Saturday Morning, February 27, 2016. Women's Writing Circle

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.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Haiku Magic Gardens: re-posting from years ago

There's a really nice children's store near my house and they sell all the things I want to play with: miniature xylophones and kaleidoscopes and sparkly wands and kazoos. I go there sometimes and just stand in front of the good stuff and drool a little bit. I try to be discreet so I won't damage the merchandise.

Sometime I even buy things.

I bought a sketch pad and a box of colored pencils the other day. Then I set about drawing gardens.

There are very few things that I can draw. Certainly nothing that looks like anything. But for some reason I thought I had a chance with gardens.

My first drawing went like this: going from left to right there was a long narrow patch of dark green, followed by equally long and narrow patches of red, light green, orange, yellow, dark purple, light purple, red again, more yellow and light blue.

In between the colored patches I wrote the words broccoli, tomatoes, peas, pumpkins, corn, eggplants, irises, cherries, bananas, clouds. I titled it Magic Garden #1.

I know as little about gardens as I do about drawing, but I felt justified including what I did because of the title. It seems to me that the word magic provides quite a bit of leeway.
After that I made a second drawing, with shapeless splotches of purple, green, orange, yellow, more green, blue, red, green again, and another shade of red. It was all willy-nilly, like a very messy garden might be.

I dutifully identified each smudge of color: plums, string beans, chick peas, yellow squash, green squash, hydrangeas, apples, avocados and cranberries. This one was titled Magic Garden #2.

If not for the written explanations no one would know what I was getting at.

I don’t mind giving people a clue.

All this business with the colors and the words took a lot of time, and each sheet of paper was gigantic. So much white space to fill. Which means I lost patience after the second garden.

So I pulled a page out of the sketch pad and cut it into lots of tiny squares.

This is what I drew on those scraps of paper, in circles and oblongs and squiggles of color: peaches, petunias, raisins, raspberries, nectarines, asparagus, peonies, blueberries, parsnips, lemon drops, kisses, roses, watermelons and watermelon seeds, okra, chard, gourds, anemones, onions, pickles, sunflowers, brussels sprouts, red peppers, yellow peppers, green peppers, kiwis, kale, violets, scallions, tangerines, cabbages, beets, strawberries, cumin, leeks, star fruit, lotuses, rutabagas, garlic, raindrops, parsley, figs, butterflies, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, almonds, daisies, basil, tiramisu, pansies and carrots.

Because they were so small, I called each miniature drawing a Haiku Magic Garden.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

You Seem to be You

you seem to be you and I seem to be me —
but who knows?
is it possible we are apple seeds in the same sweet apple?
or hats perched atop mannequins in a shop window
in oooh-lala-Paris?

and if we are hats
then I want to have a wide brim with a floppy purple flower
(a peony?) hanging down the right side
and you can be whatever kind of hat you want to be
I am not feeling especially bossy today

but I will say this
if it turns out you are not you
and I am not me
and we are neither apple seeds
nor bird feathers
nor woven rugs
nor roller skates
nor pine trees . . .
if you are not you and I am not me
and we are two different people
who don't yet know each other

then my biggest wish
is for us to meet one day
and recognize some unmistakable spark
to be drawn together by a bright light
or a pleasant smell
or a strong vibration
or a single musical note
it could be anything
as long as we connect again
(or would it be considered the first time?)

what other reason would there be
to get up in the morning


With thanks to Terrence Keenan for his poem "A Sweetness Appears and Prevails." His opening lines ("The reason we bother/ to get up in the morning") and the phrase toward the end ("You seem to be you/ and I seem to be me") led me into my poem

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Father Stories (revisited)

(I shared these pieces long ago but I thought I'd post them again, since Father's Day is coming up on June 19.)


Ketchup is Not a Red Food

Every life has its tragedies. Choices are made and fates are sealed.

My father would have been a lot happier if he’d married into a Sicilian family, not a Russian Jewish one. That was his tragedy. He’s much more of a marinara sauce kind of a guy than a blintzes and sour cream kind of a guy. He likes his food red, not white.
For too many Friday nights in his life he ate dinner with his in-laws: boiled chicken, room-temperature peas, two slices of toasted white bread with a schmear of margarine, all washed down with a glass of hot water and lemon. Sometimes, for variety, there were lamb chops, broiled to the brink of incineration. And every now and then, spaghetti. Cooked for half an hour until it was whiter than white. It doesn't get any paler than that. If Dad wanted his spaghetti red, he would have had to put ketchup on it. He would rather have given up cigars for a month than eat spaghetti with ketchup. Somehow, in his mind, ketchup is not a red food. Ketchup is Evil incarnate.
It’s probably not a good idea, in terms of mental health, to pick one food — not even a food, just a condiment — and demonize it in this way.

When the first MacDonald’s opened in our neighborhood, my father demanded to see the manager, a skinny man with bad hair whose plastic badge identified him as Sylvester O’Malley. My father yelled at Mr. O’Malley. He said ketchup had no business on a quarter-pounder. Mr. O’Malley threatened to call the police if my father didn’t leave.
My father walks out of diners all across the country because a ketchup bottle accompanies a plateful of french fries. And I don’t mean just walks out, as in pays the bill and leaves quietly. I mean makes a fuss, complete with accusations of imbecility, threats to contact the better business bureau, and near-fatal encounters with irate waitresses who are perfectly capable of hitting obnoxious customers over the head with a hot coffee pot.
You could say my father’s taken a stand and he’s not letting go. Sure, you could say that, as if it were something of value, something even remotely significant. But come on, the man has taken a stand against ketchup.

When Ronald Reagan said “let them eat ketchup,” or words to that effect, when asked why the nation’s children were not getting any vegetables with their school lunches, my father was ready to take the next plane to Washington. He was prepared to stand in front of the White House with a sign proclaiming “Ketchup is Un-American.”

My mother had to remind him that he’d voted for Reagan. My mother, who has had to endure a lifetime of being married to a card-carrying Republican, is the one who had to hold him back. Poor woman.
And poor man, too. Really. I mean it. Maybe he was born with  faulty DNA in the ketchup spiral. What do I know? I’m not a doctor. All I can tell you is, when my parents go out to eat my mother calls ahead and warns the restaurant owner that they’re coming. She says her husband is likely to order every red item on the menu but if there’s a ketchup bottle in sight he’ll bring the house down.

She tells me she’s given up trying to cure him of his demons. Now all she’s interested in is damage control.


Restaurant Dream

In the dream my father and I are in a restaurant, just the two of us. This is something we have never done in real life, we have never gone out to eat together.

But in the dream, we’re in a nice restaurant and he isn’t yelling at the waiter because his fork is dirty, or because he did not ask for ice in his water, or because he was seated too close to the bathrooms.

My father is calm, amiable, natural. And so am I.

The two of us are eating salad. How healthy! I think this, even in the dream. We each have a plate of greens before us and we eat slowly as we talk.

I don’t know what we’re talking about but we’re not arguing, just talking, the way some people do with each other, the way some fathers and daughters do, friendly, just shooting the breeze.

There’s not a ketchup bottle in sight. A ketchup bottle could set him off, but there isn’t one — my dream is cooperating.

We’re just sitting and talking and eating and it’s very nice, maybe a little bit like heaven, if you imagine heaven as a nice restaurant where the silverware is always clean.

Which I don’t, and this is my dream, so I’d say: not heaven. Just a bit of a reprieve in the middle of this all-too-real world.

Some sweet time in a restaurant. Salad, low talking, a father and daughter. 

My father and me. Together, in a dream.

In another life.


Monday, May 2, 2016

Coming to Ithaca

Note: On Saturday, April 30, I wrote with a group of people in the gallery space at the Community School of Music and Art, in a workshop sponsored by the Community Arts Partnership for the Spring Writes Literary Festival. We were inspired by paintings, photographs, and sculptures on the theme "A Sense of Place." The art show focused on places in Ithaca. Which led to this piece of "Family Fiction" (only semi-autobiographical).

It is September, 1968. I am leaving for college.

My bags are all packed. They've been packed for days. And now the green Dodge Dart is stuffed to the gills. We leave the Bronx early in the morning, heading north, expecting to arrive in Ithaca in time for a late lunch.

The trip ends up taking more than nine hours. My father is a nervous driver under the best of circumstances, which these are not. He still doesn't understand why I'm going so far from home. There are plenty of colleges in NYC, he says — "the best ones" — there is even a college across the reservoir from our apartment building, we can see it when we look out the living room windows. "You could walk there," my father says, as if that is a good thing.

The night before we leave For The North I hear him and my mother talking in the kitchen. "Eve," he says, "are you sure they'll have drug stores in that fakakta town? She'll need to buy, you know, her womanly stuff."

My mother is getting fed up with him. "Don't be ridiculous, Morty, they'll have drug stores there, it's still America, she can buy all the tampons she needs."

My father is still not convinced. "Maybe you should tell her to pack extra, just to be safe." "Give me a break, Morty."

In the morning they squeeze me into the back seat, surrounded by a duffle bag and three suitcases, my new electric typewriter, the stereo I bought with the money I earned that summer as a temp typist, and my guitar. I can't move.

Mom has already told dad he is forbidden to smoke in the car. That's why it takes us so long to get to Ithaca. He stops every half hour to pee and to smoke his cigar. At every gas station, rest stop, pull-over, scenic lookout, he gets out of the car and takes care of business.

My mother and I stay inside. I couldn't move even if I wanted to. Mom hasn't given me advice in years. Now she starts. "I want you to promise me something, honey. I want you to promise that you won't stifle your cough."

I have a cough, the remains of a late summer cold. My mother knows me too well. She knows I am planning to cough into my pillow at night so I won't disturb my roommate. "Okay Mom," I say, though I am lying.

"And something else," she says, trying to cram as much in as she can while my father is out of the car, "I want you to wear your clothes, don't save them, you have nice things, let people see that." "Okay Mom," I say. I am lying again.

My mother packed dresses for me, and blouses with rounded collars, and pants, which she calls "slacks." But I already know I will wear my jeans, the peasant blouses I bought in Greenwich Village, my Danskin tops, backwards, so the zipper is in the front and it looks like I am wearing a V-neck shirt. And my green suede Olaf Daughters clogs, even though they give me blisters on my toes. I have it all planned out.

"And honey," she's on a roll, "if anything happens that upsets you, anything you want to talk about, call me. Not just if you're upset, even if you're happy. Of course, if you're happy, call me. Call me collect. Call me every day."

My mother is babbling. My beautiful strong wise practical no-nonsense mother. She resisted Dad's insane worrying for months but now, in the last hours, as Ithaca looms, she is falling to pieces in the car.

I lean over and pat her on the shoulder. "Mom," I say, "Mommy," (more reassuringly) "I will be fine." "I know you will, honey, I'm just saying . . ."

But then my father gets back into the car, stinking from his cigar, and it's obvious he's been thinking while he smoked. He starts right up. "That roommate they gave you, that girl from Winniekaka?" "Yes Dad, my roommate from Winnetka. That's in Illinois." "So?" he says, "Illinois is not New York, is it? The chances are she's never met anyone Jewish before."

"Shut up, Morty," my mother says. "Daddy," I say, "I bet she'll be really nice. We'll be friends. It will all be good."

And it was. It was very good. My roommate, the dorm, my classes, the drug stores, the whole town. It was all good.

Forty-eight years later — I am still here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Morning Poem for Blue

you are in newark now
awaiting the next flight
that will take you

my sneakers are laced —
i found the good umbrella —
time to walk north
then east
to the nearest waterfall

it's raining hard

water on water

this is what i do to feel close to you

(tuesday, april 26, 7:40 a.m.)