Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Caterpillar

I listened to you listening around the dinner table when we visited Aunt Clara whom you wrote about in your letters to your young wife, my mother-to-be, Olga, about her stuck-up sister who hardly drove to the Bronx because she and her husband, Jack, worried about their car parked outside being broken into; but we always went there and you were polite and blotted your mouth with a napkin, and listened to Aunt Clara describe her work with B'nai Brith, and Uncle Jack who liked being involved so he could get more business, and let them talk about planting trees along a boulevard in Jerusalem, making the Holy Land into a Suburbia; azaleas and rose bushes grew in their backyard, gladiolas, flaming torches.

We lived in the Bronx in the Hunts Point Section that drooped into the Bronx River where they later built an addition to the Fulton Fish Market behind P.S. 48 where I went to elementary school. The block was the street but Israel was another country. I knew about it, a place where the Jews in Europe went after World War II, hugging the edge of a boat in striped pajamas. I could take a subway to Manhattan and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I could take a bus from Pelham Bay Park and go to Orchard Beach. I walked there once from the subway station and a strange man followed me along the rushes to the beach. My mother never knew.

My cousins were much older than I and had braces that shone like the Star of Bethlehem. They wore organza dresses to their proms and had proms. There was an attic in their house with boxes that smelled of mothballs. Uncle Jack took pictures of us at every holiday with a 16 millimeter camera and showed them on a white screen in the basement that had a shuffleboard court painted on the smooth cement floor. We used “pucks” to play the game. They had a bar. During the summer Aunt Clara sometimes served us dinner in an enclosed porch where I could see the fireflies and drink orange soda from tall aluminum glasses that were purple and green. Once she gave me a book as a present.

My father worked six days a week in his shop near Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. Then he worked five days a week like everyone else and on Saturday morning went to Orchard Beach to do acrobatics with his Hungarian friends. When my parents had their 25th wedding anniversary we celebrated in Aunt Clara and Uncle Jack’s basement where my parents’ friends drove and parked far from the house so Olga and Marty wouldn’t get wise to what was happening. Everyone shouted “surprise” when they came down the stairs. It was their silver anniversary. Platters braided in silver handles shone in white tissue paper.

Our apartment needed to be dusted every Saturday morning. There were cockroaches in the kitchen, babies that my mother squashed when they rushed out from beneath the dials of the stove, and sang her song about "Poor Little Fly Upon the Wall." We had linoleum, not floors. My Aunt Clara and Uncle Jack visited Israel. They went on vacations. During the winter, they flew to Florida and brought back alligator purses. To close mine, I had to press hard against the alligator's mouth. I never could make it close.

We didn't live in Port Chester where we could drive to Playland near Rye Beach and go on rides, especially The Caterpillar whose skin blew open with a hot burst of air and then covered us on the next curve in bluish silk. Israel was like Port Chester, far away from me but related. We didn't talk about Israel at family gatherings because we wanted to get along. I listened to my father listening. He didn't know how to make money with his strong hands; he was always the bottom man, holding up pyramids of acrobats. Other people depended upon him and he found a balance between what he wanted, and what he could live with.

I wanted him to have more.

Friday, March 23, 2007

New Grimmerling Start

Around the start of Spring 2007, an incident occurred in Oakland, California that appeared on the front page in the newspaper for several days. The newspaper reflected the increduality of a woman’s close family and friends who witnessed her being gunned down and killed by an abusive husband in front of a church where she’d arrived as usual for Sunday morning service. But even more than the horror of watching this happen, there was a disbelief about how this had happened at all.

Day after day, the newspaper painted the portrait of a 40 year-old woman who was loving, hardworking, and professional. People recounted how she always wore sleek hairdos and dressed to impress. Newspapers reported that she was confident, assertive, and worked two jobs. As a real estate agent, she’d personally managed to acquire six homes.

A friend described her by saying, “She was like a Rolls Royce…All you needed to do was look at her and you knew that she had class.”

Her friends also remembered a deeply religious woman who carried scriptures in her purse and sometimes shared a reading if another co-worker was having a bad day. But few knew that she hid a secret. Court records showed that for two decades she'd struggled with domestic violence. There was a shocking gap between her success in the world and the reality of her home life. Following the arrest of her husband and an emotional funeral, a question rose up from the newsprint and the community—how could such a smart and driven woman remain in such an abusive relationship?

For several days I read these reports and cut out the articles, placing them on a corner of my desk until I realized that I was responding to certain similarities within my own story. Of course, my situation was much less extreme, but this woman’s death raised familiar questions. How do so many of us, particularly women, manage to function in physically and psychologically damaging relationships without getting the help we need? And how can the people who are closest to us not realize the issues that we are struggling with?

Unlike the woman in the news reports, I did not struggle with domestic violence. Instead I lived with ongoing verbal abuse for more than two decades from a man whose life was controlled by alcohol and childhood wounds that he was unable to heal.

From the outside, our relationship looked like love. But for years, I began my day by wrestling with the issue of my marriage. Should I leave or should I stay? Those thoughts preoccupied me. They drained energy and caused me to withdraw into myself. After finally reaching a point where I was unable to retreat further, I left my husband who died shortly afterward. In grieving for him and our lost lives together, I also began a journey to understand why I choose to remain in an unhealthy marriage. Why did I do it? Was it because of the children? Was it because I was afraid?

I think the crux of my issue was that for me there was no real choice. I had built a trap from materials that I didn’t even understand, materials that are not available at the supermarket or lumberyard. They were more intricate and cunning and fabricated out of my own being and needs, wrapped together with invisible threads and as such, I was unable to recognize or to speak of them to others. Or maybe it’s more accurate to speak of them as swaddling clothes, a family cocoon that shaped me into having certain expectations of what was comfortable and familiar, which I then sought to recreate in my primary relationships. I also believe that I was bequeathed certain gifts, which as an adult, allowed me to reach toward more understanding, the way the fairies at Rose Red’s birth each granted her a certain strength or curse. As she matured, those positive and negative gifts helped to cancel each other out.

I’m not sure that my life could have unfolded in any other way because how could I as a child be conscious about my own upbringing? I also think different children probably respond differently to the same circumstances, part of the nature or nurture argument, but having to do in this instance with a kind of learning that shapes how we make choices and then live with them.

Growing up, there was something deep within myself which I needed to heal. I needed to spring myself free from my own trap, but even with the intervention of counseling and drug programs, I was unable to do so. Self-help books took me walking step-by-step, but it was not where I needed to go. Clinical psychology books put me to sleep in front of the television. I was unable to recognize myself in literature from Alcoholics Anonymous. Like the woman in the newspaper story, I’d built an outside shell to keep the truth not just from others, but from myself.

I’d graduated with an MA degree in Creative Writing and worked for years as a technical writer, periodically changing jobs for reasons of advancement, but also with a nagging sensation about wanting to change something more basic. I participated as a PTA member, went on field trips, volunteered in different organizations, and served on synagogue committees. I continued to layer my inner disquiet with a layer of normalcy. But the veneer clouded. After my husband died, I wasn’t sure how to rearrange the shattered pieces of my life, or if they should be rearranged at all. I only knew I needed to recognize my own truth.

So I set out to write this book. I didn’t want it to be a story of blame. There was so much I loved about my husband who was also the father of my children. I wanted the book to be a personal story that didn’t draw upon the clinical language of dysfunctional families. To heal myself, I needed to return to that place where as a writer I'd first encountered story, which was within the fairytale. I think the idea of being asleep for a very long time and then waking up has great power, or in being assigned a seemingly insurmountable task in order to achieve greater understanding. Both stories are universal.

I also wanted to offer others who are close to those who are locked inside their own traps, a metaphorical notion of how to intervene. Most of all, I wanted to give thanks for the time that has been allotted to me to explore and understand my own journey as I now begin to wake up.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Reflections on the Holocaust

The Holocaust is a word that makes me feel cold, a picture of some nuclear winter stretching into oblivion. To me it’s always sounded like the death of everything, an evil spirit with green blazing eyes ripping the earth into open mass graves. But this wasn’t a Halloween costume that appeared once a year; it was something that happened to the Jewish people, my people. The Holocaust made me understand that I was Jewish. Someone could want to kill me because I was Jewish. I had olive skin with dark hair and brown eyes and my lips were thick and I was chubby from bread dipped into the gravies of Friday night pot roast dinners. I wasn’t like the blond and blue-eyed kids who appeared on the back of cereal boxes, society’s chosen who were always smiling with white teeth.

The Holocaust was a word that was not uttered in my house, maybe for fear that its power would gather like a tornado and blast our glass windows into shards. I heard references to the Holocaust at home, never at school, in snippets of conversation regarding FDR’s awareness of the concentration camps, and the English trying to turn the Jewish refugees away from entering Israel.

I’d also met Shaddie and Irving whom my Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Harry from Brooklyn had rescued from the concentration camps. Shaddie surprised me with her blue eyes and curly blonde hair and Irving, a gold tooth that gleamed when he smiled. He worked in New York City’s jewelry district on 47th Street and wore what I thought looked like some kind of small telescope in his eye when he examined diamonds. They both spoke with thick Hungarian accents. My Aunt Jeanette told me that Shaddie had escaped the Nazis when she was 16 by hiding beneath a hay mound and holding her breath. I practiced holding my breath. One summer they came to New Hampshire where we stayed for a few weeks to escape the New York City heat, and the polio epidemic. I saw blue numbers tattooed on their forearms, uneven numbers that leaned in two directions no more than one-half inch tall. My Aunt Jeanette, an artist who twisted her voluminous hair into a knot that was held in place by long bobbie pins which she dug into her scalp, said that Shaddie and Irving were thinking of getting plastic surgery to remove them.

“Why?” I asked. I was probably around six or seven years old.

“So they won’t be reminded of what happened.”

Shaddie and Irving didn’t talk much to me, probably because I was a child. Later, they had a baby, a little girl with those same blue eyes and blonde ringlets who laughed all the time. I didn’t know anything about the Holocaust. Together with Shaddie, Irving, and their daughter, those memories faded. I became older and left New York City where I imagined that the walls of brick apartment buildings had absorbed stories of the millions who had perished.

Shortly after I arrived on the West Coast, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the Holocaust, perhaps to put down roots as a Jew who was living in a new place. I read books written by survivors, and located cinemas where I watched sepia skeletons cry out in striped pajamas before being shot to death. I kept reading until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Somewhere I understood that my very existence was a miracle because I was Jewish. I was one of survivors who lived to light candles, to dedicate myself to understanding how humanity had the capability for such terrible cruelty. But it was almost impossible for me to allow into my consciousness; it was like trying to imagine infinity or God.

In the end, the Holocaust was a pile of shoes, a mountain of discarded clothing, green fields growing on mass graves.

I was Jewish. My pores exuded centuries of prayer. I knew that wasn’t enough.
The Piecework Of Being A First-Generation American Jew

“My Dear Cucie Olga,” my father, Martin Weiss pencils in a four-page letter dated August 8, 1939 when my mother is vacationing in Mountaindale , New York with her mother and my oldest sister, Elaine, who is eight months old. A quick check on the Internet tells me that Mountaindale was a vacation hamlet in the lower Catskill Mountains, which offered boating and other amenities to working class families who were seeking a respite from the intense heat of New York City ’s summers. My father writes to my mother of more incoming business at his arch supports store in the Bronx , and a sore shoulder which is keeping him from playing soccer. In another letter exactly one week later, written this time with a fountain pen in graceful broad sweeps that I recognize in my own handwriting, he gives her another business accounting and soothes my mother about a family matter involving my Aunt Clara, her sister, and Uncle Jack.

My father talks about playing billiards in my mother’s absence, soccer training at Starlight Park and a new bridge table. He reassures her that he is not losing big money at cards, something that Clara and Jack seem to have insinuated. He writes, “I wish peoples would mind their own darn business and not make the other feel miserable just so that they can hear themselves talk.” He ends by teasing, “You got some nerve not to write me anything about the baby, wait I’ll fix you for that.”

The letters, contained in a plastic bag in a green box at the bottom of my closet and my fading memories are what I have salvaged of my parents. They died within 15 months of each other when I was in my early twenties, more than 30 years ago, too young for me to have known them as an adult, and at a time in my life when I was necessarily distancing myself from them as to make my own way in the world, much as my daughter is doing now. I am the same age as my mother when she died.

Over the years I have pieced together my knowledge of my parents through random family stories although not much is available there either. The one remaining family member of both my mother and father’s generation, is my Aunt Elsie, my father’s sister who soon will be 97, and has not chosen to share much about the family history save references to her “poor mother” who kept the family together, four brothers, and herself, a girl who learned the hard lessons of survival well enough through the family’s immigration from Hungary in between World Wars to make security and accumulation of money the top priority in her life. As a result, she like her mother, Bertha, often rescued her brothers and their families financially, and wasn’t shy about reminding them of her generosity. Graciousness has never been one of her strong traits.

But this is not about Elsie or my parents or my Aunt Clara and Uncle Jack, for that matter. It’s more about my own sense of being Jewish, what I learned in my home, and how I have carried that into my own life. It’s about the piecework of being a first-generation American Jew, how I construct my identity as a 21st century American Jew living in the United States . There isn’t much available documented history at my fingertips. By the time I was born, both sets of grandparents had died. But I preserve the scraps of what has been left to me.

My father arrived in this country when he was 11 from Hungary and my sister Elaine tells me he had his bar mitzvah here. I have a copy of his steerage papers from Ellis Island . My mother’s family was from Budapest, but as the youngest, she was born in New York City. She graduated from New Utrecht High School. My father had been accepted to Stuyvesant High School, but had to leave in the second half of his senior year to help the family as his father had just died and only his older brother, Sol, was available to help support the family. At one point before my mother met my father, she worked as a milliner, affixing fruit to the brim of hats. In preparing to become his town’s next Rabbi, my father had studied midrash (interpretation of Jewish Biblical text) at an early age in Hungary, but later rejected the observant Jewish life and became active with the Hungarian-American social clubs, at that time hotbeds of radicalism. It was sometime during the Depression that he became involved with the Communist Party helping to organize the Painter’s Union. At one point he chose to leave and travel the rails, spending time in Cleveland because of a confrontation at a New York City demonstration where a police officer possibly was killed by a falling brick.

I do not speak the language of my parents’ origin. My parents discouraged our learning Hungarian, since it was their private adult language that they used to shield us from their conversations. My father knew Yiddish but spoke it infrequently with his mother when she was alive. I can recall my mother saying how Yiddish was “too Jewish,” dismissing this with a downward sweep of her hand. Likewise, we didn’t eat herring or lox at home, foods associated with Ashkenazi Jews, but they put their store on Hungarian stuffed cabbage and Chicken Paprikas, two dishes including my mother’s wonderful yeast cakes, which always gilded our kitchen table together with a pot of Maxwell’s House coffee. On the other hand, my two older sisters and I, Elaine and Nancy, were always aware of being Jewish, something that was associated with holiday celebrations and family gatherings. We were secular Jews.
There is much I don’t know and so much I’ve had to intimate.

I don’t recall my parents discussing the Holocaust except to allude to the fact that my Great Aunt Jeanette and her husband, Harry who ran a shoe store in Brooklyn, had helped some surviving relatives move to Israel and to New York City. Today I have no idea who these relatives are although Elaine, who is 10 years older than I, visited these Israeli cousins in 1963, but since then, we have mostly lost contact. Something was so terribly cut off for us. A generation died and a canyon of silence replaced their deaths. My parents didn’t want to talk about their experience. Instead, they were about the business of making a new life, burying old pains, and assimilating into a new culture.

My father’s father worked in the United States as a waiter, and it is rumored that he ran liquor during prohibition. For years, my father worked six days a week. My mother joined him at the shop after he was diagnosed with kidney cancer and then lived for five more years. It took all their strength to make a new life in this country. On his deathbed my father said, “I raised three girls and sent them all to college.” I believe he felt this was his greatest achievement. I think my mother who died a year after him, also of cancer, would’ve concurred.

The legacy that my sisters and I received from them was a strong sense about celebrating life. Whenever I hear L’chaim (to life) I associate this Jewish toast with my parents. I believe they chose life so that they and we could live and thrive. My parents expressed this in their love. They cared deeply for each other, always hugging and teasing. My father’s pet name for my mother was, “Toots,” and my mother simply called my father “Marty,” with a certain demur blush. My father thought my mother was beautiful and told her so frequently.

He gave my sisters and I a healthy sense of our bodies, an athlete who as a young man won the “all American Hungarian Goalie” prize, also an amateur gymnast and acrobat, who taught us to do shoulder stands or caught us in the air from the time we could walk. “Stand up tall,” he’d admonish me as I’d approach him to do a “birdie” where he’d catch me at my hips and swing me over his head so I could see the beach umbrellas and the ocean washing up on the shore. He’d coach me, “Here’s the rhythm. One-Two-Three-Jump!”

As a kid I didn’t think there was anything unique about acrobatics, but was aware that we always drew a crowd around our beach blanket. I assumed that this is what we did together. Occasionally, even my mother would get up from her beach chair; dust off sand from her legs, and do a shoulder stand on my father’s knees to prove that she could still point her toes better than any one in the family. “Watch!” she’d announce. Not only could she do shoulder stands, but my mother enjoyed reading poetry. Every poem that she’d memorized from her youth regardless of who had written it was by “Robert Louis Stevenson.”

My friends joined us on the beach and also watched as we paraded through our repertoire of “tricks,” being encouraged by my father to join us. It was only as an adult did I appreciate the gift he’d given us: to take joy in our bodies and to be comfortable with physicality, which I believe was unique in his generation. My parents were progressive in ways I didn’t totally understand. I knew something of my father’s radical background, but by the time I was an adolescent, year round he worked hard in his shop and then went to the beach on the weekends. As I became more politically involved during the sixties, he occasionally took the subway with me to Union Square for Labor Day rallies, waving to a few older men in the crowd whom he recognized from the old days.

While my mother strictly kept her eye on us, she also encouraged her daughters to get an education and lead independent lives, but was more conflicted when I didn’t wish to follow her own projection of what my life should become--a teacher so I could enjoy my “summers off with your children and a husband.” As an adult, I now understand that this probably was as far as she was able to see. As a child, I craved for her to have more vision.

Most of all what I appreciate is that my parents didn’t stand in the way of my developing an important friendship from the time I was in second grade throughout middle school with my friend Norma who lived several blocks away. Norma and I grew up in each other’s households. Every morning for years, I knocked on her door so we could walk to school together. We visited all the New York City museums, and once on my birthday, head down to Times Square before the area had become sanitized and saw “Midnight Cowboy” not understanding the odd squirming in the seats around us. Norma is Black and I am white and the fact that my and her parents did not stand in the way of our growing up together during a time when interracial friendships were not the norm and still are not -- was another gift which Norma and I to this day celebrate.

We attended New York City public schools and each one of our teachers was Jewish. The schools shut down during Jewish High Holydays. Albert Shanker reigned as the president of the teachers union. Through my political activity and books, I learned about a radical Jewish history of organizers in the garment industry, about the women in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the formation of the AFL-CIO, the Wobblies, the Haymarket Square Riots, the Spanish Civil War, and somewhere I heard about the Freiheit, the radical Yiddish newspaper of the left. Curse words were never used at home, at least not in English. We went to hear the Weavers at Carnegie Hall. I heard about Jewish comics like Mort Sahl and Groucho Marx who we watched on television. My parents admired Albert Einstein; Karl Marx was not mentioned in the same breath. I think my mother had become disillusioned with politics because she felt it caused dissension. Maybe she remembered when my father had to go “underground” during their early years together. Maybe the McCarthy period had put fear into their hearts as they watched “blacklisted” men unable to provide for their families. I know that somewhere there was a line for them between whatever progressive ideas they harbored and the ability to take care of their immediate family, and when one began to impinge on the other, it was time to redress priorities. Part of this may have been my mother’s overriding influence, and my father always a dutiful husband, bowed to her wishes. Always choose life. As a result, I think of them more as being conservative than radical. I don’t envision that if given a choice, either of them would’ve died for principle. I think they believed in the strength of compromise.

I also have to believe that growing up in Hungary, my father who had helped to protect the younger Jewish boys from getting beat up by the Gentiles and was known as one of the Mordecai or wolf brothers, had been shaped liked many youth of his generation by the Jewish Labor Bund founded in 1897 and which had atheistic, anti-Zionist and socialist trends. He was a forward thinking man whose radicalism became tempered by his adult experience, but I believe that he never stopped dreaming of a world where each person’s potential could be realized. I can remember as a young girl asking him if he believed in God. He seemed shocked that I would ask him such a question, swallowed hard, and said “No.” But when he was dying, he admonished us to “never forget you are Jewish.” Until the very end, he and my mother continued to help people who were low on cash, food or clothes, especially where he worked in Manhattan . Once as a little girl, I remember walking in the Bowery in New York ’s Lower East Side and my father stopping to give money to a man who’d approached him on the street.

“Why do you bother, Marty?” asked my mother when we got out of range. “He’s only going to use it for drink.”

My father shrugged. “I know,” he said. “But he’s been forced to ask.”

During the sixties, I had conversations with him about politics. “According to Marx’s class analysis you’re not a worker,” I announced.

“I’m not?”

“No,” I patiently explained. “You’re a member of the petit bourgeoisie.”

“That’s not true.” I could tell that I’d upset him. “I go to work every day.”

But I wasn’t attending a Marxist study group in Manhattan twice a week for nothing. “That’s not possible. You possess your own means of production.”

“What kind of crap are you talking?”

That was the only time I can remember him getting upset with me, except when I announced that I wasn’t going to finish college, and instead become a full-time political activist.

“Over my dead body.” We never discussed the subject again. Both he and my mother highly valued education and wanted to be sure that I got one.

So who were my parents? At this point they are mist, gone for so long and never present as I’ve walked through my own life cycles; they didn’t have the opportunity of knowing their grandchildren, never saw me age and become more tempered in my own beliefs, and I will face my own old age not having the experience of walking that path first with them. But what they did give me feels at its core essentially Jewish: a reliance on family and love to create stability in this flawed world and by choosing life to also choose to make this flawed place better because for them and for me there is no other choice.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Music Box Ballerina on Low Battery

Go for jugular meaning, I said, using open source
to cut and paste myself into your picture,
but you didn't want to hold hands in Gaza.
I pointed my toe like a digital Rockette
when I heard a voice page someone
for a defibrillator.

My partner in circles, I can tell you what the media won’t say:
An army of poor schnooks casts a giant shadow in sage paint.
Brother, lest you believe in stones don’t throw them at me.
This I keep pirouetting around and around finding no room
for partial measures, interim agreements,
or road maps leading no where.