06 December 2011

The Odds

I've had the song "Do You Love Me?" from Fiddler on the Roof stuck in my head for a week now. The local community theater is performing that show next spring...but moreso, perhaps one of the things that's driving this earworm is the realization that shrill Golde, skeptical Golde, is the same age as I am now. And her inability to assert her love for her 25-years husband, as touching as it may be, differs so profoundly from Pete's and my origin story—which has a Christmas moment as one of its highlights.

[This long and winding tale has pictures. Gather 'round.]

Peter and I bandied about the idea of getting married within two weeks of falling in love. Incredulously, sheepishly. At that juncture—freshman boy, senior girl—it was ludicrous, and we told no one of our wild notions. But by 1988, it wasn't outlandish anymore. We'd be living together in my apartment that fall, as a trial run. We were inseparable and still quite amused by each other...in fact, I doubt we had ever argued. And passionate, for certain...like crazed weasels. So with all of those factors in mind, we went to Peter's parents' summer home in Nova Scotia, during a gathering of extended family, and we announced out loud for the first time that we intended to get married.

The response was enthusiastic and warm; I can still hear the joyous peal of my mother-in-law's exuberant voice, and can still taste the fizz of the James Ready lager we toasted with. Much to my surprise, we immediately found ourselves discussing rings and dates and locations—topics Peter and I, not known for our pre-planning skills, had not been seriously considering. Our relaxing vacation thus morphed into a strategy session for an event we'd purely been imagining in terms of us.together.always. Calendars whipped out, family diamonds discussed...a dress?? a tux?! And of course, the elephant in that rustic, wooden-walled cabin: what religious denomination would be guiding this ceremony?

Well, no-brainer: we wanted our wedding to have a decidedly Quaker feel. This, despite the numerous Catholic weddings-of-friends I'd already attended, and despite my mother's probable distress at this prospect. I wondered if perhaps we could combine our traditions a little, to soften the blow...?

And herein, the fly landed in some unexpectedly gooey ointment. As relaxed and free-thinking as Quakers may appear to be, they are, in fact, governed by centuries of gently stated, deceptively simple rules. Which my mother-in-law Pat handed to us (and we still own), embodied in a slender, red-bound book called Faith and Practice. (Don't let that "slender" part fool you: they've cogitated on these things and forged them by consensus into softly brushed steel.) And what's more, Pat explained to us, as an elder of her meeting, she'd seen that combo-platter marriages didn't have a great track record. She advised that we stay within the straight-and-narrow channels of Quaker tradition. This meant:

1) the bride enters the meetinghouse alone, not with her father;
2) there is no music, none, zip, during the ceremony;
3) there is no ceremony to speak of, just an exchange of vows between the couple in the context of a silent meeting for worship; and
4) there is no officiant.

Oooooooookay. Deep breath. That's a steep shopping list to sell my mom, who would essentially be footing the bill for this departure-from-centuries-of-Catholic-family-marriages. "No music?" I squeaked.

Pat said (and would reiterate numerous times in the months to come) that the closer a couple stays within the proscribed traditions of the Germantown Monthly Meeting, the more likely the marriage is to succeed.


If you're Catholic, you know what pre-Cana is. My sweet young husband-candidate did not. As we reviewed the suddenly shocking strictures of the Religious Society of Friends, we began to reconsider: should we do this in the Catholic Church instead? But I knew in my heart that Peter would never survive the indoctrination protocol that Catholics require: the pre-Cana sessions wherein a couple had to prove themselves, basically, and learn all of the rules and regs of a successful Catholic homelife. And, like, swear to raise the kids Catholic, which was never our intention.

Good God. Whose idea was this marriage thing...?

In hindsight, I suppose we might have rebelled against Pat's somber pronouncements and crafted a marriage ceremony that incorporated poetry, our own vows, and "Horizons" by Genesis (the music I wanted to march down the aisle to, on my brother's arm). But I didn't want to launch this marriage oppositionally, and I mean, have you met Pat Reifsnyder?! So as 1988 went along, we settled on a Quaker pathway. The location would be our then-hometown of Brunswick, Maine, and the ceremony would be arranged under the care of Peter's parents' meeting of Germantown (PA) Friends.

Now, I said there'd be no officiant...true statement. But a Quaker wedding requires the couple to be interviewed by elders of the meeting—a married couple themselves, who assess the readiness of the intendeds, and render a judgement of "clearance" on the marriage-to-be. Back at Lake Annis, in the lamp-lit wooden cabin, Pat Reifsnyder assured us that this would not be arduous or obstructive like pre-Cana; it was just a one-off meeting, a formality.

And thus we come to Christmas 1988...my fourth consecutive holiday among the Reifsnyders in Philadelphia. I'd come to adore these rollicking gatherings, felt completely at home with everyone. Reifsnyder holidays were 100 times more joyous and 100 times less stressful than the events of my Queens childhood. I mean: no drinking, no arguing, no physical violence. Pretty sweet. From the very beginning, the Reifsnyder fabric wove me in. 

Christmas 1988 would be the perfect time for our Clearance meeting with the elders, it was decided. Our wedding plans were barreling along; an old, worn estate diamond glinted on my left hand, purchased with Peter's hard-earned pay as a grocery bagger. A date selected: the day after Pete's college graduation. (Yeah, I'd snag this morsel without delay, and ba-boom: adulthood.) Flush with holiday cheer, Pete and I drove over to the E---s' house: a couple he'd known for years. He'd babysat their children. I detected his comfort level with them immediately, and when the conversation started, I was as honest and talkative as I usually am.

The E---s were interested in my origins. So I told them my child-of-divorce story, my mean-stepfather-who-used-to-rule-the-roost story, my scholarship-kid-kicks-ass-and-gets-into-little-Ivy story. The little Ivy, Bowdoin College, being the point of intersection for me and the gangly Quaker boy over there.

Mr. E--- sort of hijacked the conversation at this point. "You know, sometimes people meet, and..." he crossed his index fingers into an X. "In the middle here, that's when they've met and found common ground, but you see, after some time they diverge again..." Blah blah blah "life experiences..." blah blah blah "challenges..."

My face pinched into puzzledness. What was the point, Mr. E---?

Well, I'll cinch it up for you: Peter Reifsnyder and Nessa Burns were deemed unready for marriage by the elders of the Germantown Friends Meeting. This meant, basically, that the wedding as we'd been planning it was off. "WHAAAAAT?!" Pat bellowed as she heard the news. Peter and I just gaped, wallowed, and mentally grappled. Instead of a triumphant train ride back to Queens, wherein I would tell Mom all about Reifsnyder Christmas #4 and update her on marriage preparations, my insides were leaden with a bewildered failure as I stared out the window. Every Christmas light I saw seemed fuzzy and dimmed. Worse, I truly felt as though I were no longer the person I'd thought I was. Not worthy. Not Peter's equal. 

But never mind what I felt. Patricia Reifsnyder was absolutely aflame with indignance. She believed that her youngest and his chosen ladylove were more than ready to be wedded. And so, she yanked strings at the Quaker meeting and had a new elder couple assigned to our case: Betty and Steve Cary. I had no idea who they were at the time, but let's just say they're like Quaker royalty (seriously, check out Steve's obit: http://www.haverford.edu/publicrelations/news/stephencary.html). I returned to Philly just before New Year's, still weighted and terrified that our plans were derailed for good.

There was one tiny bright spot in my pocket when I headed back south: a mixtape. And even better: a mystery mixtape. You see, one of the points of intersection on those crossed index fingers was Peter's and my mutual love of obscure, cheesy oldies. We used to make each other unlabeled mixtapes (ON CASSETTE, YES WE'RE OLD) and play them in the car, so that the recipient would have to guess each song as it played. Many a long car ride from Maine south flew past as we pondered the songs and plundered our trivia brains for answers.

The mystery mixtape I carried was our Christmas gift from a demi-god of obscure music, Bill Feis. One of my brother's best friends at the time, Bill had a collection of dusty, cranky vinyl that was unparalleled. Peter and I had only begun to collect vinyl ourselves, and we aspired to the kind of indiscriminate archives that Billy had assembled over in Staten Island. It was actually quite an honor to be given this tape; handed down, if you will, by a respected elder. Billy had followed the rules: the tape box was unlabeled, and stuffed inside was a scruffy piece of notebook paper on which he'd inscribed the cassette's musical contents. I had not even peeked at this--I held onto it so that Peter and I could compete on "name the song and artist" as we drove home (triumphantly) to Maine. 

Except we had a drive to make to Haverford, first...to meet the Carys. And so, as the car wended along twisty, wooded Pennsy Main Line roads, we slid Bill's tape into the deck to calm our nerves.

I can still put myself back in that car...the laughter, the disbelief, the bonding. There we were, thinking we had music-trivia stones...and reeling out on an endless brown ribbon of tape were obscurities we couldn't have named with a gun to our heads. "I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman" by Whistling Jack Smith. "Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo" by Sophia Loren. "Ode to a Critter" by Roy Clark. "Shoot Me With Your Love" by Tasha Thomas! My God, this was hopeless. Neither of us was gonna win this trivia contest. Who owns this stuff?! By the time we arrived at the Carys', we were dizzy from hilarity.

Thus fortified, I took a breath as we entered that Quakerly home (Oriental rug, check; wallsandwalls of books, check; folk art, check) and, despite my every tendency, roped in my chattiness. Answered questions briefly and calmly. Adult Nessa wishes I'd been able to really hang with these noteworthy people and get to know them, but way too much was at stake.

We passed with flying colors. And by that, I mean, we passed the William Feis test of compatibility: the couple that adores ridiculous old music together, stays together. Oh, and the Carys must have sensed our concord too, because they cleared us for marriage. (And a rockin' New Year's 1989 celebration.)

Coda: Bill put a song on his tape called "White on White". Do you know it? Yeah, we didn't either. (Nor the artist: Danny Williams. Dang! how are we supposed to know that!) But its lyrics made it clear: in Billy's inimitable, twisted-hipster way, he was congratulating us on our nuptials-to-be:

White on white, lace on satin,
Blue velvet ribbons on her bouquet.
White on white, lace on satin,
My little angel is getting married today.

Here she comes in her wedding gown lookin’ like a queen.
She has been my only love since she was thirteen.
I’ve been dreaming of this day and how proud I’d be,
When she came walkin’ down the aisle and held out her hand to me.

White on white, lace on satin,
Blue velvet ribbons on her bouquet.
White on white, lace on satin,
My little angel is getting married today.

I’ll be waiting to kiss the bride when her name is new.
Standing oh, so close to her silently saying “I do.”
I’ll be holding back my tears till she’s gone away,
‘cause she’ll belong to someone else when the organ starts to play.

White on white, lace on satin,
Blue velvet ribbons on her bouquet.
White on white, lace on satin,
My little angel is ge-e-etting ma-a-rried today...

The summer 1988 Reifsnyder family gathering at Lake Annis, NS.

My mother-in-law's inscription says it all.

Feis' relic of a playlist. You'd better believe we still own that tape.


08 May 2011


"Happy My Day," you say to your kids upon waking up on this bright May Sunday. But despite the successful laugh line, you know it's not true. This day is hers, and she's not here.

The photo of Mom you put up on Facebook took your breath away, in fact. The familiarity. That facial expression, her blend of humor, pride, and a little bit of on-guard. Because you were not easy to guide, and you and she were emotionally dissimilar--a practical soloist versus a blindly gregarious optimist. But as your adulthood finally took hold, you frequently supplied things the other lacked (usually by telephone, but that was the negotiated landscape).

Her eyes are looking right out at you in this scanned Kodak moment. It's the moment, a signature capture commemorating her triumph that, somehow, you did not flunk out of the prestigious college she had prayed, yearned, demanded you would attend. You're a dazed mess, because graduation was held on a humid, stormy day inside a gym on campus. (You had never been in that gym, ever, before the day you graduated in it. Which is a hilarious little digression. And the hangover. Oh, the hangover.)

Your path and hers diverged so completely after this day. You stayed behind in that town, that state, and she returned to her New York City existence--the loner in a sea of people, sounds, and visual arrays. She liked it that way, like a cork bobbed on a wavy, ceaseless sea. Punch in her numbers on the first telephone you ever owned (brown, with that big dumbbell handle you could cradle under your neck for efficient multi-tasking) and she would be there, always. You could see her in your mind's eye where she sat. You couldn't bear her aloneness, yet you couldn't fix it. And her maternal voice would flip on as soon as you had a crisis. Maybe you couldn't fix things for her, but she frequently did so for you.

On My Day, you get up and dress for a social outing with your family. Maine's still damply chilly despite the new springtime, so it's sweater and jeans time. Your afterthought, after the jewelry and the combed hair, is one of her scarves. There can be no greater symbol, really, of Mom's New York existence than these filmy, silky, satiny relics of her work life. Saks Fifth Avenue, B. Altman, Bloomingdale's, Bergdorf's--her colleagues bought clothing there, but Mom could only afford scarves. Almost all of her scarves, which you've inherited, are prints and colors that you would never ever select. And there's something 1970s about them that feels unreachable. But when you twist them, roll them, and knot them loosely around your neck, they become a little more you. And tucked underneath a sweater collar, they are subtle.

It's on you now, today's scarf. Some kind of comic-book burst of color, you don't even know what's pictured. But here's your My Day present: it smells exactly like her. Six years this month that she left this earth, and her scarves still bear her scent as though you just opened the drawer in her bedroom and stole something for a night out in Manhattan.

And as you write this piece, your youngest comes into your office and hands you an essay, trilling "Happy Mother's Day!" Unbelievably unique prose, and an overwhelmingly optimistic sentiment expressed in the piece, which is called--not making this up--"The Energy Given From Others." It is Your Day, it is Her Day, and it's His Day too. Revel in your fortunes, and hold your mother close.

28 March 2011

God bless the child

She is slender and suddenly taller, as in: you look at her and are jolted. Whoa! when did she get that tall?! By which you are secretly saying, when did she get that grown-up. For, now, the childish rounded cheeks are attractively shaping, the nonchalant dirty blonde hair is styled and distinctive, the womanly figure is pre-ripening. And her brown-eyed gaze, always sharp and aware, is gaining an amused wiseness.

Also, I write with pride, these days her words are sorting themselves into more careful statements. Lydia has ever struggled with verbal expression. Not that she was incapable, but she just seems to shape her thoughts and ideas differently. I could write a book about how she writes and speaks in her own way. You could say she marches to her own beat. That's precisely it. And her parents are responsible for keeping her in the parade, regardless of that difference.

I have been amazed by Lydia since the moment she emerged, bellowing heartily. In my arms, protesting and red-faced, she looked offended that her term safely in utero had been brought to abrupt closure by dreadful muscular contractions not of her choosing. How do you not admire a newborn with that kind of chutzpah? We ceded our household to her at that moment. Tell us what to do, Miss Lydia. Because, really, no one else in our home has that kind of willpower and spark. She did not steer us wrong, our unfailingly polite diva. At age 1, a favorite activity was to sit in her highchair after dinner, the white tray set before her grandly, wiped of its meal leavings...and she would begin to tap on the tray, or wave her hands, or pat her head, and we would all do the same thing once she set the pace: two sibs, two parents, precisely imitating her actions. She would watch us with indulged good humor, while we all laughed--because her stamina for this activity was boundless. So was ours.

Really, it's this: I trust her. For nearly a decade, we've weathered storms of academe: extra help offered at school that we deemed useful, versus overly solicitous concerns that Peter and I were not willing to share and act upon. Never easy, those school meetings, but Pete and I are united. Throughout, I have placed my trust in that steady gaze of Lydia's, that determination. I remember a night as I was tucking her in, and we discussed some reading issue she was having. First grade. I explained to her what the teacher was concerned about, and then I explained to her that I didn't think the teacher understood that Lydia was well capable of whatever activity was being discussed. I said to Lydia, passionately, "I know you can do this, honey. Show them that you can do this." The brown eyes filled with tears, and she hugged me tightly. My trust, again, not disappointed.

Second grade is when our elementary school opens the world of music to children who wish to participate in an orchestra. I never attended a school that offered music as part of its curriculum, and as each Reifsnyder child grips a violin and starts learning, I appreciate so much what that means. Well, it turned out, Lydia did not really like the violin. Instead, she confided one night, she wanted to learn to play guitar.

Play guitar!?! You can only imagine how rock 'n roll Mumma Nessa rejoiced. And so Weslea Sidon began coming to our home every Monday night, an experienced teacher, writer, artist, and fellow NYer in exile. She "got" Lydia immediately--and while Lyd was by no means a natural at the instrument, she eagerly greeted that hour of intensive learning. Two years later, when Lydia transitioned at school from violin to (finally free!) trumpet, Weslea and we realized that Lydia's enthusiasm for the horn was outstripping her efforts on the timeworn acoustic guitar. But what a foundation had been laid, both at school and at home.

Lydia is a jazz musician now. You hear me, Mom?! She loves, craves, embraces jazz. She clutches that trumpet like a boss, and she plays it with that determined look I adore. Mount Desert Elementary School loves jazz, too, and what an opportunity our children receive in the jazz band: two phenomenal teacher/directors whose expectations are high, but gently imparted. They know these children are capable of extraordinary musicianship, and they give them the environment and the early-morning, pre-class time to master challenging arrangements. Lydia rarely oversleeps the 6:30 a.m. alarm that's required of her for jazz band practice. Dresses herself, feeds herself, gets the lunch ready, out the door.

Every spring, those early mornings bear beautiful fruit. Say what you will about Maine's bad press re: education costs and struggles; this state welcomes and nurtures music from a young age through high school. (Shout-out to the Maine Music Educators Association!) In the 1940s my mother was a direct beneficiary of that; today, my children draw strength and skill from it. On Saturday, Peter and I traced the endless gray ribbon of I-95 up to Mom's hometown for the Middle School Instrumental Jazz Finals. Last year, I was not able to attend, and Mount Desert won first place. This year, I closed my shop for the day. Lydia's personal investment in this activity has become even stronger, so we made the trek gladly. Saturday morning, I walked through the portals of a building that used to host my Brownie Girl Scout troop, the year I'd lived in Millinocket: I got my wings in that school auditorium. Even more so, my mom got her wings in that small town, becoming a musician with purpose.

If you watched the video I posted, you know the outcome. Ned Ferm and Heather Graves did it again, guiding the MDES Jazz Band to another first-place year. The band's music selections fairly pulsed with emotion and nuance. I could not believe these children were middle schoolers. And there was my girl, wielding that brass horn, perfect posture, composed, playing her heart out. My sense of family in that room was overwhelming...how I wished Mom and Nana and Grampy could have seen and heard this. Well, truly, my belief system tells me that they did, but to have had them physically present would have been even better.

After the awards were given out, Peter and I made our way through the crowd to congratulate our girl. I was still wiping away tears inspired by the performance and the circumstances. Down the bleachers she scrambled, and she pulled me into a typically fervent Lydia hug. Her hugs are different these days...our heads tuck next to each other. Equal heights. It's even more comforting. As we separated, her brown eyes were large with emotion. Crying. In her own words, she told me that she just felt so...much...and so happy.

Exactly what I was going to say. Two hugs, this time.

03 March 2011


Fred Arnold did not make it past eighth grade. He was a scrapper, honed by pick-up hockey on the ice of the Nashwaak River and the competitive pushing of six older brothers whose exploits were always larger than his. (Fred did not envy them their military service, however...he felt eternally fortunate to have been too young for the First World War and too old for the Second.) As he grew up, Fred's mother told him many times that as the seventh son, she believed he had a gift, and he should become a physician. She cited his mathematics ability, his competence, and his good heart. He glowed with her confidence, but somehow, school was not a venue where Fred could fulfill her hopes. His teachers compared him unfavorably to his brothers, and his schoolmates often had better clothing and a calmer home life, all of which Fred resented deeply. Day to day, Fred rebelled enough to have his nose broken against a blackboard at one brutal teacher's hand. Later in life, the tendons of his palms crinkled inwards where teachers had smacked them repeatedly with 12-inch rulers. These childhood flashpoints did not dim his seething determination.

When Fred's mother died--in the midst of his grade 7 school year, and with little forewarning to her youngest son--the die was cast. His already pugnacious persona became hardened and exasperated. He battled his way into grade 8, hated every minute, and jumped off the academic track for good. During that same dreadful year, his father remarried, and Fred left home to live with his beloved uncle, who lived in the same town. It is a grace note in Fred's life that no one intervened in his departure. Even today, to imagine his 12-year-old turmoil is almost unbearable.

The early 20th century was Dickensian in its cruelties. In modern times, "survival of the fittest" conjures abstract evolutionary happenings among lower animals. For our forebears, it was the name of the game. Fred survived, oh you betcha. He left Atlantic Canada for Maine, where a new railroad was enabling unprecedented travel and commerce in the northern counties. In this, he followed in his beloved brother Mel's footsteps. Most recently, Mel had served with bravery as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in two theaters of WW1, signing up before his 18th birthday and lying shamelessly about his age. This, too, was in the horrible aftermath of their mother's death...I can almost feel the hot tears behind Mel's eyes, not emerging, as he gritted his teeth and signed on the dotted line for service and sacrifice. What the hell did he have to lose? His mother had been taken just three months prior. His father already showed signs of moving on. What remained but death or glory?

Mel was a signaller in the war. A mustard-gassing in Russia (and multiple medals for bravery) finally convinced him to give up the fight and come home. Thence, he parlayed his war experiences into a career as a railroad telegrapher. As Fred joined him in Maine, Mel taught his eager young brother everything he knew about this most crucial means of communication. The Bangor and Aroostook Railroad hired Fred in the mid-1920s, and he was officially an adult. Courtship, marriage and a newborn followed.

Fred's professional life led him to the Great Northern Paper Company, the largest employer in his newly adopted hometown of Millinocket. He hated leaving the railroad, but a supervisor questioned his integrity over some transaction he'd processed, and Fred bristled. With his newfound sense of adult stability, he cut and ran. That the GNP hired him so readily is a testimony to his evident intellect and assertive personality; in fact, despite his lack of a high school diploma, he never worked on the factory floor, instead taking part in the end-stage aspects of the paper production process.

Fred retired in 1962 as the supervisor of the Finishing Room. He was 58 years old. From that moment until the day he died, he received a monthly pension check and guaranteed health insurance from the GNP and its successor owners. He and his wife lived frugally, but they never wanted for a thing. Both nearly made it to age 90, so their financial comfort is especially noteworthy. Think of it: no stock investments, a house worth $20,000, SSI checks, health plan, pension. That's all. Yet they were provided for by a system that our country shaped carefully as a reaction to the privations of the Great Depression, and the shortages and strifes of two major wars.

Was Fred fulfilled by his work? Well, as his close confidante in later years, I can tell you that tapping out myriad messages on a telegraph set under deadline stress was his greatest professional joy. Sitting at that station desk and waiting for the shadow of a locomotive to cross the window, bearing the fruits of his labors--that was his idea of a happy routine. But Fred also took subsequent pride in the papers he helped make, the men whose careers took place under his supervision, and the tiny town that bustled with work and camaraderie, where literally everybody knew your name.

I think about Fred constantly in these messed-up, terrifying, bewildering economic times. I can see him at his home desk, carefully and competently tending his modest household finances. During my youth, my own mother confronted numerous financial hurdles, and Fred--her father--never failed to provide when asked. Because that's what you do. The fact that he could do it was what he expected after a long, productive work life, faithful to one company. Even moreso: it was the WHY behind his full-time efforts. When local people in a similar situation recently lost their pensions and insurance a few years before retirement, I felt bereft and infuriated on their behalves. Forty years of toil, and now: nothing awaits. The world has changed, you see. Your company does not value you as an individual American anymore. And God forbid your rights as a worker should be valued, protected, and propagated.

Fred, I long to hear your words, in your voice, from your living-room armchair of observation. You would be moved to copious outbursts of fury, and bless you, I know you would be picking up the phone and blasting every representative, every official whose turncoat ways led us to this hour. "This is Fred H. Arnold," you would begin--as you did every time you called anyone to complain about anything. You weren't shy, and you persisted until your way was clear. And you felt that stating your identity at the outset was worthy, that they owed you their attention.

I'm tempted to quote Wordsworth and his "Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour." But that's not quite it. I am horrified at the thought of bringing my grandfather back to see this world that is the upside-down-wrong version of what he strove for and achieved.

Still, Wordsworth stated his generation's ire beautifully, so here 'tis. Grampy would have loved to hear me read it to him, the fulfillment of that college education he paid for--the betterment of his descendants always his highest goal.

LONDON, 1802.

Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea;
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In chearful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on itself did lay.

26 February 2011

After the hurricane

(Honestly, I'm not all grim all the time. Not even like 10% of the time. But sad things have happened, and I am driven to write about them...to gain understanding, mastery; to give shape.) So:

It's a famous case. There's a popular movie with an Oscar-winning actor, and a Bob Dylan song beloved and believed by people all over the world. I found out today there's a new autobiography by the man who claims he was falsely accused and framed. Nelson Mandela wrote the foreword.

 45 years later, and I still yearn for a woman I can't remember, my grandmother, whose life was tangled up in a dark, evil night, and there destroyed. The details of her wounding and death were horrific; given the subsequent literal hurricane of accusations, court papers, slippery evidence, conflicting testimonies, and raging controversy, Hazel's murder will never be solved. I accept that I will never know who did this to her, and I embrace the peace of that. But today, cnn.com commenters are debating all over again the innocence or guilt of the convicted man. And someone actually posted: "... after all this time, not sure it matters anymore."

What matters, then: Hazel was beautiful, truly. She had a lilting singing voice, coupled with a mischievous smile and a winning personality. She parented lovingly and fiercely, after a childhood of abandonment and poverty. She was mine, and I'll never have her. Needing my grandmother is one of the reasons I embarked on my genealogical journey in 2000. Piece by piece, and never with ease, I've reassembled and claimed her fragmented life story. Dates, names, places, from France to Qu├ębec, New England to New Jersey. Found the love, and the sadnesses too. Made my family whole.

 The poem I wrote about her a few years ago came out of me like water wrung from a cloth. It needed to happen, but it wrenched. I'm posting it now because this wound keeps getting seared open, and the poem is as close as I can come to wailing: STOP. Let her rest. Let her be Hazel. Give her back to us.


Grandmother, Lost

Fingering the corner of a faded photo,
I find myself in Hazel:
eyes that light and scrinch with grins,
appled cheeks, shy teeth,
chin, softly doubling,
dark wavy hair.

I've been told she feared aging
yet laughed uproariously and kidded often—
sardonic bend of her Jersey voice teasing,
sway of ample hips knowing as she walked away
carrying a loaded tray of food and drinks,
serving at a country club.

Dad kicked us out when I was four months old.
A family in shards, swept up,
discarded; then I was
shielded from everyone sharing my surname,
that lingering verb: Burns.

So Hazel dwelled in handlebars, silver as a mirror,
on the gleaming blue tricycle she'd given me
(only, living in the city, I maybe got to ride it once)—
cool sheen of the handlebars' curve
under my baby-plump palm, a tricycle
hopelessly parked indoors, new black tires
ready to move.

Today I move a smooth mouse, pointing
on the Internet, finding
an image when I search on her name:
the window of the Lafayette Bar and Grill, 1966,
"Rheingold" spelled in neon script
with a bullethole in the upper corner,
glass cracked like a twinkled star.

That's Hazel's bullet, one of five
that pierced her and left her for dead,
blasting from shotguns wielded by strangers.
And I am one of ten grandchildren:
a club that never met.

12 February 2011


An imagining from last night.

In an alternate universe, in Queens, NY, there was a Father-Daughter Dance. Let's say, February of 1978. Valentine's Day week, festooned with red and pink paper silhouettes of cupids, hearts, and arrows. A crowded gym, a deejay playing shiny records he stored upright in milk crates. A veritable swirl of girls' skirts and heeled feet...every color imaginable, all heights, toddler to preteen. Dads in suits, some of which looked like office clothing repurposed for the event...others who were stiff in more fancywear than their blue-collar jobs would ever merit. And then the fathers, boisterous, in brightly floral polyester shirts, chains glinting inside the wide collars, and flare-leg slacks with platform shoes: the dads who "got" disco.

Not my date. My father wore a simple suit, almost '60s throwback. He didn't draw attention to himself, but he looked right for the occasion--even though I knew his tie was too narrow and his collars too subtle. My dress came from Lerner's, a clothing mecca right up the street from my house. I wandered Lerner's for hours to find it, circling through and around the spinning silver racks, a dizzying obstacle course of preteen fashion. Touching every single fabric as I passed them, musing, mulling. I decided on this one because of its pink and beige color combination--soft and different. I liked it on my Irish-pale skin. Long sleeves, because it was winter, but they were puffy floral cotton with elastic at the cuffs. The bodice was shirred and puckered all over, with a rectangular lacy neckline, and the skirt was full. No ruffle at the bottom: felt like a ladies' dress. Mom finally let me wear the wedge-heeled sandals from her closet that I always tried on, because now they fit me for real. With nylons, sheer ones. I had to wear snow boots over to the gym, though; they joined a marching battalion of fur-cuffed footwear near the doorway. My stockinged feet were still icy from the trudge over.

Dad and I were not the types of people to fully buy into the concept of a Father-Daughter Dance. A little too ironically distant, we, and both of us burned by our mutual, unpopular reality: we were eggheads. Never quite in the mainstream. Always suspecting mockery from gaggles of our peers. But we agreed to do this because some of my friends from class got their dads to go--and, as submerged as I kept it, I really did want to feel popular, somehow.

Dad was a jazz drummer, but surprisingly able to dance nonetheless. This was another trait we shared. Early on in the evening, the deejay picked up on the overwhelming craze for all things Bee Gees, and spun "Night Fever". The room, predictably, erupted. Dad never indicated any particular affection for this music as it thumped from my homework-strewn bedroom, but he definitely allowed himself to dance to it, and I found myself grinning--which I did not expect, not at all. In fact, the gym was pervaded by a temporary dismantling of preteen embarrassment about our parents and their uncoolness. I stole glances around as Dad and I, yeah, boogied, and everyone else seemed equally unaware that if the overhead lights were on, we'd be fleeing from this dance floor faster than you could say "get down tonight".

After "Night Fever," the deejay pulled out "Love Is (Thicker Than Water)," which kind of called for a closer dancing posture (and had an uncertain beat, besides). I asked Dad if he wanted punch, and he nodded, so we made for the paper-covered table, loaded up on red sugar fluid and pink cookies, and found steely folding chairs to sit in. The gym was so cavernous that we could converse and hear each other, just.

"I can't believe I'll be graduating in this room, like, 5 months from now."

"I can't believe it either, sweetheart," Dad said. He sipped the punch and grimaced, making a sound something like "grack". "Even in my boozing days I wouldn't have choked back something like this," he said wryly, setting the cup far away.

I was always relieved when he made a comment that placed alcohol in his rear-view mirror, so I smiled happily, even though I agreed the punch was putrid.

"So is this," he paused, "disco the kind of music they'll be playing all night?"

"I don't know," I replied, honestly. "I hope they play a little rock, at least."

He nodded assent and bit a heart-cookie. I looked over as the song ended and the deejay flipped on the next turntable. "Native New Yorker". Shook my head at Dad. Although I did love this song, I just didn't want to dance to it. He didn't seem interested either.

"Do you feel ready for your high-school entrance exams?" he asked. Just the thought of them made my stomach cramp.

"Sure," I lied, hoping my lack of words might kill the topic.

"How many do you have to take, again?" (No such luck.)

"Four," I squeaked. "The overall exam, and then three schools have their own."

"I know you'll do fine," he said with a hand-squeeze. I gulped, cookie crumbs chafing my throat. Then I smiled again to cover it.

People had been making requests; I could see shadowy goings-on at the deejay table. The next song kicked on and I was initially stunned--Led Zeppelin...?

"'Misty Mountain Hop'!" Dad crowed. "Let's go!"

We were still holding hands, so we made our way in tandem into the dance throng. Dad's enthusiasm over Led Zeppelin had me astonished (and he knew the name of the song! I never did, with Zeppelin), but here we were, rocking out, almost choosing the same moves. Robert Plant's vocals pealed and shrieked over the crowd, and the deejay must have had a subwoofer, because the drums and bass were shaking the floor. Dad did not shout "woooooo!" the way some of the wilder fathers were doing, nor did I jump up and down as some of the frilly girls were doing, but we were into it nonetheless.

And then there was a slow song, throwing the mood sideways. Bee Gees again (was that a sigh I heard around the gym?) "How Deep is Your Love". Which I swooned over nightly--not thinking about my father, of course, but wishing for a boyfriend like some of my classmates had. Still, Dad went into his 1950s arms-bent, dancing-with-a-lady posture, and that was fine. Before we started moving, he leaned over and whispered in my ear: "John Bonham on the drums, that last song. Killer." I had to laugh a little, because he was such a music nerd. (And he was right about Bonham, but I didn't grasp that fully until later.) We let the Bee Gees' harmonized warbles wash around us and we swayed with it, twinkling lights along the walls seeming to flow with the melody.

It seems so trivial in the writing: this alternate universe, this father-daughter spot carved into a cold February night, this gym that would revert to a sweaty game space with Sunday sunlight, all guided by the music that mattered to me (and ever evokes my eighth-grade year). Whereas, in the universe I actually lived in, I honestly did not know that I yearned for such moments--because I wouldn't have known to imagine them. I never, ever saw my father, until I was an adult myself.

Now, every year, as a mom and wife, and even moreso as a deejay, I experience a local Father-Daughter Dance and I see in countless other couples what could have been; what was right to expect; what pure happiness and fun looks like; what touches the heart and bonds the daughter to the daddy, and vice versa. Placing 1978 Nessa and Dad in that scenario...absent the many, many reasons that I did not know him at that time in my life, stripping away what was negative, while keeping our essences...this is a healing, rightful vision.

Because, I can attest, it is painfully possible to miss what you never had.

29 January 2011

How to Save a Life

First, find a girl. Not just any girl—no, this girl is the nerdiest urchin you’ll ever meet, and her home life is, well, frayed. (Pause to relish unintentional title-pun.)

This girl is keenly pining for something, anything. She thinks it’s a boyfriend she needs—because, cue Brothers Grimm, he will rescue her from the rapunzeltower of her sixth-floor bedroom window. She’s always attracted to young men’s arms: their enfolding, swooping-up, holding and protecting powers draw her magnetically. (She wonders if these boys notice her noticing them, but probably they don’t, because she is nondescript, a veritable vacuole of brown-haired plainness.)

You don’t actually know this, but she sits in that sixth-floor window every chance she gets—its square frame supporting her entire body, scrunched into a C sitting shape. She leans her head against the screen, headphones clamped over her ears, craving escape from the stepfatherly rage occurring behind her, in the smoky living room of the apartment. Music swirls into her mind and becomes woven there, as a protective garment. She breathes street air and watches the transition from daylight to dusk like a sworn witness, night after night. She feels as if everything beyond the tiny gray screen squares is potentially magical, as sooty and city-streety as it is. See? isn’t that a vivid green tree down there amidst the blocks of sidewalk, just burst into spring bloom and jazz-handing the sky? Don’t the airplanes landing over at LaGuardia, just beyond her neighborhood, glimmer in the darkening sky like moving stars? She watches, all the time wordless, but pleading. Someone, anyone.

But wait: there are two of you. Two princes, and not rivals—no, you’re staunchest allies. You’ve already saved each other’s lives myriad ways, through a friendship that started in the doggiest days of grammar school…greasy hair, glasses with tape, braces, zits, and brutal teasing from classmates. Now you are high school sophomores who have crested awkwardness and are full-steaming towards awesomeness, exuding confidence that was forged in shared battles and common experiences. Not only does Nerdy Urchin Girl need you…she is a lot like you in temperament and intellect. But she doesn’t believe it. Yet.

Prince #1 will meet the Girl in the deepest recesses of a cave. Well, all right, it’s the New York City subway system, 59th Street station. As though a fairy’s wand has blinged this dingy place, the sheer fact of your meeting will cause the Girl to feel an upswell of hope and anticipation in this subterranean waystation for years to come. What are the odds, that—after years of attending the same grammar school as she, and never crossing paths—you appear on the (grimy gray) steed of the Number 6 uptown local, are introduced to the Girl by a mutual friend, and instantly become a gallant and constant companion on the arduous (truly, yes, arduous) weekday journey to high school? You, Prince, are indeed gallant, and never in the snide James Joycean sense. Your demeanor is ever respectful (well, of the Girl—everything else is fair game for the constant joking wordplay between you both). You stay positive in almost every situation. Do you know that, before she met you, the Girl found her freshman-year subway journeys terrifying in their unknown randomness? Any given day, who knew what horrors could happen on the screeching, graffiti-ridden trains—or even standing in the station, waiting for the next tube to barrel in and fearing someone could push her onto the tracks in its path? (She read the New York Post, y’know. That happened uncomfortably often back then.) Yet now she gains a faithful fellow traveler. He banishes boredom with crisp sarcastic commentary, he shares poetry without irony (and encourages sharing of hers, releasing the catch on a cage), he adores all the music that fills her headphones, and his very presence makes her sigh with safety.

Prince #1, you probably knew within minutes that the Girl was smitten. Or perhaps you still nursed some uncertainties deep within, which obscure her looks of adoration. However long it takes, this Prince will finally recognize the Girl’s ardor, and here he shall make life-saving gesture the firsteth: he understands that she needs him as a friend more than as a quick-burning early teen boyfriend. He rejects her without in any way rejecting her, with calm and sincere words. The Girl will take years to grasp these wisdoms; she is, as stated above, needy and immature. Yet as a grown woman, she will finally grasp the profound good sense that Prince #1 showed to her. Could not their hearts be connected, their destinies joined, without the iffiness and tanglings of a romance? You prove it so, Prince #1.

But see, even her hopefulness, that deep-seated infatuation the Girl bears all throughout that school year…even those months of wanting are a potent gift. Something to strive for. A reason to try new hairstyles, and dress herself with newfound attention. A reason to want to attend school dances. And seriously, a reason to get up in the mornings. Because Prince #1 meets her on the corner of 30th Street and Broadway like 7:50 am clockwork, and together they climb the long dual stairwells of the RR station and head for the Upper East Side, where their respective brownstone schools open for them “a whole new world” a la Aladdin. One block away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the verdant wonders of Central Park…avenues of bookstores, movie houses, and old-timey Yorkville neighborhood fixtures like Schubert Hall. (Schubert Hall? the reader asks. A musical conservatory? a society devoted to the works of Franz Schubert? Ummm, no. An old-man bar that serves the high-school masses and has the best jukebox ever, anywhere. A welcoming harbor; a teenage Cheers.)

The Girl’s adult self pauses to assure you that, as culturally wrong as it’s now deemed to be, in that era she benefitted from the occasional alcohol escape valve. Her homelife was indeed that painful, her self-esteem that fragile. She was by no means an afterschool special in the making; she was just trying desperately to grow wings. Prince #1 contributed untold amounts of wisdom and daring to her wing-growth: gleeful decadence combined with savvy self-preservation. Fun first, responsibility constant, boredom never. She learned, emulated, and survived. Prince #1’s tools for living become clanging, practical old mainstays in her toolbelt. (He also was a fantastic kisser, which he kindly proved to the Girl on a starry March night. A few heady times, and no more. Just enough to know and move along to a new adventure. The Girl is eternally grateful.)

We promised two princes, and it is thus. Prince #2 will enter the Girl’s life in an equally dramatic manner: they will approach each other in the orange-streetlight mist, as though crossing a moor or a mystical bridge. Rain had fallen all day, and was evaporating all around them. The Girl had boldly contacted Prince #2 by telephone, never having met him, because another friend had explained to her that Prince #2 might hold keys that could help decipher and release Prince #1’s ardor. At this stage, she will take whatever she can get. But also, on subway mornings she’s been told tales of Prince #2’s wry sense of humor, his undying friendship, and his wondrous garage replete with pool table, stained-glass hanging light fixture, and bar. He sounds like a hoot. The Girl arranged the meeting, and Prince #2—undoubtedly having heard things about her himself—readily agreed.

And so they approach each other on 37th Street. The Girl is tasked with procuring her parents’ Friday-night Chinese takeout, and Prince #2 says he will walk her there and home. She notes immediately upon his coming into focus that he has very cool permed hair and awesomely chunky Frye boots, and he walks purposefully. This Prince decides that the Girl is not as nondescript and mousy as he had been given to believe, and for a short while—a few months, maybe—he pines for her. But now it is the Girl who will comprehend that romance is not their shared destiny: bonded, total friendship is. (Appreciation accrues to Prince #1 for that knowledge, clearly.) Some details play out the same: they share poetry, mercilessly joke and banter, protect each other’s interests fiercely. But this Prince is actually acquainted with the stepfather who terrorizes the Girl’s homelife, a fact she does not realize until they meet. Thenceforth, Prince #2 double-bolsters her sense of safety by demystifying this domestic dragon gradually and completely. The Princely garage, the supreme hangout that is just as cool as described, becomes a safe haven. In fact, his entire demeanor—the way Prince #2 is game to talk about anything, anytime, and the way he empathizes with the Girl at every turn…his universe of friendship is another life-saver. Also, Prince and Girl watch and savor the same soap operas. Do not underestimate the unifying power of The Stories.

To this day, if the Girl cradles her hand into a telephone grip, she imagines his sweet, sassified voice awaiting her ear. Over years and years, in talks that range over hours of long-distance time, there is nothing she will not tell him, and he the same. O, the rocks that their tentative boats could have crashed upon in tempests past! the surging, unpredictable waves of fate and post-adolescent choices! yet their support of one another guides them like beacons. And the mishaps that did happen…the Prince and the Girl knew all and helped each other fervently.

It’s a long fairytale, this. The Princes and the Girl all depart their homeland kingdom of Queens. They become teacher, hairdresser, and (eventually) shopowner in three different corners of the United States. Marriages, parenthood, losses, misadventures and actual adventures abound. Prince #2 dies, and his survivors’ hearts suffer ever in his absence. But the Girl knows, and will never forget, that but for her meeting these pivotal men, she might not have escaped the window and the kingdom. Would she have found her writerly voice? perhaps, but never as surely as she did with their eager reading and encouragement. She also ditched the mousy urchin persona and embraced honest bravery, in appearance as well as the spoken word. In short, the Girl cannot imagine her self as it exists without the Princes who rescued her. You are worthy, they showed her (instead of telling). And you are valiant, she herewith proclaims in response.