Friday, January 6, 2017

My Yetta

(I was thinking about my Grandma Yetta today and decided to share this again, even though it appeared on the blog once before)

There is always a wooden bowl on the kitchen table, filled with bananas, apples, oranges, walnuts. There is a nut cracker in the bowl as well. I never see anyone use the nut cracker or eat a nut, we are not that kind of family. Grandma must have read somewhere that nuts and fruits go well together. Sometimes the bananas remain in the bowl too long and they get soft and stinky.

She smells like books borrowed from the small public library down the block, and inexpensive tablets of writing paper for making lists and writing letters to her sisters. The sisters live nearby in the Bronx, except Anna-from-Elizabeth who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Helen is a five minute walk away and Pauline can be reached with a short bus ride. And also, there is the telephone. But the sisters enjoy writing letters and they all have the same handwriting. Yes, she smells faintly of ink. If I lick her, her skin  will release a sweet glueyness left over from envelope flaps and postage stamps.

She has the softest skin. I can sit beside her and rub that tender flap between her thumb and pointer finger and never get tired of it, and she goes into a little trance herself and doesn't shoo me away. One time she catches me staring at the folds of skin hanging loosely from her upper arms and she gets shy and says "don't look" but then she says okay, I can touch, and it feels like warm buttery velvet.

If I am ever sitting on a chair with my legs spread far apart she will catch my eye and then I remember to put my knees together and cross my legs at the ankles and she doesn't have to say a word, I just know.

This is a story she likes to tell: Long ago there was a famous Russian stage actress who was being interviewed for a newspaper and the rude reporter said "Excuse me —— " (insert name of famous Russian actress here) "but do you know your mouth is open?" And the famous Russian actress said "Of course I do, I opened it." I don't understand why this is such a good story but every time she tells it she laughs long and hard.

She has a wonderful laugh.

Our favorite famous American actress is Loretta Young.

When I am reading My Antonia for tenth grade English class she goes to the library and checks out a copy for herself and we read it out loud to each other. She likes Willa Cather but mostly she prefers the writers from her early years: Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekov, Tolstoy. She recites long passages of Tolstoy in Russian, from memory, and it sounds like she is singing. 

We go together to hear Odetta perform in a high school auditorium in another neighborhood where we don't know anybody. She loves the name Odetta, maybe it reminds her of Odessa, a word/place/memory from her past. At the end of every song she claps, and on the bus ride home she says she especially liked how Odetta's voice is low and deep, like a man's voice.

She has a deep voice and strangers on the telephone often call her Sir.

We go to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and another time we see The Pawnbroker. We cry at the end of both movies. We always have at least one handkerchief within easy reach. We are always prepared.

She keeps two large boxes of tissues on the dressing table: a full, new one on top of an empty old one. After she uses a tissue she puts it into the bottom box, to keep everything sanitary, and I think this is a very smart thing to do.

She has a haphazard collection of silver hair clips but she does not call it a collection. Some are ordinary bobby pins and some are more complicated than that. She wants her hair to be "neat and manageable" which is something she heard on a television commercial. There is always a tube of Alberto VO5 on her dressing table. In her later years she gets her hair cut by a barber because it's more convenient than going to a women's beauty parlor, but she doesn't like the style, it's too short, too blunt. "I don't want to fuss," she says, "a woman my age has no business being vain." (I know it bothers her a lot to get such bad haircuts.)

There is a sound, one sound, an important sound: it is the sound of Grandma in the kitchen, chopping. There is a wooden bowl, much like the fruit and nut bowl, but larger and heavier. She uses a sharp blade with a red handle to make gefilte fish, which doesn't taste very good and requires a lot of hard, noisy work with little reward. She is busy chopping, every Friday afternoon, because what is Friday night dinner without homemade gefilte fish on the table?

There is another sound, a softer sound, a more beautiful sound. It's  the sound of Grandma humming, always humming, every minute humming. Her wordless songs, her never-ending prayer to God, though she never says the word God, not even God bless you if I sneeze. Gesundheit, she says, interrupting her humming and then, in the next breath, returning to it again.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Why Snakes are Long and Skinny (revisted)

Long, long ago, when the grass was greener and the sky was bluer and the lakes were cleaner than they are today — long, long ago —  snakes were round.
They were as soft and round as meatballs. They rolled up and down the hills, hither and yither, and when they were tired they gathered in little clumps of snake-balls to gossip and giggle and sing together.
Sometimes Pooleeporkies would come along, pick up a soft ball of a snake, and play catch with it.

You know what a Pooleeporkie is, don’t you? One of those enormous purple and green creatures with pink beady eyes and snorting snouts  . . .

What? You’ve never heard of a Pooleeporkie?

Too bad.
Anyway, one day, two Pooleeporkies were playing catch with a particularly squishy, mushy snake — let’s call her Lucille — when all of a sudden Lucille started to recite a poem.
Maybe I forgot to tell you that snakes, back in the days when they were soft and smooshy, were wonderful poets. The thing is, until that fateful day they had never let the Pooleeporkies know it. It was all a well-kept secret until Lucille got confused and spilled the beans.
The two Pooleeporkies were mighty impressed by this poetry-spouting snake.  They wanted to take Lucille home with them so they could listen to her poems anytime at all.
Mishka, the older Pooleeporkie, pulled Lucille toward him. But then Pishka, the younger one, pulled Lucille toward him
I think you can guess what happened next.

There was pulling and tugging and pulling and yanking and pulling and stretching and pulling and pulling and pulling.

And before you could say onomatopoeia, Lucille lost all her lovely roundness.

Now she was l-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-n-g and skinny. She didn’t look anything like a meatball anymore. She looked more like a strand of spaghetti.

Poor Lucille.
Ever since that day, snakes have been long and skinny.

And also silent.
Whatever poetry they know, they keep it to themselves.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Bengal Spice Tea

This poem was inspired by the painting "Device Circle" by Jasper Johns (it has a lot of red in it) and by snippets of poems from "The Rain in Portugal," by Billy Collins

at ten past twelve
on the reddest day of the year
bundled in layers to ward off winter

you and i
head down a snowy path

it is our choice
no one is making us do this
we go willingly but not

we do it because
it's supposed to be good for us
even in the cold
even if we hate it

we call it trudging
the way we move
one short step at a time

we are not in a hurry
we never hurry
we say we are too old to hurry

ten past twelve
a good time to set out
morning chores behind us
the heart of the afternoon right here
surrounding us

later we will have tea
and buttered toast
we might shell pistachios
i wonder if there are any figs left

that is in the land of future-maybe
and we are practicing being in the

the present-now that shifts
second by second
so if either of us checked our watch
(which we do not)
we would see that it is no longer
10 past 12

it is 15 or maybe even 20
minutes beyond noon

noon is just a memory

now is the cold air of this moment
the wind burning your eyes
my fingertips cold
though i had high hopes for these new gloves

you will not wear a scarf
you simply will not
but you do own a hat with ear-flaps
and you are wearing it

i wear a sweater
and a vest
under my coat

i waddle
you are more sure-footed
not quite as layered

you don't complain that i complain
i have not stopped complaining
since we left the house

i don't mention that you are sniffling
and not using a hankie

i say
we are two odd ducks

you laugh
you don't quack
though i suspect you want to

it is too cold to quack
a quack would freeze midway
in the air between us

when we get to the end of the path
we can turn right or left
if we want to continue

but we do not want to continue
so we turn around
and head back in the direction of home

it is no longer the reddest day
it has become a bluegreen day
with patches of white
that are neither snowflakes
nor clouds

once we are home
wearing only our indoor layers
and our noses have warmed up
you kiss me on my forehead

and i kiss you on your forehead

and then you go to make the toast
i put the kettle on

it will be bengal spice tea today

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Young Woman's Diary, 1916 (as imagined by Zee Zahava)

(NOTE: This is a Long Read. You might want to dip in and out over time, to see what this Young Woman has been writing in her diary)

A quiet hour of reading in the morning.

Mother had a sick headache and did not come downstairs all day.

Very weak sunlight, but not too cold.

I have been thinking about the planets.

The roast was too rare so I ate no dinner.

The good vase broke today, the violet-colored one.

Mother said she wanted to go for a walk but then she changed her mind.

A quiet hour of reading before bed.

Miss W brought over a jar of preserves. I will have to bring her something, but not until next week.

I did not sleep well last night.

A flock of geese, just after one o'clock.

Fluffy caught her paw on a nail. Quite a crisis.

A trip to the library to exchange my books.

The Tapper sisters stayed too long and spoke a lot of nonsense.

No one can locate the largest serving spoon. Much distress.

Miss W asked how we liked the preserves. I said they were very fine. I must remember to try them. I have not yet brought her anything in return.

Mother says she is longing for her garden. I told her "soon" but we both know it will be a while.

Mr D came for tea. Uninvited. He looks sickly.

I have been thinking about the number seven.

The serving spoon has been found.

I did not sleep well again last night.

My embroidery is getting worse, not better.

Mother complained of a sick headache and asked for breakfast in her room. As usual.

There have been strange noises in the pantry.

I wonder if the piano will ever be in tune again.

The light was glorious today but it is still too cold to stay out for long.

A quiet hour of reading before bed.

Mother was humming in the bath. What can that mean?

Where is my little gold locket?

Miss W asked if I baked the scones myself. I assured her that I did.

There hasn't been any sunshine for two days.

Mother stayed in bed all day. She did not each much. I ate two eggs.

I had no trouble falling asleep last night and this morning I was up with the worms.

A quiet hour of reading in the afternoon.

It was impossible to get warm today.

Mr D said there is something very important he wants to ask me. I said "Please don't."

I have still not found my gold locket.

There seems to be something wrong with my left eye.

My eye is completely better today.

I heard Mother humming again but I did not recognize the tune.

Received a letter from L today. She is now in Venice. I try not to care.

Fluffy is going to have kittens. She is behaving strangely but I suppose that is to be expected.

Mr D appeared in the afternoon and I told him to go away.

I have decided never to wear yellow again.

My latest books from the library are all disappointing.

Mother is not pleased with me but refuses to explain why.

I have been thinking about the planets again. And also about the stars.

I will soon need a new hat.

The light was good today. I sat at the window and watched the clouds.

My gold locket has been found! It was in my glove box all along. Mysterious.

I asked Miss G for assistance today when I visited the library. She was gracious and accommodating. I returned with two new novels and high expectations.

A quiet hour of reading this morning and another hour before bed.

I purchased a new bottle of ink this morning and spent the afternoon writing letters that I will not send.

Mr D arrived, uninvited, and offered to read to Mother. I informed him that Mother would not find that to be a pleasurable experience and he departed quickly.

Fluffy has disappeared.

Miss C asked if I would be willing to pose for her. I replied that I did not feel simpatico with the camera. She said perhaps she would ask me on another day.

Miss W brought a small bouquet of flowers from her garden. Mother had a sneezing attack.

Fluffy was found behind the kitchen stove, along with her babies — five adorable kittens.

A quiet hour of reading this evening.

A perfectly nice day. I considered going on a picnic but then decided it was pleasant enough indoors.

I have been thinking about this: what is a good omen, and what is a bad omen?

L wrote from Naples. Her letter was polite and vague.

Mother remained too long in the garden. Now she has a sick headache.

The eldest of the Tapper sisters is engaged. To Mr D. I hope I managed to look pleased when the news was announced.

A quiet hour of reading this morning.

There are many picnics being planned and I am invited to all, but I do not feel tempted.

The relish bowl is shattered. Fluffy is innocent.

There is to be a new post-mistress. She is the niece of Mr B-K.

Miss C asked me to pose for her, once again. Everyone seems to be entranced by her camera, but I am not, not in the least.

I wanted to go for a walk this morning but I could not find my hat.

My visit to the library proved most satisfactory.

It rained all day. I spent a pleasant hour with a book.

Miss W brought a bouquet of flowers, again. There is no need for her to do this as our garden is also flourishing. I found a slug on the underside of a leaf. Fortunately Mother did not notice.

I will scream if I am forced to eat another lettuce leaf. Or even a tomato.

There has been no word from L and I think perhaps there never will be.

Mother has entirely lost her voice. This is puzzling, since she rarely uses it.

Miss W wants to start a reading club. I asked her not to invite me to join.

The doorbell rang at two o'clock, but when I went to answer it no one was there.

Two china cups are missing.

The birds seem frantic. Do they dislike change too?

I wonder if anyone will bring us a pie? I hope not.

A pleasant day: sunshine.

I have been thinking about the moon and the tides.

Surprise! L arrived home and seems to be in good spirits. She brought many sweet gifts. All is well. For now.

Miss C passed by the front gate, holding her camera, but she did not stop in.

Father's old pocket watch appears to be lost. Or perhaps it has been stolen. Mother says it was not valuable but I think it was.

I doubt I slept at all last night.

People are so kind. I wish they would not be.

I told Mother it is time for us to do something about the curtains.

The new post-mistress has watery blue eyes.

Where have my old hair ribbons gone?

Fluffy is missing. So are the kittens. This is all very distressing.

Mrs S has a cold. I wrote and told her not to call on us until she is entirely recovered.

I am trying to be more patient.

I cannot find my ivory comb.

I don't remember the last time I felt young.

L has gone to Boston, suddenly and mysteriously. She left yesterday morning. I don't care.

The younger Miss Tapper wanted to lend me a novel by Mrs T but I told her I already read it, even though I have not. I prefer never to borrow anything from that family.

Spent the afternoon mending. I am in a foul temper.

A murder of crows has set up home in a tree in the side yard. Neither Mother nor I are the least bit pleased.

Mrs S has recovered from her cold. She offered to tune our piano for us, which is a ridiculous suggestion and I told her so.

A very bad night. Hardly slept at all. Dreamed of crows and clocks and spiders.

Miss W brought over not one, but two, pies. What will we do with them?

I wonder: where does the sun go when it wants to hide?

Miss J (a friend of Miss C's) came to tea. She was crying. I offered what comfort I could but I hope she never returns.

It has been two weeks and I have not received a single letter from anyone.

Three small stones were left in a pile on the back steps.

Mrs R broke her toe. I doubt we will see her again this year.

A quiet hour of reading this evening.

Went for a walk with Miss W. She reached for my hand. I told her "No."

The clasp on my bracelet is broken.

Mother is talking about Barcelona. I fear the worst.

There are rumors that the elder Miss Tapper, now Mrs D, is expecting a child. I don't believe this can be true.

Suddenly all my dresses are drab and droopy. It doesn't matter.

Miss F has begun taking French lessons. She is so very earnest.

L has written to announce her engagement. She met him at her cousin's house in Boston. I am shocked. But not surprised.

Miss J is hosting a salon next Wednesday. I told her that Mother and I will be resting that day.

I miss Fluffy and the kittens. I fear the worst has befallen them.

Spent one hour practicing my penmanship, for no reason at all.

Miss W asked me to accompany her to Philadelphia next month. I pretended I did not hear her.

A disappointing visit to the library. There doesn't appear to be a single book I am interested in.

I doubt I will ever sleep through the night again.

I asked Mother if she has seen my beaded bag. She pretended not to know what I was talking about.

I just noticed today: my right hand is apparently slightly larger than my left hand.

Father's pocket watch was discovered under a pile of linen. Relief.

A quiet hour of reading in the morning.

I have replenished my supply of paper and ink.

Mother asked me to air out the guest room but I see no need to do so, as we are not expecting any overnight visitors.

I must have slept for a while last night since I remember dreaming about a lion.

Received unpleasant news this morning.

Mother was exaggerating, things are not as dreadful as I feared.

I saw Miss J in the library yesterday. She was not crying, but still I made a point of avoiding her.

Mr and Mrs D are expecting twins. I have heard it on the highest authority (Dr N). I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I think I will laugh.

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

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

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

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