Friday, April 19, 2013

small poems since early March

a long train ride
dear moon
you are good company on this journey

Stay-at-Home Moon
put your feet up
have another cup of cocoa —
you and I drifting through winter
going nowhere

even in my dream
a suitcase too heavy
to lug around

in search of a poem
I bump into two friends, instead —
well-wrapped against the cold

this winter-sleet street
I don't want to stop hugging you
your perfume: Beach

rooftop crows
watching me shovel snow
they seem so smug

shabby old raincoat
3 shades of faded black
I can't get rid of you

Wiser-Than-I-Am Moon
please don't give up on me
I'm still evolving

Origami Moon
folding yourself
into me

you whispered sweet nothings in my ear —
or was that the rain?

early in the morning
he pours a tall glass of
ginger ale over ice —
that sharp spicy odor
lingers in the kitchen
as the soda bubbles pop
and my father slowly evaporates

the car
is driving away
I don't wave
I am glad to see
it go

A special thank you to Ileen Kaplan for her paintings of cars, which bring up many associations for me

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Rochelle's Mother

My best friend Rochelle's mother was an underwear model and sometimes even a nude model, though she never intended to be either, and she wasn't even aware that she was, until one Saturday morning in the dry cereal aisle of Daitch's Supermarket, when her shopping cart bumped into Sheldon Feingold's cart.

He bowed to her in his Old World gentlemanly way and said "Excuse me, Mrs., I just have to tell you, of all your beautiful bras I like the black lace one the very best, and also, if you don't mind me mentioning it, your" — and here he lifted his two cupped hands to his chest, to indicate her breasts — "they are so lovely, they give me good dreams at night."

Rochelle's mother, who other people called Estelle Kornblum, but not me, almost passed out, right there in the aisle next to the Rice Krispies.

Somehow, in a state of embarrassment and shock, she managed to walk the 5 blocks back to her apartment, where she immediately convened a gathering of her 3 closest friends for an emergency session of Coffee and Kvetch.

The women found the story appalling. How could it be that Sheldon Feingold — retired tailor; respected congregant at Temple Beth Shalom; a man revered in our building for the ease with which he could remove a splinter, no matter how badly it might be embedded in the heel of a child's foot — was nothing but a no-goodnick. A rotten filthy slobbery sneaky squinty disgusting Peeping Tom.

"Feh on him," said Missy Weiskoff's mother, and she spit three times, but in a very ladylike manner so not one spray of spittle landed anyplace.

Naturally, the conversation turned to the particular quirks and oddities of our large apartment building, with its architectural curves and corners that allowed Mr. Feingold's bedroom window to face directly into Rochelle's mother's bedroom, although the two apartments weren't even on the same floor. 

There was a time-honored rule in the building: Never look out your window, unless you're looking down onto the street to make sure your children aren't doing something they shouldn't be doing. Generations had abided by this policy, so how was Rochelle's mother supposed to know that all during that long hot summer, with nighttime temperatures remaining in the upper 80s, her bedroom curtains left open to attract any passing breeze, had been attracting the unwelcome gaze of old Mr. Feingold.

"Estelle, you're such an innocent," Missy Weiskoff's mother tut-tutted. "An ignoramus, maybe?" Wendy Leiberman's mother asked, but kindly, so as not to give offense.

My own mother tried to look on the positive side. "Essie," she said, "let's face it, you have the best bosoms of us all, maybe it's time someone was admiring them." Even Rochelle's mother had to admit that she did have nice bosoms.

Mrs. Leiberman thought maybe they should head straight up to Mr. Feingold's apartment and give him a serious what-for. Mrs. Weiskoff thought maybe they should wait and get their husbands involved, to insure an even more serious what-for. 

But in the end, there was no what-for delivered at all. Because they were peace-loving women. And also because it was such a hot day, and something that required any effort was just not going to happen.

You might be asking yourself where Rochelle's daddy stood in all of this. Mr. Kornblum was standing with his feet firmly planted on a tiny square of parched lawn in Tenafly, New Jersey, which is where he moved when he left Rochelle's mother, and where he lived with his new daughters. Rochelle called her half-sisters Peanut, Peppermint and Pipsqueak, and for all I know those could have been their real names. Mr. Kornblum was never told about the Feingold business. 

Brouhahas come and go, and this one was quickly dropped. In a way. But in another way it was never dropped. The children in the building, especially the girls, were instructed to ignore Mr. Feingold if we happened to see him on the stairs, or out back where we went to leave bags of garbage. 

And too bad for you if you got a splinter in your foot and your mother couldn't get it out, not even with a needle she sterilized on the stove, you'd just have to suffer until that splinter worked its way out on its own. Mr. Feingold didn't have a friend left in the building. You could almost feel sorry for him. But nobody did.

The months passed, and before you could say latke it was already Hanukah and Rochelle's mother called her friends together once more for an emergency session of Coffee and Kvetch. But this time, it wasn't to kvetch. She had a big announcement: she met someone. A man. A man with a good head of hair and a respectable job as a librarian. 

"I met him on the train," Rochelle's mother said, "on the "D" train, if you can believe it." 

They couldn't believe it. How does a woman get on a train and end up sitting next to a man, a librarian no less, on his way home after visiting his mother on Jerome Avenue, and get to talking, and discover, even above the din of the subway, that he's the one for her? And to top it off, a few short weeks later, they're getting married.

"It doesn't happen like this, not even in the movies," Wendy Leiberman's mother said. My mother said maybe they should start going to other movies. Missy Weiskoff's mother said she could never ride the D train again without wondering if something like a fairytale might happen to her.

Of course the women were happy for Rochelle's mother. She'd been  so lonely after Mr. Leiberman left, and this new man, Harvey Moskowitz was his name, he sounded like a mensch. After all, they met because he'd been visiting his mother.

There was only one problem and it was a big one. Mr. Harvey Moskowitz lived in Astoria, Queens. "We'll never see you no more," Mrs. Weiskoff cried. "Don't say that," said Rochelle's mother, "I'll come back to see you every time Harvey visits his mama, she's just one subway stop away."

But it never happened. She never came back, not once. And I never saw Rochelle again. Astoria, Queens. They might as well have moved to the moon.

By the following summer I was heading off to sleep-away camp with my new best friend, Rhonda Shoemaker, and we were going to be in the same bunk, and we were going to make enough lanyards that we could sell them to our friends when we got back home, and we were both going to be rich.

The night before I left for camp my mother was still packing my duffle bag. A small pile of shorts and T-shirts leaned precariously on my bed, next to my bathing suit, towels, flashlight, and three cans of insect repellent. 

Also, six pairs of Carter's white cotton underpants, and my brand new white cotton training bra. 

My mother held the bra up in the air like a flag. "Listen to me," she said, in a tone of voice I always listened to because it meant she was about to impart words of true wisdom. "I want you to promise, that for the rest of your life, you will only wear plain white 100% cotton bras. Never black. Never lace."

I stuck my fingers in my ears. This was not the true wisdom I was looking for.

"Listen to what I'm telling you," my mother insisted. "Never black, and never lace. You can't be too careful. Remember Estelle Kornblum. Remember Mr. Feingold."

"Mom," I begged her, "please stop. I'm only eleven." 

But my mother wouldn't, or couldn't, stop. "There are Mr. Feingolds everywhere you go," she said, "they come in all shapes and sizes. Don't be fooled. And don't let anybody get fresh with you." 

With these comforting words she sent me off to Camp WollyWolly,  in the Catskill wilderness.

By the time Rhonda and I returned we were no longer friends, we didn't have a single lanyard to sell, and I had outgrown my
training bra. The next day my mother took me shopping.

As we headed for the Girls' Department in Alexander's Department Store I reached for my mother's hand and gave it a little squeeze. 

"I know what to look for," I assured her. "Plain, white, 100% cotton. Never black. Never lace."

Mom gave my hand a relieved squeeze back.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Two Pieces about my Father

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 think heaven is a five-star 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. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Blossom and Spitt

I'm re-posting this piece, which originally appeared on my blog in August, 2011. It just seemed like a good time to share it again — it's about flowers and naming things and memory. It feels springy to me.

Last week my blog had a mind of its own and instead of sharing the one piece I wanted my friends to see, it sent an email with a list of many pieces I had recently posted. Perhaps it will do this again, but I hope it won't. I have no idea how to control the way information is shared. I've decided not to freak about this! It will roll the way it rolls. Thank you, dear friends, for your infinite patience with my lack of techno savviness.

I think flowers appreciate hearing our voices, even if it's only a quick "hello, hello" in passing. But it's best to be specific and personal, to call each flower by name. 

That's where I run into trouble. I can never remember the names of flowers. 

So I make something up. 

"Good morning, Prudence,"  "Howdy, Clarabella," "You're looking especially beautiful today, Ethel." 

I whisper greetings to the flowers because I believe it makes them happy. 

And also, I think they get a kick out of nicknames.

Did you ever have a nickname? (Maybe you still do.)

I remember camp names from childhood: Banjo, Froggie, Spike, Strings, Flash, Bongo. 

They were wonderful counselors, each one.

And there was a time in the 1980s when it seemed every woman I knew was using an earth name: Cricket, Cloudy, Spirit, Dust, RiverChild, Forest.

These are the names I've had in my life, so far:
Irenechickle (family only)
Princess Potch in Toochis (translation: Little Girl Who Gets Smacked on the Backside When She Misbehaves)
I (for people who were too lazy to use 2 syllables)
Firelight (see above; this was in the '80s)
And now, Zee. Which is my favorite, and I'm sticking with it. 

I once wrote a story about 2 girls named Blossom and Spitt who were best friends. Blossom was more of a toughie and Spitt had a large space between her front teeth. She was especially proud of that extra "t" at the end of her name. I don't remember anything else and I can't find the story anywhere. I may just start a new one with those characters because I like the names so much.

When my grandmother was the age that I am now, she couldn't always "find" my name. She'd go through a litany of possibilities: her 3 sisters, my mother, my younger sister. Until, finally, she'd come upon Irene. Or, more often, Irenechickle, which sounded delicious when she said it.

We always laughed when this happened. Grandma wasn't worried about losing her mind. It helps so much when you don't worry about losing your mind.

More than once I've called my sweetheart by our cat's name. 

What do you call yourself when you look at your own reflection in the mirror?

I try to remember to call myself "Darling."

It makes it easier to start a conversation that way.