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.

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