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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mothers and Other Creatures

by Charles Bergman


In my mind, travel and forgetting have always been linked.  I’ve lived much of my life as if I could outrun memory, or, if I got good and lost, erase the past.  Though I never ran away as a teen-ager, I’ve sometimes thought of myself as an adult run-away.  The farther away, the more remote, the better.  Never mind that I know rationally I can’t really leave anything behind.  It hasn’t stopped me from trying.  It’s a core illusion, a mistaken belief that’s been hard to eradicate.  Maybe I’m typical of many Americans in this way, in love with cars and frequent flyer miles and the open road. 

That’s why I was startled when my sister called me in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  I had only just arrived earlier that morning, and was standing in line at a money exchange, travel-weary and jet-lagged.  The last thing I had expected was a call from home, much less from the past.

“Mom died last night,” Carole said, getting right to the point.  “A stroke.”

Jolting news, but no real surprise.  Our mom was well into her eighties, trailing a long medical history.  She wore a pacemaker for her heart and had long seemed frail and failing.  But she also had a wide streak of the hypochondriac, in all honestly, and loved the attention of doctors.  And that made it hard to know exactly what was going on with her medical condition.  Plus, she had a huge lexicon of medical terms—from her long career as a medical stenographer—which made her an expert at stoking all her worries about her health.   

Recently, though, she had found a renewed zest for life.  We had moved her out of her subsidized apartment in Seattle, where she had lived alone, and into an “assisted-living” home.  It was low-income, nothing fancy.  But she loved it, with all the people and a whole new social life. She even took up watercolor painting.  Carole and I began to think she might have several more years.

Her declining and ambiguous health had given us lots of time to prepare in practical ways for this moment, arranging cremation and paperwork.  What surprised me though was how emotionally unprepared I was for this moment.   

 I considered returning home, but quickly decided that that wasn’t really possible or necessary.  Buenos Aires was just a stop-over on our way much farther south—to Tierra del Fuego and, beyond that, Antarctica.  My wife, Susan, and I were traveling with twenty undergraduate students for the month of January.  Without me, the students couldn’t go on.  Plus, Carole and I decided we could easily schedule our mom’s memorial service for a time right after I got back.

I asked our local guide to take the class on a tour of Buenos Aires, while Susan and I headed back to the hotel to talk—to remember.  Memories and scenes I’d worked hard to put behind me quickly came back.   My mom’s adoration of doctors had escalated during my childhood to an addiction to prescription drugs.  She had several bouts of electroshock therapy, which was confusing and disturbing to me as a boy.  Terrible fights with my father, loud and bordering on violence, exploded into an ugly divorce by my early teenage years.  Once single, mom was gone every weekend, hanging out in cocktail lounges, becoming an alcoholic.    

My sister and I?  Left at home on our own.  I hated imagining what our mom was doing in bars and lounges, and grew increasingly angry.  These memories are still painful, even as I write this. 

When I left for college, I didn’t just go off to school.  I tried to leave my mom and my childhood behind—my first attempt at leaving and forgetting.  Not only did I think I could reinvent myself, I tried to become mother to myself.  At key times in my life, when things got tough, I hit the road.  I grew expert at leaving.   

Charles and his mother, Ellie
Much later, when I tried to talk to my mom about those chaotic years, she would grow defensive.  Every conversation became about her and how hard it had been for her.  Whatever I wanted from her, she couldn’t give.  The only solution I could see was an emotional compromise.  On one hand, I learned to be polite and dutiful toward her, a good son.  On the other hand, I quit trusting her with deeper feelings, nothing vulnerable.

You don’t have to travel to create emotional distance.  Mom felt the “it” between us, but I don’t know if she understood it.  I do know it hurt her in her later years.

As Susan and I talked in the hotel, deeper memories and lost images also began to surface.  I had forgotten how much, as a small boy, I adored my mother.  She was full of life and had a great sense of humor.  Her oldest child and only son, I loved to make her laugh, to entertain her.  Embarrassing to admit, I did routines for her—even singing for her— and she affectionately called me her “little clown.”  I remembered a blue and green dress she had.  When she wore it, I thought she was the most beautiful woman ever.  Once, in seventh grade, I faked being sick to stay home from school and try to bake a birthday cake for her.  It was a disaster, but mom doted on me for the effort, which was all I really wanted. 

In a darkened hotel room, I found myself revisiting some of the darker corners of my life.  That early love for my mom was a casualty of my later anger toward her.  And it explained why her nights in cocktail lounges when I was a young teen hurt so much, felt like a betrayal.   It was sad, but it also felt strangely satisfying to feel that early love for my mom again, before it proved dangerous and painful.

Next morning, we left for Tierra del Fuego with the class.  The students had heard the news and were gracious and sweet.  I thought I’d done some good emotional work and was ready move on, leaving mom behind once more.  But she was waiting for me in the far south.


          If the Andes Mountains are the spine of South America, then Tierra del Fuego is the continent’s tailbone.  Ushuaia calls itself the southernmost city in the world, “fin del mundo,” the end of the world.  Of course, there’s a lot more world south of Ushuaia, but the idea captures the frontier scruffiness the place—gaping holes in the sidewalks, rusting buildings, relentless gray skies. 

          Landing in the plane here can be its own minor adventure, dropping through snowy peaks and skidding to a stop at the end of a runway that sticks far out into the windy Beagle Channel.  We emerged from the small airport to find our guide, Marcelo de la Cruz, waiting for us. 

          “It’s terrible about your mother,” he said immediately, wrapping me in a huge, sympathetic hug.  The news had traveled ahead of us south.

          Marcelo is like Ushuaia, disheveled and full of rough simpatico.  His curly dark hair is never combed, his shirt-tails always un-tucked, and his coat rarely zipped up, even in the rain. 

Marcelo de la Cruz
          Marcelo is also a recognized expert on the birds of Tierra del Fuego.  People come from around the world to find the region’s unique species with him.

          “I got something special for you,” he said in heavily-accented Fuegian Spanish.  “Tomorrow night we’ll find an owl.”

“The owl will help you,” he continued, referring to the loss of my mom.  “You must let yourself be brushed by the wings of the owl.  You must be wrapped in the wings of the owl.  The owl will take care of you in this moment.” 

          Marcelo knows I love owls.  We’ve birded many times together in Tierra del Fuego, and with him I’ve seen many of the great birds of the far south—Magellanic penguins, Magellanic woodpeckers, Austral pygmy owls, and more.  This time he wanted to show me a rufous-legged owl, or “la lechuza,” a handsome, strictly-nocturnal, and hard-to-find “specialty” of the region. 

My traveling is not only about forgetting, of course.  It’s also a search, and often the object of the search is a pretext for something I don’t fully understand until I encounter it. I very much wanted to see this owl. 

          The next night Marcelo and I raced down dirt roads through Tierra del Fuego National Park in his small Renault.  He drives as he speaks, fast and sometimes careening toward recklessness.  We stopped several times, listening intently for owls in the dark forest.  Nothing.  Then, about 2 a.m., Marcelo heard something and plunged down a trail.

          By the time I caught up with him, about 300 meters into the forest, Marcelo was standing in a small clearing beside a huge beech tree.

          “Shhhhh,” he whispered.  “It’s here.”

          Marcelo pointed his flashlight at the fork in the tree, perhaps ten feet away.  A little owl stared unblinking into the beam.  A quick glimpse, maybe ten seconds, and it flew.

          “It’s still here,” Marcelo said.  “Above us.”

          Directly overhead, the owl peered from a thick branch.  I strained my neck backward to look up at it.  About a foot tall and heavily streaked, it peered left and right.  I squeaked like a small mouse.  The owl spun its round head, stared at me, and clacked its beak.  It was aloof but sharply curious, sweet-face and big-eyed. 

Rofous-legged Owl by Charles Bergman
          Owls are irresistibly anthropomorphic, with their human faces and upright posture.  They have ancient associations with darkness and graveyards and death.  And also with wisdom, perhaps from their ability to see in the darkness, which is why I love them so much.    

          “How did you know that the owl was there?” I asked Marcelo later, as we clattered back to Ushuaia, rocks clanging off the undercarriage.  I was impressed that he had heard it from the road.  I’m experienced with owls, have found them all over the world, including all nineteen species of North American owls.  But I hadn’t heard this owl at all. 

          “I will tell you how I find the owl.”  Marcelo waved his arms passionately as he spoke.  “I penetrate into the life of the bird.  I feel the owl in order to see it and hear it.  You must feel the bird in order to find it.”

          “Maybe I’m crazy,” Marcelo laughed, by now almost yelling.  “But people do not know what’s possible in nature anymore.  Now you have been embraced by the wings of the owl.”

          I loved the quasi-mystical connection he asserted with the owl.  He was not being metaphorical.  Marcelo is a hard-headed ornithologist.  He keeps careful, scientific records of all the birds in Tierra del Fuego.  But the owl is not just a biological being to him, known intellectually by data and statistics and maps.  It’s also a presence that he knows in his gut, by feeling it.  Still, for all my sympathy for Marcelo’s views, it was not until I returned home a month later that I felt the owl’s embrace. 


When I got back from Antarctica and Argentina, my sister and I organized a memorial service for our mom at the assisted-living home where she had lived her final two years.  A big, impressive crowd showed up to remember her.    

          Every relationship consists of a unique mixture of remembering and forgetting, and sitting on the fold-out chairs in the chapel in the home, I found myself thinking that death gives us our most intense, perhaps the ultimate, experience of both. 

The chaplain at the home called my mom by her nickname, Ellie.  He talked of her life in the home, focusing on one story from her painting class. I knew she loved the painting class because she had shown me several of her paintings.  But this was the first time I heard this particular story. 

          He said that my mom had wanted to paint a picture of a photograph from one of my books, a photo I had taken.   Her idea was to paint the image and give it to me.  According to the chaplain, she tried over and over again to paint the photograph, but she was never happy with her images.  She never showed me anything. 

“It was a photograph of an owl,” the chaplain said.

At those words, I almost wept, bending forward with my face in my hands.  I knew exactly which photograph, which owl, she had tried to paint.  Immediately I remembered the owl that appeared to Marcelo and me in Tierra del Fuego, just after my mom’s death. 

Susan, my wife, was sitting next to me at the service. She leaned toward me and said quietly, “The owl in Tierra del Fuego was your mom.”

Susan has no doubt about it.  In that moment in the memorial service, I believed it too with an overwhelming clarity of feeling. 

All my traveling, and there she was at the far end of the world.

          Now, over a year later, I love to recall that moment in the chapel.  I’ve told others the story of my mom and the owl, and many believe that my mom was that owl. But I no longer feel that clear and immediate faith.  I’m less certain about what happened.  Who or what was that owl?

Without doubt, the chaplain’s story added meaning to the owl and other experiences in Tierra del Fuego, but I can’t pin it down.  Often in Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica, I felt animals were speaking to me, offering consolations in languages that I don’t know, but which, like music, moved me irresistibly. A pod of humpbacked whales, for example, was feeding amid a wilderness of surreally-shaped icebergs along the Antarctic Peninsula, surfacing over and over again within feet of our Zodiacs.  They breathed in vaporous whooshes and their breath drifted over us in misted murmurs from other worlds. 

Humpback Whale by Charles Bergman
Now though I’m left feeling mostly two things about that owl.  The first is awe—an overwhelming sense that something powerful and indeterminate was given to me by the owl.  And it reduces me to the state that comes before knowledge and faith and even words, which we call awe and wonder.  It’s the feeling that lurks behind all the big questions that give shape and meaning to our lives. 

          The other feeling is gratitude.  To Marcelo, who showed me the owl and insisted that I be wrapped in its wings.  To the owl.  When a wild creature presents itself, reveals itself, it’s like a gift that nature makes to whatever longing we carry with us inside.  The owl in the forest is now completely tangled up with my memory of my mother.  And finally to my mom.  One of the best things she ever gave me is this last, ungiven gift.


Photos:  All photographs are by Charles Bergman.

Charles Bergman teaches English at Pacific Lutheran University. He's the author of three books, including Wild Echoes: Encounters with the Most Endangered Animals in North America. He's written extensively on wildlife and animals, including the 2009 cover story in Smithsonian magazine on wildlife trafficking in Latin America. He has a weak spot for the Southern Hemisphere, has completed two Fulbright Fellowships in Latin America, and has led four classes on study tours of Antarctica.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Good Dance Music

by Christina Holzhauser


Patsy Cline’s songs came at me from all directions during my childhood, especially from the direction of my neighbor, a voluptuous woman with too-big glasses who was deemed “the best singer” in my town of 85. She sang Crazy at all karaoke nights at the one bar we had. She sang I Fall to Pieces, with only a tractor’s chug to accompany her, on those fall hayrides. She sang both of them out at Green Acres, the bar ten miles down the highway, while her rocking hips strained the seams of her denim mini-skirt against those thighs. I’m sure, though, that Patsy’s voice was on the radio up at Grandma and Grandpa’s house and on old, black and white episodes of television shows I watched on our satellite dish.

I knew Grandpa loved her. So, one day when I was about twelve, I told him of my interest in Patsy. Within days I had a whole album on a cassette tape that he had copied from his scratchy vinyl. Using the belt clip feature of my pink and red Walkman, I clipped it to the gear wires of my Wal-Mart ten speed and pedaled up and down the trail by the Missouri river until I'd listened to the entire tape, belting out those sultry tunes. I did this so often that I could flip the tape without stopping, without losing pace, without, even, having to look away from the canopy of trees over the trail or the bugs dancing through the air over undercurrents near the banks.



When I was seventeen, Ska bands went Swing and the alternative radio stations pumped out brass noise; a generation who had previously been head-nodders became sweaty, goofy-smiling dancers. Having grown up singing and dancing in musicals, the obnoxious melodrama of swing was an easy transition. As a gymnast and athlete, I learned the Lindy Hop in seconds. But instead of wearing a cute dress with Mary Janes, I wore black and white wing-tips and collared, button down shirts. Boys wanted to dance with me though; I was one of the only girls at the clubs who didn’t mind being thrown in and around the air, my strong arms allowing me to be upside down on male shoulders, my chain wallet clinking as I kicked my legs.

 I confessed my love of the music to Grandpa, a man who’d been around when the whole thing started. Soon after, he made me mix tapes and wrote, in his scratchy, boxy handwriting, "Good Dance Music." He put them in a tiny cedar box and handed them to me and said, "So you can remember me. I won't always be around."  I laughed and shook my head. The things older people say. I put one in my boom-box expecting to hear "In the Mood," or another old classic I’d learned recently. I pictured my grandpa throwing Grandma around in the air, her dress billowing, their feet bullets machine-gunning a 40’s dance floor. Instead, the first song sounded like country, like the whiny, twangy country I’d grown to associate with small towns and small-minded people. There were no trumpets or trombones, just fiddles and steel guitars. I was sad that grandpa didn't understand what swing music was.

        When he died a few weeks later, I took those tapes and shoved them in my cargo pockets and set out for the trail.  I was surprised to hear Marty Robins, someone Grandpa loved, someone whose song about El Paso I’d grown to love, too, even as the chain wallet became a permanent fixture of my wardrobe and my hair grew shorter and more colorful.  I listened to a song about a rose in Texas, something about sixteen tons, and again, I heard Patsy. I pumped my legs hard, leaned forward, tried to sing as tears dried cold on my face. With every song I turned up the volume until the world was a place only of ear-splitting fiddle solos and wobbly steel guitars. Until finally, I couldn’t hear myself.


Christina Holzhauser was raised in a town of 85 along the Missouri river. Since leaving home she’s worked as a ranch hand, a pee collector at a nuclear plant, a histology technician, an archaeologist, and an expert hiking boot fitter. While living in a cabin with no running water in Fairbanks, Alaska, she earned her MFA in nonfiction as well as the right to say she’s put on her coat to use the outhouse in the middle of the night, seen the northern lights, and watched the sun never set. Currently, she lives in Columbia, Missouri with her wife and son. She teaches Basic English and Creative Writing at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


by Barbara Strauss
            “My eyeglasses,” Zayda said in broken English, tearing through the kitchen utensil drawer, but he’d never worn glasses. “My sheitel.” He patted his head, and Bubbeh translated “wig” for me as I took Zayda’s brittle elbow and led him aimlessly around the house. I was home on spring break. I meant to appease him, lifting couch cushions, opening the lid on a jewelry box on my mother’s vanity table that played the theme from Dr. Zhivago. “No sheitel in there,” I said, but Zayda had his own purple silver hair, never a toupee, he was ninety and nowhere even close to bald.
            “Don’t help him.” Bubbeh followed us as we returned downstairs, hunched and exhausted and shorter than the last time I saw her. “Shlemiel!” She slapped Zayda with a Yiddish newspaper whose subscription was re-routed from their Florida address. They were done with Florida. They needed my parents’ help now.
            My father, pouring shredded wheat in a bowl and spreading Circuit City ads over the table, told me if I didn’t give up, I might be touring my Zayda around all day.
             “What am I supposed to do? Let him roam?”
            “Yes,” my mother said. Zayda was only her stepfather. She paid bills at the counter. It was Saturday morning, the kitchen radio tuned to a crackly AM gardening show my father liked. My mother tried to lower the volume, and my father protested, slapping the table with his ads. Her response was to tune it even louder than he’d had it originally. All the women in my family were like that, pouting passive-aggressively, and I vowed never to lose my patience that way. “Zayda’s been totally out of sorts since they moved in,” my mother told me. She peered over her glasses. “We took him to three specialists. The decline is quick from here.”
            “I’ll shoot him,” Bubbeh said, moving through the kitchen in her floral robe. When she passed Zayda, he pinched her behind, and she slapped his hand crying, “Oy, gevalt!”
            “You’re like Kevorkian,” I said, leading Zayda out before I could catch my parents snickering at the drama. But it wasn’t drama to me. This trip home I’d brought him a string of painted wooden birds from my semester abroad in the Netherlands, and my first night here, he’d handled them one at a time, staring blankly at the little beaks and painted wings; he’d lost interest quickly and pushed them back in my direction. Next I’d taken puzzles down from my closet, which he loved—the easy ones, fifty pieces—and Zayda would have none of them. He just gazed sadly out the patio door.
            “He’s insulted,” I’d said, examining the picture of a kitten on the box. “It’s too easy.”
            Now he pulled from my grip to approach Bubbeh, who’d gone to rest in the living room. He mumbled at her in Yiddish, and next thing I knew, she was heaving a pillow, screaming that he gave her such shpilkes, and hobbling up to the guest room where the pullout sofa remained permanently open.
            The next morning, waking groggy and more stir-crazy than the day before, I found Zayda wandering through my bedroom in only a pajama top. I peeled my sweaty cheek from the pillow, let my eyes adjust to the light, and there before me hung a gray and shriveled penis, hairless and small as an infant’s.
            “My television?” he mumbled in English.
            I hid under the covers and cried for my mom.

The conversation turned to nursing homes. Reluctantly, I climbed into the back of the station wagon the next Saturday to search for places we might ditch him. There were plenty of things I could have been doing—writing a Walden paper for my class on the American Transcendentalists, or watching music videos in a blessedly quiet home, a bowl of cereal in my lap and my pajamas on. I hadn’t worn pajamas around the house all week, since Zayda had revealed himself.
            I came along though, because I couldn’t bear the thought of Zayda cowering in the background, jingling the change in his pockets while my parents and Bubbeh informed the nurses that sometimes he soiled his pants. As we bumped down side roads potholed still from snowplows, I reached over the seat and rested my hand on Zayda’s head, as though steadying him, his hair soft beneath my fingers. He turned and asked Bubbeh, “Voss is ehr numen?”
            “ ‘What is her name?’ he asks. Barbara,” she said, sucking her gums. “You remember nothing.”
            Evelyn Gardens: six floors of catatonics, televisions tuned loud for hearing impaired patients who slept before mid-morning talk shows. Social time, the nurse with a Haitian accent, who took us on a tour, called the meeting at the end of the hall. Wheelchair bound patients were lined against the wall, tongues out of mouths, the ladies lightly bearded, and nobody spoke to anyone else. An aide padded around, patting each patient on the shoulder.
            “And when we leave, she steals their money,” my father bent to whisper to my mom.
            “It smells like pish.” Bubbeh plugged her nose and held tightly to her vinyl purse.
            “Every nursing home smells,” my mother said. “The only decent place would be assisted living, and he’s too far gone for that.”
            “You could get a nurse to come to the house,” I suggested.
            My mother glared at me. “Who’s paying?”
            Our tour guide was paged and pointed us back to the lobby. She’d be down in just a moment to get us paperwork and an appointment with the intake facilitator.
            “I can’t put him here,” Bubbeh said. “It’s full of mishuganahs. A crazy house.”
            “Oh, he be fine.” The nurse clipped her beeper to her waistband. She gripped Zayda’s elbow, and he smiled up into her face. “He be fine on the fifth floor—we start ‘em there.” She excused herself and hurried to the elevator.
            After ten minutes on hard-backed lobby chairs, Zayda asking Bubbeh twelve times where we were, my mother said, “I’m sick of waiting. I’ll call for an appointment,” and took a brochure on the way out.
            “How ya doing?” I asked, taking Zayda’s hand in the car. He gazed at me, his lips curved over, hiding his teeth. I leaned up front and snatched the brochure from my mother. “We’re not settling on Evelyn Gardens,” I said, stuffing the pamphlet down the seat pocket. “There have to be a dozen better homes in the area."
            “We are not settling for anything,” my father corrected. He combed fingers through my mother’s perm until she pulled from him.
            “I can’t leave him in a place like that,” Bubbeh said.
            My mother grabbed a clump of her own hair and tugged. She told my father to drive home.
            “You’re going to make that shit hole our only stop?” I said.
            But my father looked for a place to turn, and we found ourselves in the driveway of my former elementary school. The word “diarea,” misspelled, was spray painted on one of the school’s brick walls, and because it was Saturday the lot was empty except for a man walking a golden retriever. The driveway formed a long loop, in the center of which stood a thicket of pines.
            “Zayda’s nothing like the patients in that nursing home,” I went on, in part to aggravate my mother. She was so impatient. She would pay. I cooed at Zayda, “You can walk and talk and feed yourself.”
He cupped my face and said, “Shayna maidelah.” Pretty girl.
As we rounded the area of the driveway where the forest spread widest, we came under cover of a lush canopy that blocked the sun except for the thinnest rays.
            Zayda reached over Bubbeh, rapping his knuckles on the glass. “Gaistu tsum der vasser?” he said.
             “Stop the car, Dad. Zayda made a sentence.”
            Bubbeh pushed him off her lap, but he climbed over her again. “Gaistu tsum der vasser tsu vashen mein hoisen? Vu is Frau Beniewicz?”
            “What does that mean, Ma?” my mother asked, twisting in her seat.
            “He thinks we are in Poland,” Bubbeh said. “He asks for the Beniewicz family—the ones who hid him in the war. Du bist nisht a kind!” she shouted into Zayda’s hairy ear. “You are not a child!” But he clung to her knee like a kid about to be spanked.
            “Malka?” he asked suddenly. He looked up at Bubbeh, his chin quivering.           
    My mother sighed.
            “What?” my father asked.
            “Malka was his sister.”
            Bubbeh whined. “Ich bin nisht Malka. I’m Pola. Your wife!”
            “Where is Malka?” Zayda asked. His English was strangely clear.
            “Auschwitz.” Bubbeh got in his face. “Malka died in Auschwitz!” she screamed.
            And then he punched her.
            It wasn’t a sock—his knuckles only grazed her cheek. Her skin turned purple, though. He’d broken blood vessels, and Bubbeh clutched her face, revealing the full circle of a bruise only when my mother ordered, “Show me” and reached over the console, wrenching Bubbeh’s hand away.
            “He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” I said. Zayda squinted at the splotch on Bubbeh’s cheek and made no move to help her. My father sped home to get ice.
            Her belt unbuckled, her body splayed over the console, my mother took Bubbeh by the chin, displayed her tear-stained face to me and said, “You think I’m a monster, sending him away. But do you see what happens when a person doesn’t know what he’s doing?”
And then I understood, really, how lost my Zayda was.

My mother, usually unsentimental, wanted to see a slideshow that night. Everyone had settled by now, Bubbeh iced and the swelling went down, and we’d already eaten dinner. My mother wanted slides from 1969, long before Zayda was around. She wanted slides of her wedding, photos of Benjamin, her real father, who died of a heart attack in ’76.
My father did as told and took the projector down from the attic. I blew dust off the machine and set the individual slides in the slots while he pulled the screen up and called everyone into the living room. My father shut the lights, and we viewed a tray of photos taken during my parents’ wedding, my actual grandfather, heftier and more serious looking than Zayda, walking my mother down the aisle. She and Bubbeh sniffled behind me on the sofa, and Zayda asked, “Who’s this?” waving at Benjamin, who held Bubbeh’s hand beneath the chuppah. Bubbeh wouldn’t answer, and we braced for a violent attack. So my father changed the tray.
They were ancient slides of my father’s parents, both of whom had died when I was in high school. In the photos my father was a kid, graduating from something, Hebrew school he thought. He stood far away on a lit stage. My grandma had him young, so when my grandpa turned the camera on her, seated beside him in the auditorium, the photo that came out was astonishing in its youth. My grandma was smirking, her mouth crooked as she’d always complained it was when someone told her to smile. She wasn’t wearing lipstick, where I was so accustomed to the heavy maroon she painted on in her later years. Her nose was long, like mine, almost touching her lip.
            “Barbara,” Zayda said. He tapped my knee and pointed at the screen. “Miss America,” he joked, his English poor but coherent.

            “That’s Molly,” Bubbeh corrected. She gestured at my father. “Max’s mother. Not Barbara.”
            Zayda stared at the screen with his mouth open.
            But he wasn’t far off. It was always said that I resembled my grandma more than anyone in the family. Encouraging Zayda, or to validate him, I jumped from my chair and turned on the light. I stood beside the photograph onscreen, which was hard to make out beneath the overhead bulbs, but Zayda continued to point between the two of us. I posed with my hands on my hips.
            “Miss America,” he said again. I laughed, and he laughed too.
            We ate sugar-free ice cream for dessert, and when it was time for Zayda to go to bed, I pushed back zealously from the table, scraping the chair legs over the tile. No one else moved to help him, and they didn’t want me to, either.
            “He’ll take ten years to get up there. Finish your ice cream before it melts,” my mother said.
            I slid the dish away but found myself just sitting there.
            I watched anxiously as Zayda paced, shuffling past the stairs to his room, forgetting where he wanted to go. My parents spoke with Bubbeh about money—bonds, stocks, and the fees for a nursing home, Evelyn Gardens or maybe another one they planned to visit later in the week. I watched Zayda, my slippers planted firmly on the ground, my hands flat on the table. He was wandering five minutes when I decided I’d had enough and started to get up to help.
            And then suddenly he turned into the foyer, where he needed to be. He tilted back his head. He surveyed the long staircase, and he started climbing.

Barbara Strauss lives and writes outside Boston. Her work has received Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers, and was published in the inaugural issue of technicolor Magazine. She also has a story forthcoming in The Mustard Seed Risk. She veered from fiction to write “Bearings,” about her actual grandparents. In addition to writing, she’s big into yoga.



Wednesday, October 3, 2012


by Melissa Wiley

An accordion can all too easily take your breath away, and that, of course, is the danger. I was riding the New York subway the other weekend, where air is notoriously scarce, when a dark, stout man, balding though still young, sidled up beside me as I stood mid-car gripping a steel pole at its abdomen and began playing his accordion. At the moment, I was nursing one of those mild a-causal bout of melancholy that come on about a week before my menstrual period, and his music instantly altered my breathing, my own breath deepening with the accordion’s exaggerated and noisy inhalations of unaccountably fresh, ample sound waves. I couldn’t help staring, down as it happened, because he was about 3 inches shorter than me, at a large, glistening pimple insolently perched atop his left eyebrow. Soon a seat became available, and I sat down, at once perfectly gemütlich in this impromptu underground bier garden, directing my gaze upward now instead of down at the gentleman, though still a little distracted by the purulent mass raising and lowering with his eyebrows in time to the music as he ambled gaily down the car, followed closely by what I reasonably assumed were his wife and son at work collecting money in a brown newspaper cap.

The woman wore a tan sweater with a tight weave and bell sleeves and a long, flowing print skirt. She would have looked completely put together and somewhat lovely even, with her soft olive skin and light green eyes, had she not so conspicuously been not wearing a bra. The abrupt plunge of her small breasts as her nipples pointed askew like confused metal detectors within the taut tan sweater robbed it of its dignity, I couldn’t help but think a cheap cross-your-heart for her and some salicylic acid for him would have made all the difference—that and the absence of the shadow of worry on their faces, though I can’t imagine having been all open smiles myself were my own unfettered jubblies swaying quite so freely in the tunnel breeze, positioned at eye level with the seated passengers I was soliciting. But these thoughts were quickly silenced as a policeman curtly summoned them off the train at the next stop and escorted them out of the station to the muted jeers of the passengers, the ghost of the reverberating music still lingering like fraying spider silk among the metallic screeching of the train’s aging breaks.

Playing the accordion, I have always felt, is not something you can do on the sly, especially not on a crowded subway. It is, above all, an expansive, smiling instrument, a way of widening your chest and your lungs vicariously through its plodding rhythmic compressions. And whether you like its particular timbre doesn’t matter much; when it’s there, you know it, and you expand along with it to some degree. The fact that the most likely place you’ll happen upon one is at a German bier fest, two, three, or four sheets to the wind, only increases the odds of falling under its monochromatic spell. As I said, there’s no hiding from this one, and perhaps the man with the greasily climaxing mass of pus on his lower forehead should have known as much.

I had, as it happens, all too frequent encounters with a Burmese accordion during my most impressionable years. Our grammar school priest, a man we called Father John, a refugee of Myanmar, then Burma, would enter our classrooms at will, interrupting our tests in long division and American history to play songs like “Bless Me Jesus” and “This Little Light of Mine,” to which we could never sing loudly enough for his partially deafened tastes. While I was fighting against the clock for elusive traces of memory about Nathan Hale and Aaron Burr, Father John’s accordion would announce itself a mere two classrooms down, and our teacher, eyes yellowing, would whisper-scream to the class, “You are not retaking this test! If you haven’t finished it by the time Father John gets here, automatic fail.” Frantically extracting straws of surface knowledge from my hippocampus, the tempo of the encroaching song’s refrain accelerating with growing amplitude and the neighboring children’s voices metamorphosing into punctuated demonic shouts, the squeezebox-driven pressure was enough to make you throw down your number-two pencil, run screaming into the cafeteria, and drown yourself in Kool-Aid as the only legal precursor to your inevitable incipient career as a perpetually glassy-eyed patron at the local bier garden, where accordions knew their natural place. Just as Father John’s light, buoyant step crossed the classroom threshold, however, you’d scratch off the last answer, place your pencil inside its premolded slot at the top of your desk, and exhale, your face now a glowing infernal red from holding your breath to stave off the insidious influx of the chivying, caterpillar-like instrument. The accordion had nearly cost you a passing grade in history, not to mention a life of peaceable sobriety. But life, you were told by those who had lived more of it, was short, and you were prepared to be the bigger person, which even at nine years old I was easily on my way to being, Father John being the wee-est of wee Burmese men.

And in a moment, the accordion pressing its august air against the yellow cinderblocks and inflating the classroom a good 10 square feet beyond its previous test-taking proportions, you were at ease, if slightly deafened with the fresh force of the instrument’s arresting propinquity. Like all good sensory overload, however, it had the salutary effect of erasing your more distressing and entangled thoughts, thoughts of violence toward the most amiable of men, a servant of the Christian god and a refugee no less, from a place with much more textured, ethnically layered cuisine, and here he was stuck on a diet of dry cereal and corndogs in small-town Indiana. In any case, you were not supposed to mess with him, and you were glad that your hippocampus kicked in before you were driven to any irrevocable damage.

How they ever received an education in Burma, of course I didn’t know, what with their evident casual attitude toward the sanctity of the American Revolution, but I felt magnanimous in casting aside my previous frustration and shouting out “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!” with the preternatural vocal strength of a 10-year-old Mahalia Jackson. And it was the only appropriate response, even if I hadn’t finished the test and consequently initiated my decline into the life skills curriculum. Assailed by as big an oaf of an instrument as you’re ever likely to come across, I realized, you don’t send it and its player packing off the train—you let it dilate into its natural stentorian splendor and uplift the otherwise drab subterranean train ride. You don’t wear a bra and you let it shine.

But the authorities eventually caught up with Father John as well. In addition to the accordion, his other, dueling passion was King’s Island, a theme park in Ohio a tantalizing two hours away by freeway in his speeding orange-striped station wagon. He would invite up to six lucky children at a time to escape with him there every weekend with clement conditions, when he would forego the more immediate physical thrill of the water slides and roller coasters and even the gentler pleasures of the carousel for the shadier carnival games. For a singularly diminutive man, Father John had quite the arm and tossed brightly painted ping pong balls into goldfish jars as well as heavier dusty orbs into convulsively shifting hoops for six, seven, eight hours on end, crushing his enormous plunder of stiff-limbed stuffed animals into a storage container on top of his vehicle. His personal residence, the parish rectory, was an opulent three-story house with stippled flesh-colored paint. Anyone without a mania for acquiring life-size Styrofoam-filled panda bears and plush Smurfs with pert pug noses would have easily left at least five rooms hollow and uninhabited. But Father John had adorned them all with the cynosure, the fuzzy, cheap sunlight of every materialistic child’s eye. Piled to the ceiling in lampless room after room, labyrinthine catacombs of frozen plastic-eyed playfulness that would not decay for centuries, his seraglio of faux fur flesh formed an ever-smiling audience for his accordion practice. I took home dozens of toys at his insistence. One, a peach bear in a navy blue cheer leader costume with a matching bow, I only gave away to the Salvation Army this year, at the age of 33.

When I was in my early-twenties and living in Chicago, my mother told me over the phone one Sunday afternoon that Father John had been accused of stealing tens of thousands of dollars in funds from the parish. Nothing incriminating I believe was ever proved, but it also came to light that, presumably in the months when King’s Island closed its gates, he plied his dexterous right arm to the craps table at the local casino, temporarily leaving his accordion and his coterie of stuffed animals behind. His superiors swiftly relocated him to another parish, ostensibly without either a children’s theme park or another nearby means of testing his limits with Lady Luck. But may God give them adult acne for ever evermore if they took away his accordion.

So in my experience at least, playing the accordion and pressing your luck go very much hand in hand. There is a trenchant vulnerability, a mordant plea for gaiety in one who straps a squeeze box onto his chest and commences playing such an instrument, sending out obstreperous cornpone melodies into the ether in a New York subway or from a provincial church altar minutes before transubstantiating a host of bread into the body of Christ. There can be no false starts here with the accordion, however many there may be elsewhere, in the background of life. Whatever drove that man in the subway and his son and braless wife to seek money among strangers for a rousing few bars of “Roll out the Barrel” or whatever similar tune he played, he was not lying low with his volcanic pimple, gripping a steel pole at its abdomen, breathing shallowly in the cloistered, damp air, and keeping his eyes on the gum cemented into the floor grooves. He was making melodic, moronic waves that made me smile. For the few moments he was there, there was more air in the overcrowded train car as a result. And that's perhaps worth betting on.

Melissa Wiley is a freelance food and culture writer living in Chicago. When not minding her Ps and Qs, she seizes every opportunity to remove her shoes and walk barefoot with half-painted toenails through airport security in pursuit of global opportunities to dance, draw, laugh, and gape. She also volunteers as a literacy tutor and endangers children’s lives when flying her kite at full mast along the beach.