Archive for December, 2014

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Sidekick

December 31, 2014
a moment of innocence at Nana and Grandaddy's

a moment of innocence at Nana and Grandaddy’s

I had the good fortune of growing up with a big sister. Well, good fortune most of the time. Being older than I by two years, she did sometimes take advantage of her lofty position to manipulate her little brother. But on the whole, what I remember most about life with Laraine are the many adventures I had as a sidekick to my big sister.

Some of the most notable of these occurred at our grandparent’s. The weekly visits we made to that big old house in Tenafly took place with clockwork regularity throughout our childhood. My Nana, as we called her, would be taken food shopping at the local Grand Union by my mother and father while my Grandaddy would sip wine in his rocking chair on the porch to keep a supposedly watchful eye on us.

This arrangement allowed the two of us — at the direction of my sister, of course — to have a wide range of activities at our disposal from playing in the stream down the road to poking around in the rhododendron bushes which were big enough to pretend were forts to making improvements to our bottle cap tree.

Now it was a surprise to me when I later learned that every kid didn’t have a bottle cap tree. What exactly is a bottle cap tree, you ask? Well, in our case it was a giant old oak tree at the end of the gravel driveway by the root-heaved sidewalk on Columbus Avenue. How it started I don’t recall, but it was a very big deal through all those years. Laraine had one side and I had the other, and we would take all the soda bottle caps we collected at home, were donated by kind relatives, or found on the street and would nail them in rows to the trunk. I’m sure it couldn’t have been that healthy for the tree, but it was so old and its bark was so thick that I don’t think it had any effect. We had scores and scores of them, and as the years passed, the rows would rise as the tree grew and the earliest would eventually be swallowed up by the bark. There were Nehi, A&W, Canada Dry, White Rock, Hoffman, Dad’s, and virtually every other brand available in row after colorful row in various stages of rusty decomposition. My grandparents probably were not crazy about the public defacing of their tree, but it kept us out of trouble, so I think that was the overriding factor.

However, it was getting into trouble that became our most memorable activity during those weekly trips. On one occasion we (meaning of course my sister, the perpetual ringleader) got the idea of replacing grandaddy’s glass of wine with a concoction that we made up from ingredients found in the kitchen. Grandaddy was from England, and he drank a somewhat syrupy dark wine, most likely port or sherry of some kind. He had asked us by about the fourth glass to refill it for him, and that’s when the plan was hatched. The refrigerator had an array of condiments: catsup, Worcestershire sauce, beet juice, salad dressing. We busied ourselves like two chemists, trying to match the color and consistency to the wine as best we could without taking a suspiciously long time. We ended up with a vile brew that was in the general vicinity of deep red, so we returned to the porch with the glass and scuttled away, barely able to contain our giggles.

We hadn’t thought beforehand about any adverse reactions our grandfather might have, like being poisoned or gagging on the horrible fluid. But nothing happened. We strained our ears and peeked as best we could, but there was no reaction at all. In retrospect, he could have very easily smelled that it wasn’t his usual but probably figured discretion was the greater part of valor since he wouldn’t have had that extra glass had nana been there to monitor him. Wisely not willing to tempt fate, this shenanigan was never repeated.

Playing with matches was one of the distinct no-no’s for young kids, which of course, along with the natural attraction to fire, made it all the more tempting. Somehow Laraine was able to procure a book of matches, not too difficult considering both my grandfather (cigars) and father (Pall Malls) smoked. After anxiously awaiting the shoppers’ departure and grandaddy’s settling in, we snuck off to the garage. This ancient structure was more like a small barn with a very high-peaked roof covered inside with immense cobwebs spanning the inside beams. There was all manner of old-fashioned gardening implements and boxes and barrels inside. We generally were not allowed in there, but it was perfectly secretive for this latest mission.

After a few furtive test lightings, we spotted a bale of peat moss in a hemp-like sack. The strands of hemp sticking loosely out at the top looked so much like the fuses on those round black cartoon bombs that we couldn’t resist. We lit a strand. Before we knew it, the flame spread rapidly to the rest of the hemp and then the peat moss itself until we had a major conflagration on our hands. Panic escalated as the flames shot upward, igniting the webs and threatening the structure itself. Beating the blaze with brooms contained the fire enough so that we could drag the bale out the door to the neighboring florist’s field next door, now fallow, luckily for us. The smoldering peat finally submitted to our pounding, and when the last wisps of smoke dispersed and the charred remains were safely buried, we surveyed the damage.

Other than the gaping holes in the webs and the lingering smell of smoke, there wasn’t much evidence of a fire after sweeping and dispersing the ashes, but the problem was one of the now-missing peat moss. Could such a large item be overlooked? We had no way of knowing, nor was it within our control, so we headed back into the house to lick our wounds. Up in the bathroom, after washing up and calming down, my sister sat me down on the edge of the bathtub. As I stared blankly at the chick on the can of Bon Ami cleanser next to me, she made us both swear an oath to never, ever touch a match again for the rest of our natural lives. I don’t think we did, either. Again, somehow, much like the wine incident, nothing ever came of it.

That was most definitely not the case with our biggest escapade, however. The funny thing is, this one was the most innocent of the bunch.

There was a very odd candy store around the corner and a few blocks down to which we would sometimes walk. It was strange because it was really just some lady’s house, and in her living room there was a glass counter with candy that she sold. One afternoon after going there, Laraine got the idea to walk farther down the street. Upon arriving at an intersection, it excited her to realize that this was one of the ways our father would sometimes drive to Tenafly. The spirit of exploration swept over us, and we continued walking.

After quite some time, we realized that we had gone very far from Nana’s house. Another bright idea: since we knew where we were going, why not walk all the way home to Bergenfield! Won’t Mom and Dad be surprised!

Oh, boy, were they. Except surprised is really not quite the right word. Perhaps irate? Incensed? Livid? It was getting dark by the time Laraine and I walked the last leg of our journey down New Bridge Road to our house. Only one problem. We had no key. These were the days before the ubiquitous cell phone, so what do we do now? A knock on the neighbor’s door, a phone call, and a nervous interim while awaiting our doom.

Other than the thunderous waves of parental tirade we endured that evening, I don’t remember specifically what our punishment was. I believe I played up the innocent-little-brother angle to save myself. I was confident that Laraine, experienced as she was at this business, had the wiles to make her own escape.

This incident signaled the end of our adventures at Nana and Grandaddy’s house, though our long walk home would eventually take its rightful place in the family annals of infamy, the crown jewel of all our childhood capers. As we grew older and teen-aged interests overtook us, our paths diverged. But our tales of those days when we were inseparable have lived on, told and retold at many a family gathering, and the richness of our shared adventures are a gift to each other as we age, a fond remembrance of those long-gone days of our childhood together.

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Christmas, Room 26

December 18, 2014

The Christmas season is one like no other. There is an infectious good spirit in the air, and for kids, an atmosphere of anticipation that is palpable. It is also a time of year steeped in tradition, and during my twenty-five years in Room 26, I came to institute several of my own.

That was the English classroom in which the eighth graders of Pierrepont School spent their agonizing days waiting for Christmas to arrive. Always a time of considerable rambunctiousness and lack of concentration, I thought about what lessons I could teach knowing full well that the battle for their attention would be fierce. I wanted something that would capture the humanity embodied in the Christmas season regardless of anyone’s religious affiliation or cultural background while still containing educational value.

At first I decided upon a story that happened to be in the literature anthology we used. “A Christmas Memory,” wonderfully seasonal, touching, and well-written, had all the qualities I wanted. The author happened to be Truman Capote, whom I knew only from In Cold Blood, a work most definitely not seasonal. I found out that this was the story of an episode from his own childhood, a time when his parents had left him to live in Alabama with strictly religious and somewhat cold-hearted relatives. The one exception was an elderly cousin, a woman who is written about with such tenderness even though we never even learn her name. Capote introduces her to the reader in simple but beautiful description (the point of the lesson, as far as the anthology was concerned):

“A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

Capote proceeds to tell how they went about making those fruitcakes, an annual enterprise that took quite a bit of time and effort, as well as their preparations for Christmas. During the many small adventures they encountered along the way, we come to know the heart and soul of this cousin well. On the surface this may sound torpid, but it is anything but. Such pure and simple beauty shines through both the words and the people who inhabit them. The relationship between Buddy and his friend resonates strongly for anyone who has had this kind of intimate connection with someone else, and I still remember passages from this story — especially the heartbreaking closing one —  to this day.

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Several years later, I discovered quite by accident another story that I knew I just had to use with my classes. We spent Christmases with my wife’s family, and while we were at my sister-in-law’s house, she brought out a book of Christmas stories with the idea that somebody should read one to enhance the Yuletide spirit. However, these stories from a collection entitled Children of Christmas by Cynthia Rylant were not the traditional ones I had expected. I thumbed through it and saw a title which drew me, “All the Stars in the Sky.” Since no one else had volunteered, I began to read aloud.

It was the story of Mae, a homeless woman and her three dogs (sadly only one of whom had a name), who had been on the street for so many years she no longer remembered her past. That included Christmas. Feeling poorly and in search of food, she stumbles into the unlocked door of a library closed for the night.

After finding food for herself and the dogs, she comes upon a Christmas display. She sits on the floor in the liquid light of a fish tank and sees a basket of books. She begins to look at them, first one with pictures about a snowman who comes to life and flies off with a boy, and then another:

“It has words, so Mae nearly puts it back down, but the pictures of the woman and the baby and all the stars in the sky hold her and Mae turns the pages slowly, curled into her cushion, and breathes deep and quiet, and looks.

Mae looks at every book in the basket while her dogs sleep. Every Christmas book in the basket.

Then she lays her head against Marty and she sleeps too.”

Some small ember still alive deep within Mae, some distant memory of her own childhood and Christmases past, is stirred even if Mae is not conscious of it. She leaves the library in the morning:

“Mae walks with her dogs, her stomach full, not sick anymore, and a sign in a store window says ‘Merry Christmas!’ but Mae sees only a snowman flying and a woman and a baby and stars and stars and stars.”

It brought me to tears as I read, voice quavering with sobs, startling my wife and sister-in-law, some deep well of emotion within me tapped by this story. I’m not sure why this was so. It has the same effect on me to this day.

When my students read it, I could see many of them felt the same way. I always asked them to answer a question about whether or not this story should be read by kids. A few of them said no because of its sadness, but the majority said yes. They believed it served as a reminder to those of us who have families and a warm home and people who care about us not to take those things for granted. That recognition alone made this lesson worthwhile.

One last addition was made to my December repertoire that became a real favorite both for the students and me: A Christmas Story. For years during breaks in our holiday dinner at my mother-in-law’s house, I had watched together with my young niece and nephew Jean Shepherd’s whimsical tale of childhood desire for the perfect gift. When I came into possession of a VCR copy, I immediately installed it as a permanent part of my pre-Christmas lesson plans.

It was perfect. It had the timeless humor of the misadventures of a kid growing up: struggles with the neighborhood bully, attempted manipulation of parents and teachers, stupid acts spurred on by the dares of a friend, and navigating the oddities of the various personalities surrounding us as we grow up. But there was also great tenderness between the very people who sometimes experienced a clash of wills, all of this in the delightful atmosphere of Christmastime in small town America.

My only worry was that my students would have already seen it. This turned out not to be the case. Some students were totally unfamiliar with it. Others had seen bits and pieces but never the entire thing. Those that had seen it in its entirety were enthusiastic about seeing it again. I understand why; I must have watched this gem scores of times and have never tired of it. Each Christmas I along with my now-grown niece and nephew laugh anew at so many of the unforgettable scenes: Ralphie’s bunny pajama present from his aunt, his father’s “major award” leg lamp with fishnet stockings, Ralphie’s first big curse in front of his father, Flick’s triple-dog-dare-caused tongue stuck to the flagpole, the dinner at the Chinese restaurant. Each vignette becomes a reference point to episodes in our own lives as we watch the trials and tribulations of Ralphie in his quest for that Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. In spite of the time period of the story, so much has remained the same about childhood Christmases, and this story manages to capture it.

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I often wonder if my students remember any of these stories from back then, or if encountered again now do they recall their experience with them in my class. Even though I’m no longer in that room at this time of year, I still think back to those days sharing both the sorrow and laughter of Buddy and Mae and Ralphie in the spirit of the season, and at least for me, these stories we savored together are forever part of the fabric of my own Christmas memories.

 

 

 

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Living in Infamy No More

December 7, 2014

attack on Pearl Harbor

December 7 is a day of tremendous significance in the history of this country. Or at least it should be. On that date in 1941 Pearl Harbor was attacked.

In his famous address, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that this was “a date which will live in infamy.”  However, a mere seven decades later, it seems as though this event is perceived as ancient history. Poll any group of Americans under the age of thirty and see how many of them have much of an awareness of this momentous day. It is not even noted on the wall calendar I have.

The attack, which resulted in the death of more than two thousand Americans in only two hours and crippled the critically important Pacific Fleet, plunged us into World War II. That alone should be enough reason to keep it alive in our national consciousness. But even more important are the lessons that it should have taught us as a nation, lessons which seemingly are forgotten as readily as the event itself.

The very nature of war is encapsulated in this attack: the arrogance of nations who would use military aggression to achieve their goals as well as the arrogance of those who think that such a thing could never happen to them; the heroism and sacrifice of ordinary individuals in the face of death; the seemingly insignificant factors — from errors in judgement to plain dumb luck — that can change the course of events; the tragic toll of suffering and human life on both sides that is the inevitable result.

That the impact of powerful events such as this recedes as time goes by is perhaps part of human nature. The generation who lived through that difficult time is dwindling. The following generation who heard the first-hand stories of it are older and no longer commanding the attention they once did. Unless society and its institutions take the responsibility of active preservation, Pearl Harbor and the war it symbolized shall settle beside Verdun and Gettysburg and Bunker Hill on the pages of the history books.

But let us not remember this date in an artificially glorified or superficial way. Instead, it should be a time of acknowledgment and reflection, a day set aside to consider both where we were and where we are now as a nation and a world. Let us honor those who served for the greater good and those who perished in its defense. But let us also understand well how the continual ebb and flow of national interests and power can lead to conflict and its extreme consequences. Let us do this in the hope that we can one day eliminate the necessity for such days of remembrance.

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Remembering Charlie

December 1, 2014

Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I think of him still, especially today during World AIDS Day. He is the personal face of this affliction to me.

AIDS has not gone away, but over the years it has moved from the front page headlines to the back pages and now virtually out of the public eye entirely. Many have forgotten, or because of their age, never knew this frightening scourge and its wake of tragedy in the early years of its advent. It seems as though not too many people concern themselves with it anymore unless they have some personal connection. I am one of those people, for my friend Charlie was one the victims when AIDS was still a fearful and misunderstood specter haunting our country.

Charlie was my friend. He was a warm and caring person, bursting with creativity and energy. I think he felt it was his mission to make everyone else’s day brighter. Most people didn’t see the turmoil within him.

I knew Charlie well when we were in college, though I didn’t know he was gay. Perhaps he didn’t either at that time. He married his girlfriend, another of my college friends, but eventually that union unraveled and his inevitable emergence as a gay man was complete. His new partner was an Argentinean he met in New York, but by that time I no longer saw Charlie since the paths of our lives had diverged.

For a while, our paths were one. Some of my most emotionally challenging times were shared with him. More precisely, he, acting as a self-appointed guardian angel, continually attempted to rescue me from crisis.

One such instance occurred during a difficult time in my attempted courtship of the girl of my dreams. She had suffered a heartbreak once and was unsure about the nature of this new relationship with me. I do not blame her for that. However, I was emotionally fragile, and Charlie sought to nurture me.

His family lived in Schenectady, and on the spur of the moment, he convinced me to join him on a long weekend trip home. No one else knew of this, so it seemed that I had disappeared from campus. During the bus trip upstate, I poured out my misery to Charlie, and he comforted me. We talked for hours, more deeply and personally than I ever had before with anyone, sharing stories of our lives and our hopes and dreams. I remember falling asleep exhausted with my head on his shoulder as he sang softly to me. The time we spent with his sister and brother-in-law proved to be a healthy diversion, and my absence, though short, was startling to my sweetheart, and a better chapter between us ensued.

Another incident I remember clearly developed out of my frequent flirtation with academic disaster. I was a diehard procrastinator, but usually could pull the fat out of the fire at the last minute by pulling an all-nighter or three. However, on this occasion I had gotten myself into an impossible jam from which I didn’t think I could extricate myself. I had two major papers due, neither of which I had even started, and one of them had already been postponed once. I knew yet another all-nighter was my only chance, but after struggling late into the evening, defeat appeared to be at hand. That’s when Charlie popped in. He listened to my plight, and without a second’s hesitation sat down to help. The term “help” hardly does justice to his effort. As I composed one paper at my typewriter, Charlie busied himself at another, asking me questions and helping me clarify my thoughts as he typed away. My dire situation had taken a turn, and there was now hope where there had been despair. We finished at dawn, and more than a few laughs were shared as Charlie helped shape my ideas into an admirable and often inspired piece of writing.

Charlie loved Leonard Cohen. His favorite song at that time was “Suzanne.” I think the dark tone that still retained the hope for beauty and love appealed to him. Charlie wrote in a similar vein. I still have his notes and poems and musings written on scraps of paper now yellowed with age. He gave me this after our Schenectady trip:

“I have come to give you the blue blue sky with my hands

and show you the dark dark dawn with its gray lands

where hot meets cold; and besides I have the time time

to spend on forever to gather the sky sky in a rhyme.

It may never be said how much I must need give you

or show you, you, sitting mournfully, weeping, you who

tried to love before and failed failed.”

When the end of college arrived, he gave me a folder with some of his illustrations and what I now understand was his letter of farewell to me. In it I also see the acknowledgment of his new path:

“But this school year is a rebirth for me; it ends in anxiety and joy. I conquered a world and I face reality. Your end-year must be very sad; I wish you the comfort of understanding but the purification of pain. Learn to smile in the face of pain and tragedy. I do it daily.”

I did not witness Charlie’s descent into the horrors of AIDS. I am regretful of that because I could have taken my turn as guardian angel. In a way, though, I’m glad my memories of him were not tainted by his time of debilitation; I believe he felt the same way. I went with a few friends to a small memorial gathering on the Hudson River where we dropped flowers into the flow and shared some of the many Charlie stories we all had.

Because of AIDS, Charlie became a statistic, part of the tragic toll this disease took. But like each of the statistics, he was someone, a real person with family and friends and hopes and failures. Each left behind memories of whatever mark they left on the world and the people whose lives they touched.

Yes, Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I can not, and will not, forget either.

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