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.