Speaking Book from Literary Mama

IMG_0353I’m pleased to share this essay, just published in LITERARY MAMA

Speaking Book

http://www.literarymama.com/

***

Even though there isn’t a shred of Nordic ancestry in my DNA, this past year I utterly embraced the idea of Jolabokaflod, the Icelandic tradition of giving books in the yuletide season. The fact that I am Jewish and do not even celebrate Christmas was utterly irrelevant. This was not simply an efficient solution to holiday gift giving. For weeks I agonized about my choices, eventually settling on titles as diverse as Alexandra Horowitz’s incisive On Looking (for my niece) to Annie Dillard’s luminous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (for two of my sons). For me the rules of Jolabokaflod giving were straightforward but rigorous: I had to have read the book I was giving, and I had to do my utmost to match the book to the recipient. There was nothing haphazard about my choices. In other words, I was matching the books I loved to the people I loved.

For me I realized, Jolabokaflod was an extension of a language I had been speaking with both passion and conviction my whole life. Jolabokaflod is about speaking book.

Absurdly, although we live in the age of split-second communications, actually communicating—that is, making our deepest feelings known and understood—is still one of the most daunting and seemingly insurmountable tasks each of us faces throughout our lives. Many of us are simply too short on time, or too shy, or too tongue-tied to reach out to each other. In a sense then, speaking bookthe act of giving books or suggesting books to those we care for, is something of a compressed, but explosively powerful, shorthand for connection. Speaking book bridges spaces between people. It can be an act of courage to suggest or give a beloved book, the fragile offer of a peek into one’s own interior life. Sharing books is also a way of sending people to a place you cannot necessarily go yourself, with faith in their ability to get there. Sometimes giving a book is a badge of honor, showing pride in what someone aspires to be, occasionally before they even know those aspirations themselves.

I became fluent in speaking book because, although I didn’t realize it at the time, book was spoken to me from the very beginning. Neither of my parents are obvious and obsessive readers. In retrospect, how could they have been? My father, one of the finest optometrists in the state of Michigan, worked incredibly long hours, including weekends. My mother was home with my two sisters and me, assorted dogs, Sisyphean mountains of laundry, constant cooking, and the continuous stream of ever-present anxieties and miniseries-worthy dramas. Her at-home workdays were bereft of bookends—in other words, never-ending.

And yet, my mother made sure my sisters and I were wielding library cards with the slashing exuberance of Zorro as soon as we could scratch out our signatures with those big red jumbo pencils. But this wasn’t enough. My parents were adamant that there would be books—real, honest-to-goodness, important books—in our own home. With metronomic regularity, Book of the Month Club began depositing everything from Plato’s Republic to The Sun Also Rises on our doorstep, ponderous, slipcovered volumes that bricked themselves stolidly into the shelves with the immobile and straight-backed sobriety of the Queen’s Guard. While these were showplace books, meant for adornment, their very presence in our house meant that books mattered.

But if the Book of the Month Club books were impressively untouchable, the World Book Encyclopedias were invitingly grabbable. Pulling volumes out at random, boldly riffling the pages like a Vegas blackjack dealer, I would lie by the radiator sinking down into the words and burying myself in a sparkling melange of weirdly disparate ideas. How wrenching that Beethoven was completely deaf and couldn’t even hear his ninth symphony performed, nor listen to the rapturous applause! If the Egyptians mummified their pets, it meant that they adored them, right? How on earth did Nellie Bly pack her tiny handbag for an 80-day trip around the world? My parents never kept track of what I was reading. No one ever quizzed me on what I’d learned or what I knew. My parents just made sure the World Books were there and that I was left alone to read them whenever and however I liked. Speaking book in this case sent the very clear message that not only was the world—via the World Book—at my fingertips, but I was in control. Ideas gamboled and fizzed together in my head like bubbles in a flute of champagne. Books and I had a conversation, a friendship, a relationship. And that relationship was a fine and private thing.

Or, at any rate, mostly private. Each Sunday morning with hardly a word or a sound my mother and I would slip out of the house together. We’d slide into the cavernous Delta 88 and glide down the tree-lined streets with the majesty of the QE2. Above us a cathedral of elms linked their arms together in verdant welcome, arching over the car, the light tipping tenderly in and out of the shadows, Sainte-Chapelle itself on the streets of suburban Detroit.

I thought the plan was always to be the first customers to get the bagels while they were hot enough to steam up the glass bins or to fuss about whether we’d get the round flaky onion rolls or the square New Yorkers. That was part of it. But always my mother dug to the bottom of her purse, came up with a handful of quarters, and then let me pick out a crisp and thick copy of the Sunday New York Times from the middle of the pile. Later, she’d silently note which books I’d notched in the “Book Review” section. And somehow, without my saying a word, I’d find copies of whatever books I’d been dreaming about waiting for me on the edge of my bed. She knew.

I think my mother spoke book to me because she couldn’t bear it otherwise. I thought she didn’t know that I never had anyone to sit with at lunch. I thought she didn’t know that I never had anyone to play with at recess, that every day I endlessly circled the perimeter of the playground tensely waiting for it all to be over. I couldn’t seem to talk about whatever everyone else was talking about nor did I care about what everyone else cared about. I was the way I was, small and plump and bookish, hunched with a nearsighted squint that often looked like a grimace.

Once, feathered-haired and blue eye-shadowed at Matthew Fuller’s backyard Bar Mitzvah party, I bravely shuffled through the grass in overlarge high heels to a tight group of chattering girls. I hovered on the edges for a moment, straining to catch the rhythm of their high pitched chirping. But then almost as one they noticed me. Almost as one they looked me up and down. No one smiled. Then with a synchronous click of their tongues, they turned and streamed away from me, wrinkling their noses as if I were a glass of curdled milk. My mother, also a guest at the party, watched helpless from the window. She never said a word. But later she gave me the longed for Life Goes to the Movies. My mother couldn’t live in my shoes, she couldn’t fight my battles. But she could give me books to soothe me, books to provide escape routes. And she did.

In this way then, the densely packed floor of my room, the desk, the chair, the bed, became a topographic map of the world, with veritable mountains of books stacked as high as I could reach, the piles teetering with the elegant precision of a Calder stabile. Slender, barely passable walking paths twisted from bed to door. I needed to have the books as close to me as possible for comfort. It was as if each title were an opportunity to lay claim to the world itself; I was Magellan of the suburbs, Vasco da Gama of junior high. I too was an explorer, albeit of ideas. Harriet the Spy taught me independence; From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler gave me a sense of adventure; The Wind in the Willows led me down a well of unending wonder. Every book my mother shared with me was a pathway, a safety net, a balm. My mother, her own childhood books wrested from her for younger relatives, possessively embraced the piles of art books stashed in her downstairs studio in exactly the same way.

Soon, I took a summer job at iBrowse Books, a place I loved so much that I’d routinely show up early and only grudgingly pull myself away to go home at night. I spoke book with agonizing abandon here. I wanted desperately to match exactly the right book to the right person at the right time. Every time. Somehow I thought if I could get each person the book they needed, it would save them. Their lives would be different, better. As for me, with my discount I took home everything from Anaïs Nin to Norman Rockwell, but I rarely took home a full paycheck.

By the time I was in college I’d managed to bend my art history honors thesis to speaking book as well, solemnly focusing on the Philipp Otto Runge-obsessed author/illustrator Maurice Sendak. There was an overall plan here: to catapult myself from the Midwest to Manhattan and into the world of book publishing. My parents were frightened for me, particularly my stoic and laconic father. He silently handed me a copy of James Stevenson’s I Meant to Tell You.

I wanted to go into book publishing to enter a world where I was sure everyone spoke the same language I did. In actuality, the coffee was sludgy, the pay was abysmal, we Xeroxed for hours on end. But I was there to see the aged and frail Alfred A. Knopf, still elegantly mustachioed, reverentially escorted to his corner office one last time. I was welcomed, as all new Random House hires were, by Donald Klopfer, who told us how he and Bennett Cerf stressed the equality of their partnership and always worked with their desks pushed together. And as I had dreamed, there was no Tower of Babel in book publishing. Everyone just fervently, passionately spoke book. For all of us bibliophagists, book wasn’t just a language, but actual currency as we bartered for what we wanted from the different publishing houses.

About this time I found myself utterly captivated by a tall, handsomely bespeckled and sleekly suited attorney who’d been my seat partner at a haphazard tossed salad of a dinner party. Although his attention was clearly diverted to the blond on my right, I doggedly refused to concede defeat. When I overheard him mention that he was about to depart for a trip to London and Paris, I knew there was no time to waste. The next day I messengered him a copy of Patricia Wells’s superb The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris. Thus baited, he phoned, and we made a plan to meet when he came back to New York. We returned to Paris on our honeymoon and have been happily married for almost thirty years. I could tell from the beginning: he spoke book.

Of course, book was the first language our children ever heard. I read to them as they stared wide-eyed at me, papoosed into their blankets; I read to them as they scooted across the floor; I read to them as they spun crazily around and around in their identical spinny disks. They listened to me read Shakespeare and James Howe, Agatha Christie and Jack Prelutsky, A. A. Milne and M. F. K. Fisher. They used books for building blocks and chose books from the shelves to cuddle for comfort. When they became enthralled by the moon outside our window, I plucked The Grand Tour: A Traveler’s Guide to the Solar System from the shelves and put it in their arms. The funny thing is, when I think back on it, none of my boys ever really learned to read. They just read early and always, joyfully and perfectly from the very beginning. Books were their true language. Everything I couldn’t quite say, everything I felt, was compressed between the words of the books we shared.

As their love of the world and of science grew, they gathered the DK pocket books—Sharks to SkeletonsAircraft to VolcanosInsects to Fossils—swapping them, caressing them, brandishing them proudly. Finally they insisted on carrying their beloved books to the playground at preschool, certain that everyone else spoke book too. They were wrong about that of course. From the parking lot I watched them scurry with their books to the land of swings and slides and monkey bars. No one stopped. No one came over. My boys stood alone and confused, clutching their precious books in their hands.

What had I done?

I had done the best I could, speaking the language I was most comfortable speaking, a language they seemed to understand intuitively. Had I done them a terrible disservice, though?

I don’t think so. With each book I shared with them over the years, each time we said yes to a book they craved, it was an affirmation of their choice, their aspirations, their sense of self. Speaking book was validating their ability to add to the conversation of the world. Each book was a toehold on their way to finding their own true, comfortable place. I had to believe that for them, as for me, books would be the path that would some day bring them to the places they were meant to be.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” the much-loved Mary Oliver asks in “The Summer Day.” After much thought, I realize with a start that I’m actually doing it. I have spoken book my whole life. All these years later, I find that I am still speaking book through Jolabokaflod. I wonder if recommending titles we adore is actually transforming authors into the Cyranos of our lives, conveying the intense emotion that is often too complex for us to express to those we care so deeply for. Through the sharing of books I have tentatively sent tendrils of connection into the world, tiny wisps of love and of thought that gather like steam from a kettle and yet do not dissipate, but are somehow grasped and savored. That’s not simply wild and precious but frankly, miraculous.


 

 

 

Post #100: The Dance

maxresdefaultI never really expected to be here. But I am so very happy to have arrived.

Four years.
Every other week.
Upwards of 70,000 words.
One hundred posts.

But as I’ve staked my by-weekly Tuesday by Tuesday way through these writings, I’ve found that as I’ve moved forward, I’ve gained so much by looking back. By slowing down. By simply wondering. By just thinking deeply. In a way I feel as if I’ve regained parts of myself that I didn’t even know were lost. Moreover, I feel somehow that I am putting myself back together in ways that I still find a bit mystifying. But I’m grateful it’s happening.

Over the past week I did something that I probably should have done ages ago but didn’t: that is to simply read each blog post once again. Starting at the beginning all the way to now. After writing each post I’ve never before reread them as I’ve always been propelled by the next idea, eager as always to put fingers to the keyboard.

But I did finally reread them, feeling like an guest at my own party. But an honored guest, one who was just handed a flute of champagne, a dish of chocolates, a bowl of wild strawberries. This has been a pleasure.

There are as many reasons to write as there are writers. But I think all writers, whether good or pedestrian or exceptional (think Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen or M.F..K.Fisher or any of your own favorites) all are truly are linked by one extraordinary idea. That is, if one writes one is somehow joining in the conversation of thought, of ideas, of glorious words that stretch back over time and through time. If one writes it feels as if one is part of some magnificent ongoing relay race, each runner fervently doing his or her part, giving all in the hopes of handing the baton up to another to keep moving forward, all for the team.

It’s an honor, no matter how mediocre or how good one’s work is, to simply to try to add to that conversation. Then too, there is so often buoyant bliss, jubilant joy in just putting words on paper. The effort is worthwhile.

In reading over my own work I am struck by how supremely happy so many memories are and how grateful I am to have snared them. Each year becomes studded with wondrous, memorable days of birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, successes. They are the ongoing treasured jewels of the crown of each year:

May 13, August 30, November 17, June 23, July 7, November 6, April 30, September 6, March 9, July 20, April 7, May 9, January 4, December 21, July 15

But what are the special days yet to come? What unforetold successes are there yet to be: marriages, births, anniversaries, celebrations? What children will be born, what happinesses yet to happen? How wonderful to think that they will all be there, embedded somewhere in those 365 days of the coming years.

Since we do not know this, which days to come will be hallowed and celebrated as we move forward, I propose then it makes sense to quietly celebrate them all. I like doing things in advance.

In other words, to my mind there is no such thing as a “regular” day. Or, if you choose to turn it inside out, regular days are celebratory days.

My mind turns once again to Matisse’s radiant The Dance. The women cavort in a never-ending circle. They dance with joyful abandon. But a space is open. A hand reaches out. Grasp it.

Come join The Dance. See you soon. And once again, thank you all for reading along with me.

 

Post #99: To Embrace Them Still

IMG_1504The path, from there to here, wends this way and that.  Full of curves and bumps, the road is often sticky, sometimes steep.  Undeterred by brambles, pertinacious,  tenacious, onward ever onward.  The trip has been occasionally wistful, more often memorably joyous.

So many selves, each left at a juncture as I leap across every stream! 

But I wonder, would I know them, those different selves,  if I met them all again?

I’d like to try.   So I turn and look back, just over my shoulder.

***

The Wading Pool, Summer 1962

The sun outside is flaming hot, the water in the round blue pool is icy cool.   Somewhere a barbecue hisses and sizzles. The grown up talk hums and buzzes in my ears.  The ladies’ dresses swish and brush at  the top of my head.  My mother lifts me away then gently puts me down in the water. “It’s not a bathtub,” she whispers, “this is is different. It’s a pool.”   The ladies are there with their Cherries in the Snow lipstick, with their pointy Cutex red fingernails. with the voluminous skirts of their summer dresses ballooning over me like so many parachutes.  So fancy.  I so want to do the right thing. So very delicately I place my hands flat, over — but not in — the water. This has to be the right thing to do.

***

Playground, Francis Scott Key Elementary, 1967

Arms thrust into jackets, feet crammed into boots, hats askew on heads, the bell brrrrrriiiinnngs and we burst through the door like a churning river busting open a dam! The air is crisp and sharp and we puff out our breaths pretending we are smoking Lucky Strikes or Pall Malls.  Some run to the monkey bars, others to the swings. But the best place is the hardtop, smooth and glistening, a sheer, slippery sheen of ice.  We run as fast as we can and slide to the end, balancing on our buckled rubber boots, over and over.  But then, suddenly, my toe is caught and I am  upended.  I wake flattened on the ice, a lump forming on the back of my head.  I am dizzy and it hurts so much. Two of my classmates help me into the nurse’s office.  I am curtly told to lie down.   But when the nurse’s back is turned I jump up and weave away, back down the hallway back to the blacktop.  “Stop, stop, stop! I am crying at everyone. “Please stop before you get hurt too!”  But they won’t!   They don’t!

***

The Little Gym Stage, Cranbrook, 1974

If truth be told I was far more suited to lashing scenery together, deftly whipping the ropes to hold the flats upright, than actually stepping out on stage.  But oh, “the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd!”  With the dawn of Spring, I was, we all were, swept overboard by our longed for performances of  HMS Pinafore, me as one of the multitude of  pasteled and bonneted chorus girls.  But on opening night, instead of the required mild quaver in response to “Hark! Stay your hand! She loves you!”  I wrapped my entire body around my sailor partner in a very non-19th century mode of terror. The audience loved it.  My director, however,  did not. 

***

Domino’s Pizza, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981

This is how it worked. Phones ring, orders taken, tiny shreds of paper pushed down the line.  The dough tossed casually in the air, caught and stretched onto a tray.  Sauced by one and cheesed by another, then shoved over to me, the Toppings Queen.  Mushrooms, onions, peppers, sprayed like confetti from my hands.  Pepperoni dealt like blackjack. Sausage is the worst, so sticky that I have to dunk my hands in the olives to be able to fling bits onto the pies.  The pizza is then shoved into the patented, conveyer belt oven to be out in precisely twelve minutes, then boxed and thrust into the hands of the delivery boy who then has to drive like combination of Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt to have the door to door delivery done within the requisite thirty minutes.   The clatter and the tumult all night long, hour after hour pie after pie.  Until finally closing time, 2:00 am.   Floured, sauced and redolent of raw sausage,  I step out into the empty parking lot.  The velvet sky is flung full of stars.  And I am all alone.

***

Park and 78th Street, 1993

Having punched and feinted my way down to this trim fighting weight, glorying in the fact that at last my closet is arrayed only with stylish clothes that fit, rather than dreamed for outfits that were simply yearned for,  I am certain I can manage this new challenge with aplomb. We sit together in the waiting room, glowing with the knowledge that we belong here.  The low tables are strewn with magazines, each  one more baffling and humbling than the next:  American Baby, Today’s Parent,  Natural Mother. as well as several rumpled copies of What to Expect When You Are Expecting.  I nervously pick up a magazine and riffle the pages and open to  photo of an absurdly tranquil mother double breastfeeding.  I blanch.

When I am called in to the office my practitioner performs a routine sonogram all the while keeping up his usual stand up comedy routine (he’s really quite good).  “Remember,” he says grinning widely,  “if it’s a boy you have to name him Austin after me!”  He stares casually at the screen but then suddenly stops and squints hard. His practiced patter fades away.  His mouth hardens to a line.  Firmly he presses a button and quietly asks the nurse to get my husband.

When I ask what’s wrong, something must be wrong, would he please tell me what’s wrong he doesn’t answer.  Instead, when my husband comes into the room he simply points at the screen.  And to my husband he asks, “What do you see?”  On the blurry screen, my husband points to a trembling bubble.  And then another.

“Exactly,” said my practitioner.  And if they boys you should name them both Austin.

***

Palmer Avenue, 2005

He is the idea man and of course this was his idea too.  Once a week, every week he forgoes he happy chaos of the lunchroom, denies himself the ebullient tornado of recess where he is usually the eye of the storm.  Signed out at the office, we proceed to Balducci’s where he will choose an absurd array of sushi or thickly layered sandwiches wrapped carefully in butcher paper.  He’ll find a cupcake for dessert and always snag a caramel-filled chocolate bar to save for later.

The third of three sons, he is sometimes referred to wryly as “the happy child of benevolent neglect.” But in fact he is, and has always been the man in charge of all.  Somehow he knows how I miss his brothers, relegated as they are to the rigors middle school.   We sit and eat our lunch together in the backseat of the car, the engine running so we can play Tom and Jerry or Rugrats cartoons on the tiny video screen.  I always hate to send him back to school. But I always do.

***

Who are they exactly, these sometimes quirky, often befuddled, flawed but generally well-meaning souls?  Did I leave them all behind or did any of them cling to me  for the march ever forward? All of these earlier selves are both so achingly familiar and yet curiously distant. But even so, no matter what,  my arms reach out to each of them, my former selves,  in kindness, to warm them, to embrace them still and bring them with me as we move forward. 

Post #80: Plateful

IMG_3427It was, perhaps, the greatest deal ever. And no one—and I mean no one—loved a deal better than my Dad. Pie and potato salad, jello and spaghetti, french fries and fried chicken. More and more and more. Every favorite food, as much as we wanted, piled high to the sky? How could we not love it too?

The All You Can Eat Cafeteria Buffet at Cedar Point! Five dollars per person per plate. The bills almost flew from my Dad’s silver money clip. The line was long but who cared? We fell in step, it was worth the waiting for what was sure to be the best—oh really the very best— dinner of our whole lives. Can you imagine?

Crowd control for the rides was the same crowd control at The All You Can Eat Buffet. We were squeezed single file into line with metal barricades. No turning back, but who wanted to? We pushed forward slowly, with tiny shuffling steps. Almost there!

Although the trays made perfect shields, jousting with the butter knives was frowned upon. Would we ever get to the food?

And at last we did. There it was, all within reach, cherry pie, apple pie, peach pie and Lemon meringue! Chocolate cake, cheesecake, strawberry shortcake! Butterscotch pudding and fudge ripple ice cream! Meatballs and macaroni, corn dogs and cole slaw, baked beans and beef stroganoff, mashed potatoes and waffles. Everything we loved, as much as we wanted, everything we wanted most. But alas!

One time in line. One plate per person. Each plate the size of saucer.

As always, when one cannot move from side to side, there is no where to go but up, a vertical tower of treats, a geological layering of dinner, core, mantle crust.

Whipped cream melted into tomato sauce blended into hollandaise, covering chop suey that crammed into macaroni and cheese covered by orange sherbet. Waldorf salad topped swedish meatballs followed by blueberry pancakes. Edible tower of Pisa, teetering, towering and toppling. My fork plunged through the mashed gray layers, digging up sad and sodden bitefuls.

We left, and we left hungry.

***

My eating these days tends towards the more sedate. The only layering I tend to do is carefully placing vegetables atop grain bowls or gracefully topping yogurt with nuts and dried fruit.

And yet, all these years later and once again I find my self ravenously hungry, feeling as if I am anxiously standing in line, tiny plate in hand.

The pile of ungraded papers keeps rising as the red marking pen slips from my fingers. Have I read this book or that one? Did I make the call? Is there a show I need to be seeing or recommending? Where was that meeting? Who wants to meet with me now? What am I making for dinner? Whom did I forget and how could I?

Oh, my plate feels so small! But I wonder, if this time instead of piling my plate oh so high perhaps better to just pick carefully at this and that?

A tiny plate. A few bites.  It will be enough.  I can go through the line more than once!

 

 

Post #62: Wunderkammern

img_9832

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!

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.