Sunday, February 28, 2010

GRANDMA by Deborah Gordon-Brown

I was never comfortable in my Aunt Esther's house. It was a ranch house somewhere in Queens, in some fairly new series of tract homes built for families who required several bedrooms, a basement, enough of a backyard to feel like property and enough of a front yard to allow its owners to decorate it in a way that would differentiate it from the others. I remember plastic flowers on the front lawn near the door but that could have been Esther's house or another. What I experienced each time we went there was a sense of being lost in a land of sameness, a sense that didn't leave me even inside the house.

Grandma had moved to the house with Aunt Esther and her husband Eddie. She had asked my mother if we would buy a house to share but my mother had said "No". I knew only because on the day we all trooped out to see the land on which Esther & Eddies house was to be built, Grandma and I walked away from the group. We walked toward one of those wire fences through which one can see but clearly speaks of borders and boundaries. We stood at the fence. I think I curled my fingers around the wire, cold in the March air, the trees beyond it still winter bare, although had we looked I'm sure we could have seen the faint color of buds.

We weren't really looking though. We were quiet. Then I heard my unusually silent Grandma sigh, a deep sigh unedited for the 11 year old at her side. I remember looking up at her then taking her hand. "You mustn't tell", she started softly, not looking at me, seeing probably nothing. Her eyes looked clouded. I moved slightly so that I too stared off again through the fence, also unseeing.

We had a special relationship Grandma and I. It wasn't that we had secrets, but that we could share thoughts that others might consider impolite, so Grandma's asking me not to tell wasn't shocking. What was shocking was the depth of the place it came from, not memory or a story but from a place of monumental importance. The moment was truly frightening.

I remember her coat, a nubby gray wool and her scarf. I remember the damp cold and leaning closer to her, wanting to make whatever it was that was troubling her go away. "I don't want this," she said quietly. "I asked your mother. She said 'no'. Your mother is proud, too proud, but she is who she is. She is honest. I hoped that your mother and father would buy a house in which I would have an apartment. I would give them the money. Your father thought it would be a good idea but Evelyn [that's my mother] wasn't ready. I don't want to live like a guest, like a child."

There were other words, there had to be, and I'm probably not truly remembering the exact words that buried themselves in my heart. Like the cold of the March day my grandmother, whose house was always warm and full of heavy furniture that would last forever, was becoming a piece of something else in someone else's house, and helpless, helpless the way I was with my family. Everything in my house was careful and loving but the real heat of life was tucked away. I didn't know about Esther and Eddie. I wasn't comfortable with them so when my Grandmother spoke, her head turned away from anything familiar, I knew more than I could know: We were both lost in a way and we loved each other, trusted each other.

I remember feeling ashamed of my mother, angry with her, although we never spoke of that time in our lives until years into my adulthood.

We visited Esther and Eddie and Grandma in that house in Queens, not a lot, but certainly a number of times. Susan, my cousin, a year older than I and Esther and Eddie's daughter, insisted we play together as did her parents. I just wanted to visit Grandma who would shoo me away to be with Susan. When I snuck a moment to ask why, why couldn't we just be, Grandma taught me about what one does in another person's house, you don't make them angry. You try to live in a way that is comfortable for them. They wanted me to play with Susan. It would be good for Susan. We would get to talk. And we did, we did talk sometimes on the phone, but that's not the same of course.

And then we went to the house in a very solemn mode one day, my parents quiet in the car on the way up. Grandma was very sick. My parents were going to see her. But when we got there, when we got in the house, the house that was all sameness and like all the other houses except that my Grandma was in one of its rooms, I wasn't allowed to see Grandma. I asked. I was told she was too tired.

I remember the emptiness then, the cold air, the hushed voices, the fake antique furniture and Susan's self importance. She held a secret she finally whispered to me, "Grandma is dying" she said, her voice full of her special secret knowledge.

And then it was too much. I begged to see my Grandmother, then I wept, then totally uncharacteristically I threw myself against a wall protesting until they had to let me in, couldn't keep the noise away. I had to promise I would stay "just for a minute" but I didn't. Sometimes you just have to lie.

My grandmother's eyes were open when I came in and she smiled. She was frail without energy but when I sat on her bed and put my hand next to her she took my hand in hers, her fingers cool, her embrace warm. "Debbie, Debbie", she said. I bent toward her and she reached to touch my face. Of course I told her I loved her. How could I not have. I was bursting with love. I hugged her and I asked what was wrong because, no matter what anyone else said, she would tell me the truth. We talked a little bit, about her illness, about me. And the she asked if she could tell me something. I nodded, of course she could, and we were alone again. We were safe. "I'm dying, Debbie," she said, "and I am afraid."

My heart rose to fill the space between us. "What are you afraid of?" I asked, worried. "Of dying", my grandmother said, her blue/gray eyes so deep, "Of death." And my heart opened even more. I didn't want to see my grandmother suffering, frightened. "Please, Grandma, you don't have to be afraid," I assured her with everything I knew. "Lots of people have died, Grandma. It can't be that bad if everyone does it." That seemed so logical to me, so full of truth that what I said next seemed equally possible, "I will stay with you, Grandma. I will hold your hand and you can travel with me. I know you won't be alone." It was an easy promise to make. I would be with my Grandma as she had been with me. I was unafraid.

They tried to get me out of her room but they couldn't until Grandma fell asleep and even then, when they forced me to leave, I begged for a few more minutes. When the door was shut again I pulled a ribbon off my braid and tucked it into her loosely opened hand, gently closing her fingers over it so she would know, if she woke up, that I hadn't really left. I would never leave her. She would know that and be comforted.

Friday, February 12, 2010


It is the McCarthy era. My father is the chairman of a state-wide organization called the Liberal Citizens of Massachusetts, or LCM. My mother reads to me at night, “The Little Maid of Concord and Lexington,” one of a series championing the heroic deeds of little girls during the American Revolution. In this book Paul Revere rides down the road from Lexington to Concord, knocking furiously on people’s doors. “The British are coming, the British are coming! Wake up!” There is something about John Hancock’s response that makes my mother weep. She says to me, “Oh, we had such good men in our country then!” I take her feelings to heart. I know that she cares, deeply, about the state of our world, and is grieving for some imagined past when the values of our leaders and her values lined up.

Actually, it wasn’t an imagined past. It was a past they had only just lived through, but one that existed before I was born. An iconic story Mother told was of waiting for Father at the Alexandria Virginia train station and hearing on the radio that FDR had died. She burst into tears. They did believe in FDR. Mother’s memory of her sudden, unexpected, grief lives in me as sharply as if it were my own.

Mother and I would go to the parade on the Concord Lexington highway, every April 17th, the anniversary of the “shot heard round the world,” the day on which the Boston Marathon is now run. We stand in front of one of the tumbling down but still beautiful stonewalls that line the road, and watch men in revolutionary uniforms march by, whistling their fifes and drumming their drums. I feel a deep excitement, a sense of belonging that is probably fueled in part by stories of my some number of greats grandmother watching the soldiers march by in 1775 from her window on that very same Concord-Lexington road.

In back of that house on Wellesley Street, between the house and the golf course, stood three white pines, providing a barrier between us and the 17th tee. It says something about how my different my family felt from golfers, from people in the “ordinary world,” that Toni and I took it upon ourselves to hide beneath these thick and scented pine trees and “spy on the golfers.” We actually took pads and pencils out there and wrote down everything we heard the golfers say. In my memory we didn’t learn very much about how ordinary people lived, if that was our goal. “Oh shit!” was probably the most exciting comment we ever heard, as someone’s ball traveled into a sand trap or far away from the green.

We went to Maine for three months every summer. One summer we came home to find the house on Wellesley Street had been broken into. These were the days before alarm systems or house sitters. Our house had been left alone. The window of the sun room was broken, and cigarettes had been crushed out on the dining room floor. But the only things that were disturbed were the card files of LCM. I can see those cardboard boxes, mottled black and white, with colored 3x5 cards in them, each with a name and address neatly written either in my father’s or mother’s hand, and in this scene they are spilled on the floor of the closet off the dining room with its glass dining room table. They were not after jewelry; they were not after clothing or my mother’s fur coats. They wanted to know who were the members of LCM. I see my parents’ long faces, and I feel with them the dilemma they are in. We live in a Republican town; the police probably sympathize with the FBI agents who have invaded our house. So do we call the police? What’s the point? My father does call the police, but he doesn’t tell them he knows who broke into our house. He just files a report, and leaves it at that. They have the window replaced.

Do I feel unsafe? I’m not sure. It is so much the context of my life, this sense of moral responsibility, this sense that my parents are heroic crusaders for democracy and civil rights. I feel proud of them, almost as if by association I am one of those little girls I read about in the “Little Maid” books. I also feel the weight of keeping these stories secret. I know my classmates, and their parents, would not understand.

A few years before this, I am standing in the kitchen of our house in Belmont, the house we lived in before we moved to Weston. I am five years old. I know it is in that kitchen because I am looking down at the terra cotta linoleum on that kitchen floor. My head is about at the level of my mother’s thigh. She is giving me a glass of Coca-Cola, as she always did when I got home from school. I say to her, “Mummy, will we be in history?” She looks at me, surprised. Dumbfounded. She says, “Well, I know I won’t be in history, because in order to be in history you have to be famous. And I know I will never be famous.”

But I think now I wasn’t asking about that kind of history, the history that is written in books, the history that made so many of my ancestors famous. That is one kind of history. I was already so aware that my parents were active in present-day history, trying to change the course of this country. They had just been through a presidential campaign in which they fought tirelessly to get the Progressive Party candidate, Henry Wallace, elected. They had traveled into Armenian neighborhoods in Arlington, knocked on doors, signed petitions, sung songs. He had lost, but in living through this with them I was already one of the foot soldiers in the war to make the world a better place. I didn’t really need to ask my mother if we would be in history. In my feeling, I already was.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

NETWORKING SKILLS by Kathryn Spencer-Licht

1969 was the best year of my life. I was fifteen years old. It’s when I first became aware that I was well liked. I knew how to make friends, and lot’s of them. It’s when I knew I’d always have friends.

The skills I had developed by then, are the best skills I have even now. Everyone went to school with a girl like me. You didn’t observe me at the desk, raising my hand with the answers when the questions were asked. There was hardly a sighting of me in class at all. I had better things to do with my time. Much more important things.

When entering the girls’ room, right off the gymnasium, I was the girl at the sink. I was the ‘meet and greet person’ with all the hot gossip about everyone in school. I was the girl you’d confide in, and go to for advice…the original Ann Landers. Ann Landers with dirty jokes, and card tricks.

I would teach you what really mattered, like, how to smoke, and how to look sexy lighting a cigarette. I did everyone’s hair and makeup, and maybe their nails. I’d have you go inside the stall, stuff your bra with toilet paper, and roll up your skirt. “Make it a mini-skirt. Take off those stupid knee socks. Never stuff your bra with knee socks. It looks fake.”

I thought of myself as a mentor. I looked after everyone. I cared about them, and they knew it. When the girls got talked about, I’d tell them what was said, and who said it. We’d hold court in that girls’ room, and decide how to carry out our revenge accordingly, and always with an audience. We made examples out of them.

In time, lots of girls followed my rules. Rule #1: “Never date the boys from here. They all have big mouths. And whether you’ve done anything with them or not, they always tell everyone that you did, so don’t go out with them. Don’t even talk to them if you can avoid it, but be nice about it. Buy yourself a guy’s ring, and say that you have a boyfriend in the next town. Tell those ‘big mouthed’ boys, he’ll beat you up if you talk about me.” It always worked.

I also knew all the kids with the cars. You’d think we ran a taxi service, the way we’d transport all those pretty girls to the next town to meet the exciting, mysterious boys in Franklin, Ohio, a town with a zip code! A place where anything could happen!

Forty years later, we still keep in touch. We often write and call each other, referring to 1969, and how nothing has ever topped it since then. They’re all still in Ohio, and I’m here in New York, still giving them marvellous advice!