My creative non-fiction piece, “Pearl,” is up at Rhythm & Bones. My thanks to Tianna G. Hansen for publishing this story that was looking for a home. I’m pleased to be a part of this issue.
My creative non-fiction piece, “Pearl,” is up at Rhythm & Bones. My thanks to Tianna G. Hansen for publishing this story that was looking for a home. I’m pleased to be a part of this issue.
Now–a church in Philadelphia,
a sanctuary harboring
as medieval churches
hate, fear, pogroms,
the shtetl, the Pale—
to faraway ports–
chasing the American dream
through the Depression
always seeking a safe harbor–beyond
Lillian at dVerse has asked us to write a quadrille using the word harbor.
You who came before me–how I wish I could ask you about your lives. My mom tells me stories, but there is so much she doesn’t know, and now much she has forgotten. Of course, I want to know what it was like to live in what was then Russia, to be a Jew there—the terror of pogroms and the ordinary day-to-day problems you learned to live with, until you no longer could. But I also want to know what did you eat? What did your house look like? What games did you play as a child? How did you feel leaving your homeland, traveling first to England, France, Germany, or Italy before finally reaching Philadelphia or New York? You had so much drive and determination. In my mind, I see the many generations that came before me. I see practical, no-nonsense individuals, and yet, I wonder how many were also full of artistic vision or musical talent. Somewhere lost in time, you, my ancestors, must have journeyed from the Middle East to Eastern Europe, and each time you had to learn so many new things. I wonder what else you experienced? I discover my great grandfather had grey eyes. My daughters have grey eyes, too–a gift from the past, a look to the future.
Endless storms weathered
again winter turns to spring—
young birds fly from nests
I’m combining prompts again—Björn at dVerse asked us to write a poetic letter. I hope this fits.
Colleen asked us to use synonyms for energy and knowledge for her Tanka Tuesday.
We’re also in the midst of a nor’easter with rain, snow, and wind!
I’m also adding this to Frank’s Barely Spring Challenge.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
–Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
On Christmas, I see the past, present, and future appear. Perhaps not as actual ghosts, but as memories, experiences, and wishes. As we decorate Christmas cookies, I think of all the times I did this with our daughters. My husband declares this is the first time he has ever frosted the cookies. Perhaps it’s true. My sugar cookies have stars with five points and stars with six points. They’re all equally sweet and delicious. The Hanukkah candles and the Christmas lights both glow in the winter darkness, symbolizing miracles and bringing hope. This year, I give one daughter Hanukkah presents with a Hello Kitty! Christmas card on Christmas Eve day, when we gather with my niece and her family. In the background, Christmas songs written by Jewish men softly play. We sit around a table in a room decorated for Christmas and discuss ancestors in Belarus and Ukraine, people who never celebrated this holiday.
How did they get here, my niece asks? How did they have the means to leave? When she was a girl, my father’s mother hid in a barn during a pogrom. Somehow, they—some of them–found the means to leave, and to come to a country where they were not persecuted for their religious beliefs and culture. Their ghosts appear briefly and stand around us. Perhaps they would not approve of these goyische celebrations, but I hope they’d sense the love. Here and now we eat and laugh together, even as we miss those no longer with us. We will miss our daughters on Christmas, and I will miss being awakened by hearing them sing “Christmas Time is Here” early in morning. But now on Christmas Eve, my husband and I drink mulled wine and watch It’s a Wonderful Life, and I think yes, it is.
ancient stars shimmer,
ghost light of winter’s hope
I’m linking this Monday Morning Musings to Frank Tassone’s Christmas Haiku challenge.
Wishing all of you a joyous holiday season filled with peace, hope, love, and laughter!
“Then we got into a labyrinth, and, when we thought we were at the end,
came out again at the beginning, having still to see as much as ever.”
“From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world.”
—William Shakespeare, Love’s Labor’s Lost, Act V, scene iii
There are bridges that carry us across rivers
And there are bridges that close gaps in time or understanding
But life is a labyrinth
There are no direct routes
It twists and turns
Until it finally ends
We took a bridge to my sister’s house,
Our annual Mother’s Day ritual,
Lunch prepared by my sister and her wife
Stuffed shells, meatballs and sausage for the meat eaters,
A great salad brought by my niece
(ten minutes of agonizing about it over
the phone the day before)
because that’s what we do
The women in my family can make
Not simply mountains out of mole hills,
We can make Mt. Everest out of speck on the ground
But oh, we can spin stories, too–
Best done with food and wine,
Enough food for twice the number at the table
Also part of the tradition–
So we sit at my sister’s table
We talk about our pets
The size of our cats
(big and small)
The time my daughter’s dog
“sprint peed” around her apartment
We talk about family
The “art genes” we carry
The ability to write and a love of chocolate
(Must be carried on dominant genes)
Perhaps a love of spicy food, too,
As no one thought the “hot” salsa was particularly hot
And daughter and I had
a little pizza with our hot peppers the night before
My niece discussing family craziness
“If our husbands die do you want to live together
and we can drink and be crazy together?”
She might have said this to my daughter
That’s perfectly normal, right?
And then it was off to Macy’s
How many women does it take to shop with my mom?
We have our assigned roles,
Hunter and Gatherer of new items
But sometimes it takes a village
And this year, we also have
The bra hunter
And dressing room bouncer
Do you wonder what it must be like
Or why we laugh?
You hook the bra, and I’ll put the boobs in
And later a whispered aside:
Just put the pillow over my head if I start wearing bras like that
She has great boobs– you have good boob genes
(Is this carried along with the writing and chocolate gene?)
To the dressing room bouncer,
How about if you close the door– I’m sitting here in all my glory.
Finally, the shopping is complete
My mom has quite a haul– dress, pants, shirts—no new bra
What $40? Forget it?
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!
We head back to my sister’s,
where my husband, brother, and sister’s wife
have been watching the Phillies
Time for dessert,
My brownies and daughter’s cannoli dip
We like our chocolate
What? You don’t make coffee at home?
Back in the car, driving my mom home
We talk of family history
We learn that some of her family lived in a refugee tent city
Caught there between Belarus and the U.S.
Early in the twentieth century
Perhaps during WWI?
My mom doesn’t know
She said her cousin, then a young child
Thought it was fun—the children got to run around and play–
Their mothers probably did not enjoy it as much–
We arrive at my mom’s, but
Just before she gets out of the car
She leaves us with one more family puzzle
Her father left family in Russia who vanished during
That would be WWII.
I have no idea what to make of this.
How did they vanish?
Life is full of such puzzles
We can never solve all of them
But there’s a quest to try
To work our way through the labyrinth
Not right now though
And so we head back over the bridge,
East with the sun at our backs
Where there is more chocolate waiting for me.
My uncle was a kind man,
with a twinkle in his eye.
Perhaps he would not seem remarkable
unless you knew him, knew that
he was curious, with a love of gadgets–
my mom always talked about that–
his latest gadget, she would say,
after he purchased a camera or computer,
an e-reader, or kitchen appliance.
We sat in her apartment, after hearing the news.
We drank to his memory,
blood red wine,
in bright blue plastic cups
like college students at a party.
We ate brownies, remembering
his love of chocolate—
that love, a family trait, it seems
a dominant gene.
“Didn’t he used to pour chocolate syrup
on his cereal?” I asked my mom.
And she laughed, happy memories mixed with sad.
Then she remembered how excited he was
when their father, my grandfather,
sent chocolate Tastykakes to him in Florida.
Isn’t it funny what we remember?
I think of how I never knew my uncle as a young man,
but I’ve heard the tale of how, when they were first married,
my aunt asked my mother how she prepared a particular dish.
My mom replied that she used “the shit method,”
shocking her new sister-in-law.
My mom then explained that she meant shitarein,
a Yiddish phrase,
a little of this and that
It makes a good story.
It’s strange to think of them all so young and carefree,
children of the Great Depression who learned to navigate
the technology of the twenty-first century.
I learned that my aunt and one, perhaps two, of my cousins
lived in our house in Philadelphia for a brief time
when I was a toddler.
Of course, not something I recall,
Though I vaguely remember the big, old house
My uncle must have been in Miami,
I suppose to get settled there
before his family arrived.
A big move to a new city.
I remember their house, perhaps not their first,
but both of the Miami houses I remember had sunken living rooms—
a feature that I, as a young child, then associated with Miami,
thinking that all Miami houses must be constructed that way.
Random memories of visiting my uncle, aunt, and cousins—
their little dachshund,
(Was her name Penny?),
my aunt playing the piano late at night,
the music forming a soothing backdrop to my dreams,
swimming in their pool,
playing board games,
and when my husband and I visited
shortly after becoming engaged,
I remember my cousin baking cookies in a microwave oven,
the first one I’d even seen (See: gadgets, above).
I was a young mother when I read
my uncle’s hilarious account of pooping
while sitting out Hurricane Andrew–
sitting, you understand, taking on more than one meaning here.
He and my aunt huddled in that inside corridor–
except for that brief, and necessary foray into the bathroom,
umbrella held strategically—no shitarein story this time, the literal thing.
I wish I still had that letter,
but relieved a bit there were no selfies then.
Only my uncle could have made such a terrifying experience
laugh out loud funny—
Real-time texts might have revealed a different story.
After the storm,
they emerged to find destruction all around them,
and then the rebuilding began.
Yet their foundation was strong.
I remember my aunt and uncle coming to Philadelphia
for my mom’s 85th birthday.
My daughters said, “Uncle Irv smells so good.”
I have no idea what the scent was,
but I think it was his own—
as if kindness and genuine interest
in people and places enveloped him.
We all loved him.
He died as he lived,
gently, without a fuss
with his true love by his side.
A star has gone from our family universe
leaving a black hole
dense with memories
but without the twinkling of life and light.
Perhaps with time,
just as starlight travels
across the vastness of space,
so in our hearts
we will find that light again.
My daughters and I threw a surprise 60th birthday party for my husband this past weekend, just before Valentine’s Day. He thought he was going to a party for one of our daughters. Today is the official celebration of Washington’s birthday (now always on a Monday). It is sometimes called “Presidents’ Day” and combined with Lincoln’s birthday. The line “I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)” comes from E.E. Cummings.
On February 22nd,
When I was young,
We colored and cut,
We painted and pasted
Images of George Washington
Our first president.
A true commander-in-chief
Tested in battle.
The American Cincinnatus,
The first US President,
Fighting for freedom.
He carried the hopes of a nation
In his heart.
Our February schooldays,
Included holiday units,
George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,
Whose birthday we celebrated on the twelfth of February.
And so we carried home to our parents
Our construction paper masterpieces,
Revolutionary era silhouettes,
And tales of truthful George and Honest Abe,
Two leaders in war time–
One war to create a new nation
The other to keep it from dissolving.
Revolution and Civil War,
Battle lines crossed, battlefields bloodied.
And as for politics. Do you think it uncivil now?
Look again at the past.
Early campaigns filled with slander, lies, and duels.
Representative Preston Brooks
Beat Senator Charles Sumner with a cane
In a senate chamber in 1856.
I can imagine it today–
Perhaps battery by selfie stick
After a series of vitriolic tweets.
Any subject is possible.
But then it was a bill, new territories,
Popular Sovereignty, Bleeding Kansas,
And Civil War.
Owning other humans.
And yet, we forget
Events long gone, now
Backlit, perhaps a bit of uplighting,
To infuse a rosy glow
And make the past seem romantic?
O Captain! my Captain!
Crimes of the past we carry, along with our celebrations.
We also celebrated Valentine’s Day in school,
A holiday that combines ancient Roman fertility rites
And Christian saints.
There’s a combination.
Charles, Duke of Orleans, wrote one of the first Valentines
In 1415 to his wife.
He had been captured at the Battle of Agincourt
And wrote poetry while imprisoned in the Tower of London.
He was held captive for twenty-four years,
Plenty of time to reflect and write, though I think it
Just a teeny bit drastic for a writer’s retreat, don’t you?
But no such poetry for our school day parties.
We had pre-printed Valentines–
Roses are red, and violets are blue–
To place in the paper bags decorated with hearts,
A Valentine for each classmate.
We had cupcakes and juice,
Sweet crumbs clinging to our fingers
Like dreams in our hearts
We carried both throughout the day.
Our first date, was a school Christmas dance.
Just before my birthday,
A cold December night,
But we were warm with teenage hopes and expectation,
The giddiness of youth.
My mom told my aunt, you “seemed like a nice boy.”
I don’t know what your parents said.
We’ve celebrated many birthdays, and Valentine’s, too,
Since that long ago night.
I’ve carried your heart with me (I carry it in my heart).
This year you were surprised
Both by the passage of years–
Are we both nearly 60?–
And by the party.
I worried about the last minute snow
That people would not show,
That things would not go as planned.
But all went went.
And touched, I think,
By the love that people carry for you
In their hearts.
Our daughters, also with February births,
Like you and our Presidents. Our
Family celebrations carried through the month.
We had Valentine’s birthday parties for them
When they were young.
Little girls making heart-shaped cards,
Pink and red, glitter and glue,
Gifts for us and for each other.
Chocolate cakes, sundaes with mountains of toppings,
And sleepovers in the living room.
Later they had their own Valentines,
High school dances, and college romances.
And now our babies are grown
They’ve found love
Beyond parents, friends, and pets
Though those remain, of course,
Because love grows when it is nurtured
It is infinite and endless.
It cannot be contained, though it is carried.
There can never be too much love
To carry in my heart
With your heart.
Another post based on lines taken from other works.
“It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.”
–Boris Pasternak, from “Winter Night,” Doctor Zhivago
“When the snow flies and the night falls
There’s a light in the window and a place called home
At the end of the storm.”
Judy Collins, “The Blizzard”*
The snow flies and the night falls
Reminding me of winters past,
Of other seas of white,
The time it snowed
When our girls were young
And school was closed for a week.
They played, and I baked
Cookies, and donuts, and bread.
We drank hot chocolate
Ate cinnamon toast
And read books.
It was cold outside, but
It was cozy and warm
A place called home.
The snow flies, and I can see Russia
In my mind. I think of Dr. Zhivago
Trudging, stumbling through the blizzard,
Blanketed in an icy layer of white
Finding Lara and warmth.
The stunning cinematography of the movie**
Who can forget
The movie images of the country house?
Surfaces a frosty filigree
A beautiful ice palace
And they are happy there
For a brief moment
When time and history freeze
Before the inevitable melting
And the resumption of life.
The death of winter becomes the birth of spring.
The snowy white landscape blooms with yellow and green.
The snow flies, and makes me ponder.
I think of my grandfather,
My mother’s father, born in Gomel, Russia,
He was traveling west as
Lara was settling into life with Pasha in Yuriatin
And Yuri became Doctor Zhivago,
Just before the war and revolution.
Not that my grandfather was in Moscow,
But he must have experienced the unrest,
Seen the gap between the Pashas and the Tonyas.
Did the snow fly during winter nights in Gomel?
Did my grandfather walk through drifts of snow?
I don’t know what his house was like
Or how it was heated.
Was there a big stove?
Did they have a samovar for tea?
Did it seem like it snowed
And snowed the whole world over
When he was a boy?
The snow flies, and I think of
When I was a child.
I wanted it to snow,
Longed to have more than a trace
In our Dallas yard.
Then we moved back to Pennsylvania,
And there was snow.
I listened to the radio for school closings,
And went sledding with my boyfriend.
The guys did crazy stunts,
I watched and laughed.
And I married that boy.
The snow flies, reminding me of passing hours.
I know nothing of my grandfather’s childhood.
Nothing of his hopes and dreams.
And I cannot ask him now.
Did he play in the snow?
He came to Philadelphia
A young man
Just before the assassination of the Archduke.
Fleeing his homeland only to serve
In the navy of his adopted country
During the time of war and flu,
An epidemic that killed more people
Than did guns or earlier plagues.
He married a daughter, one of seven,
Of another man from Gomel, a butcher.
Would he think it funny that some of
His descendants do not eat meat?
A choice made possible
By his immigration to this country
Of variety and possibilities.
My grandfather worked hard.
I don’t imagine he spent much time
Watching the snow fall.
But after he retired, he learned to dance
He walked and swam.
He played with his grandchildren
Whenever he visited from his home
In Miami Beach.
His winter years spent not in winter cold,
But in sun and warmth.
A place of tropical colors,
Of sandy beaches, not snowy fields.
The snow flies and the wind howls.
I’ve cooked and I’ve baked enough
To chase away the chill.
Banished briefly, though not forever.
There’s soup, and bread, and pie.
And we will eat and enjoy.
We’ll sit with blankets and cats
And binge-watch TV.
Tomorrow we may venture out
To see the winter landscape.
But for now
We watch as
The snow flies, and the night falls.
Inside there’s contentment and light,
Color that contrasts with winter’s
Black and white.
A candle burns on a table.
And I am home and warm
At the end of the storm.
If it’s snowing, then I’m probably cooking. This is what I made during out weekend blizzard. (After the pre-blizzard cooking.) 🙂
Honoring my Eastern European-Jewish roots with Vegetarian Borscht
and Black Bread (Smitten Kitchen)
And my American birthplace with Pumpkin Pie
**Earlier in the month, I had fun discussing the movie, Doctor Zhivago with Scott Parker-Anderson. See his post on the movie here.
“We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors’ wisdom.”
He was 59 years old, 5 ft., 6 inches tall, with grey mixed hair and grey eyes. But there is probably no one left alive who remembers this great grandfather of mine, the father of my mother’s mother. My mother only remembers that he was Orthodox with a long beard and that he worked at a fish store or counter. His naturalization papers say he was a butcher in 1921. Born in Russia, he arrived in the Philadelphia on a ship from Bremen, Germany, in 1913, demonstrating that life’s journeys often take a circuitous path. His wife and children—minus the two eldest who were stuck in England—arrived in 1914. They left their homeland shortly before it was ripped apart by revolution, and much of the world was swept into a war. By the time of the 1920 census, after WWI, the household consisted of my great grandparents, their eight children, and four cousins, including the artist Abraham Hankins. They spoke Yiddish, and they owned a radio.
I’ve never understood the worship of ancestors or the feeling of superiority some people have because their ancestors “came over on the Mayflower” or because they are descended from some notable person of the past. I mean, it’s interesting and it’s cool, but it doesn’t make you a better person. After all, if you go back far enough, we all came from Lucy or someone like her. Laudable figures of the past can have descendants who do horrible things—just as horrible parents can have wonderful children. Our surroundings and our genes may affect us (“Oh, that’s where my grey eyes came from,” said my daughter), and influence us, but they do not rule us. Yet discovering information about these people who lived in the past is fascinating. I don’t know if these ancestors of mine were good people or not, but just like immigrants today, they faced difficult, even life-threatening conditions in their homelands. They bravely boarded ships—taking a leap of faith that their lives would be better in America. It was a journey of both body and mind, a voyage to a new world, leaving old ways and old ties behind. Perhaps it is enough to know this about them.
My mother’s mother was here with her family. My mother’s father left his parents and sisters behind in Russia, and he never saw them again. My mother remembers when her father received a letter telling him that his father had died. That was the only time she ever saw him cry.
My older daughter was with us for a couple of days this past week, visiting from Boston. It was windy and raining outside, the almost nor’easter, but we were snug inside the house. (OK. I’ll be honest– it was cold in the house because I didn’t turn on the heat.) Sitting across from one another at the kitchen table, armed with our computers, and fortified with apple-chocolate scones (based on these from Smitten Kitchen),
my Mandelbrot (aka “Mommy Cookies” discussed in other posts), coffee, and tea—because mental journeys require sustenance, too–we used the technology of the present to tackle the mysteries of the past. Wrestling with online documents, trying to read odd spelling and handwriting, and knitting together broken timelines, we created and expanded our family trees. She worked on my husband’s family, and I worked on my parent’s. We labored companionably, occasionally punctuating the silence with “listen to this” or giggling over an odd phrase. A woman who was divorced early in the twentieth century fascinates us. We’re both slightly obsessed by another of my husband’s ancestors, a 15-year-old factory girl who was murdered—shot—by a jealous suitor.
This daughter then went on to spend an evening with her sister and a dinner with my mom. It was definitely a weekend of family, present and past.
Present and past, love and family, are themes in Coming Home, the movie my husband and I saw yesterday. It opens during the Cultural Revolution in China. Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), a former professor, has escaped from the re-education camp he’s been sent to. His wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), called “Teacher Yu,” attempts to meet him at a crowded train station, but their teenage daughter, Dandan, hoping to gain a prize role in a propaganda ballet, has alerted the authorities. The scene at the train station is tense and exciting, but it only sets up the movie for what happens later. When the Cultural Revolution ends, Lu is sent home. Yu, however, does not recognize him. She was traumatized, physically and emotionally at the train station. She loves her husband, but her love of him is rooted in her image of him in the past. He, in the present, attempts to reactivate her memories, to bring the past love to the present moment. It is touching and incredibly sad. The movie also can be seen as a commentary on politics—that nations often forget the painful events of the past, even though its citizens may be traumatized. Yet, both people and nations have to find a way to accept and move on.
After the movie, my husband and I went out for Chinese food. I craved steamed dumplings and tea, both featured in the movie. This was the “fortune” in my cookie.
I don’t believe that a piece of paper in a cookie can predict my future, but it seemed a fitting note to end a week that had been spent haunting the house of history, catching a glimmer of the ghosts of the past, and storing them for the future.
“What the next generation will value most is not what we owned, but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we lived. In the end, it’s the family stories that are worth the storage.”