Post #62: Wunderkammern

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Oh she was sublime! Bubbly Judy Holliday was at once like every one of us and at the same time like no one else. Blond and vivacious, wacky and lovable she ignited the big screen like a brilliant bauble in everything from Adam’s Rib to Born Yesterday to Bells Are Ringing. But I love her best in a small, quirky little movie, It Should Happen to You.

Have you seen it? Oh come on! You must!

It is not fancy movie, no grand pretensions. It’s not even a musical, although there is one lovely little number when Judy croons “Let’s Fall in Love” with a piano playing Jack Lemmon.

It Should Happen to You is a story of deep yearning. A twentyish New Yorker named Gladys Glover, buffeted and bruised from the humdrum of daily living, determines that for a moment, for a heartbeat, for an instant she will rise from the ranks of the insignificant and become known. That her name — Gladys Glover — will be on everyones lips.

And so she gathers her life savings of a thousand dollars and purchases a billboard in Columbus Circle with her name in gigantic letters. She is thrilled. For one week, the name of Gladys Glover is spoken about, wondered about, gossiped about. She has done it. She is famous. She is thrilled.

Until she is not.
**

This week I unexpectedly find myself temporarily anchored in the city I’ve loved for a lifetime. The lights still beckon. Towering night lights from my window soothe me still.

So many years ago like so many others I cartwheeled head over heels into the arms New York. Like a skittering handful of jacks spilled from a cupped palm we hit the ground hard. What a place! We would make names for ourselves. We would be famous! The city would be ours. We craved it. We loved it.

Look up, we’ll see the lights of the Empire State, of the Citicorp, of the Chrysler! Look down we are expert at spying lucky pennies to scoop into our pockets. Hurrying hurrying hurrying we scurry furtively from street light to street light, huddled into great coats, slogging through slush.

Judy Holliday looked up and unexpectedly saw the lights in the eyes of Jack Lemmon. I looked way up and unexpectedly found mine in a pair of warm, kind eyes behind a pair of round tortoise shell glasses.

How many times had we walked obliviously right by each other, on 2nd Avenue? Amsterdam? 72nd Street? And yet, finally together we were swirled into a wunderkammern, our own cabinet of exotics and wonders, filled to the bursting with baseball cubes and board games, subway signs and teapots, pokemon card after pokemon card and book after book after book after book. So so many and never ever enough. Our lives together are a wunderkammern – a collection of weirdnesses and wonders, jumbled together in a way that makes sense to no one but us. But it’s ours.

My name flickering in lights? Why? Why when there is so much else?

In the way it was meant to happen it happened to me. In whatever way it is meant to happen then, it should happen to you.

Post #61: Sprung from Joy

img_9756So naturally, against all odds of sanity, I went and did it.  Tossing aside the whole curriculum for day:  ruminations about Scout and Atticus gently pushed aside, Socratic discussions about the military prowess of Hannibal and the ethical conundrums of Cato and Carthage quietly reburied, mystical revelations of the Sistine Ceiling  temporarily shrouded.  We all needed it.  A screeching halt to the studies of the present for a zip line into the past.

With a snap of a switch the room was mote filled and dusky. My class comfortably settled into their seats like souffles sweetly deflating by an oven door opened a few moments too soon. An old movie. A perfect film.  A Christmas Carol, Alastair Sim version, 1951.

Over three full class periods,  we were all swept back in time to Dickens’ 1840s London and the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a tale worth telling again and again.

You know the story as well as I do.  A crotchety, miserly old man, furious with with life and with the world around him,  is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future. And he is changed.

At last with a whirr and a click,  the movie ended. I left the lights low. There wasn’t a sound.  And  suddenly from the back of the room, from the darkness a voice rang out, “So you tell me, Mrs. Frank, just what took that man so long to figure out how to be good?”

Hmm. To tell you the truth, I was wondering the same thing.

So here we are, hardwired into the present.  I’m late to work, I’m fussed about getting to the grocery store, I should have responded to that last phone call, I haven’t cleaned out that closet.  I meant to read the book.  That bill is late, the gas gauge is on empty, I need to make  dinner, I must fold the laundry.

Where am I going?  Who is mad at me for what? Where are the cats?

Most readers or viewers think, I think, that Scrooge was terrified into reforming his ways and living life as it was meant to be lived by the glimpse into his dank and horrible future.  But what if  it’s the return to the the loving and warm memories of his sweeter past that  truly changes Scrooge?  Perhaps Scrooge changes because of the reminder of love. Not the specter of fear.  In other words, it’s the memory of beauty and kindness that allows Scrooge to live and be embraced by his present and to move him forward.

Was Scrooge’s error to flatten his life,  making his present all encompassing, instead of what it truly is, a breath, a heartbeat, a mere whiff of time narrowed between past and future?

So what took him so long?  What takes any of us so long? 

Mired in the present, I push myself toward memory a lot. I think about memory not because I’m afraid of forgetting the happinesses past. Wrapping myself in the afghan of memory for me is a celebration of the joy of remembering. I remember to recapture joy.  Moreover, I am an expert at sieving memory, retaining all that is meant to be retained. And that joy is what hopefully catapults us toward the future.

So in the new year, a season of hope and of light. join me and raise a glass and  toast to the goodnesses of the past and to power of memory.  Be bold, be brave. Recreate your past world to create the world anew. Fling yourself forward, sprung from past joys!

Post #60: Darwin on the Porch

img_1469I pry my eyes wide open. For safety’s sake  I’m sleeping in my glasses. I always sleep in my glasses.  I need to see. I desperately need to see.  But it’s so dark I might as well have kept my eyes closed.

It’s so dark! It’s so, so dark!

I catch my  breath. Then the little thoughts  begin to pelter me like hailstones, icy little balls rat-a-tatting  at me.

I should have called him.

I started to read but I stopped.

Why didn’t I do the dishes last night?

That picture has been crooked on the wall for a week.

The crags of unfolded laundry are piled higher and higher. Unputaway

The cobwebs reach delicately, achingly from corner to lamp and then arch back again.

“I want this!  I need this!  You’re late!!”

I’m already afraid for the mistakes of the day I’m yet to make.

I struggle from the swirled tidepool of my bedsheets.

Down the stairs, into my coat, out the door,  onto the porch.  Once there I stop. For a moment or two I can’t even breathe. But I can hear it.

It’s so long since I’ve really heard silence.

The air is moist, comfortingly heavy and sweetly enveloping.  Each breath feels as if I’m swallowing rich mouthfuls of a malted. I breathe slowly — not to be too greedy.

I know this place so well.  The ragged hedge, the tufted and tousled  grass, the barebranched trees jubilantly stretching their limbs, grateful to  at last shaken free the leaves that form a crunchy carpet below.

It’s all solid, all respectful, all tolerant. How can a place feel patient?

But here for a few moments, nothing is asked of me. I am not judged. I am quietly welcome.

That’s all there is. But then, that’s all I wanted.

***

In December of 1831 Charles Darwin boarded The Beagle to begin a five year voyage of discovery that would take him from the Canary Islands to the Galapagos to New Zealand.  Was he equal parts exhilarated and exhausted,  roiled by the ocean, burned by the equatorial sun, embraced by the arms of the sky?  The only naturalist on board FitzRoy’s vessel, he was separate from the seamen, always alone, straining to hear the sounds of quiet.  Away from the onslaught of the world, through jungles and trauma and terrors,  he still possessed one of the greatest luxuries: he had time to think.

After returning home in 1836  Darwin spent rest of his life was spent sorting his thoughts. His period of separateness and quiet was the seedbed of his greatness, of all that came afterwards.

I have not traversed oceans, nor clambered up mountains, nor soared through the skies. So many times , like today,  I cannot make myself step further than my front porch. But for me, at least this time, it’s far enough.

A few moments of quiet and my mind leaps forward too!

A Taste for Jazz and Lime-Vanilla Ice

img_6499To honor the memory of my cousin Martin Slobin, z”l, I am reposting blog post #14 from February 24, 2015. We lost Marty on December 6, 2001.

With love to Marty and my Aunt Bess, z’l and my Aunt Rose, z’’l.   Cherished.

***

I was one of those precocious little Suzuki violin kids. We were schooled strictly in classical music, that is, as soon as we could scrape through Mississippi River. My first violin was quarter size and our early training involved marching around the room trying to keep the violins tucked under our little chins. Tiny violins bounced everywhere. But music really exploded for me on Sunday afternoons when I got to watch Bill Kennedy at the Movies on WKBD-TV channel 50 in Detroit. Bill Kennedy was the faded, slightly pompous former B movie actor who hosted the show. He had this one great scene as a tennis pro with Bette Davis in Dark Victory, which he referred to often.   It was here that I watched my first musicals: Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, Meet me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon. This was the music, these were the songs that I really fell in love with, the ones that stuck in my head.

Someone noticed.

That person was my cousin Marty.

He wasn’t at all the type of person you’d expect to notice things. But he did.

Marty was my mother’s first cousin. He shared an apartment with my two great Aunts. my grandmother’s sisters, Bess and Rose. My grandmother lived alone in the apartment across the way. My sisters and I would always see the Aunts and Marty at holiday dinners or be trooped unwillingly across the parking lot to visit their little apartment. It was hot in there and there wasn’t much to do except answer questions about whatever it was we were doing. The Aunts hung on our every word and beamed at us for even the smallest accomplishments. We should have feasted on this avalanche of praise and affection but we didn’t really. We felt squirmy and uncomfortable.

At some point in the conversation, Marty, Bess’s grown up son, would be summoned from his room to say hello to us. Marty’s room was a great mystery. No one was ever allowed in there. Not even my Aunts. But the door was ajar once and I peeked inside.   What I saw was a fantastic jumble of books and records amidst the whorl of an unmade bed. It was a mess, it was utter comfort, it was a refuge and a fortress. It reminded me a lot of my bedroom at home.

Marty always entered the living room slowly and bashfully even though this was his home, he was the adult and we were just little kids.

He was a heavyset man with dark curly hair. He smiled a lot. He perspired a lot too—the apartment was kept extra warm for my Aunts—so much so that his thick black glasses slid constantly down his nose. But the look of appreciation on his face, no matter if I was talking about whatever old movie I’d just seen, what music I’d played or some song I loved, was real.

I was probably self-importantly talking about some play that I’d been in at camp when he got really excited and went to his room. He returned with Allan Sherman’s My Son, the Nut, which he placed gently on the turntable. Marty was the first person to play “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah “ for me. I got it. It was cool. The albums that were stacked along side were by people like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. I wasn’t ready for them yet. Not by a long shot.

At holiday dinners he usually didn’t say much. He would always wear a tie although he always looked like he’d rather take it off. If there were uncomfortable silences he would always talk and talk about how much he loved the spinach.

On the violin I learned how to play Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle and would have gone crazy with joy if I had somehow heard about jazz violinist Joe Venuti but I didn’t. I was a high octane behind the scenes high school theatre person. I did my best to keep up in chorus class. I was hurt that I wasn’t a part of the revered Madrigals singing group at Kingswood (my sister Lisa was) but I still found that I completely and totally loved harmonic singing.

I overheard that several times a year Marty would take the train to Toronto to go to Jazz clubs or Jazz festivals. I don’t know who he saw up there. Chick Corea? Charlie Mingus? I don’t remember him playing that music for us on those afternoon visits. Was he too shy? Did he feel his connection to that music too private to share? Or did he know that to truly fall in love with something you need to discover it yourself?

I had heard the stories. That he had asthma and terrible allergies. That he was babied by his mother, my Aunt Bess, who coddled and overfed him. That he wasn’t allowed out to play much as a little kid and had a way of running with his flat feet slapping the pavement and his arms flapping wildly in the air. That he hated driving and took the bus, a true anomaly in car crazy Detroit. That he was smart. Really, really smart.

Over the years he never once made one of those cringe worthy comments about “how much I’d grown.” But I knew he noticed when he said that I reminded him of Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer. By then I liked songs like Sing, Sing, Sing, Java Jive, and Dream a Little Dream of Me. Progress.

After college I lived in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was cool. I stretched meager paychecks by buying groceries at Balducci’s with my Dad’s American Express card. But one night I went to the renowned Blue Note all by myself, to hear “The Divine One”, Sarah Vaughan. In that cramped jazzy space, I sat alone at the bar drinking Bloody Marys at nighttime. It was the only drink I knew how to order. But there, on that wonderful night, I actually heard Sassy herself sing Misty.

After that night I knew why Marty went to the Jazz clubs in Toronto.

I was away from home for a long time. I grew up, I worked, I married, I had children. Back in Detroit, my Aunts died. Marty was left alone. He moved to his own apartment.   Alone a lot in New York, I listened to music. On my own I discovered Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. Peggy Lee. The Boswell Sisters.

Then Marty died as well.

He was only 55. It was from his obituary that I learned that he was a revered and award winning Political Science lecturer at the University of Michigan Dearborn, known for both his bristling intellect and unfailing kindness to his students.

It had never occurred to me to ask what kind of work he did.

Of all the stories in Ray Bradbury’s beautiful Dandelion Wine my favorite is “The Swan”. Drawn together at a soda fountain over the unusual order of “a dish of lime-vanilla ice” young Bill Forrester meets and befriends 95-year-old Helen Loomis. Despite the extreme differences in age the two form a transcendent bond. It’s clear they were meant to be together, but according to Helen, just not in this life. Maybe the next. Or perhaps the next one after that. Ray Bradbury does not leave us with a happy ending in this story but instead with a wistful, open-ended one.

Maybe this is true for lost friendships as well.

But all I know is that I desperately miss someone I never really knew at all.

Post #59: Spin

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First set your feet firm.  Grasp the steel curves in your hands and get ready to push. Push hard! Legs pumping pumping pumping  as you run fast, faster, fastest, around and around and around! Just when you’re about to be swept off your feet jump up!  Up! You made it. You’ve earned your moment, your ride.  Lay back, close your eyes and spin. The Merry-Go-Round.

Open your eyes and you’re just where you were, of course. Or are you? 

Spin

Outside the big sunflowers turn and turn, their faces following the sun.  It’s late afternoon and I’m staring out the big picture window, the one shielded by a thick opaque yellow shade.  It’s has  a tiny tear, proudly,  neatly scotch taped together. The rays feel so hot that they seem to melt through the window, sizzling the squares of carpet like toasted s’mores.

I ache to get a better look outside.  But as I lift the thick vinyl shade the tiny tear tears a bit  more. I should be sorry and stop but I can’t stop,  I don’t stop at all.  I love the feeling of the tear slicing upward, up and up.  I can feel the power of the rip the in my little  hands. 

When it’s over, I can’t fix it. I am sorry, so sorry.  Really I am.

Spin

My bow is bouncing through Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle, my fingers skittering over the strings of my violin like jackrabbits bounding through the woods.  The notes scatter through the air with wild abandon, flying floating, fleeing every which way, everywhere at once.  Can you keep up?  Can you catch up?  Let the notes grab you and hook you, and seep deep inside you.   Oh! Come along with me. Together we can fly!

Spin

I am sitting across a restaurant table from a man in an elegantly cut suit, owlish glasses balanced on his nose, gentle, dreamy smile on his face. The man in the Arrow Shirt ads come to life. He has ordered a gin and tonic.  I find myself ordering the same.  He chuckles, I laugh. He leans back. I lean in.  When he orders Mahi Mahi,  for reasons unfathomable I squeal, dolphin like.  Agh!  Why oh why did I do it?  But somehow he laughs sweetly and in turn I simply sigh. He thinks I like him. And I do.

Spin

On a Little League field, compact as a candy box, a tousle-haired boy bunts, then freight rains it for first. Safe!  A blink and he steals second. A breath and then he steals third!  A  teasing tiptoe from third base.  Do it! Come home!

With each spin of the Merry Go Round the memories swirl in my head.

One day, full of myself and of rhyme and before I know it, the joyful words cascade from my tongue:

“The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Of  shoes—and ships—and sealing wax— of cabbages — and kings—. And why the sea is boiling hot—and whether pigs have wings.”

—The Walrus and The Carpenter, Lewis Carroll

My son is nearby.

“I love that,” my son said wistfully.  “You know it?” I said wonderingly.  “Of course,” he replied.  “You always recited it to us before bath time when we were small.  We loved it. You remember.”

But I didn’t remember. I didn’t remember at all.  I feel a rising panic in my chest. How could I have forgotten?   Was I spinning too fast? What am I missing?

Whatever “quite myself is,” I haven’t been that at all lately.   But somehow it has seemed more important than ever that I remember every single good thing that ever happened. To gather them all and keep them very close.

To forget even one, especially one that was so sweet and important to my boy, seemed a travesty, a tragedy of absurdist proportions. I hardly knew what to do, where to turn.

His voice is soft and just for me. “Of course it’s true, “he says. “And I remembered to remind you.”

Post #58: Apples and Honey

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Late Afternoon

It has gone on like this for the longest while.  I jitter crazily  from moment to moment and  place to place only to finally stumble through the front door and bumble to the kitchen.  My anxiety is rising like a kettle shriek.   A haphazard glance through the cupboards, and then,  like an out of control tobbaganer careening down a mountain, I begin. A dissonant medley of ingredients tumble onto the counter — dried pineapple?  farro? cumin? pickled jalapeños?  along with  unnerving sleight of hand involving  knives, and somehow a steaming mound of something is piled on a plate. It’s edible, really it is, or at least it should be.   I stare. Oh please. Just eat it and be done with it and let’s get moving now, shall we? I don’t have time, I never have time. Things to do, things to  do, such important things to do!

But for once I don’t do. Instead  I stop. I can’t swallow the words.

What am I doing?

Where am I going?

What am I thinking?

And truly, what on earth am I eating?

I realize that I don’t just want “something.”  What I want is something else.

And so, this evening I decide to get it.

***

Early Evening

I look in the cupboards once again. How could I have not noticed? It’s all there. Lentils and rice,  cumin and coriander, turmeric and all spice and cinnamon. The ingredients were there, right in front of me,  if only I had taken the time to put them together.  I slowly swirl them, meld them into a whole.

The onions are slivered and sliced into circles of sweetness, the rounds jump roped, piled up together in little hills and savannahs.  Why is it that slicing onions never makes me cry?

A shiver of flour then  a sizzling safflower bath.  A short paper toweled repose.  A final jumble and the whole is complete.

A mound of Mujadara. 

A spoonful, or maybe two…time to go. That was the plan all along.

Still warm and swathed in kitchen towels, I carry my prize carefully to the car, the bowl nestled on my lap.

It doesn’t spill.

They were not expecting dinner. They were not expecting me. But there it was and I was there. Their favorite. Mujadara.

They ate and ate. I simply watched. And somehow I felt full.

The meal I didn’t eat was the meal I dreamed of, the one I gave away, of course  left the sweetest taste on my tongue.

***

Just before Dawn

Oh, perhaps a bit more! Greedy thing that I am.

I wake up dreaming of something sweet. I yearn for it. I need it. I want it.  I make my way downstairs in the darkness and throw my cupboards open wide once again. I’ve been good, I  can have anything I want!

And so I do. I am craving  the edible jewels of fall. Apples. Honey Crisp.  Macoun. Braeburn.  Winesap.  Snapdragon.   This early morning, while the sun still slumbers,  I choose the best of the best.

A Snapdragon.

That should be enough, shouldn’t it?  But somehow not. I hesitate and then reach back into the tumble of my cupboard. Ah.  Of course. A jar of honey. 

I cut my apple gently into the thinnest possible slices.  I need to make it last.   Slowly I drizzle the honey on top.   And then at last, at long last,  I take a bite.  The clean snap of possibility zings and the taste lingers tantalizingly on my tongue.  I won’t forget.

A new year begins when I need it to begin. 

A MILLION MARVELOUS MOMENTS

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The Conjurer

The almond cookies bitten through, the fortune cookies cracked. Even the egg foo young was done,  each deliciously unctuous, brown-sauced bite forked, savored, swallowed.

There was only one thing left to do. Like a conjurer, my mother gracefully sweeps her hands over the table finishing with fists full of soy sauce packets.  She kicks refrigerator door open wide and shuffles the deck of sauce packets into the side compartment with the finesse and aplomb of a Vegas black jack dealer. 

There are already about hundred sauce packets saved inside. Why so many saved?  She winks and smiles. Because, you know, you never know.

The Sweetest Hour

It was the sweetest hour.  The sky was dim but not dark. The warm scent of lilacs were bursting from their buds, the heady perfume mingling with the verdant clip of newly mown grass.   Too early in the season  for the Dads and the barbeques. But just right for the jump ropes and bikes out on the streets.  Who could be anywhere but outside?  And so we were.  All of us.

The car came from nowhere and it came fast.  No one looked up until the screech of tires. Our sheepdog, Charlotte, had wandered into the middle of the street. When the car came at her she froze, to frightened to move.

But still safe. Because my mother had leapt out of nowhere to throw herself between the oncoming car and her baby, our dog.  The car just missed them both. My mother could leap? She could.  And she did.

Hudson’s Department Store

My mother’s hands, as lithe and as delicate as the wings of a moth, glide over the makeup counter, Tangee or Cherries in the Snow?  A spritz of Evening in Paris on her wrist, the scent envelops me, warms me as she curls her  arm around my shoulders.   Like identically dressed ions the three of us pirouette and skip around her, our focus, our center.  As we journey through the store I run my hand over the highways and byways of raw silk, through the satisfying bumps and  nubbles of Harris Tweed,  down deep through the soft thicket of cashmere.

If we are good —oh we are trying to be good—we will have a special lunch in the Hudson’s Dining Room.  We sit together in a banquette of green leather. Our feet dangle precariously from the seat and our toes stretch to touch the carpet.  We peek: your toes barely touch too!. Peanut butter and jelly, a cookie, a carton of milk, a slightly mashed banana for each of us. Cup after cup of black coffee from a silver pot  poured for you. Our lunch comes in a fancy bag.  There is a prize inside too but it almost doesn’t matter. What we want most is to be here, to  sit right across the table from you.

Your life is a million marvelous little moments. These are just a few. Thank you everything past, thank you for everything yet to come. Happy birthday, Mom.  And many, many more.