Sunday, June 29, 2014

LOOKING UP


I sit on my father’s lap at the kitchen table, facing him. It is evening, after supper and it’s just him and me. His face is large, more square than round, up above mine. I bend my head a little to look up at him, his eyes, laughing eyes, are cast downward to meet mine.

We are playing a game. My father points to his eye and I try to remember the Hungarian word. Usually I can’t remember and he must remind me, laughing, though I like it best when I do remember. Then he points to his nose, then his mouth. Some of them I can always remember, some are hard, like ear and neck.

Hungarian people come to our house sometimes. They are my father’s friends, mostly, that my mother has made friends with, sort of. My mother is always on the edge of these small parties in our living room where the men wear suits and the women wear skirts. They drink drinks and talk in Hungarian and if I am lucky Robert Major, who has grey hair, will do coin tricks for me. 

Sometimes I sit amongst them, looking at the way they across their legs. I look at my own legs that stick out straight when I sit in a chair. I would like my legs to be adult enough to at least bend over the edge of the chair. I try crossing them anyway.

My mother is the only one who does not speak Hungarian so sometimes they speak English. My mother is learning Hungarian from a book and she tries out phrases.

I would like my mother to blend in better somehow. There is a way that things could easily fall apart and my mother is the fault line, the place where the seam could break. If she could be different, part of the other side of the fault line where my father lives and where things seem to be bright and move easily.

She would be less serious. Her face would be younger. She would be more girlish instead of often wearing shorts and sneakers and kneeling in the garden. She would not pull leaves off bushes as she walked to chew on them.

Then my father would laugh with her and she would laugh back, maybe everyone in the room would laugh and look to her for the next joke.

But is it not like that. My mother sits on an arm of the couch while the others chatter. This is not her place like it is my father’s place. Her place is out in the woods.

One morning my father tells me how the night before, when it was dark and I had gone to bed, he had waltzed one of the ladies all the way down the driveway.

He tells me the story with the big smile he has when he is pleased with himself – happy and proud of who he is and how nobody else is like him. He waltzed another lady – of course not my mother. Of course, someone else.

And all the way to the end of the driveway. He did this. No one else even thought of doing it.

His eyes are focused outside the house. People beyond us get his attention. He does turn back and gaze at us – me, my mother, my little sister – from time to time, but my mother is never dressed right and my little sister is a duplicate of her, on the edge and shy. Then there is me, and him. His eyes light up as they meet mine and make me feel that I can do the things he does. Maybe. Almost. If I am to hold his gaze. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

FRIENDSHIP UNRECOVERED


My friend, Ruth, whom I have known for almost 40 years, texted me this morning, saying she is sad for her father who died this week, and sad for herself for no longer having a living father.

And I am up against the quandary again, of having felt no sorrow when my own father died 3 years ago, no tears for the person who was the center, the shining light, of my first years.

I wonder about this over and over. Once, my father wrote to me during his last few years, asking to be more in touch. “We used to be such good friends,” he wrote.

This was only true when I was a little child. It was true until the time he and I were out on a walk, a common thing we did together. Since I was a little kid riding on his shoulders, my father had taken me with him on long weekend walks, walks that always felt much too long, my feet hurting.

My father always talked on these walks – telling me the history of Napolean, or how the Germans and then the Russians came through Budapest, about the bombs, or about how when you went to visit someone in Budapest before the war and they were not home, you left your card with one corner bent over. 

There were certain things my father loved, and bending the corner of a visiting card was one. The visiting card itself was another. The things he loved usually involved other people, or Hungary, or Switzerland. They were customs and habits from other places or things other people had said. They were never things here at home.

On this day he was talking about the Pope and my father asked me a question. Not an unusual question, but I did not like the feeling it gave me. I didn’t like that I knew I had to answer it in a right way, that my father was waiting to assess my response. So I just shrugged.

“Come on,” said my father with restrained irritation. I was letting him down.

I was about 12 for this conversation and it never went back to the way it had been.

It was always a mix after that, a mix I did not know what to do with except to pretend it was not there. 

Suddenly I noticed I did not like my father coming home on weekends, his arrival  an unwelcome interruption, the way he poked his head in at the door of my mother’s room where I was watching my weekly show. No, I did not want to talk to him right then, did not think it was funny when he made fun of what I was watching as if anything I was doing just for fun proved I was stupid.

I did not like him coming into my room to look over the pictures from magazines that I’d cut out and pinned to a big piece of burlap, the way he scrutinized them, making some flat joke about the women being prettier than the men while I knew he thought the whole thing incomprehensibly silly.

He asks me to help him clear the woods on the weekend. It is a few years later, a different house, and my father likes to clear all the woods behind the house – to “make a park” he says with excitement. I don’t want to turn our woods into a park. I want to listen to Bob Dylan, but I must go out and labor beside him or pull weeds from the path of pure white gravel that leads to our front door before the guests arrive.

And though I know I am still his favorite company over my mother, over my sisters, and though I still look forward to our Saturday evening trips to Lincoln Center, dressed up, as soon as we are in the car alone I feel the wall rise up, the way it rose up when he asked me a question on that walk when I was twelve, and I don’t trust him, cannot speak to him beyond monosyllables because I know he wants more from me, always more, and it makes me feel like not giving him anything. It is the only way I can give voice, or at least a little voice, to this anger that is not allowed. 

Anger, especially around my father, is not allowed. It’s one thing -- one of several things -- my mother gets wrong. She gets mad at him, at us, she yells, she loses it.  We tiptoe around her so she won’t explode. So I must not explode. That’s for sure. At least I can please my father that much. It’s one thing I can master to his satisfaction: to smile when I am furious.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

NEEDLE AND THREAD


I don’t sew. Not the way some people do.
I can make no sense of patterns
or the machines that look like they will sew your finger to the table.

But I sew.
Buttons and hems, a rip in a sheet.

Not often, but when I do
there comes a gentle softness of simplicity
and memory.
Sewing a button today and
I am six years old
prick-prick-pricking the needle up from underneath
in blind search of a hole.
Convent needlework classes
taught me things I still own
like the tidy 3-point stitch just for hems
and the deft move that lands a knot right at the end of your thread.

I do a small repair today,
bringing out the sewing box I assembled
a couple decades ago at the beginning of some new life,
and I am sitting in the garden in Athens
hemming linen napkins
pretending to be invalid to stay out of the fray.

I am glad for this consistency of sewing.
Each time I return
It is the same.
They might say boys should sew their own buttons.
OK.
But I would miss this corner of ability and accomplishment and peace.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


There are three little girls next to the buckets of fresh flowers out on the street. Two mothers are talking to each other, oblivious to their offspring who are equally oblivious to them, playing a private game that involves stamping their feet. They are wearing dresses and I already have pulled out my phone, am calling up the camera function impatiently, dying to photograph flowers, dresses and small stamping feet while appearing to be doing something else, which is not so hard with a phone as it used to be with a full-scale camera.

I only get one shot of the little girls, not really the one I wanted though maybe tomorrow it will look better. As I continue walking I keep the camera function operating, and unobtrusively point it towards the people I pass, pressing the button as casually as I can, never sure that I have gotten any picture at all, let alone a good one. I feel a twinge of guilt, taking people’s pictures without them knowing, but reassure myself that I do them no harm, and the fun is too enticing to refuse.

My mother had cameras when I was a little girl and a darkroom in the room nearest the bathroom. I was used to cameras and the light meter she held in her hand before every shot.

In high school I pulled off the shelf The Family of Man, a book of black and white photographs from around the world, mostly of people unaware that they were being photographed. I kept the book in my room, unable to put it back. I loved every photograph, every face – some in pain, some laughing, faces caught in motion.

I took the high school photography class, the first place that felt like my place. I still felt shy there, and could not speak, but I was not scornful like I was everywhere else. My mother let me use her Exacta. I started out trying to recreate photographs I saw in my head, was always disappointed by the results that never matched what I saw inside, and learned quickly that I liked my photographs better when they caught something unexpected.

Still, how to capture people’s beautiful unaware faces in the street? How to get pictures like in The Family of Man? It was scary, pointing my camera in public. I tried stopping people and asking if I could photograph them. That was better than nothing, but not really what I wanted. 

I couldn’t afford a zoom lens and was jealous of my friend who had no trouble photographing gangs in Alphabet City. 

A few years ago it came to me. I started wearing the camera around my neck and just pointing it at people as they went by, taking a chance on what I’d get. And I started to get pictures that excited me. 

And now with the iPhone it is even easier. I never had more fun than I did last weekend, taking these pictures on the streets of Manhattan. 

(And then I kept thinking of more photos I wanted to show you -- made myself stop. But the last 3 are from 2010 in Venice, Italy). 





Sunday, January 12, 2014

WORRY


I have not been in a small private plane before. I have not been with a rich boyfriend before who can invite me to Southampton for the weekend, a place I have not heard of. He says we will fly there from Manhattan and that it’ll take about 30 minutes. He is a kid like me, but it is his father’s house and his father’s arrangements that include the plane. I pretend that this is no big deal but I am nervous, and I hate that I am nervous. Not nervous about the plane. That's nothing. Nervous about being with these people who are not nervous about anything.  

I like the way my new boyfriend looks – especially his long dark curly messy hair. And he’s a writer. He’s written a novel. Already. I am out of my league, but any boy who is not my old high school awkward gangly boyfriend makes me feel out of my league. I feel out of my league with everyone actually.

Jeffrey was in this summer’s writing class that I only signed up for because my father wanted me to take a class at his favorite college. The writing class met once a week around a seminar table in a basement with tiny windows along the tops of the walls, giving us a groundhog’s view of cut grass. 

I noticed Jeffrey during  the second session when he kept catching my eye every time the group broke into laughter. I’d laugh, look up, and there would be that boy’s brown eyes, laughing like everyone else but looking straight at me.

A few weeks later and he has written to me a single-spaced two page letter on crinkly white onion skin that says at the very end “I love you” – words so precious I am immediately afraid of losing them. Words given to me by a boy I have noticed for his pony tail and the interesting cotton smocks that he wears, smocks I have never seen before and wonder where he gets them – he has said these magic words though we have only spoken once or twice, like when he mentioned that novel after class. A novel. He’s written a novel. How did he do that? How does anyone do that? How will I ever be able to do anything like that? 

The house in Southampton is a mansion with a circular drive, and people who all know each other, family and friends of family. Jeffrey, this brand new boyfriend, who says he loves me but it is hard to believe it, feels at ease here. 

He laughs as we stand outside in the dark, talking to a boy named Eric who is Jeffrey’s stepbrother. A stepbrother. A stepmother. Divorced parents. All things that my plain family cannot claim.

“How are you?” asks Jeffrey to Eric, who responds, “Stoned,” and Jeffrey laughs. I do too, happy to be with people who smoke pot and know where to get it. Jeffrey has plenty of pot, and a bong to smoke it from. He also knows how to have sex. I have been looking for a boy who can take me across, and Jeffrey has, in my mother’s double bed when the family was away, under the framed photograph of me as a two-year-old – and of course I did not tell Jeffrey this was my maiden voyage. He must not know. 

For I am his third sleeping-together girlfriend. He’s already had two, and mentions their names easily, telling stories from time to time, laughing – already he has so many lover stories and I have to let him assume that Bob was an appealing ex-lover too.

“How are you doing?” Jeffrey asks during one of the Southampton weekends. “Me and Jane used to play the Truth Game. It means you have to answer the question and say the truth.”

We are sitting on the bed in the well appointed bedroom we’ve been assigned for the weekend. Jeffrey sits cross-legged, barefoot, in tee shirt and jeans. 

It’s come up before, this truth thing, this saying the truth. It seems to be part of having a real boyfriend who says he loves you.

I can’t say how awful it felt to play backgammon when he is teaching me and winning over and over. I can’t say how bad it felt to sit with him and his sister as they made each other laugh while I just guessed at what might be the right things to say.

But this time I do say something. I say I’d like to leave. With him. To go back to the city.  “Really?” Jeffrey is taken by surprise. “Why?”

I’m not sure, I say. 

“Well, ok,” says Jeffrey, “but you better tell my father.”

I had not expected this, had not realized there would be protocol, but what do I know of families and mansions and weekends? 

I tap on the door of the room that Jeffrey’s dad and his wife share. I have been here before. Have sat on the king-sized bed with Jeffrey as the family banters – but now it is just Alvin. In this family you call the grown-ups by their first names. 

“What’s up, sweetheart,” drawls Alvin, hardly looking up. He is a small man, sitting on the bed made by women, leaning against the headboard, his legs extended, watching television and smoking. He wears an ironed button-down shirt and pants with a crease. 

I say apologetically that although it’s only Saturday afternoon I’d like to go back to the city.

I don’t say how much easier it is to be with Jeffrey by myself, that that’s when I like it best – when it’s him and me in that Manhattan apartment, littered with Jeffrey’s childhood but where no one lives anymore, where we can walk up First Avenue in the middle of the night for an ice cream sundae or a hamburger in a coffee shop or into a movie theater in the afternoon – all things I have never done before. 


Sunday, November 17, 2013

EVERYDAY NEIGHBORHOOD


Rumi is a small tabby cat who lives with my friend Suzanne. He is young and solemn and though we have met several times he was not too sure of me during our short time together last night and this morning. He clearly enjoys running water, leaping to the edge of the tub during my shower, and later to the kitchen sink. 

I like Suzanne’s apartment, so different from any other I have known. It is on the ground floor. You enter from the street through a flimsy wooden door into a linoleum-floored hallway that leads you past and under the stairs to another flimsy wooden door, this one surrounded by a flurry of winter coats and boots. I let myself in and lock the door behind me – no bolt, just a little brass disc to turn as if this were a bathroom door.

Rumi greets me, small lonely cat.

Suzanne’s kitchen is as large as a house kitchen, larger than my kitchen at home. It has a back door that opens out into a long tangled rectangle of overgrown grass. 

I close the blinds, and the ones at the other end of the apartment that look out onto the sidewalk. There are iron bars, but mostly there is only trust protecting this place. Suzanne has lived on this block for about 10 years, about half of that in this apartment, and I remind myself that there has never been any trouble. 

When I first walked down 4th Avenue outside the subway station of Bay Ridge I felt out of my element. 4th Avenue is definitely the city before anyone takes an interest in it. 

The newspapers outside the small dusty shops are in an Asian script. Small shopfront churches with “Iglesia” on their signs stand next to a beat-up laundromat, a store selling tires, a corner store with plastic jugs of detergent piled up in the window. They look like they have been there for years, with no one buying. The only sparkly store is the huge Rite Aid that looks like every other Rite Aid.

I thought this morning how normal and real people look here – the women getting soft and overweight after childbirth while a man with scabby sores around his ankles, just visible above his pant cuffs, sweeps the cigarette butts out of a round metal manhole cover, pressing his broom over and over the ridges to pull the butts out. 

Some scrawny man goes up to him to chew the fat as I pass. They know each other. I feel like this neighborhood is real life and I have started to like it, sometimes preferring it to the prettier parts of town where everyone is 30 and dressed well even if they are not. 

This afternoon I will visit with Ruth whom I have not seen for years. We met in 1975, college freshmen, and she was my first friend and most enjoyable friend since childhood, since the wasteland of friendship that was my teen years.

I was 17 and knew only the world of my family. Ruth was Jewish and from Philadelphia and showed me a million things I had not known before: you can make curtains out of sheets, modern dance, art museums, bagels, discount stores, Joni Mitchell, Yiddish.

I look at the young faces on the subway platform. They were not born when I was the 20-year-old on the platform. I do not feel old, and do not worry about age and yet it is a source of astonishment to think that, say, most people are younger than me now.

All day long I play along the line of age, feeling sometimes young and sometimes old – really feeling neither, grateful that there is still a spring in my step, learning not to take these things for granted, that they disappear on you.

Thinking as I put the little container of almond milk back in Suzanne’s refrigerator how one day I won’t come here anymore, one time will be the last time and this will become a memory. I heard myself speaking in the future about how I used to stay in my friend’s Bay Ridge apartment every month, something that is routine for me now.

Sometimes, standing at the kitchen sink at home, something I have done countless times, I think there will be a last time that I stand here, and it is hard though not impossible to imagine.

I have thought recently how endless my life in Armonk seemed – 10th, 11th, 12th grades, how it seemed a place and an experience impossible to escape – and it was only 3 years. 

Monday, October 07, 2013

MORE THAN RARE

My father sometimes spread his overcoat across his shoulders, without putting his arms into the sleeves, to walk outside, stylish walking stick in hand, to take in the strong fragrances of the earth, to cast his appreciative eye along the line of hills or mountains, trees or fields, wherever we happened to be living at the time. For he liked to walk in the country, along roads, before sitting down to a good meal and then perhaps returning to the city. Like a character in a Tolstoy novel.

When my father read he held a Mont Blanc pen or pencil in his right hand, marking the words or phrases or paragraphs that struck him. Every book and newspaper article was marked. As a child I looked at what he had underlined and could see no reason for any of it. Once I asked him why he marked what he did, and he just raised his eyebrows and smiled, enjoying that he had mystified me.

Sometimes now I look at an old book of his and there are his markings, random. They still provide little clue to his mind.

Since his death two years ago I have taken to wearing his watch for two reasons – because it’s a watch purchased by a man with expensive tastes and because my child’s heart still clings to his, despite all my adult knowledge.

My father told me once or twice amongst all the many stories he told me that have blended into a cloudy mix of having a girlfriend who was a countess. She must have had a title of some sort. My father had a weakness for titles. A pretty woman with wealth and a title would have been irresistible. He took her to some posh hotel in the Alps for a weekend, not telling her of course that he had no money to pay for any of it. But he had his weekend and his countess and his fancy hotel, and stayed behind to wash dishes or perhaps he ran out on the bill. I don’t know. But my father liked the rich life and my mother did not and my father went bankrupt and my mother got to be right.

Once in the last few visits during the last few decades my father remarked as we came home from his favorite neighborhood restaurant up in the hills of Budapest -- not an ultra fancy place anymore, but fancy enough and they knew him there – we could have been in a horse and carriage but it was the 20th century and we must have been in a cab – he remarked that my mother loved us kids so much.

Love is not a family word. Perhaps that’s why the sentence stayed in my mind. I return to it, wondering why he said it, if it’s true, wondering where he stood in the equation.

For he was always on the fringes of the family – the one male, the one who only partially lived at home, the one who spent the last 25 years of his life in a different country from the rest of us.

“I never meant to leave for good,” he said to me, but we had never made an effort to bring him back. For me, it was a relief to have him on another continent.

As a child I had complained that I wanted a “coming-home daddy,” which made my father laugh with pleasure. It suited him to not be a coming-home daddy, to be someone better than the norm.

“Don’t leave me just swinging in the breeze,” he reproached my sister once during those last Budapest years, making both of us furious.

I look at the blue and green mug and feel affection because Dad saw this mug. He saw all the Hungarian pottery I brought home that afternoon. I spread it out proudly on a table, talking animatedly, telling of my successful navigation of the city with my scraps of the language, the good prices I’d managed. It was more than rare for me to have a story of my own that I wanted to tell him. “It’s good,” he said, looking at the mugs and vases, “not the most traditional, but very nice.” I too knew it wasn’t the best of the best, but we both liked it for what it was – colorful and unique.

I borrowed all my father's woolen sweaters to wrap the fragile ceramics in for the plane ride home. He gave them to me willingly. At home, it occurred to me that I could probably get away with not mailing them back. The international shipping was expensive, and a hassle, but I mailed them to him promptly, completing the circle.