies, for our new house?
My freckled pigtailed skinny little friend Linda who lives down at the end of the long institutional hallway in her family’s apartment behind the last door has come running toward me excitement pouring from every pore, eyes wide and bright, arms waving and askew, a huge smile splitting her lightly freckled face; guess what, she calls, my mother just came home, and we have a new baby sister. Come and see her, she cries out joyfully, and I follow silently sensing an immutable excitement rising in my chest. So I stand at the head of this white lace covered bassinette with its pink ribbons, its tiny lace trimmed pillow embroidered with a minute lamb and a pink and blue rose on one corner and stare at this tiny perfection that is Linda’s new baby sister, and miniscule seed is planted deep inside of me. I can feel it down there, a tiny tingling kernel of need and longing that begins to grow, has its own voice, demands to be heard. Baby dolls will no longer suffice.
My father’s record and my family of baby dolls fade into the distance with time. It is not the end of the story. It is a new beginning. One short year later, throbbing with longing, excitement and a not a little dread, I await a very special occasion. I clutch a large doll, dressed in a replica of my own outfit, under one arm. This is of course, a letter perfect WAC uniform, the cap sitting jauntily on my carefully newly bobbed hair. My brown oxfords are polished to perfection. My mother has created and sewn these outfits, mine and my doll’s. The occasion is the return of my father, from his five-year stint in Europe and France as an Army JAG officer, Judge Advocate General. My last memory of him, at one year of age, is watching him walk away from us, down the street in his captain’s regalia, on his way to serve. My only other recollections of him are faded and dog-eared photographs showing his compelling presence, his steady gaze, his thinly elegant Clark Gable mustache and his quirky devil-may-care Errol Flynn grin. Soon I will have the real thing not merely symbols of his existence.
Over the five long years of my father’s absence, mementos I hoard, guard with my tiny life, include a small white box containing two cotton bolls, purchased while he is in training in Georgia, a brown striped and polka dotted conch shell with my name engraved on it that roars like the ocean when you hold it to your ear, a tiny replica of a Swiss chalet music box, assorted postcards in his scrawling illegible handwriting, and the most memorable, those tiny plastic recordings of his deep baritone of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and the Marine Anthem, worn wafer thin.
We stand there, frozen in a family snapshot, my mother, her sister Etta, my uncle Herman, my grandma and grandpa, various family friends, and watch as Daddy strides down the sidewalk near our apartment complex in 1945 Bronx, New York, just after the glorious occasion of VE Day; Victory in Europe. We stand in front of the tall brick buildings that seem to go on forever, in this immense apartment house development spawned by the end of the war. I am overjoyed that my daddy whom I idolize is finally home, the image of him walking away has haunted me for so long. … I have no idea what lies ahead. At this moment, I cautiously keep my feelings to myself, as I have been taught. Parkchester, built and owned by Metropolitan Life Insurance, sports row after row of six-story red brick prison-like institutional buildings, kind of a bad Holocaust joke, and wide green lawns, surrounded by knee high steel posts swung with heavy chains, to delineate the macadam areas of traversal, and pristine lawn. The message is clear. Keep off the grass.
We are now post war, but everything in our lives is military, mimics the military. Daddy’s military presence manifests itself in his posture, his bearing, and would have been sufficient to identify him as a returning armed forces personage, without the uniform, the crisply rimmed captain’s cap; his brisk six-foot stride bespeaks his military identity. I watch him approach, a mixture of pride and terror choking me. We wait, the entire family, as his figure, tiny in the distance, grows larger and larger as he grows nearer. And then there he is, standing right in front of us. I want to shrink into the forest of warm sturdy legs behind me, but I am my father’s daughter, and thus also a soldier, am I not? And soldiers are brave. As he draws near, I step forward, offer him my gift, a well practiced crisp salute; as I salute my daddy smartly my spaniel eyes are mirroring all the woes of the world. He salutes back, sharply, his emotions well hidden, and his visage stern. The photo of us together on that day, shows me, huge sad eyes and tight lips, and becomes the poster to my life from that day forward. Is he touched, amused, happy? No one knows. At least, I don’t.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
I wander again to the backyard worktable to sort bits of colored glass and tesserae, jars of pigment, pieces of patterned paper and exotic foreign language newsprint, odds and ends of strangely shaped wood scraps, rescued orphan knick knacks, canvases and frames, planning even more new projects, keeping busy refusing to think about anything, pretending again, still, to forget what day it is. I need to lose myself in my work.
I have set up a large worktable under a cantilevered umbrella in that small corner tucked between my barn and the studio, bordered by a hedgerow of privet to hide the mess from neighbors and approaching visitors, where I can smash crockery that I have been accumulating all winter. Smashing dishes is truly therapeutic when demons descend and memories attack. Could that be why I have so extensive a collection? There are enough packed jars and other receptacles to fill a decently sized library. I’m talking about large rooms with wall to wall, floor to ceiling shelves. The sheer volume of tesserae-filled jars is bizarre, frightening. If I live to be three hundred and seventy years old, I think, I will never use up all this stuff. But I continue collecting and smashing anyway. Why do I do this? Why is everything I do always couched in groups, series, multiples, and masses?
We make our way over to the huge superstructure that is the earsplittingly noisy and frightening elevated train system, the 177th Street Elevated, climb the high, deep, concrete and steel stairs to the elevated platform, and wait for our train. I shrink in terror from the platform edge, and cringe when I hear the loud, raucous train approaching. Once aboard, we sway from side to side as we race across the borough of the Bronx, and glide finally downward into the stifling black tunnel that is New York City at its best. Manhattan, Downtown; we live Uptown, in the Bronx. We swerve and rock and bump our way across the Bronx until we enter the underground system somewhere approaching Manhattan where we now bounce and roll some more until with damp and shaken marrow, we arrive at our destination. I sit on the highly varnished woven wicker seats, my legs dangling, feet barely above the floor, picking the perpetually regenerating scabs on my knees, and wish myself anywhere but here. My natural clumsy tomboy self dreads the tutu-ed humiliation that awaits me in ballet class; my soul dreads the discordant errors that seem impossible to avoid when my banana bunch hands refuse to find the proper mellifluous sequence of piano keys. To my ears, I butcher Prelude, Concerto, and Symphony alike with equal opportunity destruction, and yet my mother glistens and glows with pride when I can be cajoled and sometimes bullied to play the piano for company or in concert. There is an endlessly present pressure for me to excel, to compete with the extraordinariness that surrounds me.
My mother is, in our family circle, known as a mensch, a balabusta, a prodigious woman of many talents, amazing energy. Today, she takes her educator persona and her sad-faced offspring on an expedition of higher learning. In the early 1940s, as war still rages in the European theater where my father is stationed, my mother dresses me in what I recall as my Saturday trip-to-the-city uniform. A red felt roller hat covers my once curly now suddenly stick straight permed and overdressed, for a five-year-old child, hair, matches my red chinchilla coat purchased at Russeks of 39th Street on sale; my hand-tailored by Mom coral, orchid and teal plaid, copied from something she has seen at Saks Fifth Avenue, taffeta and velvet dress, crisp white knee socks that refuse to cling to my narrow calves, and my treasured black patent leather shoes, in whose surfaces I can clearly see my reflection.
I am easily reconstructed but it takes some time for Mom to put herself together into that perfect bandbox state of being, and she is nothing if not efficient. I always watch her ministrations to face and fashion with awe. To this day I have never been able to duplicate or come close to that elegant Vogue look, no matter how I try. She is the quintessential stylish lady of the world, as presented by the most highly revered woman’s fashion magazines, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, which she voraciously devours. Beneath her perfectly fitted two-piece suit, basis for the entire svelte look, is—what is called in these days—a garment; a rigid elastic and rubber concoction of underwear that smoothes and constrains flesh that is not on board with the agenda of the day. Gone is the bra-less mini-skirted free and easy flapper of a few short years ago, pre-Great Depression, pre-war. No longer is her lovely face framed by that helmet of wild curls, every hair of her blond pompadoured upsweep is in place. She sports another of her many matched suites of bejeweled costume necklace, earrings. The ever present color-coordinated patterned silk scarf twirls softly around her neck and drapes across her collar and over her shoulder, secured as usual by a pin from the suite. My Mom is not only beautiful, stunning, she is perfect. She is a movie star. This is, I know, the gold standard. I feel shabby and worthless next to her. And although I adore her, I would rather be anywhere else than with her on this despised and very familiar voyage.
We leave as early as possible in the morning, after a suitably nourishing breakfast of pancakes fashioned into cartoon images, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, bunnies, cats and dogs, to please me, or French toast cut with cookie cutters, drenched in jelly and syrup, creativity in everything she touches, an elaborate gesture of her love, in continuing family tradition of food as love, a reminder that to be creative is a way of, an intricate part of, the meaning of life.
I lope along picking at my recalcitrant socks which aspire to locate under my arches deep in my shiny shoes trying to keep up with her, skipping and hopping, roller hat bouncing, straining the elastic that is tucked under my chin. She always has our itinerary planned right down to the last detail, and every moment is carefully articulated and scheduled. I know this because she explains it all to me when we are spending intimate mother-daughter time together sewing, styling hair and painting nails, cooking and baking. Saturday is the only time she has to accomplish her ambitious goals, because she needs Sunday to grade the increasingly regenerating piles of papers for her English classes. Although I loathe all this organizing, I fall automatically into her habit, and it persists throughout my own life.
Every morning she travels cross Bronx by crowded noxious bus, hanging onto leather straps to keep from falling against her fellow commuters although there is little chance of that given the sardine like packing together of passengers. She struggles gamely to reach the East Bronx school where she teaches. She is a dedicated teacher, who loves her work, but who suffers through an ongoing love/hate relationship with the complicated policies, relationships and political atmosphere of the New York City school system until the day she retires. She is as poor a politician as my father is genius. He is the one with the practiced poker face, the attorney’s silver tongue, I have heard.
But at this time, my father has still not returned from his stint in the European theater during the horrific sequel to the war to end all wars. We girls are on our own. And Mom, the quintessential educator, will not be stopped from doing her thing. Her only child, that would be me, will have access to the best and most extensive of cultural education, access to every possible opportunity that an educated cultural life can provide. I am not convinced of this, of the reason or value of it, and I resist gamely. In my mind, I am roller skating up and down the macadam pathways of our apartment house development, avoiding the heavy chained fence that protects the forbidden green lawn; I am pushing doll carriages with my friend Ruthie, playing the proud mama, tending to my carefully appointed baby dolls, practicing for a later day; and other Saturday occupations of childhood that are left there in the real world, left behind tantalizing, just out of my reach.
What do I understand of first generation American thinking and goals, educate your children, give them every opportunity to succeed? Provide them with everything that you do not have, and want with all your heart and soul and are powerless to obtain for you? My mother has the education, I will acquire that plus all of the embellishment, fulfill all of her dreams. In her perfect world, I will obtain the security she prizes by becoming a teacher, just like her, in addition to those dreams. She has it all planned. My head spins; I am assailed by a moment of pure terror.
When I am small and still have those fat golden sausage curls, she tells me longingly it seems that I am the next Shirley Temple. Later, there is a new chant. You look just like Margaret O’Brien, she qvells, pulling at my skirt, patting my hair, you’re going to be such a star. There is a strange sense of yearning in her voice. Part of our itinerary as far back as I can remember is the compulsory attendance at every child star movie that graces the silver screen. It gets so that the sight of America’s little darlings and the sounds of their perky tinkling voices sends chills through me, embryonic feelings of inadequacy do battle in my chest and stomach. Envy and despair follow.
The more my parents praise me, the more they expect from me, the more I shrink into myself, until there is nothing left but an unheard cry for help.
You look just like a movie star, she says once more as though repetition will make it so as we march rapidly down Fifth Avenue. I struggle to keep up. I twist to look in the carefully designed and elaborately appointed Sacks window or Bests or some other, as we pass at a rapid clip, trying to keep up with Mom’s determined sprint. The windows fly by. It is like looking at a landscape through a train window. What I see in disjointed spots of reflection separated by a succession of window frames is a plain faced, freckled, knobby-kneed straight-haired, despite Mom’s frenzied attempts to the contrary, child, with big sad eyes, a rather desperate look, staring back at me.
At Christmas time she takes me on a grand tour of department store windows, the entire gamut fifty ninth street to fourteenth covering Fifth Avenue across to Second and I gaze with wonder at animated mannequins in splendid dazzling holiday attire involved with cherubs, elves, Santas and reindeer pulled sleds filled with toys and gaily wrapped sparkling packages and masses of darling animals; trains careening over intricate tracks and plethora of stars and moons in deep navy skies, everything covered with glitter and magic. On some frigid Saturday mornings she brings me to ice skate at Rockefeller Center in that small enclave deep down in this city canyon surrounded by immense office buildings, guarded over by the annual sixty or so foot glowing Christmas tree. I stumble gamely on bending ankles to make the obligatory rounds, a frigid smile pasted on my face, wiping my forever slowly dripping nose with clumsy mittened fingers and I am rewarded afterward for my efforts with a steaming cup of hot chocolate.
On Thanksgiving Day 1945 we charge through the massive roiling throngs to attend the Macy’s Day Parade which has been cancelled for the war years and has finally returned and I delight at the giant inflated balloons, Mickey Mouse, Harold the Clown, Felix the Cat, and my favorite, the entire family, mama, papa and baby; for moments I can even see beyond the crowds, become accustomed to the smell of damp overcoats and the rapidly intensifying lack of sensation in frozen limbs and nose.
On our other customary itinerary, once we arrive downtown, we begin the ritual dance. Her menu for the activities of the day reads like a Gilbert and Sullivan operatic anthology program. My focused and creative mother is the very model of a modern major general; she’s got a little list, and they’ll none of them be missed. It is the period of my life when I am being prepared for the cultural life; the day consists of long stunning tedious sessions listening to the Young People’s Concerts, at Carnegie Hall, on 57th Street.
We lunch, my especially best part of the day at the Hamburger Train on 57th Street or Schraft’s, on 5th Avenue and 46th Street or my real favorite, the Automat where I get to put nickels into a slot and spin a glass cage around to access my choice, and share a table with strangers. Schraft’s milk served in long thick glassware bulbous at the top (the direct opposite of my grandmother’s jelly jars to which I have grown accustomed) always seems to be lukish warm and thickish, with little floating bits of cream, which makes my stomach rebel. And the place itself is dark and crowded and filled with some other sort of unfamiliar people whose noses appear pinched tightly by invisible clothespins. Mom always cranes her neck this way and that, looking, looking, what is she looking for? The answer is celebrities, who frequent this place. Mom is enchanted by celebrity. At the Hamburger Train, I am excited as our lunch arrives at our place at the counter on a tiny railroad car following the tracks that edge the perimeter of the countertop. The day continues with my piano lessons, piano theory and creative composing in Julliard and in the Carnegie Hall building. Then my ballet and interpretative dance lessons at Dalcroze School of Music. I hold my breath as the brass accordion gate of the elevator closes us in followed by the slamming steel door and the clanking swaying of the stifling confining box. I feel my stomach plummet to my feet as the sudden motion leaves part of me behind, for a horrible moment, and my ears pop.
Friday afternoons after school I am brought to art classes at the MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) for drawing and painting lessons. On alternate weeks when the Saturday morning concerts are not scheduled, I am ensconced in classes at the Art Students’ League, also on 57th Street taught and surrounded by renowned artists of the day, Adoph Gottlieb, Hans Hofman, George Grosz, Franz Kline, Morris Lewis, figure drawing and water color. I will be educated in the varied tenets of the arts, damn it, if it is the last thing my mother does. With a helpless stoicism, I follow gamely along. I like this a bit better than the music stuff, or the marathon shopping tours that fill the Saturdays that are without lessons and concerts.
Mom is focused. She is always on a mission. Shopping trips, concerts and lessons, music and art; my mother marches along to a pounding determined rhythm that only she herself hears, pulling me along hopping and skipping frantically in her wake. Actually, the art thing is good; it touches something deep inside me.
But the music of those Saturday morning Young Peoples’ Concerts at Carnegie Hall plays inside my head, also, and make no mistake, I am beguiled by, drawn to the music. The wolf stalks Peter, bombom bomp, bombom bomp, da, da, da, da, da, da DAH! I am enchanted by Peter and the Wolf. Flutes delicately evoke dawn in the forest, and eyes closed, I am right there, lured into The Hall of the Mountain King. We the audience of kids, willing and unwilling, arrive at the huge ornate concert hall en masse, captive of our parents’ dreams and plans, of enforced culturization; small children, restless disinterested; but our attention is seized in a moment and we catch our collective breath as a huge screen descends slowly from the curtained valance across the stage and the music begins, swiftly illustrated by a cartoon. It is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and it captivates me, enchants me, becomes a part of me; accompanies me for the rest of time. There it is again, I always cry out with joy; they have the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, today.
The music still sounds in my ears, that relentless marching cadence as the clever brooms carry their pails of water from the sorcerer’s flooded lair. Again and again, faster and faster; I am mesmerized, there is something about the imagery, the frantic stick figure brooms with their bouncing flailing and hellishly splashing water pails, the race against time set to the strong compelling music of Tchaikovsky that becomes a part of me; This is a significant lesson for me to learn; it is the lure of the visual that reaches me. A tiny invisible creature bursts into being within me, smiling and wielding a baton, or is it a long paint brush? Follow me, it says, and skips and floats above me beckoning
I become aware of a subtle implicit promise, a reinforcement of that notion tickling my senses and hopes that there surely is some higher albeit momentarily unseen power to whom one may look for strength in what I am beginning to see as an overwhelmingly overbearing world.
Soon it becomes evident that I am never really alone. The call of my muse is as insistent as the relentless march of those maniacal ramrod brooms. The more the ideas come, the faster and more feverishly I work…the more and longer I work, the more the ideas come. Ultimately, my art becomes more real to me than my world. My world itself is always repugnant enough to send me rushing back to my work, until the work itself becomes the reality.
Years later, my babies arrive, it seems, as if planned and delivered by the sorcerer’s apprentices, rapidly, one after the other; a series of stepping stones. There is nothing I won’t do for them; my love for them overwhelms me. I look at them, one at a time or all in tandem, and an indescribable surge of emotion rises up from my soles until it reaches my throat where it sticks, choking me. Yet, I resist all pressure to follow with my mother’s program. I offer my children, instead, the peace of mind and free will to seek their own goals, joys, and satisfactions. Maybe they feel deprived, who knows? But my mother is not deterred. That generation later, my mom takes my own children to see the classic Disney production, Fantasia, which contains the same Sorcerer’s Apprentice imagery in one part of it. She happily applies her program seamlessly to the next generation, taking up the gap that I have created in my attempts to free my own children from what, in my own mind, I see as enforced tedium. With typical tunnel vision and selective blindness, I fail to see how it has all influenced me.
Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset; swiftly go the years…I made a choice to avoid competition out of fear of failure. There were paths to take, and I chose the easy one, fell into the welcoming arms of a fantasy which had been programmed into my head and mind since as far back as I am able to remember…
Life continues, things change; my need becomes desperate as I struggle alone to fulfill my responsibilities. And struggle it is. Finally, a mother of six then seven, absent support or aid, I earn the money needed to cover their daily needs with my art, producing paintings like those relentless, focused brooms, one after the other, again and again. The canvases lean one upon the other in my bedroom turned studio, like a construction of playing cards, or dominoes.
I develop methods of mass production to satisfy my quota and keep the coffers filled, keep my babies safe and sound. I practice intense mental exercises to promote inventive thinking so that I will always have new ideas, in order to keep the mercurial market interested, the paintings moving and selling, my bank account solvent, and the larder stocked. I work like this for so many years, so intensely, that my method becomes a part of me and of my art itself. The medium becomes the message. While I agonize over lost time, lost direction, my lost art career trapped in the ongoing battle for survival I produce my work prodigiously, and develop many individual and combined media and methods, and accumulate a mammoth collection of works; experiments, and leftovers that have not sold; new ideas never implemented. There is an entire other world out there, a world of art operating on a different plane of existence, as I bather babies, find and lose love, seek security, drown in the loss of days and years, sink further and further into depression, lose more and more of the tiny remaining fragments of myself. I am drowning in art, stuff, forever moving here and there. Perpetual motion; inevitably I actually morph into a Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Here I am once again, a cringing child, in my old familiar seat behind my father. The musty smell of old upholstery, tobacco smoke, and discarded food wrappers makes me gag. My stomach is clenched as I fight back the familiar nausea. I have automatically closed my window, even though my father no longer mouths, chews, sucks, those awful rolls of dried tobacco called cigars; he has rediscovered, instead, his old pipe collection, and now sucks on one of these. Now I do not need to fear the advent of explosive spittle carried from the driver’s open window to mine; I will not need to mop slimy gobs of it from my cheek. In the background, my father’s favorite radio station mews plaintively, A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces…the melancholy melody, the words of the song hit me like barbed steel darts…
We must have crossed the borough of Queens in record time, Daddy’s well worn Oldsmobile weaving and ducking the Kennedy airport traffic, threats and curses shouted and, the usual… son of a bitch, what the fuck do you think you’re doing? Fuck you, anyway… BEEEEEEP… but I am so numb, so petrified, I register nothing. Trickles of sweat travel downward from my armpits, and yet I feel a chill that goes beyond weather. I am feeling adrift without Eddie, who has been unable to be here to support me today. There is an empty space in my world where his dark, svelte, striking Latino presence should be. I am forced to face this travesty alone, feeling as though yet another of my limbs is missing. I have my hastily scribbled notes clutched in my hand, along with the Blueback covered Order to Show Cause…a demand for me to appear before a court to explain why I am not unfit to care for my six children. Legalese tends to parse its venom in the negative. I am being charged with abandonment, with being unfit as a mother for this reason. Now my six abandoned children packed like sardines in a can, sit silently beside me, except for Tracy, now three, who is snuggled in a nest of my arms, on my lap. There is no squirming today, no whining or quibbling. …An airline ticket to romantic places…
A shiver skitters through me. Daddy maneuvers the moribund Olds through varieties of side streets, between a motley assortment of wide craters and deep looming crevices, over weather and rutted wear ruined Queens’s streets, and into Nassau County, whose roads are just barely better. He knows his way around. He also knows his way around the law, although he hasn’t practiced law since his graduation with honors way back in the Great Depression. But he sports his usual confident, arrogant façade. He will know what to do, I have faith. Not so sure if my faith runs to the high powered attorney that we have retained to defend me.
Are we here yet? Kevin, five, true to form, asks the inevitable question, breaking the unbearable silence, and we all chuckle. I murmur the inevitable answer, yes, Kevin, we are right here. More rapid laughter, that fades quickly, breaks off in an instant leaving a enormous silent vacuum in its wake. This is a most serious and threatening time.
A pregnant silence… Oh how the thought of you clings… We move silently through a canyon of ancient buildings, taxpayers and storefronts with businesses that have existed for eons. Auto parts, Chinese take-out, Family Deli, Laundromat, Real Estate, Insurance… These establishments are labeled in an assortment of languages. The Hispanic ones catch my eye first, touch deep buttons leading to nostalgic sensations. Flashes race across my mind of another place, if I squint I can believe that I am there, and then quickly I am back in Queens. An effluvium of litter, garbage, is met by indifference. Faded brick, windows clouded with years of exhaust fumes that have solidified into a uniform gray muck. Some of them are boarded up, or show for rent signs. I barely notice, as I barely notice the throngs of humanity moving en masse, bobbing and weaving along the route, people going about their daily business on a bright June morning in the year 1970. Sad, preoccupied people, concerned with the business of surviving. None of them I muse, my thoughts centered on myself and my predicament has ever had to face a day such as this. I am encased in my personal horror; no one exists outside of it.
These simple things, remind me of you…Eddie, I whisper somewhere deep inside my head feeling monumental pangs of guilt for even this slight momentary act of perceived disloyalty. Where are you today, what are you doing that could possibly be so important that you have been unable to be here with me on this earth shattering day to support me?
White letters on the archetypal green sign at the side of the street declare that we are approaching the Mineola Courthouse, bile rises in my throat, bitter tasting, acidic, burning my throat and mouth. What am I doing here? How has this happened? What if Steve really takes the children away from me? Phrases flit through my mind, they never take children away from the mother, and then another, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know…Step right up, place your bet. Pick a winner, Ladies and Gentlemen, choose your poison. Who will take the prize? Prizes; six children are the grand prize.
How did this happen? What am I doing here?
I do not recall Daddy parking the car, but that long walk up stone stairs bordered by vast lawns and elaborate shrubbery and early multi-hewed summer flower borders, perennial and annual so reminiscent of my own garden, stands out in my memory; I glimpse peripherally masses of violets hugging the edges with their characteristic abandon, in obdurate stillness. It is my last mile; I sense with a sudden chill the inevitability of some manner of capital punishment awaiting me at the end. I feel numb, flanked by Mom and Dad, who have each put an arm through one of mine, and they all but carry me into the huge building. I sense their concern, their support, but I am not comforted. An image flashes somewhere in the tangled wiring in my mind of the day of my wedding to Steve, when they escorted me down the aisle in similar fashion, my feet barely touching the ground. They cavalierly feign certainty, confidence they do not feel. But they never take children away from the mother. I hang onto the mantra, mindlessly.
I see a massive, dark, carved wood door open, and we are propelled inside as if by some unseen force. I feel my insides shrivel, my mind go blank; blanker that it already is but for the occasional memory flash. Now I have to pee. Why do I always need to pee? Incongruously, I hear Daddy’s voice in the far distant past, I want you to eat every carrot and pea on your plate, wrinkle my nose with the unsettling memory. Can I make it to a restroom, and back again without crumpling into a pile of useless refuse, dissolving into fragments? How will I get through this, I ask silently? My mother glances at me, sideways. She is about to cry, at any moment. Daddy is grim-faced, resolute. I don’t remember how I manage to make it happen, but somehow I maneuver myself inside the courtroom. Massive walls, uncountable juxtapositions of polished mahogany paneling and elaborate crown molding, sturdy deeply stained wooden conference tables buffed to a mirror-like finish, a higher than high podium for his Honor, the Judge. In God We Trust, engraved in huge larger than life gold Roman capitals shouts its message from above the podium, just beneath the ceiling. Surreal; I am overwhelmed by the impact of icy cold pomp and circumstance, completely intimidated by architecture, massive and austere. Where am I going on this next voyage, a small voice asks deep inside me? Don’t worry, says the oily voice of my well paid attorney as if responding to my internal query, they don’t take children away from the mother.
I glance over at Steve, and his attorney, tightlipped and confident, smug and righteous. I am gripped by a sense of terror greater than any sensation I have ever felt before, many times greater than that first crushing labor contraction that signaled incredible pain yet to come. At least that pain was finite, was precursor to getting a baby; this is the signal for interminable loss, for the beginning of the end, the access to a dark place of perpetual ever downward spiraling loss. Eddie’s absence is a glaring neon sign, creates a visible vacuum. Steve’s sister Elaine, and his father Aaron, are sitting behind Steve, as my parents sit behind me. They, however, are fat cats, and their smug faces tell me that they have already swallowed the canary. I imagine them licking cream from their whiskers, or canary feathers. I am the canary, drowning in cream. Steve has learned an immutable lesson at his father’s knee. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. How many conversations have I overheard at Bar Association meetings held at my home, where I was the caterer, the scullery maid, and the waitress, invisible to the membership at large? Who would have ever known that this would be the final proving point of Aaron’s grand theory, to be validated on the head of the mother of his grandchildren and at their expense? Steve’s attorney glances over, and winks at mine, a wink, so slight and delicate as to barely be visible. I have served him drinks in my own living room. I have been sitting across the table from him at Kiwanis dinners. Ice rather than blood is racing through my veins.
Oyez, oyez, this session of the Supreme Court in and of the Town of Mineola, in the County of Nassau, in the State of New York, is now in session. A case like this one should be about to be heard according to protocol and statute in Family Court in Suffolk County, where we all live, instead it is being heard in Mineola Supreme, where Steve has his very carefully nurtured business contacts. You would think this would instigate immediate red flags, would be an obvious enough ploy to contest, but it is a classic Catch 22, impossible to fight this issue in this particular venue. I slide down in my seat, a crumpled bundle of defeat. His Honor, the judge, is a member of the same Bar Association of which Steve has been vice president. I have shaken his hand, in the day, at one or the other Bar Association or Knights of something dinner: Columbus, Pythias? This is a show. There is no way I can win this battle. Maybe, hopes an inveterate Pollyanna, I am imagining all this. Maybe everything will be all right. Maybe Steve will realize…
He is a good person, an honorable man, whispers Pollyanna in my ear, he would never do that to his beloved children, or to me, not even to me. Take my babies away. He would never separate children from their mother. He once represented a streetwalker, a drug addict in one of his rare court appearances, who was being sued for custody by her child’s father, fought with devout intensity and morally indignant certainty, and won for the mother. Imagine that. They never take children away from the mother, he said almost piously, puffed to overflowing with the pride of success, at the time. The Steve I fell in love with so many years ago could not commit an act like that. I attempt to convince myself, but my own words fall on hollow ears. That is the reason we are here, indeed. My nerves are strung so tightly that I fear their imminent strained splitting. Steve takes the stand.
Mr. Heffner, are you the petitioner in this proceeding? His attorney, Gabe Kohn, his solid presence enhanced by gray silk suiting, crisp button down shirt and elegant sky blue tie, his large florid coarse featured face framed by masses of thick gray tipped bronze hair begins questioning his client. The atmosphere in this immense hall is so tense and fraught with emotion that Gabe’s skillfully framed words echo like gunshot in the icy silence, echo threateningly in the large court room….
Are you an attorney?
Admitted to practice in the State of New York?
Where do you maintain your office?
Jamaica Avenue, New York.
Were you and the respondent married on June 15, 1958?
Where did the marriage take place? Kew Gardens Hills, New York.
Did you have children of that marriage? Yes. Are they the subject of this proceeding?
From Book I…
From Book I…