by Jean Zorn
We named this month’s Short Takes section after a song that was performed most famously by a man – and that exhibited a distinctly male point of view. There is another song, more apt in so many ways, that we should instead have chosen. When ABBA recorded Dancing Queen, the main vocal was sung by the two women in the group, the men on board just for backup and harmony. The lyrics are from the perspective of that seventeen-year-old girl. And, most germane, the song sums up what all the marvelous pieces we’ve chosen for this issue describe: at seventeen, we have within us all we will become, and yet we’re still at a moment when we might, depending on circumstances, character, and luck, become almost anything. But we don’t know that yet. We are not yet what we will be; we are the shy girl, the bookworm, the tomboy – or the Dancing Queen:
Young and sweet
Feel the beat from the tambourine, oh yeah
You can dance
You can jive
Having the time of your life
Ooh, see that girl
Watch that scene
Digging the dancing queen
Take Elizabeth Warren, for example. By seventeen, she had already been the star of her high school debate team. But she was also a child of the 1950s, of Oklahoma (on the scrabbling, southwestern fringe of America’s so-called heartland), and from a family who, as Warren herself described it, was teetering “on the ragged edge of the middle class.” Warren’s mother called herself a housewife, as women proudly did then, even though, to keep the bank from foreclosing on the family’s home, she worked a full-time, minimum-wage job at Sears.
The part of Warren that had won those debating trophies enrolled at George Washington University. But there was another part of her that believed, as women were taught then by every romantic movie they saw and every book or magazine they read, that the natural goal of all good girls was marriage and children. That part led her, at seventeen, to drop out of college, marry Jim Warren (one of the guys from her Oklahoma City high school), give birth to his daughter, choose to be a stay-at-home mother, and even follow him as his jobs took him to Houston and then to New Jersey.
And in that life and that marriage the Dancing Queen might have remained, but for those occasionally helpful standbys, circumstances, character, and luck, that impelled her to finish her college degree at the University of Houston. Even then, she saw herself in traditional women’s roles. Her highest aspiration for herself was to be a teacher, and she taught in the Houston public schools until the move to New Jersey cut that short. The first wave of modern feminism was changing what many of us believed about ourselves and the limits we had set on our aspirations. Perhaps that had something to do with her decision to enter law school when her daughter was two. But even then, the realities of women’s lives – the circumstances and luck – colluded. Unlike Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had not been offered a single law firm job when she’d graduated from law school almost twenty years earlier, Warren was sought after by the large New York firms. But, a soon-to-be single mother of two, she turned the offers down so she could work from home, drafting wills and writing up real estate closing documents at her kitchen table.
From there, we know the path: law school teaching, a constant trajectory of moving upwards to more and more prestigious law schools, and a slowly developing interest in bankruptcy law, one of the legal fields seen – probably because it involves banks and money – as particularly the domain of men. The more she grew to appreciate the important protections provided to ordinary hardworking people by the bankruptcy laws then in effect, the angrier she grew at the conniving of banks and lenders, politicking to get the legal scales tipped back in their favor. The next step – moving from an interest that was primarily academic into activism on behalf of families and working people – was, for Warren, inevitable.
There are so many ways in which her life and career, up to and including her run for the presidency, corresponds to the lives and careers of all the women of our generation. There is, first, the continuing likelihood that because she was a woman, she might never have had a career outside of the home, or, if she had, that it would have been in elementary school teaching, a noble profession but less likely to lead to the White House. There is, in addition, the accidental nature of much of Warren’s career. Like most women, she had no clearly ascendant goal when she graduated from law school, not even of partnership in a big law firm, let alone of high political office. Women our age, even as we found the courage to get degrees and jobs and baby sitters, were taught not to set our ambitions too high, nor to push for those ambitions too overtly. Instead, through circumstances and luck, the increasingly more important jobs came to her.
Well, partly through circumstances and luck. Of the three conditions, character may be the most important. If she hadn’t been who she was, if she hadn’t been that seventeen-year-old high school debate star, if she hadn’t persisted in finishing college and then law school, if she hadn’t been drawn to the humanity lurking in an area of law that most male scholars treat as if it were as dry and inhumane as dust, if she hadn’t made the leap from academics to activism, if she hadn’t been and done all those things, she would not have been Elizabeth Warren.
When we are seventeen, all that we can be is there within us. But only circumstances, luck, and most especially character will decide how much of it we become.
coming down the stairs to find us spooning
on the single bed in the basement, the lower parts
of our bodies unclothed under blankets.
He sat down in the old captain’s chair
rolled a cigarette, asked about our day,
amber flecks of tobacco falling on his knee.
That was my father, half lost
in himself and the symphony of images
he would paint, his own music so loud
that he never flinched when the needle
stuck in the last groove of Joni Mitchell’s
Blue. Not one of us budged,
the smoke of his cigarette curled
into a lyric of its own.
I Stole Francie Bigassi’s Boyfriend
It wasn’t hard. We were at a weekend leadership retreat at Cumberland Falls State Park. My diet pills had worked, so I was wearing a size six denim shift with an apple embroidered at the bustline. Sleeveless to show off my tanned arms. An upperclassman with an easy laugh and a deep voice, Marty towered over me. We danced and talked until curfew. I kept his red tie because it matched the apple on my dress. Back in the bunks the girls told me Marty was Francie Bigassi’s boyfriend. They said Francie was one tough cookie. I said any girl with a name like that deserved to lose her boyfriend.
On Monday, Maxine knew where Marty and Francie sat in the cafeteria, so I went up to their table.
Marty, I forgot to give you back your tie.
That felt better than being thin.
After high school graduation in 1965, I get my first job as a long distance telephone operator. From June through August, I sit, headset on, plugs at hand, staring at rows of unlit bulbs. One glows. My stomach contracts. I hesitate. What kind of call awaits? I plug in (because I must) and toggle the switch to hear and be heard. “Operator,” I say. A voice requests the most basic kind of call, station-to-station. I dial the number; wait for the ring, then toggle the switch assuring privacy. I breathe in the smugness of success. I thank the god of fate for luck and wait for another light.
Callers have a choice of call types – station-to-station, person-to-person, or collect which can entangle with station-to-station and person-to-person. For each, I have a script to follow, one that assumes alacrity of connection.
Person-to-person: “I have a call from___ for___.”
A yes/no choice for the call’s receiver. Yes, that person is present (the one speaking or one nearby). No, that person is not available. I leave a call-back number. Not too difficult; a smile for fate; a plea for luck when the next light glows.
Collect: “I have a collect call from___. Will you accept the charges?”
Here lie two outcomes. A verbal skirmish; a caller trying to talk before I’ve completed the contract for payment. Or, a mystery of why charges are denied. Experienced operators say it’s a signal to call back, avoid higher collect call rates, used mostly by college students. College, my destination in September. I will remember this. I laugh at fate, shake hands with luck.
Long distance from a pay phone: “Please deposit $ __.”
My gut roils. Luck decamps and fate asks for a sweat sacrifice. I find the charges from ___ to ___. The caller deposits quarters, dimes, and nickels into slots. Each coin sends a unique tone. I count them, hope my arithmetic skills hold, hope my intense concentration doesn’t stray. The last step, remember to pull the coins into the box. I wait the three minutes, time allotted for pay phone conversations.
Breathing stops. Did I pull the coins into the box? Memory backtracks until I hear collected coins jangle, fall onto metal.
Electricity hums in cool air. Sweat on my upper lip dries. I breathe easily until a light comes on. Fate lets luck hover above my hand. I reach for the plug.
On My Own Two Feet
Until I turned three, family photographs showed a happy child. Then it was time to take care of my lazy eye. From that day on, I was transformed into an awkward chubby girl, then a teenager with short brown curls and heavy glasses.
When I turned seventeen, I enlisted in the army. The photograph from my army period show that I lost the glasses plus several pounds. Not a great beauty but pleasing to the eye and able to conquer the hearts of the other sex. No compliments, affirmations, or even a verbal approval from my mother reflected that change. I was still her awkward offspring. The one who would never match up to her younger brother.
The conversations with my mother followed the same pattern for years. “I don’t understand,” she would say, and my insides tightened.
“I do not understand why you married this man,” she said a week after my wedding, and repeatedly in the coming years.
“I do not understand what it is that you’re doing,” referring to my professional choice to become an educator (just like her).
“I don’t understand why the kids never eat,” was another favorite, meaning my daughters, who routinely declared a hunger strike on our visits.
Forcing me to wear clothes she sewed for me was, I was convinced, a form of humiliation. Cruising the streets of Jerusalem in search of material, then spending hours in front of the mirror being stabbed by sewing needles. When I was sure I had finally broken free, she showed up before my wedding day with a dress she’d made for me. All that was needed was the final fitting.
That sense of not being good enough, not quick enough, not pretty, and not as talented as my younger brother was always there. A curse, but in some ways perhaps a blessing. Once I turned seventeen and joined the army, I learned to stand on my own two feet.
Still, every year when I drive up the steep hills into the city that used to be my home to visit my parents’ graves, I am reminded of being an awkward seventeen.
I pick a few stones and put them on the grave as tradition dictates. Then I update my mother on my life in the year that just ended:
Still married to the same man,
Kids are all grown up,
Not an educator anymore.
When I get to the last part, my current profession, I hesitate for a minute. I know what she would have said if she were still alive:
“I don’t understand why you went to school and got a master’s degree, so you can become an innkeeper.”
But now, finally, I can smile.
Mother and Daughter Pretend
When I was seventeen, sharp abdominal pains sent me to the hospital, initially for observation, but the following day I was wheeled into the operating room. The general surgeon removed a dermoid cyst, complete with partially formed teeth and hair, attached to my ovary like a remora. Not only did the surgeon remove half of my reproductive organs; he performed an appendectomy as well, endorsing it as a preventative measure. A jagged seven-inch scar curved from belly button to pubic bone. During my recovery, my unemployed, despondent father paced the hospital corridor. Later, saddled with bills and burdened by his own trauma when he was seventeen, he plunged further into depression.
A few months later, as I neared my high school graduation, he attempted suicide, painfully suffering from his self-inflicted injury until his body surrendered. My mother wanted my opinion about an autopsy on a body that two weeks prior had been a sullen man, but very much alive. I was horrified. A nurse handed us tiny white pills, which we washed down with paper cups of water.
At the funeral home my mother asked me to choose his casket. I did, with all the sensibility of a seventeen-year-old, choosing a gray box. During the viewing, I sought refuge in a lounge. The joviality of relatives and acquaintances buzzing around the room with my father’s closed casket was too much. I puffed on cigarettes. My absentee brother joined me once.
I wandered the school corridors, shell-shocked, my mind now a blank in every class. During that time, I met a rebel, my future husband. I was fully aware of my choice, as he was the opposite of my gentle father. Two welcomed daughters arrived as I endured nineteen years, finally divorcing the violent drug addict.
There was no denying that what happened at the tender age of seventeen profoundly influenced my life. Especially when the horror of the first six months of a blossoming teenager was swept aside by friends and family.
A mother and daughter pretended. We cried in separate rooms. We never spoke about my traumas, as if my disfiguring operation and my father’s death never happened. Each day going forward was to be no different than all the others. Not to my family, not to my neighbors, not to my classmates, as though the silence would rewrite my history. Only then could I be a normal seventeen-year-old.
When I was seventeen…
When I was seventeen, I was five feet ten inches tall and weighed a hundred pounds. I stood out when I stood up.
When I was seventeen, I was a practicing Catholic. My mother had been in a car accident a year earlier, and after a period of intensive rehab, her doctors said she would never walk, think, remember, or speak clearly again. Since only a miracle could change her back to how she was before the accident, I prayed for one, pleaded for one.
When I was seventeen, I climbed into bed every night with the imprint of my rag rug on my knees. I recited the Holy Rosary every day and confessed every impure thought. Throughout the six weeks of Lent, I attended mass daily. I made promises to God about how I would live the rest of my life if only He would heal my mother, and even issued Him a few ultimatums. But no matter how hard I prayed or how many times I went to mass or how many other proofs of devotion I offered, my prayers remained unheard, unanswered.
When I was seventeen, unlike most of my peers, I knew that terrible things happen at random, that there’s no protecting against them, no fixing them, and no silver lining. In addition to being different on the outside, the experience of unmitigated loss made me different inside too, estranged.
When I was seventeen, I still had my faith.
A Life in Pieces
When I was seventeen my mother looked up from her sewing machine and said, “When you get married I shall make you the most beautiful wedding dress. It will be my magnum opus and you will walk down the aisle to admiring glances and feel like a princess.”
“Do come in.”
The woman stepped into the hallway of the empty retirement apartment.
A sewing machine stood in a wheeled teak cabinet.
Decades ago my mother had sewed my ivory satin wedding dress on it. Then she sewed three hundred pearls onto the front of the bodice, by hand. She also designed and created three pink bridesmaids’ gowns, copying HRH Princess Anne’s bridal style after her Westminster Abbey nuptials. Her magnum opus, that wedding.
“It’s a superior model,” the woman said, stroking the teak cabinet with her fingertips.
“Yes, she maintained it fastidiously; she sewed all her life. Only six weeks ago Mum shortened a beige cashmere skirt. She was less than five feet in height. Nothing bought in the fashion shops would fit,” I said.
My mother had fallen, broken her leg and never recovered. She was eighty, “a good innings,” people said, as if she’d played cricket.
The woman said, “Our charity runs community classes and sewing is now very popular. They’ll be so grateful for this machine.”
I wheeled the cabinet towards the door. The castors bumped up against the wooden threshold. One of the teak legs buckled and snapped off with a crack.
Tears welled up and spilled over.
“Don’t worry, our cabinet maker will fix that,” the woman said, laying her hand gently on my arm. “We are very grateful for your mother’s treasured machine.”
I wiped my eyes and together we eased the wobbling unit into the hallway.
The cabinet’s door swung open and banged against the wall, startling us both.
A paper carrier bag tumbled onto the floor, spilling out jagged remnants. Pink satin, an unfinished lace-edged handkerchief, and a two-inch-deep strip of beige cashmere, followed by a trickle of small pearls.
I picked up the cashmere.
It smelled of Mum.
One Girl from 1972 to 1973
Seventeen was a kaleidoscope. We were backlit by TV screens filled with Vietnam heartbreak and Watergate trust-break.
I chafed being under my mother’s wing, shrugging off her protective arm when crossing a street. I bristled at her every word. But when she went away to help one of my older sisters who had given birth, I ached for her.
Fear of looking un-cool constrained me. I didn’t ride my brother’s bike all over town anymore, button my coat or wear a hat in the cold, act in the play (ridiculed by my class), talk to anyone “weird,” or act like I cared. But I had my license, and got to drive sometimes. I knew the soundtracks from West Side Story, Camelot, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar, and belted them out them when nobody else was home. I liked some of the weird kids. And I did care.
My first boyfriend had broken up with me after junior prom; that soreness lingered like a ghost. I went out with other guys, lukewarm about most of them. I didn’t risk rejection by pursuing the ones I really liked. I disdained marriage and motherhood as primary aims. But I still adored babies, and hoped for love, romance, and clear skin.
My mother, aunts, sisters, cousins, and neighbors were traditional wives and mothers. That didn’t inspire me. Female wasn’t the number one slot in our immediate culture. Career? Rare. Speaking out? Dismissed. Independence? “Honey, how are you going to do that? (Chuckle, chuckle.)” I was resigned, and angry. Still, I basked in the support and the sunny funniness of women, and loved them. Loved the men too.
Seventeen was tender-skinned, with elation and despair all in the same week. It was sweaty palms before a test, a sentimental heart pitter-pattering around a cute boy, and eternal minutes on classroom clocks. It was thinking the future was Friday night. It was thinking you knew it all. It was not thinking.
Then, I was pieces of who I would become. Now, all my pieces still contain who I was when I was 17.
The Week of June 26th to July 2nd
When I was 17, one Saturday I inscribed, “Here are three poems I wrote. They don’t express what I feel.” I elaborated, “My aim wasn’t that. It was to write more maturely using symbols and images.” I could not help adding, “I feel really unsure.”
Through pools of water I walk
My past fading away in the ripples of time
The farther I walk
The closer I get to the dry sand
Where the empty shells preside.
I cannot walk fast,
The water is too deep
But it does not matter.
I have time enough
To make it to the other side
Before the sun goes down
And leaves me with the fleeting ripples
And the dry sand.
The little green car
That took me to the supermarket
The winter clearance sale
The free painting lessons
And the French restaurant
Has been replaced by
A long black one.
As the words came flooding out
And ran over my lap
Onto the floor.
As my voice
Crept higher and higher up my throat
And grasped onto me
And cut me off
So I could speak no more
And then they looked away.
This Short Take is an excerpt from the author’s upcoming book, White Snake Diary: Exploring Self-Inscribers, due out April 10, 2020 from Atmosphere Press.
No Mistake at All
I was in Memphis, Tennessee visiting my adored grandmother, Mama Mamie, for a few weeks during summer vacation. It was rare for us to leave her little hometown for a shopping excursion in the big city.
After a few hours of power shopping, we were burning up in the blistering heat. So we took a break in a lovely city park – pink azaleas like cotton candy spinning circles around magnificent magnolias. I was enchanted; magnolia trees didn’t thrive in Michigan, where I grew up.
It was the quiet that caught my attention. I was watching an ant crawl around the toe of my white sandal carrying an impossible load before it disappeared in a crack at the base of the drinking fountain. The water was refreshing. Much cooler than I expected, so I took a second drink. From that head-upside-down vantage point, I saw Mama Mamie’s chunky-heeled church shoes drawing close. I stood up and swallowed the water.
In her pale pink suit, she looked like a Popsicle about to melt in the brutal sun. A steady line of little kids waited patiently to get a turn on the slide. I heard a few giggles. Mama Mamie placed a weathered arm around my shoulders, her sweet lavender fragrance mingling uneasily with the smell of many close-up bodies. She guided me towards the shade of a live oak tree, but I was still clueless until I saw it – another drinking fountain. A fountain for white people like us.
Okay. No harm done. Jim Crow raising his ugly head. That’s all.
No need to feel embarrassed. Humiliated. Rattled. A simple mistake. That’s all.
Giggling rose again from a crowd of cute kids.
I took a deep breath and climbed back into my white skin.
By Jean Zorn
State of the (Dis)Union 2020
who marched, demanded, fought, and suffered state violence for the right
to stand, to be counted when mostly white men raised their voices,
cast their votes like Roman Senators, and ruled the land.Heads high, backbones straight, these Women of Congress
wore white too bright to be eclipsed by shadows,
too starched to bend or bow, too proud to let the national clown
drown out their disapproval.
The Speaker of the House took her appointed seat.
Before her on the desk, the script of the State of the Union,
the weight of history in those white sheets.
In solidarity with her fellow congresswomen, she, too, wore white –
for justice like an old-fashioned western sheriff,
like the dissenters of more than a century ago
who insisted upon their right to suffrage despite tradition’s ignominy.
As the buffoon resurrected McCarthy ghosts, cold-war rhetoric, worn-out anthems,
boasting of our headlong descent into a century long gone
when men were men and women wore white aprons
and knew their place, she waited for him to end his rant.
And when the reality show was over,
and the buffoon had mangled language and canceled truth,
even as the applause endured,
there was no need to reread the State of the (dis)Union script.
The gaping wound, the rent in the national fabric, was far too deep to miss.
So even as the fool who would be king soaked up the acclaim
of his confederates in crime, having torn to shreds
decency and the rule of law,
offering in their stead his cult of power,
the House Speaker stood, dressed in white like those other women, past and present,
who took their places because it was (and still is) their right to do so.
Before the cameras, she stands in defiance, for the sake of the nation,
speaking even without words. She reminds us that tyranny cannot be tolerated,
she takes the many white sheets of the fool’s tirade
and, for the people, she tears each lie in two.
Roberto is a decent type, a graying granddad who has the guts to raise his grandchild, a wild and headstrong five-year-old whose long hair whipping in the wind has caused him to be mistaken for a girl more than once, perhaps making him even more crazed.
To Roberto’s credit, he gets Beejay out on a daily basis, even though Roberto ends up running after him most of the time, powerless, as his grandchild rams into hedges on a bike or charges across intersections, deaf to his grandfather’s cautionary shouts.
One day, Roberto and I stopped and talked – friendly and neighborly – first about cars, followed by some pleasant commiseration about the world, but from there, we somehow moved on to politics.
“What? You voted for that…that person in the White House?” I said, incredulous, though still trying to appear normal.
“Not voting for Hillary,” he went on…. “Besides, there are too many immigrants nowadays and to make things worse, we’ve got a sanctuary city on our hands. They’ll be flocking here.”
(But, c’mon, your name is Roberto. Not Robert, not Bob, not…you know, Scott or Kevin or Keith. It’s Roberto! What about your roots? Your…)
“I voted for Clinton,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Obama first, of course, and then Clinton.”
“Well, I voted for Obama,” he said.
“You did? Obama one day and Trump another?”
It’s true. Zigzag voting is not unusual. A personal setback, a stroke of bad luck, a hit of unfairness and certain voters go sour. Then with an audacity peculiar to action-driven Americans, they decide their vote should “shake things up.”
“Well, I could never vote for Trump. I think he’s…” and here I hesitated. How to find the right words for Roberto’s sake? Let’s see… should I mention my profound conviction that our present president is incompetent, ignorant, and also a monster motored by his own self-aggrandizement? But Roberto was my neighbor, a nice man, a person I sort of wanted to understand. Plus, he was a committed granddad with a Beejay to show for his efforts.
“I think Trump is… is nuts,” I said as companionably as possible, grossly tamping down my strongest instincts in favor of neighborliness.
“Nuts is good!” Roberto said, his eyes lighting up a bit.
Did I hear right? I gulped. But at that point, Beejay, in bulldozing mode, had yanked hard on my arm, causing me nearly to lose my balance. The game was over and so was the conversation. The Wild One had offered me a way out, ironically guaranteeing that our exchange would remain civil and friendly.
“Well, take care, Roberto,” I said, still reeling from Beejay’s vital life force. I crossed the street and headed for home, haunted by our eye-opening conversation. Months later, I’m still reeling. Nuts is good? The initial dizziness has subsided, but an incipient vertigo has remained.
State of the Union
the lady sporting whiskers,
donkey with two heads,
cotton candy frosting hair
on carny’s tattooed arm.
We’re hooked on big striped big top,
the popcorn and the stink,
riding crop and oil slick
of barker’s red-tailed spiel.
We love to peek at freaky things
behind the velvet drape,
to hold our breath in choked suspense
as net-less bodies fly.
We want to hear the lions growl,
see cars spit out more clowns,
exhale ahs of hot dog damp
when wrists are caught… or not.
We crave our penny’s worth of pound,
our barrel full of Coke,
the cannonball, calliope,
cold tang of something sour.
Now You See Him, Now You Don’t
This is a story from sixteen years ago. My client – we’ll call him Larry – was a state legislator representing a gritty district in an old New England city. Larry was a progressive, a maverick, facing a primary challenge from the city’s Democratic bosses who were tired of his non-cooperation.
A mutual friend, a state labor union official, suggested Larry call me to manage his campaign. I knew he was one of the good guys, so I said I yes.
My salary was $500 a week, a small sum, but I figured he would win the primary. A win always looks good on your resume. Larry had rented a cavernous office with cubicles and a large meeting space. The union furnished tables and chairs for headquarters. I brought office supplies from home. Few volunteers had mobile phones, and my first job was getting phones put in. Cash flow was always a problem in these campaigns, and I had magnanimously said I would wait to be paid until we got the phones.
Larry had a friend, a computer geek who would work from home furnishing voter lists. Larry’s lawyer headed the finance committee; another friend, a writer, would do publicity.
Larry didn’t carry a cell phone. I could reach him only by leaving a message on his apartment’s answering machine. Days went by when I didn’t see or hear from him.
The writer started sending press releases, diatribes against the city’s corruption. None was ever published. I began setting up fund raisers and contacting all the unions for contributions. Calls to the lawyer were never answered.
A union member regularly turned up to make Voter ID calls; a volunteer worked on absentee ballots. An old computer was donated but sat unused.
Picking up lists from the computer guy turned out to be a visit to the home of a hoarder where you had to move a mattress to get through the front door.
When Larry failed to show up at voters’ events on the schedule, he explained, “I said I might go.”
Nevertheless, the campaign received contributions, sold tickets to a successful spaghetti dinner and got union support. I was paid $1000, a check I quickly cashed.
Then I came in one day to see a lock box on the thermostat. The rent had not been paid. I worked that day at my desk wearing my coat, making my phone calls, including to Larry which he never returned. At the end of the day I packed up my car with everything I brought to the headquarters and left.
Larry did win the election, and afterwards I received some of my salary, not all but enough. Our paths never crossed again.
Obituary for the Voting Rights Act of 1965
in my sweaty yoga clothes.
I don’t powder my nose, put on
Revlon’s Russian Red lipstick, or
spray my wrists with Estee Lauder’s
Youth Dew perfume as my mother did.I drive one mile to Iroquois Middle School
where both my sons endured
the agony of adolescence.
Two young women sell sugar cookies
and cupcakes for the PTA.
My neighbor, Ruthie, registers Republicans.
I walk to the next table
where my son’s former special-ed
teacher is registering Democrats.
How’s Ben doing? she asks.
I tell her he’s married,
works on Gordon Ramsey shows,
has a three-year-old daughter, Maia.
We both sigh with relief.
When I sign the register,
I’m the 200th voter of the day
even though it’s already 6:30 p.m.
I’m writing this poem to tell you
there were 27,000 voters in Dodge City,
Kansas, and only one polling place –
Outside the city limits – more than a mile
from the nearest bus stop.
Poor people, people of color,
Latinx people, denied the right to vote.
Somewhere in this poem is another story.
My son, Ben, thinks voting
is a waste of time.
Our government so corrupt,
we need a revolution.
I drive the mile home
to my split-level house
in Niskayuna, NY.
I could say I’m not
from around here.
It would be true
since I was born
in Poughkeepsie, NY.
But I can’t disclaim my ties.
I’ve lived here 37 years.
I’m scared that 27,000 voters
lost the right to vote in Dodge City
and it’s happening to the poor,
Latinx, people of color,
and immigrants across our country.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
torn from limb to limb
and buried alive.
The Candidate hesitates and covers her mouth. Count to three. Don’t rush the gesture. The pause is perfect. In my peripheral vision I see the camera operator wipe away a tear.
The Candidate regains her composure. She’s rehearsed enough to know not to look at me – standing in the shadows behind the lights. “To those who question my ability to serve, to take the interests of our children and our future to heart, let me say, I have not always been childless.”
The camera pushes in on cue. On the wide polished desk, bronzed baby shoes shine next to three books: the Bible, Profiles in Courage, and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. The spines face the camera, as do the metallic shoelaces. That’s the first tell. No one sits at a desk with their books or child’s shoes facing an audience.
“I had a glowing, growing baby. Samuel. Named after my great-grandfather. A laughing tow-headed boy. That life has never left me. I grieve for him still.”
She remembers to touch the bronze shoes beside the Bible. Good for her.
“I owe it to Samuel to make this country great again. To rebuild her cities and restore her farmland. To put her people to work and help those in their time of need.”
The prompter is going too fast. I glare at the dolt, motioning with a flat palm for him to slow down.
“Not every life gets to live to its fullest. My darling son was taken from me too soon. He never reached his potential. Sadly, I wasn’t able to nurture and guide Samuel to greatness, but I vow to do that for our homeland, with your help and the divine grace of God.”
Pause. Do not move. We practiced this.
She does not move. She keeps her eyes on the lens. I count along. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
“With a mother’s love in my heart, a fighter’s will, and a dreamer’s hope, I promise to bring the prosperity and peace to this land we so treasure. In the name of my dear son Samuel. Good night and may God bless the United States of America.”
Do not move. It’s not over.
The camera goes dark.
And it’s over.
I hurry to her, “You did good. Hit all the marks. Well done.”
“Get me out of here without questions. Tell them I’m emotional, but, you know, not falling apart or anything.”
“The revelation to the country of your departed son has left you raw and we’d appreciate your compassion and understanding.”
“Perfect. Where’s the car?”
“Through the kitchen.”
She nods and is gone. The camera crew packs and the grips roll cable. Another spectacle done.
I gather the desktop items for the next stop. Books. Bible. Bronzed baby shoes: my thrift store find of the year. Whoever wore these – the little sucker’s gonna walk us all the way to the White House.
Judgment Day 2016
and now we all own it, you and me.
The people marched and the people prayed,
but nothing could change that judgment day.Some children cried and some children died,
while the politicians prayed and lied.
How can they not see, how can we not say
that every day is judgment day?
Guns and crack and smack and coke –
the rich get richer and the poor get broke.
How can they not see, how can we not say
that every day must be judgment day?
Beneath the machinations churning,
our hurting earth is slowly burning.
How can they not see, how can we not say
that every day is judgment day?
Harsh words, like wind, just wreak destruction,
and willful ignorance, corruption.
God help us if we don’t use better
judgment come next judgment day.
There’s yours and mine and theirs and our facts,
but truth is always way more complex,
hidden deep within the noisy fray.
Be truth in action on judgment day.
The Family That Votes Together…
Election Day was a big deal in my family. We went to the polls en masse. Of course my cousins and I couldn’t vote yet, but our mothers never missed it, and they wanted us there with them.
We loved it. The mystery of the draped booths. The slam of the big lever finalizing someone’s choices. The curtain screeching back on metal rods. The official poll watchers bustling about with their clipboards. We couldn’t wait until we were old enough.
It was a neighborly section of Brooklyn – old Brooklyn, not hip, not Millennial, not overpriced. It was everybody-knew-everybody Brooklyn. So when we’d bustle into the polling place with my grandma and her father – my great-grandfather – it was like arriving at a party. And it was expected that either my mother or my aunt would be assisting Grandma and Zadeh in their booths.
Grandma had emigrated from Russia, following her husband who had gone on ahead. She could read a little English but needed help with which lever went with which candidate.
Zadeh was already fragile by then, and his eyesight was failing so he had to have someone in the booth with him. But there was no possibility of his being influenced. They could hear him telling my mother, faintly but forcefully, who he wanted to vote for, and occasionally why. He wasn’t concerned with privacy. He’d been an activist in Russia, and was “asked to leave” the country because he caused so much trouble. This, at a time when leaving was forbidden. He was ancient now but the fire still glowed.
Probably where the family got their ferocity. No way was Grandma going to miss an election. Nor were my mother or my aunt. And when we finally came of age, we made a grand entrance into the polling place, with all the poll watchers and other voters congratulating us and shaking our hands.
But, I once asked my mother, why do the people we vote for, always lose? Adlai Stevenson twice to Eisenhower. George McGovern. Eugene McCarthy. We never got Ralph Nader, for all the times he ran. Or Al Gore (and we should have). We did get Kennedy, but not for long.
She laughed. Doesn’t matter, she said. Once, we couldn’t vote at all. Now we can. So we vote, and we vote for whomever we believe in.
And so even in this crushing new world of gerrymandering, voter suppression, machine rigging, and self-focused politicians, I always do.
It’s in my genes.
My grandmother Ruth,
born of Russian Jews,
driver in the New York City
Red Cross motor corps
at the end of the first World War,
chauffeuring men from ships
to destinations, helping Spanish flu victims
to where they needed to go.
She wore her pin as proudly
as she did her right to vote, when it came.
She signed herself “Grandma,” in quotes
when she wrote, extolling
her grandchildren for everything:
our school prizes, concert going, museum visits,
sketches, athleticism, my playing Emily Webb in Our Town.
She practiced yoga every day at home,
was the fastest walker in the City.
When we visited, she played Chopin preludes
and had us invent dances.
Teaching yoga regularly, at the 92nd Street Y at seventy,
she was always dressed in leotards and a wrap skirt,
even swimming at Jones Beach, out on the island, near us,
where she vamped, hands on her hips, no skirt,
nose in the air, no cares.
Eighty-five, in red Keds, glasses ever lost
atop her head, she came with
my parents and my new husband
on the honeymoon in the Pacific northwest,
enjoyed her cabin, like one we rented together
on Lake Willoughby when my siblings and I were children
that time she insisted we keep journals,
walk to town every day, play tennis after swimming.
She took Amy and me to Fire Island one summer,
where she took off her top on the beach,
she who had long celebrated female beauty:
praising, in contrast to our Catholic mother,
our own bra-unfettered breasts in our hippie days at home.
Born in 1900, she died in 2007.
Today, on the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote,
I play note after note on my piano,
finding her again in Beethoven and Chopin.
And if this issue is to be a summer festival of the arts, it must be the theme of Short Takes this time around as well. We purposely left the invitation to the Short Takes contributors general: write a short piece, we pretty much said, on whatever facet of the arts interests you at the moment. Tell us whatever about the arts you’d like us to know. And we got, as you will discover when you read on, a delightful, distinguished and most variegated assortment of prose and poetry.
There is, however, a sub-theme that unites many of these pieces. It is not just the public that discounts the talent of women over sixty. We ourselves share that perception a little bit. Even as we aspire to become better writers, painters, weavers, composers, we question our abilities, our talents, our right to a room, or a publication, of one’s own. It is not surprising, perhaps, given the world we came of age in – the world we still live in – that we who were first into the second great wave of feminism have nonetheless not escaped entirely the view others have of us. As this issue attests, however, they – and we — are so wrong about us.
But, at least it makes for an exceptional batch of Short Takes. I invite you to enjoy…
I didn’t often venture past my courtyard the first few months after my husband died.
Somehow, that crisp spring morning, I pushed myself out the door thinking it would do me good to get some fresh air. As I took to the walking trails, the cheerful chirping of the songbirds and the faint scent of pine trees slowly reawakened my senses.
The Pine Hills community where I lived was sponsoring a crafts fair on the village green. I meandered through the fair with little enthusiasm, but was drawn to an Etsy booth that featured striking colorful quilts with contemporary designs. I struck up a conversation with the two men who ran the booth. Henry designed the quilts and his partner Brian sewed them. Inspired by their creativity, an idea took hold of me. I asked if they could make a memory quilt from men’s ties. Before I knew it, I was telling them about my husband Dick, our lives together and how he had recently died from glioblastoma. The tears that previously had not left my house, flowed freely. Brian shared that his first husband had also died of glioblastoma. We hugged and cried together. I spent much of the afternoon at their booth, where they provided me with a chair, a box of tissues and warm understanding.
Later that week Brian and Henry came to pick up the materials. Since Dick had worn a tie to work every day, I was able to provide them with a multitude of ties and shirts. They reassured me they would have enough to make five quilts, one for myself and one for each of my children. I pulled out a tie I had bought my husband for our anniversary that had the Hebrew words “Ani L’dodi V’Dodi Li” – “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine” – from the Song of Songs. The wedding rings we exchanged 42 years ago bore this inscription as well. I asked them to incorporate that tie into my quilt.
On delivery day, I was astounded to see an incredibly beautiful butterfly design.
“You totally surpassed my expectations! We raised butterflies, photographed butterflies and they were a very important symbol in our lives. How did you know?“
“When we saw your house we sensed your love of nature and butterflies. Working with your husband’s shirts and ties, we could feel his love and compassion and it spoke to us and this design came to mind.”
The quilt is draped over the couch in my living room. People often comment, “It is a work of art. Why don’t you hang it on the wall to display?” But I like to wrap up in it every night and feel the love and cherished memories it holds.
My father sits at the wrought-iron patio table, sumi-e brush in hand. He dips the brush into the ink well, staring out at the persimmon tree and beyond.
The windfall of rotting persimmon has wafted through the air and drawn teeming wildlife. Last Saturday, a sea of iridescent Junebugs appeared, splashing their Orient splendor on the floor of our yard in a liquid current of metallic blues and greens. It is our first attempt at banana squash and they are thriving; some have grown two feet long and thicker than a sumo wrestler’s arm.
My father refuses to spray the banana squash. Instead, he sets a few choice ones on sawn pieces of two-by-four beams. The rest he leaves for the hoards of insects that have magically appeared. He seems pleased.
Is he reliving a time when there was not enough to feed the family? Is there solace in this scene where, as with unleavened bread in an earlier time, there is enough for all? Do the iridescent beetles count among the syllables of my father’s poems?
He leaves the fallen persimmons where they lie. Is it age or is there some hidden intention behind his action?
My father pushes the block of chalk to and fro, in unison with his breathing. It is a meditation practice, to empty the mind. What syllables is he contemplating? Is he recalling the time when he patiently waited as his older brothers crossed the Pacific in steerage, one by one, to join their father in America? At last his turn. In his passport photo, he looks sad for a young teenager. Sorrow must have been his companion while crossing the ocean alone, leaving behind his mother and all he had known.
When the fruit trees start crowding one another’s canopy, my father is reluctant to uproot one of them. He says the shock may be too extreme and the tree may not recover. Instead he prunes the branches and the trees lace together in a natural embrace.
My father is a man of few words. Is it his training in tanka that makes it so?
Is he counting syllables when he speaks to me? Silence is full of loud exclamations.
His sumi-e ink forms characters across the rice paper. Five lines, standing in formation by syllable count: 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7.
It takes a poet, meditating as he prepares ink from a block of charcoal, to sweep aside the distractions of rushing traffic, flying e-mails, and chirping cell phones, to once again see that which is only visible to the eye and the senses.
I see the thin line of economy threading through the natural world. There is precision and eternity in the count. Tanka is a centuries-old long tradition, intended to capture all that is hidden in nature.
He listens to nature’s measured whisperings, while softly, steadily, counting, counting, counting…
I used to collect teapots, when I still collected things. You can tell my favorites by the depth of the brown stain within. They say not to wash that out, not to use soap or scrub aggressively because the tannins build up and contribute to the flavor, like memories.
My favorite pot was a gift from my husband Marc. It is ceramic, a full eight cups, with a beautiful spout. He bought it at one of those crafty shops where you pick out the object you want, decorate it yourself and have it fired. He bought it for me during a dark time in my life and painted it cream with six bunches of blue daisies and yellow daffodils climbing up the sides. The leafy stems dance around the circumference and a ring of green leaves adorns the lid hallowed by a blue daisy at the center of the knob. I see this teapot every morning, on the shelf above my vitamins, and I use it when people come over, or when I am sick and need to brew a big pot. In this teapot I always use Swee-Touch-Nee tea bags stored in the red, gold and black metal manufacturer’s tin given to me by my father 35 years ago, still shiny with its neat rectangular lid. It was a Passover gift.
Each spring, in my father’s memory, I buy a fresh paper box of 100 Swee-Touch-Nee tea bags and put them in the tin. They make a good strong black tea, fine either with milk or lemon and honey, good at any time of day. A hamish cup of tea, like my father.
Inside, the teapot is dark with tannin stains. I give it a good rinse and let them be, ignoring the urge to scrub. I do the same now, 12 years after my father’s death, with some memories of him. Those still need to steep a while longer.
Every Saturday afternoon, I waited for William Owen. Bent over his walker, he shuffled in at exactly ten minutes before the hour and sat in the fourth row, third seat from the right. He weighed less than a sack of potatoes. Unlike many of his classmates, he never fell asleep. At attention, his eyes wide behind thick glasses, the film class was his manna. He spoke once in four years. After Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, William Owen’s voice exploded like an unplugged pipe. “That was beautiful,” he said. He never missed a session. On the Saturdays I felt exhausted, I thought of William Owen dragging down the aisle with his walker.
Then, his name wasn’t on the fall enrollment list. I stumbled through my first lecture without him. The Activities Director assured me that William Owen was alive. “He’s very fragile. He’s 89 years old,” she said.
By now the film class had over 100 people in it, but no one came every week. No one held on to my words. Without William Owen, I felt adrift and despondent.
Thinking vigorous exercise would help, I signed up at a gym and drove to the mall for workout clothes. A small store tucked down one aisle caught my attention. Surfing posters brightened the black walls, and the floor boasted a five-pointed star gone psychedelic.
I reached for a hot pink tee shirt blazing “Bitch” in white sequins and chuckled. A young man walked towards me, his long legs squeezed into black leather pants. His left hand gripped a cell phone. I shoved the tee shirt back on the rack. I felt too old to be in the store.
Dyed black hair swung over one eye. He stared at me with the other. “Did you teach Poetry?”
I nodded. That was five or six years ago.
“I was in your class. Great class.”
He didn’t look familiar even with five earrings in his right ear.
“I didn’t dress quite like this.” He gave a boyish grin.
Then I saw him – he had been clean-cut in rumpled shirts and khakis. The last class, he shyly handed me his CD: jazzy rock with good lyrics.
“Of course. Still writing?”
“Well, it’s mostly music now, which is great, but …”
“There’s something about writing just poetry, you know?”
He had struggled at first. By his last poem, a letter to his father, he eloquently argued to end their long-standing conflict. The students had clapped like crazy when he finished reading aloud.
In the Poetry class, words had been important, and now I wanted to give this young man a whirligig of wisdom.
“Gotta get back,” he said. “I’m the manager. Just seeing you inspires me.” He put out his hand. I shook it and he quickly left. Words weren’t necessary; I had been his William Owen.
As distinguished from crafts, those myriad Girl Scout and grammar school projects – lanyards, felt ladybug pincushions, lace doily hearts pasted on red construction paper, art with a capital “A” is found in museums and galleries. As a teenager I adorned my jeans with embroidery and ribbons sewn on the hems. I carted dusty misshapen lumps with wicks home from the beach, sand candles with unstable bottoms whose rivers of muddy purple and red wax marred the top of my dresser.
My daughters and I, on a spa vacation the week between Christmas and New Year’s, search for things to do together. What can we all enjoy – three women, 17, 26 and 62? We sign up for the craft offerings.
In the art studio we sift through mounds of colored beads, filling paper plates with our choices in glass, plastic, metal and ceramic. Patterns emerge – shades of blue, of black, white and silver, earth tones for me.
We don’t speak of my older daughter’s heartbreak, how her partner of five years left while she was at work. I don’t ask my younger daughter what colleges she applied to or about her last test scores. Yet these are the reasons we are here.
We sit across from one another at a rickety card table. We trade beads, offering them up like hors d’oeuvres. We string them on stretchy cords to make bracelets, which we will wear all week, rattling our wrists at one another.
Between exercise classes, meals, and spa treatments, we shape lumps of clay and affix yarn to boards sticky with beeswax.
Our last afternoon, we fashion prayer wands. We write our intentions for the New Year on slips of paper to be wrapped around sticks, then covered in yarn. We select feathers, charms, and herbs to dangle from the end.
“Some guests plant their sticks on the trail for a stranger to find,” says the man who guides us. “Or you can take yours home. The process is what matters and your intention.”
We sip hot cocoa with cinnamon and nibble sweet tamales. We share balls of yarn and advice – how to switch colors, how to attach the crackly spray of pungent herbs.
I ask my younger daughter what she wrote.
“That’s private,” she says.
“Yeah, Mom,” says the other, taking her sister’s side.
But her eyes are soft as she passes me the scissors. I flew across the country when her girlfriend left – when my daughter, who so rarely asks for anything, let me help her move.
At week’s end we pack. My older daughter lays her prayer wand on the coffee table. It won’t fit in her luggage. Now it sits in my office, alongside mine. I don’t remember what I wrote on that slip of paper, hidden beneath rings of blue, green and gold yarn.
Yet I know my intentions, for my daughters and for myself.
Arts & Crafts
I saw the handmade craft show sign in front of the old red community center by the shore of the lake. On impulse, I pulled into the gravel driveway, making my way between raindrops and puddles up the rickety stairs, into the building.
Years ago, when I first moved here and was furnishing a brand new home, the theme of the decade was “country” style, and I embraced it fully. What a treasure trove I found throughout the area – small cottages turned into gift shops, brimming with lace curtains, schoolhouse clocks, goose statues with ribbons around their necks, dried floral wreaths, homemade soaps, dipped candles.
On any given day, I could be found traveling from town to town, ducking into shops, reaping the abundance of handwoven tapestries, fluffy stuffed sheep, Halloween figurines perched on cabinet ledges. I brought these treasures back to the house, surrounding myself with the lofty ambition of making a home.
We built a family there. Though the house was new, its paint still fresh and carpet yet shedding from installation, the life inside was ancient, the essence of family that stretches back generations. Traditions, holidays, the aroma of roasts in the oven, windows steaming from baking and boiling, sounds reverberating up one story and back down, a house that breathed, sighed, groaned with life.
My childhood goal, to live in a house long enough to be able to find my way around in the dark, had come to fruition. The walls embraced me as I wandered in the moonlight, fingers touching the smooth banister, feet remembering the creak in each stair. Only the cat came out of the shadows, an escort as the rest of the house breathed steadily, slowly, given into dreams.
We watched our daughter bloom and grow, hands upon piano keys, tennis rackets, telephones, then, finally, clutching diplomas and awards, heading east to school. Her room a shrine: her teddy bear, Toby, still sitting on her pillow, waiting for her return, resignation in his button eyes. At dawn, I often walked into her empty room, sat at her desk, watched the sun peek over the rooftops, trying to feel her, so many miles away, then turned and strolled down the stairs, another day in an empty nest.
The animals remained. Stoic, loyal, captives behind locked doors, children who never grew up. I buried my face in their soft fur and breathed in the memories of so many days and nights behind these green shutters. Even now I hear the piano, and the barking of the slaphappy dogs as they careened around the wood floors, sliding and lunging, a carnival of noise, the echoes heralding change, a new dance card.
We left that house one day in August. Such heat that day, the movers begged to arrive at dawn. Like turtles, we carried our memories on our backs, up and into new closets, cabinets, and drawers, familiar yet foreign, settling in like goslings to our new nest. The animals didn’t question. They simply went along, rejoicing in a new yard, a new house, never looking back or morose. The gift of living in the moment transported them in and out of cardboard boxes as though they were taking the Grand Tour.
Our daughter was grown up and long gone. Married and busy, she was no longer around as we unpacked our things and tried to make sense of the new, barren garden and the quiet evenings, the piano gone with her, silence filling the rooms, our aging faces reflected in the windows.
We touched the calendar in surprise as the pages crumbled beneath our fingers, day passing day so quickly it was stunning. In the early hours, we spoke of golden years, and retirement, trips abroad, grandchildren, as we sipped our coffee and stretched out on the couch.
Then came the darkness, a lesion to the brain so swift and so merciless we hardly had time to understand that it planned to take him like a pirate and bury him by the sea.
And so today, I walked around the old wooden building, and the craft show. It smelled the same, of old attics and sweet caramels, knit caps and tallow. The floors were uneven, my feet braced as though on the ocean, keeping balance as I wandered from booth to booth. For a moment, I felt as though it were twenty years ago, the wares still so familiar, ageless handiwork, the murmur of the crowd softly reverberating against the dusty walls.
I gently touched a windowpane. The last time I peered through the glass, he was here on this earth. Alive, and healthy. He was here the last time I walked on these creaking, splintered floors. I touched the doorframe, and an old table in the corner. He had still been here, waiting at home for me to walk in, the dogs swirling about me like fish, splitting the air with their happy barks. I breathed in the moment, pretended he breathed with me and whispered, “It once was. It was so.”
I stepped back down the stairs, and into the wind, rain tracing my cheek like tears. I drove across the potholes and ruts back out to the road, trusting the car would find its way home.
Naked in the Mall
around the outdoor art display in Cherry Chase.
And yet – my painting, my naked self,
hung in startling view on the walkway
for all to ogle, make fun of, deride.
Cheeks burned in unaccustomed blush.
Afraid to look full on, I focused sideways,
stealing quick-dissolving glances,
hovered well in back of other strollers
who might be eyeing with the thought of buying.
Wait – someone’s stopped to take a closer look.
OMG, I’ve got to flee. No, stay. See as a fresh eye sees:
a large canvas splayed in triangular shapes running amok
with brooms and brushes – paired in descending size –
aggressive push broom to intimate toothbrush.
Its background industrial green, horizontal pipe running through.
The floor wide-planked, weary, ending before it should.
Paint brush handle mis-attached, another homage to Cezanne.
A scruffy feeling over all: how over-used the hairbrush looks,
how bruised the slyly pointing dish brush handle.
Oops! It’s spilling off the canvas in search of privacy.
Of course it craves privacy: Blatantly sexual, erotic as hell.
Might as well be a poem by Anne Sexton with all its flaunting.
Look how flirtatious the broom shoulder,
how macho the scrub brush postures.
Shoe brush insouciant, curved, lying in wait to be seduced.
Even the zigzag netting of the whisk broom bespeaks action.
This painting is no twisted take on domesticity
swamped by the detritus of daily living.
Male and Female Created He Them its title.