POST #39: WHAT WE DO. WHO WE ARE.

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 Lazar, Detroit, 1920

Really, no one could figure out how he did it. He was the marvel of the neighborhood. Quick and confident and proud, he never made a mistake.

He was a tiny, compact little man, wrapped in an apron. Standing tall behind the counter of his grocery store. He added every figure in his head. Every account, every transaction was there, etched clearly in his precise and ordered mind.

A very smart man. A grocery man.

A man who selflessly extended credit to his neighbors so they could bring food home to their families when times were hard.

A kind person.

***

David, Oswiecim, Poland, 1939

There he is, his chin jutting out proudly, his arm draped casually around the shoulders of his childhood friends, a bold, almost insolent grin on his face. A yellow star is crudely stitched onto his breast pocket.

Famous for his jokes (who else would have shoved the goat through the door when it opened for Elijah?) he knew the prayer book so thoroughly his hands made grip marks on the leather.

He will run away soon. They will catch him. They will hold him for five long years. The horrors were unspeakable. So he never spoke of them.

A new country and a new start.   Bent now from his suffering, but still powerfully strong, he works first as a bellhop. Then he stands for decades at a machine in a factory.

We knew he was never the same but we never knew who he’d been.

He was so very tired. But let a small child catch his eye? Radiance would spread over him that could warm the sun itself.

A kind person.

***

Erv, Chicago, 1960

No question about it, he is the coolest guy in the room. Hair brushed back, perfectly dressed. No double creases ever.

Nothing handed to him on a silver platter either. No silver spoons touch his lips. He’s been working since forever. Proud of it.

This guy truly knows how to be a friend. He’s got your back. Wait, Better than that. He’s figured out how to help everyone avoid making mistakes. He is beloved.

Don’t be fooled by the posing though. He knows how to turn a phrase. He can write poetry too.

Falsely accused, he refuses to capitulate to a bullying professor. He is denied graduation for a year. But he stands firm. He is right.

He is vindicated.

An eye doctor: he goes on to become one of the finest and most caring healthcare practitioners anywhere. Now he’s got everyone’s back.

A kind person.

***

Me, Bloomfield Hills, 1975

“She’s the smartest girl I’ve ever met. “

It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true. The person who made this declaration really was smart—brilliant even. What on earth could I have said that afternoon?

I really don’t remember.

I do remember sitting and talking to him though. I didn’t know enough to make pronouncements about anything at all. If I had, I’m certain I wouldn’t have been right.

I remember talking to him. I remember listening to him. I remember a gentle and generous conversation. He was nice.

That’s all. It wasn’t hard to be kind.

And at that time, for that boy, that might have been just enough.

I’m glad.

 

Above photo by Croze, Blessing and others: from The Saarinen Door,  published by Cranbrook Academy of Art and Printed by the Cranbrook Press c 1963.

 

 

PUSHING PAST DISCOMFORT

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I still love them. In truth, I still covet them. Gyroscopes, the best spinning tops ever. Quick flick of the wrist and you could make it perch on tiny pinpoint or even balance on a piece of string. Though the whirl was powerful, the balance was so extremely delicate. The tiniest wobble would topple it from its fragile perch.

This week, we wobbled and fell. This week we found ourselves helped to rise once more to our feet. This week we found ourselves lofted on high, set to spin once again.

***

Over the years I’ve improved at the engage, parry, and retreat of social connection. Blunt tip, foil fencing matches which begin with a salute and end with a dignified bow. I can do this. Really I can. I know when to break eye contact, when to refill my wine glass or garnish my plate with more crudités. A deep breath and then once more into the fray, dear friends.

But I steal nervous glances at my watch. But I inch towards the door.

How is everyone else so happy and comfortable?

What if I am snubbed ignored, avoided?

What if we threw a party and nobody came?

Is it over yet?

Only me. Only me. Only me.

Only not.

***

This week we were caught off –guard. We were shaken by the call. Ninety-two should not be a surprise. But somehow it is. Sadness, resignation, feelings with no words split us like an ever-widening chasm. We balanced on the edge.

There was no time to think. There was no time to fuss. There was no time to clean. All we could do was send out the word.

All we could do was our best.

And everyone came.

***

They did not come empty-handed.

Like Thanksgiving dinner in January, like a voluptuous Roman banquet, like an all-you can eat Sunday supper, the house was suddenly filled with food. Platter upon platter of bagels and lox, cakes and cookies, roast chickens, and deli sandwiches. Russian dressing and potato salad and pickles on the side.

My mother-in-law loved to eat. How could people have known about all her favorites? She yearned to be part of gatherings. And everyone was here for her, together in her honor.

Mostly they came alone, pushing past the red door, pushing past their discomfort. Jovial masks set aside, their faces were as open and as vulnerable as ours. When we relaxed, so did they, uncertainty and fear utterly useless and happily tossed aside.

Of course the world is full of rebounds and second chances. This is good. But the truth is there are times in life when you only get one chance to do the right thing. Thanks to everyone who did so for us. We’ll remember. We promise to do the same.

 

z”l LSF

NOW HOW CAN THIS BE?

IMG_4258Now how can this be? I know him so well. I’ve known him for so long. I love him so much.

I wasn’t quite sure that I recognized him, the sweet and animated face of this beloved person. It hadn’t been that long. A few months? But even so.

Looking at him I felt the angles shifting, a real-life Picasso, cubist period. He seemed to be changing before my eyes. Squint as I might I couldn’t get a clear view. I was shy and awkward. He grinned anyway. My boy.

It didn’t quite make sense.   I should have been able to see him clearly, to recognize him! I kept his photos close, looked at them often. But then really I should have known.

Photos don’t tell the whole story but rather the stories we want them to tell. I look at my own photo, my profile shot, the image of myself that I want all of you to know me by. It was taken on a good day where I look relatively thin and my hair is reasonably neat.   My cat, Big Nick, is not expressing utter devotion but actually demanding lunch. My photo is not just my presentation of myself, but my shield. You’ll know me by what I want you to know. As Wilfred Sheed once said of author Clare Boothe Luce, “She crafted herself a myth and lived up to her invented creation. “ Don’t we all?

We primp, we post and we manipulate shots for best angles covering ourselves in photos like a Roman phalanx heading into battle, their overlapping shields an impenetrable barrier to the coming onslaught.

And why not? Why not, indeed.

***

After our wedding I actually refused to look at the wedding photographs for months. I was afraid if I looked at the photos my own memories might get lost. They were not. And so I remember:

*That there were lilacs strewn everywhere and the scent, as always, was intoxicating.

*The sheer terror that overcame me before I walked down the aisle.

*My husband’s adorable and scrunched face when he had to take a bite of vanilla wedding cake when he yearned for chocolate.

*The swoon that nearly overcame me as I circled my husband under the huppah. Or perhaps I swooned from something else entirely?

*The solitary wedding guest, hidden away in small room, who spotted me and thinking me lost at my own wedding, invited me to share her slice of cake.

Not one of these images is captured on film but they are still firmly etched in my memory.  I am so grateful.

***

And yet, I think, all of us deserve the right, if we so choose, to protect ourselves with the images we want to present to the world. But sometimes, maybe even often, that protection can be a barrier to what many of us want even more. To truly know and connect with those we love most. To remember things in a way that even with a photographic record we might otherwise not.

***

And so to my boy, shifting and changing before my eyes. The person behind the photos. He was still there. I knew it for sure the moment he hugged me hello.

.

 

 

 

THE THICK QUIET

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We were going to be apart for an eternity. Two people. Two different continents. Two whole weeks.

Belaboring over penmanship scratched onto delicate sheets of rice paper was arduous. Phoning was impractical. The internet didn’t yet exist. The thought of separation unbearable. My good friend.

But I had a plan. I always had a plan. At precisely 10 pm Eastern Standard Time I would think of her and she would think of me. Just for a moment. And for a quiet pause we were linked.

But at some point, some how this was lost.

**

ONCE UPON A TIME: THE RIGHT JOB, THE WRONG GIRL

When I first came to New York my whole job consisted of doing something I was and am completely unsuited for, speaking on the phone. I worried no one would answer my calls, or return my calls or frankly exactly what I would say if they did take my calls. I was a publicist, ever trolling media sources to make bookings for writers to promote their books. My voice back then was pitched high and girlish. My boss actually trained me to lower it, bullied me into attempting to sound more powerful and resonant (she smoked, the whole office smoked which helped).    I became adept at parroting, at saying the right thing at the right time on the phone. I sounded good but I felt awful, a mellifluously voiced poser simply reading a script.

**

THE HIDEAWAY DRILL SARGEANT

The clatter of dishes, the drone of the television, the whirl of the washing machine, the blips and clinks and blinks of videogame jingles. A constant happy cacophony of sound . This was home, a comfortable, safe hideaway with my boys and my husband. There was constant motion: dinners to make, doctors appoints to run to, school carnivals, school projects, school meetings. I bark orders and speak in directives: put that pile of clothes away, brush your teeth, please pick up the Crazy Bones before I step on them again, There is so much to say but no time to think about it and even less time to say it. I communicate in sound bites.

**

SO BUSY

I’m just so busy. I’m so proudly preoccupied. The more things I cram into an hour the more time seems to stretch- like an ever expanding balloon. If I were a physicist this might make more actual sense but as I am just a person it does not. I just feel it, all electrified and hyperalert.

What is undeniable is the self-important buzziness of it all. That and a preoccupation so pronounced that I’m apt to walk into walls while reading, motor resolutely in the wrong direction while driving or absentmindedly throw sponges in the freezer or my keys in the trash.

That’s not so terrible. But to be so utterly preoccupied that conversations are blurry and only half-recalled is awful. I have a ready bag of bon mots and directives to reach for in a pinch. But I’m cheating and I know it.

CLOAKED IN QUIET

It’s what we dreamed of. Everyone off everywhere doing what they are meant to be doing. Sometimes the quiet is thick and almost tangible. I sink into it. And at last, once in a while, things slow down again.

Now, if I stay very still, even for a bit, time seems to contract and almost freeze . Sweet snatches of memory help me leap from thought to lingering thought. Once again over the miles, my mind reaches out and connects with those I miss, those I love.

I don’t give those faraway people a specific time to think of me. That would be so incredibly odd! And it doesn’t matter. It’s enough just to hope that they do,

CAVIAR WITH A SOUP SPOON, MINT CHIP WITH A LADLE

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I’m in deep. Buried. Delighted. Staked my claim to the couch, right next to the mountain of laundry that might be clean, might not be (can’t remember). And it’s only page 254.

If you say you don’t know what I’m talking about I swear I won’t believe you. It’s happened to you. How could anyone miss a feeling this all encompassing delicious? In this case the volume that’s snagged me is a gigantic tome called The Green Treasury crammed with essays by some of the world’s finest natural history writers, from Rachel Carson to Maurice Maeterlinck to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Gorging on a compendium is dangerous business though. Kind of like eating caviar with a soup spoon. Or mint chip with a ladle. I’ve done both—same result. Don’t care.

At any rate, at some point during my reading revelries I was slapped with an uncomfortable realization. I love reading about natural history but find nature itself tempestuous and unnerving. I don’t go out to smell the first roses of spring nor crouch by ponds to watch bullfrogs burrow into mud. It’s cold out there. Possibly wet. Coffee can be distant. Now that I think about it, it’s possible that I am the indoorsiest person on the planet.

But I like it here. I know the terrain. Or at least I think I do. There’s a famous scene from Guys and Dolls where Sky Masterson bets Nathan Detroit that he is so oblivious that he has no idea what color tie he’s put on that morning. I tried the same experiment by closing my eyes and trying to remember which paintings were on the walls of which rooms. Low score, no curve. Do over.

So I decided to look around.

There are first and foremost a lot of books everywhere, in every room, jumbled, piled, stacked, loved. There are people who adore books who take pleasure in keeping them in stunning Dewey Decimal’d glory but I am not one of them. I actually enjoy not finding exactly what book I’m searching for immediately because then I’ll find five or six more on the way that I hadn’t expected to find. I’d never want to deny myself the pleasure of those searches.

It’s that element of surprise that I truly love. Surprise is everywhere here. Over the years I’ve stashed odd bits of tiny amazements squeezed in around and between titles. A folded popcorn container from the Michigan/Ohio State game. A rare “Trumpet Horn” harmonica. A tiny glass case sheltering the Laffy Taffy that pulled out one of my son’s first baby teeth. (Probably should get rid of that one, but not just yet).

If I stop and sniff the kitchen stills smells faintly of risotto experiments and oatmeal cookies, even though with everyone everywhere I don’t make either much any more.  There’s the teapot that was purchased by small people with dimes and dollars saved over a long long time. A big plastic cube that is filled with masses of multi-colored super balls, all purchased from the same cookie cutter Ohio rest stops over so many visits to see loved ones. A framed Blazing Saddles movie poster because I really love my husband. A gallon jug of Tabasco just because.

If there is a nod to both nature and science, it’s seen in the Wild Strawberry Wedgwood dishes in the dish rack. (Charles Darwin’s mother was from the famed Wedgwood family). In spite of their expense and delicacy these are and have always been the everyday dishes simply because they are beautiful.  “A macaroni and cheese by any other name would taste as delicious” on Wild Strawberry.

Even the drawers are crammed full of wonders. The 12 Tribes Trivet, a wedding gift from my childhood violin teacher and in all honesty the only wedding present I can actually remember. A stub of a Blackwing pencil (Half The Pressure, Twice the Speed), jewel of all writing implements. I crave them. The metallic jingle of half a dozen M discs, the kind that the Metropolitan Museum of Art handed out to patrons before succumbing to paper stickers. A Pikachu keychain. Or maybe it’s Charmander. Whatever. It was all still there.

If I felt like paying attention, I’d see dust tumbleweeds and cat snagged curtains and unmade beds. But those things can be taken care of when I choose to. Not yet. Maybe soon.

A comfortably rumpled space once filled with people. It percolates with memories, waiting for the right moment for me to flip the switch. I didn’t look at photographs as I moved through the house. I didn’t need to. I remembered everyone and everything. They’re coming home soon for Thanksgiving. I won’t be reading then. Welcome back. Can’t wait.