Monday, November 25, 2013

The Muse of November 22nd

Late November tugs at me, reminds me of a painful moment that changed my consciousness. A dark bell tolls. Like everyone of my generation I can tell you exactly where I was on November 22, 1963—I was in the kitchen with my baby on my hip. My upstairs neighbor, Andrea—a friend and fellow student at Berkeley—came slamming through my back door in a tumult of voice and feeling: “The President has been shot!” She had just been on campus where everyone was dazed and no one knew what to do. Go to class? Go home? Call Mom and Dad? I remember my own confusion, disbelief, fear. How could this happen in America—my family’s sanctuary from the terrors of the Nazis? I remember my own internal incoherence: I was so mad at Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs—his invasion of Cuba felt like a personal betrayal. Could I mourn him? I remember hours in front of our enormous old black and white TV, watching the recital of catastrophic events. I could not then imagine that this would become a collective ritual—over and over we’d sit in front of all the TVs of our lives, watching the aftermath of assassinations, church bombings, school shootings…

There was a lot I could not yet imagine. I was twenty—too young to be a mother and a wife. My too young husband was in medical school. We lived in the downstairs apartment of my Oma’s duplex in Berkeley. Until recently she’d lived upstairs, in the rooms she painted in that lovely watercolor that would much later grace the cover of my poetry book, Adagio & Lamentation.

In her eighties, beginning to fail, Oma had moved to a sanatorium in Saint Helena, the closest thing she could find to the sanatoria of Europe, where, before the Nazis came to power, people like she would “take the waters.” Once a month, as regularly as a ballad, we’d go to visit Oma in the wine country, my husband, my baby and me. She and I would take walks. She’d tell me, in German, the stories from the long arc of her life. She spoke to me of the changing light. Years later I would remember this scene and put it in the opening poem of Adagio & Lamentation:


I wish you could stop being dead
so I could talk to you about the light    so we
could walk among the vineyards    as we did
forty years ago     near St. Helena    and you

could tell me    again        how the light of late
afternoon is so different from the light
of morning     I was too young
to grasp your meaning    but I believe

you said     it is all about the fall of shadows
that when you paint    it is not light that streams
from your brush but deep purple    violet      blue
you shaped emptiness      and there was light

Oma    come visit me   sit at your easel as you always did
your brush poised    your eyes as fierce
as a tiger’s    show me how to create
the luminous moment     among so many shades

of sorrow   so many dead     how to gather the light
of all the windows    from all the houses of our lives
to make this bright trail I still follow     along the gleaming
floor of the room in which you showed me how

to draw    out the french windows to the unseen
garden        a river of light that lifts
                                                        the Persian carpet into the air 

My Oma, like Rose Kennedy, knew what it was to outlive three of her children, to be given the gift of a long life shadowed by unbearable loss. Jack Kennedy never got to walk with his grandchildren, telling them stories from a long rich life. Neither did his brother, Bobby.

I see myself sitting in front of that old TV, as if in one of the early tree rings of my life, surrounded by the many greater tree rings of who I have become. I had no idea, that day, that Jack Kennedy, though dead, would soon change my life. He had given my generation a treasure—the Peace Corps. Many of us would be shaped by it, becoming world citizens, with an international sense of kinship and responsibility and a passion for travel.

In a later tree ring I’d find myself in India, with two young children and my husband—the Peace Corps doctor for volunteers in Hyderabad. In the next tree ring—consciousness blown wide open by the beauty, the color, the soul of India, amidst so much poverty and suffering—we’d adopt a third child, our Indian daughter, Shanti. I could not then imagine that years later, when that child was in her late twenties, my second husband Dan and I would take her to India. Dan had also been shaped by JFK’s gift—he had been a consultant to Peace Corps in Kenya. Our pilgrimage was powerful for all three of us, and I came to recognize that Old Mother India was an early muse who shaped my essential being. She insisted on a chapter in my book: The Sister from Below.

Old Mother India remembered my time with her as a young woman, when I was younger than Shanti was at the time of our trip. Here is part of what I wrote: 
We opened our house in Hyderabad to Peace Corps volunteers. There was always someone sleeping on the floor, always several of us around the dining room table talking American politics, Indian politics, philosophies of life. We were there when Martin Luther King was assassinated. We were there when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. 
India held us young Americans with curiosity and compassion and deep kindness. She mourned our fallen leaders with us. Sheela, who washed my floors every morning, and sat in the kitchen deftly removing rocks one by one from our daily rice, had lost three of her five children. She asked me about Rose Kennedy—how many sons she had lost. Three I told her—one in the war, two by assassination. “Abah!” Three grown sons! And she wept with me. She told me she had a photograph of JFK in her home, next to her photograph of Mahatma Gandhi. Now she would add photographs of RFK and MLK. 
Jack Kennedy never got to look over a long life and trace the tree rings of his development. Neither did his brother, Bobby. It was Ted, who got into that trouble early on, Chappaquiddick and all, Ted, who never became president but did become the Lion of the Senate, the beloved voice of us aging liberals, who was granted the gift of a full life, and was able to bring forth what was within him. In the end it was he who spoke for the values of so many in my generation—healthcare reform, civil rights, social and economic justice. 

In a recent tree ring of my life, I found myself at my mother’s home in Chicago, glued to the TV. It was Ted Kennedy’s funeral. He had died of a brain tumor. I was filled with grief for this survivor of so much horror, so much personal tragedy, so much self–destructive behavior under the pitiless gaze of the TV cameras. For haven’t we all been self–destructive? I was filled with grief, also, for my mother, who, after years of living a full, creative and independent life, playing the violin and viola in chamber groups and orchestras, giving music lessons, and working with poor young children and their often too young parents, had begun to lose her way. This was revealed to us, her children and grand children, in a particularly painful and humiliating way for her. She got scammed. It made me furious to see the tree rings of her life—which had expanded so gloriously after she ended her marriage to my father—dented so violently and cruelly. It made me unspeakably sad that she should feel so diminished, so shamed.

It was a typical magazine sales scam. She thought she’d won a lot of money. Offshore con men sweet talked her on the telephone, got her to send them money. Luckily, the manager of her bank, who knew her and her cautious spending habits, got suspicious and called my brother.

As the tree rings of our lives get larger, they gather all our themes— our contradictions and complexities—wisdom forged in the School of Hard Knocks. For some of us, at some point, that richness of personality darkens, falters, loses its way. Here I was with my sweet, competent, funny mother, tracking her anxiety and her confusion amidst a gallery of her mother’s—my Oma’s—paintings. They track the tree rings of Oma’s long, difficult and creative life. As I watched the TV coverage of the death of another Kennedy I began to realize that the twang in my mouth was a tooth going bad. The pain grew and resonated like the dark bell of November. If physical pain expresses emotional pain, my tooth was eloquent, and led me to a poem which gathered many of the themes of my life. My Oma, my mother and the Kennedys are among those who have shaped the tree rings of my life. This November, as we passed through the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, I found myself musing about how the Kennedys are intertwined in my life. I want to share the long poem that came out of that visit to my mother. It expresses my gratitude and my grief.

Root Canal

1. Security Line

We are pilgrims on our way to see Mother   among travelers
in flip flops     with bluetooths     carrying babies      We walk
in our radiant bodies     One of us is about to crack

a tooth     Only the babies can see     old light
from past lives    Only the babies can hear
the song lines     We are pilgrims passing through

the metal detector      We remove our shoes     remove
our coats and shawls    Some of us will be hand wanded
silver bracelets    seven quarters    three dimes provoke

the security gods     The Kennedy who just died
is speaking thirty years ago on TV     His assassinated
brothers still bleed into our lives…

2. Retirement Living

In Mother’s eighty-eighth year she got scammed     Sweet talkers
from the islands poured delirium into her ears     drained her purse
A Great Lake swimmer lost face     A late Beethoven violin

bowed to the gods of security     We’ve come
to see her new place among the formerly eminent
Hyde Park intellectuals     We walk the round of her days        She

gets lost     forgets her song lines    wants to sort through
scores of Mozart Bartok Bach. What goes where?     The Kennedy
who died
is talking on TV     It’s his funeral     His widow pushes back her dark

hair    She’s known him on her belly, in her thighs     She knows
his secret smell     When is it my tooth cracks?
When does that big bully nerve take over?

3. Roots

Oma’s paintings dominate this place     She painted
herself painting all her ages      painted herself losing
her grip     She looked straight into her own mirrored eyes

and painted the edge of her nerve     We make a pilgrimage
to see her painting of German snow on roofs in 1931
The naked larches scrape the sky     Her sons are dead

Her sons are dead     Her sons are dead     Trees
save her     Trees leave     Trees bud     Trees flower
Trees know her secret smell      They cleanse her dreams

Trees grow by rivers     by canals     by lakes     They reflect
on themselves in oils     in watercolors     They burn orange
in the deep wood     They burn gold under water     Mother loses track

of the song lines of her Mother     Her brothers bleed
into brothers not yet born     Mother says we live
too far away     that we’ve been swallowed by the State of California

4. Going Home

I am losing my own grip     My finger prints fade     I forget
your name     All I know is the scream of a nerve     I’ve no idea
how the widow got into Mother’s TV     no idea

how an endodontist removes a dying nerve     no idea
how a plane leaves this earth     no idea
how I’ll live in the State of California
                                                    while Mother loses track of herself
(first published in SierraNevada Review)

Watercolor by Emma Hoffman