The clear, bright sunshine and bright blue of the sky here at the beginning of this Easter Sunday in Southern France is the same as the sparkle of this same day almost exactly one half of my lifetime ago in the gardens of a big old brick home in upstate New York. As I watch two small french children looking for hidden eggs in a backyard I can see from my study window, I’m transported to that other time. It’s powerfully bittersweet, this moment, flooded with the absence of my own children and grandchildren seven thousand miles away, confined in their tiny apartments.
That day so long ago, I had flown two days before with my family of two small children and their father all the way from one coast to the other. It was a momentous trip. It was the grand stage setting for the first time my whole biological family would be together.
We were all coming together at the home where my three brothers and one sister had grown up in the rural area of Rockland County. It was Marvin, my biological father, who had conceived of the gathering, and my biological mother, Toni (whose name I bear like her thumbprint), who had created all the beauty and the magic of the staging. The play unfolded, a work of genius.
We were all converging on the old brick three-story farmhouse they had bought when, in his first years as a doctor, Marvin had decided to move from the city to set up a medical practice. The house had been in tough shape, the surrounding land untended. They managed to fix up the house to make it livable as the family grew. Over the years, Toni had labored to create a landscape of incredible flower and vegetable gardens all around on a property stretching from the house down to a woods and a lake. She had planned and dug and planted and weeded while raising four children, working on a doctorate in history and teaching. Marvin had mowed the lawn on his riding mower on weekends.
These, my biological parents, had already taken turns coming to meet us in our home in Washington state. Marvin had flown out a week after I had called him and we had spoken for the first time. He saw himself as the emissary for my mother, for whom he knew the impact would be earthshaking. She came a week after.
My middle brother had called the day I first spoke to Marvin. My other two brothers and I had spoken over the next few days. My sister, the youngest, was the last. It was to be the most powerful bond.
This was the first time we would all meet together. My two oldest brothers would come from the city, the youngest from Maryland with his wife and two small daughters, miraculously almost the same ages as my own daughter and son. My adoptive mother, Pearl, would come the following day to discover what her place was in all this, she who had raised me and given me the emotional freedom to find them. Marvin was the bridge of warmth we could all cross, the patriarch and healer whose bear hug melted all pain.
I can look back on that day now still as a time of magic and wonder, even from this position on the mountain of life’s difficulties. The big house was sold years ago so Marvin and Toni could move to Maryland to be near their grandchildren and live a simpler life. Marvin has been dead for several years, dying on the anniversary of my adoptive mother’s birth in some mysterious synchronicity. His perfection in those first years we knew each other still lives with me even after the harsher realities of the afterglow. My adoptive mother died years before him. The family was blown apart after the death of their patriarch. My sister, my mother and I have floated this way and that, together though apart, held to each other by the stickiness of women’s love and tolerance.
The day before, Marvin had picked us up at the airport, driving in his off-hand unhurried way, from time to time turning his big wooley head fully around to talk to me as we navigated the congestion from La Guardia, making me draw in my breath and grab my son’s car seat. We turned safely onto their country road after leaving the parkway, seeing landmarks for the first time that I would come to know so well over the years.
We turned in through a gate in a row of old trees and crunched onto a gravel driveway. There on the steps stood Toni, a woman tall and beautiful still. Quickly out of the door behind her came two men who must be my brothers and then a woman, my sister. Opening the car door even before we came to a stop, I stepped out awkwardly after the long trip, almost tripping backwards into the arms of a sister and brother. My children, a son not yet two and a daughter of five, climbed out of the car and up the steps into Toni’s arms, now familiar from her visit as yet another grandmother, their third.
We were ushered through the door into the big farmhouse kitchen with its enormous counter and sloping old floor. It was there that we stood, talking excitedly, greeting, hugging and looking at each other at arm’s length, filling the space with uncontainable energy. There were the big brown eyes, there the long legs, there the unmistakable nose, the chin, the eyebrows. And then, there was the sense of humor, the laughter at each other’s rye comments and a recognition of how that humor typically goes unappreciated.
And then the food, the endless fabulous food! The wine, the noisy conversation and more laughter around the big table in the dining room with tulips from the garden, the big Irish Terrier begging for food around our legs to my son’s delight. Marvin’s tremendous joy in a family all together. His puns. The intense delight we all felt, the cleverness in having found each other. And fitting together like the pieces of a scattered puzzle. And then, tired, tipsy, full of volcanic emotions, being shown up the narrow stairs to the third floor, past the bedrooms where my brothers had holed up as teenagers, into the big attic room lined with shelves crammed with books, with a cozy bed under the eaves and windows overlooking the gardens. My little family all piled into the big bed, and windows cracked open to smell the sweet night air, we all fell into a peaceful, satisfied sleep.
The next day, Saturday, we sleepily met each other at different times in the morning, coffee and bagels and cream cheese in hand, beginning the interchange that would go on for days, learning about each other as people do when falling in love. My sister and I spent a precious hour lying on the grass, talking about all the things we already seemed to recognize in each other and discovering more about the trials we’d endured. My youngest brother arrived with his wife and two blond girls and the children played happily in the freedom of the huge walled gardens. Looking into my youngest brother’s face again and again with furtive curiosity, I was mystified. It felt like such a familiar face, like the face of someone I’d lived with for years. With a start, I realized it was like looking at my own face, into my own eyes, in the bathroom mirror.
Lunch was outside where we all sat on old wrought iron chairs and ate grilled chicken, studiously charred by our father, with our fingers. My sister, mother, sister-in-law and I gayly dyed hard-boiled eggs all afternoon in the kitchen and Marvin drove to the airport to pick up my adoptive mother, Pearl, who he was meeting for the first time.
When she arrived, she too was astonished and absorbed for hours, finding all the resemblances, asking her endless questions about their lives, laughing heartily at silly jokes. Marvin and Toni toasted her several times in gratitude for all she had done in raising me and for her generosity of spirit in what must be a web of complicated emotions. She had adopted me at the age of forty. Toni had been twenty-one at the time. She fit into the family as if she were a grandmother, with a comfortable click. They all loved her with her Brooklyn heritage, her love of literature and the theater and her good humor. We were all in love. The memories shine with it.
Easter day dawned. The sun was with us. The sky was without a cloud as I peered out through the curtains next to where I slept. The stagecraft was still holding. Slithering my way over the children, leaving them sleeping, I went barefoot down the stairs to the kitchen to meet the others for the egg hiding. The men didn’t seem to be up, but together the women of the family each took a basket and went out into the damp grass to hide eggs in the most perfect egg hunt setting one could imagine.
Making sure to leave many where the two youngest could find them, we made quick work of it, hiding them among the beds of tulips and daffodils, in the bushes and in the long grass, giving the older ones some challenges in the woodsier places. By the time we got back to the house, the kids were up and being fed in their pajamas.
But we were going to do this right, as it should be done. When they had eaten enough, they were led upstairs to be dressed by their mothers in their best dresses (and my son in a new shirt and fancy shorts) for the Easter Egg Hunt. There were photos in the morning sun. Photos of the children posing with their hair combed and outfits perfect. A photo of all the siblings in a line. A photo of the youngest girl, so blond, so mischievous, eating a whole painted egg from her basket, crunching it shell and all. Photos of the various configurations of parents with their children, my ex-husband looking a bit quizzical or perhaps a bit stiff or bored, awkward as all this was for him, whose culture was so different.
The best of these photos hang on Toni’s wall in her room in the Assisted Living where she moved just days before everything changed. My sister hung them there right before that novel virus burst on the scene and made us all bow down. My last (and first) mother’s been confined in that room now for the last three weeks. She’s taking it all well, reading avidly as always. It’s good she can’t watch the news on a TV that won’t function. Her mind is sharp, her admirable intellect intact despite the things of the moment she easily forgets. We are all on pause. There was some error in the programming, some glitch we now must all endure. She waits–for what, she doesn’t know.
So much has happened since that bright day. The fairytale does, indeed, shift with the often grim realities of families and time. The story has become more of a novel by Tolstoy or Chekhov than a Hans Christian Anderson confection. Strangely, all of this has blended into some kind of experience of family, incredibly rich, intensely joyful and intensely tragic.
But those days of clear sunshine persist as one of life’s true beacons as I sit here in a room so far away in time and space and texture, wondering, quiet.
The year is quickly coming to an end. I suppose we have a need for beginnings and endings, however arbitrary. The world of people around me seems paused, a bit listless, waiting, relaxed but a little bored.
Here, they are anticipating a feast on New Year’s Eve, perhaps some inebriated viewing of fireworks down by a lake. For me, it will be quiet, one day just melding into the next.
The ground is covered with frost these last few mornings, the sky clear and blue-grey until the sun rises high enough over the foothills to fill it with that intense yet evanescent blue of winter. Last night the moon hung there above the mountains in its most fragile form, the slimmest crescent facing Jupiter, the two sparkling and exerting their magnetism, one towards the other. A concert of such delicacy and jollity that it was almost unbearable.
Things are beginning to hum a bit now as the village comes to life in its Sunday form, some people driving to the boulangerie before it closes at noon, only to reopen on Tuesday. One or two quietly, almost secretly perhaps going to church in the town nearby but more going to hike somewhere in the mountains, their “batons” stored in the trunk. Soon there will be cyclists going by, just one or two now and then, not the chatting groups of summer, coming one after another down the road that lead up to Montsegur.
This is my occupation as I sit, not disturbing too much the bone that is mending itself stealthily with new cells somehow, deep inside, blood carrying the materials where they are needed. Who knows?
This afternoon I lay down for a nap in my study, the sunlight streaming in the southern window, a chill still in the room. In the moments of waking, the great luxury of it bathing me, the little memories of a Christmas some sixty years ago floated in on the particular quality of the light.
When I was some eight or nine years old, my father gave me a box of candied violets for Christmas. What else he gave me that year in the usual extravagance of his Christmas giving, I can no longer remember. There were certainly marzipan figures of Santas and snowmen and apples and peaches in my stocking and expensive toys under the tree, but it’s the beautiful little hat-box-like container with a violet colored satin ribbon handle that captivated me.
When at first I unwrapped it, I remember only the delight of how pretty it was, violet and cream with clusters of painted purple violets strewn around on the label. The words on the box were in French, a language I’d already begun to learn in my enlightened school. My mother spoke French and taught it sometimes in the schools where she worked. She read aloud the writing on the box as she pointed to the words, “Les Violettes de Toulouse”.
Entranced by the evocation of a city far away, I gently worked the top off the cylindrical box. Inside, cushioned in violet-colored tissue, were the purple violets I knew from my days of playing near the stream where they grew up in the grass and between the rocks. I picked them for decorations for my tiny rock villages. But somehow these had been transformed into fragile-seeming crystal rocks. A fragrance of sweet flowers and sugar, somehow a bit musky like the leaves of the forest floor. Pulling back the tissue, I inhaled and inhaled again, sitting cross-legged in front of the Christmas tree, The light in the big windows of the living room warming my cheeks, I touched them, all packed together, crunching a bit against each other. With my thumb and finger, I pulled one from its nest and put it in the palm of my hand where I could study it better.
“Eat it!” said my father.
“Really?” I asked, aghast.
“Yes,” he chuckled. “It’s candy made of real violets.”
I put it in my mouth. The sugar began to melt, carrying with it a flavor on the tongue of that fragrance of the sweetest of flowers, of spring forest and sunlight, of gardens from picture books–a revelation. I crunched it a bit between my teeth, a delicate crunching like nothing else, a little explosion of a flavor sweet and touched with the slightest acid of green stems. A treasure from France.
For the next month, as school resumed and the days became ordinary once again, it sat on the dresser in my bedroom. Each day, going to my room to change out of school clothes, there it would be, that exotic box, waiting there. I’d hurry, and half changed, eat just one, letting it melt on my tongue like that first moment under the Christmas tree, recalling something extraordinary, something of another world.
I wanted to make the box of them last forever, but, of course, well before spring, they were gone. The empty box with its tissue paper sat on my dresser for years, a hiding places for treasures, preserving just a small whiff of the fragrance of France–violets.
Now this memory transplants itself to the Toulouse I am getting to know, a city of rosy red brick buildings, of a beautiful tea shop, a cozy restaurant, a beautiful square, parking garages, spreading banlieus and streets filled with university students and demonstrating yellow-vests and police barriers. A place where, at a Prefecture in an office building, we got the Cartes Sejours that allow us to continue to live in France. Now I remember it is also the city of violets, the city of those transfigured flowers.
The light recedes onto the eastern hills, rosy. Another day is passing. There will be a fire in the woodstove and dinner with vegetables from the garden. Somewhere in all of this a transition must be happening, a movement of one cycle into another, spiralling onwards.
There was a time when I moved from one secure place to somewhere else, as I have done now.
There is a sepia photo of a small girl in a cage with white rabbits. Sitting there in its frame in the living room of my last home and in some other familiar position in the house before, I assumed it was a moment my mother had captured at a petting zoo somewhere in my misty childhood.
But this evening, as I looked at it again, in this new place, on the top of a dresser purchased at a second-hand store in Mirepoix, furniture now mine in a room in a partially settled house in Southern France, I recognized suddenly another reality. There I was, in my backyard in the first place we’d moved from Brooklyn. In our new town, I was five years old, tending the rabbits that were mine, that my parents had given me, in the pen my father had built for them there on the square of grass behind the duplex they’d rented on a nice old street in a nice old town.
Now, as I recapture those images of childhood, I didn’t feel that small in the big world, that sweet and delicate. In my memory of the rabbits, I was a person of consciousness, of large awareness–of rabbits, of a body of some magnitude navigating tree-lined streets on a tricycle, of other people in my world, of great imaginations.
In the photo, I am as little as my granddaughter. She will remember herself as a person of agency, just as I remember. She will remember conversations she has had with friends. She will remember herself in those dream-like memories as a real person in interaction with the world. She will know who she was.
Death is an opening. It can break the hearts of those left behind. When the heart is truly broken, it stays open. Then there is no difference between one and the other one. Sometimes it is our own heart that is smashed. Sometimes we are the observer of the annihilation, the one standing by to represent life. There are places in the world where this breaking of the heart is still truly honored.
Sometime on Monday of last week, my son-in-law’s deeply cherished mother died in Tichy, Algeria, a small coastal town of the Kabyle region. Although she had been very ill for many years, she had lived on in their family home, the beating heart of a family of great dimensions, living both near and far.
My son-in-law was the child who had reluctantly ventured furthest, of necessity. He is the youngest son. Each year he traveled back to see her and his family, no matter the obstacles. Each weekend, there are hours spent on Skype, talking with family in France and, when their internet is working, in Algeria. Their conversations are woven into the mornings spent at home, keeping company as naturally as if they were in the room together.
Family for him is the core of everything, whether they grapple and disagree or act as best of friends. His plan had been to leave for his annual trip at the end of this week. Suddenly on that Saturday, he began getting calls from his siblings in the middle of the night. His mother had had some sort of medical crisis. It was hard for my daughter to piece together exactly what had happened from the flurries of intense conversation mostly in Kabyle, partially in French.
By Sunday night he could no longer sleep. He was trying to figure out how to get there quickly. His American passport was still at the Algerian Embassy in New York with an application for the visa he needed. His Algerian Passport had just expired. Calls were going back and forth across the huge expanse of geography. Nothing was clear. Then Monday early in the morning the call came amidst wailing and crying. His mother had died.
He was beside himself. I received the call at 5 am. “I’ll come right away,” was the only possible response.
Good fortune allowed me to drive in the one crack in the streams of morning traffic going from my place in the country towards the city. I was able to get to their apartment in Seattle before the crushing morning rush hour. My daughter, hugely pregnant, was already deeply absorbed in the process of trying to book a ticket to get him there the next day. My four-year-old granddaughter was playing quietly on the floor.
The funeral had to be held before the end of the second day. The family would be gathered at the house, grieving there together the entire day. The body would have to be buried before they slept. My daughter had already been on Skype pleading with his brother to postpone it one day. He couldn’t do it.
The only flight that would connect with Algeria on time to get him there left around 2 pm that day. It was now almost nine in the morning. She had already been working with a friend of his at the Algerian Embassy in New York to figure out whether the passport had already been sent. She had booked tickets the day before to New York so he could pick up his passport and visa at the embassy and then travel from there.
Now it appeared the visa had been sent on Friday by two-day mail. What time it would arrive was the mystery. Without the answer to this question, she couldn’t book the ticket. The friend at the embassy was able to get us the tracking number. It appeared it was at the local post-office, waiting to go out. If it were delivered with the regular mail, it wouldn’t arrive before the flight. I would go to the post-office just as it was opening and try to intercept it.
There I was, in the parking lot of the local post-office. A uniformed carrier was walking past me, on some final errand before leaving for the day. I called out to him,
“Can you help me?”
I hurriedly explained the situation, imploring—the sudden death in the family overseas, the passport and visa being sent from New York, the emergency.
“How can I catch the carrier who delivers to their address?”
Sweetly, he had stopped, packages in arms, to listen. He tsk-ed sympathetically and said the carriers hadn’t left yet. He motioned to the building and suggested I go in and talk to the people behind the desk and see if they could help.
I dashed in the front door. There was already a small line of three or four people and two staff behind the desk. My ancestral mother, born and bred in Brooklyn, was coaching me through from beyond the grave. I called out to the staff, brazenly,
“Can you help me catch a carrier before he leaves? I have an emergency. A passport. A death in the family overseas. Please?”
The woman behind the counter asked what I wanted them to do. Loudly I replied,
“I’m hoping we can intercept it before it leaves the building. If it gets delivered with the regular mail it will arrive too late to make the flight.”
She pointed to the people waiting and said, with finality,
“We have to take care of them first. Then we’ll try to help you.”
The two people at the front of the line pointedly tried not to look at either me or the woman behind the counter. The man, forth in position, called out,
“Can’t you just help her?” and turned to me to say,
“The post-office! How hard they make things!” but made no move to step aside to let me go in front of him.
After waiting while one woman spent time telling the clerk a long story about a lost item of mail in an empty envelope someone had picked up on the street and brought to her, complete with commentary about the effrontery of certain people, after which the clerk disappeared into the wilds of the mail room behind her and while a man picked out the kind of stamps he wanted from two different batches the clerk put out on the desk, it was finally my turn.
She pretended to know nothing about what I wanted. I began my plea again from the beginning, patiently, calmly. She said,
“Well, is the package addressed to you?”
I said no, but I could have my daughter come with ID in moments if she found it. She looked extremely dubious. I gave her the tracking number my daughter had texted me and she insisted on looking it up again, although I had told her the system already had indicated it had arrived at the post-office. After much checking and re-checking and disappearances into the mail room, she told me that it had not, in fact, arrived yet, but was on its way. Since it was two-day delivery. It would go out as soon as it arrived. She had no idea when and the manager wouldn’t either.
Desperately, I called my daughter who had been on the phone to the central post-office number. They had insisted it had already arrived in the building and the manager would be the only one able to handle the situation.
I went back into the building, calling out once again that a central manager said it was in the building. Disgustedly, the woman behind the desk pointed a finger to the back of the line. This time I waited just a minute or two. The other clerk, a man, had the first opening. Although he could not have helped but hear the whole story as it unfolded, he, too, acted as if he had been in a sound proof bubble.
“How can I help you?” he asked.
Starting again from the beginning, I added the bit about the central manager and firmly asked to see their internal manager. He replied, “I’m the only one who is authorized to do this here. I’ll go check. The system still says it hasn’t yet arrived.”
Then he disappeared for a long interval.
Meanwhile, my daughter called again.
“It just arrived at our door! I don’t know how, but it’s here!”
“The passport?” I asked. “The visa?”
“Yes, yes, I have them here in my hand.”
“Buy the ticket!” I said. “I’ll be back in ten minutes!”
I stood, peering into the back where I could see tables and cubbies in the mail room, and called out once
Nothing. I turned to the women, still behind the desk. She shrugged.
Suddenly, he reappeared. Shaking his head.
“Just as I thought. Not here yet.”
Before he was finished, I was already shaking my own head and saying,
“It just was delivered to their door. Don’t know. Must be a miracle! Thanks! Bye!”
I pocketed my cell phone and dashed out the door, crossed the street and jumped into my car.
That was just the beginning. For another hour or so, my daughter and I compared flight paths from Paris and Amsterdam, Marseille and Lyon, arriving in Algiers or Bejaia. She spoke several times in the process to her brother and sister-in-law in France. Once to her brother-in-law in Tichy, Algeria. All in the slightly accented French of the Kabyle. Politely and patiently, she spoke to airlines and booked, canceled and re-booked tickets while my son-in-law spoke in Kabyle to his brothers in Algeria, eyes streaming, periodically rising to go to the balcony and smoke. Their four-year-old daughter somehow played quietly and happily in the midst of it all, going every once in a while to hug her father’s leg.
By the time we had the right combination all ready to go it was time. The process of getting everything together and getting out the door, usually a long one, happened quickly. Four-year-old shoes on, ready, passport, visa, keys, phones, ticket numbers, bag, all in the car. He, knowing the streets best, was able, even after several sleepless nights, to be his usual self long enough to drive. Somehow missing the exit at the last moment, we re-grouped quickly and lost only a few precious minutes.
We found parking, got everything together and made our way to the ticketing area, running where we could. There was, of course, some problem with getting the boarding pass at the machine, but my daughter somehow worked it through while I entertained my grand-daughter and kept my son-in-law from wandering off in search of a place to smoke.
Then the mad dash to the security lines. We were cutting it close. Too close. My daughter went off to find a security guard. When she returned, a uniformed man was following her. We ducked under the guide ropes and followed him at a run, me with grand-daughter on hip. He guided us under other ropes near the front, explaining briefly to the people waiting and moved us to the place where a guard was checking passports in front of the security machines.
Two families stood ahead of us, passports open, expectantly. My daughter asked the guard if her husband could be checked next. He indicated the people in front of us with a slight nod. She turned to them,
“His mother just died. He has to get on this plane to make the funeral. Please!”
After a moment’s hesitation, wife and husband exchanging a quick questioning glance, they made way for him, bowing their heads and gesturing.
My daughter and grand-daughter embraced my son-in-law, his daughter saying,
“Daddy I’ll miss you, but you’ll be with your family. I love you. They love you too.”
We all cried.
His passport checked, he moved into the security lines. Before he vanished on the other side of the TSA machines, he turned and waved. His plane was already boarding, moments to spare. My daughter called him to make sure he was heading directly to the plane, not distracted by his pressing need for a cigarette in the midst of all his sorrow and worry.
We drove back to their apartment, picked up the pieces, canceling tickets booked and now not needed, going on with the day of a four-year-old. There were calls to his brothers and sister-in-law to update plans. There were intimate moments sharing the grief my daughter had had to hold in check–memories of the time months she had spent in Tichy helping take care of his mom, the visits since–her beauty, her goodness, her wisdom.
It seemed he would be able to meet his brother, who was flying from France, at the airport in Algiers. From there they would take a taxi across the desert, infamous for its bandits, to the shores of the Mediterranean at the foot of the purple Atlas Mountains, to their small town, their parental home, to join their family of eight other siblings and countless grandchildren, cousins, uncles and aunts all in the throes of grief for this woman who had been the heart of it all.
We slept finally, at first a sleep of real repose after a seemingly impossible task was completed. In the middle of the night, I was awakened by the sound of a cell phone in my daughter’s room and the beginning of a conversation. She emerged, my grand-daughter miraculously still asleep.
It was two am and he was finally at the airport in Amsterdam, his plane from Seattle somehow having been delayed by four hours. The computers at the service desks at the airport were not operating well. He had to someone re-book his connections to arrive by the end of the day in Tichy. They were trying to get him booked on a flight to Marseille that would get him into Algiers in the evening. From there, it would be impossible to get to Tichy on time for the burial, but it seemed to be the only option. He had reconciled himself to the fact that his mother knew he was doing all he could to get to her. If he could not make it, she would understand.
We started up our computers. After several calls to agents of Air Algerie in France, who were used to the fact that it was mostly impossible to book tickets through their website, we were able to purchase him the ticket from Marseille to Algiers. He called back. He was booked to Marseille, but the flight was going to be late. He wouldn’t make the connection. The agents at the airport were trying to find other connections but their computers were still giving them trouble.
My daughter and I, with dueling laptops, set about finding all the various routes from Amsterdam to connecting cities and on to Bejaia or Algiers. After being on the verge of giving up several times, I found a link through Lyon to Bejaia that would actually get him there in the early evening, about a half-hour’s drive from his family home.
Madly, he worked with the agents there and we on our computers to book the tickets. Just as we had completed the purchase, the agents there told him he didn’t have enough time to make the connection in Lyon. We despaired. Back to the computers. Was there something to Algiers we’d missed? Would he just have to get there the next day and miss the funeral entirely?
After about a half an hour, he called again. They thought he could make it. He was boarding the plane to Lyon. My daughter and I embraced. Maybe he really was going to get there on time. She called his brother in Tichy where people were keening and wailing in the background. They would be able to postpone the burial until he arrived if there were no other delays. She called his sister-in-law in France with the change of plans. We embraced and went back to our beds for a short hour or two.
In the morning, we had not heard from him. My daughter, after several calls, discovered that he had made it to the house just in time to see his mother’s body. His brother from France had arrived at almost the same time. The grand-daughter who was left at the house confirmed they had all gone to the burial in the mountains just above the house. They were returning the body to the place where her life had begun, tending goats in view of the endless expanse of the turquoise sea.
Connections to Algeria can be very spotty. Internet service is sometimes available, sometimes not. My daughter wasn’t able to contact him for several hours. We spent the time canceling flights, buying flight insurance, taking care of my grand-daughter, cleaning and cooking, and talking together about his family and the things they’d been through.
After her nap, I took my granddaughter to the playground. On our way back, my phone lit up with my son-in-law’s name. Calling me from Algeria? I answered. He hadn’t been able to reach his wife. He was okay. I gave the phone to his daughter. She told him she loved him and missed him and she had just been to the playground. I took back the phone.
“Are you okay? How did it go?” questions that as soon as they were uttered felt totally inane and inadequate.
“I got to see her. I got to embrace her. I was the one who buried her. It was right. I got here.”
Soon he will travel back from that world to this. The flow of love does not cease with death. It breaks open the heart. It can transform those still warm with breath, awake to greet their grief. We have known this since we all began to see the thoughts that form in that space of our mind, those thousands and thousands of years ago.
Though the two mothers met at last when they were past mid-life, the two fathers danced around each other in time and space, never arriving in the same place at the same time, the essence of their life’s’ blood having mingled at an intersection, unremarked.
On December 7th, 1941 the broadcast of the Brooklyn Dodgers/New York Giants football game on the radio was interrupted at 2:26 PM to announce the attack on Pearl Harbor. One father, Stanley, was twenty-one. The other father–the one who provided me with half of the matter that has carried me around for sixty-six years—had turned fifteen that day. He had lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn for all fifteen of those years.
Stanley may also have been in the city at the time. He’d come from Pennsylvania a few years before to attend the free socialist college, Brookwood, in Katonah, an hour or so north up the Hudson River by train. He may have been working as some kind of editorial assistant in a comic book publishing house by that time. The college had closed down in ’37. He was working at whatever he could find, for as many hours as he could. It was the Great Depression.
It is unlikely he was listening to the radio that Sunday when the announcement was made. Neither father was very interested in football. If it had been a baseball game, Stanley might well have been spending the afternoon in front of the radio with his stenographer’s pad in his lap, taking notes on the stats of the game, maybe drinking a beer.
On that day of his fifteenth birthday, the other father, Marvin, was already attending City College. A young Jewish prodigy, he had already graduated from an accelerated academic high-school by the time he was fourteen.
It was highly unlikely he was listening to the game that day. He was probably having a quiet Sunday birthday celebration with his parents and his younger sister. December 7th, the day of his birth, had not yet become the historic day it would become in just a few short hours.
So it was that neither father probably heard the live announcement of Pearl Harbor on the radio. But both, I’m certain, were tuned into the radio at 12:30 PM the following day when President Roosevelt delivered his famous Pearl Harbor speech to the Joint Sessions of Congress, broadcast over every major radio network in the country. Maybe they both were there in the same teaming city.
Marvin may have been at his job as a copyboy at the New York Sun or attending a class that morning, listening with other people grouped attentively around the radio. There might even have been a man in the room with his leg up on a chair, arms resting on that leg, bent forward to direct all his attention.
Stanley might have been listening to a radio in the lobby of the flop-house where he was staying. Or maybe he spent a nickel and bought a cup of coffee so he could hear it while he sat on a stool at a counter. Maybe he bought a beer and listened at the bar, the bartender idle while he watched. It was the middle of the Depression. If he were lucky, he would have been earning five or ten dollars a week. He probably had enough for a cup of coffee or a glass of beer, but just.
Everyone with access to a radio in America was tuned in. Most of the country was listening together when the President gave his address. Within an hour of that broadcast, he was to announce we had declared war on Japan, bringing the US into World War II.
For the rest of their lives, I’m sure both fathers could recall exactly where they were, what they were doing and what they were thinking during the hours following that broadcast. I never heard them speak of it.
One father I spoke to many nights as a teenager, sitting in the living room in the home where l grew up, my mother the teacher having gone to bed, my father with a tumbler of vodka in his hand. The other I spoke to as a grown up and a parent myself, there in the living room of my own house or at the dinner tables of his long-time home in Upstate New York or his home of his last year in Annapolis. These conversations were never about the mundane aspects of the war years. Now when I ask the questions they ascend like smoke into the winter sky.
Marvin was too young to enlist or be drafted. Sometime in 1942, he left his family in New York to finish his college degree. He had somehow chosen the University of Virginia in the alien land of Charlottesville. At age seventeen, in 1944 when the war was still in full swing, he finished his BA. He stayed there to attend Medical School.
Although Stanley was healthy and strong, an appalling childhood accident had left him with no cartilage in his right knee. The leg had never grown as long as the other. Although it hadn’t hindered him much, it gave him a 4F and was assigned to duty in the New York shipyards. He worked long hours there until the end of the war. It’s possible he took other odd jobs in publishing as he could. Determined to be a writer, he had begun to write an article here and there. He had stacks of three-by-five cards accumulating in rubber-banded stacks with notes for at least two books.
Marvin was slugging through the first year of med school, making occasional trips back to the City to visit his family.
There in New York, as the war ground on, Stanley had started writing in earnest. He worked occasionally as an editor. Somehow, with his head of Cary Grant dark hair, his good looks and his aura as a writer, he caught the interest of someone in a circle of Jewish intellectual friends in Brooklyn. His keen mind and his leftist political leanings gave him validity when his Catholic upbringing and working-Joe status might have otherwise made him invisible to their inner circles.
The mechanics of it all will forever remain a mystery. A blind date was arranged with one of the young women his age in the circle. It must have been sometime in the beginning of 1943. He was just turning thirty.
Marvin was nineteen and approaching the first summer of med school when in May, the war ended in Europe. He was still there in August when the US dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in September when the war ended in Japan.
In New York, the blind date had turned out well. The handsome young writer from the coal fields of Pennsylvania had somehow made quite an impression. The young Jewish woman was spirited, a year older than he and with a head of luxurious curling red hair. She was working as a librarian in the city and attending Columbia University at night, trying to finish a Ph.D. A bit intoxicated by the whole thing, a little dizzy with the novelty, she took him to his first opera, his first performance at the ballet, his first Broadway show. They played tennis.
They got married at the end of the year. His brother and sisters thought he was crazy to marry a Jew. Her parents were dead. Her four sisters were disappointed. How could he meet the cultural standards of a family of aspiring intellectuals, bent on the highest levels of learning? She was their bright hope.
Marvin was excelling at Medical School. When he was twenty-four, he finished his MD. It was 1949. He packed up and went to do a residency at Montefiore Hospital, back up in the Bronx.
Sometime in that first year, he met a beautiful blond woman who was attending her last year at the Professional Children’s School in New York. He was smitten. Her world was as different from his as that of Stanley’s and the red-haired woman.
Her family was a family of actors, anomalously Puritan by a lineage traced back to the Mayflower. They must have fascinated each other. Her blond waves effectively set-off the fine brain they adorned. The blue eyes opened into a world of intelligence. He with his mop of dark hair and brown eyes behind glasses, his aunt having helped to forge the state of Israel. She had started acting as a child. Her brother and sister had followed her. She retained her Puritan heritage in work ethic and stoicism only. He was Jewish in values and family only, but it marked him as the patriarch he was to become.
Stanley and Pearl were doing well, surrounded by friends old and new, rent parties and work. They wanted a child. She had a series of miscarriages, maybe a result of the stress of working all day and going to school nights. She had contracted TB from a cousin who moved into their crowded apartment when he was twenty. It had weakened her. He was working at a comic book publisher, hoping to move into more legitimate publishing. Sometime in the late forties, Random House hired him on as an editor. He was on his way.
The lives of the two men were circling around to their nexus.
Marvin courted her. It was one of those things. He was an older man at twenty-four. He had orthodox Jewish parents. She had parents known in Hollywood, with a big house in Brooklyn and a country place in Vermont, living a flamboyant life, mingling with the movie and theater crowd.
There must have been some moment when the attraction of body and mind overcame common sense, as it has done an infinite number of times over the course of human history. It’s the stuff poems and dramas are made of. Impossible for even culture, with all his power, to overcome that urge.
It may have been right then that the right egg and sperm joined. If it was September of 1950.
Around this time came yet again another miscarriage for the redhead woman living in a small apartment in Flatbush. She was almost forty. Now Stanley had a decent job. She was teaching. It was now or never.
She lied about her age. They chose a Protestant agency. Maybe she wanted to find a baby of less ethnic origin to please her husband’s family. Who knows?
Marvin’s parents had finally met the woman he loved and had shown their disapproval. She was, after all, a Shiksa. And she was an actress they had seen on TV. Not only did she act, but she had played a character who drank. They had plunked a glass of vodka down next to her plate as she sat at their dinner table.
The joining had happened. A baby was on its way. They lived together secretly in an apartment just a few blocks from his parents. He did not want to start a family by being disowned by his own. If only they were “unencumbered” he thought his parents would finally approve in the end. It was a choice between the survival of their love and the baby. They married, as they lived, in secret and, trying not to think about it too much, determined to give the baby up for adoption.
The agency interviewed Stanley and his Jewish wife in an office in the posh old brownstone building on the Upper East Side. They admired their level of professionalism and education. They appreciated their energy and good looks. They had them agree in writing to baptize the child in the Protestant faith. Anything, they said.
The pregnancy was beginning to show. Perhaps his parents found out and decided it best to pretend it didn’t exist. Referrals were given. The agency on the Upper East Side was known to devote itself to finding good matches for babies of good parentage. It was Protestant. Her family had the pedigree.
June of 1951. A baby was born. A girl. Brown eyes. Blond hair. The nursery at the New York Hospital was being painted that night. The baby had to stay with its mother. Even though it was leaving. Even though the pain of separation would become so much more acute with each hour, each minute, they passed together. It had been agreed. The papers signed.
After two days, the mother numbly dressed the baby, wrapped her in pink and white blankets and handed the bundle to the father. He drove to the agency in a taxi with a black bassinet with handles wedged in lengthwise in the passenger seat. He took the bassinet out of the cab, walked it up the stairs of the brownstone that housed the agency and handed it to a social worker. Sometime that day, the social worker drove to a small house in Brooklyn and carried the bassinet up the front steps to a woman who met them at the door. The woman went inside, cooing to the baby.
From time to time, Stanley and his wife were told about possible babies. Things weren’t fitting quite right. A few months passed. They were becoming a little worried. One day in early September, they were called into the agency. There was a particular baby the social worker wanted them to see. They were guardedly excited. They thought this could be the right fit. Educated parents, one Ashkenazi Jewish, one Protestant. Grew up in New York. Match. Match. She even looked, the social worker thought, a little like Stanley around the eyes, the slightly olive complexion.
Unknown to them, the mother had been overcome by a depression after the birth and separation. Who knows what the baby had felt at leaving. The mother struggled to resume life. That same month, September, Marvin and his blond wife, Toni, had a real wedding. Her parents paid for a reception at a high-class hotel in Manhattan, Few knew they had already been married since March. His parents came. They were openly disdainful but kissed the bride. Her mother was there, dressed beautifully. An open life of family had begun.
The other couple stood over the crib at the agency, enchanted by the baby with brown eyes who smiled at them and seemed to laugh. No other babies there that day were smiling. Yes, they said, that one. We want this one. Pearl picked her up and cradled her. The baby smiled at them both.
Several days later, the call came unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon. She’s ready. Come pick her up. By the time they had reached to the Upper East Side on the subway, it was almost sundown. They picked her up in the bassinet, wrapped in blankets, warmed with a cosy wool hat knitted by the foster mother. They were few cans of formula in a bag. It was Sabbath in their neighborhood in Brooklyn. No stores open. No baby food. No baby spoons.
Stanley and his wife brought her home to the high chair and crib in the living room of the small apartment. The new mother mashed a banana and made some winter squash. Stanley fed the new baby from the only spoons they had—tablespoons.
They raised the baby, giving it all they had, all of it, their health and their sickness. They told her stories about the other father, the other mother. She knew always that she was other, but not. That father died of cirrhosis of the liver the year his first grandchild was born.
It was thirty-five more years until the other father knew he had existed. Then this first father learned to dance with the ghost of the second.
Meanwhile, the two mothers eventually looked each other in the eyes, their emotions unfathomed by the those who had arrived only later to the dance.
We were having a terrific time together on the farm. We’d spent the evening having a wonderful family dinner, our first outdoors for the season. Her father had cooked course after delicious course on the grill. We had lingered and lingered all together, talking, playing.
We were having a terrific time together on the farm. We’d spent the evening having a wonderful family dinner, our first outdoors for the season. Her father had cooked course after delicious course on the grill. We had lingered and lingered all together, talking, playing.
The next morning, she watched grandpa plant seedlings and talked to the horses over the fence. We watched the many kinds of bees in the raspberry flowers and in the yellow kale flowers, learning that bees are so busy that they won’t bother you at all unless you squeeze them in your hand. We learned how to tell the difference between bees and more aggressive yellow jackets which you just need to give wide berth.
We counted the big orange poppies that had bloomed and found that three more had bloomed since we’d last looked the afternoon before, performing addition in the process. Her parents were trying to get some much-needed rest.
The trouble started when her mother and I decided to go for a walk and take her along. When she realized what was really afoot, not a walk to the playground or to a friend’s but just a walk, she wasn’t having it. There were tears and wailing that grew in intensity, uncharacteristic.
Her mom and dad tried to figure out whether she was sick, hungry or just worn out. We tried to wait it out. We gave her a choice to come or stay with her dad. Her mom told her she could see she was upset and angry. It was one of those moments with kids.
The day was taking an unfortunate turn. Choices for grownups. To give in, to compromise, or to just let everyone be unhappy with things for awhile. To salvage things, we decided to take her instead on an errand to buy some eggs from our neighbor a few miles away. Distraction. No one wins. No one loses.
While her mom gathered things up, I put my three-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter in her car seat in the back of my car. When she was buckled up and calming down, I said,
“So what were all those tears and screaming about? I know you were mad, but we were just trying to have a nice time together. We were beginning to think you were sick. “
“I don’t know,” she replied, uncertain whether she would continue to sulk.
“Life is about give and take. “ I said, settling into my “wise grandma” role.
“Sometimes you do something you don’t really want to in order to make other people happy. Then that helps them feel good about doing things you want to do. So why all the fuss?”
She thought for a few seconds, the sulking face having passed like a small grey cloud on our sunny day.
“It’s easier,” she said.
Wow! I thought. Wow!
“Tell me more about that.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well what makes it easier? If you use words, people know what’s going on.”
“Yeah. Like at school. If I cry, then the teacher stops what’s she’s doing. If I talk, then she doesn’t do anything. Just talk.”
“Hmm. Tell me about a time when that happened.”
She thought again. “Boys were doing mean things to me and my friend. If we cry, then the teacher comes and tells the boys to stop.”
I’ve taught people for years how to be proficient in getting their needs met. I’ve learned that much of what I’ve taught only works some small part of the time.
A good portion of the time, even if I know what would be most effective in that particular moment, in that particular relationship, I still go for the short term satisfaction of emotional release or the short term satisfaction of stopping something immediately, no matter what the cost.
What she had just taught me is how we learn to do this—to just let our emotions rip. That she could see that it was the easier path–that was brilliant. Nature finds the path of least resistence.
I certainly don’t think I could observe myself that way at age three. That it is a learned thing, reinforced by the reaction other people have to the emotional outburst–that I got. But that it was the easier thing to do… Even now I hadn’t yet articulated that to myself.
With lots of good teachers in life and lots of practice, I’m better able to stand back and observe my emotions (with some very notable exceptions) and make a choice about what to do. Next time I observe a big emotion welling up, I hope I’ll think about what she said.
The easy way is to just cry and yell. It gets the other person to really pay attention and react faster. Then, as you develop, you get to wondering.
Exactly what reaction will that be? Will it get me what I really need later today, tomorrow and into the great future?
This thing we’re involved in all together is about give and take.
First is the giving up of the satisfaction of the moment for the sake of the future moments you will live through.
Then is the giving up of what may return to you for the sake of the natural beneficence of the moment, and nothing more.
My granddaughter taught me something fundamental about how we learn to interact with the important people in our lives. Her parents taught me something about standing aside and waiting until something unfolds.
If I, as her grandmother, can help her learn about give and take, she will probably have the wisdom by the time she’s my age to travel beyond and become the creator of her own happiness.
Many years have passed since the day I got a call from my sister telling me my biological father had just had a massive heart attack and might not survive. Much of what happened in the days and weeks after that call has vanished from my memory, if ever it settled at all.
I do remember where I was when I got the call. I remember how there seemed to be no pause between the words I was hearing and the visceral reaction. My body knew how to react before the actual words registered in my brain.
It was somehow so different from the moment long before when my then-husband came to me in our bedroom where I was settling to sleep with my infant daughter and told me my adoptive father had died. In that moment my mind had intervened in disbelief, shielding me from the shock. It was only after he repeated the words several times and assured me more than once it was not a joke that I was sent reeling.
Father. Biological father. Mother. Biological mother. Birth parents. Over the thirty years I have known the parents whose genes I share, it has never felt right to call them my mother and father, despite the depth and complexity of my love for them both.
There is no word that is not awkward, ungraceful. I have always thought of my adoptive parents as my real parents. Even after those parents have been dead for years, I still have not been able to call the parents of my birth by anything other than their first names, Marvin and Toni.
Sometimes when I talk with my sister–the younger one I was never there to protect from those three brothers–I’ve been able to occasionally talk myself into saying “our mother”. It is reserved for those moments when it is clear that for her sake I need to acknowledge the stubborn actuality of that link in our basic biology. When I do say it, the impact of the words sinks quickly like a stone into some dark pool down in my interior. I can feel the concentric rings of the splash reverberating between us. Some vow has been exchanged. I have strengthened some sacred bond. That I can do.
After that call from my sister and the response of a friend in the office next to mine who held me briefly while I cried, then pulled myself in for the next effort, the next scene that appears from the fogs of my mind is walking through the giant maze of a Washington DC hospital, flanked by my grown daughter and son, tall beside me, into the hallway of the cardiac wing.
I must have been allowed a glimpse into the big room where, in my internal picture of it now, he lay right in the center on a high bed, that father who had given me something of the essence of his cells, tipped slightly forward, hooked to tubes and monitors. Or maybe I’ve gotten it confused with some scene in a Sci Fi movie when the camera pans down a hallway and you’re given a furtive glance into the secluded room where some extraterrestrial, retrieved from a UFO, is being readied for the investigations of secret government scientists.
My father himself was a doctor. He had had a thriving practice as an internist for many years in the town where they had settled in Upstate New York. He taught classes at Harvard and his brilliance as a diagnostician was renowned. Shortly after I found him and the rest of the family, he had been forced by cancer to sell his practice. He had a recovery that was considered just short of miraculous and had gone on to become the Medical Commissioner of the county where they lived. He was widely loved and respected. But there he lay, at the mercies of a medical system he could no longer influence, all his accumulated knowledge and wisdom useless to diagnose and restore his own body.
He was in and out of consciousness. My siblings were all there, having arrived from nearby, from New York on the train and somehow from England. My brother the attorney was talking with the attending doctor. Things were not looking good. Despite the fact he had initially seemed to be rallying well, his condition was worsening as each hour passed. His vital signs were deteriorating and his hold on consciousness becoming more tenuous.
I must somehow have purchased airline tickets with my two children. We must have all gotten to the airport in Seattle and navigated together across the country. I remember they were magnificent during the whole journey, proving their maturity and grace at every turn. There they were with me as we hugged the uncles and aunt. We looked to each other as things rearranged in the hallway with our arrival. We somehow exchanged the sense that an atmosphere of contention had eased a bit at our arrival.
My birth mother came out briefly, under the arm of my middle brother. We all embraced. She was pale, her eyes registering the depth of her shock even while she rallied to greet us, as ever, not wanting to show too much weakness.
The scene that appears out of the fog before it closes in again is the moment that I was somehow in the room with Marvin and Toni. My daughter and son were nearby in the room. He was conscious, but barely.
I stood on one side of him, grasping a hand pricked with IVs, smiling with the relief of seeing him alive, my birth mother stood on his other side, holding the other hand. We must have been beaming at him, intent on igniting his engines with the warmth of our love.
It was clear he held his eyes open only with great effort, but all that was needed was for them to open a little more than slits to let seep out some luminosity of emotion that had been brewing like tea as he drifted.
He looked first to his wife, then to me. It took a few heartbeats for it to register. Then he croaked,
“My God! You’re really here!”
His voice sounded like that of a man who been crawling through a desert for days.
He looked back to his wife and then to me and back again, a sparkle emerging from the depth of the clouded brown of his eyes. As he turned from one to the other, as if watching a ping pong match, he said,
“Toni… Toni… Toni… Toni…”
“The same… Different… “
“Amazing. Toni and Toni. Amazing!”
Although no sound came out, we knew he was chuckling. Wit was life to him. Family was life to him. He closed his eyes in exhaustion. Toni and I were laughing softly, uncontrollably from somewhere deep in our chests while tears dripped down onto the hands still grasping his.
Able only to take small darting glances, sipping the intensity of the joy, we held on to him as she reached across to silently ask for my other hand. He was the one that embraced as if he would completely encompass you. She the cooler puritan.
We stood like that for a long moment, a complete circuit. I think my children had come up behind me to see him. I think I remember their embrace around the two of us, standing there, holding hands. It was soon close to the boundary of maudlin. Even then we felt the limits.
She said, “We’ll let you sleep some more. Sleep.”
These were moments that, like some others in life, become infinite. They are an opening into that wellspring which can then contain everything else you experience for the rest of your life. It becomes an ocean you reach into and set sail the sight of a goldfinch darting in the golden evening light, the oh-so-human moment of ecstasy when your granddaughter runs from the car to hug you tightly around the legs, the pain of leaving your son far away after a visit, the sound of your aging in the pulses of your blood, the deep comfort of dinner at home with your dearest friend. These moments float forever on that boundless ocean.
Later that day my uncle the famous nephrologist somehow miraculously appeared at the hospital. After hours of negotiations with the head of the hospital and some political wrangling, the medication that was causing my father’s kidneys to fail was finally discontinued. He recovered slowly but surely, his damaged heart pumping on valiantly.
Although his finances had been drained, his body wracked, it turned out he had about eight more years on that heart. He was glad to be around. There was a lot of life still to experience together, both joys and intense pains. I saw him once more when his body was emaciated, his feet numb but his mind and wit as sharp as ever.
Things pretty well collapsed in the family after his death. He had perhaps travelled as far as he did in that body just trying to sort things out. The heart is often determined to stick with it, even as it knows there are few things a parent can really fix. But the circuit we created that day fixed something in my own wiring.
Now that he’s gone I can call him father. I have two.
I’ll tell you the story of when I went back east to move my mother out of her house.
She had lived there for over fifty years. It was the house where I had grown up from the age of nine. It was a wonderful home in so many ways. It had a huge backyard with a free-running creek at the bottom. It had a swimming pool, many trees and plenty of places to play with no worries. Places to give imagination free reign. It was in a neighborhood with lots of kids and plenty of places to explore. I walked easily to my school where there were teachers whose memory I still treasure.There were two families just a block away where I spent many hours, welcomed as if I were just another of their kids.
The house itself was nothing special. It was what they called a “pre-fab” house back then, manufactured somewhere else and brought in pieces to be assembled on site. It was years old when we moved in and it hadn’t aged well, dark brown mottled linoleum cracking badly on the floor in the living room where the knotty pine boarded walls were sadly dated, their care long ago abandoned by my eighty-five-year-old mother. The black metal windows were gaping and weeping.
The plastic liner of the in-ground swimming pool was stained from algae and was cracking here and there. Despite its decay, my mother had managed to maintain it just enough to swim laps through the last summer. The yard was a bit overgrown despite the attentions of the teen-aged neighbor my mother paid to mow. The wildness of the overgrowth was appealing, at least to an eye now accustomed to the wild green of the Northwest, but I could no longer make my way through the brush to the brook beyond.
My mother had decided to sell the house about a year before so she could move into a senior community under construction nearby. Other of her friends were also waiting to move to the same planned complex. She dreamed of having an apartment there, eating with her friends and taking the bus to New York for the theater.
She’d started by trying to sell the house herself and was taken in by an older couple who, it turned out, were trying to turn an underhanded deal with a developer. She’d nearly gotten sued in the process. After that, she’d been convinced to hire a realtor.
The house had sold for a good price. She was of the generation that had barely been able to afford a home but bought anyway, held on to it through the rest of her life, and, because of the economy of the times, sold at a tremendous profit. She and my father had been fortunate to buy in a very desirable area in a very desirable town. He had killed himself with drinking twenty years before. The sale of the house would give her a way to live very comfortably for the rest of her life.
The people who bought it were clear they would tear it down and build something grand. She was already living in a temporary assisted living facility, waiting for the completion of the senior community where she wanted to move.
For the first time in my life on a visit “back home”, I’d rented a car at the airport, facing the drive down the Jersey Turnpike past the unmentionable smells of the refineries (called the armpit of New Jersey when I was growing up–now called worse) through New Brunswick on Route One and on into the oasis of Princeton.
I stopped first to see her for the first time since she moved from the house to a small studio assisted living. apartment It was a spacious place. The staff seemed acceptable. She showed me around and introduced me proudly to some of her new friends, including a man who’d become her dancing partner.
Exhausted already, I drove that evening to the old house. Using the key she’d given me, I opened up the wooden front door, hearing the string of Indian brass cowbells on the inside clang and tinkle as they had for fifty years. I never could sneak out at night through the front door.
I was back in the place I wander sometimes in my dreams, the smells of the cold water sitting in the window wells, the ticking of the kitchen clock, the view of the swimming pool and the back terrace out the big-paned window in the living room, the clanking of the glass door and the clinking of the crystal wine glasses in the blond wood danish modern hutch in the dining room as I walked past toward the bedrooms.
I put my suitcase on a chair in her bedroom where the twin beds were pushed together as they had been since my father had lived there. I took off the sheets from her bed and found some worn flowered sheets in the linen closet, smelling cold and slightly musty. I remade the bed in a fog and crawled in.
I had ten days.
It was August in central Jersey. Ninety degrees and eighty percent humidity. And it cools down to eighty degrees at night if you’re lucky. Not like my home in the Northwest where the summer days don’t get about eighty-five and the nights cool down to the sixties or even fifties.
I was up early the next morning, still tired, but energized, my plan clear in my head. I drove out to the old mall a couple of miles away and bought a couple of cartons of heavy duty black plastic garbage bags, a bucket, a new broom, a mop and bottles of cleaning solutions. I stopped at the liquor store and filled the rest of the rental car with boxes.
I was back to the house by nine. My goal was to get everything ready for an estate sale on the last Saturday of my stay and to have the whole house cleared out and ready for the new owners by the time I left two days after that. I started in the kitchen and worked my way through the laundry room to the studies and finally into the bedrooms.
I got up at seven every day, took a brief break to eat a couple of times a day and worked until ten or eleven at night. Several times I went for a run in the morning before starting in. Running was like trying to exercise in a sauna, but it became tolerable after my first two attempts. The best was a run along the canal that runs along the rowing lake, where the tropical weather was accompanied by exotic marsh blossoms, lush greenery and the pleasure of a little breeze from time to time. It was the way to keep moving through the exhaustion and the steady onslaught of emotions.
One or two nights the families where I’d had my second homes as a kid invited me for dinner. I ate well there and we basked for a bit in our mutual love, catching up on the lives of their children and grandchildren, my life and theirs, remembering the old days when we’d all sat around the same tables together.
By the skin of my teeth, I managed to get an ad for the sale into the community paper. After telling all the friends on her phone list about the sale, I realized I’d just missed the deadline for ads. The next day I spoke to the owner of the little paper. She’d known my mother and managed to squeak it into the ad section for the week as a favor. I called the man who’d collected junk and garbage in town since I could remember and scheduled a time for him to come and pick up the garbage at the curb the day before I left.
I’d talked to my mother’s best friend and conspired to make sure she didn’t bring my mother to “help” prepare for the sale. We agreed we wouldn’t tell her when the sale was to be held. I knew that if she came to the house it would take tremendous effort to get her to part with many of her things for a reasonable price. We’d spend most of the day fighting.
Over the next days, I madly threw out bags and bags of things I pulled from the kitchen cabinets, piles of rags and quarter boxes of detergents from the laundry room, cleaned out my father’s file cabinets, mailing myself his last manuscript in a box, labeling the remaining still usable stuff all over the house with colored stickers and some arbitrary price, ready for the estate sale.
It was a day before the sale. I’d tackled a lot of the crowd of things in the garage, bagging up pounds and pounds of mysterious chemicals, breaking apart old lawn chairs, plastic decorations, cleaning years of dust and spiders’ nests from the rafters, sweeping junk from every corner into piles and finally standing back to see it almost clean.
Inside, I’d filled some boxes with books and some small mementos I wanted to save and already mailed them back to myself in Washington state. The bags of garbage were growing into mountains along the road. I’d boxed up the few things my mother would still need and put them into one of the cleaned out bedrooms, leaving other usable clothes hanging in the closets for the estate sale.
As I sat in the living room, resting for a few moments, reviewing the still overwhelming remainder in my mind, it suddenly dawned on me I hadn’t yet even looked at the attic in the garage. I’d had a passing thought or two about it over the past few days, thinking maybe I’d just torch it. It was a place of horrors where anything could lurk back in some corner.
My father used to move things up the ladder to the wooden loft when no one knew what else to do with them. My Patty PlayPal doll, the size of a real two year old, old Christmas decorations including an artificial tree he’d bought on impulse, boxes of now moldy books, old clothes no one ever thought of again, piles of old office supplies including reams of carbon paper, my mother’s mimeograph sheets she’d type up at night for the next day’s class, decayed badminton nets and a box of birdies, all carefully reorganized by my father in the ’70s after he left his job at Boys’ Life. He’d meant to do it annually after that.
I climbed up the ladder and pulled myself over the edge into the loft. The old refrigerator hummed and clicked below at the back of the garage. It distracted me momentarily. I hadn’t yet opened that either. I shuddered involuntarily. Then I turned to look into the darkness of the attic.
Piles of indistinguishable stuff with no pathway in. I could see the top of my Patty PlayPal’s head and one of her eyes. The rest of her was buried in what appeared to be the remains of disintegrated cardboard boxes that had been transformed into large rats’ nests with the tops of basket weave Tiki torches sticking out above the hills.
I retreated down the ladder, careful of the broken rung, to stand and breathe in gulps of relatively uncontaminated air on the garage floor. This would take a good heavy-duty pair of gloves and probably a respirator.
I found the gloves on a shelf of the garage. No respirator and no time to go buy one. I remembered the rolls of gauze in the bathroom closet. That would have to do. Back into the house. I pulled the box of ancient gauze from the shelf and wound it around my face, covering my nose. I found some scissors and cut a length that would go around, again and again, to cover my mouth as needed.
Back up I went, armed with my gauze mask, gloves and a roll of black plastic bags. I started at the ladder and just kept bagging. Every once in awhile I came across an artifact that called up some nostalgic twinge. I threw it in a special black bag.
After a few hours of this my mind was reeling, my back ached and my head pounded. The gauze was wet with sweat and breath. Did I mention the heat made it sauna-like? I came down the ladder and some lunch and a cold beer and began to feel a big revived. I knew, however, I couldn’t bring myself to go back up that ladder again that day. What remained would have to wait until after the estate sale.
I looked around the living room, feeling a sense of satisfaction at having cleaned most of the house down to the last mopping. As I sat in front of the open casement window (with its specially designed screens with a sliding door that slid back so you could reach the lever that released the window so you could open it out), the slight breeze of the early evening was beginning to make me feel I could somehow push on. There were the last remaining hardback books on the bookshelves, the ones I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the money to send and which the first edition bookseller had rejected, my eyes wandered down.
With a start, I realized I’d completely overlooked the cabinets at the bottom of the built-in shelves. Oh God! That’s where my mother had stashed the family photo albums, the ones with black paper pages, black and white photos stuck on the page with black picture frame imitation corners, the ones with PVC pages full of the color photos of my adolescence, friends, and family, and my parents’ late-life trips to Europe.
It was just at that moment that the old phone rang from the kitchen wall next to the cabinets with its distinctive loud clanging ring. It was my mother’s friend, Elaine. She had a lovely, richly inflected voice, with a slight undertone of the old south where she’d been raised.
“Your mother and I are here at her place, talking. She wants to come over tomorrow morning and go through her things with me before you sell anything.”
“She wants me to help he go through her clothes and choose the ones she still wants.”
No! No! My brain was screaming. She can’t! That will set me back days! I took a deep breath.
“Elaine? Could you bring her over now instead? That way she won’t be here when the sale starts.”
I knew Elaine was trying to think fast. She understood the dilemma. My mother clearly had the gun of guilt pressed to the side of her head. I could hear her turn to my mother.
“Pearl, it would really be so more convenient for me if we went over to the house now. I have things I have to do in the morning. We could spend an hour. That should be plenty of time to go through things.”
I could hear my mother in the background making slight objections about how it would certainly take more than an hour, but Elaine, brilliantly from my point of view, just poo-pooed the idea.
“It’s perfect to go now. Why didn’t we think of it before? Then Toni can have time for dinner before she finishes up for the day.”
She skillfully ended the negotiations with, “We’re on our way!” brightly.
I sighed with relief. Plan!
I went quickly to her bedroom where I’d packed up the clothes for her new apartment. I unpacked them and spread them on the bed. I carried armloads of clothes on hangers from her closet and put them in the closet of my old bedroom, closing the door firmly. I knew it usually stuck.
They arrived shortly after, my mother walking quickly up the flagstone path, determined, to the front door. We hugged and she went immediately to her bedroom, Elaine in tow looking back at me with a small wince and a slight shrug of her shoulders. I followed them.
Elaine had brought a big suitcase which she opened on the bed. My mother went for the bait, going through the clothes I’d laid out and putting them in the suitcase, one by one. I left them to go and work on the last bits of my mother’s old study, worrying in my head what the hell I was going to do in the next two days to empty out those living room cabinets and salvage the family photos.
I heard my mother call.
“What happened to my other dresses? I know there were a lot more things hanging in my closet. I need those things.”
I tried to fake it. “Oh no. You must be mistaken. I took everything out and laid it on the bed.”
“No.” she said. “They must be in another closet.” She turned and went through the door into my old room. She pulled on the glass knob of the closet. It was not budging.
“Open this for me,” she said.
I pulled at it and said, “It must be stuck again. Remember how it does that?”
She was insistent I open it.
“I guess we’ll have to call that man who does things around the house. It’s an emergency. I’m sure he’ll make time for me tonight.”
“I’ll try again,” I said, defeated.
I pulled on it with both hands, bracing myself with a foot against the wall. I nearly fell backward with my feigned effort as the door popped open.
“There they are!” she said, triumphantly.
Oy vey (punctuated by a sinking feeling at the end), was my internal response.
There was barely room in her apartment for the things I’d spread out, let along another closet full of sweaters and dresses that no longer fit. Elaine, the saint, said,
“Okay, Pearl. I think we need to sort through these things and make sure you can still wear them. Otherwise, you can give them to the women’s shelter.”
Perfect. I left them to it.
There was still some time to start on those cabinets. I steeled myself and opened the one closest to the windows. As the door opened, I heard squeaking and the smell of mouse urine and mouse shit wafted into the room. The deep closet was filled with shredded gift paper and the remains of a few rolls. Underneath, I could see two of the photo albums, one I recognized as the one with the photos from the family vacation to the Montreal World’s Fair the summer of 1967.
I closed the cabinet and sat down on the sofa. How could I possibly do anything with all that before I had to fly back home? My eyes teared.
Meanwhile, I heard Elaine calling,
“I think we’ve done what we can. Pearl has all the things we’ve decided she’ll need. She wants to come back for the sale tomorrow. She says she has to help sell the paintings and things.”
She turned her face towards mine and silently mouthed,
“Someone told her!”
She gave me a stage frown of sadness before turning back to my mother.
This was the worst news of the day. I’d thought that was settled. I would take care of it all. On her way in, she’d already stopped in front of her large framed copy of a Rouault painting, “Christ Mocked by Soldiers” (very good, but out-of-favor and a copy), and said,
“That’s worth far more than $75. Say $300.”
It may have been worth it, but I knew no one would pay it. I said,
“Elaine. I need your advice about something in the kitchen,” I took her by the arm and went to the far end of the kitchen.
I took her by the arm and went to the far end of the kitchen.
“Can we do something?”
I stood for a moment, studying her face for some sign of revelation. Nothing. I opened my mouth hoping something of use would materialize.
“How about if you think of a reason you couldn’t bring her till after three o’clock? Most of the stuff should be gone by then.”
She thought for a second or two and then said,
“I’ll tell her I have a dentist appointment at noon for a crown. I won’t be done until three.”
“Brilliant!” I said.
We all kissed good night. I got out the leather gloves, a double plastic bag and a rusty garden shovel and started in on the mouse nests.
A few months back, I was deeply engaged in my job managing a therapeutic foster care program in Northwest Washington, helping as I could on our small farm and trying to make sure my mother was safe in her home over three thousand miles away. One night I got a call from the emergency room of the hospital in Princeton.
“We have your mother here. You gave us your phone number a while back as the contact. She’s ready to go home. Please come and pick her up.”
When I explained I was in Washington state, they told me I needed to arrange for her transportation or they would have to discharge her to the street. She had no money with her having been brought by ambulance by the EMTs. I was rattled.
I asked what they suggested. After we ruled out all possibilities of friends coming to pick her up (at two am) they said to call a cab. Unfortunately, no cab companies were willing to drive her home on speculation that she would give them money when they got there, nor were they willing to take my credit card until, after an hour of calling cab company supervisors and raising hell, I bullied one into taking it.
After the same thing happened again not long after and she’d barely made it home, I’d flown out to Newark Airport, taken a limo to her home and arranged a meeting with the three neighbors who cared about her most. She was desperate to stay in her home, despite her encroaching dementia and the panic that set in at night from time to time, leading her to call 911 complaining of heart pain. I’d mailed her a special plasticized list of the phone numbers of all her friends and important contacts that she’d taped to the kitchen table. She often couldn’t remember it was there. Fortunately, she remembered where she’d put my number.
We all sat down together the next evening and worked up a schedule. Each person would take a turn checking in on her in the morning and evening to make sure she’d taken the medication in her pill organizer and had something to eat and drink. One was already taking her grocery shopping every week, and making sure she had enough of the things she liked to eat and could make easily. I would call her every day and check in. She had stupendous neighbors. She’d been one herself for so many years. I gave all the neighbors my cell number as a backup, should anything go wrong.
She approved it all after I made it clear that the alternative seemed to be moving to an assisted living facility.
About a week after I got back to the west coast, I started receiving calls from the neighbor across the street. He was worried that he’d seen her out quite late a couple of nights, walking out into the street. He’d come across and talked to her and she had seemed to be okay, bright and alert, but unsure what she was doing out in the dark. He said he didn’t mind at all keeping an extra eye out at night. She seemed to be happier than she’d been for some time. Once she’d come across to visit him, knocking on the door to his office where she knew he’d be during the day. They’d had a lovely visit. He’d taken her on outings with his eight-year-old and they had spent several happy hours, she reminded of the grand-mothering she was so good at.
A week or two later, I got a call again from the hospital. A neighbor had driven her to the emergency room in the middle of the night after she had come knocking on their door after midnight, asking if they had any food they could feed her since she had nothing in the house and was starving. Her cabinets were stocked with food.
They had checked her out and there were no critical medical issues, but, since she’d been to the emergency room a few times over recent months, they had admitted her to the hospital to check her out more thoroughly. It had become clear to the doctor that she was not able to safely function in her home on her own. She was refusing to be discharged to a nursing home, which as the only place the doctor could refer her. He told me he could not discharge her from the hospital to her home. I would need to arrange a discharge to an assisted living facility and make sure she got there.
I called into work and took off the next two days for starters. I got on the phone. After hours of chasing people at different facilities, talking to my mother in the hospital about the alternatives, we found one that would take her until the place she’d been waiting for opened. I had flown back for the long weekend to move her in, just barely having time to get a few pieces of furniture and some clothes into the studio apartment before I caught the limo back to the airport.
Now the house where she had spent fifty years of her life was sold. That night before the day of the sale, I finally to bed sometime after midnight after making my way through all the living room cabinets, finding the albums and piling them on the floor until there was a tall tower.
Many of the black paper pages of the albums from the ’40s and ’50s had been chewed by the mice to make soft nests. Pages of photos were beyond salvage. I’d pulled page after page out of the ruined albums and filled cartons with the photos to go through when they arrived back in Washington. I was totally exhausted at the end of it, too tired to even shower off the clinging mouse smell. I turned on the ancient, second-hand Sears casement window air conditioner in my mother’s bedroom, fell into my mother’s bed and immediately slept.
I got up at seven to the sound of my mother’s old folding travel alarm. The sale started at nine am and I knew from what friends had told me that dealers would start arriving at eight to stand outside the door. I made myself a quick breakfast of the real bagels I’d bought at the store on the highway where they brought them from New York every morning, smeared liberally with the Philly cream cheese I’d bought at the A&P. The day was already hot.
As predicted, a small group of people arrived around eight and started walking around looking at things in the front yard, kicking the flagstones to see if they were loose and sitting on the wooden rails of the garden fence drinking coffee in white cardboard cups.
I opened the door at nine am. The first woman through the door said,
“How much for those flagstones on the front walk?”
I said I didn’t think I could sell them. She said “Eh! The new owner’s going to rip everything out anyway.”
I told her I’d check. By the end of the day, I’d sold them to her for $75 a piece.
The next person in was a man who asked how much I wanted for the brass knocker on the front door. I told him to come back later in the day. He’d left at ten a.m., carting away several boxes full of glassware and kitchen items saying he’d be back. In the end, he paid me $65 and pried it off the door with a couple of screwdrivers.
People came in a steady, thin stream for hours. Several people stayed for much of the day, leaving for lunch and coming back. Two roamed around the whole house, looking for things I hadn’t put up for sale, hoping they’d find some treasure they could wheedle out of me.
In the later afternoon, a pair of them came to me where I’d been wheeling-and-dealing with a young, long-haired man who’d come in with hungry eyes wanting the Rouault print. The first time when I’d told him the price he’d lingered for a long time, standing in the living room, looking around blankly. He’d asked again if I’d take less. When I’d said no, he waited, still standing, for a few long moments, then left. An hour later he’d returned, willing to pay.
The pair who’d been hanging around had asked earlier if they could rummage around some more in the garage. I thought, heck, why not and told them they could.
They’d already found some garden tools they wanted, but they were on the hunt for “antiques”. They’d climbed up the ladder and seen the attic above the garage. They wanted to look around and see if they could find anything. I told them it was a horrible mess, but they insisted they’d seen worse.
Now they were coming back from the garage, the woman carrying a Betsy Wetsie doll, discolored with mold, and the older man triumphantly holding the Patty Playpal out in front of him. “What is this and how much do you want for it?” he said. The woman said she’d give me $10 for the doll that pees when you give it water from a plastic bottle.
My mother showed up after all the paintings were sold, the wrought iron patio set was gone and most of the house was cleaned out. She wandered around touching things, looking a bit sad and asking what I’d gotten for the heavy Jacobean style table, the Rouault print, the throw rug from the living room. I made up inflated figures and showed her the piles of bills in the cash box. She brightened a bit, but complaining a bit more about the prices gave her some sense of control over the thing. She Elaine managed to get her out again by taking her to an early Chinese dinner before she would have to witness the dealers returning to clean things out at the end of the day.
I’d called the realtor who’d sold the house and asked her about the flagstones and door knocker. She’d said the new owners did, indeed, plan to bulldoze the whole thing, so it was all fair game. They brought crowbars and shovels and dug them up and hauled them away in a battered pick-up truck along with the azaleas that had lined the post fence along the walk. It was then I felt a real moldy lump in my chest and was glad my mother wasn’t there to see the devastation.
I’d even lined up a couple who would come the morning of my departure to buy the bed I was sleeping in. I’d bagged up the remaining clothes and everything else that hadn’t sold and put them at the curb. It wasn’t until the next day when I was packing my own bag that I realized someone had made off with the nice field jacket my sweetheart had bought me that year. That was when the whole thing washed over me. I sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, indulged in a cry and let myself feel drained.
Well, everything was gone. The incredible lightness of being.
I went for dinner that night to my home of our Jewish neighbors and ate, sitting in the air-conditioned bliss of her dining room, once again, Anita’s pot roast, the best in the world. She even poured me some decent wine.
The next day was the last. The man came to haul away the mountain of garbage bags and the old broken down washer and dryer. Our friend across the street helped me load his van with a huge abstract painting my parents had been given by their friend, an artist in Cape Cod before I was born. It had hung in each living room they’d had ever since. I wasn’t that fond of it as a painting, but I couldn’t really part with it as an object of lore and family connection.
Then the two Nakashima sofas went in the van and we drove to the mail store where I shipped them home for an inordinate price. The painting spent its remaining years propped in a stall in our barn until it was ceremoniously burned when we cleaned the barn for the sale of our own property. The sofas went to a friend who finally was able to buy himself a decent home with a VA loan after living for years in a moldy trailer.
My mother lived in comfort for ten more years off the proceeds from the sale of the home she and my father bought for thirty-two thousand dollars in 1960. That doesn’t happen these days. It was a stretch for them back then. The first house after twenty-one years of marriage. They were sick of landlords. I remember.
After a while, we moved her out to be with us on the west coast. She would say,
“Mountains! Water! We don’t have these in Brooklyn!”
When I would remind her that she hadn’t lived in Brooklyn for fifty-five years but had lived, instead, in Princeton, where she had many good friends, she’d say,
“No! I’ve lived in Brooklyn all my life!”
I spread her ashes on Mt. Hood, the volcanic peak she came to love. When we would drive together back from my house in the country and catch sight of the gleaming white peak, standing so majestically against the blue sky, we’d turn to each other in the car and launch into the chorus of “Bali Hai”. We’d get as far as the first “Come away!” before dissolving into laughter like the two little girls we really were.
It was the evening of the day I had called my birth father for the first time. My birth mother had called and we’d spoken as long as we could support the emotion of it. Just a short time.
She was astounded that my adoptive mother had kept the name she’d given me in a fleeting attempt to leave a thumbprint on the infant she’d birthed. The name was the same as hers. We’d acknowledged the overwhelming quality of talking on the phone and vowed to see each other soon.
In a daze, I’d made dinner for everyone and eaten a bit here and there, too excited to be hungry. I had put the baby to sleep after a long singing session and her dad was putting our four-year-old daughter to bed.
The phone rang. The voice was unfamiliar, yet somehow known. A voice deep and rich with the sounds of the educated class of the East Coast, a voice familiar like that of some well-known actor whose name is poised somewhere just outside the reach of memory. He said,
“This is your brother—your second oldest brother. I’ve always been in the middle of things, one way or another. I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice. I’ve thought about you ever since Mom called us all into the kitchen the day you turned eighteen and told us you existed. I’ve worried about whether you were okay. I’m so relieved to find out that it sounds like you’re doing really well. I’m even surprised by how I’m relieved”
A brother. Someone whose existence I’d never dared to imagine until my phone call earlier with my birth father, yet who had been out beyond the bounds of awareness, thinking of me, concerned for me, for all those years.
I had planned and imagined and been anxious about this day since my childhood. I had waited until my life was well under way and I’d delved deeply enough into my soul to be sure I needed nothing from my biological parents, not their affirmation, not their love, not to be included in their lives, only to know what they were, to see and hear and touch my connections to the matter of the earth. It could keep me from spinning in the void like Alice down the rabbit hole.
I had consciously blocked my mind from imagining any siblings, even planning as I had for all the contingencies of what might have happened to the two people who conceived me. Instinctively, I knew it was going too far to anticipate the existence of people who represented other rolls of the same genetic dice.
In the moment of hearing the voice of a brother, I felt a resonance unlike anything else I’d yet experienced–as if some vibration was resounding back to me in a huge echo chamber. His impulse seemed one of genuine curiosity, maybe even of connection. Deeply moved, we chatted briefly. We laughed about his relief that it had turned out I wasn’t a conservative and seemed to, in fact, be of a similar political persuasion as “the rest of the family”. I cried silently and perhaps he did too.
When I finally got into bed that night, I slept deeply, dreaming, as I woke in the morning, of all five of us siblings tromping along together in the countryside of some European land. Their faces were not yet clear, but we were like some band of pilgrims, telling stories as we went.
Two months later, we all come together for the first time. It was at the family home in rural upstate New York, a big three story rambling old farmhouse in the midst of beautiful English style flower and vegetable gardens that seemed to spread everywhere. It was full spring when we arrived–Easter. The fragrant flowering trees were in bloom. Long stemmed purple and orange and yellow and red tulips everywhere, grouped with hyacinths, jonquils, and pansies in more profusion and style than I had ever seen.
The grass was greener than it needed to be. The birds were singing and there were another mother and father at the front door to greet us. And then, there in the big kitchen opening right into the entry were my three brothers and the youngest, my sister. Such laughter and hugging and joking and tears. The flood of emotions was like the rivers of lava extruding in spurts from a volcanic explosion. That eruption went on for years within me.
There were two little girls, cousins, for all practical purposes the same ages as my two. Cousins. Five-year-olds and two-year-olds. Grandchildren. They ran in the gardens together. They painted in the basement at the easel their grandmother set up. They died elaborate Easter eggs in the big old farmhouse kitchen with a floor sloping slightly with age, under the guidance of the grandmother they called Tootsie, my birth mother. The woman who had given me her own name. They hunted eggs the next morning, scores of them the women had hidden early, early.
The youngest girl was found on the front stoop in the midst of it all, chomping on her eggs, shell and all, a mass of flaxen hair and happiness. A day of ineffable beauty, bursting unstintingly, immoderately with the joy of a family finally fitting together.
When the energy of the egg hunt had died away slightly, the five of us siblings lined up in our finery for a photo, oldest to youngest. There I am, the farthest to the left, short haired as never before or since, flanked by my oldest brother. Then the middle brother. Then the youngest brother, the attorney. And then my sister, so beautiful and so young–ten years my junior.
A little sister. She and I spent long hours that day and the next, talking in the garden, walking in the woods to the reservoir behind the gardens. All of us together had shared sensibilities we had never found in any other. We knew each other in ways that were unknowable through the regular channels of communication. We were funny together in ways we never experienced in the wider world. Our shared wit had a taste for the dryly bizarre, an attraction to the way words slide.
The five of us in the photo are so clearly a matched set within a set of fixed parameters that the fact alone brings tears to the eyes of most viewers. Looking at the pictures of us as children is another giveaway. In those black and white photos, it’s something in what looks out through the eyes of each of us at age five or eight. It’s the same innocent knowing I can trace back in the thread of my own consciousness.
I got to know my middle brother pretty well over the next years. As the one who had called me that first day, I was drawn to finding out more. There was a sardonic, somewhat prickly exterior, made sharper and more grey with infusions of alcohol. There was a tender interior and a deep and complex intelligence and sensitivity wandering around inside in a kind of darkness.
We took long walks in the city during our visits and spent a couple of dinners sharing a bottle of wine and talking for long hours. He visited me on the west coast and saw something of my environment. I went to his wedding when he married a Korean-Swede at a Buddhist Temple in Queens. I saw him little after that. After 9/11 in 2001, he disappeared from the family’s view for many years.
When he began talking to his parents after all that time, it turned out he had been working in one of the World Trade Center Towers that morning. He had just reached the ground outside the tower on an errand to get coffee for himself and a couple of office mates. As he began walking away from his building, it began to fall behind him. I have never learned more about what happened in those minutes, hours and days.
He and his wife lost the thread of their lives. The initial crash and the contamination in the air around the area for days and weeks ruined both the new art gallery he and his wife had just opened close to the site and her health. The second effect has lasted through all the years since, dogging them both in unknowable ways. When he began seeing the family again, the darkness and the sharp prickles seemed to be overcoming him. He and his wife struggled and then held on to their love together. I no longer felt able to meet the common ground within. Lines were drawn.
My sister and I knew from the first moments we sat together on the grass that Easter Day that there were countless ways in which our senses experienced the world in ways familiar to no one else. We were transfixed by the way the light touched things. We noticed the same kinds of details in a face, a forest walk, the view of a lake.
With no inkling of each other, we had worn the same kind of button down Levis for years, fashionable only for men by then. We had the same sort of awkward grace, long legs, same nearly six-foot height with fuzzy proprioception. Bull in a china shop types. Difficulty keeping our feet on the ground. Same ability to savor emotions like wine.
She had evidence in a journal from the time of her first serious infatuation that she wanted to name a future daughter the same unusual name I had chosen a few years later for mine. We could look into each others’ eyes and see the same spirit that had peered out at us from the mirror all our lives, hers looking out through the sparkling blue-green waters, mine through deep brown pools.
We spent hours talking about our childhoods, our thoughts about life, the family, the world. Our interactions have stretched out over the thirty years since we met, a symphony of instruments that sometimes play in unison, sometimes in perfect intervals, sometimes in octaves and sometimes rush off the stage in the hands of a furious musician to be smashed violently against the wall. We have stood by each other while the rest of the family was heaving and breaking apart.
The day after calling my birth father for the first time, I called my oldest brother. As the eldest all the years of growing up, he’d presumably been endowed with the most responsibility and the most power to rule the flock. I called to ask him how he felt being deposed by an older sister. He said,
“God! Go ahead, take it! I’m relieved!”
No hard feelings, he insisted. I have never gotten very close to him. We perhaps avoid intimacy instinctively. He married twenty-some years ago and moved to a town east of London with his British wife.
My youngest brother seemed to see an ally in me when we met. That has changed over the years when, again, lines were drawn.
Like me, he was the one who had taken a more direct career path, had married and had children. He was outwardly prospering. We were in a stage of life when practicality and responsibility to others were paramount. He had a big, new and beautiful home.
Raised by a Jewish father whose aunt had established the first Kibbutz in Israel and a lapsed Protestant mother, he had inexplicably become a Catholic when he married. He had walked into a huge extended Southern family, culturally and politically very different from his own. They sent their girls to private school. His wife had a good business head and ran their complex social life. They threw extravagant and fantastic parties slathered in alcohol, combining the two families. They felt, for a time, I understood their position better than the others in a family where our siblings were still choosing where to steer.
When we all first met, it was as if I had walked into a fairy tale. It was the story of the child who had been taken away and given to a family to raise in a nearby town who then when she is grown, finds the family she never knew existed and is magically reunited with her mother and father. There it is, the love of parents who have preserved their thriving kingdom and have forever left a place at the table for the one who was stolen away. There is a group of brothers and a sister who swarm around at her return and welcome her back into the flow of their lives, recognizing her as the missing link to elusive happiness.
I had been sober when I walked through the door, but the intoxication was overwhelming. The sense of finally knowing where this collection of mind, bones, cells, nerves, ego and spirit fit into the puzzle of the world was a potent drug. I could look at it all and see the balance between what we carried in the cells and what had happened to each of us through our rubbing up against experience. It was rich. It was heady.
It was not a magic kingdom. My birth-father was as flawed, large and magnanimous as Mark Twain’s King Arthur and as well loved. When he died–having lived for several miraculous years after a massive heart attack–the seismic plates moved and steam and lava rose up from all the cracks. No one in the family survived unscathed. His wife, the mother of the family, the grandmother, was left standing in the middle of the devastation. Since I was of the family but not of it, I managed to escape most of the worst effects, having my own family, my own culture stretching out around me.
Family is complicated, untidy. It is all the things that life is made of, horrors and pleasures, disquiet and joy, all traveling in the air through the corridors of this rambling house, full of many rooms.
There is no one without a family. Some families live in a house entirely inside us. Some come face-to-face with us day after day. Some are people we have chosen to love. Some are not.
In my life as a therapist, I had the privilege of seeing into the hearts of so many families of so many different flavors, so many different forms. There were peerless, rare moments when, out of all the suffering, the pain, the anger, the frustration, we all felt love descend into our midst and settle gently.
I have my own children, my own grandchild, my beloved partner –the person in life closer to me than even genetics can create–my own complicated configurations. Navigating the delicate traceries of love is so much of the job we’ve come to do. What I thought to be a very special case is only one of the infinite variations of stabbing, corrosive pains and surpassing joys. I’m glad. There is so much to know. I’ve been handed another lens through which to see all this life.
Stanley Stephen Pashko only became a father when he and his wife adopted me. A strange opening sentence. Who thinks of fatherhood this way? He was thirty-nine at the time and had already lived a lot of life.
I was remembering the feeling deep inside my chest I can mine from the earliest days of my memory, probably the days when I played in the basement while he pounded away on his typewriter between my demands. It was a warmth, an energy that powered my legs as I rode my tricycle around and around the big basement. It was the way, later, I began to identify that mysterious feeling of love. My mother was a constant. I barely remember what she was like in those times. Maybe the smell of that warmth of perfume that blanketed me as she hugged me goodnight before going out with my father to the ballet. Or the figure standing on the sidewalk watching me toddle off a few yards only to turn and smile and unsteadily waiver back.
So–his life before. From where we stand, the life of a parent is only visible from the moment of our consciousness. Like an iceberg, the greatest portion of what went into the creation of that person is hidden below the dark water. I knew it from those black and white square photos, stuck to the page with black corners like the corners of an ornate picture frame. A thin, young man, with thick, wavy dark hair in the style of Cary Grant, in a camp in the Adirondacks, in a rowboat at Lake George, with friends in the sun in Province Town, with his arm around my mother, horsing around with her on a tennis court, striking poses, playing ball on the grass with an unknown little girl on Cape Cod. In the photos, you don’t notice the limp. I know this life from the stories told around dinner tables with Jewish relatives and glasses of purple Manischewitz or late at night on the sofas in the living room, just him and me.
When I was a little girl, almost every Easter and sometimes around Christmas, we went to the town where he’d grown up. We went to visit my Polish, fat and wonderfully aromatic grandmother. Olyphant, Pennsylvania. A town where Anthracite coal, hard and clean burning, had been mined since the mid-nineteenth century.
Olyphant was seeing the peak of production when my father was born. The other kind of coal–soft bituminous coal, first from the mines of Britain and Germany and then from Virginia–had begun to achieve popularity as a fuel when Americans had finally cut down most of the forests for wood to burn in their stoves and to make charcoal for manufacturing iron. Anthracite, since it’s harder to light, had to wait for its fluorescence until some bright inventor in 1860 developed a way to construct iron grates to hold it, allowing air to circulate above and below, feeding its bed with oxygen. With a widespread education effort, it finally caught hold as the fuel of choice in the cities of the East Coast. For a while, it became the dominant source of energy. Production boomed a bit during the First World War when soft coal wasn’t available from Europe and almost came to a halt during the depression when John Lewis lead strikers to gain higher wages and benefits and prices went up.
When my grandmother arrived in America around 1890, an eighteen-year-old Polish woman all on her own, fleeing poverty and waves of Russian invasions accompanied by raping and killing, mining was starting to boom in the town. Poles and Russians were beginning to supplement the supply of the Irish who had come to mine earlier in the century. By the time we started visiting in the 1950s, mining in Pennsylvania had dwindled to a near standstill.
In her Polish neighborhood, not much aside from the bustle of a mining town seemed to have changed over those years. St. Patrick’s Catholic Church still dominated the area. The wooden stairs led up the back to her two floors of the wood frame house on the main street, with a little general store and apartment for old Mr. Jagelewski and his wife downstairs. Central School still stood, a few blocks away, gray and flatly austere.
She had married a Russian coal miner a few years after her arrival. To supplement his income from the mines, she ran a boarding house and saloon. By the time my father was five years old, he was entertaining customers by standing on the bar and singing. He played on the dirt streets and back gardens and ran errands to the store down the street for his mother. The town was dominated by coal in those days. The Lackawanna River ran yellow with sulfur. Like dark hills behind the houses of the main street, small mountains of coal slag sent up faint curls of smoke by day and glowed like fire and brimstone by night. Families waited for the return of the miners in the evening when they’d gather around kitchen tables, faces black with the coal, and drink each others’ health with shots of vodka while wives fed them pierogi and stewed chicken.
One day that year he was five, playing on the street with friends, hoping for a ride, he climbed up on the back of a milk wagon, stopped to deliver some milk. The driver returned, jumped into the cab without seeing the little boy on the back, and clicked his horses into motion. Somehow, the boy had gotten his foot stuck in the spokes of the rear wheels. As they began to turn, his leg was twisted completed around, mangled and broken, before his screams reached the ears of the driver. People rushed up, pulled him free and carried him to the doctor down the street. There the doctor examined him and pronounced the leg impossible to save.
By that time, his father, having been informed on his way out of the mine, had run from the mine to the home of the doctor. He insisted the leg be saved. It was–after multiple long surgeries, infections, weeks in bed and a childhood spent in recovery. Ironically, it was one of the things that gave my father the means to feed his keen intelligence. Laid up, he devoured book after book from the little library in town, reading every book cover to cover by the time he’d reached high school age. The other track it etched in the course of his life was the deep furrow made by the flow of the copious amounts of vodka he used, starting from the age of sixteen, to medicate the constant pain from a knee where bone ground on bone.
His experience of the Great Depression had been dramatically different from that of the woman he eventually married. Her life had been relatively sheltered from the impact. Having graduated from Central High School as a virtual autodidact, attending school mainly for the exams which were hardly a challenge, he scraped by with his family into his twenties. Even before the Depression, things were hard.
One late night, vodka in hand, he told me a story from those times. When he was twelve or thirteen, they had no money to buy the coal they needed for the big coal stove in the kitchen that cooked their food and heated the house. His father had died in a cave-in in the mine. His mother had remarried. His step-father would take him and his younger brother, Mike, to abandoned mine shafts. While the boys waited at a short distance, he would light a charge of dynamite, throw it down into the hole and run like the dickens to where the boys were crouching on their haunches. A big explosion, spewing dirt up through the hole and bulging the ground under their feet. They would wait for a few minutes, gathering up a length of sturdy rope and a burlap sack they’d brought with them. As the dust settled in the opening to the shaft, one boy would tie the rope around his waist. After pulling the knots tight, their step-father would wrap a scarf around the boy’s nose and mouth and tie it in the back of his head. The boy would then slide over the edge of the hole while his step-dad, hanging on tight to his end of the rope, slowly lowered him into the dust of the shaft. The boy would hold his breath and, when the shaft opened up towards the bottom, would swing the burlap bag around his head for as long as his breath would hold. A jerk on the rope would signal to pull him up double-quick. The two boys would take turns clearing the dust this way until it was possible to breathe in the shaft. Then they would be lowered to the bottom with coal buckets and a coal shovel. They filled the bucket with the coal the blast had loosened and then signaled to be pulled up. With a heavy bucket of coal each, they’d make their way back home as inconspicuously as possible with the stolen coal, the boys staggering under the weight.
At some point in his early twenties, he started meeting with the men of the United Mine Workers Union and studying Marxism. He never really spoke about this period except to say that he was a labor organizer in his youth. Someone in the Union eventually recommended him to Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, NY.
Brookwood was a unique place, originally founded to teach working-class teenagers non-violent approaches to social justice and political change. Yes, in the early 1900s social justice was on the minds of a lot of middle-class idealists and working-class unionists. It’s not new. After a few years, the tuition-free school was struggling and decided to hand over management to a bunch of union activists who believed a new social order was needed and was, in fact, on its way. The workers were the ones who would usher in the change and education would help to make the change non-violent and gradual.
Since he only spoke about “going to a college for socialists” once or twice during those evenings drinking beer on the patio or vodka in the living room, I have to reconstruct those years from the bits and pieces. He studied maybe a year or two there, going through the books in the college’s small library the way he had in his hometown.
The one thing I know for certain about this experience was that he went on the road with the Brookwood Labor Players theater group. I’m clear about this part since, at every chance, he would do his “villain” routine, turning his back on his audience of one or two unsuspecting children, and then, turning quickly towards them, eyes glittering, bushy black eyebrows brushed down, would give them his throaty, threatening, theatrical “Ho ho my little friends”. It must have been the part of the nasty mine owner. Used to embarrass the heck out of me. He toured Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey and Maryland with plays like “Miner” and “Sit Down” (which portrayed the Flint sit-down strike of 1936-37), some of which met with critical acclaim. He may have stuck with it until the college closed in 1937. An interesting and neglected crack in American history. Too bad the idea of social justice and a movement led by workers never really caught on.
He moved to the city then and got what work he could in publishing. He worked for a comic book outfit for awhile before the war, was a court reporter (learning the Gregg shorthand he modified and used for all his notes and typing 120 wpm on a manual Royal typewriter) and worked his way into a job at Random House. Since he had a 4F deferment from the Service because of his leg, he put in his time working in the shipyards in New York until the war ended and he could return full-time to publishing.
I can imagine him during those days, smiling at the boss, smart as a whip, but quietly unwilling to buy into the system. As time went by, he, like many of those who had found the values of socialism so attractive, was completely disillusioned and disgusted by Stalin’s rule. Living through the McCarthy years brought him outrage and conflict. Friends were not able to work. He had torn up his card years before.
He met his young Jewish wife in his late ‘30s in Brooklyn and she began his “cultural education”, smoothing out his course places with trips to the ballet, the theater, and the opera. By that time, he had begun to write a few articles here and there and had plans for a novel.
The year they married, he was promoted to an editorial position at Random House, the only non-Jew in a circle of my mother’s intellectual friends. She showed him off. Drinking just fit in with being a writer. He held forth well in their company. They went to rent parties in the city with people who would become famous authors and illustrators. They spent summers in the Adirondacks with art friends who had started a summer camp to promote the arts and sometimes in Cape Cod with artist friends from the city. They had rollicking good times. He was infamous for having burping contests with one of the local artists in Cape Cod. The two of them would chug those old glass bottles of Coke and then see who could let out the biggest belch. They were given paintings and threw parties in return. Things went sour with Random House and a friend got him a job with the thriving publication, Boys’ Life, the official Boy Scouts of America magazine, as his wife went through a series of miscarriages.
When they decided on adoption, he had already started a series of books for boys including “An American Boys’ Omnibus”, “The Complete Book of Camping”, and “A Boy and His Dog” with my mother as his editor. They were living in a small apartment in Flatbush, Brooklynn. The year before they adopted, he finished a collaboration with her called “An American Girls’ Omnibus”. She was always a bit sore that he didn’t give her co-authorship, saying it would sell better under his name. He, for his own part, was always a bit embarrassed at being employed by the Boy Scouts as an editor. It was a come-down from the literary world of Random House.
For years he wrote the responses to boys’ letters to Pedro the Donkey, the Boy Scout mascot, thereby becoming the personification of Pedro himself. He used to joke to friends that he got the job because they all knew he was a “horse’s ass” anyway.
After they adopted me, he took off a year or two from “the business” to freelance. He wrote on a Royal typewriter (see my story in the “About Me” tab of this blog site) and banged out the rest of his thirteen books for boys, many dedicated to his new daughter. He wrote at least ten pages a day and approached writing with the attitude of someone used to work.
He allowed people to believe that he had pressured my mother to give me a boy’s name since, working as he did for a boys’ magazine, he must really have wanted a boy. It was our secret that it had been no such thing. It was the name my birth mother had given me and my mother, against his advice, decided to keep it. Our conspiracy about this myth was one of our bonds. He stuck up for me later during the barrages of my mother’s protective nagging. I was lucky that way.
Later, when he became the fiction editor of the magazine, he had his revenge on the literary world by developing relationships with Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clark and getting them to write stories for him. He somehow also got Pearl S. Buck, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bobby Fisher and Robert Heinlein to contribute. These are only the famous authors I know for certain he solicited as fiction editor. There were probably many others.
By that time, we’d moved to New Brunswick to follow the offices of the magazine. He would drive into the city where he and Isaac Asimov would drink together and swap stories. My father would cheer him up.
He went on “story assignments” with Ansel Adams into the southwest landscapes and came back with magnificent photos for spreads in a magazine that also specialized in dumb cartoons and jokes and stories about how to earn your Atomic Energy Merit Badge. He also was drinking more and more, hiding his bottles from my mother, forgetting where he put them and getting everybody sloshed with double shots at the parties they threw at the house they’d finally bought in Princeton. By the time they had a teenage daughter in the house, things could get pretty interesting later in the evenings.
The deep love my father and I had for each other became clouded by the depression of alcoholism and the railing of a teenager of the 60s at the injustice of a system he had never wanted. But it was still there—that deep bond. He was a man of an intensity of understanding, a profound and romantic heart and a large mind, all kept close in by layers of pain at the last until, minus the romantic heart, it was released by drink.
The only time I ever saw him cry was when, at the age of eight, I came around the corner into our little kitchen to find him leaning into the crook of his arm propped against the refrigerator, weeping. He had just learned his mother had died. His eyes filled with unshed tears the day I came home from an abortion and he sat beside my bed.
He saw his granddaughter once when she was nine-months-old. There is a photo of him at the dining room table of the house he had abandoned and left to my mother, sitting with the baby on his lap. His eyes were wet. He is terribly thin, even thinner than in the photos of his youth, but with pale, pale skin. We laughed at his corny jokes and at the baby.
At the end, having left his wife to protect her from what he had become, he died of complications of cirrhosis in an apartment in a small town in New Jersey, surrounded by beautifully made oak bookshelves, full of the books he treasured, alone with them and his memories of a mother and daughter he’d loved while feeling unworthy and a wife he had struggled, and in the end perhaps failed, to love.