by Naomi Rayman

Face Off

Posted on April 21, 2017

I recently visited New York and was so busy there with my super-sized days, I didn’t have a chance to see the recently opened Broadway show, “War Paint.” The production tells the story of the rivalry between the cosmetic magnates, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. It’s on my ever-growing to-do list for the next visit.

Nevertheless, reading about the musical triggered memories of my own connection to the world of makeup or lack thereof. As I rode the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan one soggy morning last week, there to my left and across the pole-pierced corridor that separates the bench-style seats on the subway sat a young woman deftly applying her mascara.

Recalling my own makeup application that very morning, complete with magnifying mirror, Q-tips, glasses on to see/glasses off to swipe, and the resulting mediocre results, I was captivated by both the young woman’s steady hand and her lack of shame. Her proficiency with the mascara wand while seated in a lurching, swaying subway car (not to mention the jostling seat mates) resulted in not one single smudge on her flawless porcelain cheeks. Then, she applied her lipstick. To both lips. I emphasize this point because, sporting only one skimpy lower lip, I’ve long coveted a full-mouthed face. My upper lip always had a predisposition to thinness, but as I’ve aged the thing has faded into oblivion as much as it has into memory–like so many other formerly desirable and fully formed body parts: perky bosoms, for example. Or, slender thighs without roadmap-resembling spider veins. Did I mention that my fellow passenger applied her lipstick without a mirror? I was awestruck.

I grew up at a time when watching my mother dress, I counted the days, weeks, months, and years until I too could hook my stockings as she did—a nimble one-handed technique that latched her hose to her garters. She wore a white suit of boned armor under her shirtwaist dresses called a girdle that sucked her bits up and in, compressing her intestines to her spine. And, in her handbag she carried a jeweled compact that seemed like something Cinderella’s fairy godmother would have included in the swag bag along with the glass slippers. This dainty but indispensible item had a rhinestone sparkly top and a smooth, silver bottom. When opened, the peachy-colored pressed powder within lay beneath the teeniest and most delicate powder puff. The sound the dainty accessory made when my mother closed it (again, with one hand) had a satisfying click that indicated all systems go: bridge of nose powdered to remove the shine, teeth free of debris and lipstick. Then, she attended to her lips by first examining the remains of color before beginning her artful maneuvers. The gold-and-black tube, fished out from her often enormous–other times uselessly demure–handbag, was opened by pulling the top off with a satisfying thwump. Starting in the center of her taut upper lip, she drew the stick up and over to the left corner; then, she repeated this to the right corner. Application to the bottom lip was more of a back-and-forth swipe—a couple of times. Before closing the compact, there was a pressing together of her lips with a kind of rolling motion to ensure that the waxy product was in place. Further insurance was often necessary in the form of a nearby napkin, which was sacrificed for blotting. Teeth were once again bared like a lioness as my mother did her final mirror inspection. Her compact was then snapped shut and replaced in her purse. Lunch or dinner was now over. It was time to go.

Incidentally, this routine was repeated in our home when my mother heard my father’s car drive into the garage at the end of his workday. Instead of the purse compact, the hall mirror was used. The crooner and housewives’ heartthrob, Jack Jones, captured her nightly ritual perfectly when he sang, “Wives and Lovers.” While the lyrics might make you renew your long outdated subscription to “Ms. Magazine,” it was middle-class reality in the suburbs of the late 1950s. Perhaps, this explains the high rate of alcoholism among the women in my neighborhood.

My mother’s favorite lipstick was Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow. Who knew, upon research for this blog, that this too was the go-to choice for the author and eventual suicide victim, Sylvia Plath? No matter how intellectual, or despondent, or both, I guess, lipstick was her hope in a tube. She also reportedly had very full lips, but I digress…

About once a month, my parents and I went to visit my father’s eldest sibling in Oakland. My Aunt Rose was the first of 5 children to arrive from Russia—at the dawning of the 20th century—carrying her already overly used satchel (pogroms were among the first frequent-flyer motivators) and sporting a sign which dangled from her 7-year-old neck. This unbecoming necklace was bestowed on her at Ellis Island. It read: “Stockton, California” and was to be her long journey’s destination. Her various siblings soon followed as was the well-worn path of many an immigrant. There were no aliens then just alien experiences and unfathomable circumstances. Some weathered these travails through luck or connections or money; others, like my family, plodded through the filthy, teeming streets and made their lives into something enviable. Along the way, though, familial relations were strained and often severed. Religious traditions were at times observed with reverence but often discarded when the temptation of assimilation was too seductive. Money was shared when possible, but usually there wasn’t enough of it to divvy up.

Rose, however, married well and she and my Uncle Max raised two children in a part of Oakland where the backyards were large and lush. Each child had their own bedroom, and the home’s living room furniture was expensive enough to warrant keeping the crimson velvet drapes drawn so there was no exposure to sunlight. Ever.

Our drive to the Shermans’ lasted about 45 minutes and always took place in the evening. We arrived for cocktails and stayed through dinner, dessert, and a hand or two of bridge. For this reason, I never recall our departure because I had fallen asleep in my cousin Vera’s childhood bedroom upstairs. My father carried me out to the car when it was time to go home. It was late enough to have won a rubber of bridge; early enough to avoid helping his sister with the dishes.

My aunt’s home was filled with fringe-hemmed couches and chairs, plush and upholstered with buttons and scratchy top stitching. The main staircase had a shiny, solid wood banister the width of which was wide enough to accommodate my bottom on its dare-devilish slide down from the second-floor landing to the marble entry. In the home’s first-floor den was a green-felted surface atop a card table intricately inlaid with colorful stones in raised mosaics of clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds. Aunt Rose’s home was a treasure trove of tactile delights that provided endless moments of diversion for me.

For my aunt’s daughter Vera, her daughter-in-law Claire and my mother, their pre-dinner but post-cocktail diversion was equally gleeful. Or so it sounded and looked to me. Rose’s daughter, my first cousin, was a grownup whose age was closer to my mom’s than mine. This was also true of Claire. Rose, being so much older than my father, who himself was 13 years older than my mother, was more akin to a grandmother as I think about these events now. So, to my mother, she must have seemed more like a mother-in-law than a sister-in-law. I tell you this because what happened next, each and every time we visited, had little to do with Rose. Aunt Rose would greet us with wet, sticky kisses and in her thick, nearly incomprehensible Yiddish-infused English she might say, “Dahlinks!!! Vhy dun’t you come in, set dun your tinks on the sofa. Velvel (my dad’s name), did you get everysing from da makchine (car)?”

And I scooted off but not before watching my mother hang up her coat and then open up her handbag to reveal her newest shade of lipstick. This was my mom’s way of bonding with her two contemporaries with whom she had nearly nothing in common—not in style, nor heritage; not in religion, nor in interests. Her peace offering was her lipstick and in this arena, my mother was a goddess who came bearing information and, better yet, presents–from department stores Vera and Clair felt excluded from. Were these stores too expensive? Too pretentious? Probably just too hard to get to–of these 3 women, only my mother drove. She often gifted the ladies their own tubes of luxurious tubes of paint: thick, glossy sticks in shades of mandarin orange, deep magenta or subtle lavender. As time moved along, the early 1960s hosted palettes of frosted whites and opalescent pinks—the modern shades were snickered at but quickly applied.

Off to the tiny and aptly named powder room the ladies scampered to share the same tube of lipstick–or to gawk as they applied their own paint. In the tiny space, they giggled and communed. If I were within earshot, I would attempt to reconcile grownup women being as silly as I was with my own adolescent friends. I was observing what was possible within the world of women. I felt their anticipation and their joy and most of all their female camaraderie. Thusly madeup, for often the addition of powder or rouge was called for, they exited the cramped space leaving remnants of color on their lips. Sometimes, though, their lips were wiped clean before emerging for one of Rose’s bowls of borscht. The soup was nearly the same color as their shade of lipstick. Maybe Chanel’s, “Beet Red”?

It was at my aunt’s home where I first heard my mother rhapsodize about her newest discovery: Cherries in the Snow. Only she was able to pull off the color of that fire-engine red lipstick. Fashion sense and curiosity could get a woman to the cosmetic counter, but it was her unmitigated sparkle and panache that made the sale.

Visits to my aunt’s house decreased in frequency as my mother’s health took a turn for the ever worse. And, after she died, my father had less and less desire to see his family. A shame, really, because the diversion and the company would have been good for him…and for us.

It was nearly a year after my mother died, when we once again made the trip to the enchanted forest that was my aunt’s home. But, now I was older physically, and certainly spiritually I was raw and unraveling. The fussy living room furniture did not fascinate nor distract me. The fringed skirts dangling from the couches and chairs belonged to the fingers of children now—not to dour adolescents. I was, however, a dutiful companion to my father and as such I accompanied him to the Sherman house, however sullenly.

Upon our arrival at the Shermans’, both my cousin Vera and her sister-in-law flew at me as soon as we entered the foyer. While Rose jockeyed in position to plant her lips on my cheek, they scooped me up and removed me to the den making the excuse to Rose that they needed some girl-talk time. I was numb. Being with anyone in these recent months after my mother’s death was hardly diverting, but revisiting a familiar place, one that almost smelled like her, was nearly intolerable. I was walking on recognizable turf that was too quickly morphing into quicksand.

It was after one such visit, on the drive home, when I reached into my purse to retrieve my hairbrush. I pulled down the car’s visor so I could make sure I combed my bangs into a straight window shade of hair that duly covered my eyebrows mimicking the Twiggy look of 1966. As I placed my brush back into my purse, I felt the enormous void of space within…where my wallet should have been.

I cried out to my father to turn around at once. My Mary Quant trifold wallet, I said to him, must have fallen out at Rose’s house. He asked me if it belonged to Mary Quant why did I have it? Fathers! I told him that Mary Quant was the designer of the wallet; I was the owner. Remember? Mom bought it for me! How dense could he be? We returned to Rose’s house, to the foyer, and to the little tufted loveseat where all incoming purses were laid. The wallet wasn’t there.

Inside was my library card, my paltry sum of babysitting money, and some form of identification that predated a driver’s license. Within the folds of the wallet were two treasured photos of my mother: one of her in a luscious, shimmering-green brocaded hostess gown complete with lime-colored pants. The floor-length hostess coat had a thigh-high slit in the front to reveal the silky pants on her legs as she crossed them while sitting on our living room couch. The other photo was of me, as a little girl, tightly hugging her. I’m holding on to her as if we both knew she would be leaving too soon. It was meant to be a playful and not an ironic pose, I’m sure.

In the years that followed, I began to practice driving by chauffeuring my father and me to the Shermans’ house. Eventually, I had replaced the Mary Quant wallet with another and it was now the protector of a driver’s license, a few more dollars, and a photo of two of my boyfriends. My aunt’s house, however, seemed captured in the tangles of time. Nothing changed. The borscht had been simmering on her Wedgewood stove for years and years. The dining room was usually filled with the same supporting cast of relatives, but the conversation became more strained with 1970s political tirades by me, resulting in tongue-clicking disapproval by my uncles; my father was increasingly hard of hearing. My responses to him were often more shrill and certainly more forceful than, in retrospect, seemed necessary.

One evening, when the tension seemed to tug at my neck and stiffen my jaw, I excused myself rather abruptly and ascended the stairs without asking permission. I found Vera’s bed again and lay there in the dark listening to the now-muffled voices of the relatives in the dining room below. Years had passed since I had been in this room, and it seemed just as I remembered it. The dresser still stood by the door; but now it was no longer too high for me to see its surface. I reached out to grasp one of the perfume bottles that was placed on the dresser right next to a hairbrush with its captured hair from Vera’s scalp, I guess. There sat three framed photos: two of Vera with her husband and one of Vera with my mother and Claire. The three ladies, my mom in the middle, arms around each other sitting in Rose’s den—at the inlaid card table. As I reached to pick up the photo, I saw my Mary Quant wallet…the one I had lost so many years before…tucked behind it. Along side my wallet was a tube of Cherries in the Snow lipstick. Here before me was an altar to my mother. Someone else, besides me, had loved her. Some other female missed her regal style, her heady laugh, her kind and generous spirit. Someone else needed to hold on to her—to be reminded of her. I hadn’t thought of her as anyone other than my mom, and her absence was not just my loss.

I knocked over the tube of lipstick as I grabbed my wallet and opened it up to retrieve those two photos of my mother, which I carry in my own wallet to this day. Placing the wallet back where I had found it, I carefully positioned the lipstick tube next to it.

I looked again at the framed picture of the three women, holding each other while intently looking at the photographer. It was not a spontaneous shot. Instead it was carefully posed, and my mother is holding up her gold and black tube. The portrait is of three women wearing the same shade of lipstick. This photo too was meant to be playful and not ironic. Cherries in the Snow? I imagine so. Clearly, only she could pull off that color.

Do I have lipstick on my teeth?

Landline

Posted on February 24, 2017

I had a funny feeling. Friday, February 22, 1966 didn’t start out right.

For one thing, this wasn’t the plan. My mom and I had strategized the after-school itinerary before I left for school in the morning. I had a lot on my mind: my eyeliner, for example, hadn’t gone on smoothly. The hem on my mod, mini pleated black-and-grey wool skirt was falling out, and to make matters worse, I was not all that prepared for my oral book report on “Kon Tiki.” So, the plan we had formulated over my morning pop tarts was not, at this moment, so relevant to me. On the other hand, and from my perspective as a high-school freshman, our plan was all that my mother had to think about.

When it was time for her to pick me up from school, the plan was that I would call my mom from the pay phone located on the bare, cement wall outside the gym. She would know that I was ready for a ride home and that would shave minutes off my pre-Friday-night dance preparations. Otherwise, taking the lumbering school bus home, with its too-frequent stops for the disgorgement of students, would be a mind-numbing waste of my time.

I kept my end of the bargain. I called home but no one answered the phone. I pictured it otherwise. My mother would hear the phone ring and choose the closest extension to her. If she were in the kitchen, the obvious choice would be the avocado-colored kitchen wall phone with the stretched out curly-cued cord now dangling close to the floor. But, if she were napping on the couch, she would run to answer the black rotary phone with the fabric-covered cord that sat atop the desk in my father’s den. This was the room that my mother had fashioned in a décor resembling a stage set for “How The West Was Won.” The desk on which the phone rested had faux gouges chiseled into its surface and an uneven perimeter…you know, like a real cowboy might have in his ranch house. My dad never went in there. Our family unit of 3–mom, dad, and me–gathered in the living room. That’s where the TV was.

Instead, it was I who used that phone once I arrived home to find an empty house. I must have jumped the gun when I hung up the pay phone’s receiver with a satisfactory click and decided with 13-year-old’s logic that if my mother didn’t answer the phone she was just not paying attention. It never occurred to me that she probably was on her way to school because the lag time between the end of my school day and her not hearing from me indicated to her that she better just come to the high school. I contrarily decided that no answer equaled no problem; I took a ride with a neighbor’s mom.

It was my mother who used the pay phone from school once she arrived to find her daughter wasn’t there. She called home and I answered.

“Did you see me?” I asked my mother over the phone. “Because I saw you!” I chirped into the receiver. I had seen her in her white Corvair with red interior that, as we sped by in my neighbor’s brown Buick station wagon, made me immensely proud of my mom. She commanded the steering wheel of her sports car behind two-toned, sleek sunglasses. Her striated grey hair twisted into a chic and modern chignon. Even sealed up in that car and whizzing by me, she didn’t look like anyone else’s mom. But, she hadn’t seen me.

“No, honey, I didn’t,” she replied. “But how did you do on the test?” she asked.

“I got a B+!” This was a significant outcome to us both as she too had an investment in the result. She had repeatedly quizzed me from my stack of 3×5 lined index cards long past my bedtime. My mom told me I would do well on the quiz. If she had confidence in me, I would be o.k. She had trust in me and had helped me believe in myself. We were a team.

It was strange to roam around an empty house. In my very early elementary-school years, my mother and father both worked and did so far from our suburban home. There were highways and even a tunnel involved in their long commute. It was best for them, I guess, to have me attend school closer to their offices. But, once my mother was defined by the limitations of her nebulously described “heart disease,” her life…our lives…were recalibrated. For a year, she was told by her doctor to remain in bed. She wasn’t allowed to drive, to travel to places in high altitude, to fly, to iron, to walk up hills unless she did so backwards. Obviously, she refrained from hill climbing entirely. And, most startling was that she, now, was always at home. This I loved. It was novel, reassuring, and felt like the normalcy I had both imagined and craved. My mother grew restless, however, without a purpose—once I left for school. She required naps, and her body craved them. She also found that a cocktail at the stroke of 5:00 p.m. was something cheery to look forward to each day.

The enormous glass clock that hung over the mantle in our living room chimed 4:00 p.m. This was the clock that marked familial events. The big, gaudy timepiece noisily reminded us when it was dinnertime or when Ed Sullivan was on. We never missed an SF Giants baseball game that aired on the radio. I was never late for school; my father left for work at exactly the same time each morning. My mother knew when it was time to take her next pill.

So, I saw, by glancing at the time that now was the hour to indulge myself without repercussions. It was time to watch “Dark Shadows!” It absolutely was the very best afternoon daytime soap ever with its grown-up, twisted plots and sultry characters all of whom hung out in a creepy, Gothic mansion situated on some undisclosed rocky coastline. Usually, my mother and I watched this show together and would laugh at the stilted dialogue and outrageous, but so enviable, costumes. Once my mom got home, she would be so relieved that I could fill her in on the closing episode for the week—always a cliffhanger. Even that detail never escaped our amusement. A cliffhanger from the people who live on the cliffs! She would get such a kick out of that.

I was immediately sucked into the world of my TV show curled up, catlike, at the end of our crimson-colored sofa where the fading sun’s filtered light warmed up the corner. It became my spot and was to the side of where my mother always sat in her brown-and-gold tweed-upholstered club chair with the matching ottoman. The side table to its left had an empty coaster placed there that in an hour would serve as mini throw rug to my mother’s highball glass.

Then, I heard the sirens. They were faint and in the distance but nonetheless I was aware of them. At first, I thought they were coming from the television show, but within seconds I knew they were approaching from the direction of the main road a few blocks away from my house.

I looked up at that living room clock with its ornate glass panels streaked with gold as if its beveled edges and sheer size weren’t decorative enough. It was 4:20 p.m. It was way passed the time it took to get from my high school back home. Where was mom?

I listened again to the oncoming sirens and could sense their direction as they headed from our town’s fire station to the direction of my high school. It took me only another minute to rush to the Ponderosa den’s black desk phone. I called my neighbor and mother’s best friend, Jeanne.

“Jeanne!” I blurted out. “Can you hear those sirens? They are headed toward my mom. She should be here by now. She’s not here. Where is she? We need to go find her!” My hysterics were not getting through to Jeanne. She never interrupted me.

Instead she replied calmly, “Honey, please. Your mom probably stopped by the market or went to get gas. She’ll be right home. I’m in the middle of getting ready for company, but you call me if she isn’t home in 20 minutes.” She hung up the phone.

Twenty minutes? This outrageous reply was making me desperate. I was terrified. I called her back.

I pleaded through my tears, “Jeanne, you have to take me to my mother. You have to! I’ll be right over.” And, I hung up.

I ran out the door but quickly ran back to the house because I had forgotten to turn off the TV, and I needed to grab the bottle of pills that always stood sentry next to her living room chair. I flew through the garden gate, hearing the jangle of the bells which my mother had hung off the gate to better hear people entering the front yard. Across the street and up the steep driveway I ran. Jeanne was already in her car and the motor was running.

“Get in. You know, honey, this is not like what it seems. You’re mother is fine,” her calm voice did nothing to appease me because I was certain, as irrefutably convinced as I had ever been, that my mother was dead. And, so I did not reply to Jeanne. We drove on in silence.

As we turned the corner on the school’s street, the same corner that was the school bus’s first stop after leaving the parking lot, there was her white Corvair—seemingly abandoned. The scene didn’t make sense to me. The familiar car, of course, was a clue. But where was my mom? There too was an assemblage of emergency vehicles. The driver’s door of my mother’s car was open to reveal it’s plush, red interior — the exact same red as the fire engine that blocked the street from traffic. We couldn’t pass through. I heard Jeanne say softly, “Oh my God,” as I threw open her car door and ran toward my mother’s car.

I couldn’t find my mother. I was running faster and I thought that as I approached I would surely see her. We would laugh about this; she would spot me and immediately she would ask if I brought her nitroglycerin pills to relieve her angina, which of course I had thought to bring with me. Instead, the fireman stopped me and said that my mother was inside the ambulance and I could help by telling him what sort of health problem my mother had. He stopped me when I began to list her 11 medicines. Too much information, I guess. I begged him to let me see her. In the kindest way possible, the fireman put his big, comforting hands on my shoulders and looked directly into my eyes. Gee, he was handsome…and so tall!

“The ambulance has to leave immediately to take care of your mother. You won’t be able to see her now. I’m very sorry.”

“Here,” I said to the attentive fireman. “Take her pills. She will need them.”

It wasn’t until we had followed the ambulance about 100 feet that I said to Jeanne, “They didn’t turn the siren on, Jeanne. My mother is dead. I know that. I’ve always known that.”

Jeanne drove me back to her house and in the interim between being with Jeanne and reuniting with my father, I ran through the plot of Friday’s “Dark Shadows” program so I wouldn’t forget to tell my mother everything that happened. She couldn’t really be dead. I alternated between two possible outcomes…the one where my mother lives and the other, the one I feared to be true, where she doesn’t.

Eventually, my father came to Jeanne’s door but he didn’t step inside. I saw his glistening eyes and his loosened necktie. His hair wasn’t combed and looked almost silly as if he had been in a wind tunnel. I knew which outcome had prevailed. He softly made a proclamation of sorts, “Nomi, your mother has died.” I pushed myself into his chest so I could inhale his comforting scent and be absorbed by his commiserating embrace. The man was numb and reflexively folded his arms around me as if he didn’t know where else to place his limp limbs. We were holding each other upright.

As we walked down Jeanne’s steep driveway, we grabbed onto each other like two old ladies needing each other for support. On the street, he reached for my hand. I turned to my father and asked, “Daddy, do you think I should go to the high school dance tonight? Should I call my friends?”

“Probably not this dance–not tonight,” he said. “Your friends will understand,” he added. “You and I need to be together.”

But we weren’t. We each found a crumb or two of comfort in our solitude; he sat in the living room and watched T.V.; I went to my bedroom. As I scrunched myself between my bed sheets without undressing, I wondered if the fireman remembered to give those pills to my mother. If I could have handed them to her myself, I thought, things might have turned out differently.

May I put you on hold?

Posthaste

Posted on January 13, 2017

This might surprise you: I have a Master’s Degree in communicative disorders. That translated on a paystub to speech-and-language therapist, and the disorders I expertly remedied were maladies like lisps in the young, stuttering among the adolescent, and aphasia with stroke patients. Now, however, in my retirement from that field, I’m ironically colliding with more and more communicative roadblocks—which I find disorienting. I have become my own disordered client. I miss my days of fluency; I long for the time when I could retrieve a word the nanosecond I needed to use it. I am trying hard not to blame my chronological age. I prefer to blame the age in which I live.

As for communicative elegance, I miss the old tried-and-true forms of letter writing. If it weren’t for me, stationery stores in my area would have gone out of business long ago. Give me, please, envelopes with my return address embossed on the flap. Let me cull the racks of greeting cards for the perfect get-well note. I have a stock of sympathy cards ready to go. As soon as someone drops dead, I’m at the ready with a beautiful card to convey my sadness over the loved one’s departure.

But, where can I find those aerograms (aerogrammes?) of long ago with their sky-blue expanse tempting the writer to think, “I have a yawning blank slate on which to write to my father from Europe”? I must ask him to please send money to get me through the remaining weeks here as I find my European adventure inhales my 1974-Europe-on-$5/day-allotment. And, I’ll write legibly if microscopically–filling the aerogram’s expanse with my loopy handwriting. I’ll consume every inch all the way to the gummy margins and the news will be all about the sights and sounds and smells of Europe. My dad will think, “She has so much news and yet sadly is limited by the dimensions of this sheet of paper. She is so thoughtful to write to me. She probably needs some extra cash.” I’ll leave off the parts about riding on the back of motor scooters through the alleyways of Paris, followed by a night of passion (or just sex). Probably wise not to mention the run-in with the Italian police the night a group of us drank too much vino and one (extremely handsome) Italian young man threw a chair into the café’s plate-glass window. This news will just take up precious real estate on the aerogram.

I sent the letters home from the American Express offices adjacent to the squares, piazzas, and avenues across Europe. And, those offices are where I’d go, two weeks (!) later, to collect my funds. Except for this one time. I had mailed the letter from Rome and had expectantly appeared at the Paris Amex front desk 10 days later after depositing my increasingly shabby backpack in the anteroom of the drab office. No letter was forthcoming. No letter meant no money. And, in Paris, having fewer-than-expected resources was a complete bummer. In fact, after spending weeks abroad and burning my way through hundreds of parental dollars, I had to cut my trip short. This confirmed my notion, of which I had convinced myself: My father wanted me home. He was not playing fair, which wasn’t like him. And, a few hours after arriving home and dumping my now thoroughly disgusting backpack next to our washing machine, I confronted my dad in a voice so whiny and accusatory that I could see his eyes beginning to tear. As he waxed poetic about how much he missed me, how relieved he was that I returned home safely, and how thrilled he was that I enjoyed myself, I barked a response that actually caused him to cry. Some choice phrases included, “How could he?” “Didn’t I deserve to be happy?” “I was counting on him!” Clauses that now make me nauseous even as I write them. It turns out my father never received my letter from Rome. I know this because that letter arrived a couple of weeks after I had returned home.

What I don’t miss, however, are telegrams. I have personally received only a couple in my life, and neither of them were good news. My parents, too, seemed to attract bad news like metal filings to a magnet. Distressing news arrived on these bland-colored small sheets of paper looking like anonymously sent ransom notes. Stop. The ones I recall coughed up news of a fatal car accident (a cousin); stop. Cancelled travel plans; stop. Reunion cancelled; stop. And, one epic news flash of a nephew’s murder. Stop. Ok, I’ll stop with the stop. No one probably remembers what I’m referring to anyway.


But, speaking of telegrams, who doesn’t miss Western Onion? That being a send-up of Western Union’s telegram-delivery service. Disappointingly, I have received only one. Actually, it was for my husband. A strapping young man came to our door during Marty’s 40th-birthday celebration. The messenger sported an askew cap and an epaulet-adorned jacket and held a telegram in his hands like it was the Torah. Placing a red-and-white sash that read, “Kiss Me. It’s My Birthday,” around Marty’s neck, the telegram bearer proceeded to tear open his jacket and fling aside his hat in a Mary Tyler Moore-meets-Minneapolis manner to reveal his astonishingly fit torso and teeny tiny underpants. He sang “Happy Birthday” to the birthday boy. I mean, who wouldn’t miss that?

Here’s something else I miss: Christmas letters. Not the short nonsense found on social media. I’m talking about the luscious, bloated testimonies of success, joy, health, and happiness. The ones I’m referring to came typed, single-spaced and the writer used up both sides of the flimsy paper before lovingly folding and inserting it into a glittery holiday card with an artistic representation of a fireplace adorned with Christmas stockings which were, as they should be, trimmed with velvety swatches of fabric. Digital shots weren’t part of the Yuletide repertoire back then—at least not that I can remember. You had to trust the sender’s writing skills to evoke how good looking the new wife was or how adorable those grandchildren were. If they mentioned a vacation to Tasmania, it was up to you to go look up what that locale had going for it. Isn’t that why you held on to the World Book Encyclopedia?

Communication was simpler and less disorderly back then.

But when email started to replace the mailed-with-the-Christmas-card annual friends’ updates, I was optimistic about the possibilities. First of all, the internet allowed us to throw out the World Books. Another plus? Reading email missives now took little time; I could use my mouse to hastily scroll to the salutation. Or, a particularly obnoxious letter, once cut and pasted, made quick fodder for a sarcastic email to our mutual friend with the insertion of OMG before sending it off. Time to get creative with cutting and pasting.

This, in fact, is what I thought I was doing when, upon finishing a lengthy year-end monograph from a friend we met on an cruise several years prior, I forwarded the email to my husband with the following insertion at the top of the email:
“More than I need to know.”

About an hour later came a reply—not from my husband but from the original email writer:
“I am so sorry that our Christmas letter offended you. I will take you off our annual list.”

Here’s where my communicative skill set actually paid off, I thought. No more soporific musings from this guy; I was on his shit list and I was better for it. But, I felt so guilty because I had never intended to let him know how I actually felt—I was trying to live an honest, authentic life and not be a hurtful wise-ass. I was simply sharing my frustration with my husband so that we could roll our eyes simultaneously as one does in a loving marriage.

Instead of letting this go, though, I communicated with the writer once again—this time intentionally:
“Otis, I am sorry that I hurt your feelings. It was never my intention to do so. Instead I thought I was forwarding the message to Marty and mistakenly I hit “reply.” I imagine that something like this may have happened to you at least once.”

Otis replied with the most amazing response—although it took him two weeks to do so:
“Actually, Naomi, your email made me think about the fact that this letter contained information that was indeed more than you needed to know given the brevity of our friendship. From now on, I will send out two versions of these letters so that our friends like you are spared the lengthy details.”

I never received another year-end, wrap-up email but there he is on Facebook. So I can read snippets (or not) if I so choose. I love happy endings.

But before there was a simple error in button pushing where emails were concerned, and prior to the post office’s tardiness at delivering an aerogram from Europe to its intended destination in the States, and way before I was picking out personalized stationery to have on hand for thank-you notes, there was my mother communicating with her young adult son through the mail. Monthly. Like clockwork.

My mother would wait for her son, Michael’s, letters like an underfed wild animal. If it were around the time a letter might arrive, my mother would pace, check her watch, open and shut the living room curtains to see if the mailbox showed evidence of delivery. I was just a small child watching my mom and her frantic obsessive behavior wondering if one day I too would hold such power over her. I must have known, even then, that I would not. After all, she lived with me; our bedrooms were adjacent to one another; I rode in her car and sat at her kitchen table; she dried my hair after a bath and kissed me goodbye when I left for school. This intimacy played out in a parallel universe to the one that she shared with her son, Michael, who was 12 years old when I was born. He was never allowed—or at least invited–to live with us. In fact, in 1941, when Michael was 2 and my mother and Michael’s father divorced, my young brother went to live with his aunt and never again lived with his mother. Our mother. I can’t tell you what a loss that was to have missed out on being in the same house, on a daily basis, with such an extraordinary, iconoclastic woman. And the loss to my mother of not living with her boy—never packing his lunchbox; not going to his school performances; did she ever meet even one of his teachers or friends? The enormity of such grief undoubtedly initiated her battle, for the rest of her life, with her heart’s health.

Michael did not live a long life. He died at the age of 25 under what in those days were termed mysterious circumstances. To me, however, at age 12 when he died, there was nothing mysterious about any of what I was witnessing at home: a mother whose sorrow was swiftly killing her and rupturing the lifeline she and I shared together. The day Michael died, she took to her bed, and each night thereafter I would bring her both her 5pm bourbon-on-the-rocks and the daily mail.

About a month after Michael died, a letter came addressed to my mother in Michael’s boyish, scratchy penmanship. I delivered both the letter and the cocktail to her and stood sentry outside her bedroom door because even I knew that this weird turn of events was unexplainable and unprecedented. But, I never heard a peep from inside my mother’s bedroom other than the clinking of ice cubes as they rattled against the glass and the stationery rustling in her hands. I heard her clear her throat and blow her nose. When I went to check on her, I saw the bourbon had been drained from her cocktail glass. But, the letter was nowhere to be seen. She coolly asked me if I were hungry and if I might help her with dinner preparation. I tell you now that even I could have used a shot of bourbon. Instead, I poured her another round, and she didn’t refuse it.

My mom died two months later. Probably it was a broken, make that shattered, heart. Her doctors said it was not mysterious; it was a heart attack. That was when I started pouring evening cocktails for my dad, who was just as needy of a stiff drink as my mother had been.

Then one day I discovered the letter that Michael had written. Placed by my mom, perhaps haltingly and with tenderness, between her nightgowns, the letter seemed to levitate—begging for attention. This was the letter that she had received after he had died. The envelope had been addressed to my mother, but the letter itself unbelievably began with:

“Dear Carol”

Michael went on to say how much he missed her, loved her, and would see her soon. He was thrilled that soon they would have a child together and he would find a home for them that was comfortable and cozy – just as any young couple would dream of as they started their life together. He signed it:

“With love from your husband, Mike”

Michael must have sent his letter to Carol in an envelope addressed to my mom; perhaps he sent a son-to-mother letter in the envelope intended for Carol. There is no way for me to know. I do know, however, that my mother was informed of her son’s marriage and his impending fatherhood through a letter never intended for her. And, she died never understanding why communication had been so cruelly distorted and certainly disordered.

Reply All,

P.S. There’s more to read this week in à la mode!

In Left Field

Posted on October 28, 2016

It was a great day for women, I suppose. The news came in 1972 that institutions of higher learning were now legally bound to provide equal athletic opportunities for women as they had been doing for male students since Ben Hur drove his chariot around the track at his homecoming game back in the 1st century. Before the federal law was passed, athletically enthusiastic girls had two sports to choose from: cheerleading and, in my high school, hula dancing. As the new law took effect, brand new women’s locker rooms, many of them with running water, were built in schools across the U.S.; female coaching staffs were hired and given shiny new whistles to wear around their thick necks; and scholarships, long the only way many male students could secure a higher education especially at top-tiered schools, were also doled out to deserving female high school students who showed promise on the athletic fields.

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If I were athletically inclined, this could have been a very good thing for me. Although, quite frankly, I attended Cal back when the tuition was free and an A- high school student, like me, could be accepted even without being elected class president of her high school or discovering the cure for cancer. Imagine, if you can: The term “community service,” hadn’t yet found its way into our lexicon. But, had I been “sporty,” as we used to call the girls in my high school with unshaved legs, cropped hair, and a propensity for all sorts of sports particularly on the offensive side of their teams, I might have been nudged to apply to a prestigious college out of state. The girls who did shave their legs and their armpits, who had tossed around their lustrously long and straight tresses, and who could throw a ball or run a decent race found their place atop the high school pecking order. For athletic prowess, exhibited in the right dosage and in the appropriate manner and executed with long and denuded legs could yield fantastic results: Popularity! A position on the cheerleading squad, maybe. Certainly a shot to be on the arm of the blue-eyed quarterback at the next dance, which was the brass ring most of us coveted. Talk about the 1%.

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Although a nearly straight-A student, I was on the high school roster B list of coolness. It was a manageable perch, being there, because I rarely worried about slipping to the netherworld below me; and I could aspire, no matter how unlikely, to higher ground. It was the stuff of my dreams, in fact. Like marrying George Harrison, it seemed anything might be possible if luck shined its high-bright beams on me. To my way of thinking, I could make friends with the A-listers, catch a fleeting glimpse of what one might experience atop the peaks and never have to don an oxygen mask because I wasn’t staying but a minute in that heady, high-altitudinal atmosphere. Like Groucho said: Hello, I must be going.

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And, I knew the code. If you stayed in the background, you had plenty of scenic points from which to surveil eternally desired popular behavior. I shaved my legs and had much-admired long, red hair. I could make people laugh on occasion and help them with homework when humor wasn’t called for. In other words, I made myself useful but certainly was not indispensible. To feel as though I were necessary would be to set myself up for disappointment. Physically, I was as coordinated as the next girl. In the 1960s, who knew from concepts like stamina, conditioning, being in shape, or finding your core? You just did it—like the soon-to-come Nike slogan espoused. What I lacked was self-confidence, and what I feared most was participating in any sport activities when boys were around. In fact, the one-two punch of doom was comprised of boys AND team play. Either was scary to contemplate let alone to experience. But both? A paralyzing nightmare.

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On my street about ½ mile down the way and tucked back from the road there stood a wooden three-sided structure that looked like something my nearby girlfriend’s handy father could have slapped together. Inside the shed was a bench about 2 feet off the ground, so that no one ever sat on it. Maybe two small kindergarteners could sit there, side by side, but only if they put their lunchboxes on the dirt floor beneath them.The bench would have been fully occupied just with those two tiny bottoms. It was a handy shelter for those occasionally blustery winter or hot autumn mornings where little children could cluster together to wait for the school bus.

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This wooden bus stop served the sole purpose in my childhood of being a place marker. “Meet you at the bus stop,” my little girlfriends and I would say to each other with as much delight and eager anticipation as we might say a few years hence when we would rendezvous at the mall. My parents would demand that I was not to bike or walk farther than “to the bus stop,” as if the beyond its boundaries lay land mines. And, I never did go beyond it. But that was solely because to do so meant you had to bike up a steep hill on the return.

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Biking to the bus stop started, I’m not sure when, to become a competition. And, once the neighbor boys got wind of this, my problems really began. I was painfully aware that even though my bike was worthy of the task, just the thought of interacting with boys made me grab the handlebars too tightly. My balance was therefore in jeopardy. When I fell in front of Brady Hendricks one day as a group of us sped to the bus stop, and he broke out in laughter, I never again got on that bicycle. Instead, I feigned a painful injury and limped home. The bike remained in our garage until my dad finally gave it away. The fear of ridicule brought me to my knees and kept me off my two-wheeler for decades.

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There was no physical education that I recall at my small private school, which I attended from kindergarten through third grade. Instead, at recess, we played jacks, marbles or hopscotch in the playground. Blissfully, I floated through those early grades and the requisite outdoor play as if my hardest task were to find a place to rest in the shade.

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But when my parents transferred me to our local public school in the fourth grade with its burdensome emphasis on the benefits of intramural sports and prescribed team play and the concomitant co-educational existence, my world order was kicked to the side like an out-of-bounds soccer ball.

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Picking teams was a particular nightmare. In today’s pseudo-inclusive culture, this is anathema. But my young world was headed by those who got to pick the team and those who were picked. Or not picked. Somehow two special children were knighted as captains and they stood sentry in front of their classmates…eager soldiers ready to serve… forming a long line that faced the small-fry generals who held others’ destinies in their sweaty little hands. The sport rarely mattered; what was the defining qualification for being picked was popularity—or maybe allegiance. And, it was that last requisite that was my only saving grace. For years and years, grade after grade, my best friend and I were always the last two remaining to be chosen. Until one day when Clementine was chosen to select her team members. Clemmy was one of those aforementioned “sporty” types—unshaven legs, chopped off hair, who walked through life like a truck driver. But Clemmy was a team captain who wanted a winning team and also wanted to have fun. If you wanted the latter, especially, you picked my best friend and me to be on your team. We might not add much to the final score, but we sure as hell made you laugh. We were the merry pranksters in this monotonous but gruesome physical ordeal. If we laughed at ourselves first, what else was there to make fun of? A useful and life-affirming tactic always.

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It was at my 20th-year high school reunion when I finally was able to thank Clemmy for helping me survive that team-picking trauma. And, when we found each other at the bar that evening so many years after the asphalt jungle of high school P.E. classes, she introduced me to her wife as I did my husband to her. Clemmy was now Carl and sported a full beard. Obviously, she still hated to shave.

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When I arrived at Cal, mercifully there was not a PE requirement to meet. It was all we students could muster to get to classes each semester. We had war to protest, after all. But, somehow I managed to find a sport, more like a recreational activity, that defied my past and those accompanying traumatic experiences with team play combined with boys. I know you’ve guessed it already…

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Balkan Folk Dancing. It had it all: movement, music, and the smell of marijuana. I had found my way in to a socially manageable and physically rewarding experience. If I got to class early enough, I could even manage to be partners with the cutest boy in the room, Steven. The call-and-response from the teacher combined with the most curiously exotic music created an enticingly foreign atmosphere for all. None of us knew what we were doing and so there was no benchmark by which to be measured. We all needed each other to create the movement, and together our intricate weaving patterns and clunky stomping steps fashioned a bizarre and hypnotic realm. It was as easy to be in that class as it was to play hopscotch on the playground at my small, sheltered primary school.

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Steven, the cute guy in Balkan Dancing, even came with a motorcycle. He actually walked to class but when he picked me up for our first date, he pulled up on a Harley. I tossed my long red hair to one side and gracefully picked up my left leg to straddle the vehicle’s enormous leather seat. My flowered bell bottoms were so tight I was relieved that mounting the bike didn’t result in splitting my pants. He revved the engine, asked me over his right shoulder if I were cool. I said I was and with that we took off. Actually, he took off and I fell off the back. But, unlike Brady Hendricks at my local bus stop back in fourth grade, Steven, aghast at the sight of me on the pavement, rushed to my side to help me back on the bike. Astride that motorcycle, and this time, with enough sense to hold onto my handsome date, we took off—his hair and mine tangling up together in the wind. I quickly made a joke to diffuse the situation and to foster a future date possibility. Steven, I could tell, admired my wit (and my hair) and was relieved that I didn’t pout or cry or sue his careless ass.

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And, I could tell that something shifted for me. I fell and I recovered. Nobody laughed but me; nobody could tell I hurt because I just climbed back on and flew down the road on a scary machine driven by a really cute guy who picked me, for a few more dates anyway, to be on his team.

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Backfield in motion,
Naomi

Boxed In

Posted on September 16, 2016

“Those damn Shapiro girls,” my father said as he drove my mother and me to one of his sibling’s Oakland homes on a Sunday afternoon. “Why don’t those pushy women let my brothers drive through the tunnel to come see us for a goddamn change?” he asked no one in particular. Sitting side by side by side on the front bench seat of my dad’s brand new 1960 powder-blue Cadillac, with the champagne-colored leather interior, my mother indicated to me with an elbow to my ribs to turn up the volume on the car’s radio.

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I could see why these old people I called my aunts and uncles would fear any excursion through an ominous bore drilled into a mountainside just to get to unfamiliar and often roughly paved roads. Never mind that their baby brother, despite being in his mid-50s when I was a young girl, abandoned the urban known for the wild west of fenced-in backyards that staked off one yawning suburban patio from the one next door. He was the one who blazed new trails; not them. Let him make the drive. Plus, there were hardly any Jews on my father’s chosen side of the tunnel, and what the east side of the mountain lacked in Jews it made up for with bothersome insects and heat. As a result, two of my uncles and their wives, rarely came to visit us; so we periodically shot through the Caldecott Tunnel rolling up our windows once we were through to guard against the unpredictably cooler climate and the equally sketchy city denizens. To my father, these inner-city dwellers were much more worrisome than the bugs in our backyard.

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The Shapiro girls were my two big-boned aunts who were somehow related to each other. Somebody’s cousin married someone else’s relative back in the old country and nobody ever thought twice about it. Presumably, they felt lucky to have escaped with their lives—even if their genes were co-mingled somehow. The Russian Jewish population was rapidly being murdered; who could afford to be choosy about marriage proposals?

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My third and eldest Oakland aunt on the same side of my father’s family was a runt of a woman especially when standing shoulder-to-boob with her sisters-in-law. The two Shapiro women each lived in their small houses crammed with overstuffed chairs and sofas, most of which were upholstered with heavy and darkened-by-wear brocade. As if further embellishment were necessary, silky fringe dangled like neatly trimmed bangs from the seats of the furniture to the floor. I warded off incessant boredom during these afternoon visits lying prone on top of a deep-piled musty-smelling carpet and passing my fingers through the gaudy trimmings like a kitten with her play thing. From this vantage point, I could see my aunts’ thick ankles and the hemlines of their mid-calf housedresses. I could hear the ice tinkling in their high-ball glasses. Depending on the time of day and the corresponding meal being served, their dresses might be hidden behind elaborate and flouncy aprons—the pockets of which always held their handkerchiefs.

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Deposited, as I often was, for a night or two at one or another of the aunts’, we had projects that were in stark contrast to those of my mother’s sparse domestic activities: sewing doll clothes, for example, or making borscht. These were day-long escapades into an exotic domain (Aunt Teresa) filled with pungent and unfamiliar odors and elaborate china plates and bowls (in the case of borscht, applesauce, or tzimmes). The doll clothes we sewed were miniature creations of my Aunt Betty’s and resembled her own fashion sense—or lack thereof. My beloved Barbie Doll, with her pointy boobs and negligible waistline looked oddly like a drag queen in her homespun shirtwaist floral dresses and shapeless housecoats. Barbie was mercilessly spared the fussy aprons.

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No matter what we were up to, however, my aunts never removed their enormous gold charm bracelets that clanged like dissonant wind chimes when making the slightest move from borscht bowl to kitchen sink or from sewing machine to the nearby TV dial. Hanging from these clunky links were all sorts of charms the size of salad plates. These were mementoes of trips to the sea (an oyster shell with a pearl inside, larger than the shell itself) or to the mountains (silhouetted trees with pearls festooning the golden branches) or to Las Vegas (tiny slot machines, where pearls replaced 3-across cherries). More than once, I worried about these bracelets like a knight might fear an oncoming lance. Swung at a certain angle and velocity by one of my aunt’s pendulous arms, a hefty charm could knock out a tooth.

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Damn, those Shapiro girls could really rock big jewelry. They were my early mentors.

There was one aunt on my mother’s side with whom I spent less time visiting but more time studying. Her look was iconoclastic from her ice-white wispy grey curls raked up from the nape of her neck to form a nest on top of her head. Jewel-studded combs held the semi afro in place. Her nails were painted apple red except for the half-moons nearest the cuticles and the pointy nail tips. Never a chip of polish; never a hangnail…these slender fingers caught your eye for their artistic flair and wonderment about why anyone would take the time for this odd manicure. It really was hard to look away.

Her knitting was legendary, and possibly because she was one of only two of my aunts born in the United States, and not in Minsk, she had spent easy days perfecting her skill. She was not a cook nor a housekeeper. She never wore a housedress nor a shirtwaist nor an apron. And, all her jewels hung around her neck so as not to snag the cashmere yarn of a sweater, or full-length coat, or shawl that she was constantly knitting for her sister, who was my mother. The ropes of pearls, though luminescent white and pale in comparison to the color of her hair, were silent displays of elegant accessorizing unlike the Shapiro girls’ gaudy and clamorous collections of jewelry.

Grace, this prolific and mesmerizing craftswoman, had another sister too. But, this aunt I never met. She died before I was born. Had she been alive she never would have visited us. Despite her own Jewish ancestry, which was kept as a furtive and filthy secret by her own parents, she was ironically so anti-Semitic that once her sister was married to my anything-but-closeted Jewish dad, the relationship between the two women imploded. There’s nothing like racial prejudice and hatred to dampen the mood of a family dinner.

While the Shapiro aunts were doting—wet kisses with left-over lipstick stains on my cheeks–Grace was in a class by herself. She was all discretion and elegance, soft-scented powder instead of the cloying, thick Shalimar perfume the Shapiros favored. She gifted me pale-colored nail polish and porcelain jars of cold cream, both of which my mother confiscated. Once my mother had died, all bets were off, however. I got to keep her gracious gifts, and Grace replaced the knitting projects for my mom with ones for me. A woman who despite her age and visage understood the decade in which her niece was now floundering as a teen; and she macraméd plant holders for my room and crocheted mini skirts in neon colors. But her real value in my life had nothing to do with the needles she held in her garnished hands but the comfort and company she provided.

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In those early days after my mother died, Grace would drive an hour or more to be at my home when I arrived there from school. She kept herself busy and extremely useful: Food was bought, the table set, and the washing done. And then one day it wasn’t—none of it. Three short months after her first day as my doting, there-when-I-needed-her aunt, she disappeared from my life. I found her explanatory note taped to my bathroom mirror. In her flowery handwriting heavy with curly inky sweeps, she wrote that it was too sad for her to see me every day. Each day with me was a painful reminder of how much she missed her sister, my mother. The drive was too arduous for her weakening vision and the Buick’s balding tires; the housework was too exhausting, the chores too numerous, and my father was not adequately grateful. She said she would be moving to her former home in the Midwest and once situated she would write to me again.

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I would have much preferred a knitting needle stuck into my eye than to have received this notice conceding her defeat. The only other adult I could absolutely trust, other than my father, had vanished and what was worse, she seemed to blame us. Abandonment is one thing, but avoidance is quite another. She could write to me if she liked. I was never–not ever again–going to let her into my heart. She could try in vain to crochet me a granny dress and matching headband for my excursions to Golden Gate Park, but I would refuse to wear them. Unless they were totally cool. It’s hard to say.

Over a decade later, with still no word from Grace, I received a letter from a cousin of mine whom I had never met. She invited me to her Sonoma home for lunch and a chance to meet each other for the first time. This woman, about 20 years my senior, was the daughter of the asocial aunt I had never met. Extremely cordial and welcoming, as if making up for the poor choices her own mother made, she brought me into her dining room. There on the massive dining table that was laid for lunch was an ornate wooden and ivory-inlaid (whoops!) box, which my cousin indicated was a Mah Jongg game set. It’s funny how the brain first tries to make sense of incongruity before relinquishing that futile effort when things just don’t add up. Why was this exotic box near my plate? Where was hers? Was this the centerpiece that just hadn’t been properly centered? My cousin invited me to sit and then to open up this elaborately constructed yet totally unfamiliar box. It was she who tried to explain the how the game was played and therefore why it housed intricately carved tiles and other esoteric objects—all of which were mysterious and confounding. I was losing patience and running out of pleasantries when my cousin instructed me to open the bottom drawer of the set. There, among the numerous carved tiles, I found a yellowed piece of paper with that undeniably recognizable and trauma-inducing handwriting. It was a note from Grace. She must have placed it inside the box; did she also leave a clue someplace else as to the note’s whereabouts? Was this a message meant to be found or was it just a way to get something off her chest and into a tiny wooden one? My cousin said she had found the Mah Jongg box among Grace’s possessions after my aunt’s death. Her death, by the way, was news to me.

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I opened the tightly folded note and read:

March 11, 1958

Dear Darling Daughter,
That is correct. I am referring to you as my daughter and not as my little baby sister. That is because I gave birth to you in 1913 and yet you were raised by my mother to believe you and I were sisters. I was only 18 years old when you were born. I was far too young to raise a child and I was not marryed [sic]. I became pregnant when I worked as a stewardess on the ocean liner–the Mauretania. I fell in love with a handsome but married man—a scoundrel it turned out– who was a first-class passenger on a voyage to the Orient. It was he who gave me this box as a present. But, he never knew the real present he gave me was you, my dear child.

I wanted to tell you this story and always thought one day I would. In person, as a mother should tell her own daughter something this enormous. But I have failed to do so as yet. No one except my own mother (and the mother you now must understand is your grandmother) ever knew the truth. When you read this, please forgive me if you can find it in your heart to do so. Maybe one day, when you are much older and have experienced much of the world, you will be able to sympathize with the choices I made. Citing my youth as the reason for my actions you might think is suspect.  I meant you no harm.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I felt I had no choice and received no guidance.  But these are poor excuses for keeping secrets.

All my adoring love,
Your mother, Grace

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Lunch was served; my cousin pushed Exhibit A away from my plate and began to scoop heaps of food in front of me as a means of diversion. But there was no way for me to simultaneously eat and make any sense of what this seemingly innocuous box had coughed up.

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My mother never saw this note, of course. Grace’s weak attempt at reconciliation and her pitiful explanation whizzed right past the intended reader as life took an ironic and unfair detour. Instead, the news landed on the lunch plate of her unsuspecting granddaughter. The pain Grace must have suffered from the loss of the child she could never claim was undoubtedly surpassed by the anguish of withholding the truth once again. What was the point of her secrecy, I wondered? Although the answers I now conjure up are filtered through the lens of modernity—our current era’s worship of the total reveal–for better or for worse. It’s hard to keep any secrets anymore.

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The high seas and the floating cities that traverse them have always fascinated me but never enough to succumb to their claustrophobic lodgings. The sense of being held captive is unnerving. My grandmother formerly known as my aunt must have had the conflicting sense of freedom from the tethers of her contemporary society’s morals and the unmitigated shame of knowing that her actions resulted in duplicitousness whose rippling effects created more than waves–more like a tsunami—in a family that was never again to be whole.

All ashore that’s going ashore,
Naomi

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Code Blue

Posted on August 19, 2016

I spent most of third grade in the hospital and the rest of my life, up until now, trying to avoid going back to one.

Of course, anyone who has given birth in modern America or sat vigil next to a dying parent or a premature baby or explored the stark and sharply lighted and often overcrowded halls of an emergency room waiting for stitches on an arm, a forehead or shin has been in one. And, everyone probably feels the same way as I do–harboring the same repulsion for the place and forever grateful to have a first-rate one nearby.

But about that third-grade year…

It was a hot October afternoon and in a futile attempt to drum up some wind currents to cool off my scrawny self, I attempted a jump from my backyard swing. This idiot-proof physical activity resulted in a one-two mishap: First, my little frilly shorts caught on the swing’s chain where I dangled for a second or two before crumbling onto the dirt. My left arm bent underneath me. I loped inside to my mother, who was watching the World Series on TV, and she had to be convinced of my calamity’s severity. It took some doing on my part to persuade her that she had an emergency on her hands. Her lack of immediate concern was not because she was an unsympathetic mother. Not by any means. But, she was something of a rabid Giants fan, and for a few seconds it really felt to me as if I were on deck and not on home plate.

We scurried to the hospital, which was many miles away and in a different city than where we lived. I was sedated, the bone was set, and I was left to languish in traction for two excruciating weeks. This traction device was weighted downward from my left arm with what looked like a thousand garden rocks held inside a canvas tote. The upward tension was rigged up from bars above my bedframe. The whole contraption now seems as antiquated to me as if I had been subjected to cupping or leeches as a sound medical choice of treatment. I wish I owned a book on the history of bone setting. It might be titled, “Frontiers of Fracture Management.” Together, we might then know more about what midcentury bone-setting techniques were comprised of. One might now covet midcentury furniture in decorating the living room; but, believe me, the health care from the same period was anathema.

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I was released to my own recognizance after a couple of weeks. I met a kid who was also stashed in the children’s ward. He, however, was no novice to institutional care. He was there when I arrived; he remained so when I waved goodbye. The nurse said he was a blue boy, which of course was ridiculous. He was the same color as me. It was the kid, himself, who at approximately my same age of 8 gave his disease a name: hemophilia. That was equally ridiculous because despite this label, he looked nothing like a reptile. But, he and I bonded over the quizzical choices the nursing staff made to amuse us children. Mostly, they chose an assortment of animals that were meant to calm, distract and hopefully comfort us. This same ploy would visit itself upon me again decades later when I found myself in a hospital after breaking my hip. All of sudden, in the middle of calling out for more pain meds, a golden retriever and its owner showed up—neither one harboring pain pills. I was not the least bit comforted by their visit.

But, at my young age in the children’s ward of the hospital, even my blue friend and I were not dumb enough to think that the porcupine now put in front of us was at all cuddly. Admonished by one of the nurses for not petting it, the blue kid started to cry and it seemed like such a subversive and successful tactic, I joined him in a concert of tears.

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November rolled around and The World Series was now over. My mom returned to doting on me when she was at home. When she wasn’t, she was attending buying trips which meant that she was responsible for attending fashion shows in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco and procuring the next season’s saleable clothes to stock the yawning shelves of the small boutique she managed.

The days were closing in on Thanksgiving and darkness fell so early. In my memory of this incident, which was to change our lives forever, I don’t recall the sun shining at all that day. My mother was late in coming home. Alarmingly so considering my father was home, the nightly news on TV was over, and my usually placid and confident dad was pacing in front of door. There were, of course, no cell phones. But, he reached out to the hospitals and the police in a fruitless effort to glean some news about mom’s disappearance. Time was becoming a narrowing tunnel from which neither my dad nor I could emerge. When we heard the front gate clang shut around 9 p.m., I subsequently could now hear the slower-than-normal click-click of my mother’s high heels on the front brick path. The rhythm of her shoes hitting the ground was off somehow. It was the sound of hobbling. When she rang the doorbell instead of opening the door with her key, I scrambled to the door opening it up to a terrifying presence. My mother stood in front of me with bruises everywhere on her face; one eye was black and blue. Her coat was torn, and one shoe heel was broken off. Maintaining an eerie calm, she softly asked me to go find my dad. When he came to her side begging her to take his arm, he sternly asked me to call the neighbor. That seemed so silly to me because all we had to do was to bring mom inside, clean her up a bit, get her ready for bed, and pour her a whiskey. The usual whiskey in that fancy cut-glass highball glass always rinsed and ready in the dish rack. Let’s do what we usually do! This scene was impossible to process—to attach any sense to. She had been beaten but not by a mugger, but by the onset of heart disease. Her heartbeat’s irregularities caused her to collapse onto the unforgiving pavement somewhere downtown. I wondered, where do we go from here? The answer became obvious: She and my father went to the hospital. I stayed at the neighbor’s.

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Equal to the antiquity of no cell phones was the state of medicine–especially with regard to heart disorders. I wonder if, in the Middle Ages, people then thought to themselves, “Sure it’s bad now but you should have seen it in the Dark Ages.” We just assumed the care my mom was receiving was state of the art. After all, we now possessed the detritus of modernity in our very own home: a color television, a portable television WITH A REMOTE CONTROL, and two cars—one with an automatic transmission. The refrigerator defrosted itself, for goodness sakes.

But, as days turned into weeks and my mother was still in the hospital, the doctors remained perplexed as to her diagnosis and my father was grasping at his now dual duties of breadwinner and child-care provider. He told me that I needed to think of a friend with whom I could stay for a few months and that every evening he would try and have dinner with me.

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Tiny Karen was my third-grade buddy and my choice for this assignment. She met my criteria of consistent on-time school arrival and an awesome house in the hills. She also had no annoying siblings, which was as my own home environment was—placid, reliable, slightly boring. And, because my father was a man of his word, every evening he would pick me up at Tiny Karen’s and we would go to dinner. The only surprise to me on the first night of our new arrangement was that dinner would be in the lobby of Peralta Hospital. I don’t remember what my father ate; I devoured a tuna sandwich and a carton of chocolate milk…nightly for weeks.

The thing about children is that kids can pretty much get used to anything. New adjustments become normalized much quicker than is true for their sad-sack parents. Before long, I had my own nook in the lobby and was not unlike Eloise, the Kay Thompson’s character in the book by the same name, in exploring my new digs. But, while Eloise called the Plaza Hotel home, “For Lord’s sake,” I still called my exploration site, the hospital.

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Weeks became months and my mother was not any closer to a diagnosis or to coming home. I saw her solely during visiting hours and those, for children, were only on the weekends. Something had to be done because the nurses could see that both mother and child were spiraling into that dangerous zone of hopelessness and sorrow. We missed each other, and I needed her for sustenance; she needed me to regain her health and to mend her heart.

A solution was found by one kindly nursing assistant who proposed the preposterous. I would climb into the laundry cart and be covered by sheets and towels. God knows if this laundry was coming or going, come to think of it now. This cart was just the perfect fit for a child of my size– my adult claustrophobic tendencies had yet to assert themselves. The plan was hatched and executed without dire consequences. Quite the opposite, in fact. After dinner in the lobby, I would see the cart and its driver rounding the corner. Hopping in for my nightly excursion, I would leap out of the heap of linens and find a corner to sit on my mother’s hospital bed. It was as close to heaven as a little girl and her mother could get.

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It was in the hospital, at my mother’s side, that she would tell me all about her daily viewing of the soap opera, “Love of Life.” Who needed a bedtime story at the age of 8?

Instead, my mother would quote the opening line of the show, “To live each day for whatever life may bring…this is Love of Life” and we would double over with laughter. I’m telling you, current reality TV cannot compete with the realistic plots of this or any soap opera. If my mom and I made too much noise, we were admonished by her clinical keepers and I was tossed back into the laundry bin and wheeled downstairs.

My mother didn’t live past my 13th birthday, and still Peralta Hospital became my home away from home. It was across the street from my father’s Oakland dental office, and he and I would often enjoy a quick bite of lunch at the café located on the street level of the building. They made a terrific tuna sandwich and my father would greet his colleagues and friends as the two of us sat on backless, metal stools at the lunch counter. It became a dining destination for us.

When I was 16 and had a terrible case of the flu, my father was again faced with the enormous task of how to care for a child as a single parent. He needed to work, and I couldn’t care for myself in my weakened and sick condition. So, he checked me into the hospital for a week where he could be relieved of his duties as a caregiver. After all, I was right across the street from where he worked and he could easily visit me without the indignity of climbing into a laundry cart.

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As it turns out, I’m headed to the hospital this week for a hip-replacement, and I am told that I stay one night—two if things get complicated. It’s of some comfort to me that the diagnosis is known, my husband can visit whenever he wants, and I have my own device for watching (and laughing at) any show I choose. I told my husband, though, to see if the hospital cafeteria serves a decent tuna sandwich. He promised me he’s up to the task.

Paging Dr. Kildare,
Naomi

To My Granddaughter

Posted on July 29, 2016

There are a few differences between us: age, of course, is one. You are adorable; I’m presentable. You are short but average for your 3 years; I’m just a runt. You speak two languages, and I can manage only one. You could be a kindergartner when a woman is president of the United States; I was born when Truman was in office. By the time I was in kindergarten, Eisenhower was in the White House. At two years of age, I kissed Ike as he stood waving to the press before boarding a plane. So, that’s another thing: I could get very close to a U.S. president back then, and ANYONE could board a plane without going through security. The trade off, though, was that at any age few if any women thought about becoming the commander in chief let alone presiding over any state in the union. I can’t even remember any girl running for president of my high school.

Last night that changed. I witnessed something marvelous and historic and despite my blog readers who might not consider voting for Hillary Clinton, there is no denying that history was made. I am not sure why the press doesn’t capture the incredible milestone in more righteous terms – and again, this is less about her politics and more about the fact that the woman who is taking the helm of the Democratic party all the way to the ballot box in November is female. Like me and like you, my little granddaughter.

It takes courage to fight over and over again for what you believe and even more courage to know what you believe in the first place. I was raised to believe that the smartest person in the room, any room, was always male. I was also raised to be demure, soft-spoken, useful, pleasant, and to grow up to be someone’s wife and mother. Those were my aspirations because I thought those were my only options. In my senior year in college, I remember thinking that the rules had changed. Some of us got the memo, but I didn’t. My current physician, for example, is exactly my age, and she headed off to medical school when she graduated from college. I went on an extended camping trip. I learned how to pitch a tent, but I came home and found a job as a secretary.

But, I fought a reasonably good fight—at least for me—as I grew older and less oblivious. It was not hard to pay attention because the world was in turmoil and glorious change was the air we breathed. I marched for women’s rights and joined the National Organization for Women. I heard Gloria Steinman speak; while I truly believed her words were relevant they rang too radical for me. I studied karate and wrote a few articles for a women’s newspaper. I did what I could while remaining demure, soft-spoken, useful and reasonably pleasant. I held up placards and stopped shaving my legs—for a month. I eventually got married and became two young men’s mother. And, I like to think I brought to the kitchen table a woman’s view of the world that rounded out the otherwise male perspective in our house.

I hope Hillary wins the presidency, and I’m going to vote for her. I am voting for her because I think she is the best candidate, the smartest person running for office, and the most prepared. Eight years ago, I voted for her in the primary mostly because she was a woman. I admired Obama but I wanted to cast a vote for a woman more than I wanted him to win. In November, I’m casting my vote for a candidate I believe to be the strongest. That’s strongest, period. What a difference a few years can make in one’s relationship to the world. It’s not hyperbole to say the world has changed too. But that is the constant you can count on: change.

Darling granddaughter, you have every opportunity to become whatever you want to be. It’s not a cliché but today’s truth. Being female naturally is part of what makes you, you. But, while it describes you it doesn’t limit you. Hold your baby brother’s hand and walk on together. You’ll be stronger having and relying on each other. Also, don’t let anyone tell you to be demure. And, remember to wear what you want. I don’t think that even Hillary wakes up in the morning and says, “Great! Another day, another pants suit.”

Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Luckily for you, my sweet granddaughter, you can dance barefoot and in any direction you want. You choose the music. Take my advice and fly.

Love,
Grandma

A 1967 Rose By Any Other…

Posted on July 15, 2016

Name.

He just asked me for mine. He’s so cute and I’m so not worthy. But here we stand, me pulling on my long red hair with one hand, tugging at my mini skirt’s hem with the other. He is shifting his weight from side to side, hands clasped behind his back, in a futile stab at coolness. He doesn’t know his fly is down; I’m not sure how big the sweat marks are under my armpits. The cavernous room’s lights have been dimmed, but not so much as to prevent me and my fellow teenagers from employing our pinpoint laser night-vision assessment capabilities. And it’s certainly light enough for the adult chaperones to be on the lookout for premarital sex. Wait! Is that Mrs. Pointdexter? Carrie’s mom? Oh God. How embarrassing.

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The boy and I stand in the middle of this church rec hall which has been transformed into our parents’ ideal of a teen-dance milieu. The theme for the evening is Land of the Midnight Sun. There are garlands of crepe paper festooned from wall to wall and sparkly Styrofoam crescent shapes glued on the ceiling. It’s early in the evening, and one sad moon has already fallen to the floor. The sun is represented by an orange-painted orb precariously dangling from one of the several fluorescent lights.

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Glossy wooden floors might be just the ticket for a clean sweep of apple pie crumbs or an errant gloppy potato that jumped ship from the rest of the potato salad on any given Sunday church social. But, for tonight’s teenage dance, it’s pure hell. Shoes stick and then squeak when the Twist or the Monkey or the Swim (come on in!) is rendered. When a paper cup, ladled full of punch, is spilled, I hear guffaws from the lower registers of the football players and tinkley tee-hees from their female counterparts who make up the in-crowd. Embarrassed teens step in and skid on the puddle. Mortification ensues for those called sissies and dorks. They weren’t going to be dancing anyway. Only the really boss ones avoid the mess, tiptoeing around the spilled pool of pink on their way to claim their dance floor real estate. They owned it already.

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As a pimply faced guitarist works out the refrain of “Light My Fire” on the Fender his parents just bought him for Christmas, his band mates nod their heads in an effort to find the beat. More likely, however, they like the way their bangs and shaggy just-ear-length hair moves when they bop around on stage for the chicks to admire. I can’t hear this potential dance partner’s name when he offers it up to me, but he asks me again for mine. Why don’t I know him? Have I seen him before or more importantly, will I ever see him again?

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This Saturday night church dance in Orinda is not my first rodeo. In fact, these dances are the answer to my angst-filled prayers. Any kid in the area is welcome to attend—regardless of religion. Such monthly dances are meant as a means to get kids off the cruising strips of Walnut Creek and Lafayette and into the clutches and guiding eyes of adults. Keeping teenagers vertical and moving, where chaperones can monitor behavior is critical as we all lurched through the late 1960s. My peer group is a moving target.

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These assemblies of teenagers from assorted high schools in the area and hosted by the well-meaning ecumenical folks–one month at the Lutheran hangout, the next at the Presbyterian joint, and later in the year, at the Catholic hangout–allow those of us on the B-list to have a crack at moving up the very steep and narrow social ladder and into the heady world of popularity. Social mobility can only be attained by those of us on the lower rungs when no one knows your name. It’s like an early rendition of the witness protection program. Your name could betray you. What if someone had heard of you or your wayward sibling? Or what if your father were a high school principal? Not that these worries were mine. Rather, my name was my millstone because of its shear uniqueness and its audacious Jewishness. It was like hitting somebody in the face with a matzo ball when I introduced myself. The resulting grimace was always followed by a “Huh?” and a “How do you spell that?” Faking my identity was an easy way to have a fresh start at each dance every month.

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My best friend, Holly (this was her church-dance moniker and not her real name) would say to her potential suitors who asked and in whom she had no interest: “Hey, Holly, can I have your phone number?”
“It’s in the book,” she answered– referring to a phone book.
“What’s your last name?” he persisted.
“That’s in the book too.” And, Holly would move on before the punch on the soles of her shoes got too sticky.

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My name is Chris, I told the boy. Thinking about my choice today, I wonder why I imagined Chris and not Kris. Nobody was ever writing anybody’s name down anyway. Last names were never exchanged — only phone numbers if you were lucky. But did we bring pens? I don’t think so. At one dance, I experimented with a last name. That night I was Chris (Kris?) Pandora. Of course, the guy who asked my name was the one kid in the whole room who had actually stayed awake for the section on Greek mythology. He asked me if I were born in Crete. If I wanted ethnic, I certainly didn’t have to make up a new name. Mine was already a mouthful of cultural diversion. I kept it simple after that and was on a first name basis with my crowd.

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That is, I kept it simple and Native American. Several years prior to developing breasts, a waistline, and a need for teenage boys’ affirmations, I had another chance to rebrand myself. As a Campfire Girl, all I was looking for was a place to belong. The group of eager preteens met weekly, at someone’s home that was more nuclear in feeling, more suburban-standard in décor, and much more filled with the fresh-baked aromas of cookies and brownies than my eclectic but more-often-than-not motherless house. It was on a tufted sofa that 4 or 5 of us could squeeze in and dangle our legs while we sewed onto navy blue vests the felt patches and assorted beads that represented our many good deeds. Just like real Indians. Except for the couch. There was a book that passed from lap to lap, and you were instructed to leaf through this bible of Indian names to pick out one that best described you. After a couple of bites of brownie and a tall glass of milk, the obvious choice was as plain as war paint: O Kee Kee La…meaning? Able to arrange flowers well. One of my fellow tribeswomen, from then on, called me O Kee.

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The first day of high school each year was a chance to start over. I don’t know what the quarterback or the prom queen worried about the night before all of us assembled in the quad to regurgitate summer stories and show off our brand new dresses. Waiting for the first bell to ring in those sweltering early days of September sun was odious. But, you couldn’t be a wimp. Locating my friends on the first day of school was as much a relief as finding my luggage after a transatlantic flight is now. I was whole again.

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What kept me awake all night before my first day of class was the worry over my name. I became frantic thinking about how each teacher, in every class, for 7 periods would struggle to pronounce it. The experience never deviated, it seemed. Even if for some reason I knew the teacher from the year before… once the kids filed into the classroom and those all-in-one desk-and-chair fittings were occupied, the teacher would address the class with a welcoming remark and then pull out the dreaded class roster. He or she would eyeball the name on the paper in front of them, find the matching student in the doe-eyed, motley assortment in front of him or her. A nod, maybe a smile, would ensue and sometimes that was followed by a “Aren’t you Judy’s sister?” or a “Oh, how is your brother doing in Viet Nam?”

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Alphabetically prolonged terror would erupt in my bowels. I was Naomi Sinai. That’s about from here to eternity when you are waiting for the massacre to come.
I’d hear the teacher going down the A-Z class list: Ezra Pound? Here. Don Quixote? Here. Robert Redford? Here. As he approached the S’s, I’d have difficulty finding any saliva in my mouth. I could tell I was next. There was always the teacher’s prolonged hesitation. Then, the long, too-loud sigh of exasperation. This was my name he was looking at. “Come on teacher,” I would think. “Do this! Put me out of my misery.” Nie-oh-ma See-ah-nigh? The inflection indicated, “Is this right?” The teacher’s face seemed to register the question: “Are you a foreign exchange student from Nigeria?” Then came my response: “Here.” Pause. “Oh, and excuse me. But, my name is pronounced Nay-oh-me Sigh-nigh,” I would apologize while tapping the eraser end of my pencil on the pressed-wood surface of my desk. The teacher would acknowledge my somewhat nervy attempt to correct him or her. Some were kinder than others. And, I would look at the clock. Only 50 minutes until I had to repeat this long march in second period. Having a unique name in the 1960s was not only undesirable it was akin to being a leper except you didn’t get to live on Molokai.

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So, obviously, my friends sensed an opportunity to make fun of one of their own by making up names for me. Cyanide (that’s with a C, dummy!), Albino (pale skin), Thin Reds (for the hair). Somewhere along my personal timeline, I became Nomi—a name which the aforementioned Holly came up with and which my dad shortened to Nome. Often I was Gnome.

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When I moved to Israel in the 1970s, Nomi was the name Israelis used instead of Naomi. And, my lifetime of correcting people’s pronunciation of Sinai (from the erroneous See-Nigh to Sigh-Nigh)? Turns out in Hebrew it really IS pronounced See-Nigh. Who could have known that the name my father’s family came up with when they pushed through the Ellis Island turnstiles had been pronounced incorrectly from the start? They arrived from Minsk as Sinaicos; to hasten their departure from the Island’s dock to the mainland they must have thought, “Oy, this is taking us too long. Just call us Sinai already.”

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When I met my future husband, so smitten was he that once we married he legally took the name Sinai as his middle name. And, a decade later, our son was given the same middle name. Two decades on, that same son bestowed the formerly unpronounceable surname on his two children. So, now two half-French kids, one girl and one boy carry with them this same name. I am eager to hear how they will pronounce it when they offer it up to an immigration officer at Charles de Gaulle airport one day.

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By the time the 1980s and 1990s arrived, there were Naomis everywhere you looked: Naomi Watts, Naomi Wolf, and Naomi Judd to name a few. I was struggling to keep my individuality – especially when easily confused with my doppelganger: Naomi Campbell. Imagine seeing my name in glossy magazines or on book jacket covers! Hearing my name on the Oscars or on the radio! Was this really happening? The public was hearing Naomi pronounced correctly, albeit with an occasional Australian (Watts) or Southern (Judd) accent.

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Back in the 1960s, I was on to something having an idiosyncratic name; but the timing was wrong for owning my uniqueness. My goal was to blend in, to go unnoticed, to get by. I thought that the roadblock to easy street was my name and its perplexing pronunciation. By being Chris, I drove straight through that barrier and onto the teen highway with glorious abandon until I realized that other SIG alerts remained. Route Teen still had its lane closures, detours, and off ramps. It didn’t matter what your name was. Maybe one girl worried about her weight, or another, her untimely zit outbreak. One guy wasn’t tall enough or white enough or athletic enough. A rose is a rose is a rose, after all. Just ask O Kee Kee La.

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I hope in the rest home, they get my name right, though. That’s my new worry for the next decade. But it’s likely I won’t be able to hear them. So, I’ll just answer to whatever they call me as long as they bring me my lunch tray.

You can call me Al,
Naomi

The Name Game
By Shirley Ellis
First released: 1964

Lincoln!
Come on everybody!
I say now let’s play a game
I betcha I can make a rhyme out of anybody’s name
The first letter of the name, I treat it like it wasn’t there
But a B or an F or an M will appear
And then I say bo add a B then I say the name and Bonana fanna and a
fo
And then I say the name again with an F very plain
and a fee fy and a mo
And then I say the name again with an M this time
and there isn’t any name that I can’t rhyme
Arnold!
Arnold, Arnold bo Barnold Bonana fanna fo Farnold
Fee fy mo Marnold Arnold!
But if the first two letters are ever the same,
I drop them both and say the name like
Bob, Bob drop the B’s Bo ob
For Fred, Fred drop the F’s Fo red
For Mary, Mary drop the M’s Mo ary
That’s the only rule that is contrary.

Listen to it here: The Name Game

Hey kids, there’s more: Check out the link à la mode which is located at the top of my homepage. There you will find fun ideas to keep you time tripping. Groovy!

Muddy Waters

Posted on May 27, 2016

Mostly, we came for the music. Our Southern Music Crawl, how we pre-labeled this recent adventure, took my husband and me on a two-week expedition through Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. I now have securely cemented in my cortex both the spelling of these 3 states and their locations on the U.S. map. Prior to this adventure, both tasks were equally tedious and easily dismissed; or, shall I admit, easily handled by spell check and Google maps? Come on now. Unless your grandma lives in Friars Point, who the hell really cares where Mississippi is?

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The music we came to hear was not only found in the multitude of honky tonks, bars, clubs and restaurants where we wiled away our Southern evenings but also on street corners, music stores, and naturally, The Grand Ole Opry. As a couple of newly minted Nashville Cats, we sat on more bar stools in two weeks than I have in my entire life. Especially in the honky tonks, with no cover charges and only the expectation to drop some dough into the bands’ plastic fish bowls that were passed every hour, on the hour, it was inviting to spend those hours drinking really fine, locally brewed beer or distilled moonshine (not kidding), munching on fried bologna sandwiches or onion rings or fried chicken. All of this boozy, brassy behavior was enhanced as our bar mates or (often) table mates were hootin’ and hollerin’ to some of the best live music I’ve ever heard…in each club on every night. Walking down Broadway in Nashville or Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans was similar to taking a stroll down the radio dial—if you can remember what a radio dial is. Don’t care for country-western music? Then go next door to hear a Jerry Lee Lewis boogie-woogie cover band. Too chaotic there? Then, how about that blue-grass quartet across the street? But the one dial you will have no control over is the volume. So, just remember you aren’t at these joints for conversation. It’s more about the hooch and the harmonies. Maybe not the ideal spot for a first date. But, that would depend, I guess.

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The other music I cottoned to was found in Southerners’ speech. The lilting patterns, the slower-than-molasses-in-June phrasing, the soft-as-summer-breeze tones all lent such a balmy resonance to the most common statements. So what if you can’t figure out what the f*^ck they are sayin’, darlin’. Sometimes, I was a “ma’am;” other times, I was a “baby.” My favorite was “hon.” The majority of time though, I was, “y’all.” And, if my husband was by my side, we were, “y’all, y’all.”

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Even the birds sang with an impressive, poignant cadence. Hundreds of birds would wake us from our one-too-many-beers-the-night-before sleep…be it in the cities of Nashville, Memphis, or New Orleans. Of course, in the latter, the birds had Mardi Gras beads around their scrawny necks. In the rural areas, these little creatures would start their symphonies at dawn and sometimes, I could swear I saw a couple of them weaving threads on a gown for Cinderella’s upcoming debutante ball at the country club–Did I mention the moonshine I drank on occasion?

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The vacation seemed so full of good music and fine food it was nearly unthinkable to recollect and then process the history of the region. But, you can’t drive very far through Delta Blues Country without coming upon museums and markers that pull you back into a wormhole. The land and its oppressive usurpers and lawful owners helped to cultivate the birth of the blues. Born of this fertile Mississippi Delta land, slaves then share-croppers then poor folk of color and impoverished whites fashioned instruments out of whatever they could find and a world-famous genre was the crop that emerged. Naturally, being a Bay Area native, I thought I had this whole thing figured out: I’ve read my American history, studied the distant accounts of slavery from an academic viewpoint and seen the occasional hard-to-watch and harder-to-comprehend movies about the subject. Who’s going to argue with my conclusion: It was a brutal, incomprehensible period of sanctioned economic and social policies. Nobody wants a lecture from me. But, as I traveled through these areas of the South, the evidence of slavery’s expansive, grotesque, and deeply rooted, ingrained legacy are, no surprise, everywhere.

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Who hasn’t made the decision, while on a journey, about where to eat? We base our decisions on a host of criteria…price, parking, availability of Caesar salads. But, at least for me, one benchmark has never before been whether or not a Confederate flag was whipping through the crisp Southern skies (excuse that pun). And, naturally, there were signs (actual and surmised) about presidential election choices. We stayed hungry longer on the road.

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Why were some restaurants, hotels, bars, cafes in some cities integrated and why were some not? Where I live, I never ask myself that question. I have a lot of beliefs and principles and political views that course through my blood without ever having to think twice about having to justify what I think. I assume most folks around me think like I do. They might not share my political party, but it’s a gut-level assumption I’ve made based on homogeneity. Seems easier that way. I live in a nearly 100% white city in a practically 100% white county. Nobody made me live here, y’all. I chose it for its educational opportunities for our children, for our feeling of safety, for our commitment to liberal ideals along with those of our neighbors, and for our belief that we could worship whatever god we choose (or not to worship as the case may be) without risking becoming a pariah and having our front lawn sport a burning cross instead of a cozy fire pit.

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See, the conflicting premise for me is this: When I speak of my trip to the South, folks where I live respond with something like, “The South is like being on another planet.” While I agree that much of any unique region is, well, unfamiliar. The South…be it these three states I visited or the other ones…are in fact not on another planet, nor galaxy, nor cosmos. The South is part of the country in which almost everyone reading this blog lives: The U.S. of A. And, that’s what blows my mind. I can’t chalk up the unrecognizable accents, drinking and driving and gun laws (all of which can be done together, by the way), the integration, the segregation, the economic-booming-versus-busted towns (there are plenty of both), the fabulous cuisine and the enormous-sized folks who consume too much of it, the home of renown writers, poets, and artists and the pathetic state of public school education there. I not only share this planet with the South, I share a president, a senate, and a congress. We pay taxes to the same federal agency and we supposedly speak the same language. Don’t we?

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There was one day of our 14-day excursion that resonated with me because of its myriad of complexities. We journeyed in rural landscapes with shoddy roads, running right next to cotton fields. A little farther on, we came upon urban venues, like the town where former cotton gins have been refurbished as the headquarters for Viking appliances. A day as varied as most and rife with contradictions. While trying desperately to find a gas station, we’d instead come upon skeletons of long-ago abandoned pumps. But in the next small town, we delighted in locating the coffee bar serving hand-pulled espresso in porcelain cups for our after-lunch pick-me-up. This day was long and hot, and we were in Mississippi.

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After checking into our (surprise!) 4-star hotel in Greenwood, we stretched our legs with a stroll through the picturesque town. It was evening, around 5:30, and the whole place was deserted. Half expecting a tumbleweed to be blown down the center of Main Street, and a pair of phantom saloon doors to keep swinging on its hinges, we ducked into a shop that was drawing its blinds against the shimmering sun – blistering even at this hour. We didn’t mention the nuclear-holocaust feeling with no visible signs of life; instead we chirped to the fashionably dressed saleswoman, “Where can we hear some live music tonight?”

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It turns out the proprietor, not much older than 40, and introducing herself as, “Miss Rebecca,” asked us, “Where y’all from?” When we told her, she offered in the most polite and cheerful way that she loves loves loves San Francisco but really prefers San Diego. “Oh, this now is Wednesday evenin’, and Wednesday evenin’ is church-goin’ night. You won’t hear music tonight.” As if she needed to further clarify (but so nicely!) to these Yankees in her shop, “Y’all in the bible belt now.”

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With that, my husband decided to spend the next bit of time taking some photographs of the town while I plowed through her extraordinarily bulbous baskets of gingham napkins and seersucker bow ties and really fabulous locally made jewelry. I was feeling at home with Miss Rebecca, doing what I do very well indeed: shop. Wednesday evening or not, a sale is a sale.

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My phone rang and my husband on the other end implored me to get over to meet him. He said I would find him at the Cotton Row Club in Cotton Row Alley not farther than two blocks from where I was paying for my Southern gift medley. As I approached the Club, I was greeted by a man about my age standing in front of the door and ready to give me a bit of an introduction into this venue. Dale asked me in such a friendly manner that at first I didn’t pay attention to the details of what he was saying or the more complicated aspects of how this club looked—even from the outside. “Excuse me, Ma’am. Are you Miss Marty [Marty, being the name of my husband]?” “Yes, I am. My name is Naomi.”

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Dale continued, “Welcome, Miss Marty, to Greenwood’s private male-only drinking club.” “Thanks so much, Dale,” I demurred. I was agitated because Marty was nowhere to be seen; I became concerned about Marty and a bit annoyed that he hadn’t sufficiently warned me about what I would find here. Oh boy, I thought, I’m standing in front of a male-only drinking club and to tell you the truth, I’m not sure what a drinking club, male or female, really means. Surely, he’s not going to invite me to come inside.

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“Boys!” Dale proclaimed to the 45 or so men whose heads had now all turned in my direction as I crossed the threshold. As is the well-worn custom of Southern gentleman, each and every seated man stood up. Based on my empirical, first-hand research of the exquisite manners of Southern men, I felt oddly revered. Never opening a door myself the entire two weeks we were in the South (except when alone with my husband), I was beginning to get used to the treatment. But the sound was rancorous as all these men pushed back their chairs in unison to rise and greet me. “This here is Miss Marty from SAN FRANCISCO!” And, then just as quickly, most of them turned back to their conversations—and their Bourbon. In paper cups. The small tavern was a shit hole, really. I imagine that their wives were home with their own cocktails, sitting in their screened porches or in one of 10 or 11 palatial rooms each of which was layered in chintz and sprinkled with a preponderance of tasseled pillows. The opposite of a shit hole, in other words. The men had been talking basketball. What would the women be chatting about, I wondered.

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While I never was offered a seat, I was encouraged to acknowledge the poker table that I was now leaning up against. It was pointed out to me this was from the Civil War or was it from some guy’s garage? I forget. The wood was chipped and mauled as if the players used the edge of the table to claw their way up from the floor after being shot for cheating. To the right of the room, there was one of those soft drink machines with a brightly lit façade picturing bubbles and ice. But instead of push buttons displaying Coke, or Pepsi, or Sprite this one had handwritten labels of Bourbon, Rye, and Whiskey. There were two much younger men behind the “bar” and one black dude who was working hard to quickly refill drained paper cups.

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“Would you care for a drink, Miss Marty?” a gentleman in an elegant orange pin-stripped shirt asked me. “Oh, thank you.” I replied checking out my limited options. “But, no. I can’t stay, really.” They insisted. So I complied and asked for Bourbon…with soda. “Miss Marty, I don’t think we have soda.” They didn’t, but it made no difference because no one actually served me a drink.

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By now, Marty showed up and then the men started to approach us with such curiosity it was palpable. But, damn they were all so amiable. One guy, turns out he was the mayor, was so excited to confirm that we were from SAN FRANCISCO that he couldn’t wait to ask us if we were fans of the Grateful Dead. Not certain what the mayor wanted to hear, we changed the subject. Quickly. Although I wonder what the Mayor’s favorite Dead song would have been…“Ripple?”

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Dale, my first friend, whose belly arrived before he did as he again came toward me said, “Miss Marty, I can assume we are from different sides politically. But, it is so good to be able to discuss our differences with each other, in a civilized way, and learn from each other. Isn’t that so?”

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I couldn’t argue with that. It’s just that we never did discuss anything political. I missed a chance to do so, and I’m sorry. The opportunity would have been to hear what Dale and his pals had to say and to say to them what I really believe. To learn what they thought and why they presumably are voting differently than I am—this is what, in my state of disorientation, I prevented from happening. I was trying to lean in, but I was outnumbered and intimidated by a culture that was becoming more complex to me by the moment.

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We both, Marty and Miss Marty, thanked our hosts and went to find dinner. It was a remarkable meal that included fish I had never before tasted with exquisite vegetables and fresh pasta served with a mushroom broth that blew my mind.

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The young African-American waiter took my order after explaining to us that he was part of a restaurant-training program where the owner is partnering with the local community college to teach kids like him about the front-of-the-house restaurant business. “Would you care for a drink?” he asked me, pen at the ready.

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“Oh, yes please!” I replied. “I’ll have a Bourbon and soda on the rocks. Can you make mine a double?”

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Lock and load,
Naomi

I’ve Been Framed

Posted on April 29, 2016

Can I see a show of hands? Who here has been to an art museum in any city in the world, stood in line for over an hour–maybe longer if you are expecting to see that blockbuster show? I’m talking about that exhibition, you know the one: The A-listed spectacular depicted on the flamboyant screens that are hanging off the sides of light posts on the city’s streets. Banners of commercialism reminding you, at every traffic light, to get yourself some culture…quickly. Don’t miss out. Everyone is raving about the artist…wait, what’s his name, again?

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Maybe, as you catch sight of the mass of humanity outside the museum ahead, you quicken your pace while deliberating the advantages of joining the museum for $185/year and skipping the tedious line even though the museum is in Reykjavik–and it’ll be a cold day in, well, Iceland, before you’re back here again. Time is money and, after all, you’ve traveled all this way. By making the big-shot move to join, you aren’t going to waste time chit chatting with the other tourists–practicing your high-school French with the Québécois couple ahead of you in line. Besides you’re going to enjoy receiving the 85 daily emails you’ll receive for having joined. They will be lovely reminders of your day in this city.

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Or, perhaps you’ve reasoned that the line really isn’t that long and besides the rain feels refreshing; the wind in your hair makes you happy you lugged your coat. So, you stay in line and coil yourself around the metal stanchions with the other cued-up suckers. The line stalls because some schmoe only has a Diner’s Club card and the museum doesn’t accept it. You cautiously lean on one of the two crimson velvet ropes mistakenly believing that it’s going to support your tired bones. But, between the gale force wind and your weight…whoops. Say hello to the art lover’s chest behind you.

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Any minute now and you’ll be inside the gallery. But, you’re so distracted you hardly appreciate the moment. You’re too preoccupied with checking Google maps for nearby places to eat. Lunchtime already? Do you risk leaving the line and gambling on a lighter afternoon crowd? On the other hand, the museum must have a café on the 5th floor…or is this the art museum your neighbor said had those muffins and strong coffee in those adorable cups? You think so, but the tradeoff is that you’ll sit in the windowless basement for a shot of $4 espresso and a Zeppelin-sized pastry you don’t need. Shoot, now you’ve got to pee, or your spouse does, or it’s your child. Worse yet, it’s your grandchild. And, it’s at this point you begin to doubt your ability to make good choices. Whose idea was this anyway? Not yours, surely…visiting the museum, today, in the rain, before lunch, with a toddler? Wouldn’t it just be wiser to buy the 3-year-old a violin and enroll her in Suzuki music lessons to ensure she gets into Stanford? Art? Who needs it?

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Mercifully, you have now arrived at the front of the line, and with some of your dignity still intact, you present the guard with your flimsy ticket. You’ve been instructed to paste the bottom section of that pass onto your jacket. It won’t be until you’re back at your hotel and getting undressed that you realize the sticker is unceremoniously dangling like an untidy piece of orange lint on your collar. But bigger. And, you were trying to not look like a tourist. Busted. The guard takes your offering and warns you to not use your flash and to adjust your Prada backpack, which you bought just for this vacation, from its position on your back to your front. Now, you look like you are carrying an infant all zipped up inside instead of modeling a chic bag containing all your pursey things. Of course, this backpack rearrangement is a clever security measure to ensure that the Water Lilies painting by Monet—the one that is bigger than your car–or any one of the seascape paintings by Turner with the two-hundred-pound gilt frame doesn’t accidentally make it into your bag.

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If you planned your art museum trip well, you’ve dashed ahead to the cloak room and checked (or were implored to check) your umbrella, your coat, your earlier purchases of the day, and the leftovers from your Sunday brunch. This frees up your hands to manipulate the audio-tour device you’ve purchased. The narrator’s voice welcomes you to the exhibit, and the guard (they are everywhere) reminds you that you must hang the device around your neck. And, you’d like to. Really, you would. But, because your backpack is now your front bumper, the audio thing hangs around you like a cowbell. Pressing the green arrow, you settle in to hear about how the twelve curators from numerous museums located in a multitude of countries around the world worked night and day to bring to the public for the first time in 65 years scads of pictures from this particular genre of paintings made by this one artist. Not only that; the art works scrupulously were amassed from 49 different institutions and 23 private collections. Silently congratulating yourself on your excellent planning—to be in these hallowed and presumably solemn halls of artistic reverence at this particular time when this specific world-class, never-before-seen-in-one-place exhibition is being offered for such a brief period of time—you suddenly realize you’ve got to pee. Again.

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Serpentining through the maze of people who are gathered in front of the pictures which are designated with numbers corresponding to the audio device’s stops, you scoot in and around like a running back maneuvering to the end zone. You scuttle among the motorized wheel chairs, canes, and strollers, and you nearly make it out of that gallery. But not before, your phone rings and the guard asks you to either silence your phone or step outside to take the call. Don’t worry, you tell him. You were just leaving.

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I am not an artist, but some of my favorite people are…my son, for example. And, one of the many things I’ve come to recognize about the way I interact with the art I see in museums is that I am a passive observer. It’s not unlike the experience of attending a theatre production or a dance performance except that the former are experienced only once. The exact experience cannot be duplicated. By contrast, one could argue that a painting or a drawing or a sculpture is not transient but static. The only change that occurs is what we bring to it. What pressure! Imagine thinking that you could purchase the musical you just saw? Does the ballet look good above your couch? Is the opera a sound investment for your portfolio?

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Certainly, we experience the visual arts in a unique way. That may be why we look at art as if revering it: we stand, or move around the space slowly and deliberately, speaking in hushed tones or not at all. More than likely we are being directed and handled by those same curators who put the show together to give us a sense of accessibility to the work. Just don’t stand too close, please.

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Maybe there’s one hard wooden bench to perch on so that you can sit and reflect. In fact, most who are hogging the seat are checking their texts. I spend more time reading the placards mounted adjacent to the art than I do viewing the piece. I don’t want to risk being confused about whose work it is, when it was created, or who owns it. Ironically, I’ll never remember that information anyway. And, I can almost guarantee you, that I won’t understand a word of the pretentious artspeak in that too-tiny print. So, why the fascination with the reading material, I ask myself.

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If that audio device I rented is accessorizing my outfit, there’s a high likelihood that some mellifluous voice is suggesting what I should pay particular attention to…the way the chair is placed in the foreground. The big red swath of paint cutting the picture in two. Duh! Tell me something I don’t know. But don’t misunderstand, for all of these verbal cliff notes, I am grateful. I feel as though people are trying to help me. My visual acuity is honed when I have this much authentication. But, ironically, it doesn’t allow me to experience the art.

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And, this became apparent to me when I met a young artist recently. Engaging him in conversation about his own show which was being displayed at my son’s gallery, This Friday or Next Friday, he asked ME what I felt when I entered the space. Felt? Didn’t he mean to ask me what was it I saw? It was a challenge for me to avoid responding with a polite and innocuous comment. But here was my chance to think and respond for myself—to pay attention to how that affected what I felt. I described what I observed and how confused I became when looking at his series of installation pieces. That, in turn, made me feel confused and somewhat annoyed because, really, who likes to feel confused and dumb? Having the artist at my side was such a privilege because it allowed me the opportunity to interact with him, of course.

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That interaction gave me more insight into his work. He then said to me: Look at this one piece, for example. What you see is just the surface. He asked me if I would be surprised to learn that underneath this print he made there were sheets upon sheets of more paper. Yes, of course, I answered. I’m astonished! I said. If I can’t see them, though, how would I know they exist? Ah, he said, everyone who looks at art brings their own beliefs, experiences, and expectations to what they see. And, I’m pretty sure this young artist was talking about perspective—here, I mean a frame of reference and not necessarily the relationship between two points in space. Although, who really knows?

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If I were to go back to that fancy museum with the awesome café and omnipresent guards in some distant city, how can I evoke that same sense of intimacy with the artwork? After all, the artists are mostly dead white guys not young, engaging artists standing by to help heighten the viewer’s experience. In a recent article in the NY Times Arts section, New York City police officers were asked to come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view works of art for the explicit purpose of heightening the cops’ visual acuity. In their case, it was part professional development, part field trip as a surprising number of them had never been to an art museum.

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But the point was to view what appeared before them as an exercise in detection and awareness. In fact, the point was the painting itself. And to learn from seeing what is right in front of our noses and attaching a meaningful narrative to what we glean. One might say, ask not what the art can do for you, but what you can do for the art.

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The woman running the seminar for the above mentioned police-art experiential experiment showed the officers El Greco’s, “The Purification of the Temple,” which depicts Jesus expelling the moneylenders amid turmoil and mayhem. Whereas I might have looked at the painting and seen an allegorical representation of a biblical story depicted through elongated figures and palettes of color, one cop viewed it and said, “I’d collar the guy in pink because it’s clear he’s causing all the trouble.” That would be Jesus. Different strokes…

N.Y.C.- B'klyn & Eloïse - June & July '13

Get the picture?
Naomi