Everyday Heroism: An Introduction
You wouldn’t know it from the summer listings of most movie theaters in non-Covid times, but there are lots and lots of charming, thrilling, heartstopping, heartbreaking, and engrossing films that don’t include the obligatory scene of the protagonist fighting off six bad guys at a time with guns, bricks, bats, or whatever else is handy and lethal. Most of those non-avenger movies are not made in the United States. They are, however, made almost everywhere else. We started with French films, then branched out to China, Japan, Spain, Mexico, Germany, India, Iran. I especially recommend taking a look at some Iranian films. At the very least, the wrenching ordinariness of the characters, their fumbling attempts at kindness, their everyday embarrassments, the small mistakes that they regret— in other words, their absolute similarity to ourselves and the people we meet and know—cannot help but remind us of what we already know: that the people we demonize, the people we call our enemies, are not demons, not even bad at the core, they are just people; they are us.
The directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, and actors in these films gave me many blissfully immersive hours when I could forget about pandemics and viruses and Trumpists and the greed and selfishness of too many Americans. Each movie has a lot to teach, and you can benefit from those teachings without the aid of classes or primers. But the more you get into the world of film, the more you want to learn about it. So I must give a well-deserved shout-out to two of my gurus, Shelly Isaacs and Annette Insdorf, who have each brought to Zoom their very different but equally fascinating and illuminating film courses. Shelly brings his boundless energy, his encyclopedic knowledge of world film, and his ability to make us love every film we’ve seen, even those we were sure we didn’t, to an online weekly seminar sponsored by Florida International University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. And Annette, who teaches at Columbia, combines her remarkable erudition and her deep knowledge of the works and ideas of some of the world’s most illustrious filmmakers with her palpable love of film in her Sunday online course, courtesy of New York’s 92nd Street Y.
One of the many lessons of world film is that the most heroic actions are performed by quite everyday people. Nor is heroism at its starkest, or most terrifying, or even most, well, heroic, when it involves tossing about giant buildings, beating up suspicious (i.e., ethnic) strangers, or dodging bullets. The most heroic acts are those done quietly, repeatedly, sometimes dutifully, often unwillingly, usually at great personal cost, but always in aid of someone else.
For an example of true heroism in action, watch Sarbajaya in Satyajit Ray’s masterful Apu trilogy – a mother, not always a patient or demonstratively loving one, who perseveres, silently but stoically, for the sake of her children, through poverty, eviction, illness, and death. Or consider Valentine, whose youth and optimism and above all generosity of spirit, bring Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Red to its stunningly embracing and life affirming conclusion. And then there is Elsa, the German war widow in Jean Renoir’s epic masterwork La Grande Illusion, whose kindness to two French soldiers, escapees from a German prisoner-of-war camp, is enough to close the gap between enemy nations. And one more, from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant and disturbing A Separation. Termeh, the shy and book-loving daughter of a divorcing couple, chooses to remain with her father, not because she loves him more or even because she believes he will care for her better than her mother, but because, and this is heartbreaking (she is only a child), she understands that he is the more fragile of the couple; he needs her more. In the midst of this brilliant deconstruction of the mess that class, religious, and gender differences cause grownups to create for themselves and each other, she is a remarkably still and centered beacon of love and reason.
The contributors to this issue’s Short Takes understand, much like the directors of these glorious films, that heroism consists of the small, unselfish, sacrificial acts of the people we hold most dear. They write about mothers and grandmothers, nurses and cab drivers. I have learned from their stories, just as I am learning from the films of the world’s great directors, to appreciate the heroic in the everyday.
We Are Out of Tea
Me, peering out, a timid ghost behind the curtain,
waiting for the brave essential worker to remove
herself from my orbit, lest our spittle slay us.
I step forward and loop the sack handles over my wrists
to haul the booty inside my isolation chamber,
formerly known as my house. Spinach, almond milk,
havarti, eggs, hibiscus tea, carrots, whole grain bread,
and more – funny how a grocery delivery seems like
Christmas morning. I, wife of a man with three
pre-existing conditions, telepathically thank the shopper
and double her tip on the app. The least I can do.
The least I can do. That’s the rub. The least is the most
I can do, coward of necessity, hiding behind heroes
daily risking themselves for my benefit and others’.
I used to volunteer at the shelter. I used to visit friends,
help care for my 83-year-old mother. Now, I hole up,
asking people with fewer resources to drink my cup of risk.
Both my sons are in the FDNY – one is a paramedic, the other is a firefighter. The paramedic tested positive for the virus. He’s at his apartment on Staten Island assuring us that it’s a mild case. On day six of his quarantine, his birthday, we drove there to leave a package of goodies on his stoop: Tylenol, tea bags, Vitamin C, bagels, a funny card, a Colin Quinn book. We waved at him, masked, from our car.
My younger son just wrapped up training at the Fire Academy. Without a graduation, he was assigned to an engine company in Queens. On his second tour, he went to five different homes resulting in five dead bodies – all from this virus. When he comes home, he puts his work clothes in the laundry, takes a shower, and calls up to us from the basement that he’s home. We haven’t hugged him or gotten within six feet of him since late March.
I have a rainbow on my door because someone wrote that it’s a great sign of hope and that little kids will like seeing it. I want little kids to see my door and like it. Someone sent me a post about how Pope Francis suggested a white cloth be tied around doorknobs to signify a prayerful counterattack against having the virus enter my house. I did it immediately, even though my husband rolled his eyes and wondered aloud if I thought we were living in the fourteenth century. Aren’t we, I wondered.
Are my kids heroes? No more than the guy who delivers my mail every day. Or the UPS driver who almost daily makes his deliveries at 7PM, the same time my neighbors and I are out on our front porches banging pots, clapping, hooting, and hollering loud THANK YOUs to all the heroes, near and far, in this time of united concern. Once, he held his phone out so his wife could hear the racket we were making. He had a big smile on his face, and said his wife was grateful to us.
My sons will tell you they are just “doing their jobs.” My nurse friends will say the same. So will the workers at Stop & Shop, the restaurant owners adapting their menus for deliveries instead of in-person dining, the plumbers masking up to come fix a leak in your house. Essential life goes on. Daily acts of solid altruism and necessity are the precursors to heroics. The capacity to be heroic may be built into our DNA. The practice of helping others strengthens our altruistic impulses – it feels good to do good. We don’t have to look far and wide for heroes.
My Father’s Hands
weathered, callused, scarred,
the fingers thick,
one stumped and poorly stitched.
Too young, those hands put books aside
(a widowed mother, farm, two younger boys)
to hold the plow,
the ax and awl,
the hammer, spade, and plane,
to till the land,
so that my hands might hold a stronger tool,
rolled and tied in narrow gold.
“My dream,” he whispered once
(such men do not speak aloud of fantasies)
“was to be a surgeon.”
The fine line between heroes and villains
I stepped into my garden’s sunshine and a cacophony of feathered outrage. For a moment the sheer beauty of the sparrow hawk stole my breath. It was on the grass, close to the circular patio still bare of summer chairs. Then the rest of the scene came into focus.
A desperate shrieking was coming from a terrified young bird pinned to the ground by the hawk’s talons. Two blackbirds, presumably the parents of the captured fledgling, were screeching a strident protest. The local jackdaws were cawing the corvid equivalent of ‘fight, fight!’ like a pack of playground bullies.
My maternal instinct kicked in. I ran towards the hawk. My voice joined the discordant vocal melee.
“Let it go!” I shouted. “Let it go!”
The sparrow hawk froze with indecision. Then it took to the wing, the youngster in its grip screaming and twisting as it was carried into the air. The parents morphed into streamlined missiles, firing themselves at the predator. A lone jackdaw flashed across the garden like a paparazzi photographer darting in for the close-up shot.
Suddenly the fledging was free. It plummeted into a thick clump of Michaelmas daisies.
The hawk and the blackbirds vanished into the greenery behind the fence. The jackdaws melted away, pretending nothing of interest had occurred.
Shocked by the sudden silence and the utter stillness of the garden, I went indoors. From my kitchen window I had a panoramic view.
“Come back,” I whispered, willing the blackbirds to return for their youngster. Nothing moved. A bubble of inertia gripped the garden.
Impatience got the better of me. Was the youngster injured? Or even dead from the shock? I headed outside again, and carefully parted the fresh green leaves of the daisies. I caught a glimpse of movement – a beady eye and the pale yellow of a gaping beak. It was alive! To prove the point, it made a run for it and immediately it was out in the open and took flight. My heart soared in joyful unity; there was no sign of injured wings as it headed for a nearby fir tree.
I headed back indoors, praying the family would reunite. Moments later I told the tale to my husband: “I was going to say I was a hero, saving the little one.” I sighed. “But I guess the sparrow hawk would have a very different opinion. I robbed him of a meal.”
My husband nodded sagely. “Hero or villain – how often does that depend on a point of view?”
Silver Star, Purple Heart
you told me, 92, gripping your walker.
Right next to me, his back
was blown away, I could see his lungs,
I could have been killed.
You never talked about this the years
I was growing up. But when I was nine
you had a nervous breakdown
and wouldn’t get out of bed.
For months we drove every Saturday
from Palmer to Anchorage so you could
see a doctor.
There’s a scar at the corner of your jaw
where the bullet passed through. You think
it causes your headaches and stiff neck.
When my sister visits, she says
you cry out in the night. You say
you can’t shake the loss of your friend.
You say you couldn’t tell his family
You were twenty-one, a Marine on a ship
with your buddies, gliding toward
a deadly island
in the dark night sea
waves rising and falling.
Silently you slid into the water.
They asked for a volunteer
someone to walk in front of the tank
on enemy ground. You’d learned
to jump out of airplanes.
You jumped in front,
leading the way.
Some of your friends lived, came home.
Some of your friends died, never left.
Every one of you lost your self
one way or another,
winning the war.
My Homegrown Hero
“I’m quitting, Ma,” she said over the phone.
Last thing I expected to hear.
She loved the hospital she worked in. And the people she worked with. And they loved her.
Her life hadn’t been easy. Took her years to get her Certified Nursing Assistant certificate. She was finally coasting.
“Did you get fired?” I asked suspiciously.
“No!” She laughed. “And they don’t want me to leave either. So there!”
“Got a better offer?” I was hopeful.
“I think so.” She was thoughtful. “I’ve been there a long time now. I want to do more.”
She took a deep breath. “I’m going to be a traveling nurse.”
“Travelling to where?”
“To wherever COVID is worst at the time. Wherever the local hospitals don’t have enough staff to handle the incoming. To assist in the ICUs, with the ventilators, with anything they’re short-staffed on.”
And just like that, I split in two. One-half of me was so proud of her, I could hardly wait to boast to my friends. My other half was screaming to keep her as far from COVID as possible. And here she was, going into the Navy Seals’ equivalent of nursing assignments.
Eventually, my voice returned.
“Like, worst where?” I stuttered.
“My first contract is for three months in North Dakota. I leave in two weeks.”
Funny, I’d just heard about North Dakota on the news. They were dropping like flies there. And three months meant she’d miss Christmas at home with Jerome.
“Jill…” I croaked.
“I know,” she interrupted. “But they put out a call for help. And I can do so much more there.”
“What about Jerome…?” I started to stack up my arguments.
“He’ll drive up for holiday weekends,” she countered. It was a two-day drive from their home to North Dakota and back, but Jerome hadn’t flinched.
He made the drive three times while she was there. They didn’t even spend Christmas Day together. Jill had volunteered to cover when the hospital couldn’t get anybody else. But the week they’d had together did include Christmas Eve. He left the next morning, as she left for work.
By the time her contract ended, North Dakota had quieted down, and the numbers were rising fast in Florida, thanks to spring break. Florida was mere hours instead of days from where she lived. She signed up right away, more because of all the people she could help immediately than the proximity to her house.
I was so afraid for her. I wanted her back at her quiet old hospital. But I could see that that would be a long time in coming. For now, for as far into the future as she could, she would be plunging into the belly of the beast, wherever the beast was, whenever it appeared.
Somehow, safe stay-at-home that I am, I had raised a real-live hero.
Ferlinghetti Paints Carla Kandinsky
to tell me Lawrence Ferlinghetti died.
I already knew.
Jack Foley had already sent
out an email.
Carla said, “I can’t believe
Ferlinghetti was 101 years old!
You know I used to model
for him at his studio.
He painted a picture of me nude
with a vacuum cleaner,
Emily Dickinson Vacuuming!”
“You’re a lot more voluptuous
than Emily Dickinson was
if my Dickinson genes
are any testimony.
I’m about as flat-chested
as you can get and could
probably fit into Emily Dickinson’s
tiny white housedress!”
And repeated again,
“I still can’t believe he was 101!”
“Mr. Blue Eyes,” I said.
“I remember when he was 99!
He was going to be 102 in March.”
“There’s vigil tonight at City Lights,”
she said, but I know
neither of us will be there.
Rest in peace, dear poet.
Later, I remember
of Ferlinghetti portraits—
And there’s Carla
in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s studio
at Hunter’s Point in San Francisco, 1995.
She’s sitting in an easy chair
covered with a Japanese cloth
straw hat on her head
light drape around her shoulders
revealing voluptuous, drooping breasts
and stomach curves.
She looks, well, she looks bored
or maybe just contemplative
thinking about her next poem
for she is, after all, a poet,
or maybe about her next cleaning job
for she is, after all, a house cleaner too
or about the next apple pie she will bake
for her lover.
Lawrence’s back is to us
at his easel
as he paints his model
in her “relaxed” position—
One arm flung over the back of her chair
one leg raised, supported by the arm rest.
I don’t think his portrait
of Carla is a very good resemblance
but there is something
about the way he captures
the tilt of her head
giving her that regal look
of a sought-after artist’s model
for she has, after all, been painted
by all the Bay Area greats.
Maybe by now
Carla would just like
to get out of her “relaxed” position
for isn’t that a timer
sitting at her feet
to declare her break?
On the page opposite
Lawrence painting Carla
is a face-on portrait of Ferlinghetti
at the De Young Museum, 1996,
wryly pinching his lapel button,
My hero, my grandma
My grandma emigrated to the U.S. from Hungary around the turn of the 20th century. Number six of seven children. Her mother and youngest sibling died during childbirth. But her father married a “girl” half his age, and together they had seven more children.
Illiterate and plagued with life-threatening illnesses, my grandmother became my rock.
Old country tough.
We lived close to each other in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, until my family moved to Canarsie. A few years later she moved across the street.
My high school years were hell.
After spinal fusion surgery and being in a body cast flat on my back for six months, the world I once knew went away. Or rather, I went away. I turned into an overweight, chain-smoking, tough-looking adolescent who didn’t give a damn about school. I dressed in tight sweater blouses and stretch pants, and wore a black leather jacket. My teased hair and bright red lipstick completed my trampy appearance. I was crying out to be noticed. To be visible. No one seemed to hear or see me. Except Grandma.
My hero, my grandma. Every night, I’d visit her to do homework. She’d serve me pure sugar cookies she received from the welfare line as I sat on the sofa bed trying to make sense of my assignments. She’d sit on a hard chair watching TV with the sound off so I could concentrate. A safe haven, unlike the tumult and dysfunction in my home.
Then, we’d play gin rummy. I could see her hand in her glasses and kept showing her how to hold the cards so I wouldn’t see the reflection. She didn’t care. I tried not to look but I couldn’t help it. I’d usually win. She liked it when I won. It’s as if she did it on purpose.
My grandma nursed me back to life. Just by being her.
In her broken English, she instructed me to do well in school, practice the piano, observe the Jewish Sabbath, and wear a kerchief to keep my ears warm.
One evening, the snow came down hard. I thought I could skip a visit.
But a force came over me and I ran across the street without a jacket. Or kerchief.
The smell of gas nearly knocked me out.
“Grandma,” I shrieked. Apparently, she had left the burner on, and having no sense of smell, could not detect a thing.
I turned the gas off and opened all the windows even though it was freezing. I embraced her round body in relief.
“Don’t cry, Ellen Coo,” she said. “Where is your kerchief?”
Years later when I told my brother this story, he told me I saved her life. I corrected him. “No, she saved mine.”
It’s Hard to Reason with the Dead
My maiden aunt, for instance. As the century turned, not this one, the last, whether by choice or default, she was the daughter who didn’t marry, the one who took care of Mother. It was the Irish way. Now she wants to be remembered. Of course, you’re remembered, I remember you, I tell her. You used to take the bus every Tuesday to visit with my mother. And share a cuppa tea, family woes, gifts of soap and toothbrushes, and goodbye hugs before my dad got home. Not good enough, she says, you’re the last one standing and you’re on your way out. That’s not fair, I tell her. Besides, what could I say? Aren’t I the keeper of family secrets, our official eulogist? And, you already showed up in one of my poems. Yeah, as a “peculiar aunt?” You know better than that. Oh, you’re right. I’d forgotten. And the “soul-sucking end.” That the best you can do? I even died on your birthday. Wasn’t that worth something? I guess I do owe you an apology, but it was only a poem. I was universalizing. And particularizing. Which leaves me worse off than before, she says. I remember the bus trips from church you used to take with your tall, spindly friend, to shrines in Canada, D.C. That’s something, at least, she says. And there’s that picture of you leaning against Uncle Pete’s Packard. You must have been 22. Elbows on the sleek hood, elegant in your flowered dress, looking like you’re ready to take on the town. Now we’re getting somewhere, she says.
May you rest in peace, dear Marnie.
During my one pregnancy, a good friend was there for me – not the father (well, there were two possible fathers), and not my sisters (they were worried and, based on my track record for coping with life, not encouraging). An acquaintance quipped, “This is supposed to happen when you’re sixteen, not thirty-five.” He meant to be funny, but I felt ashamed, lonely, afraid.
But Kathleen, when I told her my news, was happy, and helpful. She was the one who told me I would be a wonderful mother. She (who had been my drinking buddy) was supportive of my newfound sobriety.
It was sort of funny. She brought one can of beer when she came over, thinking we could each drink just half. I had to tell her that maybe she could do that, but for me half a beer was just temptation, torture really, that I would crave more and find a way to get it. When she understood that, she started offering juice.
She took me to the thrift store to find long shirts that would work as maternity tops. She gave me the baby clothes her three children had worn, lovingly washed and ironed.
She was the one who encouraged me to breastfeed. At first it seemed weird and unnatural. I didn’t know if I could go through with putting a little human to my nipples for milk. I didn’t understand until I took my newborn in my arms. It was tender and serene. I’m so glad Kathleen was insistent in suggesting it.
She also suggested bringing music to the delivery room with me. I didn’t do that, but I did have it ready when I came home with my baby: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” two of my favorites, and they were perfect for the occasion. I cried, releasing all the fear and tension of nine months, celebrating the new life – two new lives really, my daughter’s, and my own sober life.
Kathleen had cleaned my little two-bedroom trailer, not just the water that had broken and gushed all over the kitchen floor, but every tabletop and corner, making it welcoming. In the baby’s room were her little bed, the rocking chair, the rainbow mobile. In the living room were the flowers from my hospital room, so pretty.
My sisters came back again, and my daughter’s father, too (she has his eyes). Somehow a baby does that, makes miracles.
But it’s been forty years. Kathleen moved away, and I’ve lost track of her.
my non-heroic, non-inspirational tale
is much larger
than the left
in its white bandage
my body bent
forward and to the right
no more catcalls
only blank stares
stares that burn a hole in you
but not in me
i was diagnosed
in middle age
although the symptoms
were apparent since childhood
in 2015 and 2018
first to live
then not to cut my genitals
then not to cut too much
then not to take everything
few wishes are granted
in this life
you say i am a hero an inspiration
the bravest person you know
i am none of these
just an ordinary person
who poops and pees
like everybody else
who has a colostomy
and a urostomy
into plastic bags that stink itch and leak
sometimes gas fills my
colostomy bag so that it looks
like a large balloon under
my clothes that
even my gargantuan tunics
and flare skirts can’t hide
i am tired
of hiding the facts
i have no bladder
no anus no rectum
no ovaries no uterus nor fallopian tubes
no vagina no vulva at all
stretched my skin
and sewed me shut
i named my colostomy stoma
“my meat” (i am a vegan) and my other
i thought of naming my scars
but thought better of it
too busy maybe
am i now the plus in LGBTQAIplus
if not also the B
yet I was an A student
i can’t scratch
my itchy peristomal skin
i can’t put back my clitoris
but i’m here to tell you
i just turned sixty and i’m
alive alive alive
My father has always been my hero. As I grew up, I sought his advice about school, studied his professional demeanor, and even followed his footsteps into a career in higher education. His resumé boasted a thirty-year career in the Army and a fourteen-year career in higher education.
My mother didn’t have a resumé. Her one job had been Assistant Postmistress in her hometown, throughout WWII until she married my father at age 28. As an orphaned teenager she raised four siblings (one a newborn) while her older brother kept the family together, but you wouldn’t put that on a resumé even if you had one. When I was growing up, she was a wife and a mother. She didn’t have a career.
I didn’t look to my mother for advice about school or work (except about dress and manners). Don’t get me wrong: she was an outstanding mother who hosted childhood birthday parties replete with angel food cake (my favorite) and party favors for my friends, made velvet dresses in styles I chose for my junior high school winter dances, accompanied me on grad school interviews so that I could be dropped off without fretting over parking – and more.
My mother knew I loved her and that I was grateful for everything she did for me. But all that she did escaped me at the time. She served as a certified, uniformed Red Cross volunteer in hospitals; co-ran thrift shops at our Army posts; was “Room Mother” every year in my elementary school; co-led my Girl Scout troop; and taught Vacation Bible Schools – all while overseeing 16 moves of the household in 19 years, usually when my father was away. The list of unpaid deeds includes hosting events at the college where my father spent his civilian career, organizing Welcome Wagon activities for community newcomers, registering voters, and taking underprivileged children to the dentist.
It’s taken me a long time to realize that heroes come in various packages. They don’t always have resumés. In fact, there are people with impressive resumés who don’t tirelessly serve the public or practice compassionate citizenship or invest in the lives of children. My mother was definitely hero material. I wish I could tell her that.