Saturday, November 28, 2009


On the left is my great-grandfather Benjamin. I realized, when I set out to write a little bit of history, that I know next to nothing about him. The bare facts, only: he was my mother's paternal grandfather, born and raised in Russia, came to America by way of Ellis Island and set up a tailor's shop in Brooklyn. He spoke at least three languages fluently (Yiddish, Russian, and English). He must have had an accent. He was married to Manya, he had four children: my grandpa Max, my Great-Uncle Harold, and my great-aunts Libby and Tilly. He died early and tragically, before my mother was born, of his injuries a few days after he was hit by a car on Eastern Parkway.

My mother said he was known for being "austere, but likable."

I suppose I also know that as a young man, he was interested in grooming. Just look at those twirled mustaches, that oiled and rolled hair! He enjoyed a glance in the mirror... or two.

And I'll bet my life on some other things too: that he had a sense of humor (for his sons, both of them, were wickedly funny). That he had a sense of adventure (but then, didn't they all, who came over the long rough waters to Ellis Island). That he had a pervasive sense of gloom (for who in my family does not).

But as for the little details, they're lost to me: What was his favorite dinner? the colors he preferred in a suit? the song he hummed as he ran his sewing machine? the way he smelled and talked and moved his hands as he told a story?

for more tales of the ancestors, visit Poetikat, Alan Burnett, and Betsy (among others) on Sepia Saturday. And if you have an old sepia photo of your own, why not share it?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thankful, I Think!

I woke this morning at 5 a.m. to a strange feeling that I couldn't quite identify at first. I had to come fully awake to understand what it was...

And so, what was it? Unbelievably, it was an anticipation of the holiday, and I am so happy that I can't go back to sleep! I say "unbelievable" because I haven't experienced happy anticipation of Thanksgiving since I was a girl, and we used to go out to Long Island to my paternal grandparents' house in the suburbs--and my dad was alive, and my grandma and grandpa; and my sister and I would sneak m&ms from the enormous bowl set out in the livingroom, and everyone plus stragglers were arrayed around the dinner table--it was lively and the conversations raucous, then ebbing, then flowing and raucous again--and the relatives asked you about school and boyfriends, and there was a chocolate cornucopia in the middle of the table. We were all there and it was fun. So much fun!

Then there were the long fallow years, when Thanksgiving day was a little bit lonely, and alienating, and just made me miss the lost ones all the more.

Now suddenly it's different. I'm not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my sister-in-law (technically, my sister's sister-in-law, but we are close and I like to think of her as my own) and I were discussing the food we'll be bringing to my sister's house today. This conversation made me feel happier and happier. We are all good cooks, but I'm leaving it to the others to bring the special fancy dishes ( the brined turkey, the cranberry cornbread, the lovely homemade fruit pies). Sarge suggested that I contribute some white trash cooking in homage to my deep Kentucky roots on my dad's side (yes, I have some Southern Baptist in me!) and to his Texas roots on his mother's side. So my contributions will be ambrosia "salad," frito pie, and green bean casserole. So much fun to make and fun to eat, so quintessentially and generically American, nary a fresh ingredient in the lot.

I shopped for the dubiously tinned and frozen ingredients, and last night, late, I made the Ambrosia, and this morning opened the fridge to lay witness to the fluffy, sweet, pale green clouds of it, nesting in my huge bright blue bowl, ready to go. It took up most of the entire bottom shelf. There was a tell-tale dent where Sarge must have put serving spoon to its depths--just to test it, I suppose. But the bounty remains largely untrammelled and expectantly awaiting the good times ahead.

Sometimes it's wonderful just to let go of existential brooding and let yourself feel the lightness of pure, mellow, childlike satisfaction. I realize that I haven't let myself do that in a very long time, not about anything. My spirit is often burdened with memory and worry. But not today. Not today!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

...there grew a golden tree...

Hedgehog is a special girl, serene-looking, waist-length straight hair and fine posture, lovely and composed and well-behaved in school. She reads widely and seriously--an ongoing favorite is Tolkien, which she studies in bed at night like a bible. So when she was assigned to choose a poem or a song to present in class, I was not surprised that she picked Galadriel's Farewell to Lorien, from "The Fellowship of the Ring":

I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold,
and leaves of gold there grew.
Of wind I sang, a wind there came
and in the branches blew.
Beyond the sun, beyond the moon,
the foam was on the sea,
and by the strand of Ilmarin
there grew a golden tree...

and it goes on from there, and of course I had tears in my eyes when she sang it to me, in made-up tune and a little off-key, because she herself is so very Elven (in the Tolkien sense--graceful, brave, upright, and otherworldly) and because I am amazed by her all the time.

Hedgehog is a good girl, but as I've said before, she seems to have an affinity for a certain type of boy...

The afternoon of her presentation, when I asked her how it went, she was much much more interested in telling me about this year's naughty boy (there's always one, isn't there) who brought in lyrics with curse words, and how the teachers told him that he couldn't read them aloud in class.

What was the song? I inquired with great avidity.

She started to giggle, It was the Beastie Boys, Mama.

Ah, I replied. Most of their songs have bad words in them. So which song was it?

My Elven 3rd grader, who recites elegies to lost worlds and worships the beauty of Old English, began to stagger under the weight of her laughter, overcome with the wonderfulness of being bad.

So? Tell me! I demanded.

She was practically falling down with hilarity.

Finally she squeaked out, but with precision:

"B-Boys Makin' with the Freak Freak!"

Oh, indeed. B-boys makin with the freak freak. I could see it all so clearly: as Hedgehog stood to the side and watched in delight, clutching her own poem like a talisman, the bad little boy rode those words in a glory of naughtiness, at least equal in daring and boldness to the heroes of Middle Earth!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bloggy Hiatus

Hey sweet readers!

Going on a vacation from the interwebs--hopefully it'll be salubrious--


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

La Boue de Verdun

The last WWII veteran in my family, my dear Uncle Harold, died several years ago. With the passing of the generations goes too the immediacy of the wars of their generations. I have never had visceral experience, not even on the home front; only what was told to me by those who fought, and whose fathers, brothers, and uncles fought: the letters, stories, and memories that offer only hints of what it was like for them.

We live in wartime, but many of us are so removed from the fighting on foreign soil that it doesn't affect our daily lives, except in the political arguments we sometimes engage in from our safe distance. Yet, I know that for many other families here in America, of course, there is not this remove, and their loved ones are "over there." That Sarge, were it not for an accident of age, would have served.

When Sarge and I visited Paris, we spent some hours at the Musee de l'Armee at Les Invalides, where we found a strange little exhibit, an old WWI French Army uniform resting in a glass case. It appeared to be completely caked in dirt. When I bent to read the plaque, I saw that it said, simply, "La Boue de Verdun," the mud of Verdun. I will always think of that uniform, displayed in a corner behind glass, a tangible remnant of the fear, suffering, and the bravery. He was covered in battle, and he saved that muddy uniform carefully for so many many years, and although I don't remember the soldier's name, I remember today that mud, and think of him.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Psychic Hangover

I have come to the grim conclusion that it is not necessarily salubrious to go delving into the dark parts of one's psychological past, especially when one is prone anyway to fits of black gloom. When I was younger, I liked to air the details of the more peculiar aspects of my childhood, to myself in my journals and to any willing live audience. Looking back, I think it was a bit of showing off: my life was like a book, and I the romantic protagonist. I had created a new genre: European Jewish Gothic. It suited me perfectly.

Over the last week, though, I've come to think that revisiting the pain was, shall we put it mildly, most unhelpful. Although I announced to Sarge last Wednesday, after I'd finished with staring at the photos of my old home and writing my last post, that I'd achieved a major catharsis. I stood in front of him and proclaimed it with joy and relief, "Sarge, I just had a catharsis!" to which he replied, skeptically I venture, "really? So you're purged of your weird feelings about Henry Street?" to which I replied, "Yes! I have no weird feelings left in me!"

It turns out that this was not the case (as Sarge had sussed out even in the face of my grand optimism) and in fact, far from achieving catharsis, I have actually dredged up no small amount of sadness and discomfort. You can't imagine how disappointing that is.

All my study of psychology (I even have a higher degree in the field!) has not, apparently, led me to a place of peace and understanding. Just when I think I've begun to understand myself, I find that I'm plain wrong. My past, it seems, is better left in the heavy safe that is locked, combination forgotten or deliberately lost, and stowed deep deep down in my subconscious--or better still, my unconscious. There, stripped of its uncomfortable realness, its metaphor acquires a certain lightness (a paradox, I know, but for me it's true). Let's just say that I feel better when I don't eat such a heavy meal of details.

So here I sit, paralyzed with feelings, the fog of depression clouding my spirit. A pox on my last post.

My current unfortunate state can be summed up in Nigel Tufnel's line from Spinal Tap: "Like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none: none more black."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Castle

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, there were two sisters with brown eyes and brown hair that they wore in braids, and hand-me-down dresses and scuffed Keds. These girls lived in a very very old castle in Brooklyn with their grandparents, the Patriarch and Matriarch, and their parents. In those days, the regular people, the Russian immigrants and working-class Jews, the teachers and tailors, could live in castles in Brooklyn just because that's the way things were.

This castle was five stories high, and its windows and brick front gazed down on Henry Street where it sat, well-mannered, the street a parlor and the house foundation a silk settee, its stoop the polished mahogany tea table where it entertained an always-varying assortment of guests.

In the walls of the castle, the light was dim, and the air was heavy and smelled of old old things that couldn't be named. The castle had ghosts, too, and a cold spot at the top of the first flight of stairs, so that sometimes when the girls passed there, it felt like walking through lakewater, and they shivered.

In the castle, they lived their lives. They ran up and down the five flights of stairs; they shouted to each other leaning over the bannisters, floors apart; they played in the attic, the old servants' quarters, where no one else ever went anymore, and wore the clothes of their recent ancestors (the dead foxes with faces, the red chiffon nightclub dresses, the pillbox hats).

They slept in iron beds with dancing friezes molded on the headboards, under fancy bedspreads, painstakingly crocheted by the Matriarch. The nights in the castle felt sometimes long and dark, and were full of little noises, and often the sisters would reach out to hold hands across the wide yawning chasm between the beds.

Though the castle was not very cozy, it was their home.

But there came at last a time when a wicked glamour fell over the inhabitants of the castle, though no one knew who had cast the glamour, and the people who lived in the castle wondered continually "why us?" Many sad things began to happen to them. Some died, terribly, and some went mad from grief, and there was bitterness and there were complicated betrayals of the worst sort, one after another after another, like a delicate stack of falling cards. Through it all, the two little girls watched and waited and worried, to see what might become of them.

When there were only three left out of all of them, it happened finally that the little girls and their mother had to leave, and a family of strangers moved into the castle at Henry Street.

The sisters grieved their losses, and it was a very hard and long grief, until finally they could go on and grow up.

But the dreams never stopped, and often to this very day the older sister wakes in the grey dawn in her own house, beside her own husband, confused, not remembering where she is, because all night long she has been walking up and down the stairs of Henry Street, and wandering in and out of its kitchens, catching a pale glimpse of herself in its windows and mirrors, and talking with the dead Matriarch and Patriarch, who seem to sit forever at their dining table, drinking their forever cups of tea and eating their forever toast, and waiting for her to come back to them.

And to this very day, she keeps a strangely shaped key on a sterling chain, the key that fits that door, the door to my castle.

All photos of my childhood home taken by my grandfather, Max Pollack

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A New Post, about Nothing.

You know when you don't have much to say? And you want to say it anyway?

I've got nothing at all clever, or even particularly interesting today. I just wanted to post over the spirit pictures below, as Halloween is over and my little girl is back to being a little girl rather than a chiffon shade.

Yesterday was Sarge's birthday, and he's on vacation. I took Hedgie to school and we spent a quiet day together, just hanging out. Nothing exciting, just hanging out. I watched him wander the nuclear wasteland in "Fallout." We listened to Flamenco music for an hour, then to bazouki music and he grew nostalgic for his upbringing. We had lunch together--raiding the fridge for leftovers. I baked him a chocolate cake. We did three loads of laundry and he folded, very nicely I might add. We watched some Monty Python--you know that obscene sex education skit, the one that always makes me blush and cackle at the same time. We spent a long time discussing how to keep Hedgie grounded even though she attends a school full of uber-wealthy, silver-spoon children and we live modestly. I begged him to write me a "meme" to post and he refused. I knitted and he pottered.

Then he left to pick up Hedgie from her cello lesson, and to grab take-out burgers and french fries, a delight that I don't often indulge in. They returned home for presents and cake, and Looney Tunes, and after that, in true Victorian dinner party fashion, Hedgie gave us a cello demonstration, and we were amazed at her good tone--no squeaking and screeching!--and then she gave Sarge a little lesson, laughing as he hunched over her quarter-sized cello.

That was my day. And this was my post. Oh and I left out the very private bits because I am nothing if not circumspect.