Sometimes, it’s fun — and occasionally necessary — to see where we came from so that we can have some perspective on today’s battles. Just by chance, browsing through a table of free used books, I picked up a science fiction novel called Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair, copyright 1963. I don’t remember ever reading one of her works (although I read so much science fiction/fantasy when I was a teenager that I may simply not remember the book). But besides the interest of reading something new that was published back then, I knew I immediately had to take the book when I turned it over and looked at the blurb on the back cover.
And had to show it off. This was considered a positive way to market a skiffy book by somebody who was female and actually admitted to it by not changing her name or using initials. Women are writing science fiction! Really! And because they are closer to the primitive than men, they possess a buried memory of humankind’s past! So this has gotta be a great book!
(Actually, this is apparently one of the earliest uses of Wiccan themes in a speculative fiction novel, so the marketing is understandable. But still…)
Recently, my mother moved out of the home she had lived in for about 40 years. It was not a home I had many emotional ties with, except for the fact that my mother and father (and occasionally, my brother) had lived there. My parents moved there when I was attending an upstate university, and as a result, except for a couple of summers and a period of about a year just after I graduated from college, I never really considered it my home.
So when, after a rather prolonged period of showing and bargaining and selling and buying, my mother finally moved out, I felt some sadness — after all, it was associated with my family; my father had loved that house and had died in it; it was where I had stored the remaining souvenirs of my childhood and adolescence. But it wasn’t where I had grown up — that happened in a couple of different housing projects in Brooklyn — and so once the difficult process was over, I thought I was done with it.
I now know that wasn’t true.
When my parents moved into the house, they made some changes to the inside. They totally refurbished the kitchen; they painted and carpeted; they removed a large mirror from over the fireplace and installed two lighting sconces; they cleaned the unused fireplace and turned it back into a wood-burning fireplace.
The garden was a different matter. There was a multitude of things growing in that garden, and my parents kept it, loved it, tended it, and added to it.
The house is located on the back of a corner lot. A huge blue spruce towered over it on the left side; the tree was at least twice as high as the house itself, if not taller, and we had no idea how long it had been growing on that site. It was magnificent. The lowest branches hung outside the dining room window, and my father hung a bird feeder there so he could watch the finches and sparrows (and squirrels) at breakfast. The tree’s needles clogged the drains and the branches had to be constantly cut away from the neighbor’s driveway, but my parents didn’t care.
A smaller tree was next to it; I don’t remember the name, but in the fall it opened large, purple-blue blossoms that I could see outside my bedroom window. One tree near that one died soon after my parents moved in; my brother and father planted another that blossomed white in the fall; it grew and thrived.
On the left side of the front lawn there was a flagpole; my father, who was a veteran of the European campaign in World War II and a determined left-winger, would fly a flag on all appropriate occasions and made sure that it was folded properly and put away in regulation fashion. Around the flagpole, they planted bushes and marigolds and hyacinths and whatever flowers took their fancy that year.
There were vines and bushes out front, bushes lined the entire lawn. There was a rose bush growing against the side of the garage; there were herbs growing in back.
On the right side of the house there was a pear tree which, for the first 20 years or so, grew plentiful and very edible pears; we would stand on the flat roof of the garage and gather as many as we could. A parakeet and my much-loved cat were buried under its branches. After about 20 years, the pear tree caught a disease which it never completely recovered from, although my father nursed it tenderly. It never grew pears again, but we kept it nonetheless.
After my father died, I’d go with my mother every spring to a large gardening store a few miles away and we’d pick out the annuals that would go under the flagpole and in front of the house and on the side, and the herbs that would grow in back. As the years went on, we became less ambitious in how much we planted, but there were always marigolds around the flagpole and herbs in the back.
When we sold the house — to two adult brothers and their older parents — we were told at one point that they planned to remove the huge spruce because they were afraid their parents would trip on the roots. We tried to dissuade them, told them (and this was the truth) that when Sandy hit, my mother’s was the only roof in the area that didn’t suffer any damage, and the roofer said it was probably because the tree had protected the house. But I knew that the lovely tree would probably go.
What I didn’t know was that the entire garden was going to be a sacrifice to our desertion.
Out of curiosity, I drove past the house yesterday. The tree was indeed gone. In fact, everything was gone — the bushes surrounding the garden, the tree with the blue-purple blossoms, the tree my father and brother had planted, the ivy, the bushes, the rose bush…. In fact, the only thing still there was the flagpole; the only thing growing was the pear tree. Which, I suspect, may not be there much longer either.
My parents’ house was never truly my home; I never made friends there and never wanted to live there. I have some good memories there; but I have good memories associated with other places long gone.
But I mourn the garden. It was a lovely and loved place. I hope whatever takes its place is worthy of its memory.
So I’m going through some very old stuff that I kept in a trunk in my room in the house where my mom just moved out of, and found a few really old Playbills (I’ve got a huge number of them in a drawer here, but didn’t realize that I had kept a few older ones there).
Among other things, I discovered that I did not, as I thought, see Herschel Bernardi as Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof in March, 1967 — there is one of those notes in the program that apologizes because Bernardi was ill; the role was played by Harry Goz. However, that was made up for by the fact that the role of Tzeitel, the oldest daughter, was played by Bette Midler. Who knew?
And two years earlier, I had seen Bernardi in the musical Bajour (which I actually have some vague memories of, because there is a comic song sung by an anthropologist who talks about the places she doesn’t want to go, including one line about “the tse-tse fly,” which I remember thinking was hilarious). Other people in Bajour: Harry Goz (yes, the same guy I saw in Fiddler two years later), Paul Sorvino, Nancy Dussault (who I saw in The Sound of Music a couple of years earlier than that), Mae Questel (yes — the “Betty Boop” Mae Questel) and Chita Rivera.
Bajour was my 11th birthday treat (each year, I was given the choice of a party or a musical and I usually chose the latter). I just wish I could go back into my own head at age 11 and see it again, now that I’d be more aware of who the actors were…
The year 2014 has been, so far, a real bastard. There have been too many people lost to death, most too early — some so far before their time that it makes me ashamed.
There was my cousin Jennifer Greene, a wonderful singer and the mother of a vibrant little boy named Ari, who found out she had cancer before her baby was even weaned.
There was the incandescent Margot Adler, one of the most talented and generous spirits it has ever been my privilege to know. With Margot, I’m still in a vague sort of denial and sometimes find myself thinking, “We should call Margot and ask if she wants to meet and see that weird new movie” a second or two before I remember we can’t. (And I still miss her husband John Gliedman, who died several years ago, a friend and colleague of mine.)
And there have been the writers whom I didn’t know well, or didn’t know personally, but whom I admired for what they wrote and who they were — authors such as Lucius Shepard, Jay Lake and now Eugie Foster, who died this morning at the age of 42.
There is nothing that can be said. Losses like these are both sad and incredibly infuriating. All I can do is extend my sympathies to their friends and families, and try to live a life worthy of their memories.
The last time I paid children’s rates for anything was when I was 16, and spending a tedious, uncomfortable hot summer afternoon at my grandmother’s while my parents took my younger brother to the doctor.
My grandmother lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, not too far from Erasmus High School; she had moved there after my grandfather died some years earlier. There was nothing on television (and anyway, her apartment wasn’t air conditioned, so it was very uncomfortable), I knew nobody in the neighborhood, and I was bored in the restless way that teenagers can be.
I wandered the main shopping street, which was practically deserted — perhaps everyone was away at the beach, or perhaps it was a holiday of some sort, I don’t remember. Just remember the discomfort, the boredom, and finally the conviction that the only thing to do was find an air-conditioned movie theater and camp out there for a couple of hours.
I found it, and it was playing the latest horror film, Williard. I had no objection to seeing that — was sort of curious, actually — but I had exactly $1 in my pocket, enough for a half-price ticket, but not enough for an adult ticket.
So I went up to the box office, pushed my dollar bill through to the lady on the other side of the window and said, “One child’s ticket, please.”
She glared sternly at me from her throne in the booth. “How old are you?” she asked suspiciously.
I dropped my eyes and looked abashed. “I’m almost 12,” I muttered. The woman stared at me for another moment and then gave me the ticket.
I really enjoyed that movie.
So on Monday, Jim and I decided we really needed a break and went to see Guardians of the Galaxy. It was a hot, damp evening and the last few weeks had been really difficult.
We drove over to the Sheepshead Bay Cinema, parked, had some rather good fried fish in the small fish restaurant across the way from the theatre, and then walked in. There was only one other couple on line — Mondays seem to be really slow — and when we asked for the tickets (Imax, 3-D, and yes, air-conditioning), the kid on the other side of the plexiglass window stared at us and asked, “Senior discount?”
We shook our heads, but then Jim asked, “How old do you have to be for senior discount?”
“Sixty, ” the kid said.
We looked at each other. “Yes,” Jim said. “Senior discount.”
Pete Seeger has been part of my life ever since I was very young, and my parents played the Weavers singing “Good Night, Irene” to signal it was time for me to go to bed. I’ve been to a few of his concerts, but I only remember meeting him once.
Back around 1982, my attempt to be a full-time freelance writer was flagging badly, and I was in a training program to become a sign language interpreter. I volunteered to be an interpreter at the Clearwater Festival that year — but when I got there, I wasn’t in a very good mood. I had just failed my final exam (my interpreting skills were excellent, I was told, but my language skills didn’t make the grade), and I told the volunteer coordinator that I would prefer not to do any stage work, since my skills weren’t up to that. She promised that I could just do standby work at the medical tent and information booths.
Well, that didn’t last long — an hour or two later, I was informed that they were short-handed, and that I was going to have to interpret for at least one stage performance. “Don’t worry,” I was told. “It’s a bunch of banjo players; so you’ll just have to do introductions.”
Yeah, it was a bunch of banjo players — doing a workshop, so it was an hour of people talking about banjo technique. I tried to keep up, but was completely overwhelmed; the only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that, at the same time, the National Theatre of the Deaf was doing a performance at another stage, so the chances that my services were actually needed were little to none. It didn’t help that, after the performance, a bunch of hearing people who obviously hadn’t a clue told me what a great job I had done. I felt completely useless.
That night I was camped out in the volunteer section and wondering how I’d make it through the weekend when Pete Seeger came by with a couple of other singers. They sat by the campfire and just sang two or three songs and then he told us all how valuable our contributions were, no matter what we were doing. I had grown up listening to his records and so he was something of a legend to me, but he spoke directly and sincerely. He believed it, and so did we.
After a while, he and the other singers moved on to the next area in the volunteer section. I stopped nursing my bruised ego, and started enjoying the festival and just doing the best I could under the circumstances.
Pete Seeger touched thousands of lives, and will continue to do so.