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.