Friday, May 22, 2015

IN GRASS by Fred Poole

I did not think this was following a pattern, that it was like something else, something that was known to other people and that now I, like them, knew it too. That’s not the way I was thinking now or on any of the many times I went south from our yard, across the final part of the driveway loop, past the stream of clear water that came down from a hill and went into a pipe that took it under the road to whatever was on the other side, which was a Chinese-style garden full of pathways that ended at the river. Heading south after the stream of clear water what came next was the yard of a small house next door and then through an opening of one of the many stone walls that were everywhere around here, and from the stone wall into a field with no house in it. 

I knew how it would smell before I got there and laid down on my stomach and with my eyes open, breathing air that had dried grass and leaves  and new grass and earth in it, looking right into the grass, and seeing what was there, as if looking at it this way was to see it magnified many times, an ant was walking by, a grass hopper skedaddling, and there was a lazy caterpillar, and some more ants, and sometimes a beetle. And around me the sounds of the field, soft sounds, birds mostly who would make their bird noises, and then there would be silence, and then the birds would be back. I did not see any snakes or squirrels or chipmunks but I knew they were close at hand.

I did not wonder if anyone else had ever laid down in a summer field this way to enjoy what was in the grass. Grass and some pine needles that had made their way there from the hill, and also a leaf or two. I breathed deep. This situation where I knew and it did not occur to me to ask if anyone else knew. Though wondering about what other people saw and felt, wondering how you were supposed to experience the world, which came up over and over in my head. I would hear sentimental talk on the radio about what a boy’s life was supposed to be like. And I heard the same thing later in the Cub Scouts. But in this field there was nothing about what was supposed to be. And I did not think I would ever tell anyone about my going into the field. 

I remembered it from one summer to the next. When we went away for the summer, I would check on it quickly when we got back -- over there north of our yard and the stream, and the stone wall.  My grandfather Gaga, who was a writer, talked about how things were supposed to be. So did my twin Peter, from the time we were 2 or 3 years old. And it was said he would be a writer too. But in good times -- like being belly down in the field and joining in the life that I saw there, it seemed either unimportant or liberating that I did not know what Gaga and Peter knew.

Friday, May 8, 2015


The stories I was told were probably lies:

My mother committed suicide.

I was a paskudnyak (a parasite, like a tick or a lice) or I was a choleryeh (which is cholera, a basically incurable, fatal case of diarrhea).

My mother was turning over in her grave to see my behavior.

If I didn’t behave I’d be sent to live in an orphanage or a home for bad girls. There I’d see what it was like to have not enough to eat, and no shoes, and I’d be cold, with not enough blankets at night, and I couldn’t get out of there: there’d be bars on the windows and the doors would be locked.

Then I’d appreciate all I had.

I would have to scrub floors and wash clothes and hang them outside, even in the freezing cold, and there would be no school, and no sleighriding in winter, and no swimming in summer.

And then I’d realize how fortunate I was now.

And my mother committed suicide because she was so unhappy.

And it was all lies.


Monday, April 20, 2015

I DID AND I DIDN'T by Mel Rosenthal

The summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, which was also the summer after my mother died of cancer, I worked for Good Humor. Exactly how this happened, I can’t be sure now. Someone must have suggested the idea, since I doubt that I would have thought of it on my own. In any case, I applied for and got a job as a tricycle salesman. Most of Good Humor’s business was (and presumably still is) conducted from the familiar white trucks, but I didn’t drive, and had to settle for a three-wheeled vehicle with the ice cream, popsicles, and ices in a case behind me as I pedaled along. If I recall correctly, drivers and tricyclists alike worked on commission -- your earnings were a certain percentage of your sales.

So it was that every weekday that summer I took the short bus trip from my home in suburban Orange, New Jersey, to the company’s plant/distribution center in Newark. After replenishing my supplies as necessary, I would set off in the early afternoon on my route through the city’s sticky-hot streets. I often had to traverse its hillier areas, which, what with the physical strain of constantly moving upward, could seem endless.

No matter the problems, my sense is that overall I enjoyed my summer with Good Humor. Even so it would be my only summer in their employ, I never went back. And what particularly lingers now in memory is a small incident from my very first day on the job:  I was standing by in the distribution center when someone abruptly approached and said that my mother was there to see me—my mother, then already more than two months gone. I was at once disturbed and comforted; for a moment, just a moment, I was willing to believe that it could be true. But I did not move, did not ask where. The logical explanation, of course, was mistaken identity: someone else’s mother was there to see her son. But I did and I didn’t wish to confirm this.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

DISCOURAGED by Debbie Smith

It's 1:30 pm, 9th period on a Friday in May when dismissal time is at 2:13 pm. My classroom is filled with adolescent angst and sweat from gym class the period before. Terence and Melvin always sit next to each other, even though I've separated them about thirty times so far. Terence is whispering something to Melvin and looking at me at the same time while Melvin tries desperately to hold in his laughter. Actually they're both looking at me, trying to gauge the exact moment that I will snap and send one of them out of the room so the class can at least finish the chapter of the book we are reading where we are at least twenty pages behind all the other classes simply because it's 1:30 pm on a hot Friday in May and dismissal is at 2:13 pm. They will both pull back right before my breaking point. They both know me better than my husband ever will. Neither of them wants to be kicked out, Terence because he plays on the school basketball team and can't afford any more disciplinary actions on his record.  Our principal, Mike, really DOES have it in for this kid because he's a small-time drug-dealer who probably won't graduate high school but who WILL probably graduate to be a big-time drug dealer, so right now, 8th grade, thirteen years old, king of the basketball court, right now is the absolute peak of success in Terence's existence and while he may not be the smartest kid in the room, even Terence is smart enough to know that fact.

Melvin doesn't want to be kicked out because he's secretly in love with Terence and Melvin is the only person in the room who is unaware of that fact. Also, Melvin hates feeling like he's missing out on anything. Plus they both really do like me for some reason, even though all I ever do for 42 minutes every 9th period is yell which, of course, does no good but I'm at a loss every day as to what else to do.

As I glare at them while Sasha is reading aloud from the book, Terence makes an attempt to move his seat a few inches farther away from Melvin as a peace offering to me. I've given the entire class a package of sticky notes because that's the latest educational trend we are enforcing this year. The students will mark the sticky note when they "connect" with the text in some way and stick it on the page so we can revisit the thought later as a class. I will just be glad to get the chapter finished.

As I gently correct, Sasha's oral reading, I notice that Terence's sticky notes are nowhere to be seen and his hands are conspicuously absent from view. I'm suspicious but my attention is distracted by Jackie, my favorite tiny Puerto Rican, who is throwing his copy of the book we are reading at the window. I interrupt Sasha.


"Sorry, Miss. There was a bee in the room."

All the girls scream simultaneously and try to run out of the room.

When I've finally quieted the bedlam, I notice Terence and Melvin's desks are right back where they were. I ignore them and ask Malaysia to continue reading. Only the girls volunteer to read aloud and it's May and I've given up on asking anyone else. Plus they read better and faster and now we are only ten pages behind. I'm still wondering exactly what Terence is up to since I still can't see his hands but since it's now 2:03, I'm praying it's nothing major.

We are interrupted a few more times with the office calling for students who have to leave early to make it to their track meet on time, announcements about baseball practice and numerous requests for bathroom passes. Finally, we are almost done, it's almost dismissal bell time and as we are finally on the last page, I realize what Terence has been doing this whole time. He throws about two million tiny pieces of sticky note paper over Melvin's head that he has been methodically ripping up under his desk for the last twenty-five minutes. Such attention to detail must be what makes him such a successful drug dealer.

But I can't hold back my own smile to see Melvin covered head to toe in neon pink sticky notes. They both stay behind after the bell to help me clean it up and we end our day once again.

Monday, November 10, 2014


On the way to the writing session this morning, I listened to a double mix CD I made recently.  It’s a compilation of songs that had deep emotional resonance for me throughout the years.  Hearing them play one after the other was like listening to the soundtrack of my life, while zigzagging up the Thruway soaked in rain and autumn colors.

Certain lyrics evoked flashes of what once was – the twelve-year-old kid arranging pillows and ashtrays on the couch, a makeshift drum kit, banging drumsticks along to Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” repeatedly before her mom got home from work.  The twenty-something finding her way surfaced from a line from Michelle Shocked’s “Memories of East Texas” about those left behind not being able to make a place for a girl who’d seen the ocean.  And a song from my 30s by Incubus that I listened to on my endless commutes into the city in the 1990s where the song’s character calls out a warning to never let life pass her by.

What’s striking is the first CD is filled with images of chains and silencing and what it feels like to be stuffed in a pre-defined box so others can feel safe and orderly, so you make sense to them.  Everything that was stifled while staying in those sterile boxes just burned.  I’m thanksful the ember wasn’t extinguished.

That’s due to the theme of the second CD, all about the searching, the journey, the knowledge that despite how everyone I knew lived their lives, there just might be another way.  I read something recently that is the full-grown tree that pulls itself from the seed, birthing itself.  Somewhere I was encouraging and nurturing those tender shoots into existence.

Years ago when I moved into my home, I set up a music studio in the basement.  As I daydreamed my corporate hours away during the workweek, I would imagine myself lying on my back on the floor of that little studio, late at night, in the dark except for a sole candle and the LED lights on the recording equipment.  I would envision myself holding a microphone to my mouth, creating reel after feel of spoken word prose – eloquent, prolific, effortless.  Endless stories and images captured on tape.  But when I did go downstairs, I couldn’t even flip that machine on.  And I never knew why.  Something always stopped me from actually trying.

But it occurred to me today that what I really needed at that time was the dream itself.  I needed the hope that someday I’d find a way to rip the self-affixed duct tape off my own mouth.

So when did everything change?  When I picked up a pen and began writing the truth.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


I snapped. There is nothing else to call it. Thirty minutes into running Mom on some errands. A record for me as one of our longest visits before we broke into an argument. I was tired of her snipes about her mother being "taken from her" and how Brianna and I have no idea what she is going through since we both still have our mothers with us. Nana had only been gone about 10 months at this point give or take a few days and I had done my best to be understanding and calm with Mom, but on that day... I simply purely and completely snapped. As I started talking it was like everything slowed.

"Mom, I would seriously advise you to cut the bullshit. Just come out and tell me that you hate me for siding with your little sister that she is better capable of taking care of Nana that I am since I have Dad, Brianna, and you and a new marriage to deal with for starters. Next, you have no clue about my sense of loss over Nana. Nana took us in and helped raise me. Actually, she primarily raised me after your divorce from Dad. Had she and Papa not done that who knows where you and I would have ended up. So, yes. I have you here still, but yes, I lost a mother too in this. Lastly, it would be in your best interest not to assume how, when, why or if Brianna should feel loss over Nana moving to Florida. And by the way you ever tell Brianna that if we don't get to Florida she will never get to see Nana alive again and you will never see any of us again. I am done with this topic with you, period!"

I had lost all patience, calm and sanity in that moment and luckily we were at a red light so that I could try to take a cleansing breath till I saw my Mom's face and her mouth opening to keep the fight going. Before she could get the words out I stared at her.

"Think carefully, very carefully, before you respond, Mom. Got it?"

She fell silent for a moment before choosing to keep it going.

"Well, I am not talking about ancient history or the divorce. Dr. Rick said no one understands me and that just proves it. Take me home now."

And yet she never did say that she did not hate me.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A MOTHER'S VOICE by Jessica Rosenthal

As the cold scissors slide up my blouse to cut it open I can hear my mother’s voice, “Always wear clean underwear, just in case.”  My clean panties were in the trunk of my now mangled Honda Civic because I had picked up my laundry from the wash & fold the night before and didn’t bring it in the house.  Today, it was a cold California morning in October and I was too comfortable to go outside in my pajamas to get the bag of clean laundry.  So here I was, in the back of the ambulance, the EMTs trying to keep me conscious – and I was NOT wearing clean underwear.  My mother would be so disappointed.

My mom Lois, or Lotus Blossom as my father affectionately calls her, has a very definite idea of right & wrong and structure.  This discipline contributed to her and my dad’s thriving even though they had very little money.  They first lived in a small one bedroom on Colby Court in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.  I don’t remember the first few years of my life there, although I can see certain images from the home movies we watched on holidays.  I could imagine our time there from the narration that went along with the silent films.  Nowadays, we rarely break out the projector but when we do, my parents play “dead – not dead” and my dad always winds up crying.

I spent a lot of time with my dad in the early years of my life.  By 1976, my parents had been married 4 years (though they began dating each other 9 years earlier) and they had moved to a two bedroom apartment in the Warbasse neighborhood of Brooklyn.  They lived in the same building as my mom’s parents, and one of my grandmother’s brothers and his family.  My dad, an electrician, was furloughed from work at this time, so my mother went to work at Coney Island hospital in the billing department while my dad stayed home and cared for me.  I loved those times.  For breakfast, he would add uBet® syrup to my Rice Krispies® so I would be sure to drink the milk at the bottom of the bowl.  Our days were filled with fun excursions, like going to the park, or walking over to his mother’s house on Brighton 7th Street, where her sisters all had houses too.  I would sit on the red stoop and listen to the grownups talk, or roller skate on the uneven payment, or perform for my great aunts and grandmother.  I was the first of all the grandchildren, #1, and I garnered a lot of attention.

Occasionally, my dad and I would spend the afternoon in the apartment. I would stand on the wood galley table and dance to Bob Dylan as my dad held my hands and sung along to the record, “Everybody must get stoned…”  Some afternoons, his friends would come over and they would smoke cigarettes that they rolled themselves from a wooden cigar box.  In high school, before I knew what getting stoned meant, I pictured people throwing rocks at other people like they did in the Salem witch trials.  I didn’t understand why my Dad liked that song so much.  In my twenties I told my dad that I remembered these times, and he assured me that he NEVER rolled his own tobacco.

Music has been an extremely powerful influence in my life.  At first, after my accident I couldn’t listen to music at all.  Knowing my love of music, my dad would suggest turning on the radio from the remote control attached to the bed, but I was too afraid.  What if something played that made me sad?  I didn’t want to cry anymore.  After many little surgeries, it was time for the big one.  Using shards of bone, pieces of my shattered pelvis, titanium plates and bolts, the doctor planned to put my hip back together.  I was sedated to the point of being out of my mind and body, but I was scared.  While my dad stayed with me until they rolled me into surgery, my mom had gone back to the hotel to shower and get some rest after several days of sleeping in hospital chairs next to my bed.  He kept me conscious by reciting the lyrics of as many Dylan songs as he could remember.  And there were a lot.  I sang along, “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet…We sit stranded but we’re doing our best to deny it.”  It kept me from thinking about the possibility that I wouldn’t make it out of surgery alive, or never be able to walk again.  One after the other, we sang together until the attendant came to wheel me away.  My dad followed close behind to make sure the orderly took great care in transporting me.  Any abrupt movement was painful as my leg hung from a gurney and a pin temporarily kept it in place.  As the nurses greeted me, my dad wished me luck and told me, “I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

And he was.  The surgery was a success and I was relieved to move to the next phase of recovery.  I was still afraid to watch TV for fear of the Allstate commercial where they show a collision and you can hear and see it happening. I still didn’t want to listen to music.  Slowly though, as the days turned into weeks, I was less and less afraid.  I began with the doo wop station, upbeat and light hearted.  A couple of songs here and there were enough to remind me of the healing power of music.

I learned to lift myself out of the bed, onto a plank and into the wheelchair. Then from the wheelchair to the walker; Standing, shuffling a few feet while my dad pushed the wheelchair behind me in case I had to sit down midway down the hall.  When I was able to get to the end of the hallway and back to my room using only the walker, I was ready for the music.  I found myself singing the Grateful Dead, “…gotta get back to where you belong, little bit harder, just a little bit more, little bit further than you’ve gone before.”  I emailed my friend Dave and asked him to send me some CDs.  When they arrived, I listened to that song, The Wheel, over and over again. 

Eventually two months from the fated day, I was able to climb a flight of stairs, albeit slowly and sometimes by using the rump bump tactic.  I was released from the hospital rehab and allowed to go home.  My mom had already flown back to New Jersey two weeks earlier, barely arriving in time for my sister to give birth to my twin nieces.  I can’t believe I missed that special morning when my nieces were born.  Regretful, but out of my hands, I was in California.  My dad stayed with me for several weeks, until I could live again independently. On our way home, we went to Home Depot so my dad could buy materials to build a sturdy bannister that would help me up the 12 steps to the front porch.  I wasn’t used to wheeling myself around.  My arms were so sore the entire next day that all I did was sit and watch old concert footage, barely moving from my favorite armchair.  By the third day, I was feeling better and the bannister was complete, wooden stain and all.

It was an eye opening experience using a wheelchair.  I knew I was lucky that this was only temporary.  After months of physical therapy, I would be able to walk again and not be wheelchair bound.  But I noticed things that had been unimportant before.  The cuts in the curb on the sidewalk were often too bumpy for me to wheel over alone.  Without my dad, I had to ask a stranger for a push.  So many places in my small little town didn’t have a ramp or a handicap bathroom.  It was a simple injustice, but it felt like a personal “You are not welcome here.”  The most enlightening and sad thing I noticed was that people wouldn’t make eye contact with me.  They would talk right over my head to my dad, as if I wasn’t there; Or that somehow the wheelchair left me unable to think or speak for myself.  I think people were afraid to look, in fear of what they might see – what they imagined could be wrong with me.  I wanted to tell them that I was okay, and that in a few months they wouldn’t even know that I had not been able to walk.  But before I had a chance there eyes would dart away and they’d be gone.  Now, I always make it a point to make eye contact with and smile at people in wheelchairs.  Immobility does not define a person.  Nobody likes or deserves to feel ignored.  Everyone wants to be asked to dance.