Saturday, November 26, 2016

My Happiness Poem, written on November 1, 2, 3, 2016

happiness is when
i wake up with music in my head
it could be a sanskrit chant
or maybe aretha or martha and the vandellas
and it stays with me all day

happiness is when
my mother sends me an email
that contains only symbols
hearts, stars, fruit, silly animals, red exclamation marks
and i know she's been having fun with her smartie phone

happiness is when
i ride in the car with the love of my life
and we come to an open stretch of road
just as thousands of leaves
come dancing by — right to left and back again

happiness is when
i feel a bit drab
and then remind myself that
i can put on mis-matched socks
and i do

happiness is when
i decide i just don't care
and i let the leaves blow in
and i don't
vacuum them up

happiness is when
a friend sends an email
that says TY TY TY
and i don't know what it means
but then i figure it out: Thank You Thank You Thank You

happiness is when
i buy a new box of 10 pens
all different colored inks
and feel secure
for at least one month

happiness is when
everyone who is expected arrives
the circle is complete
a grey wet morning
brightens

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Thanksgiving Letter (originally published here on November 20, 2011)

Thanksgiving Day, 9 a.m.

Dear Ava,
   
I’ve been up since six, bet you were too, and I wish I could have come over but Daddy says it’s slutty the way I run over to your house all the time and I told him it’s not slutty when it’s two girls but he said he’s speaking metaphorically and anyway this is Thanksgiving (like I didn’t know that) and it’s meant for families to be with families, which is just plain stupid, but anyway that’s why I’m writing to you and not talking to you in person and as soon as I can get out the front door without being caught I’ll run this over and put it in your mailbox. I hope you look there. Try to read my mind this second: M-A-I-L  B-O-X.
   
Do you like this paper? It’s not really purple. I know it looks purple but it’s called mauve and no I didn’t spell it wrong, my grandma sent it with a note telling me the color because she’s always trying to improve my mind, so get used to this mauve, you’ll be seeing a lot of it, who else would I write to?
   
She also sent me a book, "A Child’s Garden of Verses," she is so two centuries ago, but I don’t want to be mad at her because the reason she’s sending me this stuff instead of waiting until Hanukkah is she thinks she might be dead by then which is really sad. But on the other hand it’s not sad because there’s nothing wrong with her, she just gets seasonal dread she calls it, but if she’s still alive on New Year’s Day then I’m really going to be mad at her for being so negative about life.
   
There was a lot of activity in the kitchen this morning, Dad and his new live-in girlfriend playing around with the turkey, giggle, giggle, giggle. I stayed up in my room because watching them make out over a naked animal would turn my stomach, but now they’ve gone back to bed and it’s quiet as the grave though any second I expect to hear her panting and oh-my-god-ing and I'm sure this is not good for me, mental health-wise, but Dad, being a psychologist, would probably say “Facts of life, Dorrie, get used to it.”
   
So I'm just wondering about something: “quiet as the grave,” what do you think? Is it quiet in the grave? I doubt it. Gross. Hold on a sec, I’m going to change the channel in my mind. Okay, I’m back.
   
My ex-step-mother and her two gnomes will be here at one. Is this the weirdest thing you’ve ever heard of? My father is like one of those men with a harem, he gets his ex and his current to come and fuss over him with their cranberry sauces and we’re all supposed to act like it’s normal. He says “We make the rules, not society” but by "we" he means "he" because if I made the rules I’d be at your house right now and we’d have mac-and-cheese from the microwave and we'd play with the Ouija board until our finger tips fell off.
   
One of the things I’d really like to know is how a woman who is old enough to drive still can’t figure out the meaning of the word vegetarian. When Dad’s live-in realizes I’m not going to eat a single ounce of that 300 pound turkey there’s going to be World War 4 in the dining room. My ex-step-mother might even start crying. She’ll be sad because now that she’s a guest in the house she won’t get to call me names and throw fits. But you never know, anything can happen, I’m sort of hoping for a food fight with the two gnomes, for old time’s sake.



So now it is so much later, how did this happen?
   
You might have noticed I still haven’t managed to get this letter into your mailbox, hope you haven’t been waiting there, that is if you read my mind in the first place. Did you?
   
There’s something of a scene going on downstairs, I’ll tell you every single detail when I see you tomorrow, but for now just try to picture this: After the so-called feast my ex-step-mother stood up and recited a poem she wrote especially for the occasion. I thought she would have outgrown that sensitive phase of hers, but apparently not. It was a very long poem, seemed like 3 hours, and I didn’t understand all of it, but I think it was supposed to be erotic, and it kind of upset the live-in who might be living out soon. Hallelujah.
   
This is the last letter you’ll get from me on this mauve paper. You remember Jeffrey, one of my former step-gnomes, well he was hanging out in my room — don’t ask me how he got through the barricade — and it turns out mauve is his favorite color, which was something of a shocker but not in a totally bad way, so he’s taking the whole box of stationery off my hands except for one sheet which I’ll use to write a thank you note to my grandmother. I couldn’t get him to take "A Child’s Garden of Verses," though. What did I expect? It’s only Thanksgiving. They don’t promise you miracles on Thanksgiving.

Look for me early in the morning, I’ll be right there on your doorstep. You'll know it's me because in spite of everything that happened today I still look the same. On the outside.

Love, Dorrie

Thursday, November 17, 2016

the bronx: small poems (revised edition)

the bronx
dad fears the monkey house
refuses to take us to the zoo

the bronx
sweet smells from down the hill
stella d'oro cookie factory

the bronx
my father is well-known
in every chinese restaurant

the bronx
1965 — blackout —
we don't own a single flashlight

the bronx
singing leonard cohen
all the way to school

the bronx
friday night dinners at grandma's
we never say the blessing

the bronx
every time i leave the apartment
mom asks are you prepared?

the bronx
roller skating in the building's hallway
the old people hate us

the bronx
dad says
stop talking about vietnam already

the bronx
a short subway ride from yankee stadium
but we are not a baseball family

the bronx
my sister smears her mouth
with candy lipstick

the bronx
dad takes me to my first movie
davy crockett: king of the wild frontier

the bronx
all i want to be when i grow up
joan baez

the bronx
mother says
stay away from apartment 6E — (trick or treat)

the bronx
my sister and i want a pet
dad buys us a goldfish

the bronx
everyone in the building knows this:
never go down to the basement

the bronx
happy birthday to me
a box of 64 crayola crayons

the bronx
someone gives me a kazoo
bzzzzzzz bzzzzzzzzzz bzzzzzzzzzzzz

the bronx
mom says something shocking:
the hell with shari lewis

the bronx
mom teaches me to crochet
one granny square makes a dress for barbie

the bronx
the first family death
i don't know what to feel

the bronx
run over by a bicycle
tire marks on my body

the bronx
skating around the corner
it's like a different country

the bronx
oh happy day
i pass my junior high typing test

the bronx
every morning
talk talk talk talk radio

the bronx
strange men on the street ask
why so serious?

the bronx
dancing with an older girl
we win the lindy hop contest

the bronx
i buy an ankh pendant
my family is confused

the bronx
my first guitar lesson
go tell aunt rhody

the bronx
odetta in concert
grandma likes her deep voice

the bronx
a patch of blue
we declare it a five-tissue movie

the bronx
dad gets his first car
i'm afraid to ride with him

the bronx
i'm warned
don't even look at the hare krishnas

the bronx
the elevator is always broken
i take the stairs two at a time

the bronx
so many pot parties
i never manage to inhale

the bronx
two spices in the cupboard
but mom doesn't use them

the bronx
a neighbor calls me
rebel without a cause

the bronx
my grandma invents
vegetarian chopped liver

the bronx
my father has many rules
for slicing bagels

the bronx
the dirtiest word i know
fart

the bronx
nobody else likes
pistachio ice cream

the bronx
decide: who is better
helen keller or clara barton

the bronx
my first major crush
hayley mills

the bronx
every girl in my third grade class
gets a toni home perm

the bronx
i feel so grown up
my first bottle of jean nate bath splash

the bronx
one day dad announces he is
anti-quiche

the bronx
a sneeze from next door
i call out gezundheit

the bronx
we play knock hockey
until it's time to watch bonanza

the bronx
crime and punishment
i carry it with me everywhere

the bronx
i go to the wrong apartment by mistake
how did everything change while i was out playing

the bronx
dad says if we owned a house
we could have a junk room, not just a junk drawer

the bronx
some girls get princess phones
i do not

the bronx
the answer is always no
i'll never get to wear nylon stockings

the bronx
i discover that olives
make excellent finger puppets

the bronx
men place bets in the candy store
off limits to children

the bronx
my younger sister, my mother, and i
identical dresses

the bronx
my own library card
little house on the prairie

the bronx
that bad man in the button store
flirts with my mother

the bronx
after the blizzard
men on our block take turns with the shovel
   
the bronx
dad grows a beard
i stop kissing him





Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Family Fashion

In honor of my parents. Mom's birthday is today; Dad's is on Oct 6. They are both turning 89. This is a semi-true story in a category I call "family fiction."


Some time in the 1960s my parents turned into fashion icons . . . of a sort.

It started when my father abandoned his role as a debonair man-about-town (Tyrone Power was the actor he was said to resemble most) and grew a goatee. No one else in our Bronx neighborhood had one.

At first Dad's facial hair puzzled people. It even frightened some of them. "What is that?" they wondered. But Dad persevered, and soon his friends, and even a few relatives, were calling him Fidel, and not in an entirely disparaging way.

Yes, there were cigars involved. He had always smoked cigars — his father owned a tobacco shop, Dad started smoking when he was 11 — but now, with the goatee, and something resembling a swagger in his walk, my father was suddenly cool, hip, some people called him a "hep cat." He wasn't exactly a beatnik, but he was leaning toward being beatnik-y.

People were drawn to him. He was a large man, a loud man, he had a nice smile and a firm handshake. He was popular with men and women alike. When his young cousin, Arnie, grew a goatee, Dad was so proud. "I've started something bigger than me," he said. Before long a man in the apartment building next to ours was seen with a goatee. Then the mailman had one. Mr. Kilgallen, the father of six who lived down the hall, tried to grow one but he wasn't successful. He asked Dad for advice. My father was basking in glory. He loved this time in his life.

My mother was an exceptionally beautiful woman, and was often compared to Natalie Wood. Ava Gardner, too, and Loretta Young. Even Elizabeth Taylor. She was the first of her friends to wear caftans, but on Mom they did not look like lingerie or muumuus — she draped long gold chains loosely around her waist. People said she was exotic.

Then she began to crochet her own evening gowns, elevating the lowly granny square into something magnificent. She took busses and trains all over New York City, into every borough except Staten Island — because she was not about to get into a boat, for God's sake! — in search of the most beautiful yarns. She found them in tiny shops tucked behind (or above, or below) other tiny shops. She crocheted daring floor-length gowns. And yes, there were peek-a-boo holes. But that didn't trouble her and it didn't trouble anyone else, either. Mom was the hit of every bar mitzvah and wedding, and if I'm not mistaken, one or two funerals as well.

Everyone loved my mother. Women followed her around, counting stitches, asking where she went for her patterns, gasping in awe when she said she made them up herself. My mother was envied and admired. Her friends all wanted to be her. They told her this.

Then one day my mother discovered paisley, and she took to it in a big way. So her friends took to paisley too. That's how our neighborhood became a paisley mecca. Crochet hooks and fancy yarns were put aside. All eyes were on the new look, the paisley look.

What did my mother do in paisley? She did everything in paisley. Paisley sheets and pillow cases; curtains and table cloths. Paisley hair ribbons, bags, belts, and scarves. Paisley mini-skirts, paisley maxi-skirts. Paisley halter tops and paisley bell-bottoms. My mother decked herself out in paisley, head to toe, and her friends followed her lead.

Saturday night parties in our apartment were filled with paisley-clad women and cigar-chomping bearded men. It was all very "now" if your idea of now was an episode of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

Before the parties got fully underway the women would gather in the bathroom, taking turns at the mirror, trying on each other's make-up and playing with one another's hair. The men, in the living room, with unfamiliar drinks in their hands, exchanged misinformation about where you could find genuine Cuban cigars.

But even with their liquor and their cigars, the men felt left out when it came to paisley. Yes, there were paisley ties, but how many of those could you own? And my father, who was becoming allergic to ties (metaphorically speaking), was growing petulant. "Wear a cravat," my mother suggested. Can you hear the snort of his reply? I can. My sister and I bought Dad a silk hanky in a paisley design, the kind of hanky some men fold very cleverly and wear in the breast pocket of their suit jacket. Dad was not that kind of man. He blew his nose on the hanky and then he threw it away.

The age of paisley was over.

Soon afterward my mother proclaimed a liking for all shades of "neutral." Who knew there were so many varieties of brown and grey? Beige, taupe, chestnut, khaki, cocoa, amber, ash, cloudy, sandy, pewter, slate, smoke. She wore them all.

And then — poof! — Dad shaved off his goatee.

No more Saturday night parties. No more constant gaiety.

Dad continued to smoke his cigars but no one called him Fidel anymore. His new idols were Phil Silvers, Ernie Kovacs, Jackie Gleason. Big men, but not quite leading men. And by now, neither was my father.

Mom took me shopping for college clothes. She tried hard to persuade me to adopt a love of neutral colors. But in this she did not succeed. I was only interested in one color. Blue. Denim blue to be precise. I filled my suitcase with denim jeans and work shirts from the Army & Navy Store. For variety, an embroidered "peasant blouse" that I bought on MacDougal Street.

At the last possible second before we loaded the car for the trip upstate, Mom tried to slip her one remaining paisley scarf into my bag. "In case you have a special occasion and need to dress up," she said.

The only time I needed to dress up, that first year away, was for a wedding in the woods, just outside of town. The bride wore cut-off jean shorts; the groom wore bathing trunks. I wore a flannel nightgown. The times they were most definitely a-changin'.

Friday, September 30, 2016

6-line poems: cherita

I was recently introduced to the poetic form called cherita, through Larry Kimmel's collection, "shards and dust: new and selected cherita" (bottle rockets press, c. 2014)

==


late august

a student runs to catch his bus
nearly knocks me down

pardon me, madam
he calls
over his shoulder

==

community acupuncture room

stretched out in reclining chairs
seven strangers

nobody
snores
today

==

i was a superstitious child

careful never to step
on a sidewalk crack

worried about
my mother's
back

==

taking myself out for thai lunch

the crying baby
the loud-talking man

but the soup is hot
and the music
mellow

==

you can't recall her name

she has short hair
you say

and she wanted me
to give you
her love


==

early morning laughter

waking from a dream
intending to remember the joke

alas —
it is instantly
forgotten

==

eat more kale

a bossy
bumper sticker

stopping beside the car
to stamp my feet
no! i won't!!

==

near the buddhist monastery

pausing to hug a woman
who i hope will become a friend

the air smells faintly
of rain
still an hour away

==

hurrying along

almost missing the word
on the sidewalk

serenity
written in pink chalk
okay — breathing in, breathing out

==

early morning walk

state street
past present future

stepping in someone else's footprints
wondering
who will step in mine

==

many many years ago

half-way between
the Bronx and Ithaca

a single tree
on a hill —
perhaps it is still there

==

two things grandpa taught me

how to multiply
by eight

the proper way to fold
the New York Times
when reading on the subway

==

what was mother thinking?

dressing the three of us alike —
her, my sister, me

on our way to Coney Island
a woman on the train asks
if we are triplets

==

Sunday nights

waiting for Bonanza
to start

we play Chinese checkers
and worry
about the week to come

==

yes there was favoritism

I am given the role of Maria —
The Sound of Music

off-key
but barely audible
small mercy

==

two days before camp

name labels arrive
for mother to iron on

a mistake —
Ira instead of Irene
she assures me no one will notice

==

that time at the bungalow colony

the uncles smoking and cursing
fighting over the Monopoly board

next time
Aunt Anna says
you should play "Old Maid"

==

each year on his birthday

we give dad a packet
of Balkan Sobranie tobacco

then act shocked
when he lights up
his stinky pipe

==

WARNING!

a word I rebel
against

the way
Keep Out signs
make me inch closer

==

colorful chalk drawings

all summer long
they decorated this street

now that school is open
daisies, hearts, arrows
fade away

==

this morning my neighbor

also on
the park path

her strides
discouragingly longer
than my own

==

on my dear friend's front porch

a sign
in bold block letters

MEDITATE —
i long to stop and sit a while
but i keep on walking

==

I was eleven or twelve

26 hours on a train
from Manhattan to Florida

reading Little House on the Prairie
pretending to be riding
in a covered wagon

==

walking a zig-zag path

avoiding road construction
and smokers

every morning
a slightly altered journey
back to myself

==

remembering last spring

noisy rain fell on
the other side of this window

today a man
and woman flirt
(silently) in the sunshine

==

four streets over

a new building
going up

I match my breathing
to the steady rhythm
of the pile driver




Monday, August 15, 2016

The Dictionary (revisited)

I posted this story on my blog many many months ago but I want to share it again now because I like it, and also because I have a number of friends whose children are getting ready to leave for college and (at the very end) "The Dictionary" touches on that.



It belonged to my mother and its blue cover was already fading by the time I first made its acquaintance — the September I started at Junior High School 143 in the Bronx.

My mother did not give me the dictionary. She was very clear about that. “This is my dictionary,” she said, enunciating each word, the way she did when she wanted to be sure I got her point. “I’m letting you borrow it. Treat it with care.”
   
Before that time I had no need of a dictionary. Spelling was a significant part of the elementary school curriculum but looking words up was not. We were taught to sound things out and to memorize. 
   
“I before E except after C or when sounding like A as in neighbor or weigh.”
   
“The principal of this school is your pal: P-r-i-n-c-i-P-A-L.”
   
Using a dictionary would have been, almost, like cheating.
   
Speaking of cheating, I feel I have to tell you this:
   
There was a spelling bee in my fourth grade class. Our teacher, Mrs. Mooney, lined us all up, girls on one side of the room and boys on the other. If you messed up on your word you sat down and the next person, on the other team, tried their luck.  By some incredible fluke, in the end, I was left standing on the girls’ side and Neil Feinstein was left on the boys’. 
   
The word I got was Christmas. I knew that this was not right. I was Jewish. Mrs. Mooney should not have expected me to even know that such a word existed. In my family, if we had to spell it at all, which we didn’t, but we would have, hypothetically, spelled it X-m-a-s. I suspected that wasn’t what Mrs. Mooney was looking for. I really wanted to get this right, not only for myself but for all the girls in my class. I just couldn’t let them down. But Christmas?
   
I cast my eyes heavenward — and lo and behold, up there on the wall, hanging just above the enormous blackboard, was a rectangle of beige oak tag. And printed in large black magic marker letters, where anyone could see it if they only knew to look up, was the word Christmas.
   
Along with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, New Year’s Day, Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Passover and Easter. A litany of holidays that Mrs. Mooney, not really the artsy-craftsy type, had chosen as decorations for our otherwise austere classroom walls.
   
It was directly in my line of vision, and not being a girl who would pass up a genuine miracle when it was handed to her on a silver platter, I sang out, loud and true: c-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.
   
“Wrong!” exclaimed Mrs. Mooney. Wrong? How could it be wrong? I read the word — every single letter — off the poster she had scotch-taped onto the wall. I couldn’t be wrong. But also, I couldn’t protest. I was left standing there, the lone girl on the right-hand side of the room, with my mouth hanging wide open.
   
Mrs. Mooney turned to Neil Feinstein, who until that very moment I’d considered a friend, but now I saw him for what he was — my arch enemy — and he proclaimed capital C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.
   
“That’s correct!”  Mrs. Mooney crowed. “The boys win.”
   
I returned to my seat, ashamed and defeated, knowing myself to be a big, fat, cheater.
   
Okay, I just had to get that off my chest. Now I will return to the story of the dictionary.
   
J. H. S. 143 turned out to be an exciting place. The principal (still our pal and spelled with an A, but this time a man, not a woman), wore a bow tie and talked to us, each morning, over an intercom system. We no longer spent the entire day in the same classroom, but ran through the halls every forty minutes, in a frantic dash from social studies to language arts, from French to math to band practice. We knew, through the secret grapevine, that our science teacher’s first name was Georgia, and that she was “good friends” (which meant something dirty but I wasn’t sure what) with the math teacher, Mr. Lyman. We knew that Madame Strauss, our French teacher, always looked like she’d been crying, but we didn’t know why, and we weren’t sure we wanted to know. We didn’t go to recess, we went to P. E.
   
My favorite teacher was Miss Gatney, and my favorite subject was Language Arts. In Language Arts you got extra credit just for reading a book that wasn't on the required reading list. And if you illustrated your book report with colored pencils, you got even more extra credit.
   
I wanted nothing more in life than to please Miss Gatney and to make her proud of me. But her standards were high. She wanted our class to learn how to write perfect essays. Spelling counted. And she wanted to see evidence of our expanding vocabularies. It was no longer good enough to have an idea about what a word meant. You had to go deeper; you had to really get it.
   
Up until this time, simply by sitting quietly and eavesdropping on adult conversations, I’d been able to cobble together quite an impressive bilingual vocabulary. “Meshugina,” when mentioned often enough in reference to a particular free-spirit of a relative, easily translated into “nut case.” Words like “divorcĂ©e,” “paranoid,” “schmuck,” “nudnick,” “chutzpah,” were equally accessible. You just needed to get the context.
   
But in Miss Gatney’s class, context was no longer the end; it was merely the beginning. And sounding-out skills, which had worked so well in the past, were not going to cut it.
   
Take the word “tongue,” for example. Sounding out isn’t going to help you.  The same goes for “antique.”  Sure, you could substitute the words “mouth” and “old,”  but that would be falling short of Miss Gatney’s expectations that you “stretch your mind the way you would your muscles.”
   
I wasn’t interested in stretching anything. I asked my mother, “Ma, how do you spell ‘pleasure’?” Unfortunately her favorite refrain had become “Look it up in the dictionary.” Okay, with “pleasure” you at least know to start in the P’s. But what about Wretched? Psychology?  Phenomenal? Europe?
   
“Maaaa,” I’d whine from my bedroom, “it’s not in the dictionary.”        
“Don’t make me come all the way over there and find it for you.”
   
My mother was getting impossible to handle. And Miss Gatney was getting more and more demanding. “What is the etymology of this word?” “List a synonym and an antonym.” “How do you spell synonym?” “How do you spell thesaurus?”
   
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I developed quite a strong feeling for dictionaries. And I don’t mean adoration (“to regard with deep, often rapturous love”). I mean antipathy (“aversion, dislike”).
   
As for that particular big blue one that sat, reproachfully, on my desk — I became somewhat abusive towards it. When there were pages I found myself returning to over and over again (the one with the word “occasionally” for example), I would fold down the top corner for easy reference.
   
Sometimes I would put a check mark next to a word, red ink showing up so well in the margin, so I could find it even faster the next time I had to look it up. And when I came to a definition that annoyed me, as I did more and more often, I would reach for that red pen again and just cross it out.
   
I knew that this was wrong. But I didn’t care. I had had it with all the new responsibilities of being a junior high school student. Outlines with Roman numerals; bibliographies neatly printed on color-coded 3x5 index cards.
   
I was very angry with my mother. I was even more angry with Miss Gatney. Of course, I didn’t show it. Instead, I learned how to write the perfect essay. My teachers, starting with Miss Gatney and continuing into my move to high school, singled me out as an expert topic sentence writer. Yet all the while, year after year, alone in my room, I was busy defiling and defacing that poor blue dictionary.
   
And then, before I knew it, it was August, 1968. The  Democratic National Convention was being televised from Chicago while I got ready to leave for college. My mother ironed name tags into my underwear, as if I were going off to summer camp, while I rummaged through my closets, pulling out peasant blouses, leotards, and dungarees.
   
On the bottom of the closet floor, jutting out from behind the Chinese checkers set, and the pair of ice-skates I had worn once and then abandoned, was the dictionary, exactly where I’d stashed it back in June, on the last day of high school. I had vowed to never open it again. But suddenly, in a burst of pre-collegiate zeal, I tossed it into my suitcase, along with my Joan Baez albums and my beloved copy of Siddhartha.
   
My mother, shaken by what she’d just witnessed on television, kids being tear-gassed and clobbered, came into my room, asking for the umpteenth time why exactly it was I thought I had to go to a school five hours’ drive from home. Her eyes caught the dull blue cover of the book, and before I could stop her, she reached into my suitcase and pulled out the dictionary, innocently leafing through it, wistfully reunited with an old friend.
   
And then she froze. There was the evidence of my delinquency: the dog-eared pages; the red-ink check marks; the angry cross-outs and comments like: “Anyone who uses this word is a phony.”
   
She clutched the book to her chest. “O-kay,” she said, slowly and deliberately, “you can go to that God-forsaken college, we never should have let you apply in the first place, just stay out of trouble and avoid the police. But there is no way in hell I’m letting you take my dictionary up there with you.”
   
She knew she could only rescue one of us. I think she made the right decision.
   
The dictionary remains, to this day, safe and sound on the bookcase in my mother’s living room, next to her copy of The Joy of Cooking, which she never consults anymore, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, one of her favorite novels. I see it, every time I go home to visit, but I never open it.  In general, I find it’s best to keep a healthy distance between myself and dictionaries.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Meat Beads

In the writing groups this week we wrote about kitchens and food. Which reminded me of this story, written many years ago, that I want to share here, again.

It’s meatball day. There's a wet-mud squishy sound as Grandma digs around in the large white ceramic bowl, making sure no fleck of meat escapes a thin coating of egg. She scoops out a small handful of chopped meat and plops it on the table in front of me, to play. I can’t make little animals the way she can — tiny meat ducks and meat birds — and Grandma’s too busy to make them for me.
   
I know she’s in a hurry, lots of meatballs to make, and everyone will be here soon, my parents, my sister, Uncle Stanley and Aunt Birdie and the cousins. Grandpa will be home from work, too, and we’ll all eat in the back room at the long table and Daddy won’t be happy.

He doesn’t like to eat meatballs and spaghetti with ketchup, he says no one does this in America except the Jews. Aunt Birdie doesn’t mind, she says she likes ketchup, ketchup goes good with everything, she says, and Daddy will just make that noise which means there’s a lot he could say but he isn’t going to, not now. But he might, later. He might say something about onions-on-the-side and then Mom will have to remind him that Grandpa can’t eat onions and that’s why they’re on the side. And Daddy will make that noise again.
   
So I don’t ask Grandma to make me any baby meat animals, I just take my mound of meat and I make little balls. Three balls, then 5, then 6 then 7 then 8. I make a dozen little baby meat balls. I know a dozen is 12, 12 is a dozen, I have a dozen meat marbles, a dozen meat beads.
   
Beads. I can make a necklace. I can ask Grandma for a piece of string and a needle and I can thread my meat beads onto the string and wear it around my neck. I’m just going to ask her, can I have a piece of string Grandma, and a needle, but then I hear the dumb waiter start up, that big dark damp stony hole behind the kitchen wall is making noise, the metal wheels are grinding and the thick, worn rope is moving the wooden platform all the way up to the 3rd floor, to the MacAvie’s kitchen.

It sounds like Maccabee. I thought the Maccabees lived up there, but then Grandpa heard me say that and he said, no no, there are no Maccabees in this building, they’re the MacAvies. So now I’m more careful, I say MacAvie. Mrs. MacAvie and Mr. MacAvie and their two sons, Charlie and Brian, they are MacAvies too.
   
Now Mrs. MacAvie opens the dumb waiter door in her kitchen and puts a bag of garbage on the wooden platform and pulls on the thick rope and the wheels turn again and she closes the door and I can hear the platform moving down past our dumb waiter door, on the other side, in the big black hole in the wall and I breathe in, I want to see if I can smell the MacAvie’s garbage, but I can’t smell it, I can only smell the chopped meat. And the onion way over there on the edge of the table so it doesn’t get near the meat and spoil it for Grandpa.
   
I  pile my little meat beads up in a row, 12 little beads, almost the same size, but one is a little bit bigger, just a little, I could pinch off the teeniest piece of it and stick it on another bead, but then that one will maybe be a little bit bigger. I don’t know what to do. I just look at my little meat beads and I think what a pretty necklace they’ll make and I think, why is it okay to call it a dumb waiter?
   
Dumb isn’t a nice word and you shouldn't say it, just like you shouldn't say booger or fart, so why do we call the dumb waiter dumb? Even Grandma says it and she never says a bad word, she never talks mean about anybody, never, but even she says, “Open the dumb waiter for me, Irenchicle” and I’m going to ask her about it, I’m going to ask her why, just as soon as I ask her for a needle and a piece of thread so I can make my meat necklace.
   
But before I can, Grandma reaches over and scoops up all my little beads and mushes them together and plops them on top of the last glob of meat she’s holding in her hand, the last little bit from the white ceramic bowl, and that makes the very last meatball, so I guess this week I won’t have a meat necklace.
   
Maybe next week I’ll have one. A real nice one, to go with my new dress — it’s black velvet and it has a white lace color that I better keep clean if I know what’s good for me, and the buttons are red, red buttons and a white collar, it’s very beautiful.

It’ll be even more beautiful when I put my meat bead necklace on, then it will be the most beautiful dress I have. It will be more than just a dress. It will be an outfit. I’ll wear it every day, not just for special occasions. Every day, me in my black velvet dress with the clean white collar and the round red buttons and my perfect necklace made out of meat beads.