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

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



i was a superstitious child

careful never to step
on a sidewalk crack

worried about
my mother's


taking myself out for thai lunch

the crying baby
the loud-talking man

but the soup is hot
and the music


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


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

written in pink chalk
okay — breathing in, breathing out


early morning walk

state street
past present future

stepping in someone else's footprints
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

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



a word I rebel

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

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.

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.)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

My Yetta (re-posting from an earlier time)

I wrote this a while ago but today I wanted to share it again because my Grandma Yetta was in my thoughts. (She always is. But most especially today.)

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, Chekhov, 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.

Friday, January 29, 2016

If You Can't Change a Light Bulb

I wrote this story years ago, and even posted it on my blog before, but I wanted to share it again today. Because a light bulb blew and I changed it all by myself! (You'll see why this is something to celebrate if you keep on reading.)

We always lived in apartments when I was growing up, but my father had big dreams.

“One day, kids, we’ll move to the suburbs. We’ll have a little garden. Maybe even some chickens.”

When my mother heard this she made that sound of hers. I can’t spell it. There aren’t the right letters in our alphabet to spell it. If I had to try, it would start with a ha sound. But it wasn’t ha. It was more disappointed than ha. It was ha with a sigh thrown in. And some exasperation, too.

My father didn’t like that sound.

“What?” he asked, ”what makes you say it won’t happen?”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You said plenty.”

Dad was right, that ha of hers did say plenty. It said we were never going to live in the suburbs. We’d never put our hands in the dirt of a garden. There would be no tomatoes or peas or lettuce to pick for dinner. There would definitely not be chickens to do whatever a person did with chickens.

And here’s why:

My father couldn’t change a light bulb.

If you can’t change a light bulb, you can’t live in a house in the suburbs with a garden and chickens.

If you can’t change a light bulb it means you have to live your whole life in an apartment building where there is a super and a super’s assistant — men you call up when the light bulb blows and they arrive within the hour, with a ladder and a flashlight and a new bulb. They carry toolboxes and they not only know the name of each tool but they know how to use them. They have wrenches and screwdrivers and they carry nails in their pockets and hammers hang from special loops on their belts.

My father didn’t know from hammers. He was entirely dependent on the super and his assistant. And not only for the light bulb situation but also for leaky faucets and running toilets and — God forbid — what if water comes in through the window when it rains? What if the thermostat breaks? What if a ceiling tile falls down? What if the refrigerator gets too cold, or too hot, or stops working completely?

Unexpected disasters lurk around every corner. Not everyone can handle them on their own. That is why my family was doomed to a life of apartment dwelling.

That’s what my mother meant by that ha of hers, that was so much more than a ha. Dad couldn’t change a light bulb. There would be no fresh-from-the-earth food for us; no eggs from a chicken; no milk from a cow.

Wait a minute, wait minute, who said anything about a cow?

Well, a girl can have dreams too, can’t she?

I learned that from my father.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Remembering Patty Play Pal

 I am re-posting a story from a long time ago, a bit of Family Fiction, because I was remembering the dolls yesterday.

The first rival for my parents’ affection was not my younger sister, Laura. It was Patty Play Pal, who arrived in our lives when I was eight and Laura nearly six.
At first we thought of Patty as our new sister. She stood halfway between us in height and we’d take turns combing and brushing and braiding her long, straight black hair. Both of us had short hair — Mom said it was easier to manage that way — but I still had a treasured stash of ribbons and bows, headbands and barrettes, from the days before the “practical haircut,” and took great pleasure in adorning Patty with every imaginable accessory.
We quickly re-named her Patty Rachel Shoshanna Play Pal, after our just-born baby cousin, and assigned her the role of teacher’s pet in the classroom we ruled over on Saturday mornings. Before my parents were even awake, Laura and I would convert our shared bedroom into a one-room schoolhouse, propping all our dolls up on our beds, stiff-backed against the wall. Posture was an important aspect of the curriculum.
There was Gladys and Mimi and Peggy One and Peggy Two and Squinty and Babette and Susie-Susie and Heidi. These were just your garden variety dolls. They weren’t especially pretty or bright. Sometimes, even, they were very, very bad and had to go sit in the corner as punishment. But Patty Rachel Shoshanna — at last, a pupil worthy of us.
Patty Rachel Shoshanna could spell, she could add and subtract, she had beautiful penmanship, a good memory for historic dates, and truly exceptional posture. She was without a doubt our star pupil, and if Mimi or Heidi hated her guts, well, they never said anything to us about it. If they had, they would have been punished. Envy was not a characteristic we encouraged in our school.
All went well for a number of weeks. Patty Rachel Shoshanna continued to get gold stars every Saturday morning; her hair was always neat and shiny; she looked adorable in her pleated plaid skirt and clean white blouse, and she never spoke without first raising her hand. Laura and I were in love with her.
Until we realized that our parents loved her as well. Maybe a little too much. Dad, a guy with a strong predisposition toward the literal, was impressed by how real she seemed. “Would you look at those eyelashes, how’d they manage to do that? And her fingernails! Kids, I’m telling you, it’s amazing what science can accomplish these days.” (You’d think NASA was about to send her to the moon.)
Mom, with her flair for all things fashion-related, was spending hours dressing Patty in clothes Laura and I refused to wear ourselves. We didn’t go in for the crinolines and stiff, lacy dresses Mom was always bringing home, and if we got within three feet of a woolen sweater we broke out in hives. But Patty didn’t mind any of this. She’d stand perfectly still while Mom pulled first one sweater and then another over her head. Sometimes we would just sit there on the floor, bug-eyed, at the appalling sight of our mother trying to decide which particular shade of green went best with Patty’s coloring.
At dinner, Dad would ask how Patty’s day had gone, and Mom wondered, more and more often, why we couldn’t give her some peace and quiet, like Patty did. Clearly, Patty was the good child; we were the little beasts.
We didn’t like it. Not at all. We no longer viewed Patty as a beloved sister. We saw her for what she really was: the devil’s child. We’d pass our Brussels sprouts to her and when she wouldn’t eat them we’d pinch her, hard, on her leg. We came up with really tricky math problems for her to solve, like: “What is 9 million, 2 thousand, 6 hundred and fifty-four times 15 billion, 4 quadrillions, a zilliontrillion and a half?” And when she sat there looking at us blankly, with her great big oh-so-realistically-constructed  brown eyes, we’d yell at her, “Stupid, stupid girl,” and make her go sit in the corner. Mimi was delighted. So were Gladys and Susie-Susie.
All this time my father was working two jobs. During the day he cooked at a neighborhood luncheonette, and at night he batched up bundles of the New York Times, preparing them for early morning delivery. He’d come home at dawn, bleary-eyed and exhausted.
One morning when he walked through the front door, there was Patty Rachel Shoshanna Play Pal, carelessly left in the hallway. Trust me, there was nothing premeditated about this. We were just kids, we left a doll standing in the hall, it was all a big mistake. Really.
Anyway, Dad bumped into her, knocked her over in fact, fell on her.  And in his over-worked, over-tired state of mind, he assumed it was one of his daughters. “Oh my God,” he yelled, imagining the very worst: a broken arm, fractured skull, etc. He scrambled to his feet, felt around in the dark — “I’m so sorry honey. What are you doing up this early?” — floundering, sputtering —  until he touched the long straight hair, the cold plastic hands.
“Shit!” he screamed. By this time we were all up and crowding into the hallway, Mom turning on the light, asking “Morty, are you alright?” and Dad saying “What the hell is the God-damned doll doing here?” Laura and I were completely silent for once. And if we were relieved, maybe even secretly ecstatic, who could blame us?

The next day Patty Rachel Shoshanna Play Pal was  given away to Dorie Kaminsky who lived in the apartment next door. Mom told Mrs. Kaminsky that we’d outgrown her. Patty went to her new home with only one outfit, and it was not her most flattering one. By this time Mom didn’t care if the green sweater matched her eyes or not, she just wanted this  doll, who had almost killed her husband, out of our lives forever.
By the weekend, Laura and I had our first Barbie doll. She never became one of our students in the Saturday morning class. Oh no. She was our teacher. Miss Barbie, we called her. She was strict, but fair. We did not chew gum in her class, we did not pass notes, and we certainly did not cheat when she gave us a math quiz. Miss Barbie helped Squinty and Babette improve their spelling and she uncovered Heidi’s hidden musical talents. Dad never asked about Miss Barbie’s day and Mom took no interest in her wardrobe whatsoever, adamantly refusing to sew any clothes for her.
We all liked it better this way.