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Friday, July 22, 2016

Tough Guy

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.

“To Jules!”

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

Fanning the Flames

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 ├ęclairs 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:

Thursday, July 7, 2016

I Met My Mother's Body at Loehmann's

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.