Saturday, April 9, 2011


Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours...

Since the beginning of time

(or let me not exaggerate, since Eva first knew Maxie)

there was the bottle on the dresser.

My grandfather didn't believe in doing things by half-measures, and it was real perfume, not cologne. Like the fabled bolt of cloth, it would never run out, for no sooner did my grandmother apply the last precious drop to her skin, than a new bottle would appear nested in its blue velvet box with looping gilt writing: Shalimar.

I remember standing by that dresser, a little girl much too young for ablutions designed to seduce, tilting my head back, exposing my own soft neck like a vampire's girlfriend waiting for the bite...or in this case, grandma's fingertip dabbing the potion...

(I'm making this part up, for my usually generous grandma Eva was decidedly miserly when it came to sharing this gift, and so I never got the chance to wear it, and to smell like her)

So the bottle sat, unshared, sapphire stoppered, lightly signalling, in diffuse sunlight and lamplight, its private message: something I couldn't decipher at the time, a romantic love between two old people, who had once themselves been young. Mouth to neck, inhaling the scent...for why would such a gesture cease with age? After the children, ten thousand nights in the big bed, the mountains and deep shadowed valleys of years and years together, the private jokes and whispers, love letters re-read?

Now I know it all, and none of it: the idea of a love of decades, but not the secrets in the bottle, the letters, the Yiddish whispers, the bedroom after the door closed.

There was always a look that passed between them, not meant for children to see, a glance that contained, like a password to an arcane mystery religion, the whole ancient hidden meaning of love itself.

For more remembering, visit the Sepia Saturday blog

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ne Igrushki (No Toys)

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats

This is my Grandpa, and his two sisters, Liba and Tilda. They must have been new immigrants in America when this picture was taken. My grandfather rarely spoke of his early years in Soviet Georgia, and I was left with just a few dark images...foremost among these bits and pieces was the fact, oft repeated and with a stark solemnity, that there were no toys for the children. None.

But none? My young mind couldn't accept a child's life with no toys, and I made for myself a little fiction about the peculiar wooden man and bear, who would take turns clacking at the stump with their axes if you pulled the handles back and forth (and I did this very often when I was little). I imagined it was the lone gimcrack entertainment of Max's childhood, and that he derived great pleasure from its existence in the fashion of one unused to more. After all, even Laura Ingalls, living deep in the dark woods of Wisconsin, had the homely rag doll Charlotte, and paperdolls cut by Ma from butcher paper.

I hoped for so many decades that this had been his toy, when he was a boy in the Old Country, that I came to believe in the saving truth. So it was with sadness, this morning, that I was forced to forfeit this constructed memory. I took the bear and the man off its shelf and showed it to my mother, who told me that it had been among the leavings of the previous owners when she and Max and Eva and Abby moved into their brownstone in the 1950s. My grandpa had not, in fact, had any toys.

Ne igrushki.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Acquainted with the Night

Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you

When I was feeling low one day my grandpa Max told me something. How when he was a young man, feeling low, he would walk and walk and walk the streets of Brooklyn, smoking Sobranie oval cuts and thinking to himself until dusk turned to evening and evening to night, in and out of the pools of light from the street lamps, even in the rain, in the cold, in the heat, until something righted itself in his mind and he could go home again.

The vision of the young man walking, walking, smoking oval cuts superimposed itself and made me the same, made me as he was, as we all were, young people everywhere in every time. I am sure that if I were to go now, some drizzly April night, down to the Promenade that overlooks the harbor and the cityscape across the harbor, I would see the un-substance: brooding and walking, walking, brooding, the only solid thing the curls of smoke disappearing on the wind off the water. And I could take my place beside him and walk along there, until my mind cleared and I could go home again...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Emilia Romatowska

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I woke to the memory of a name: Emilia Romatowska. Sometimes it comes to you this way, sudden and contextless as the scent of salt on the wind when you are not near any ocean.

The scene followed in a rush of detail. Curled up in the big leather armchair in my grandparents' formal parlor, hugging my knees, downcast over a romantic reversal. I'm fifteen. My grandfather Max listens to my story and counters with one of his own. The name of my heartache is long gone now, but the name of his remains: Emilia Romatowska.

She was dark-haired and dark-eyed, he tells me, a real beauty. A heartbreaker, I loved her once. But alas, he says, it wasn't in the stars for us. Good thing too or you wouldn't be here!

Is is not in the details that I find comfort--of his days working at great-grandpa Benjamin's tailor shop in Brooklyn, long evenings of night school, fortuitous hours that yielded the prize of Emilia, of the girl and her pretty ways, how he took so boldly her young immigrant hand--not so much in these details, but in the telling itself. He says her name again and there is a note in his voice, a certain delight in the tale of his downfall, as if he has just unwrapped a caramel, and eaten it, and his mouth is still full of the taste.

Sixty years after the fact, there is a fresh feel to it--the hunt, notes passed and walks taken, a pleasant yearning, the very loss of love itself--even at fifteen, I hear my grandfather's words, see his smile (half rueful, half wry, no part sad), and am reeling from sudden epiphany: these old pangs are what keeps one really alive.

p.s. don't forget to check out more Sepia Saturday posts HERE