Thursday, December 23, 2010

I know it is so wrong to post this but I can't help myself and besides I'm Jewish, right? so it doesn't really matter anyway...

My annual Krampus post.

Not that I don't want you to celebrate Christmas with great joy, if you do celebrate, and enjoy the heck out of the sweet warm smell of cookies baking and watch the little gleam in your loved one's eyes from the reflected light of your fragrant tree...and revel in the bittersweet holy music of midnight mass...and hold your children close...I mean all that, my friends


the short cold days and long, cold, dark nights send me to a wrong place, where I think a little too long and hard on fetishes and bad behavior and the strange cruelties people act out on each other, sometimes in meanness and sometimes in delight--how my pain is his pleasure, and my pleasure is his pain--understand now that I mean "he" in a general sense, but I didn't need to tell you that did I?--how sometimes the joke that seems so wrong to one person is the funniest thing in the world to another--how my absolutist tendencies break down during the Solstice, to make room for dreadful imaginings that I admit to liking.

I'm only a little odd really. Whether it's swaddled and smothered and repressed in a cozy psychic sweater, or whether we take it out and examine it from time to time, the darkness is alive in us all I think.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Little Push

Sometimes ghost stories happen in broad daylight. Apparitions appear in sunshine, their edges ruffled by a cold wind that springs from nowhere, on a city street.

It's happened a couple of times lately. This week, doing errands in the afternoon. I felt a push; a hand on my back, deliberately pushing. I stumbled, turned around. Not a soul in sight near me. No one anywhere, for half a block in each direction. Just me and the push. Not hostile, exactly, that push. But not exactly friendly either.

Then again, lying in bed, on my side, drifting sleep-wards. The hand on my back. All fingers against me, clearly palpable. And the push.


Friday, December 3, 2010


By the time I met Liba, she was no longer the girl with the huge dimpled smile and dark tangled hair. She was Great-Aunt Libby, teeny-tiny and very very old. Libby had always been a fine seamstress, and in her 90s, nearly blind, she continued to sew, though in the end her creations ran less to fine fitted garments. My sister and I treasured the collection of simple elastic-gathered little skirts she sent us in frequent batches. What she lacked in fine motor coordination and eyesight, she made up for in choice of fabric--wild, busy, bright and sometimes startling. My most favorite Aunt Libby skirt was of improbably plush faux-leopard skin. I study the clothes in these pictures now, see how stylish and whimsical she was once, and I can imagine that she knew, even in extreme old age, just what would bring delight.

No doubt about it, she was a grand girl. I notice now, too, how there is something about her expression: a passing shadow, a quality of secrecy, common to all the Pollack family; though possibly you wouldn't see it, unless you knew to look.

find more links to wonderful Sepia Saturday reminiscences here.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Magpie Tales

In a Clearing in the Cemetery I Found a Broken Stone

I've been wondering:
who now alive remembers
the words that told your life?

I lift the branch, look:
moondrift light, a dry light breath,
a stone set adrift
in the dry leaf-sea clearing
You were written, read, erased.

(Sarge and I wrote this together. It was fun!)
find more Magpie Tales here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


I started to worry that people might think I'd shut them out of my blog, so I'm taking the block off while I figure out what to do with it.

The Weather in the Streets is stormy, literally and figuratively. You know how it goes...

I am more cheerful here, though:

Yarn Ends

xo Leah

Friday, September 10, 2010

Darkling Plain

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night

--Matthew Arnold, from "Dover Beach," 1867

visit Sarge's September 11, 2009 post here

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Jew Girl

This is my Roumanian cousin; her name and story, both lost, though I believe she died in the Holocaust.

A Jew Girl, like me.

Upstate New York, at puppy class, I stood next to the corpulent, ruddy man, each of us with our dogs--his an improbable yappy "morkie." He told me with an eye roll that his wife had picked it at the puppy shop, lest, I suppose, I should believe he'd emasculated himself deliberately. I had the manly hunting dog, handsome hound Remus. I know he wished we could swap dogs.

He asked me "where in Brooklyn you from?" and told me he had been a truck driver, often delivering to Flushing, Queens. He hated, he said, to make deliveries there. Because, you know, those people ran the warehouse there, "those people of the Jewish persuasion," his lip lifted in a wet sneer, his face too close to mine.

I looked at him.

"You know," I said mildly. "I'm Jewish."

He flushed a dark, ugly red.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean anything by it. You've gotta understand, I didn't mean you anyway. I meant those ones, you know, the ones with the weird beards. But not you."

I was tempted to stomp on his foot, tempted to pull my blonde hair back from my forehead and show him my horns, tempted to curse him with a very evil Yiddish curse and spit on the ground in front of him.

But I did none of those things, thinking of Ella, and myself, and then for a moment, in an unexpectedly clear memory-flash, of the beautiful nameless Roumanian cousin...

...horned, hook-nosed, sheydl-wearing, stingy money-horder, smelling of pickles and the Old Country, praying in a language that no one understands, that keeps me separate and strange...

Jew Girl.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Passing

our memorial garden where I sit and knit and watch the passing shadows

It never really changes in the Adirondacks, though summer concedes, early, to fall, and then all goes to cold, and snow, and howling winds...and back again. The samenesses of Julys and Augusts for all the generations I can think of and all those to come...tart blueberries dropping in a pail held by some child or other, startling fragrance of the lemon lilies, glinting sharp sun darts caught in the little ripples of a little lake...and mountains, soft and primeval, sloping from sky to water as great sleeping beasts might, in a dream of great beasts.

Late August is often a sad time for me. The crows fly low, muted. The dark, though not bitter yet, comes sooner each day, minute by lost minute. Leaves fall through the raindrops, bright and dead...

And my little girl grows up, and summer ebbs in diffuse light through ancient pines, that were here before me and will be here still, long after I'm gone.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Baby Carriage

Mom in the baby carriage, 1945
click to enlarge

I played sometimes on the fifth floor of the Castle, high above the streets of Brooklyn, in the old servants' quarters.

Sometimes I lit a ghost fire in the long-unused fireplace there, kneeling at the marble hearth to warm myself in its phantom flames.

I peeked into the bathroom, at the enormous claw-foot tub under a steeply slanting ceiling, or into the china storage room, where I liked to imagine the sound of dinner parties, the laughter and conversation, the clink of glass against glass.

I would dare myself to enter the trunk room, a dark interior closet filled with the luggage of long-ago trips--many steamer trunks, their brass fittings blinking in the sudden light.

And it was there I discovered the derelict baby carriage, and filled it with the toys of another childhood, and tended them: the celluloid-faced Humpty-Dumpty, his stripy legs uselessly dangling; the dusty Steiff dogs, a Boxer and an Airedale; the naked baby doll, its two tiny pearly teeth and eyes that opened and shut, eerily, on clever hinges...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I like cream in my coffee, and I like to sleep late on Sunday, and I like eggs over easy, with flour tortillas

Well, really I prefer whole milk in my coffee, and egg white omelets with feta cheese, and I like to wake up early on Sundays so that I can have a minute to myself before the house begins its hum all around me. But I do like warm flour tortillas, and I love Lyle Lovett.

My friend Murali, at Miscellany of Me (an aesthetically beautiful blog that is just so inspiring) has asked me to come up with 10 things I like. Simple enough, no?

1. My new blonde hair, which makes me feel sneaky, like I'm dissembling to the world. But I realized I'm just far too real a person, and I have to strive to be more false.

Frowny blonde me

2. The sight of Hedgehog, swimming in the lake, wearing homemade crowns and bracelets of watery lake ferns.

3. The prick of tears in my eyes

4. When my sister and I are chatting and we realize we sound like a scene from a Woody Allen movie.

5. When Sarge embraces me and kisses me and then Hedgehog and Remus both try to force their way in.

6. rescue dogs

7. stargazing

8. dirty jokes

9. Cannabis Rose perfume

10. ice in bed on a hot summer night

and p.s. I am sorrier than sorry that I cannot easily get out and about to visit many of you--the internet connection in the North Country really is infernally touch and go...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I've always wanted to go blonde. Not nice natural blonde, but garish obviously faux blonde. Don't ask me why, but it's been a dream long in the making. The time never seemed quite right, i.e. I had to be seen in public by people I hoped would take me at least somewhat seriously. Now here I am in the North Country--far North, without internet access, or human interaction--and finally I could realize the tiny fantasy, the duality of inner darkness with outer light. It took me two tries, two rounds of peroxide saturation, before I got the color I've been after--that hair-murdering negation (or is it, paradoxically, substantiation?) of the true brunette me.

When the Adirondack wind starts up, as it daily does, and whips my face with white-gold snakes, and I catch their glint in my peripheral vision, I feel as if I've misbehaved, but, too, I'm strangely vindicated...

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I met the little girl on a public beach in the Adirondacks--my parents had taken me there to break up the monotony. She was just my age, lived right there in town, and we got along famously, so my mother asked her mother whether she might not come with us for a couple of hours to play at my house.

I looked forward to that playdate, almost (do I remember it correctly?) counting down the hours. She didn't disappoint. We ran in the woods, swam off my dock, splashed and shouted in the sunshine, concocted water fairy games. In the afternoon, when we were hungry, my mother sent us for peanut butter sandwiches. Walking companionably up the country lane to my cabin, she turned to me, and in her sweet, soft voice, asked,

"Do you believe in God?"

I was not in the least taken aback--even at a young age, I had a formed idea of my belief system, and loved to discuss it.

"Yes," I said. "I do."

"Me too." I smiled at her, and she continued her questioning.

"Do you believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?" she asked, kindly. Not wanting to offend her, but feeling the truth was the right thing to offer, I carefully delivered my default statement, taught me by my mother.

"I'm Jewish, and we don't believe that Jesus was God, but he was a good man who really did exist."

I thought that was a nice compromise, but immediately her face fell. She looked genuinely frightened.

"Then you're going to hell," she said, so sadly. "You're going to burn there. In the flames. It's going to be horribly painful, and it will last forever, the burning."

"That isn't true!" I said, already blinking back tears.

"It is. You're going to burn in hell, if you don't believe in Jesus."

We argued back and forth for a few more moments, and then gave up at the impasse. We both managed not to cry, but the playdate was over. We spent the rest of it in silence, trying to choke down the peanut butter sandwiches. Her parents picked her up, and we said goodbye. I never saw her again, after I confessed that night to my mother the conversation that had passed between us. I know now just how furious mom was, but she didn't let on, not entirely. She reassured me that God was good, and that hell was a made up story to frighten people into behaving. That made sense, and it helped, but the image of the burning hellfires, and me, a little girl screaming helplessly in the middle of the inferno, had stamped itself indelibly on my subconscious...

I think now about what mom said--hell is a story made up to scare people into behaving.

I believe that interpretation, with all my heart and soul, and I question the merit of such a threat. It might work--temporarily--but does a tale of terror, in the end, really nurture and sustain the moral development, the strong superego, that restrains bad behavior?

Hedgehog came home this week from her indigenous camp with two books, written by the camp director, full of Native American monsters. These were passed down through the generations, truly frightening stories of howling murderous hideous creatures of the natural world...told explicitly to frighten children into "being good."

The threat of monsters, of supernatural punishment, is a tradition that crosses all boundaries of time and culture. I clearly remember being threatened with a visit from the Boogeyman--just once, by my paternal grandmother, who was roundly chastised by my parents. She never pulled that one on me, or my sister, again. But like the cruel hellfires that light one's psyche with flickering fear, the Boogeyman will be with me forever--scaring me, but also delivering a tiny frisson of delight. Mightn't we tempt him to visit, just once, to see what he's really like? Or will we be satisfied with the awful stories of others whose bad behavior invited him in?

Motives and morality aren't so clearly drawn as they would have us believe. Simplistic terror texts are met with all the complex range of human reaction--fear, yes, of course--but also fascination, desire, and a welling up of natural wicked curiousity...

note: I would be very interested to hear whether you were, in your childhood, threatened with any sort of fictional monster in order to get you to behave. I imagine the Monster takes many forms, depending on one's background.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Leave Me a Comment; I am Curious about You!

I always enjoy it tremendously when bloggers invite readers to de-lurk. So to speak. And I'm jumping on that one. Not that I think anyone is really lurking per se, but today I cordially invite anyone who happens by here: feel free to make my day and comment, especially if you're new or haven't commented before.

Recently I took the radical (for me) step of posting my blog link on facebook. Worlds colliding!!! So the invitation goes out also to any of my facebook friends who stop by--leave a comment if you like! You can just comment anonymously and then sign your name.

The rest of you regular readers--I pose you this question: do you keep your blog and your "other life" separate? Why or why not?

xo Leah

Friday, July 2, 2010

Somber Little Faces

As noted in that funny old-fashioned hand on the back of the photo, this is my grandma Eva by her sister Honey in the fancy stroller, their older brother Simon (from whom I get my middle name, Simone), so protective behind them.

What strikes me is the formality of the children. The white fur and black astrakhan, the bonnets, the embellished hat: in contrast to the modern babies I see, in cotton onesies and bare toes, these children are stiff and overdressed, their expressions serious, worried and a little melancholy.

In his grown-up life, though, Uncle Simon was a kind and garrulous man, generous and funny. My mother remembers him bringing a huge strong-smelling salami, in its casing, often when he came for dinner, and one memorable time, a whole bag of candy-store malted milk balls scooped and measured just for mom...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

From the Clamor of Traffic

Happy is the man who drinks
his final egg cream
before leaving the smog
and the heat of the city.

From the closed, shadowed streets
to the wide, open skies.
From the clamor of traffic
to the song of the wind.
Under a tree in the country
all the things in the world
are fulfilled.

--written by Hedgehog, June 2010

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Road Trip that Was and Wasn't

Photo taken by Hedgehog somewhere in Louisiana

It's nearly a year from the day that my sister and I and then-8-year-old Hedgehog set out on our epic road trip through the Deep South, and I've been reminiscing lately.

The most remarkable thing, in hindsight, is the fact that Hedgehog missed the trip in its entirety. When I say she missed it, I don't mean she wasn't physically there, a fixture in my rearview mirror, stoically passing the thousands of miles strapped to her booster seat. I mean that she wasn't there with us, looking out the window, marveling over the eternities of strange sights: the strangling forests of kudzu, the eerie dusklit swamps and marshes, the signs enticing us toward Stuckeys and boudin, fireworks, peaches, pecans, above-ground cemeteries, the old mansions and slave quarters, alligators, dancehalls, and boiled peanuts.

A committed and compulsive reader, Hedgehog saw the trip as nothing more than an opportunity to read all day every day, across the hours and through the states, all the way across the country, four thousand miles total: a great tipping, sliding pile of books at her side. For her, Mississippi and Alabama will be remembered as a land of dragons and battles, Louisiana and Georgia full of magical swords and brave girl warriors--all punctuated by momentary flights of reality in the form of waffle houses and bright truck stops, necessary leg-stretchings, and portable lunches of tuna salad crackers.

Just once I insisted she catch a glimpse, when we passed through the French Quarter, and she obliged, looking up from her book with glazed eyes. I'm not sure to this day what she actually saw--the ornate little houses and rambling streets, or something else entirely, her mind still in the printed word?

Often as parents we have expectations of just how we want our children to experience some event, outing, or even a sculpture, painting, or story we tell; the truth is that, often, it just won't go as we hope. It can be hard to let go of our expectations, hard not to badger ("put down your book and look at that amazing view!!!"), hard not to pressure, hard not to feel disappointed when things don't go as planned or the enthusiasm just isn't there.

The biggest lesson I've learned as a parent is to try as hard as I can simply to let Hedgehog be. Not to force experiences on her. Not to feel let down when she doesn't react as expected, not to be overly invested in her reactions. That road trip was a real turning point for me in this regard. I very quickly came to a decision to let her read as much as she wanted, and not to insist she look at, or even pretend to care about, the marvels of the road.

I like to think that she will look back with fondness and satisfaction on our odyssey. The voices laughing chatting and arguing from the front seat, the country music on and off as we passed through local bandwidth, all a background murmur. Free from parental vigilance and pressure, in a cozy car full of books she could lose herself in the intensity of her stories. We had our adventures...and I am very certain she had hers.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Scarlet's Meme: a Family Effort

Funny, sweet, and acerbic Miss Scarlet has memed me with a ten-question virus that I very much enjoy. There is a little award involved, but I will leave it in her care for now.

It goes like this: she made up ten questions for six people, and I in turn will answer those and ask ten of my own to six people. I decided to share the questions with the whole family:

1. Do you prefer asking questions or answering them?

Me: I like answering questions because I'm a huge egomaniac and I like to talk about myself, and I like asking questions because most people are fascinating if you know the right questions to ask.

Sarge: that depends on the question, doesn't it.

Hedgehog: asking. Cause then you learn stuff.

2. What is your favourite joke? [Or favourite one liner?]

Me: "How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" "that's not funny!"
alternately, Dorothy Parker's New Yorker review of "The House at Pooh Corner": "Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up"
also Dorothy, "if all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised."
Boy, she was a nasty, funny piece of work, wasn't she? I'm sure I wouldn't want to have known her personally, but I love and adore her famous quips.

Sarge: That's my joke, by the way, thanks a lot! My favorite one-liner? From Mago in the comments section: "There sticks a mole-foot out of the side of your dog's mouth?"

3. Have you ever fantasized about being on Big Brother [the well known TV show... I'm not alluding to incest]?

Me: Despite my egomania, I'm a very private person, and at the end of the day I like to take refuge in my home, close and lock the door, and not be bothered. Thus, Big Brother is not for me. Also, I worry that I would be quickly known as the house kokhleffl (funny Yiddish word for "pot-stirrer" in the non-literal sense).

Sarge: No.

Hedgehog: What's that?

4. Have you ever wanted to enter a talent show?

Me: Flat out no. My talents lie in very odd areas that wouldn't be usefully displayed on a stage.

Sarge: Actually, yes! Totally.


5. Is Simon Cowell really necessary?

Me: Oddly, I would say yes. I've only seen the show a couple of times, but I love the idea that he doesn't mince words, spare feelings, deliver empty flattery or promises, or hem and haw--all his bald statements support the truth as he sees it, no phoney-baloney. People can learn from him--especially politicians.

Sarge: Nothing on that show is really necessary. Nothing on tv is necessary.

Hedgehog: Well, no because the show itself isn't necessary.

(oh my god, she's her dad's daughter all right, isn't she? She came up with the same answer totally independently)

6. Tea or coffee?

Me: Coffee. Tea usually just makes me shudder, unless brewed properly. Not for me the casually dunked teabag. Iced tea, on the other hand, is delightful.

Sarge: Dr. Pepper

Hedgehog: tea

7. What is your favourite perfume? Or smell?

Me: Anick Goutal's "Mandragore." "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Fresh (sadly discontinued, though I have a few bottles stashed in the fridge). Dog paws. Those little pink sweet and peppery roses that come in the spring. Sarge.

Hedgehog: baking cookies.

Sarge: vanilla

8. What is the quickest route to Wales from where you live?

Me: My daydreams.

Sarge: transatlantic flight to Cardiff? Is there an airport in Cardiff?

9. What does the word 'Wales' conjure to your mind?

Me: The Welsh Separatist Movement.

Hedgehog: The ancient Welsh sea-god Llyr

Sarge: hills

10. Are you dreading dreaming up ten questions to ask six bloggers?


Here are my ten questions:

1. What is your least favorite piece of clothing that you own? (from Hedgehog)

2. Gravity or magnetism? (Sarge)

3. Would you rather fantasize, or act it out in real life?

4. What is a name, other than your own, that you think suits you?

5. Tell us about a nice thing a stranger did for you.

6. What was your favorite childhood toy?

7. Do you hold a grudge, or let things go easily?

8. Favorite children's book?

9. Something you're proud of?

10. Which of the following four artworks do you relate to most, on first glance, and why?





Okay, now I tag the following to answer these ten questions, come up with your own ten, and so on...

feel free not to! Although I would enjoy reading your answers:

1. Mapstew

2. The Unbearable Banishment

3. Hunter (a break from your manuscript?)

Oh crap, that's only three. Oh well, I've petered out. This was much more elaborate then I'd expected, and I'm exhausted. If you've made it this far, you are truly a blog reader to be reckoned with.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


My bedside table reveals a lot about who I am, I think--especially the books--it's crammed with books: the ones I'm in the middle of, the ones I fully intend to read but possibly won't, a few favorites for bedtime comfort. There are occasionally other things on that little table (my glasses, earrings, a cup of coffee, a glass of icewater), but mostly it's books.

Here's the current lineup:

You can see that it runs the gamut from "Twilight" to Snoopy. Hey, I'm not embarrassed! Or maybe a little bit. About the Twilight, not Snoopy...

Closeup #1: we won't even discuss the Stephenie Meyer. Or will we? My dear friend (you shall remain nameless) kindly sent me all four of these. In the final analysis, these are extremely peculiar and disturbing books. I keep them on the bedside because I'm as yet unwilling to pass them along to the next curious reader, and I like the glossy black covers and the heft and bulk of them. Oh Edward. Find someone your own age, won't you?

Also here is "History of Sexuality," which I've yet to get through. Foucault's "Discipline and Punish" is one of my favorite books, and if you're not familiar with it, don't be disappointed but it's not a sexy s&m manual, but rather a thoughtful historical/sociological treatise on schools, prisons, and sanitoriums, and the ways in which they are, disturbingly, similar.

"The Pity of it All," a beautifully written history of German Jews, on loan from my extremely well-read sister in an attempt to better me. Sissy, I promise I'm reading it...but slowly.

My favorite in this pile: Le Fanu's ghost stories, recommended by Megan, scrumptiously well-written and atmospheric. On a rainy night, it's pure magic.

Closeup #2: my red-leather-bound journal (no review necessary, anyone who reads the blog can guess at its maundering contents); "A Reliable Wife" (just finished its gothic overwroughtness), "The Difference Engine" (finished a year ago, but I treasure its little presence); the collected Robert Burns that I retrieved after hearing the beautiful rendition of "Ae fond kiss" over at Mapstew's (go have a listen; it is to weep); "So Innocent...," a self-published true crime masterwork found in a roadside Stuckey's on the Grand Tour road trip last summer. The Mencken belongs to Sarge, but there was no room on his bedside table.

Closeup #3: "World War Z" (you'll like it if you like zombies, which odds are you do); de Sade (I read every word of this, and can attest to the fact that he was mad sick; a hero of free speech; disgusting; re-readable); "Wisconsin Death Trip," my sine qua non, cause of more than a few nightmares when indulged in before sleep, as it is quite hard to digest and often results in psychic dyspepsia.

Tucked in there, hard to see, is my score to The Goldberg Variations, a gift from my mom. I must here stop to give some advice: if you read music, and you are obsessed with a complex piece of classical music, do yourself a favor and purchase or download the score so that you can follow along. It is great fun, highly illuminating, very satisfying. I'm serious!

Lastly, but hardly leastly, is my large Peanuts anthology, abandoned there by Hedgehog. But who among us can deny the lure and appeal of that strange little gang? So I keep it, for its gift of cheer amid the Gothic, the dead, the zombies, the sadism, and all that biting.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Puppy Wrinkles

I can't get enough of Remus' flappy wrinkly dewlap and flews. I am thinking of buying those soft soft delectable wrinkles some flowers, and taking them out for a nice Italian meal, that's how much I love them.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Letter Home

In August 1945, my dear aunt Abby Rachel was five years old, living in Brooklyn on Clinton Street with my infant mother and her parents, Eva and Max. In France, Uncle Harold waited for those official orders that would bring him home again. I believe that the waiting was, for him, not without its ambivalence, for the War had been something of an adventure for that Brooklyn boy, showing him the wider world, a new language, another culture.

But wait he did, for what other choice was there, really? The war had ended, the terrible monster vanquished, and his family wanted him home, so homeward he would eventually travel, not war-weary like many, but rather enlivened, and alive in all the true meaning of that word.

With nothing much to do in the army camp (save, apparently, nap, chat, and eat ice cream), he wrote a letter, now a family treasure, to his niece Abby:

(Abby Rachel Pollack, 1940-2001; Harold Pollack, 1916-2004. May their memory forever be a blessing...)

...and please do take a look at the other wonderful entries for Sepia Saturday...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Cousin Sam, Head Cashier

Sam Kisberg, the stuff of small family legend, was a cousin of my great-grandmother Katie Littwin (nee Kisberg).

In his middle age, he lived with Great-grandma Katie in her big boarding house on Ocean Parkway. My mom describes his room as so tiny, overlooking the railroad tracks, furnished with nothing but a bed, a dresser, and a little bookshelf. It smelled of soap; she says he was the cleanest person she ever met. Sometimes she would peek in his drawers just to marvel at how perfectly folded and glowing white his undershirts were.

Sam was the the head cashier at the famous NYC institution, Keen's Steakhouse:

Every Thursday, he came for dinner at my Grandma Eva's, bringing treats from the Steakhouse as a hospitality offering. The Steakhouse staff was allowed to leave work each evening with the best leftovers from that night's dinner seating. Sam would arrive at grandma's house with single portions of cherry cheesecake and brownies. Mom tells me the cake slices would often have a single bite off their pointy ends. Grandpa Max found this shocking, disgusting, and would rail against Sam for his gauche beggarly habits. But Grandma Eva would always whisk the cheesecake into the kitchen and cut off the offending bitten end, whispering to mom "shhh...don't tell daddy..."

Sam brought the dessert on Keen's china, blue and white sturdy Willow-ware plates. The family took to calling this china "Samware," and as a child I would often venture into the little attic room that housed the dishes no longer in frequent rotation, and stare at the hundreds of little Samware dessert plates, neatly stacked in the glassed cupboards...for nothing was ever thrown away in Grandma's house...

He brought, too, from time to time, the white ceramic smoking pipes for which Keen's was famous. Symbols of manly opulence just out of reach, for Sam himself, that soapy-clean Russian immigrant in the tiny room overlooking the train tracks, was a servant, an onlooker, possibly envious, possibly wistful. I'm certain he would have liked to join the ruddy crowds of men in their loud, laughing, drunken steak dinners.

Instead, he made his quiet livelihood behind the cash register, consoling himself with the ill-gotten souvenirs of half-eaten cake and plates and pipes...

The famous Keen's pipes

Servers and staff at Keen's Steakhouse

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Falling Man

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Lately my mind is sunless and dim; my memories, like muted outlines of people lost wandering in a dense fog, appearing every now and again to remind me of some small or great event, are now more indistinct than ever. That is, I can barely remember what we ate for dinner last night...yet every so often a memory walks toward me, at random, gaining a bright lucidity as it draws near.

This morning such an image emerged from the hazy landscape, in complete detail, come to visit my shroudy mind.

In January 1988, just a few months before my grandma Eva's death, my grandparents attended a performance of Verdi's "Macbeth" at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. They had for many decades owned a near-priceless opera subscription, some of the very best seats in the house, mid-row just a few in from the stage for the very best sights and sound.

It was to be a regular Saturday afternoon, spent in music (and perhaps catching a cat nap when the recitative between arias dragged on a bit too long) and a light lunch in the city, at an understated restaurant where an old couple could pass an hour or two over lemon sole and dissection of the merits and flaws of the opera production...

The quiet enjoyment was broken apart in a sudden moment. I heard the disturbing news that evening, when my grandma, still in shock, called me at college to recount the tale: how she and Grandpa Max remained in their seats for the intermission, rattling their programs and chatting, taking a breather, forgoing the crowds searching out sustenance at the little bar...Grandpa said "Eva!", his lone cry lost in the collective gasp and cry of the audience remaining. Grandma looked sharply, grabbed Grandpa's hand and together they watched, as if in slow motion though it must have taken place in seconds: a man, falling straight from the very uppermost balcony, through endless air, the ruffling breeze from his descent and from the waving hands of the people unable to halt the terrible fall.

"It was so graceful," she told me.

I was not to know it yet then, but the falling man was a portent--his swift descent a suicide, a hard choice made in the final moments of despair--an awful sign (if I had known to look) of my grandma's death that warm May day a few months after, but hers an unwilling death, for she had more operas and luncheons to enjoy if she had only been able.

Though when I think of him, and her, now, the symmetry of their deaths, I'm comforted by an idea that takes shape: while he left his darkened world by fall, she left hers in flight.

To read in more detail of this strange and sad tale, visit the New York Times account.

Lines from "Musee des Beaux Arts" by Auden.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


If you're not familiar with one of my very favorite blogs, the extremely cool "The Unbearable Banishment," I must now ask you, no implore you, to visit his most recent post:

If you love books, if you understand just how they can change your life, this post will move you as it moved me, and maybe just maybe you'll be a little choked up when you finish reading it...I know I was...

Friday, April 23, 2010


This is Andrew. The husband of my mother-in-law's cousin, he is no real relation to me, except in spirit.

There is no way to adequately convey the loveliness of old Andrew, except to repeat what Sarge has often said: that Andrew may very well be a tsaddik, one of the true righteous, living secretly among us, "for whose sake alone the world is not destroyed."

A good, righteous man. Funny, kind, quiet. Once a long time ago, he was an Army Air Corps boy, then a young man who worked hard for his family and played minor league baseball in his spare time ("I loved the way he smelled when he came from a game," his 87-year-old wife confided in me recently. "All sweat and sunshine--he was so sexy, I would lean in and sniff him...")

Devoutly Catholic, now eighty-nine, Andrew is one of the more open-minded and curious people I've met, with great tolerance for differences. He attended a Passover Seder I hosted and followed along in the Haggadah with great interest, asking questions and joining in the Hebrew and Aramaic songs. When it was over, he took my hands and thanked me for the service and the matzoh ball soup.

He is the only real grandfather Hedgehog has ever known. When we visit Texas, Andrew goes out early, trundling patiently along to help my daughter fill the birdfeeders and spread corn for the deer who come to graze on my mother-in-law's land. I love to watch them every morning from the picture window, industrious in their task, often returning to the house hand in hand.

Yes. Tsaddik.

Notes on the photo: Andrew, a Technical Sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps (later became the Air Force), circa 1944. Ratlesden RAF Base, England. The plane with the wonderful nose art, a B-17 G, was later shot down over Belgium, although the pilot survived.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Leah and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

It really was an awful day.

You know the deep crunch when your car makes that impact?

That's what I heard two hours ago. When the puppy threw up all over the seat on the way back from the vet's and I turned my head for a second and plowed into two parked cars.

Yes, that sound. Time slows and then speeds up and you're just sitting there, your car is wrecked, and you're hyperventilating along to the pounding of your heart.

In NYC, the least little bit of bad news draws an enormous crowd. It doesn't matter if it's a shooting victim lying on the ground in his slowly pooling blood, or a woman sitting shocked and weeping in a wrecked car full of puppy barf. I will estimate conservatively that my malfeasance drew a crowd of fifty or so onlookers.

I will tell you that a lone good samaritan helped me crawl out of the car and patted my back as we waited for the police, for whom it must be said my devastation was a tiny mishap in the scheme of their long tour of duty; this being NYC after all.

And oh, did I mention that my puppy is revoltingly ill?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Settling In

I promise this is the last puppy post. But I miss my blog, and all I've got on the mind is Puppy, because he won't have it any other way. I think I'd forgotten, after sixteen years, the work entailed. Our terrified, shivering, silent rescue dog, the one who crept toward us on his belly rather than walk upright, is now in the full flower of his rambunctious puppyhood.

As I sit here, trying to have a coffee and write a little post, he's zooming and pouncing, chewing and grabbing. He seems to like, particularly, my special expensive yarn and the hundreds of books that are on doggy level. Mind you, he does have some very nice strong rubber and rope chewy toys. But those hold appeal only for a few minutes at a time, even when I dip his bone in gefillte fish aspic.

I've gotten more exercise in the past few days than in the past year altogether--and am thinking of cancelling my gym membership (seriously, no lie! why bother paying when I've got a very persistent four-legged personal trainer?). This is no sedentary hound.

Now pardon me while I wrestle my precious copy of "Wisconsin Death Trip" from his baby teeth and take him for a run or twenty around the block...

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Another Naming Story Unfolds...

Within an hour, I went from being totally unencumbered to completely encumbered. Turns out I've been very busy this holiday filling the sad little hole left in my life when Pippin died last year.

I've been waiting and waiting for the right dog to come along, and yesterday, as I made my way upstate, he just sort of appeared. A 4-month-old redbone coonhound mix (I can't figure out with what--lab? beagle? who knows what moment of love produced him): beautiful, rangy, ginger. A rescued pup from Tennessee (will he be a Tennessee wildcat like Mr. Edwards? Some of you know the reference).

I suspect he'll be a handful for awhile, but I've done the puppy thing and I know the drill. But he's got the silkiest ears, a soft droopy muzzle, and a good handful of dewlap, just like I like. Plus the enormous ill-fitting puppy paws.

The only problem is he hasn't got a name--he came with "Roger," but since he only had the moniker for a day, well, it's on us now. Any suggestions for a wildcat red coonhound Tennessee rescue with oversized paws and a penchant for chewing pinecones?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Sun-Star: a Naming Story

In real life, Hedgehog isn't called Hedgehog but rather something much lovelier, much less clumsy silly, and much more graceful. When she was soon-to-be but not quite here, Sarge and I were feeling that strong excitement that not-yet parents feel, and loving books as we do, inspiration came in part from a familiar bookish quarter, our beloved Tolkien's "The Return of the King."

At the end of that book a little girl is born to Sam Gamgee, and Frodo suggests a name: "what about elanor, the sun-star, you remember the little golden flower in the grass of Lothlorien?"

The year of Elanor's conception was known in the Shire as "...a marvelous year. Not only was there wonderful sunshine and delicious rain, in due times and perfect measure, but there seemed something more: an air of richness and growth, and a gleam of a beauty beyond that of mortal summers that flicker and pass upon this Middle-earth. All the children born or begotten in that year, and there were many, were fair to see and strong, and most of them had a rich golden hair that had before been rare among hobbits. The fruit was so plentiful that young hobbits very nearly bathed in strawberries and cream; and later they sat on the lawns under the plum-trees and ate, until they had made piles of stones like small pyramids or the heaped skulls of a conqueror, and then they moved on. And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass."

So it is with us. We have always thought of Hedgehog as our sun-star, a beaming little yellow flower. If a person could be known as a color, she would be known as bright yellow, full of warmth, a tiny shiny blossom of happy promise, a sign of the best and luckiest of times.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

O Brave New World

"O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in't!"

Hedgehog is so excited to play the part of Miranda in the third-grade production of "The Tempest" this spring...which only goes to show how very very different she and I are, the difference becoming more and more apparent with age. As a child, I always had certain deeply ambivalent feelings about being the center of attention. Within my comfort zone--in conversation, among friends--I enjoyed it. But performing? Oh goodness no. From the youngest age, I became weak-kneed and hyperventilatey at the mere thought of standing before an audience and saying lines.

In junior high and high school, I was very involved in puppetry (which gives you an idea of what my school was like, that puppetry was a serious pursuit). I loved the creative and mechanistic process of puppet construction, the engineering involved, and learning how to manipulate them in performance. But most of all, I was glad of the opportunity to go before an audience yet not be seen--hidden away behind a barrier--my puppets spoke for me, and were brave for me. Still, even then, crouching in the darkness, clutching my puppets' sticks in sweaty hands, I had stage fright.

Hebrew School plays were torture. I remember playing Potiphar's wife in a production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and going through agonies beforehand. My mother had to literally stand in the wings and shove me onstage...a kindly shove, but a shove nonetheless...

When we had to recite memorized passages of poems and plays, as we frequently did, I could sometimes cajole my teacher into hearing my lines out in the hall away from my classmates. Even then, I would blush my way through the process.

My Bat Mitzvah was a crucible. Eighty pairs of eyes on me, watching as I chanted Torah and gave my homily...

I overcame this terrible performance anxiety to some extent, finally, when I taught college. I had to, or my then-livelihood would have been in jeopardy. Although I had to catch my breath before beginning class, and my palms were always clammy, I even came to enjoy the lectures, the feeling of power that came with commanding attention from a room full of people--and sometimes, when the lectures were good and the vibe was there, the connection between student and teacher, it was something like euphoria! And I could suddenly understand, just a little bit, the appeal of performing...

But never ever in childhood...which is why I admire my 9-year-old Miranda so much. She's excited--not scared, not self-effacing, but genuinely excited to learn lines and get dressed up and stand before an audience and act! Simply amazing to me.

Illustration of Miranda by Waterhouse

Friday, March 19, 2010

Leather-Booted Great-Grandpa

Will you check out those boots? The shine on them?

My great-grandpa Benjamin, on the left, in his Russian Army uniform, late 19th/early 20th century. I do remember my Grandpa Max (his son) showing me this photo when I was little, and telling me that his father had been in the Russian Army. Beyond that, I have no definitive information, though I'm desperate to know more--was he civil service (home guard) as someone suggested to me? Or was he infantry (less likely), serving in wartime? I'm just not sure of the exact dates, so I have no way of knowing whether his service coincided with the Russo-Japanese War, though I think this photo must be earlier than 1904-1905.

I know absolutely nothing about the personal details of this piece of his life, though I wish I did. What is most interesting to me, though, is how this photo fits into the very complex history of the Jews in the Imperial Army. I did a little research on this topic through the YIVO Institute, and learned that Jews in the modern world did indeed serve in the Russian Imperial Army, in droves really, although it was to say the least an uneasy relationship. Their civil rights were honored intermittently: during some periods, they were allowed to celebrate Jewish holidays and pray as Jews with Jewish chaplains, during other times they were segregated or even indoctrinated into Russian Orthodoxy as a requirement of conscription. It so happens that Benjamin served during a period of Jewish segregation.

Anyway, the details of Benny's service are now lost, though I find it very exciting to be able to place my family in a greater context of the meaning and movement of Jewish history.

Visit the other Sepia Saturday participants for more stories of the ancestors!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

In Defense of the Death Portrait

Maybe it's the time of year? That the first little knobs on the trees, the sunshine struggling against the chill, the longer days, turn my mind, paradoxically, to death.

Or maybe I'm always thinking about it, somewhere behind the everyday struggles and little bits of joy, the clouds.

Whatever the reason, I'm fascinated lately with Victorian Death Photography. That the Victorians seemed routinely to memorialize their loved ones in permanent death images, many of them posed like regular amazes and impresses me. Of course, death was all around them all the time--life expectancies were short, and many died in babyhood and childhood, diseases that are now easily treated, then were lethal. Death was a part of the cycle, in a tangible and public way.

We don't do this now, of course, take photos and glue them in our photo albums among the wedding and baby pictures. My father died upright in his favorite red leather easy chair one morning in January, and my sister and I sat on either side of him as he left. I remember how lightly we breathed in the dim morning, trying our best not to disturb his passage that seemed so precarious--I didn't want him to suffer anymore, and I didn't want to make any noise that would startle him back to his pain. We spoke to him our encouragement in whispers that fell almost soundlessly into quiet air. And as I watched the life leave his eyes, as they opened suddenly, and fixed on a far point in the room, and then died--his eyes died before he drew his last rough breath--I still couldn't believe he'd gone, although no one with eyes like that could ever return to this world. Afterwards, we continued to speak in whispers, even as we hugged and kissed was a long time before we could call the funeral parlor to take him away, we couldn't stand to let him go. In the end, the relatives came swarming and fluttering and hovering, and they made the calls. But I always felt that they simply couldn't stand the sight of us with the dead body, sitting with him, holding dad's cold hand. My sister and I knew that the passage between life and death, though irrevocable, is not such an absolute. Dad was alive, we held his hand, and he was dead--why would we throw the hand away in sudden horror? I saw a terrible fear in their faces; but I was unafraid.

In the weeks and months that followed that day, I thought often about those moments beside dad, and I began to wish that I'd had the presence of mind, or the nerve, to have taken a photo of him, dead in his chair. I had not yet become interested in the Victorian death portraits, and my strange impulse was somewhat sui generis. A photograph would have marked the passing, whose details I returned to, obsessively, again and again in my mind over those weeks and months. Anyway, my mind returned to it: the last breath, the dead eyes, dad cold in his chair. The photo would have helped me, I am sure of it, to be certain of that moment. Was I really there? Did it happen that way? And...was he dead?

Had I been a Victorian girl, I might have had the assistance of the relatives--together, we would have dressed him in his favorite trousers, his suspenders, his special gaudy tropical print shirt, and arrayed ourselves around him arms over his dead shoulders, living cheeks pressed to the dead face, and we would have stared into the camera, eyes filled with grief, but with a certainty also.

As it was, the relatives were disgusted, afraid, and dismayed already by our tender proximity to the dead one. Such a portrait was unthinkable; they would have thought me utterly mad.

But I know the truth. That the dead are among us, that we are among them, that there is nothing to fear, that we should not so quickly hide the body away and with the body, hide away our abject sadness and longing. The need is strong, to rush away to life. But it is, after all, an impossibility: for the ones who attend, who sit vigil as life ends, that death scene is real and we will always carry it with us, the images of it, the feel of it and the sounds and smells in the quiet room. To externalize it, to take it outside of the darkest recesses of one's soul, in a simple portrait--unafraid, unashamed, unhidden, pasted up in an album that could be taken down from a shelf and looked at, until one didn't feel so alone with the secret memories...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Washing Day, Brooklyn, Many Years Ago

Eva Bella hanging wash in the courtyard of her apartment building on Ocean Parkway. It's one of my favorites, and I never tire of its details--the sunshine on her face, the raggedy apron (a hand-me-down from her mama, too worn out for any but the roughest chore), the bag of clothespins.

Although by the time I knew her as Grandma Eva she had at her disposal a very efficient electric washer and dryer, I do think she always preferred to hang her wash, and continued to do so during all our summers at the lake. Though she's not as clear as she used to be, I can still imagine her working at her clothesline in the sunny windy field, reaching up to hang her sheets, a clothespin in her mouth.

Join us for Sepia Saturday!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Playing Nurse. Not the fun way.

I usually enjoy Theme Thursday and the writing prompt, and this week's--"bottle"--seemed so potentially rich and ripe with possibility. Alas, however, all that comes to mind today is the bottle of hot pink amoxicillin sitting on the top shelf of our fridge. This really has been a rough winter for us. We've been sick so many times--culminating in Hedgie's seemingly intractable strep throat that's now become scarlet fever.

Hedgehog just said..."It's like I'm trapped in a room, and the room is my body."...we've all had that feeling at some time or another, haven't we? The worst part is that there's nothing I can really do for her besides the usual pillow-fluffing and bringing of cold gingerale, cool compresses, and of course another festive round of hot pink fake cherry flavored antibiotics.

It could be worse--I think of poor Mary Ingalls, blinded by scarlet fever in the days before antibiotics. Actually, scratch that--let me not think of poor blind Mary.

Instead, I'll think of spring--although it's blizzarding outside right now, the trees are starting to show the first little knobs. It'll be warm again soon, and then there will be flowering dogwoods and ball games in the park and ice cream cones, fresh air blowing through the house from the open windows...

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Week of Cheap Thrills

speeding: driving as fast as I can because I can...or could...get my first ever speeding ticket, and am oh so embarrassed although Hedgehog queries, "mama if you're so embarrassed why did you tell daddy about it like you were kind of proud?"

Dwight Schrute: I'm not giving up on Severus, but I think I've found the man who's gonna give the Potions Master a run for his galleons, sickles, and knuts (if you have to ask, you're not the nerd I hoped you were).

strong drink midweek midday: everyone's out of the house and I'm supposed to be doing the things that a housewife does midday midweek but instead I'm raiding the stash. And maybe even watching "Everybody Loves Raymond" while doing it. Laughing like a maniac. Toasting myself.

reading menus: I'm online at the Russian Tea Room obsessing over the caviar menu and thinking about Caspian Sea Sevruga, how the frail gleaming beads pop on the tongue releasing their expensive salt.

Bugles: I'm eating 'em. Crispy corn horns of delight.

fake shopping: I wander the bright and cheerful aisles at Target, carefully choosing anything I want (new lipstick, note cards, stripey knee socks etc etc etc)...till I'm completely satisfied...then I go and put it all back. Cheapest shopping spree in the history of shopping. You should try it.

riding the scooter at Target: is this an American thing? That the superstores have motorized scooters for the elderly and disabled, and also (shhh...I didn't say it) the chronically lazy? Anyway, after a fake shopping spree this week, an older lady asks me to ride her motorized scooter back through the parking lot to the store for her. Omigod it is awesome. Those things really get up a little burst of speed, and can you guess what I go and do? I get too happy and crash it into the Dollar Spot shelves.

Then I hop off, adjust my skirt, and walk out like nothing happened...

It really was not a bad week.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

White Coral Bells

A summer afternoon very long ago, on an old woolen camp blanket spread in the pine shade, I reached a hand out and dug my fingers comfortably in the moss and listened as Grandma Eva sang to us in her smiley creaky voice for oh the hundredth time, but we never tired of it,

white coral bells
upon a slender stalk
lilies of the valley
deck my garden walk
o how I wish
that I could hear them ring
that will only happen
when the fairies sing...

we three exist there faintly still, world without end, on the old woolen camp blanket, under the pines, in the circle of song

read along or join in at Theme Thursday (where you can read more about how bloggers are ringing their bells in honor of Barry)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Little Sideways Smile

It's hard to imagine, in the long years since her death, hard not to redact oral history in her favor, but Grandma Eva had no sense of humor. This is not to say that she was stern, or judgmental, or quelling. She wasn't any of those things. She just didn't really get or make jokes--and I'm not referring to the "so a man walked into a bar" variety, but rather to the true wit and acerbity, the everyday hilarity and the bon mots indulged with wicked abandon by my family.

Grandpa Max adored his bride, despite the disability. He could find solace with his confederates--his daughters, brother, grandchildren, all in possession of genetically encoded, environmentally honed funniness. He knew grandma would always be there, standing to one side of the laughter, smiling a little sideways smile.

for more posts, or to join in with your own photos and reminiscences, please visit the Sepia Saturday blog!