Category Archives: Musings

A Memory of Roland Flint

ROLAND, SHALOM

This piece was written soon after the death of Roland Flint (January 2, 2001) and published in the March/April 2001 issue of Writer’s Carousel (The Writer’s Center, Bethesda MD). Truly, this dedicated and gifted poet was one of the most unforgettable characters that I’ve been blessed to know. Like many others who had a similar life-changing opportunity, I will never forget him.

I find it difficult to speak in a public or professional voice about Roland Flint, a man who was a dear friend to me for over thirty years as well as a poet whose work I greatly admired and respected. He was a man with a great, caring soul – and what he cared about often found its way into his work: the unseen heroism of the common man, the magnitude of pain and suffering in people’s lives, the sources of endurance that sufferers discover, the miracle of human love, the beauty of the human form at rest and in motion, the juicy sexuality of creation, and all the promises of life that vie with all the obstacles of living.

 He had such a hearty laugh, he could have so much fun hearing a joke or telling one, that it is easy to forget how close so much of his life was to tears. But the laugh was not a mere cover or compensation: it was the tonic burst of a life-force at once fierce and gentle. I think I’ll miss that laugh as much as anything. That laugh shoots through many of the poems – especially the prose poems – and we have the poems. But they are not quite the same thing.

Roland Flint as Poet Laureate of Maryland

 Roland’s dance with the goddess Fame was only partly danced when he fell ill. I don’t mean that he hadn’t been long beloved by a wide spectrum of those who love poetry, those who read it and write it. But certainly he had not yet become a household name, and his work is not exemplifying one thing or another in the anthology texts that suggest to students a writer’s importance.  I think he was getting there fast, and may get there yet. He has a big chunk of space in any anthology I ever imagine.

 What does this mean? He started late in a generation of quickstart careers. His first two books, so lovingly brought to readers by Dryad Press, did not appear until he was 37 and 41 respectively. When RESUMING GREEN, from prestigious Dial Press, put him on the map in 1983, he was thoroughly a middle-aged man. And then the Dial imprint died and with it the parent company’s interest in this fine collection. When STUBBORN appeared from the University of Illinois Press in 1990, a National Poetry Series Selection, Roland had turned a corner – at 56. I don’t think he wrote less as the years went by, but rather that he allowed less to get into print. He was a severe judge and careful editor of his own work. It was another nine years until LSU Press brought out EASY. He had a lot more in him, I’m sure.

 Though I’m grateful for these books and the PIGEON volume that came out along the way, I want more.

 I also want more of that splendid vocal instrument that he tuned to perfection when giving a reading. What a dazzling presence he was at the podium: in performing his poems, Roland always achieved star power. Some faulted him for it, and some detractors believed that his readings made the poems seem better than they were. Others, those who would read and listen and read again, discovered that the voice truly revealed what was already there. But it’s a simple matter: Roland wrote to be heard. He knew the roots of poetry are in oral tradition, and he partook of that tradition even as he crafted poems that can speak right off the page. He taught us how to hear.

 And he taught other poets how to read – deliver, if you will – their poems to listeners. Not just by his example, but through workshops and serious individual advice, he helped a great many poets do justice to their writings.

 Roland at times showed a bard’s ego. I think for him it was a healthy pride. But he could revel in the deflation of it, and that’s one thing I loved about him. It’s an old story that many people have heard, because Roland would enjoy telling it on himself. Sometime before his first book, AND MORNING, came out, Roland told me that he had written a poem for David Ignatow. This sounded, though it probably wasn’t, a bit stuffy and a bit name-droppy to me. Feigning an innocence about these literary matters while eager to exercise my wiseguy persona, I asked: does he need one? Well, at this little dig Roland cracked up. He chuckled over it for years, — decades. He offered the story back as a way of complimenting me, though the laugh was on him.

 Show me a man who can laugh at himself and in no way be belittled, and I’ll show you a man of great spirit, self-knowledge, and robust cheer.

 OK. I haven’t listed the awards, the recognitions, the magazine credits, the fellowships, and the whole rigmarole of acclaim. They sit in official bios and will be selectively placed where they need to be referenced. These are not what made Roland an impressive man to me. That he learned enough Bulgarian to translate and recite it is something I admired, but I was touched when he would offer a Hebrew phrase or blessing when he knew I was celebrating the Sabbath or a Jewish holiday.

 One thing that made him impressive – and loved – was this: when he asked how my children were doing, he actually remembered what I had told him last – though months and even years may have intervened. He knew exactly what kind of careers they were pursuing, where they were living, what kind of problems they were contending with – and he hadn’t seen them since they were kids, decades ago. Roland always listened, he always heard, and he always cared. And do you know, he had formed a bond back then that left those children knowing who he was in a way that prepared them to share my sense of great fortune in being his friend, and now to share my loss.

 Hello. Goodbye. Peace. Shalom.

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The Two Sams – memoir

This is the fourth of the five Bookbinders sketches that orginally appeared in Fall/Winter 1997 issue of WordWrights. Those previously posted are found in the “Musings” category: “Butterfly Dress,” “Grandpa Jake,” and “Frieda.”

Like many of you, I had two Uncle Sams. One was my father’s older brother. This Uncle Sam lived in Brooklyn with his wife Minette and adopted daughter, Edlee. We didn’t see them very often. Uncle Sam was so much older than my father that they had each grown up as only children and didn’t have much in common. Even now, though I can see his face in my mind’s eye very clearly, I can’t tell you very much about what he was like. I think he was tall and kind of gentle. I can’t be sure. I don’t even remember how he made his living, nor can I recall anything he ever said. There was a stiffness to his gait, back trouble perhaps, and a way he had of looking sorrowful about some endured failure.

The other Uncle Sam was my mother’s younger brother. Swarthily handsome, slim, thin of hair but not really balding, and slightly bug-eyed, he carried himself with confidence and had a congenial, knowing air. When I first became aware of him, he was the family’s war hero. Actually, he’d had jobs in uniform that connected him to the entertainment industry and U.S.O. activities. He worked in Armed Forces radio, managed clubs for servicemen, and spent time in places like Paris.

There were rumors of his gorgeous Belgian girlfriend, a singer or actress, whom he gave up because he knew she could never be comfortable in his unstylish, lower class Jewish Bronx milieu. Or maybe it was she who ditched him. But he was already beyond that milieu anyway: an articulate, artsy guy who’d seen the world and charmed fantastic women.

Nevertheless, she had been the love of his life and as I grew up and go to spend more and more time with him, it became clear that his dalliances with other women were only that.

He was a great son to Grandma Ida, helping her financially and in almost every other way as she struggled into old age. He was the talented one who seemed to sacrifice a brilliant future to shoulder family responsibilities.

New York fed his interests. He saw all the shows, learned to play the flute, went to gallery openings, shopped at Barney’s long before everyone else caught on. A wholesale liquor salesman whose route took him to stores and bars all over the city, he played golf whenever he could and knew show biz folks from Times Square to The Hamptons. Familiar with the jazz scene (he’d probably known it in Paris), his speech was spiced with hipster argot. An engagement was a “gig”; an assent was “yeah, man.”

He remained a young sport as middle age drew near, and when I moved to New York to finish college and work on my relationship with my lady fair, he was open to us as if we were generational peers. During my first half-year in the city (late 1960), I lived with Grandma Ida and usually slept in what had been Uncle Sam’s bedroom. Sleeping, reading, and imagining in his old bed gave me a worldly feeling that helped my comfort level in Greenwich Village and other exotic haunts.

Sometimes Uncle Sam would leave his suave bachelor pad in the West Twenties and stay over at Grandma’s for a night. During and around dinner and breakfast, he’d give her some quality time. Then I’d switch over to Aunt Emma’s old room.

Sam (by now I’d dropped the “Uncle” in addressing him) was the natural choice for best man at my wedding, though some mistook him for the groom.

Years later, something happened to his circulatory system. His hands, in particular, were affected, and he had to seek a warmer climate to improve his condition and to find congenial work. He didn’t go to Florida, Southern California, or Mexico. No, Uncle Sam went to Spain and settled in the Costa del Sol area. He ran a photo shop, wrote for golf magazines, and settled into an international community that must have held some of the buzz he’d enjoyed as part of the allied establishment in France at war’s end – but without the danger or damage.

My wife and I lost direct contact with Sam, but news filtered through. At some point, we heard that he’d sired a daughter with a Swedish expatriate, and then later we discovered that he was living with a British countess, or ex-countess. Romance dogged him. From a distance, he seemed so glamorous. His letters to my mother, which she would read to me over the phone from her retirement home in Arizona, were filled with references to luminaries like Sean Connery.

After twenty of more years of this, he became seriously ill. Medical treatment in Spain proved inadequate, so he returned to New York and with Aunt Emma’s help tried out the Veterans’ Administration doctors as well as those at New York University Hospital. He brought with him the countess, whom he had married shortly before leaving Spain. Her accent cut through the family’s sludgy New Yawk patois like a gin and tonic heavy on the twist. Operations and strokes followed that left him helpless, inarticulate, that fine cultured mind buried in frustrated silence.

In the end, then, he resembled the older Uncle Sam: stiff and sorrowful, quietly bearing a burden. Looking at him, it was hard to remember all he had been, all the color he’d lent to our humdrum lives.

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Retrieving the Sweater

This recently revised piece recaptures a slice of my life in the early 1960s. I”m not sure what to call it: personal essay, memoir, fictionalized memoir, or short story. Take your pick.

Cassie and I had been eyeballing each other for several weeks, ever since we stepped into the same New School class (on Albert Camus) along with a handful of other recent Greenwich Village immigrants. We quickly became a group, Cassie the only woman (though we’d have said “girl” then). Except for Jeff, who came from Brooklyn, we had each called home some bastion of comfort in an Eastern Seaboard suburb. Palling around in a group of four or five, we’d pace up and down 8th Street looking for some cheap mischief or a friendly bartender. We’d huddle together in the Bleeker Street cinema or just sit out on the benches in Washington Square, admiring the pigeons.

We’d talk about Anais Nin, who was having one of her several breakthrough moments and whose new editions were prominently displayed at the trendy bookshops. Once, as we walked past the Bobst Library of NYU, we spotted her, caped and coiffed in her delightfully mysterious fashion. Her novels and stories (not at all like the bold unexpurgated diaries to be published decades later) were filled with poeticized longing and gauze-cloaked sensuality.

Being in the same class bonded us unexpectedly. We had already developed other friendships, and Cassie, who had been in the Village for six months, occasionally talked about a boy friend, an older guy, whom we never saw. I think, perhaps, he was married and Cassie was his big adventure on the side, though she seemed to take him seriously. In spite of the ways in which our lives did not otherwise link, we kept feeling this tight tugging, something sashing us into a privileged, knowing circle.

I couldn’t take my eyes off Cassie, yet meeting her gaze was a problem, too. She was very cool, worldly, bold in her look and stride and language. Sleek and tormentingly sexy, she said I dare you with every flounce of her long, straight, light-brown hair. Her look said are you up to it? whenever she caught me staring.

I didn’t know.

We were all busy writing poems. Well, maybe “busy” is too strong in terms of how much writing we got done – let alone rewriting. However, we were certainly busy enough reading and talking about poetry. None one of us had any discipline, just a borrowed sense of style and the dreamy, late adolescent angst that Nin’s work captured perfectly. Certainly we wanted to impress one another, and in particular the guys wanted to impress Cassie. We’d meet to share our work, and at some point Cassie and Jeff and someone outside of the immediate group started a little magazine. When Cassie became the chief editor (because her father’s money floated this little operation and because we couldn’t deny her anything), whatever I wrote seemed like a trial answer to one of her silent I dare you smiles. I loved to watch her push away her hair and rub one of her gold loop earrings as she concentrated on a manuscript. Could she tell, from a poem, if I was up to it? I’d have to find out.

By now we were well into the spring semester, which of course is a misnomer. It was the dead of winter and we were getting one of those ugly, windy city blizzards that was covering over the ubiquitous Kennedy and Nixon bumper stickers.  Though we no longer were taking a class together, the “gang” still hung out. Cassie’s poetry magazine, and her edgy, earthy magnetism, kept us in the same tight orbit. Actually, I had become more comfortable as her friend now. I’d heard a lot about her parents and her interest in Asian art. And, since I hadn’t made a move, I had given up thinking of her invisible “Frank” as a rival. Having fought down the attraction, I could look her in the eye.

It was four or five in the afternoon, the storm hastening darkness, when lights began flickering in the New School cafeteria where we sat looking over line drawings and woodcuts for the magazine. Jeff had a poem about a little boy who sat on a golden stone in a golden circle – something heavily symbolic that sounded good when he read it aloud – and we were choosing some illustrations to go along with it. The intensity of the storm increased, and we decided to split up and go back to our living quarters. Jeff left for the subway to Brooklyn, and something possessed me to become Cassie’s escort to her Hudson Street studio apartment. Had she asked me? Dared me? I can’t remember.

We half-ran, half-walked across the few blocks, crossing Sheridan Square, eyes blinded by the wind-whipped snow that quickly melted and soaked our thin jackets. We splashed through gutters and the heavy slush climbed up our jeans right to the knees. Cassie leaned against me and grasped my hand as we endured the last block, turned onto Hudson, and found the shelter of the tiny lobby. I stamped and shook off the worst of it while she checked her mailbox. Just then, as she pulled out her key ring, I wished I had sent her my best poem. But I hadn’t been able to bring myself to send any. As I warmed a bit, the absent weight of her hip against mine and the echo of her fingers in my hand suddenly registered. Was I up to it? Then we climbed the three floors to her apartment.

Ohmygod how splendidly unselfconscious Cassie appeared as she stripped out of her wet clothing down to her bra and panties. Her look told me I was really stupid not to be doing the same thing. Did I want to catch my death? She hung my wet jacket on a nail and threw my sweater, which was mostly dry, onto the corner of her platform bed. I was spellbound, trying to be all businesslike and nonchalant as I kicked off my loafers and pulled off those soggy denims. I shot a glance at the three-quarter view of Cassie’s back as she raised her arms to dry her hair in a thick towel. Her breasts, now unfettered, perfectly framed in a hallway mirror, followed her movements. My shirt came off.

Cassie put on a recording of someone reading translations of Garcia Lorca’s poetry and then we were under the down comforter, warming each other, finding out where everything was, and yet there was no love-talk, only talk about the usual stuff. I wondered why I had left my wet socks on, but then tried hard to focus on the possibility of meeting Cassie’s dare. After a while, we were getting lost in our caresses and excitations. Cassie was making movie-moans and I was wondering if she was expecting me to have prophylactics. It was about that time. Then, as a key began to turn the tumblers in the lock, my heart knew disappointment and also, strangely, relief.

Cassie sprang up, then composed herself and slipped into my sweater as her roommate pulled open the door and dripped into the apartment. By the time she was in far enough to see us, I was half into my still-damp jeans and Cassie, legs tucked under her, sat with the bottom of my sweater pulled down under her knees. “Sorry,” Maggie exclaimed sarcastically, then turned to put some things away in the Pullman kitchen.

Now I had to put on my best nonchalant act. Was I up to it? A blur of small talk about Nin’s new Seduction of the Minotaur, which Maggie had just read. Leave soon, but not too soon. At the time, it seemed best to leave the sweater behind.

Something changed after that. Something became my fault that hadn’t quite been anyone’s fault. My expectation that a romance was brewing was quickly exposed as utter nonsense. I could not find the words or gestures to resume that intimacy, if that’s what it was, on any level. The gang went through wooden motions of having fun and being committed artists, but all that earnestness about comradeship and transcendence got to be painful, like a stiff neck. Cassie, the lodestone and center, frowned a lot, looked uncharacteristically perplexed, and after a while drifted onto the periphery of our lives.

For all my disappointment and sorrow, for all my worry over just how much embarrassment was proper, my principal focus was on that darn sweater. I wasn’t sure if it was a legitimate forfeit – a part of me forever gone with my self-esteem and silly romantic notions – or just a sweater that I liked and needed and should get back.  Sometimes, I imagined that Cassie was intending to call me and arrange to return it. She would give me back my self, and perhaps even more. Other times, I felt that she was holding onto it as a kind of inverse and perverse trophy. Then again, it was just as likely she simply didn’t care. Or maybe it was another dare. Come and get it. Was I up to it?

Did I even want that garment that had spent more time wrapped around her precious body than I had? Did I want it with her smell . . . the inevitable strands of her hair? Did I want this talisman of an unfulfilled desire? Did I want to turn back the clock, reclaim the moment? What had she taken from me, really?

What happens next?

I cannot tell you truthfully what happened next, because if I did I’d be telling a different kind of story.  But I can tell you this: it’s over fifty years later and I have an eleven year old granddaughter, and I’ve published a shelf of criticism on Anais Nin and quite a few poems. But it is as if the outcome is still in doubt. Even today, every poem I write, even this morning’s poem, is awaiting sanction in Cassie’s magazine. And will you believe me if I tell you that on a day like today I feel as if I’m still in the process of either retrieving the sweater – or not?

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My 9/11

united-states-naval-academy-photoShortly before 8:55am on September 11, 2001, I entered my Literature of War course in Sampson Hall at the United States Naval Academy. We were still near the beginning of the semester, the last semester of my college teaching career. The midshipmen looked uncharacteristically confused and unsettled. One of them asked me to turn on the television. They’d heard about some enormous calamity. Soon we were magnetized, almost traumatized, by repeat footage of the initial collision of an aircraft with one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. As the mix of news, conjecture, and wild rumor accumulated, it was suddenly ramped up by news and pictures of another plane blasting into the other tower.
It wasn’t long before we all suspected that our lives had changed dramatically. Our personal lives and our lives as U. S. citizens. These young men and women were processing their futures as junior officers in the United States Navy or Marine Corps. We talked a bit about what was going on. Facts were few. Still, there was something about the mids that impressed me. They were ready, or committed to being ready, for whatever was out there. They would not turn away from their responsibilities. That determination was written on their faces and in their voices. Also, they were smart enough to be afraid. I was proud of them. I still am.

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Frieda (from “Bookbinders”)

from BOOKBINDERS: FIVE RECOLLECTIONS

[Originally published in WordWrights, Fall/Winter 1997.]

Every family needs someone like Aunt Frieda, someone who is cursed from the outset and whose misfortunes, while they strain the patience and resources of others, allow those others to measure their luck. Aunt Frieda was always vibrating. Her whole body was in minor agitation, but these tremors were only distant registers of the Bells Palsy that primarily affected her right arm.

Aunt Frieda usually held that arm against her side, so as to steady it as much as possible. Very often she would use it to carry something, a dishtowel perhaps, by pressing it against herself. When she put it and her right hand to use – for buttoning shirts or working in the kitchen – disaster loomed. At best, simple tasks took a long time. She learned to stay within her limits, and at a slow, deliberate pace, she could handle at a rudimentary level the tasks of wife and mother. Along with the psychical slowness was a slowness of another kind. Aunt Frieda had some degree of mental retardation. On top of this, her speech was a little slurred.

Frieda, who was the middle child of the five siblings, aged quickly. Everything she tried to do required enormous effort, and then maybe it wouldn’t come out right. Because she worked overtime, she was always worn out. I think the palsy interfered with her sleep, and that drugs were required to curb the worst effects of her disease. These drugs no doubt robbed her of whatever vividness her low IQ allowed.

When I was a kid, her freakiness scared me. I shunned her vibrating hugs, just as I shunned Grandpa Jake’s whiskey breath. (Indeed, sometimes he had the shakes too, but they were of a different kind.)

And it wasn’t just me. As the family misfit, she collected stares, patronizing remarks, and hostility. Frieda was a family mark of shame. Try as they might to treat her with sympathy and respect, her sisters would grow impatient and angry; they would lapse into abusive expressions. She wasn’t someone to introduce to their friends.

Frieda occasionally reacted with vehement resentment to her family’s sometimes heartless behavior (her brother Sam was the exception), but usually she just endured it. There wasn’t much she could do.

Like each of her sisters, Frieda married and raised two children. This was a miracle in itself. But her household was not a pretty sight. Mel, her husband, was an enormously overweight fellow who drove delivery trucks for a major New York newspaper. His work took place during the night and early morning hours, getting the next day’s papers to the news stands and other points of sale. He’d return home around breakfast time, relax for a while, and go to sleep. Slovenliness went with his girth, and Frieda’s handicaps could not overcome the added burden of Mel’s habits.

Frieda needed household help, and Mel worked too hard and slept at the wrong times to be of much use, though he tried. He made enough money for them to get by, and he was in a strong union that provided a good health plan. Between this and the workers’ compensation that kicked in after his many work-related injuries, they survived. But it was a bare and ugly survival.

Their children, Eddie and Mimi, did not get off to a good start. The genetic load was one factor, the environmental one another. Each has survived and made a place in the world, but when we were all kids Eddie was a wild monster and Mimi a withdrawn, sacrificial lamb. They were handsome children, though.

I’ve been told that my mother, at some point, arranged to have Frieda “fixed” so that she couldn’t have more kids.

Because Frieda’s family was so hard to take, with marginal social skills and outrageously obvious dysfunctions, we did not get together very often. When we did, it was all anxiety and tumult. As I try to remember them, one scene blends shakily into another, and no moments stand out for me now with distinctive narrative hooks. They seem to exist in space, filling it up quite boisterously, rather than in time: a sad tableau of noise, dirty dishes, unmade beds, and wrinkled clothes.

But just the other day, going through old family albums to jog my memory, I found two pictures of Aunt Frieda that I hadn’t paid attention to before. In them, she must be about thirty. One is a portrait of her alone. In the other, she is standing behind me, a small boy, her good hand resting on my shoulder. We are both smiling. The camera has stopped the action, the endless motion, the blur of agitation. In these frozen moments, there is no palsy. Nothing is falling to the floor; nothing has to be done over or with tedious slowness. The face is not contorted by severe concentration or rage or frustration or embarrassment. Aunt Frieda is still, fixed, — and she is unbelievably beautiful.

See also: https://philjason.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/butterfly-dress/

and https://philjason.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/grandpa-jake-from-bookbinders/

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Grandpa Jake (from “Bookbinders”)

from BOOKBINDERS: FIVE RECOLLECTIONS

Originally published in WordWrights, Fall/Winter 1997. See also “Butterfly Dress,” the first in the series: https://philjason.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/butterfly-dress/

Grandpa Jake

Two or three of his fingers were missing. Just nubs remained. He had lost them, so I’d been told, over the long years working in butcher shops. These nubs were not scarred or ugly, but smoothly rounded over. I imagined how they helped him knead the muscles of clients in the Turkish baths where he worked. He had for some time now been a masseur in Manhattan and Coney Island, going down into those primitive caverns of rejuvenation whose tiled walls echoed Yiddish in the dizzying heat. How do I know this? Surely he had taken me into them, places with names like Luxor, airless rooms that looked like flooded subway stations. Steam, clouds of huge white towels, glistening tiles, rumbling voices of business and prayer and the pleasure of pampered muscles. Places without women.

But I didn’t visit him in the city very often. And he wasn’t always easy for my mother to find. Separated for a long time from Grandma Ida, he drifted from one rooming house to another near the Coney Island boardwalk. He wouldn’t stray too far from the baths that were his source of livelihood, and others who worked there knew his whereabouts. He was often drunk, his eyes misty, and even when marginally sober, his liquored breath made me want to back away – and he saw it, the bit of fear in my eyes; and I saw him seeing it, the pain in his.

My mother was the oldest child and the first to escape the city. Soon after the close of WWII, she and father had bought a small house in Oceanside on the south shore of Long Island. It was one of those many communities that sprang up to accommodate returning veterans. We still had the pre-war Buick through the remainder of the 1940s.

When the days began to grow warm, my father would come back from the city on Friday nights with Grandpa Jake in tow. I’d jump up on the running board to greet them. When Grandpa picked me up and took me around in a big Romanian hug, I’d feel the nubs pressing into my back, wondering whether they had some special power. He’d grin his teary grin, and I’d stretch my neck and turn my face away from his mouth. Sometimes he’d stay for a week or two. Mother had set up an attic guest room for him.

I don’t how we talked or what we talked about. Even at 7 or 8, a bright American kid, I had treasures of school fact that would mean nothing to him. I had baseball, scouts. He had memories. You could tell that he had memories, but no language. His English, which carried no nuance or detail – no full sentence structures – was less than my skeletal Yiddish. Yet something flowed between us, and I learned his songs and jokes, whiles his eyes filmed over and I swam in them.

We’d go fishing together.

As I watched him rebait hooks, heft sinkers, and cast his line, I also watched those damaged hands in all their deftness. He worked an odd magic. And when he’d take out his fishing knife to filet and clean the catch, my head swam and I’d grasp the railing on the fishing pier. I knew how he lost those fingers, and yet he took no special care as he severed heads and drew out spines. Sometimes the fish went home heads and all. He was from a world in which fish heads were good eating.

Several summers passed like this: days at the beach; days with friends on bicycles wandering (without permission) up toward the distant, mysterious North Shore; afternoons running lemonade stands or engrossed in comic books; evening hours in friends’ homes as one and then another neighbor got that new miracle – the television set. And days with Grandpa at some favorite fishing spot – a bridge or pier stretched over an ocean inlet. Wordless companions in the damp salt air, our shadows moved in tandem under the slowly arcing sun.

By the early 1950s, we saw Grandpa Jake less and less. He was pretty much a vagrant by then, and mother was busy enough with her husband and children. In 1951 we got a sleek 1950 Plymouth and she learned to drive. Soon after, I had paper routes and started Junior High. By the time we left Oceanside in 1954 and moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., Grandpa had vanished into a cavern of vapory memories, an eerie dream of piled towels, truncated fingers, fish, whiskey, and Roumania, Roumania, Roumania resounding off the tiles.

There is a picture of Grandpa Jake in my 1962 wedding album, hunted down and cleaned up for the occasion, a tuxedoed stranger in our midst. But I knew something had ended for us back in 1949.

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Butterfly Dress

from BOOKBINDERS: FIVE RECOLLECTIONS

[Originally published in WordWrights, Fall/Winter 1997.]

Bookbinder is my mother’s family name. Thus it has become the secret code word when I call up for information on my bank accounts. Even before she married Grandpa Jake, Grandma Ida’s family name was Bookbinder. I was one of those early 20th century European matches of not-too-distant cousins. Grandma’s relations had lots of children, many of them sons, so there were many New York Jewish Bookbinder children and grandchildren to whom I was related. In the 1950s, Bookbinder cousins drifted to Miami and elsewhere. Some went into the restaurant business.

Jacob and Ida had five offspring: Esther, Shirley, Frieda, Sam, and Emma. In this branch of the family, women took over and the Bookbinder name got lost. Esther, my mother, was 29 when I was born just 18 days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. These Bookbinders, her family, made a strong impression on me when I was a young boy, and even later. As you will see, they were characters. Here are some pieces of their stories – and mine.

Butterfly Dress

Aunt Emma, my mother’s youngest sibling, was still a teenager when I was a toddler. She was – and is – my favorite relative from that side of my family. My first babysitter, she was also the person who introduced me to many things that were important to my boyhood. Cheerful and generous, she would invariably wear her smart-looking dress with the butterfly print whenever she took me from our suburban Long Island home into the city for an adventure. In later years, the butterfly dress became a family joke, but when I was a boy it was a field of wings that would carry me to magical places.

As a young woman in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Aunt Emma had a spirit of adventure that infected me. Our “dates” were exciting and romantic. She loved music and musical theater, and she opened my eyes and ears to the wonders of live performances. I can’t thank her enough for these gifts of time and attention, gifts more lasting and vital than any toy or piece of clothing. When I became an adult and wrestled with raising my own children, I thought back and marveled at her patience with me, the oldest of her several nieces and nephews. I think I was special to her then. Though neither of us could know it, she provided those early glimpses of the creative life that years later became part of my way of being.

She took me to the Young People’s Concerts of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Having me go to this series (in 1948-49) was my parents’ idea, as I was a violin student at the time. But I remember that it was Aunt Emma who most often went with me. On at least one occasion, Leopold Stokowski conducted.

She took me to a rodeo and to circuses at Madison Square Garden. She took me to powerhouse revues like Lend an Ear, in which Carol Channing had a part, and New Faces of 1952, a show that helped make Eartha Kitt a major star. She also took me to South Pacific, the original with Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin. From the beginning, I was in on the joke about “Sam and Janet Evening.”

Aunt Emma would negotiate our journey from Oceanside, or my father would take me into town, or I would spend a weekend at Grandma Ida’s (on Fulton Avenue in the Bronx) where Emma still lived. Then, most likely in that butterfly dress, she would be my older sister and older woman and priestess, floating me into enchanted realms where people spoke in music and lights danced. Before or after, we’d sit in elegant Manhattan restaurants where obsequious waiters made me feel very special, no doubt taking their cue from the delightful young woman who was paying the bill.

These were mysterious and thrilling times, especially as I turned 11 and 12. Looking and feeling less like a little kid now, I was teased and petted by Aunt Emma’s girl friends, who sometimes joined us. Their heavy perfumes and the soft hissing of their satiny dresses dazzled me.

In Aunt Emma’s room and on Grandma Ida’s coffee table there were always copies of the magazines, quite popular then, that printed the lyrics of the latest hit tunes. Emma loved to sing and wanted to have the words down cold, and often I’d join her, magazine in hand, through a number that was featured on Your Hit Parade. She seemed like such a free spirit, though life eventually brought her the usual mix of sorrows and joys, with more restraints than flights. But when I was a boy, she was a gay butterfly and we sang duets against the rattle of the elevated train just a few blocks away from Fulton Avenue.

Actually, even while telling this story, I think that something is wrong. The butterfly dress was real. I have photos of her wearing it. But I believe it belonged to an earlier time, before I was ready for Broadway rhythms. Maybe whatever Aunt Emma would wear on those special days when she took me up into the clouds became a butterfly dress. At any rate, that’s how I see her: luminescent wings against the dark, a beautiful spirit self-created in a poor and dingy corner of the city, lifting me up, lighting my way.

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Anny’s Hat

NOTE: This sketch of Anny Kast was written many years ago and rewritten from time to time. For many who knew her, it captures something of her spirit. Anny passed away on March 1, 2010. Now this is a reminder of her, a tribute to someone we loved.

When Anny called from the airport, Ruth could barely make out the plea – or command – filtered through her aunt’s excited, thick Belgian accent.

“Anny, slow down, what is it?” Ruth asked.

“The hat, you have to bring my hat. I left it at the apart­ment.” Her voice quavered with hysteria.

Some weeks before the date of departure, Ruth had helped Anny shop for a hat to go with the stylish dress she had bought for a wedding in Tel Aviv. She had to have a hat for this affair, which would be conducted in a synagogue. And not just any hat, but a hat that would seem to belong with the dress. Anny was thrilled when Ruth discovered the hat at the umpteenth store. It was perfect, a silvery cloche with pleated folds. Sophisticated but not showy, or perhaps quietly showy. But in all the excite­ment of packing for a return from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. to Israel, the country that had once again become her home, she had left the hat on a closet shelf.

The return had been planned for some time, hinged largely to the return of Molly, Ruth’s mother and Anny’s sister-in-law by marriage to Molly’s brother, Isaac, who had passed away a half-year earlier. Anny, at seventy Molly’s junior by almost fourteen years, had been designated as the caretaker for Molly’s last years. Indeed, Molly had done the designating. She loved Anny and wanted to live with her in a new Tel Aviv apartment they planned to buy. This time, Molly was coming to Israel, where she had already resided for several years, as a new immigrant. Failing both in body and mind, she was coming to what she knew would be her final home. And Anny loved Molly; she looked on her truly as an older sister, or as a replacement for the mother she had lost during the holocaust. They felt lost without each other.

Ruth and her two brothers had anguished over their mother’s desire to go back to Israel with Aunt Anny as her companion and helpmate. No one felt comfortable about having her so far away, yet none felt any compelling reason to choose one of the more traditional arrangements for a parent’s last years. And Molly would not hear of “assisted living” or any other rubrics for the horror of “old age home” that her generation held. What the older women wanted was each other, though clearly the effort of making a home was all on Anny’s shoulders.

So when Anny called about the hat, the one thing missing in the overload of baggage they had schlepped to the airport in the hired van, assisted by Ruth’s younger brother, Ruth was tempted to make the trip, even though it was pouring rain and her husband’s brother was visiting. But when she hung up, the hat issue hadn’t been resolved. 

Anny, Melody & Ruth 2006

“What would Madonna do?” offered Warren, Ruth’s brother-in-law who had flown in from L.A. to conduct an old friend’s wedding with his mail order ordination. “She’d send her chauffeur or bodyguard out on the errand.”

But Ruth still first had to drive over to her mother’s apartment, soon to be sold, and find the hat. She might as well continue to the airport. Besides, if she paid some taxi driver to make the trip, he might just pocket the money – or he might never find them.

“You’re crazy to go out in this,” said her husband. “Just put that hat in some kind of air express tomorrow.”

But Ruth was getting ready to say her goodbyes to her mother and aunt all over again. Anny had already blamed her for the hat problem: “you made me forget it; you asked me a question just when I was going to go take it down from the closet. I need the hat. The wedding is in four days, and there are no deliveries on Shabbat.” This inarguable logic and guilt-fillip sent Ruth to find her rain slicker. There are things that you do for Anny. Even make a three-hour round trip in the pouring rain to deliver her hat. Even if you are sick and have company.

“She’ll drive Mom crazy about that hat,” said Ruth. “I’d better go.”

Anny’s needs didn’t always accommodate a tidy logic. She was in many ways still the young teenage girl nearly buried alive by the Christian family who had saved her from the Nazis. Hidden in closets, under flooring, and beneath garden soil, Anny’s life was a miracle. If she chain-smoked long after everyone else quit, if she talked a mile a minute even on tranquilizers, if she became shaky in elevators and other closed places, if she traveled with a cup of water always in her hand, if she got her several lan­guages mixed up, if her mind leapt from one topic to another on the wires of her own unique circuits . . . if, in short, she was a little strange, it was an understandable and ultimately a loveable strangeness.

When Anny had become attached to Ruth’s family, she was al­ready in early middle age. Chic, fun-loving, and outgoing, she pulled against the insular and somewhat dowdy life of her new re­lations. She had had enough of despair. Anny clowned with all of her young nieces and nephews; she ran them ragged in ways their other aunts and uncles could never do. Lovable and eccentric, perhaps her nervous energy was all that compressed, hushed, hid­den childhood let out.

Anny had learned to fend for herself; she had become – for all her childlike exuberance – a type of the independent woman unusual in her generation. Too nervous to drive, she could give a driver directions to anywhere. She developed networks of doting friends who could help her solve any difficulty. For Anny, get­ting medical appointments on short notice – even for others – was never a problem. She had long ago befriended just the right people in any office with which she had dealings. On the telephone, her accent was familiar to them all; she never identified herself. Anny just had to say “Hello” and make her request and she’d hear – I’m sure we can fit your sister in, Mrs. Kast. How about tomorrow morning?”

And she was quick to take charge, for all her anxious man­nerisms, in any emergency.

For example, there was the time when she and Molly and Molly’s older sister Rose were on their way back from the hair­dresser to Molly’s car. This was down near Dupont Circle in D.C. It was one of those warm early autumn days when the yellow jack­ets know their time is short and go nuts. When Rose got stung, Anny wasted no time rushing into the nearest drug store and push­ing to the front of the line at the pharmacist’s counter.

“Aim,” she shouted, “I must have some Aim. It’s an emergen­cy.”

Well, of course she sounded crazy to everyone around her, especially given her Belgian accent and sky-blue, wide-eyed stare. When is toothpaste an emergency? Someone directed her to the proper aisle. And do you know? Anny was right on target. She had remembered hearing that something with fluoride was an effec­tive remedy for insect stings. Anny got some Aim onto Rose’s neck in a timely fashion, and she saved the day. We love that story, the off-kilter life force of Anny prevailing.

For a person like this, you can make a special trip, search for a hat she forgot, drive it out to the airport, and try to get past El Al security. “My aunt forgot her hat.” Sure. Can you explain how she danced with your children? How she cared for your uncle? Can you explain to them about the Aim? About Belgian winters without parents and being wedged into crevices while Nazi soldiers shout threats and rattle walls, the falling dust and dirt making you frantic for breath? Making her frantic for breath?

Anny is our survivor. She is the other side of tragedy, though not its opposite.

So Ruth got that hat into Anny’s hands, and Anny’s outfit was a big hit at the wedding. She told us so over the phone a few days later.

Soon after, she called about an apartment she and Molly had found. It was just right; maybe one or two things needed to be changed. For instance, Anny hoped that the seller would agree to put in a divider between the kitchen and the dining area: “I want harmonica doors,” she vamped like a chanteuse.

Harmonica doors? We didn’t get it at first, but we soon understood what she meant. We knew her so well, we even followed the Anny logic by which she had made her mis­take.

“You mean ‘accordion doors,’ ” Ruth offered.

“You know,” said Anny, “the kind that fold. They call them ‘harmonica doors’ here.”

Well, who could argue? What was there to win? Here is this woman whose dark memories are stored on videotape in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum but whose life is a blessing and a bright flame of love. A woman who had nursed her frail husband through several horrendous years and who in her own old age cared for her dead husband’s sister. Anny, have any doors you want. Accordion, harmonica, call them what you will. You will probably keep them open. Anny, your good heart takes the sting away. Send us a picture, Anny, a smiling picture from the Holy Land, a picture of you wearing your silvery hat.

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Confessions of a Reference Writer

Originally published in Journal of General Education. Volume: 44. Issue: 3. year: 1995. [a professional musing]

“Look it up,” I used to tell my children when they pestered me with questions while working on their school assignments. I was flattered that they thought I knew everything, edgy at having to let them down. Even when I knew the answer, I didn’t want to be accused of doing their homework for them. “Look it up.” I didn’t think much, then, about our mutual reliance on reference books and our blind faith in their authority. Dictionaries and encyclopedias, general and specialized, have an aura of sanctity. Most of us use them uncritically. We “look it up” and build our understanding or misunderstanding upon what we find.

However, as a college professor, editor, literary critic, and reviewer, my own attitude toward reference writing had for a long while been complicated by the prejudices of my profession. Tenure was not likely to be granted for a series of contributions to reference books. Reference writing, almost always work-for-hire and sometimes published anonymously (perhaps true authority has no name), has had far lower status than publication in refereed journals. Colleagues who wrote for reference publishers were frequently viewed as second-raters, and sometimes they were. In some institutions and departments, reference writing figured negatively on the promotion scorecard. Did telling my children, or my students, to “look it up” doom them to the formulations of inferior minds, academic losers on (or off) the margins of respectability?

How often had I said, when assigning a research paper: “No references to encyclopedia articles; just use them for background reading.” What did this warning convey?

Over the past dozen years, I have spent a good and growing part of my writing time as a reference writer. My flipping through shoe boxes full of accumulated index cards has given way to the electronic pleasures of free-form data base manipulation. One of my motives in doing reference writing has been to keep myself engaged in writing: to do assignments that are not terribly different from those I demand of my students— assignments with word-count parameters and due dates. Another, more important, motive has been to provide reliable, clear information and expert opinion on the topics I’m assigned. I enjoy feeling that the trust a student (or, less frequently, a colleague) will place in my contribution is merited. Among the many roles I play as a writer and teacher, the business of being an authority is as satisfying as any. I flatter myself to think that since reference articles will be taken as authoritative, it’s a good thing that I’ve done this one because I really know my stuff. “Look it up” and you might be reading Jason.

And yet that Grub Street shadow lingers. I’m reminded of a former colleague’s label: “literary journalism,” he smirked. He didn’t have to say “mere”; it was in his voice. How many of these articles should I list on my vita? I don’t want to have “mere” reference articles overwhelm and obscure my more respectable professional publications. Or do I?

The fact is, I’ve come to value many of these reference efforts as highly as my contributions to so-called learned journals. What I’ve put into them in the way of research, imagination, shaping, audience anticipation, and craft is equal to the effort with which I’ve won the assent of journal referees. Indeed, in pleasing the latter I’ve often had to make revisions that have paralleled the format restrictions of work-for-hire. Instead of following guidelines that insist on a 250-word section headed “Themes and Meanings,” I’ve had to download some pretty paragraphs that place my argument within the context of recent gender criticism.

I’ve found a high degree of professionalism, though of a different kind, in my encounters with the editorial personnel on the reference volumes. In my work for Salem Press (publisher of Magill’s Critical Survey or Annual of this, that, and the other thing), my editors and project directors have been just as helpful, just as careful, less expert, less competitive, more courteous, and more punctual than their counterparts on learned journals that I won’t name. Better yet, my reference editors have spoken with a single voice, and they have never asked me to revise so as to satisfy contradictory objections.

One distinction often made between the two kinds of writing is that journal criticism brings news: a new argument, a new insight, a new array of evidence. Yet I have found plenty of room for offering fresh perspectives in my reference essays. Indeed, I often write on contemporary authors for whom there is no body of received opinion that claims my attention. In these assignments, I am doing original work. I’m on the cutting edge; I am the authority by default.

Another distinction, an important one, is that of audience. When I write for Critique or College English or Mosaic or (gulp) PMLA, I write for my peers—other experts in the same field or, at least, other well-trained literary professionals. The audience for my reference writing is a more general audience, one less professionally committed, less educated, less sophisticated. That is, I write primarily for college students. However, since my whole professional life is centered on working with college students, I find reference writing to be fully compatible with my teaching-related tasks. At worst, I’m still teaching with the advantage that those who show up are really interested in what I have to say. Indeed, they are relying on me in ways that my classroom students do not.

I’m not sure which audience is harder to reach, or in which kind of writing my service to disciplinary learning is greater. I’m not sure I want someone else to tell me.

More recently, my reference writing has included book-length projects. These also have a marginal status—sort of like textbooks (another field in which I’ve dabbled). The status issue annoys me more and more. I think the reason that refereed journal publications and university press monographs (with their inevitable and often unproductive “outside reader” mechanisms) rank above textbooks and reference books is the same reason that teaching graduate students ranks above teaching undergraduates: reaching a small number of pre-committed disciples or readers is (paradoxically) of greater value than reaching large numbers of uncommitted novices. That we need such an hierarchical ordering may be a greater problem than the hierarchy itself. But we do need authorities.

Just as there are mediocre (and tedious) journal articles and horrid scholarly monographs, there are shoddy reference works. As a practitioner, I have learned that reference writing is not always reliable and that authority needs to be questioned. Could that be why the big taboo in reference writing is referencing other reference works? Probably not. A short while ago, I explored a reference volume on a subject with which I’m familiar and found it riddled with errors. The writer’s annotations were often vague, misleading, or just plain wrong. The emperor wore rags. Students as well as scholars new to the field do not have my advantage. This book had been praised in the review media by people who knew far less about the subject than the author. They admired its scope, its heft, and did not test for accuracy. This handsome-looking, ambitious tome had found its way onto the reference room shelves long before subject experts in the field were able to raise, in print, questions about its reliability. I began to wonder how often my students, my colleagues, and I had been victims of such authoritative bungling, which is not just the preserve of ministers of state or provosts.

What is needed is less urgency to discriminate among the categories of endeavor and greater alertness to the quality (and utility) of the work. I’d like to see the day come when professors tell their classes something like this: “The best overview of [our topic for next week] is the article by [you or me] found in [the reference volume or hypertext program we made that hundred bucks writing for]. Look it up.”

For better or for worse, we must depend on authority to get on with our business. We can’t question every law or proclamation, and we can’t test every proffered fact. Taxes will be paid, grades will be given, and Webster’s will be invoked. Which one of us is going to check up on Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to see if that passage from Henry James’s letter to Charles Eliot Norton is accurately transcribed? Which one of us is going to challenge the latest Britannica entry on King Alexander of Yugoslavia? Reference writing helps to build, however piecemeal, the cultural literacy so important to communication and community. How much caution should be in my voice when I ask students to look it up?

My job as an educator requires a stance balanced between the authority role that I savor—one that is more or less expected of me—and that of exemplary explorer and assayer. Students need to learn just what kind of authority their reference sources carry and where that authority comes from. They need to become aware of my limits, too. But they also need to move along through the series of tasks by which they educate themselves, depending on authorities to offer foundation facts and useful perspectives. However good a teacher experience is, she is a luxury of time we can’t afford; in fact, she is an eternity we do not have.

Where I teach, authority wears an admiral’s insignia. The gold braiding that his uniform carries is like the gold lettering that is stamped onto the cover of a book. We rise to our feet when our boss enters the auditorium. My students come to attention when I enter the classroom. Our gestures of, respect assume that the person in the position of authority has already been tested and found worthy. It’s easy, sometimes even pleasant, to succumb to the power of authority and to let the one who bears responsibility have sway over us. Though human frailty is everywhere, we choose to pretend otherwise. We welcome the official word, the directive, the definition. We wait for authorities to tell us what something means and why it is important. This is how we fit into our world. This is why our romance with rebellion is short-lived.

In the academic publication game, I see signs of a leveling process. While the efforts of dissertation-bored graduate students and frantic assistant professors dominated the pages of early volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography (for instance), contributors to new volumes and updates tend more often to be established scholars. Also, I’m spotting the: work of younger scholars—even those working at undergraduate institutions—more regularly in the prestige journals. I don’t know what’s bringing about this transition, or how thoroughgoing or anarchical it is, but I grin as I think about it. I salute it.

United States Naval Academy, Annapolis

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Dixie Lids and 3D Comix

The late 1940s and early 1950s are years that don’t hold a lot of memories for me, and it’s hard to figure out why certain things linger in memory while all else has vanished. Why do I remember Mrs. Aranow, my second grade teacher at Oceanside School #5 (below), but not any of my other grade school teachers? Why is sixth grade totally wiped from my memory? I can remember visiting Billy Markland, my friend and neighbor, in the late 1940s soon after television made its appearance. The Marklands had the first television on our block – Billy’s father – a guard for Grumman or Republic Aviation – built it from a kit. Once I was so eager to streak across the street to Billy’s that I forgot to look both ways and got run over by a car. Miraculously, my young bones suffered no damage.

O School 5

 I don’t remember what programs we watched at first, say about 1947, but soon it was “Howdy Doody” and then couple of years later I used to go over and watch “Captain Video” and other early fare for kids. I guess we were about eight years old by then. Billy had polio, and he was housebound for quite a while. Incidentally, local legend had it that the actor who played Captain Video’s nemesis, Dr. Pauli, lived in Oceanside. His house had been pointed out by the older boys, and we crept by it cautiously, trying to get a glimpse of the villain. Sometimes the house was egged. We also heard that Ray Heatherton, the star of the groundbreaking children’s television show “The Merry Mailman,” lived nearby. By the time we got our own set, “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” was all the rage.

This transition from watching radio to watching television was something I underwent with enthusiasm. I didn’t realize what was being lost in the process. Yes, I said “watching radio,” because that’s what we did. We sat in our knotty pine dinette and stared at the glowing yellow dial on the radio console. Often it was the only light in the room. The scripts and sound effects and performances were so engaging that our minds’ eyes were full of images. Truly we seemed to watch Jack Benny and Tom Mix and The Second Mrs. Burton. Like the poet says, we half-create what we perceive.

Nonetheless, early television lodged itself in my memory. In particular, glimpses of the shows I wasn’t supposed to watch, like “Broadway Open House” with the voluptuous Dagmar, remain stored in my neural archive.

Oceanside is on the South Shore of Long Island, New York. From there, my father commuted into Manhattan to his job as a studio engineer for the Voice of America. Because the VOA offices overlooked part of the route for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I had the good fortune of a great view for that annual festivity. Though television was already bringing the parade a national audience, I was just thrilled to see it in person.

 Even though the balloon floats were designed to be seen from below, it was great to be eye-level with many of them rather than craning my neck upward. Unforgettable, being up there with the floats – almost as if I, too, were floating.

Other vivid memories include going with my friends on strenuous (and unapproved) bike rides to the North Shore, hearing the coal rumbling into the coal bin on delivery days, fishing with Grandpa Jake off of a little bridge on the way to Long Beach, and seeing the anxious looks on the faces of customers when I delivered Newsday the day after Stalin died. I also remember the sign outside of an imposing old church down the block from our house announcing its founding at a time when the town was called Christian Hook. As a sensitive young Jewish boy, this attribution always made me feel a bit uncomfortable. And I can’t ever forget Major, the stray mutt that we took in as our own for about a year until my mother insisted that we get rid of him. He is memorialized sixty years later as the answer to security questions on my various online accounts. Talk about immortality!

I can recall with little effort those summer days when I set up, on an orange crate, my lemonade stand. My mother encouraged this entrepreneurial streak – and so when 3D comic books became available I was even more adventurous. A tremendous fan of this short-lived fad, I collected aggressively – Mighty Mouse and the rest – and launched a 3D comic book lending library for the less fortunate kids in the neighborhood. These anaglyphic works, the kind with the overlapping lines in red and blue that required special glasses with red and blue cellophane lenses, created impressive three-dimensional effects. MM 3-DI don’t know that I made any money. I didn’t have an enforcer to bring back those overdue comics, and so my inventory slowly dwindled.

I had lots of other collections. My father encouraged the stamps and coins and electric trains. These educational enterprises kept me occupied, but not really enthralled. No, it was those Dixie Cup ice cream lids that became a true addiction. For a while, I had shoe boxes and cigar boxes filled not only with the usual sports-related cards that came packaged with bubble gum, but also with these circular disks bearing the blue-tinted likenesses of Hollywood starlets. Rhonda Fleming, Veronica Lake, and even Wanda Hendrix were slowly revealed as I licked the ice cream from each Dixie lid. Yum!

Oddly, I also hoarded the lids from milk bottles. I don’t think these had anything printed on them. They were useless. Perhaps we used them in games requiring something like coins or poker chips.

Towers Funeral Home still stands. Its owner and director is Robert E. Towers. Now in his later sixties, he is the grown up version of the Bobby Towers I played with as a boy. When we were kids, the funeral home was the scene of secretive and scary doings. We’d sneak around the building that stored coffins, and Bobby would lead us through the spaces where embalmings were performed. What a place for hide-and-seek! I didn’t know it at the time, but the funeral home and surrounding land was once the estate of Ziegfield Follies dancer Gilda Gray.

Towers Photo

Of all the smells of memory – the sunshine, the South Shore salt air, the blended aromas of seafood and hot dogs inside of the Roadside Rest, the coal dust in the basement, the lemonade, the exhaust from the 1936 Buick before we got the 1950 Plymouth, the incredibly sweet lilac blooms in our back yard at 14 Amos Avenue – the most pungent and lasting is the smell of the formaldehyde from the innards of the funeral home. So strong, it lingers still as the preservative, the elixir, of these memories.

In the summer of 1954, we moved from Oceanside to Silver Spring, Maryland because the Voice of America headquarters moved from New York to Washington, D.C. That’s why these memories are so odd and precious. They are discontinuous with my later experiences of boyhood and young adulthood. Oceanside ends for me at the age of 12½. A complex web of place and friendships and daily routines was severed. Slowly, another took root.

I have no plan to return, to be a ghostly voyeur spying on my childhood self. But as I imaginatively breathe in those years, bordered by Kindergarten and 8th grade, I can’t help but ask myself the unanswerable what if?

Towers Map

[The few blocks from Amos Avenue — on the lower right — to Towers Funeral Home. The Church refered to is at the corner of Amos Avenue and Oceanside Road.]

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