September 14

I live in Toronto, my back yard on a ravine full of trees. The condos are circling my ravine and I woke up wondering why anyone would want to live on Kingston Road. Kingston is a semi-expressway during rush hours, and a dirty, boring street around Main, where I live. While I don’t want a flood, or a hurricane, I wish I could change Kingston into a beautiful river, with boats floating serenely down toward the centre of Toronto.  Toronto could remain a high rise haven for commerce and young living, but I’d surround it with parks and marinas.

It’s not going to happen, so I need to start planning my exit. Problem is that I both love and hate city living these days. I’m single, so the burden of home ownership is on my shoulders.  So are the joys. No one nags me about the accumulation of a lifetime. Boxes, boxes, everywhere. Full of papers that are useless, but need to be shredded to avoid that dreaded identity theft.

Identity theft. I guess that means my health care, bank accounts, insurance, credit cards. Is that really all that I am? Of course not. And as I used to tell my creative writing students, the end of your writing is often the real beginning. So I’ll come back here soon.

Featured post

A Post about The Post

During the summers of 1966, 1967 and 1968, I worked as an intern reporter on a daily newspaper, with a sizeable circulation. As I advanced from writing obits to writing hard news and features, I learned the magic of writing. To be honest, I doubt I learned much about reporting. I seemed to always think of the questions I should have asked after I was back in the office. But the experience of going out, usually in the evening and dealing with civic meetings where I knew absolutely no one, taught me to be fearless in pursuit of getting a job done.  And those lovely journalistic formulas and fundamentals could be applied to every kind of writing I would need, from magazines to books, and later, to teach the art. Most important, I learned to write with truth–my truth, other’s truth, and to respect how every person had a story worth telling.

The Post also reminded me how women in the late Sixties had to fight for a chair in the newsroom and for their right to own their power. My ferociously political mother had lived that reality, though she never made it to being her own boss.  I never made it to owning a newspaper, and never married rich enough to inherit one either. But I learned to never be intimidated by government, and to always remember that it was supposed to work for us.  I loved how Katherine Graham grew into her power. As I transition into the last years of opportunity to fight for justice, I’m going to take that movie with me. Sure beat the Ten Commandments. Thou shall fight injustice. Thou shall reveal the truth at all personal cost. Thou shall write until your dying breath.

Silence, and Terror

I immediately understood what Emma Gonzalez was doing yesterday. Though I wonder how many people in that huge crowd really got it. I can’t tell you what she suffered in those 6 minutes, only what I experienced. Our university apartment was invaded by a (young, I think) man with a knife and after the actual sexual assault (during which I talked nonstop), I lay there in a silence that allowed me to hear the pounding of my fear-filled heart. I didn’t know whether he was still inside the apartment so I was paralyzed by my fear for many minutes. Listening to my heart. That’s really not just fear. That’s terror.  That’s what hundreds of students have experienced now.

Don’t get me wrong when I say I envy them. What I mean is that I envy that they have one another. Like the anti-gun veterans, they band together to fight the PTSD that never goes away. I joined the equivalent of Black Lives Matter in 1969, and the action helped me move back into political protest. Then into resisting the war in Vietnam.  But no amount of protest can erase the pounding in your ears as your heart fights the fear over and over. If you doubt what I’m saying, buy a stethoscope and listen to the sound of your heart beating hard after you run up and down the stairs a few times. Or read The Telltale Heart.

Leaving Pleasantville

just b cosI have many sweet memories of the town I grew up in, Perth Amboy, New Jersey. I had a wonderful best friend and lived on the bay. The house was stately, and historic. It held many years of history for the Compton family. It was a time when women in their fifties were old, and Mrs. Compton was older than most. She’d lived through the golden age of the town, before the immigrants flooded in, and when, in her eyes, everyone knew their place. Women were ladies; men were gentlemen. The men in the Compton family were commodores and civic minded mayors and even federal appointees.  There had been some bohemian days when F. Luis Mora was in town, and Mrs. Compton’s daughter, Gwen, had some secrets only a few knew.

These memories are capturing me today, after one day in a Facebook group called “Perth Amboy as I remember it” (or something along that line.)  I somehow got invited to join and am glad I spent a day in Pleasantville. You see, the members are not allowed to post anything political. Only happy, sweet memories. If you never saw the movie, you should get it out of storage somewhere. It perfectly captures the stifling nature of small town 50s America,  where every night the husband and father hangs his hat, says “Honey, I’m home”, and sits down for dinner. I have to watch the movie again for all the nuances (which seem so relevant in Trump’s America), but vividly remember that there was only one road in Pleasantville, and that it was hard to escape.

We lived on the second floor of the huge Compton house, and had a fiercely political life. My parents were always friends with the newspaper people at the Evening News, and I was included in their passionate discussions of federal, state and local corruption.  Mom was a grassroots Democrat without any illusions (she’d lived under two dictators–Hitler and Trujillo in the Dominican Republic). She started the local League of Women Voters in our living room. She invited Elsie Gibbs, a black woman, into our home, and Mrs. Compton had a fit. Mom and Doris Leitner pulled Mayor Flynn out of bed to show solidarity with the black community after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

I was going to say that was probably unnecessary, given that the black community had deeper roots in Amboy than most of the white, but then I remember going to Perth Amboy High School as a substitute teacher around 1970.  Black students were angry (I’m not sure if there had been some kind of riot in the school).  It wasn’t my first rodeo. I’d worked for the Evening News for 3 years, 2 at night, driving around various communities to cover the news. I’d lived in Philly, West Philly. I’d stared down the Philly bully boy cops. But when I told one student to shut up, he glared back at me and said no white woman was going to tell him what to do.  This was not the hero’s welcome I’d expected at my old high school. Though my knees were knocking behind the desk, I told him that if he didn’t like it in class he could take his chances out in the hall. I’m sure my heart stopped beating as he stood up–and walked out the door.

Yes, I remember lovely swims in the bay, hamburgers at Seaman’s, Joe’s boardwalk food stand, and I’m glad there is a space for people to share their Pleasantville memories. But as tomorrow approaches. I have to remember February 8, 1987 and my father’s death in Perth Amboy Hospital’s ICU, where no one seemed to care about anything except keeping the machines going. I wouldn’t want a dog to suffer that kind of death.

Goodbye, Pleasantville. No white woman is going to censor my memories. I’ll take my chance out in the hall.

 

 

Christmas Eve

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Unless your roots, or those of your parents, go back to Europe, Christmas Eve is not usually the highlight of the holiday.  In my childhood, the tree did not go up until Christmas Eve. Then, I connected my Woolworth manger to a low hanging light and my father and I would sing Silent Night in German, followed by O Tannenbaum. As I mentioned elsewhere here, Dad and I communicated mostly through our love of music.  Finally, I would open my presents. One of my favourite memories is the Christmas that Mom got some awfully cute pyjamas with a bow at the neck. They made her smile.

Years later, I spent one very special Christmas with my friend Karen. I didn’t know that she and her girls hosted a special dinner for the family of her late husband, Bob Guidi, on Christmas Eve, if I’m not mistaken. The dining room was set with special care, the best plates, and, if I’m not mistaken the best Italian food was served. Wine flowed freely. So did respect and love. Bob had been shot down on a business trip in Cairo more than 20 years before, but the family ties remained.

I don’t have a large, indoor Christmas tree any longer. The wee live one I planted years ago is now outdoors, and 10 feet tall.  I’m tempted to cover it with popcorn and cranberries. But I’ve ripped a tendon in my arm so….   well, maybe I’ll ask Seb and Tristan to do it for me.

Memories are flowing like the wine I no longer drink, so bear with me here. One Christmas Eve, for a dysfunctional family situation I no longer remember (there were so many), it was Christmas Eve and we had no tree. I remembered seeing a lot with trees, not far from my house, and went there around 5 or 6. They were closed. So, I actually helped myself to a tree. Stole it,  I guess. I was determined to decorate a tree on Christmas Eve with my then-little son and daughter come hell or high water. I can’t remember the reason for my husband’s absence. It may have been one of the years he wasn’t speaking to me. (I warned you how dysfunctional this family was). Maybe he was across the road drinking with a girlfriend. Whatever. I had my tree and my children. Probably even a cat. It’s a warm Christmas Eve memory.

Another perfect Christmas Eve–my Jewish mother decided to join me for midnight mass at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Perth Amboy. If they’re still there, the black population of Amboy is among the oldest group of residents, as many groups moved in much later. So, the high church has many black congregants, and a magnificent choir. I looked over at Mom as the choir came in, singing, and she looked happy. Later, I learned, she had just done it to make me happy.

While I’m enjoying good Christmas memories, I want to thank Polly and Alison, my former sisters-in-law, perhaps Cindy too, though I suspect she was still very young. One Christmas, they gave me a beautiful blue velvet robe, lined with reddish pink satin. I’d just given birth, and my dear husband gave me a track suit so I could quickly lose the baby weight. You wonderful women made my day, perhaps several years, until I sadly outgrew the robe (I never did take up jogging–working full time and trying to find some time for my kids made that laughable).

Christmas is a good time to reflect on the past, and be grateful for current blessings. So, Merry Christmas from Ingrid, Inky and Smudge.

Adrift

I do not want to write about my mother. Especially after opening the box from the safe deposit vault. That paper stamped with swastikas, renaming her Sara, daughter of Israel and Sara. Another document asking the U.S. government to allow her entry, so she and I could leave the Dominican Republic and join my father in New Jersey.

“I am stateless, and without papers,” she explained.

 

Before my mother’s death, and the papers I inherited, I could write her off as a crazy rageaholic. Her anger simmered and exploded on me, the child who trapped her into being a 1950s housewife. But she was no homemaker, or mother. How could she be?  Before 1938, her family had cooks, maids and governesses. She strutted down the promenade in Baden-Baden as if she owned the city. She dressed in fur and ermine for a masquerade party. I have the pictures. Such a beautiful child.  Even with those haunted eyes. But she never shared her stories until she was in her eighties, and then it was too late for me, I didn’t want facts, I wanted her feelings, and she couldn’t share those.  I don’t know if she was capable of love.

 

Without love, there is no home.  Our apartment was beautifully furnished by my father. But he didn’t make any meals, except perhaps the occasional Sunday brunch. He was still at work while Mom took to the kitchen, cursing the food, poisoning it with her anger. I don’t know why she made pork chops and chicken for Dad, but only hamburger for me. Every night—hamburger, rice and salad. Pot roast was for special occasions like the high holy days, or company.

 

My friend Karen lived next door and would escape to my house to read comics and fish on Fridays. The rest of the time, I’d escape to her house. Oddly enough, both our mothers were named Doris. Aunt Doris baked cookies and made ham and chicken for dinner, which she coaxed me into eating. I slept over there a lot, looking out the window at my house, but never feeling homesick. Karen had her own bathroom, free of cat boxes in the tub.  We sang in the tub and all around the house—with Aunt Doris adding her rich alto harmony. I felt at home until the moment I had to leave and go back to my own.

 

Surely you have some good memories of your childhood home, you ask. Yes. We lived on Water St., on a bay with its ever-changing scenery.  Down the street was a boat club—a real boat club, not a yacht club. Karen and I went there almost every day 4/to swim or pretend to learn how to sail from older, handsome instructors.  One of my fondest memories is walking down to the club during the eye of a hurricane. It seemed to unite our family, as we walked down to the clubhouse, me in the middle with Mom and Dad each holding one of my hands. I’m not sure if I just am imagining it now, but I felt safe.  Other happiness: on Saturdays, Dad and I would sit on the big orange couch and listen to records from all over the world. I can still feel his gentle arm on my shoulder and smell the rich scent of his pipe. Mostly, though, I retreated to my room, read, did homework, talked

on the phone. Dreamed of the day I’d go to college and leave town.

 

 

I loved my high school years, studied hard, but seldom dated. Were they ‘fun”? Perhaps. By then my parents were working together as Dad “architected”. They were complete workaholics, 5/and my job was to graduate at the top of my class and get a scholarship to a good school.  I still regret the day Bobby Lewis hitchhiked into town to see me during a snowstorm—and I told him to go back home because I had a test to study for. Boys were disposable, except if they disposed of me.  Anyway, I never felt that it was my house, with room for my friends.

 

I never had a “homey” room or apartment at University. It was just a place to eat, sleep, study. I was surprised to see how other students decorated their places, adding comfortable couches, chairs, curtains. My home was the library.  Four years later, I graduated. I remember being one of the last to leave campus. I had to return to my parents’ house. Less than a year later, I escaped to Canada with an American Army deserter.

 

Like my mother, and her mother before her, I struggle with cooking. I married a man who loved to cook, but once again, didn’t love me.  Unlike my mother, he had no back story of survival. In retrospect, I can see how his mother and mine shared a similar lack of domestic or maternal leanings. But it was the 1970s, I was a feminist and loved to work. I bragged about our role reversal.  Which worked until the day our son was born.

 

Children need homes. Our apartment had a couch. A second-hand crib unsafe by today’s standards. A wicker rocking chair loaned by a sympathetic landlady. A glorified two “burner” hotplate for a stove.  A mattress on our bedroom floor.

We were in Canada, in a tiny rural village hours north of Toronto—where I had been happy and had found a home in a small publishing “house” that actually occupied a house. My office at the end of the second-floor corridor had no walls, but it was windowed and I sat there and typed like a sailor in charge of the ship’s helm. I worked from 9 to 6 or later, never wanting to leave my happy space. I took dictation, read from the unsolicited manuscript pile, wrote and edited books that I truly loved.

 

But the publisher went bankrupt and I lost my Toronto work home.  My husband found a job working on a small paper a couple of hours north of the city. Too far to commute, and his editor found an apartment for us in a beautiful heritage farmhouse.

I should have been happy.

Sometimes I was. Sometimes he was home and we’d go cross-country skiing. But I was jobless except for occasional part-time work in the city.  We’d bought a goat and kid. Emma Goldman and her billy, Ira (named for the Green Mountain man).

I’d had to learn to milk her. I liked the barn, with its smell of hay and straw. And I had a book on milking goats. So I sat there, book in one hand, Emma’s teats in the other. Nothing. Our farmer landlord John came by, looked at me, and roared. He wrapped his big paw around my hand, compressed and pulled mine. Whoosh. Years later I’d tell the story to CBC radio’s Sad Goat Café. They loved it—especially my punch line about how this intellectual was converted to hands-on learning.

 

There are more houses I could write about, but only one home. I left my loveless marriage, with my children, and struggled to make a home for them.  But I kept trying to incorporate the love of a man. A man who would love me and them. And falling flat on my face.

Somehow I sensed that love was what made a home. I loved my children, but I didn’t love myself.  Sometimes my daughter shared the house I had bought when she was a teenager. Sometimes my son moved back in. Their girlfriends and boyfriends were, for the most part, not welcome guests. I was only comfortable with the man she would marry. So comfortable that I never wanted them to leave. When they did, I had two dogs and four cats that tried to fill the void. But Maggie, the border-collie cross, and the most sensitive of the lot, would tilt her head at me, as if to ask me why I was depressed.

 

All the pets are gone now. As is Karen, who died a couple of years after I retired. For those years, I travelled down to her house, and felt at home. When I arrived, I’d ask which room I was in, and she’d smile and say, “your room, of course.” She meant the room her daughter had grown up in, but Liz was now married and had her own home. But I felt as at home in that room as I had in her house as a child. It was kind of weird that she had her own room, and shared it with a man, but every morning I ran down the stairs to join her in the kitchen, and tried to tease her into singing with me.

 

Karen’s gone now, and so is her house. No more sun-filled sailing parties or trips to New York City museums. I’ve got pictures of us from the age of three onwards.  And I celebrate her daughters’ adventures on Facebook.

 

My daughter has bought a stone house that reminds us both of Karen’s, and sure enough there’s a room in it that’s “my room”. The house is full of warmth and love, and I am hugged to pieces by three sweet little boys.

 

I drive back to the city life I love and look forward to dinner with my son and a reunion with the trees, birds and flowers in my backyard ravine. I think I love them all. Maybe I am not homeless or adrift.  Maybe I am home.

 

 

 

 

 

My father’s journal

I just finished reading Edith Krannich’s translation of a journal my father kept when he and my grandparents were moving through Europe in 1938, before taking a boat to the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1939. I’ll write more after I reread it, but want to capture my first reactions before I forget. It’s hard to write, because I’m, frankly, overwhelmed. I had no idea how well read and cultured my father was. I don’t understand why we never talked about the history he’d lived through and his experiences on the journey from Prague to the Dominican Republic. I’m sad, and a bit ashamed when I think back to how smart I thought I was at that age–15. To make matters worse and harder to bear, I took a trip through many of these places, with my grandparents, completely unaware of the fact my father had written about them, had been there with them. When he writes of his love for Lugano, I want to cry, for that was my favourite stop on my journey. But for the most part, I was just an unappreciative teenager. Lonely despite my grandparent’s many attempts to entertain and spoil me.

Dad died in 1987, and gave me the journal on one of my last visits. But we never talked about it. He had an in-depth knowledge of European political history and was far better read than he ever let on. Why did he never share that with me? Even when I became a history major at University? Or before my trip to Europe with his parents, my grandparents. Why did he let me think I was the smartest member of our small family? I know now that I wasn’t.

***************

(journal excerpt: opening)

Bursting with high spirits – always with a critical mind and on the lookout. That is how the I – my first self – wanders through the world. Knowing everything better, it looks at people and cities, countries and continents. Attempting to write down what it just spotted and heard, intending to show: “This is also a way of rocking the world.” Yet, behind these bubbly, wildly galloping reflections, a serious feeling for the nature of mankind and landscapes is gleaming through.

Horst

City Trujillo, May 21, 1939

West Indies

 

Where is my home?

 

Prague, August 2, 1938

Once more, the St. Vitus Cathedral radiates in the dark red light of the sunset. Then, the fiery red globe of the sun lowers down and disappears behind the castle’s rooftops. Dusk is slowly settling in over the city of one hundred spires. Below, far away in the New City, the first neon signs flare up. One after another casts a flashing light of red, blue, green, or yellow onto the roofs. Down there, the hustle and bustle of the city’s nightlife begins to unfold. From time to time, you can hear the screeching noise of a streetcar or the furious honking of cars. The Charles Bridge mightily stretches over the Vltava river.

A bit further down the long, old castle stairs is The Old Town. There is complete silence. Old, dusty palaces and patrician houses dream of bygone times. Uneven, winding alleyways lead towards the river. Defiantly, the two massive towers of the Church of Our Lady under the Chain rise into the darkness. Wrought-iron lanterns throw a dim light onto squares and alleys. A silvery moon peeks from behind pointed gables. On cobblestone, the jangling footsteps of two police officers echo through the night. Gradually, the steps of these guardians of order die away. Then, there is deep silence again. The Old Town sleeps.

One last time I walk through the quiet alleyways. For a long time staring at the murky water of the Vltava river. In the moonlight, it glistens like silver.

Farewell, my beloved Prague.

Cheers to you, my golden Prague! (p1)

 

Prague, August 4, 1938

Our journey has started.

******************

Some of this was written in Czech, most in German.  I’m not sure whether I posted my submission to the Berlin Reader contest in this blog, but the title is “Adrift” and the theme is homelessness. I’m now wondering whether having several languages contributes to homelessness, or to a better sense of home. My parents were determined that I not learn German or Spanish–only perfect English, without an accent. They never ventured back to Europe. Mom joined me in the Dominican Republic after my Uncle Tommy’s murder and switched between English, Spanish and German there. (The German was not intentional, but I understood her confusion. Even I can speak German in the Dominican Republic, especially when I try and speak Spanish. German must have been the mother tongue in our home there.)

I think learning a second or third language sharpens the mind. (Probably the tongue too.) I have no fluency in another language, and suspect my lack of foreign language has made me a prisoner of English, lost in translation. To have a second language is to have a second soul. And an openness to other cultures than North American.

Powerlessness, Guns and Trophies

Many years ago, I wrote a poem in which I mentioned that the men in administration at Seneca College realized that they were no longer in fashion and so were striking back at the women in the union. Powerful men can be dangerous, but so are powerless men. And they tend to attract one another; also mimic one another. Any man can buy a gun or a trophy wife. And if she doesn’t follow orders, he can divorce or shoot her.

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

When I review my sexual adventures, and misadventures, I am struck by the fact that except for a criminal act in 1969, my sex life has been mostly under my control, even as the men in my life have never been under my control–except for one.

 

I had a wonderful boss and mentor in publishing when I was a gorgeous, young woman. I walked into his office and he, well, hired me on the spot. I was married, and so was he. So actual sex of any kind was out of the question for me. But he genuinely cared for me, and I for him. We’d have long lunches and share ideas and concerns. Given that I was making minimum wage, he’d pay for lunch. But wiener schnitzel and beer were cheap in Toronto back in the early Seventies.  Our conversations were intimate, but our bodies were not. The friendship ground to a halt only because a jealous male colleague tried to make trouble with husband, and I got scared. Which was so stupid, because my husband was screwing every woman he could (but I didn’t know that).

 

I’m still grateful for those long, happy lunches, and the opportunities my boss gave me to edit, rewrite, and hobnob with the amazing authors who came through the doors of our wee publishing house. I recently wrote a piece for the Berlin Reader contest in which I remember sitting at my typing desk in the windowed front hall space of the house, feeling like the captain of a mighty boat.

 

I’m also grateful to my mother, who taught me to demand respect for myself and my body as a woman.  Even if she/I went overboard to the point where I kicked a college boyfriend out of a room he had paid for during a Penn Skimmer weekend, I somehow developed an aura that shielded me from disrespect. Even my eventually disrespectful husband tolerated my saying, on the first night we shared a bed because it was too late for me to go home, “if you touch me, I’ll have to kill you.”

 

Times have changed. People now have sex as easily as they drink coffee. Some people anyway. I’m just glad I lived in Aretha Franklin’s time.

Puerto Rican exploitation

I’m surprised that so many were surprised by the atrocious response to the Puerto Rican disaster. In my personal experience, in 1950s and 60s New Jersey, Puerto Ricans were treated horribly, as if they were not human beings. In Perth Amboy, they were packed into old buildings, with 6 to a bedroom, and left to the rats and other vermin. Few children made it to high school.

 

But the slums were torn down in Amboy and the next memory I have is of how they were treated in Newark, NJ, by the mafia there. The mob ran a General Motors truck shop I worked in during the summer of 1969, putting through calls from Tommy the Carpenter and Joe the Barber. But the calls that stuck in my heart, broke my heart, were the calls from injured or burned workers who had worked in the back shop, as mechanics. They would call, begging for their workers compensation. These men had come to Newark, perhaps thinking the streets were paved with gold, and been poorly paid and made to work in unsafe conditions.

New Jersey is different today. Perth Amboy even has a Puerto Rican mayor. But I don’t know if attitudes have changed. I don’t know whether Puerto Ricans have been granted full human status. Today the Dominicans seem to be low men on the totem pole and the foot soldiers for gangs and organized crime. But, as the saying goes, they all look alike–which may be the reason the mainland Puerto Rican community has been surprisingly silent. Like the American Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, they may fear speaking out and awakening the venom of anti-Hispanic prejudice. Those who have risen in the political hierarchy are also silent. Seems as if it’s left to one gutsy woman, the mayor of San Juan, to speak out against the genocide.

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