Long Day’s Journey

I am 73 years old. That astonishes me, because in vast areas of my mental chronicles and cartographies, I am so much younger. I can still smell the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey when I was 9— ocean, sweat, and the sharp tang of Coppertone suntan oil.

I am the youngest of three kids, not old enough to leave at home alone. The upholstery on the back seat of Dad’s Nash feels like a winter coat and smells like my mother’s Pall Mall cigarettes. “Come with us to visit your grandmother, Dottie.”  A broken snow chain on a back tire clips the rear bumper, so I pretend we are in a horse-drawn sleigh clopping across the countryside to my Pennsylvania Dutch relatives.

Someone jostles past me in the cafeteria at Temple University in 1963 to reach a back table of athletes; loud cheers break out. It’s Bill Cosby, a few days after his initial appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

Pain slices my guts in the labor room at Jefferson Hospital. This is my first child; I know absolutely nothing about babies! I’m 31, terrified, tired beyond belief, and my husband Anthony wakes, head resting at the bottom of the gurney. “Can I help you?” Exhausted from just finishing laying new tile on the floor of our house, he is out of the action here, not necessary, and asks only because he feels obliged to.

Now, looking at that child as she approaches middle-age, I glimpse a country where I have no rights, no citizenship, only a visa that affords diplomatic courtesies. That was a country I once laid claim to, waged wars to preserve, and dedicated whole treasuries to maintaining.

This new landscape—the country of Seventy—is frightening in its own unique ways. Forgetting why I entered a room, or the name of an actress (the one in that movie that so affected us when we saw it how many years ago?). Worse, for a writer, having to use a damned computer dictionary to find a synonym that would have leapt unbidden from the keys a few years ago, or spelling that wretched word bureaucrat without Microsoft Word throwing a hissy fit.

This Seventy is also a land with leaking borders. Not an “illegal immigrants”  or a “barbarians-at-the-gate” kind of leak. These marauders know me intimately: knees whose piercing pain tell me all the cushion has worn away and needs to be replaced; vertebrae that grind when bending; and eyes that close while reading my favorite author because fatigue swoops down. And sudden realizations that I have been misled, or stupid.

It has taken over 70 years to reach a point where I can finally see the lay of my land, beyond the confines of other people’s interpretations, other persons’ maps. As if I were standing on a ledge, I can see where my borders have been broken, infiltrated, or obliterated long ago. Where I allowed incursions because others demanded my attention, lied to me about duty, or refused to take responsibility for themselves.

I finally understand that what I see, what I feel, is as valid and deserving of consideration as the next person’s explanation. Perhaps I am not as singularly odd as I have always thought.

Perhaps I can finally say I allow you to go here, but no farther.

What is the difference between being merely naïve and overtly gullible? Between the childhood mandate to obey without question or hesitation, and the need to believe in both compassion and truth? How long did it take before I could stop denying the reality I knew for the manipulations others devised, and to have the courage to weigh their actions against their words?

Most of my life.

Takeout

I am balancing myself on the sidewalk—a narrow, icy path shoveled between piles of snow along Arch Street. I forgot to change into boots at the Convention Center, so I am wearing well-worn sneakers that slip on the slush. It’s February, 1996, in the middle of what will be known as the worst blizzard ever in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My husband, Tony, is showing and marketing his handmade sterling silver tableware and jewelry at the Buyers Market of American Crafts show.  It is also the week of the Chinese New Year, and I’m one street behind the Convention Center, getting takeout.
I’ve always liked Philly’s Chinatown, a dense core of restaurants, shops, and residences covering about seven city blocks. When we first met in 1963, Tony introduced me to the South China Restaurant, which stayed open until 2 or 3 a.m. Lots of artists gathered there, not all of them choosing from Column A ($1.95), B ($2.95), or C ($3.95—a feast at that time). Besides being cheap (each meal included wonton soup, tea, and fried noodles), the waiters were no more testy than those in other places. Wesley, the jeweler and metalsmith with whom Tony was apprenticing, and Manny, who cast their wax carvings into silver and gold, would sometimes order in Cantonese, which upset the waiters even more because then they had to watch what they said around these hairy white dudes.

The 1990s have had an economic “push” for all us former flower children, and Chinatown thrives as well. People of many other Asian ethnicities (such as Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese) have spread into this area as well as into South Philly, where we live, so the question of getting “takeout” for the several people helping us is as problematic as my balance. Tony wants Singapore noodles from Lou’s Imperial Inn, while Doug (our apprentice) wants Thai spiced yellow curry rice and pork from Bangkok Cuisine. Chuckie wants only chow mein. I just want wonton soup, maybe a gallon of it, because the cold that numbs my toes is rapidly creeping upwards.

The Imperial Inn is a whole block north of me, and Bangkok Cuisine two blocks east. On every block, banners and decorations festoon the buildings, all red and gold and glittering, to welcome the New Year. Teenage boys set off firecrackers that will chase away evil spirits and guarantee good luck and fortune in the coming year. They are also having great fun scaring pedestrians and conventioneers. I suspect these same kids shoveled the paths on the sidewalks—a skinny track that you had to pick your way through one person at a time.

I am terrified of firecrackers. As a kid the blast debris of a cherry bomb hit my leg, causing scorch pockmarks that hurt like hell for a week. I need to get through this gauntlet without breaking a leg on ice while evading exploding packs of firecrackers.  And then I see it, just across the street and to the right: Mr. Wong’s  “Nine Nineteen” restaurant, the answer to my dilemma.

Mr. Wong is the epitome of a shrewd business man. His restaurant, the Nine Nineteen, is so clean that it was the only place we ate when our kids were little and needed to potty. (That was the single criterion for my choice of eatery, anywhere, for several years.) And when my youngest at two managed to flip a dish of noodles onto his head as he scrambled up to his seat, a waitress provided cloth napkins to help clean him up.

Wong thoroughly understands that his customers are Americans, not epicures, who wouldn’t know authentic Chinese food from that of a corner hot dog vendor. Nor would they want to. And as a founding member and chief of the “Chinese Benevolent Association,” no one dares to cause a problem in his restaurant. Once when, late at night, a group of rowdy bikers started to harass a young waiter, Chuckie and his brother asked: “Eh, Mr. Wong, you need help with this situation?” Even as Wong deferred, three limber, muscled Asian youths appeared at the door—Wong had already called the Benevolent Association.

Across the street then, and the entire block is shoveled and salted in front of Nine Nineteen. All the banners and dragon trims are flying, but no packs of firecrackers are exploding from the fixtures. And two fit Asian youths stand at either side of the door, discouraging teenage boys with mischief in their pockets.

Chuckie has his chow mein, Tony has General Tso’s chicken instead of Singapore noodles, and Doug has something with three stars denoting how very spicy it is. And I have my soup, my fingers curled around the paper container, tips melting with the warmth. Now if only our luck holds out in silver sales.

Trying to Avoid Despair

A Letter to My Grandson, December 3, 2015

Yesterday your mother called me, and we talked about how terrible this mass shooting in San Bernardino made her feel—almost hopeless and despairing, much because of her love for you. Then she said she remembered her father talking about how people have persisted through the terrible history of tragedies wrought on humans by other humans.

I was born in June, 1943. That month, three major race riots occurred, two were white against black and one was white against hispanic. The Allies made major advances in Europe and the Pacific arena, while Nazis continued to wipe out whole populations by sending them to death camps. That war ended in 1945.

When I was 7, the Korean War began in 1950, and “ended” when I was 10, with more than 4 million dead and missing on both sides (give or take a few thousand here and there).

In elementary school, we practiced hiding under our desks to protect ourselves if a nuclear bomb struck during the Cold War. In high school, we learned that would be useless and we should just pray. In college, I watched John Kennedy on TV bring us to the brink of nuclear destruction with his ultimatum over the “Cuban Crisis.”

Pop and I have lived through the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, as well as race riots and police dropping an actual bomb on a house in Philadelphia.

When I became pregnant with your mother, the Viet Nam war was still going on, ending in 1975 with 3 million people dead from 7 million tons of bombs and 2 billion bucks spent for everything. I know many people whose lives were impacted terribly by that war, including my brother Joe’s.

So while we have not been physically injured by violence, we have seen it again and again and were scared. Scared we would be hurt, or our kids, or you. Scared by all the angry people who believe there is only one way to live or one kind of people who should be allowed to live. Scared by people who believe that even more guns are the solution to violence. And especially scared for people who want to give up, who think life is worthless because they think the violence will never stop.

As a species, we have prevailed despite this violence against ourselves. We took a long time to evolve into a species that can think beyond the simple imperative of “fight or flight” to survive, a species that can imagine a future beyond terror. John Steinbeck in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, wrote:

“Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, and emerges ahead of his accomplishments.”

So believe, Odin, in yourself, and in the power of compassion.

 

All my love to you.

Captain Starn’s Restaurant

I just found an old, old picture of my family at dinner at Captain Starn’s restaurant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, circa 1949. A roving photographer went from table to table, offering packages of black and white prints in various sizes, even on packs of matches. This must have been a special occasion, because my parents did not spend money on such frivolities. And, remarkably, everyone is smiling, except for Mom Mom Boyle, who never did.

I am, at six years old, the winsome urchin at the bottom right, wearing a plaid wool dress that I can still remember 70 years later for its malignant itch. The boy on the left wearing the captain’s hat is my brother Joe, the handsomest, most knowledgeable young man of ten on the face of the earth. My mother (who closed her eyes whenever a flash picture was taken) sits next to him, and the young woman next to her is my sister Barbara, just turned 12, already bosomed and beaming. Dad, with rare contentment on his face, sits between her and Mom Mom.

I cannot remember why we are all there, smiling and happy. Perhaps we had just gotten that funny green Chevy coup with black running boards that I vaguely recall, because we did not often go out to dinner, much less as far from Philly as Atlantic City. Mom loved to take car rides, so the acquisition of an automobile might have been the cause of this celebration. If so, the presence of Mom Mom would be a plus, giving her evidence our growing wealth.

The restaurant opened in 1940 by Clarence Starn. Built on an inlet at the end of a boardwalk, the Starn emporium included boats for hire, deep-sea fishing boats, a sailboat, and excursion boats for sightseeing. Behind the restaurant were open fish and lobster tanks, an enclosure where for 15 cents one could feed the seals, a fish market, and a shell shop.

I loved the shore and the ocean smell, but not the restaurant much. I had to sit still for a very long time, and Mom always ordered for me, usually something less expensive. A Starn’s menu from that time shows prices for full dinners (potatoes, mashed or fried; lettuce and tomato; coleslaw; and hot rolls included) ranging from $2.25 for baked crabmeat to $3.75 for lobster tail. I probably got the baked crabmeat for $2.25, lots of filler, and maybe a tough slip of membrane, like cellophane, that I have to mouth out with my tongue and lips.

The room is loud with conversations and the chink of dishes and plates levered up and down by the waitresses (all women here, the maître de a middle-aged man of good posture and manners, but never snooty nor swishy, and the bus boys all working after school). Everyone is white. Sudden quiet after the loud crash of a slipped platter, but talk quickly resumes.

The ocean-side windows are cranked open for the breeze, but not the shore-side, to avoid blusters of sand, though when Dad orders oysters and the three of us make yucky noises, he might crunch a little grit. Mom snorts, and he gets a little pissed, because after all it’s good food, and what are we all making fun of?

* * *

            Starn’s closed in ’79, during the heyday of casino-building in Atlantic City. Tourists sought the ka-ching of slots and the bargain meals offered to Philly bus tourists by the marketing people of Resorts and Ceasar’s. People not interested in glam went to Cape May for its newly renovated Victorian charm, quaint boutiques, and quiet, or to Wildwood for its amusement piers, wide beach, and adolescent activities. The Starn heirs took the offer of a casino developer and gutted the building; the project fell through, nothing was built nor anything paid to them.

Now Starn’s is a desolate lot, everything gone, even the boardwalk and all the supporting structures. Not unlike my family in that picture, which might be considered the height of our happiness: Dad pleased with his promotion, not yet restricted by his lack of a college degree; Barbara looking forward to adulthood, not yet shunned by her peers for her cerebral palsy spasticity; Joey proud of his talent in the church choir, his voice not cracked and himself not yet ostracized by his homosexuality; and Mom with her home, her white neighborhood, not yet panicked by changing demographics to move to a suburban neighborhood they can ill-afford or compete socially in. Mom Mom with her scathing tongue and ancient rage hasn’t moved in with us yet. And me, believing for a very long time—too long, actually—that we loved each other unconditionally, would treat each other gently, without jealousy, and never, ever, lie to each other, because that’s what the “Baltimore Catechism” and the nuns taught. Because that’s how a family was meant to be.

Then it all dissolved, like Starn’s, in a swirl of time, an eddy of tears, and hurricanes of dashed ambition.

 

 

Perkiomen Creek

We walk toward the creek—Dad and me. It’s September, going into autumn and we are visiting Grandmom Tilly’s and Pop’s newly built house in Oaks.

Tilly and Pop have moved up from Swampoodle, a section of North Philadelphia near 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue. They lived there for a long time, while my grandfather ran his one-horse dairy distribution around the area and my grandmother, a candy store in the front of their corner row home. He sold the dairy route to Abbotts Dairies, took a job as a night watchman in a factory in Oaks, and had the house built.

Dad is excited about Tilly’s new house. It’s just down the gravel road from her brother Ed’s small farm and across the other road from her sister Ida.

Uncle Ed is a Mennonite; he wears overalls and a blue shirt to work the small fields around his house. Tilly converted to Catholicism to marry my grandfather Bernhard Haitz, but Ida doesn’t belong to any church, really. Ida is an old lady with white hair. She lives in a big house with her daughter Beets and her family. I don’t know Beets much, or why she has such a funny name.

Uncle Ed Litka doesn’t talk to Dad; he thumps a steel pail on the back porch and shouts to Tilly that “the bucket of corn’s here.” Then he stomps down the three steps and back to his house. On the way here in the car, Dad told us that Uncle Ed had 18 kids and each kid had a horse—that was a long time ago. Mom snorted with laughter.

After dinner, while Mom and Aunt Lennea clean up the dishes, Dad says he wants to take a short trip over to the Perkiomen Creek. He used to fish there when he was young and came up to visit Uncle Ed with Tilly and Pop. “Come on, Joey, you’ll like it.” But Joey doesn’t want to go.

I see Dad’s disappointment. He really likes this place, out of the city, the sharp smell of newly plowed earth in the fields, the trees and birds and space. I smell something sharp; Dad says it’s the damp cement and stone and stucco that the house hasn’t blown off yet, and the musty stench of Tilly’s dog Sparky. I wish I had a dog.

I jump up and say I want to go for a walk, and he gets my coat. Mom tells me I better not get my dress muddy. I hate dresses. But I promise and we leave.

We don’t have a lot of time; Mom had given Dad one of her looks. She’s uncomfortable around Tilly. In fact, she doesn’t like any of the “upcountry” relatives much. Well, I don’t think they like her much either.

Then I am THERE. In the smell of it—river and mud and grass on the bank. I am sunlight tripping through willow leaves in the current. I am the willow’s wrinkled bark and a butterfly dipping at dandelions. I am here in a way I have never felt before. I belong. I am not an outsider here.

I want to keep this, maybe draw a picture of it, to have it forever.

Dad understands. He is with me, a smile brushing his face, as he just stands there, remembering. We are in this together here, him and me, and there is no strife, no arguing.

No talk at all.

Dad and me, and this world of ripples and trills.

The Fixer

The Fixer

The Book of Knowledge, 47 volumes in a mildewed cardboard box. I had no option but to throw it out: it was 30 years out of date, and not a collectable item like the 1910 Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that shared the glass-door barrister bookcase. It wouldn’t do my kids any good in 1980, but these books had been dear companions when I was a kid. I would search the spines to decide which new subject I could bury myself in if I couldn’t find a playmate or to block out Mom and Dad’s arguments. Several elementary school projects were based on information I found there.

The volumes were heavy; it took three armloads to trudge them to the growing trash pile. They would be useless for a garage sale. A friend of mine wanted the 1910 Encyclopedia, with its essays by the giants of the new century: William and Henry James, Swinburne, Muir, Huxley, and Rossetti. All that intellectual thought, with the maps and boundaries and monarchies taking their tattered last bows before the turmoil of World War I tore through both playbill and audience.

We sold the bookcase through Freeman Antiques. It brought a good price. The wood was almost black with years of wax polish. It had sat near the front door in our little living room on Sedgewick Street near a secretary desk. With this and the upright piano, I guess visitors thought we were cultured, but we weren’t. I can’t recall anyone reading to me as a kid, even from my sister’s Honey Bunch books, not very different from the Dick and Jane books.

When I was about six years old I opened our front door and stepped onto a swarm of termites boiling up from under that bookcase on the wood floor. I screamed and ran behind a chair to hide, leaving the door open. Just then Mom came back from Keiter’s grocery, and I kept

Up those steps and through that door into thousands of migrating termites!

crying “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it” as she walked in. How did all those bugs get there? Did they follow me?

This massive infestation developed right beneath, in Dad’s big workbench in the basement. It took a long time for me to understand that it was not my fault.

Other items that we removed from the garage included musty boxes of saved screws, nuts, bolts, nails, and rusted old tools; pieces of moulded wood or coping; a box of broken crayon pieces from my childhood; a pane of window glass wrapped in flaking yellowed newspaper dated 1933—everything preserved for “just in case.”

My husband and I were clearing out my parents’ house because my mother had moved my dad to a nursing home and herself to an apartment. The house was up for sale. Neither my brother nor my sister wanted this responsibility, and I was local. Besides, they were my parents, and I believed I had a duty to care for them. To pay them back for my upbringing. That is what a child does. It’s what I did, because in my family, in my entire life, I have been “The Fixer.”

* * *
The dictionary that came with my Mac laptop defines a “fixer” as a person who makes arrangements for other people, especially of an illicit or devious kind. As a kid I arranged things so Dad could avoid or work through confrontations with my mother, and I resettled him into a reliable nursing home. He poured his bouts of despair into my ears from the time I was ten until he died, and when his body gave up on him, I was the one who gave the doctor permission to withhold all but palliative treatment. I knew it was the “final solution,” but I was the only one who cared enough to give him some relief.

As a kid I listened to my sister’s despair and worried over my brother, though I couldn’t assist them personally either then or as an adult. I financially supported my husband Tony and our family while he finished his undergraduate and graduate studies and when his compensated work was sporadic. Together we worked the art and crafts circuit, setting up and breaking down tents and booths and spending long hours at our displays. When post-polio syndrome removed his control over his legs, I assisted his shift to full-time use of a wheelchair and then worked out an agreement with my brother so we could move to a snow-free accessible environment.

When my daughter became involved with a string of abusive men in her early adulthood, I was there, often physically but always emotionally and frequently financially. I diverted a small monthly pension payment to her and her son while she went to a vocational school after her divorce, and together with my husband helped to raise our grandson when she worked night shifts for several years.

And as a copy editor for 50 years, I have fixed hundreds of manuscripts and proofs.

Now I need to fix me: writing for myself, learning what I missed in school, and helping us survive a revival of fascism in a society whose decisions I cannot understand.

* * *

Tony and I held a garage sale for much of my parents’ stuff. After a whole day, we had amassed only $160.

I have no passion for antiquing.

Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

     I discovered this song on November 9, the day that Leonard Cohen, and my hopes for the presidential election of 2016, died. It was so difficult to believe that so many people could vote for the lies, mysogny, and racism of Trump. Of course, the volumes that have been and will be written about it will slide toward infinity.

I cannot spend more time or energy thinking about it, except to say that this odd little song gives me hope. I remember seeing the movie Sansom and Delilah when I was a kid, and how, after realizing she had betrayed him, he found enough strength to pull down the palace around him. What a funny, silly movie, but Victure Mature, his muscles straining, was magnificent to my young mind. Yes, I thought. Yes.

So, even if it all falls down around us, if it all goes to shit, I can still find room to say I did my best, it wasn’t much and that is why I can stand and say Hallelujah, for myself and for those I love.

Thanks Leonarda-sansom

The Metalsmith

for A: husband, artist, polio survivor

In the tick, click, tick on tile

the brace nicks and crutches thump.

Iron strips stiffen the upper lip of bone.

Hammer life down cold,

quench the buckling heat

of shame and pain

to steel.

 

To steal—to step up,

to get up, move on, forge

two minds to one. Fuse seams

then crack the mold. Fashion bodies

in a bold line raw.

 

Together we polished through urban grit

and desert blows. Dented,

scoured, yet still I know

that tick, the mechanical click,

the pitch that sounds you—

you are my gold.

 

Story Telling

Last year I was astonished to see how many blogs I frequent gave synopses and/or critiques of Game of Thrones. Then I noticed how many referred to the story lines of Breaking Bad and Walking Dead, with further comments about how the show’s writers were going with the story line. As if they were movie reviews. Or, god help us, book reviews. Surveys of viewer reactions. Social commentary.

 

Then I saw how some of my “friends” on Facebook said they were binging on certain series with streaming subscriptions. How my husband, once we got Apple TV and Netflix and HBO and shut down cable TV, watched every episode of Sopranos. I’m not innocent either—I binge-watched Carnivale because I could never it figure out when we sporadically rented episodes on DVD.

 

I binge-listen to audiobooks. I love the performance values, the writing, the stories. I have listened to every recorded episode of the Cadfael books by Ellis Peters; Gabriel Allon by Daniel Silva; Cork O’Conner by William Kent Krueger; The Camel Club, Will Robie, and King and Maxwell series by David Baldacci; Amelia Peabody by Elizabeth Peters; Lewis Trilogy, Enzo, and Chinese Thrillers by Peter May; Shardlake by C.J. Sansom; Tony Hill by Val McDermid; The Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell; and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I’ve also subscribed to the streaming series of Outlander on STARZ.

 

So rather than waiting for the weekly episodes of I Love Lucy or Maude, among so many hundreds of others, we can now watch as stories develop in one continuous framework or listen to multiple book releases. Again and again.

 

Why is story telling important to us? I think it is very simple: story telling connects us to other human beings. We might, in the end, be described as no more than a few minerals floating in a bag of fluids, but that “bag” is a singular intellect, always seeking how to proceed in the world, how to put life in context to make sense of the past and to hope in the future. A story  not only entertains us, but gives us information and an emotional  connection outside our skin, beyond touch or voice. It’s who we are and who we want to be. We experience through another’s experience, which consolidates learning far more effectively than mere rote memorization of facts. It’s why story tellers have been revered or despised throughout human history from its beginnings. Why we spend so many hours around the “fires” of our screens every day and night, listening.