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Wednesday, August 17, 2016
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
by Siri Liv Myhrom
Raymond hasn’t eaten in five days. He will go on dying of dehydration, starvation, and cancer for five more days, and we’ll take turns keeping vigil by his bedside, watching him incrementally disappear until we wish him gone, for his sake and ours.
It will finally happen on a stormy, slate-sky Tuesday afternoon, six people surrounding him, earnestly resting flushed hands on his sallow rawboned limbs.
He’ll breathe in—we’ll wait, holding our own living breath—but no exhale will come. And that will be his exit: mouth slightly agape, eyes steady and skyward, a Renaissance saint in rapture. I will sit for an hour beside him afterwards, almost more in awe of this terrible beauty than in grief, wonder for weeks what he saw, wonder still.
Outside, the crab apple trees will be at their fullest, the arching, wind-blown branches crowded and busy with sturdy white blossoms that keep shaking off the rain.
Four months later, it will be my mother. Some floodgate will open in her brain, some explosion of light and blood at the base of her skull, a bright flash. She will look at my brother and say, I feel so tired. He’ll say, Come in the living room and sit down. She’ll say, But it’s so far, even though she’s only ten feet away from the chair.
Then the blood tide will rise too fast and strong in her brain, and she will drown right there in my brother’s living room, ninety seconds from start to finish.
I’ll sit with her in the hospital room, every part of her that mattered already snuffed out, but in the absence of her, I’ll cling to what’s left: those artist’s hands, the soft flesh of her upper arms, the long, warm space between jaw and collar bone. I’ll sing to her all the hymns I know by heart, the ones she loved, because it is the only way I can figure out what to say to her about what I am witnessing.
Even after the breathing tube is pulled, she will work so hard to die, for hours, through the entire night and into the morning, her whole sternum heaving, the gurgling inhalations and the sour exhalations fluttering and halting. This is a sound, along with my father’s muffled sobbing into her chest, that will relentlessly revisit me in memory.
The last moment will be just that: a moment. She’ll let her breath all out, finally letting go, her ribcage depressed, my ribcage on fire. Nothing but white and the faint beeping in the room. I’ll think, Even if this is it, even if there is no heaven, this painless quiet is enough. The blazing blue September sky outside the window, and all the embered trees, will bow in agreement.
Jeff will choose to die at home. We will take turns sitting with him during the night, having our own surreal and mundane conversations about ordering pizza, feeding the cat, washing dishes—all this brash talk of living things in the presence of the dying.
Finally, his breath will soften and slow. He will bring his teeth lightly together with each inhale, his mouth barely open, like he is tasting and chewing the very last of life. His new bride, Marti, will put her head on his chest, will hold his wounded head—the source of all this misery, the surgeries and still the insistent tentacles of tumor. She will kiss him over and over, will give him permission to finish this one last meal of air.
And he’ll listen. That last breath will be a holy trailing thread that holds him here one moment and then just releases him into the embrace of some soft compelling Invitation. It will be so tender a passing that she will have to ask, Is he gone? Did he go?
Then in the brittle winter morning light, we will wash his still-warm skin with cloths dipped in a metal bowl of steaming soapy water and lavender oil, a sacred offering on this All Saint’s Day. We’ll dress him, awkwardly heft his bony body from bed to wooden coffin. We’ll weight his eyes with quarters, tie his jaw, arrange his arms and legs, line his body with ice packs, line the coffin with sunflowers and lilies, adorn the room with a summer’s worth of flowers. Other than the rare whispered question, we’ll move mostly in silence, so gently, so gently, knowing we are inside a consecrated moment, that we have stood at the temple door between Here and Not Here.
On a warm June evening, I will open the garage door to get the reel mower, and I will see a baby robin with his head tucked under his wing. I will know something is amiss when he doesn’t startle or try to escape at my approach, when he lets me pick him up with little protest. I won't know how he got in or how long he's been there.
I will take him out in the back yard, hoping the fresh air and close light will revive him. I’ll give him a few eye droppers of water, which he will quietly drink.
My three-year-old will hold him so gently and say, He looks tired. Maybe his momma will come get him soon and snuggle with him. I think she will. But his breathing will be getting erratic by this time, and he’ll keep closing his eyes, and because I believe in telling her the truth about these things, I’ll talk about the fact that he is probably dying. She’ll take this news with a kind of sagely acceptance: it is what it is.
Is his brain hurt? she’ll ask, reaching back almost nine months to the conversations I had with her, when she was two, about my mother. I’ll marvel again at how kids don't miss a thing—and how they resurrect moments and make connections in the weirdest, most clairvoyant ways.
She will go inside to take a bath, and I’ll hold him again, press him up to the warmth and pulse of my neck.
And how can I not think of every creature I have ever loved, every being I’ve held as it left, everyone I love right now with such a ferocity that I hardly know what to do with it? As soon as I commit to sitting in one small moment where I’m paying attention and not flinching or distracting or numbing myself, I’ve committed to sitting with all of it, and it's always a little bit like drowning.
I’ll make a bed for him in the mulchy leaves under the dense hosta. His eyes will be closed and his feet curled, though his chest will still be moving—but I will know by now when there's nothing left to do. There's so much I can't do a thing about except be a witness. And it will seem strange to me, since so much of life is letting go—most of it, really—that it is still such an awfully hard thing to do.
Siri Liv Myhrom is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis, MN with her husband and two young daughters. "Vanishing" is part of a larger nonfiction collection of conversations with grief. She can be found as an occasional guest contributor to the OnBeing blog.
Sunday, August 7, 2016
by Ryan Harper
It was a regularly televised conversion. Adam holds aloft the mystical Power Sword and exclaims, “by the power of Grayskull….” The sword draws fire from heaven, and it enters Adam—blowing his clothes off and transforming him into He-Man. Before the scene ends, the bare-chested hero lowers the sword, holds it horizontally, and finishes the sentence in a reverberating voice: “…I have the power!” The conversion was always sudden, and it was usually late.
I watched He-Man and the Masters of the Universe religiously as a boy. It was one in a series of after-school cartoons that provided the content for my young imagination: G.I. Joe, Transformers, Voltron, Thundercats. My parents and grandparents furnished me with the action figures, even Mattel’s playset masterpiece, Castle Grayskull. In addition to playing with the toys, I started dramatizing He-Man episodes. After constructing a passable replica of the Power Sword using my erector set, I—Adam, He-Man’s Clark Kent—would run wildly around the house, as if I were being chased by He-Man’s arch nemesis Skeletor and his henchmen. Then, finally cornered by the imaginary adversaries, I would stop, settle myself, and rehearse the moment when Adam put away his old self: By the power of Grayskull…quickly dropping the sword, removing my shirt, picking up the sword again…I have the power! Shit was about to get real.
My mother stayed at home during my formative years, so she bore witness to this spectacle. One day, after hearing me perform this incantation the fourth or fifth time, she took me aside and gently informed me that she did not want me saying those words. She then smiled as she suggested what she obviously regarded as a plausible alternative: “Why don’t you say, ‘by the power of Jesus?’”
I knew enough to tilt my head and nod reflectively, as if her suggestion seemed plausible to me. It was not. I was embarrassed, horrified, and a little bewildered at her proposal.
This was not because I did not believe in the power of Jesus. I was a good young evangelical. I already had been “saved”—prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. I spent most of my weekends traveling to revivals and church homecomings, singing and playing drums in my family’s southern gospel singing group. Rather, I felt uneasy about my mother’s suggestion because, it seemed obvious to me, He-Man’s world, Eternia, did not include Jesus as a character. Eternia was make-believe. A different set of powers and principalities were in play there—“good” and “evil” forces that I recognized as having analogues in the real world, but fictional forces nonetheless. To introduce Jesus into the drama—who was made and remade real for me at every weekend Pentecostal revival, every dinner conversation, every moment lived in a region in which even the profane citizens lived inside the broad shadow of the evangelical cross—would have been like introducing my grandpa or my dentist. Giving Jesus an explicit role in Eternia, I thought, made him less real.
My mother did not share my view towards fictional realms of play. She had a radically holistic view of the Gospel’s reach. For her, the spirit of Christ was at work in even the seemingly innocuous, recreational aspects of life—including the imagination and its products. Naming Jesus in Eternia was simply identifying he who had been active, anonymously, the whole time, like Paul revealing to the Athenians the true identity of their unknown god. We were conservative evangelical Christians—not fundamentalists, who shunned all worldly entertainments, whose households would not have contained Mattel’s Castle Grayskull. As such, we did what believers had been doing since Constantine, if not Paul: we converted the accoutrements of paganism into Christian icons. My mother responded to my dabbling in the black arts of Grayskull by transforming Grayskull into Golgotha.
Of course, the transformation only was worth undertaking if the paganism in question had some usable features. It certainly was important for a young evangelical male to have manly heroes. He-Man became a mass-market sensation in the early 1980s, which Reagan had wrested from Carter. For most evangelicals, a warrior of dubious religiosity seemed preferable to a pious but soft patriarch. A year before my He-Man controversy, I requested a Cabbage Patch Kid for Christmas. My father, who refused to let me have a “girl’s toy,” compromised and selected for me a doll from the feline section of the Cabbage Patch—a “Koosa” whom I named Prince, after a secular musician about whom I knew nothing, on whom I could lavish a fictive love more akin to a pet owner’s than a mother’s. No one in my family had the equipment to understand that the bob-haired, hot-pants-wearing hero of Grayskull and his various life partners (characters with names like Man-At-Arms, Man-E-Faces, and…sweet Jesus…Ram-Man) undermined evangelical gender norms much more seriously (and, I now see, much more hilariously) than did Xavier Roberts’s homely creations. Having supplied me with the action figures and the playset, my parents obviously thought that, with a slight rewrite, the man from Eternia was a serviceable evangelical hero for a boy.
But as soon as my mother suggested her rewrite, by the power of Jesus, it was clear to me that I would no longer play He-Man out loud in the house. The prospect of saying “by the power of Jesus” inside Eternia, even when I was playing alone there, sent an embarrassed shudder through me—that sort of shame over an unrealized iteration that occurs when you think some horrible thought during a job interview and realize how easy it would be to open your mouth and let the thought pass into a world in which it does not belong, thus spoiling entire realms of possibilities, irreparably. I disassembled my Power Sword and summoned Prince from my shelf.
I was miffed at having to reroute my playtime, but I never harbored resentment toward my mother. She and I have gone over this episode in my adulthood, and she now laughs at her excessive, if well-meaning, parental policing. I am now the age my mother was when the episode occurred. It occurs to me how easily my late-thirties self—now equipped with one graduate degree in theological studies, one more in religious studies—could offer a much richer, more systematic, and consequently more joy-killing gloss on He-Man than she did. She taught me well. Was not Adam’s animated transformation, with Grayskull in the background, suggestive of the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice on Golgotha, available to all who would call on its power? Was not Adam transformed by the power of Golgotha into the new Adam? Was not He-Man’s turning of the Power Sword from its vertical to its horizontal position emblematic of justification and sanctification: a Christian is made well by power from above, and then is called to use that power to lead a holy life “horizontally,” in this world? Was not Adam’s decision to share his superhero identity only with a select few akin to the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus, who instructed his few open-eyed followers to tell no one he was the Messiah? Imagine a boy being subject to such a parental disquisition!
I would not state these cases to my child because I no longer think such matters are all that important. But I do think some matters are just that important. I may no longer be an evangelical, but I retain my old evangelical disposition to read, interpret, and criticize all aspects of my culture. I retain that sense that whatsoever all of us do (and take in) constitutes us as moral beings—even, perhaps especially, the quotidian endeavors. I am a writer. I still believe words possess concrete and concretizing power; I might believe this more expansively, if less metaphysically, than I did as a child. I’d like to think that growing up in an evangelical universe equipped me to detect hard-to-see patterns of injustice in the world and its various tongues. I can imagine harboring my own misgivings over a child watching a show like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe—the thirty-minute toy advertisement, the Anglo-Saxon heroes pitted against animalian or dark-skinned villains, the equation of muscle with virtue. How much more obnoxious would I be than my mother was, in my attempt to route the fantasies of a life under my charge?
I hope I would not be obnoxious. But I hope I would care, as my mother did, about how inner and outer worlds converge. I hope I am sensible to what arrives in a life, to how a life arrives, to the processes of arrival.
Or perhaps I am still an evangelical. For all their Damascus Road rhetoric—their altar calls, their singular born-again moments, their rejoicing at the tales of sudden deathbed conversions—evangelicals do not play fast and loose with dramatic denouement. I was brought up to understand the sanctified life as a long slog. My evangelicalism had an Emersonian edge: the soul becomes. My favorite boyhood cartoons, animated at the height of American mass consumerism, the age of immediate fulfillment and quick, short-term gains, suggested the opposite. Although his individual might was never enough to vanquish his foes, Lion-O, protagonist of The Thundercats, always summoned the rest of the Thundercats when he was cornered, late in the game, with great fanfare and sudden success. Although individually the heroic robotic lions in Voltron were never a match for their antagonist du jour, the lions only merged, to form the super-robot Voltron, in the episode’s final minutes—again, with great fanfare and success. It was the same with Adam, who typically conjured Grayskull’s power when the enemy was right at the gate. I suspect that if you did the tally, you’d find that Adam spent a lot more time as Adam than he did as He-Man in those cartoons.
On some level, the arc of those stories must have grated against my mother’s sensibilities, even as she found usable features in them. In imagination and in reality, there is something profane about coming intentionally late to the fullness of your power, about thinking you can postpone the achievement of your higher self until a sudden, final moment. By the power of Grayskull—my mother was right—I would be raised better.
Ryan Harper is a visiting assistant professor in New York University’s Religious Studies Program. Some of his recent poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming at Kestrel, Mississippi Review, Appalachian Heritage, Berkeley Poetry Review, Killing the Buddha, Urban Farmhouse Press, and elsewhere. Ryan’s ethnography of contemporary southern gospel music will appear via the University Press of Mississippi in late 2016 and his poetry chapbook Memphis Left at Cairo is available through Finishing Line Press. He lives in New York City.
Friday, July 22, 2016
by Darryl Graff
The sign-in book at The Hamilton Arms nursing home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was filled with my signature: “Darryl Graff … Visitor … Jules Graff … Resident.” Sometimes, I would look through the pages of the sign- in book at the names of the other residents. They had so many visitors. My father only had me and my wife, Regina. It broke my heart, and my father… well, I couldn’t imagine how he felt. My brother, his first- born son, was too busy being a yuppie to see his own father dying in diapers, in a nursing home. Regina and I came every Sunday. An eight-hour round-trip train ride from Manhattan.
As had become my habit, I kissed my father on his head; it was soft, bald, and wrinkled.
“How you doing, tough guy?” I asked.
I started calling him “tough guy” when he first went into the nursing home. It was my way of making him feel stronger. I know a lot of things, about a lot of things; I know that once you hit that nursing home bed, if you don’t get out of that bed and walk around the room, the bed is going to get you. After a month, I could see the bed was going to win, but if anyone could get out of the bed and walk this thing off, it would be my father. I only remember him being sick one day in my entire life. He went to work every day to provide for his family, and he drank heavily every night for seventy years. I called him tough guy because, well, he was a tough eighty-nine-year-old guy.
“How’s your job?” he asked in a faint whisper.
The man who taught me how to cook was lying there with a feeding tube pumping liquid into his stomach.
I started to tell him details of the job, but that’s what I do six days a week. Details, everything is details. Everything has to be exact. I stopped talking about work. It was pretty clear to me he had no idea what I was saying anyway. So I decided to save the details for the job. Instead, he wished out loud for an adult scooter. So he could just get on the road and start driving, and not stop until he was far away from this place. Before he could get on the highway, he wanted to buy Regina and me lunch at the nursing home restaurant that didn’t exist.
When I was a kid, sometimes my father would have Chinese food delivered from the place on First Avenue. We’d shut off the lights and eat Chinese food by candlelight. Now, I was sitting under hot fluorescent lights next to my father’s bed. I held his hand; the feeding tube made a gurgling noise. This was my only day off. Some day off.
Thank God for Q’s Duke Bar on Liberty Street, a sad little bar. Mostly biker wannabes and long-ago burnt-out townie factory workers.
Regina and I went there every Sunday before catching the train back to New York City. How did my Jewish New York City father wind up in Pennsylvania Dutch Country? Well, it had to do with a woman. It usually does. If the Q’s Duke Bar had a sign-in book, I would have signed it every Sunday.
We got to Penn Station at 8:30 a.m. for the 9:15 to Lancaster. It was Christmas day. My father would be dead in a few weeks. We got in line at the Zabar’s in Penn Station and waited, in a slow, jerky line of tourists and junkies. I got some beer and Regina took care of the sandwiches for the trip. At the cash register, there was one lonely looking box of Christmas cookies. I threw them in the bag with the beer and the sandwiches—a little something for the women who worked at the nursing home.
After chain-smoking a few cigarettes on Eighth Avenue, Regina and I ran down the escalator and onto the 9:15 train to Pennsylvania. A half hour outside of Philadelphia, it started snowing, and kept snowing, and snowing. When we got to Lancaster, the city was shut down by the biggest blizzard in years.
“We’re never going to get a cab. How are we going to see your father?” Regina asked.
“I’ll flag down a car and explain, it’s Christmas day. My father’s dying in a nursing home. Somebody’s got to give us a ride.”
Regina waited in the train station. I stood on the street corner in knee-deep snow for an hour and never did see a car. We walked into the Q’s Duke Bar, wet, cold, and defeated. Dark, crowded, loud, Led Zeppelin, NASCAR racing, whores, tattoos, a pool table, and next to the pool table, a small buffet table. It was Christmas dinner at the bar. Ham in a crockpot, hot dog buns, potato salad, and paper plates.
“Merry Christmas!” some biker babe yelled as we sat down in front of a large-screen TV.
“Have some ham.” And we did.
We wound up sharing the Christmas cookies for the nurses with the whores and speed-freak bikers. “Merry Christmas!” they yelled as we left to catch the last train back to New York City.
The Biltmore Theater restoration project I was working on lasted nine months. My father’s nursing home project lasted five months. On February 14, 2004, at the Hamilton Arms Nursing home, I didn’t have to sign in. Instead, I had to fill out a personal items form. It wasn’t much, just a gold wrist watch. Forty years of dedicated service.
The Groff Funeral Home on Main Street in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was only six blocks from the Q’s Duke Bar. It was a very professional place. The “grief counselor,” or cashier, seemed nervous that we didn’t have a car in the parking lot.
“I’m from New York City,” I explained to her. “I don’t drive. I don’t have a car.”
She couldn’t give me my cremated father’s remains fast enough. I handed her a check. She gave me a small box in a paper bag. We walked to the Q’s Duke Bar and sat at a table. I went up to the bar and got two drinks.
“Get an extra glass. We’ll have a toast,” Regina said.
I poured some beer into Jules’ glass. Regina and I clinked glasses.
Back in New York City, it was freezing cold in Central Park. We kept walking until we came to the right spot, a big oak tree overlooking the Conservatory Pond.
I could sit for hours and watch those remote control ships go around and around the pond. One guy even had a remote-controlled submarine.
It was the 1960’s. Anything was possible. I wanted a remote-controlled boat badly. At the Gramercy Pharmacy on First Avenue and Twentieth Street, in the back was a single spinning rack of toys. One day, I saw a little plastic boat; it was orange and white. My mother bought it for me, and my father took me up to Central Park. He had rigged up the boat with a string wrapped around a stick, and told me it was a remote-controlled boat. I set my boat in the pond and let the string out. It was my maiden voyage. I passed the Mayflower, the Santa Maria, and the submarine. There I was, finally a sea captain. After about four minutes my ship took on water. It listed to the left and sank straight to the bottom. The string was tangled; I pulled and pulled, then gave up.
We spread Jules’ ashes on the hill overlooking the pond, under a big old oak tree.
“Rest in peace, tough guy,” were my last words.
I finished the Biltmore Theater. My boss, Josh Gray, gave me a $5,000 bonus.
“Thank you, Darryl. You did a great job,” he said. “I know it was especially hard for you, with your dad dying and all.”
Two months later, he laid me off.
Darryl Graff is a New York City construction worker and writer. His essays written about life in the city, have been published in Akashic Books, Heart & Mind Zine, Fat City Review, The Flexible Persona, Hippocampus, and Gravel. “Tough Guy” is an excerpt from his nonfiction narrative The Local, about a union construction worker who inadvertently lands in the middle of hostile Union takeover.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
by Shira Sebban
“How are you, Saba?”
“I? I am old.”
This question and answer routine would be repeated each morning like a familiar ritual when we would ring to check on the “Old Boy” as he was affectionately known, who still lived alone in a flat nearby.
I assume he appreciated our concern, although he never said so. Still we need not have worried … not then. Relishing the solitude that enabled him to read, think and write—so long as it was interspersed with alternate dinners at his son’s and daughter’s homes each evening—he was keen to preserve his autonomy for as long as possible.
Until well into his eighties, Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) would continue his exercise and diet regime, doing daily sit-ups and stretches, taking afternoon naps, munching on carrot and celery sticks, and preserving prunes in jars, which took up almost all-available bench space in his kitchen, be it at home in Melbourne, Australia, or wherever he was living overseas. I can still recall our family kitchen in London, filled to overflowing with my grandfather’s preserves, his snores emanating from the tiny bedroom next to the one I shared with my sister.
Not to say, however, that he lacked a sweet tooth. He could whip up a mean trifle and revelled in long smorgasbord lunches at fancy hotels, where he would indulge in chocolate éclairs and other treats, acknowledging his diabetes by popping a sweetener into the habitual tea with lemon he drank after every meal.
Lemons were so important to him that when he was asked to look after us as teenagers while our parents were overseas, he would dutifully arrive each evening for dinner and promptly disappear outside to water the lemon tree, which he believed would prevent the fruit’s skin from thickening. In the morning, he would depart for the peace and quiet of his apartment again, where he could spend the day in undisturbed contemplation.
Classical music was his constant companion, be it tapes he had made himself or the local classical music public radio station, with which he had a love-hate relationship, railing against the “moaning and groaning of illiterate so-called contemporary composers.” In one letter to the station, he urged such composers to test their claim to have popular support within the open market rather than “bludge on the public purse and coerce the people to listen to their incompetent noise-making.”
He was also partial to international melodramas, often joining the family in front of the television after dinner, when he would walk around jangling keys and loose change in his pockets during particularly tense moments. Keen to avoid confrontation whenever possible, he would burst into song—usually the old Russian folk tune Ochi chyomye (“Dark Eyes”)—whenever a family disagreement arose, which did not involve him.
Every so often, craving intellectual companionship, Saba would pack a bag, sling it over his shoulder, and head off overseas to Europe, his old home in Israel, or the United States, where cousins, who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, were scattered. He would visit each in turn, and they would host family dinners in his honor and write him letters in English, Hebrew, Yiddish or Polish when he was back in Melbourne, sharing how they had delighted in his company.
During these trips, which could last several months or sometimes even years, he would commune with philosophers and historians at academic institutions in London, Boston, or Tel Aviv or on long walks through the Austrian Alps, even though he himself had not had a formal secular education and, to the envy of his grandchildren, had never even sat an exam.
He strove to cultivate a personal relationship with us from a young age too, asking for letters from each of his six grandchildren while he was overseas. If we were remiss in writing, he would remind our parents that we owed him a letter, and he liked nothing better than to respond to our questions, the more philosophical the better. I revelled in his attention—especially on the rare occasions when I was fortunate enough to join him on his travels—and placed him on a pedestal: my wise Saba could do no wrong.
Blessed with an inquiring and incisive mind, an insatiable desire for knowledge, and a photographic memory, he would peruse erudite tomes on a wealth of subjects in second-hand bookstores, sending crates of books back home, where he would autograph and catalogue them as part of his own library or distribute them as gifts to family and friends. As he explained in a letter to his daughter, “I will at least leave an inheritance, not in diamonds and jade, but in books, which were costly to me not only in money but in time and effort.”
I treasure that inheritance today, my study’s shelves arrayed with books my Saba gave me. The one I value most is his personal copy of The Book of Jewish Knowledge, an encyclopaedia of Jewish learning from the 1960s, which he presented to my husband and me during his last visit to our home, scraps of paper still marking the pages most important to him.
When bestowing a book as a gift, he would always include an inscription, ranging from a birthday wish or expression of love to an elaborate desire for social cohesion. The dedication on our last gift reads: “Wishing you success and a humane understanding of the kindness and social variety of others. Best wishes from an old octogenarian. Saba.” For he strongly believed that everyday human relations should be conducted with empathy, truth, and love.
During his travels, he would occasionally purchase a work of art for himself or as a gift. He thought that while art appreciation is subject to individual taste and values, “striving to enjoy art in all its forms” helps “a civilized person to cultivate a taste for aesthetics and so foster an understanding of beauty.”
As he wrote to my parents after buying them an antique Tibetan Buddha in Spain, “Art objects should serve as a means to inspire the most lofty thoughts. But should a collection serve only as an accumulation of wealth or to show off, to my mind it is wrong.”
The patriarch of the family, Saba would preside over gatherings, regaling the table with such passions as the problems of justice and of individual freedom within the rule of law. I recall many festive dinners where the extended family would gather around the long dining room table with my grandfather at the head expounding his views. No two dinners were alike, as he could be relied upon to present his
arguments from multiple angles.
Fundamentally, he believed we all face a personal choice between leading an autonomous life of rationality, integrity, and dignity in the human world of ideas or a life of emotion, imitation, and subservience in what he termed “the domesticated animal kingdom.” As he wrote to a friend, “Does a man act out of rational argument or is man an animal whose elected shepherds know best what is good for him?”
Alternatively, he might have been keen to discuss what he had read that particular day which, given his eclectic interests, could range from a biography of Galileo Galilei, or the writings of Bertrand Russell, to biblical commentaries on Abraham, Moses, or Samuel, various newspaper articles, which he would mark for others to read, or even an account of the Shakers, a utopian Christian sect, some of whose former American settlements he visited and whose virtual demise fascinated him. Even while on an otherwise disappointing holiday in Tahiti, he derived enjoyment from reading daily doses from a volume of Albert Einstein’s essays, which he had happened to pick up at the Sydney airport.
Anyone brave enough to attempt an answer to what Saba meant as a rhetorical question would usually be met with a resounding “no” or, far less frequently, an “oh” in agreement (both words pronounced with a short ‘o’ sound) and a lengthy, passionate exposition of his views. Yet he did not lack for sparring partners.
“How do you know that you know?” “What do you mean by God?” Influenced by the late eminent philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper, whose seminars Saba attended at the London School of Economics in the 1960s and who later became a life-long friend, Saba emphasized the importance of having a skeptical outlook on life and of continuously questioning one’s premises.
In contrast to his own childhood experience within an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Poland, he argued that parents do not have the right to impose religious beliefs on their children, as such convictions are open to doubt and “It is up to parents to guide the young ones with unquestionable honesty.” At the same time, he believed that an agnostic is still free to maintain traditions as an expression of cultural and communal adherence. He continued to attend synagogue fairly regularly into old age, always ensuring he had a book to read discretely during the rabbi’s sermons.
He vigorously opposed the use of force in disciplining children, arguing that physical punishment may “influence the child to look at the world as a society where reason is not a way of life, only force is the language of grownups. The child does not accept the beating as a consequence of being wrong, but rather reflects that grownups beat children because children are weak and cannot fend for themselves.” He was speaking from personal experience, his own father having used force against him. I never recall Saba raising a hand against anyone. For him, the power of persuasion depended on one’s choice of words.
Self-deprecating and able to converse with young and old alike, he cultivated a multitude of friends around the world. Academics and thinkers enjoyed the free exchange of ideas in his company, while students wrote him letters of appreciation for helping to clarify their thinking or correct their theses. People generously opened their homes to him and upon his departure, would write, requesting another visit. He maintained a rich correspondence with many who broadly admired his values and ideas, as well as the freedom of his chosen lifestyle, which he described as that of “a man divorced of daily responsibilities.”
Nevertheless, Saba always considered himself an outsider, and although his vocabulary was highly sophisticated, he was particularly unsure of his written English expression, writing drafts of important letters and texts, which were often corrected by his daughter.
He advised those around him to do our best to enrich our lives with, what he termed, “mental-spiritual interests.” As he wrote to my teenage sister and me: “Very soon, your holidays start and you have a swimming pool, books, a piano, cello and violin, what a rich life in front of you!” Whenever his children or grandchildren would ask his advice on our future studies, he would steer us in the direction of a great body of thought such as Science or Philosophy and encourage us to be creative and aim for excellence. He set an example by striving to learn mathematics at the University of Illinois in his fifties.
Yet, he remained highly critical of academia, which he considered to have largely degenerated into “coercive systems of education,” staffed by incompetent “charlatans” who felt immune from scrutiny. Careers were not as important to him as the sheer love of learning, although he certainly emphasized the need to work, which he averred to have learned from his father. In later life, he would often tell stories of his father—the last Jew to have a full religious burial in the central Polish town of Zdunska Wola—acknowledging that he had instilled in his children a love of Jewish learning, as well as an appreciation for the importance of being responsible for oneself and one’s actions. As Saba explained, “self-reliance and self-respect are important for self-fulfilment, which is the difference between man as a person and man as a domesticated animal.”
My grandfather always remained true to his principles—until, as he put it, he lost his “I”, Alzheimer’s disease ultimately robbing him of whom he was as a person. In my mind’s eye, I can still see him sitting in the middle of his room, endlessly twisting a Rubik’s Cube around in his hands. Up to that time, however, he lived as if he was on an insatiable intellectual quest. As he wrote to me, “Life is full of exciting curiosities, joy, and deep feeling for the world’s mysteries.” Integrity, autonomy, and family were among the values he held dear and are now those I strive to instil in my children.
Saba was my mentor and anchor, who showed me that I could do anything to which I set my mind. He encouraged me to stand up for what I believe in and not be afraid to admit I had made a mistake, learn from it, and move on. My children may not have the privilege of growing up in his company, but they can still benefit from the rich and courageous legacy he left behind.
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, who is passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She has served on the board of her children’s school for the past 12 years, including two terms as vice-president. Her work has appeared in online and print publications, including Eureka Street, Jewish Literary Journal, The Forward, Australian Jewish News, Alzheimer’s Reading Room, and Online Opinion. She is currently working on a series of creative nonfiction stories based on her mother’s diary, which the family only discovered after her death. You can read more of her work at: shirasebban.wordpress.com.
Thursday, July 7, 2016
by Jan Zlotnik Schmidt
“Loehmann’s Closing Down After 94 Years”
—New York Times, January 24, 2014
I met my mother’s body for the first time at Loehmann’s. There she was in a girdle, with those tabs for beige stockings, a white bra and half slip, staring down at me, a child looking up into the expanse of her flesh, her curves, her midriff bulging over the top of the elastic band of the slip. I was a six or seven or eight years old, crouching down, peering up at a glade of women’s legs—some stalk thin, some stockinged, some pudgy at the calves. And gazing upward I saw their serviceable Playtex bras, a glimpse of them, as they tried on blouses, sweaters, and jackets. We were at the back of the store—there were no dressing rooms—and in front of me were the gilt circular staircase, the crystal chandelier, enormous diamonds of filigreed glass, refracting the little afternoon light in the room. At the entrance, the men sat and waited, hunched over their Times, or Herald Tribune, or New York Mirror, women’s pocketbooks dangling from their arms, eyes looking down, not daring that taboo glance to the back of the store.
The women became Circe, Dido, the Graces, preening in front of the mirror in cashmere or silk, or sleek black shirts, asking for approval first from the women and then from the men. They had beehive dyed blonde and brown hair, perfectly manicured white or pink nails, straight lines in their hose, and a hint of Arpege perfumed the air. After gazing with satisfaction at their profiles in the mirror, they praised each other for their keen eyes and instinct for the bargain, the cashmere coat originally 59.00 down to 29.00, the B. Altman’s blouse a steal for 6.95 down from 9.95. Their bodies, ready, girded for battle with a larger world, a world in which they wouldn’t be viewed as immigrants or imposters. They had the right clothes. And I, patient, sat cross-legged, staring into my future.
Loehmann’s remained a constant in my relationship with my mother—each time I returned home from college, from adult life teaching in Kentucky, from middle age boredom, my mother and I would go to the store, first on Flatbush Avenue and Duryea Place and then Sheepshead Bay. At that point we knew each other’s mode of being. I went for the turtlenecks and black pants, she for silk blouses and rayon stretch pants. And she always made me try on a bigger size. The tunic revealed too much of my breasts, or the shirt, she said, popped open at the buttons, or the blazer pulled across my back. My mother, jealous of my lithe body, hers so stocky and stout, unconsciously pulled me into her world by convincing me to go for the larger size—the sweaters wouldn’t fit under the coat, she would say, or you don’t want to reveal every bulge of flesh. But I wanted the knit tops that emphasized my figure or the blazer that created curves. Then we’d argue until I gave in, unsure of my desirability.
There also were the conversations that passed for intimacy in the dressing room or in the elevator between the racks of sportswear on the first floor and the second floor Back Room, Designer Showroom. “How are you doing?” she’d ask in a crowded elevator as the other women listened. And what could I say? “Oh fine.” She once questioned me during a particularly difficult period in my marriage, and I realized that the advice about clothing would have to pass for closeness. She really didn’t want to enter my inner world. The intimacy of the dressing room would have to be enough.
Later in her old age, I was the one pressing the creases of clothes in place, straightening out the crepe blouses, pulling up the rayon pants when she couldn’t bend down because of her arthritis. I was the one who helped her pull the cotton sweaters over her head, I was the one who heard her worries about dying as she tried on Kelly green silk blouses, and I was the one who saw the empty left sac of her cotton bra. We still had Loehmann’s—the ritual of dressing ourselves, the ritual of advice, the ritual of caring.
Five years after my mother’s death, I am in a Loehmann’s in Boca Raton, Florida. The communal dressing room is empty. I try on a salmon pink silk shirt with pearl buttons. A shade that says, “Look at me.” I slowly close the buttons, swallowing hard, remembering too much of my past, looking around the dressing room for someone to ask for advice. Now I have some of my mother’s body—a slight paunch of a belly, thick upper arms. But I still am tall and fairly thin. I sashay this way and that, gazing at myself in the full length mirror, not sure of the blaring color. A young Russian girl, a Lolita-lookalike, comes in; she tries on a yellow bikini and a black net beach cover-up. I gaze at myself in the mirror.
“That looks nice.” She comments.
“Yes. It’s a good color for you. With the hair.”
I smooth down my silver hair.
“Buy it. The color is just right for you.”
Suddenly I miss my mother.
Jan Zlotnik Schmidt is a SUNY Distinguished Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz where she teaches composition, creative writing, American and Women’s Literature, creative nonfiction, memoir, and Holocaust literature. Her work has been published in many journals including The Cream City Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Home Planet News, Phoebe, Black Buzzard Review, The Chiron Review, and Wind. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize and she has had two volumes of poetry published, We Speak in Tongues and She had this memory in addition to two chapbooks, The Earth Was Still and Hieroglyphs of Father-Daughter Time. She has co-edited two anthologies of women’s memoirs Women/Writing/Teaching and Wise Women: Reflections of Teachers at Mid-Life, and a prose anthology, A Slant of Light: Contemporary Women Writers of the Hudson Valley. Her literature for composition anthology Legacies: Fiction Poetry Drama Nonfiction is now in its fifth edition.
Thursday, June 30, 2016
by Alice Lowe
Lost his Rudder,
Been too free with Sir Richard
Like a Rat in Trouble.
“A Man is Drunk” - Benjamin Franklin
Matty and I became close friends over the several years we lived next door to each other. We confided in one another about jobs, homes, families and friends during walks and over coffee. Matty was married and loved to hear about my ventures and misadventures as a thirty-something returned to the singles scene. She was apologetic about having only her marital woes to offer in return. Her son, Jaime, was a little younger than my daughter and liked to hang out at our house; he trailed Jennifer around like a pesky but adoring little brother. The holidays can fall a little flat for an only child with a single mother—turkey for two doesn’t spark joy—so we were happy to join Matty’s family for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinners. Jennifer enjoyed the more festive familial atmosphere and Jaime’s companionship, while Matty’s pumpkin cheesecake and her mother’s cannoli are etched in my memory along with their kindness.
Matty’s husband, Frank, was a heavy drinker. I didn’t like him much even sober—he had that smug, know-it-all bravado that often masks insecurity and disillusionment. He would be on his best behavior at those holiday gatherings until later in the day or evening when the steady drinking brought out his worst. He was one of those mealy-mouthed drunks who get sappy and over-solicitous while thinking they’re being illuminating or entertaining.
I have an aversion to that syrupy manner—I’ve seen it in others too—it reminds me of my father. My dad was a solitary, secretive boozer. He never drank at home, so I would only see the after-effects. He used to put away any number of shots in the back room of his TV repair shop after closing up—“liquid courage” to help him face his family, or maybe himself. If he made it home for dinner, his attentions would be cloying, contrite like a dog that’s been rolling in shit: “How’s my sweet girl….” When he stumbled in late, I’d hear my mother yelling at him from behind my closed bedroom door: “If it wasn’t for the kids I wouldn’t put up with this….” He never raised his voice, never got ugly; he muttered feebly in response or withdrew into sullen silence. She was all talk—she would never leave him, and he knew it. His drinking tapered off some over the years, and they loped along together through her chronic illnesses until her death at sixty. He outlived her by thirty years and found a young second wife who doted on him and matched him drink for drink.
Unlike my dad, Matty’s husband would transition from silly or brooding to mean—critical, sarcastic, aiming for the jugular—as the evening wore on and his alcoholic intake kept pace. That’s when I would go home and play music or turn on the TV to avoid overhearing the shouting matches next door. Matty’s harangues were similar to those I heard from my bedroom as a child, but Frank wasn’t quiet or penitent; he got loud and belligerent. He often blamed his stepson and would lash out at him too, with little provocation. Jaime told Jennifer that Frank sometimes knocked him around when he was drunk. Matty and Frank fought about the boy, about money and who knows what else, but it usually came back to his drinking, and finally Matty said she’d had enough. She booted Frank out and told him he couldn’t come home until he sobered up, got into AA, and stayed on the wagon. Matty had gone through the worst of her pain and angst during the long buildup; once Frank was gone his absence didn’t leave much of a void. She and Jaime seemed happier on their own, at peace with life and each other.
They didn’t call them alcoholics when I was growing up, the workaday boozers who maintained jobs and relatively normal lives like my dad and Frank. Alcoholics were the dysfunctional, out-of-control drunks in “Days of Wine & Roses” and “Lost Weekend.” They were the derelicts on the street, drinking rotgut liquor sheathed in paper bags. We shook our heads and scurried past them, taking comfort in the adage that god protects or loves or suffers drunks and fools. When in my forties I saw a therapist about some emotional issues, she attributed the problems to my being an “ACA,” an adult child of an alcoholic. I didn’t find similarities to my situation in the literature she foisted on me, and I dismissed the simplistic (and trendy at the time) label. Hindsight doesn’t clarify whether my dad was an alcoholic or just an unhappy man, blotting out his despair with bourbon.
I started drinking in my early teens. A much-too-old boyfriend—nineteen to my fourteen—took me to drive-in movies, where we drank beer and made out. I exercised self-restraint and remained sufficiently sober and virginal throughout our brief summer fling; then he broke my heart by going back to a former girlfriend his own age. I hid my pain and found solace, or at least diversion, with a rowdy crowd of older kids. I drank to fit in, to be cool, to have fun. I retain murky booze-soaked memories of weekends that ran together in a swirl of parties, powering down too many rum and cokes, necking with too many guys, puking in bathrooms and back yards and out of car windows, driving home in a fog and living to tell about it through sheer luck, or maybe that divine protection extended to the undeserving (drunks and fools, perhaps one and the same).
After high school I moved into an apartment with friends, where the party life continued unabated, and I drank myself silly on weekends. I worked as a secretary at a fast-paced brokerage firm in La Jolla, back in the days of multi-martini lunches. For my twenty-first birthday some of the staff took me to the elite Whaling Bar at the La Valencia Hotel and told the bartender to bring me a martini—Beefeaters on the rocks with a twist—for my first legal drink. I’d been drinking there for the past three years, and we laughed in complicity as the bartender blanched.
“You’re just twenty-one today?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m legal now.”
My husband and I met at a party. He wasn’t a big drinker, and I slowed down. We rarely drank at home after we married, but I invariably overindulged when we went out socially. I liked the feeling of being buzzed; I liked myself better and was less self-conscious, more outgoing. I wouldn’t dance when I was sober—too stiff and awkward—but after a few drinks I loosened up. One New Year’s Eve I got loaded and woke up with a miserable hangover the next day. Alcohol and cigarettes tasted wretched. I couldn’t face either for the next few weeks. It seemed like an excessive reaction, and I started to worry until the explanation dawned on me—I was pregnant. The risks of smoking and drinking during pregnancy weren’t on the public radar at the time, but my body was giving me a message. I stopped smoking and rarely drank from that time on.
I always saw myself as a social drinker, just having a good time. I never made a connection between my drinking and my father’s, never worried that I’d inherited his weakness or inclinations. The hereditary nature of alcoholism and addictive personality types weren’t talked-about issues then. I believe there’s a continuum of possible responses to each aspect of our upbringing, and we can land anywhere on it. We can adopt our parents’ behaviors out of habit, rebel and discard them, or do some of each. My mother had ulcers and cooked bland food—I might have followed suit, but I embraced spicy fare and creative seasoning when I started cooking for myself. I could have avoided liquor completely after observing my father’s drinking or I could have followed suit and become a serious boozer—I rejected both extremes. A liberal, artsy, pot-smoking friend once told me she worried that her daughter, needing something parental to rebel against, would become a right-wing religious businesswoman (she didn’t).
My husband was neither a drunk nor a fool, so the blanket of protection—the one that got me safely home in my teens—didn’t cover him. He didn’t drink much, and he couldn’t handle it when he did, a fact he refused to acknowledge (okay, just a bit of a fool). Once, coming home from a party he turned into a lane of oncoming traffic. I threatened to jump from the moving car if he didn’t pull over immediately and let me drive. There was no one close enough to get him in trouble that time, but a few years later, driving alone late at night, he careened head-on into a pickup truck, killing himself and a young woman driving the other vehicle. The tragic irony is that he’d been drinking with my dad that night—an amateur trying to keep up with the pro.
Addiction is a bona fide illness now, whether to alcohol or drugs, overeating, gambling, or sex, and we’re implored to have compassion for the afflicted. That stumbling drunk isn’t really an obnoxious or abusive beast—it’s the drink that makes him act that way. The devil is no longer responsible and nor is she; her addiction made her do it. Well, maybe, but I don’t accept that every lush is an alcoholic. And while I do understand the power of addiction, I’m inclined to believe it’s possible to rise above it, to battle and overcome the demons. I can cite examples, alcoholics who have been sober for years and years—they did it. I’ve been told that’s too simplistic a response to such a complicated issue. Well, maybe, but I’ll stick by my views.
My dad was a tippler to the end of his ninety years, always a little soppy when I saw him. I’d find him sipping watered-down vodka whatever the time of day, while his wife kept pace with Schaefer beer over ice, one after another. An unhappy, taciturn, benign old sot—a steady infusion of drink seemed to be what got him through the days.
Frank was jolted into action when he realized what he stood to lose. He got sober, joined AA, went through a twelve-step program. After several months Matty let him move back home, but drunk or sober the damage was irreparable. Their marriage couldn’t be restored.
I’m zealous about health and fitness as I get older, so I limit myself to a glass of wine a night, two on the weekend ... a shared bottle of wine on special occasions … an infrequent margarita or Bloody Mary when I’m out. More is tempting—I still like the way liquor makes me feel—but I’m past any urge or risk of overindulging. I’ve seen the collateral damage.
Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, 1966, The Tishman Review, Upstreet, Hippocampus, and Lunch Ticket. She was a national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of an essay contest at Writing It Real. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.