My daughter calls me, no Talmudic issue, a simple statement: I don’t know if I’m feeling services this year. I can relate. I myself feel a little like a wandering Jew, not sure where my spiritual affiliation belongs. Call me a seeker. Call me a ‘Jubu’ (i.e., that charming acronym denoting those of us entrenched in the culture of Judaism but exploring/embracing Buddhist ways).
Call me a woman who cannot let Yom Kippur pass without spending some time in a synagogue. What’s the point in fasting, I ask myself, if not to be part of the ritualistic bigger picture? Even crammed into a sanctuary that swells during the holidays, I’m a part of a ritual that connects me to something beyond myself. The Yizkor service in memory of those gone from this world is just one reason to be there, the irony being that what takes the edge off hunger of a physical kind has me hungering for something else.
Just last week a New York Times article re: bringing more meaning and less over-the-top partying to that rite-of-passage known as Bar/Bat Mitzvah struck a chord. How do we keep traditions alive, without too much diluting of them? With each generation further from the fold, how do we celebrate without the ache of what’s gone?
So when my daughter tells me about this thing she’s thinking about doing, Spin-A-Gogue, I laugh out loud, only in L.A. “I’d go with you if I lived out there,” I tell her. “Just for the experience.” Not that she needed my blessing. Only one more thing, I said. If you do go, you have to write about it for my blog. She asked if I was paying ;-), at least for the class. So here it is, a guest blog post. My daughter’s spin on spinning in the Jewish New Year.
Take it away, Sara Dolin.
Man, did the Jewish holidays come up fast this year, am I right? Like usually you say “oh they feel early” or “oh they feel late” but this is like early, early, like still recuperating from Labor Day hot dogs early.
Los Angeles is full of “High Holiday Jews” (like me), and there’s no shortage of places to go—some free, some that make you pay for holiday services. A little Jewish guilt, even 3,000 mile from family, goes a long way. Some years I’ve gone to services with friends feeling the same guilt, some years work has been too busy for me to feel okay about taking off. This year, I was too distracted by life to make plans.
Having spent the better part of the summer hobbling around on crutches (first in a cast, then a walking boot) because of a fractured ankle, the past few weeks of my life have been spent making up for lost time. I was an avid exerciser before injuring myself, so getting emails from all the studios that I would spin at or work out at over the summer was pretty torturous for a girl who had a hard time just taking a shower. This one really got my attention:
“Party like it’s 5774! We’re celebrating the Jewish New Year with Adam Goldstein at the Spin-A-Gogue on Thursday at 9:30 a.m. Ride to the best hits from Jewish artists.”
I knew the class had to be fun, because Adam is a great and energetic teacher. I thought about it: Be a good (holiday) Jew, and go to The Laugh Factory (hahaha I’m not kidding) or the Chai Center on Rosh Hashanah. Or mark the Jewish New Year by bringing myself back to something I’ve missed more than anything.
Growing up, going to temple on the High Holidays was not so much about the religious aspect as it was about seeing your friends from Hebrew School and gathering with families you grew up with. It was a community. You knew exactly who you would see every year.
In spin classes like those offered at Flywheel or Soul Cycle, you’re in a dark, windowless room, with yes, some air circulation, but more importantly a lot of sweat. You’re riding as a pack. Sometimes a teacher will tell you to turn to the person next to you and hi-five them or say something inspirational like “you’re beautiful!” and you buy into it, because the energy is there and you’re feeling it.
Since you’re in the dark, you can also choose to ride solo, which I where I am these days, at the back of the room, because I can’t keep up with everyone the way I used to. Not yet, anyway. It’s not all bad, though, because riding solo is a time to reflect on my personal and physical goals. Spinning has been there to help me work through stress or whatever I’m dealing with in life. It was hard for me to not have an outlet like that this summer, so now it’s more important than ever.
If I was expecting to spin to Mandy Patinkin or Matisyahu, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Any artist with a family member who is Jewish clearly qualifies for the song list. And anyone in the class with me has to be smiling about why we’re here.
Spin is my community, it’s my time for reflection. How about I start the New Year spinning in the dark to Pink, Lenny Kravitz, Adam Lambert and Adam Levine, not alone, not with my family, but with other nomads looking for a little something more from life like me.
Years ago, en route from New York to Japan, I spent a night in Anchorage. It was January; the early-morning landscape when I woke up and looked out the hotel window had me thinking I was on the dark side of the moon. I can’t recall if it was the turbulence as we approached Alaska—the worst I’d ever experienced—or an engine problem that had us in an unanticipated layover but I do recall a conversation with myself: Continue in this state of high anxiety, hands gripping the armrests, or turn on another switch in the brain, take a few deep breaths, ride it out. Bring a different, calmer, energy into the aircraft. Can’t hurt—right? Might even help.
To admit to myself, back when I was young and twentyish and working for a travel magazine, that I don’t like flying never crossed my mind. So what if I had to fly to Honolulu and back to NYC within three days (nothing like a Mai Tai send-off on the return)? Didn’t I fly to Portugal (first class)? Didn’t I make sure to spend a night up at Machu Picchu when I was sent on assignment to Lima?
Now I can say it: there’s nothing to like about flying, especially these days, what with long security lines and delayed flights more the norm than the exception. Sure, I love the places I don’t otherwise get to go; it’s the getting there that gives me pause. By the time you board, you may have already eaten the food that was supposed to get you through the flight. And, no, there’s nothing wrong with your seat—it’s just a little less padded and less pitched than it used to be. All in the interest of cramming more seats into the cabin.
Yes, misery loves company. And my particular misery is not so easily steadied with a few deep breaths in a jam-packed plane. A glass of wine goes a long way.
A few weeks ago, a visit with my daughter, southern California. On the plane, about to taxi to the runway at JFK, glitch #1: Apparently there’s no running water on the plane, a situation that takes about forty-five minutes to rectify. When we arrive in Los Angeles, glitch #2: the chain that secures the aircraft to the jet bridge at the gate is broken. No disembarking until that’s fixed.
Last week, a flight to Sacramento with my husband. A beautiful night for flying, a (mostly) smooth flight. Anytime we hit a pocket of turbulence, I remind myself I’ve been here before. I don’t want/need to understand its cause, I just want it to pass quickly. I have my distractions: books on my iPad, music on my iPhone. Before I know it, we’re getting ready to land. Why, then, do I feel an odd sensation of up up up? Am I supposed to feel reassured when that honeyed voice of the captain tells us the aircraft ahead of us was a little slow in landing and federal regulations require a certain distance between our aircraft and the one in front us?
Now comes the kicker, my flight back home, a red-eye with a female captain at the helm (not a big deal except that it’s a first for me). We’re at the back of the plane and sitting behind us is a boy who I figure to be eight or nine years old. Talking in a boyish, loud voice that has me worrying I may never shut my eyes. I don’t (yet) know whether he’s a child traveling by himself or with a companion. All I know is that he’s much too chatty for a midnight flight. I’ve already drank as much wine as I can for the night. And his talk talk talk has me in a state of quiet alarm:
“I’ve flown 94 times. First time I was two weeks old.”
“Have you ever been in a plane crash? I was in one. Over water. We had to go down a chute. We survived.” He says this all in a matter-of-fact way, just another Disney ride, thrills and chills. A man across aisle looks at me, and smiles when I remark, “Borderline cute.” A woman two aisles down gets the flight attendant’s attention, asks her to please say something to the boy.
Fortunately he sleeps most of flight.
I don’t sleep a wink.
No sooner does night become day than I hear his voice.
“I can’t wait to see my dad.” As soon as we’re on the ground he’s on the phone with mom. “We landed, you know, when you’re in the plane on the runway and they say you can turn on your cell phones. The girl sitting near me is also flying by herself. I love you, too.”
Then comes the call to dad, picking him up at the airport. “We’re on the runway. Can’t wait to see you.”
I stand up, take a minute to get a good look at him, ask him about his flight. He has an engaging smile. tells me he’s nine years old and that he’s flown 24 times. It’s possible that I misheard him earlier and/or he exaggerated when he was talking to the girl sitting next to him.
I do not ask about the plane crash.
We live in a culture that glorifies the same things it trivializes. Back in May 2010, Vanity Fair ran a profile of Christian Louboutin, “The Godfather of Sole.” No surprise to see the roster of rock stars and royalty for whom a pair of his artful shoes is pocket change. Danielle Steele, according to the article, has 6,000 pairs. That Toni Morrison owns (at least) one pair brought a big smile to this writer’s heart.
From Cinderella’s glass slipper to Dorothy’s ruby red pair, shoes are nothing if not symbolic of everything from the psychological and historical to the erotic and obsessive. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim tells of those not-for-popular-consumption versions of Cinderella in which the stepsisters engage in foot mutilation, hoping to make the shoe fit. These days we have foot surgeons. I don’t know any women who would go to the extremes of shortening a toe or two, but bunion surgery is something more than one friend of mine has had or contemplates.
More to the point, a man engaged in an 11-hour filibuster would have to be wearing some pretty fancy (out-of-character) footwear for it to garner any attention at all and, even then, it would not hold a candle to what the pair of pink sneakers worn by Wendy Davis has come to embody. Yes, we pay a great deal of attention to what women in the public eye wear. We home in on the pearl necklace, the tailored jacket, the pin on a lapel. Image is everything. We play down what remains hidden. Tweeting about pink sneakers is sexier than tweeting about the back brace Senator Davis wore so she wouldn’t have to lean on anything as she stood her ground.
God really is in the details. A pair of shoes says as much about the woman wearing them as it does about the world in which she lives. What makes this story such a timeless one (albeit with a 21st century spin) is the way it meshes the political with the personal and turns a pair of sneakers into a symbol of solidarity for pro-choice supporters. Within days of Wendy Davis’s extraordinary filibuster, those pink running shoes (Mizuno Wave Rider 16) became the best-selling shoes on Amazon. (Never mind that Mizuno President Robert Puccini is an RNC supporter). Even if the mock reviews on Amazon try a little too hard, who can resist the obvious allusions shoes give rise to: comfortable ones like these truly are made for walking. Easy to picture thousands of women kicking ass in them, standing up for a right as inalienable as it gets. Or pounding the pavement for their hero if she makes that leap into the Texas gubernatorial race. So pretty in pink.
Once upon a time, as an ancient tale about the origin of shoes goes, there was a princess who stubbed her toe on a root sticking out of the ground while she was walking. To keep this from happening to anyone else in the kingdom, the princess wanted the prime minister to issue an edict declaring that all roads be paved in leather. The savvy prime minister knew there was nothing the king wouldn’t do for his daughter so he came up with a plan that would satisfy the princess without bankrupting the kingdom, namely, cutting and shaping pieces of leather that could be fitted to the foot.
And so it was—form and function laced into the fashioning of shoes, sensible ones at that. It’s a curious, rich, fascinating story that shoes can tell, one worthy of a museum. If you build it they will come, and, indeed they do to the Bata Shoe Museum in downtown Toronto. There’s no old woman living inside of this stylized shoebox made of limestone, glass, and steel and designed by Raymond Moriyama, but it is a treasure trove of footwear through the ages. Its most recent exhibition just happens to explore the rise of sneaker culture.
In the grand scheme of memorable moments, riding a two-wheeler for the first time is the gold standard, the one that puts me in a place and time against which so much else is measured. I can see the bike (blue and white), myself in the seat. The focus, the balance, the breeze. The closest thing to flying. As a metaphor, “like riding a bike” encompasses that thing once learned and never forgotten. Leave it to Albert Einstein to bring even another dimension with his quote: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”
Recently, it hit me, a revelation of sorts: there’s no riding that bike without someone running alongside, holding on to the seat. Until the moment of letting go. Trust is a good thing. We ride, we fall, we get back on.
There’s an innocence to it all, and it goes with the territory of summertime, freewheelin’ days, school’s out, the light in the sky at 8 p.m. always a wonder. Innocence slips, experience brings caution. And if we’re lucky, every summer brings it all back home, the moments missed but never lost to us. In that jigsaw of life, there is a striving toward order, making the pieces fit.
The art of the jigsaw begins with a frame. Four corners to anchor the picture that will take shape. In that jigsaw of our lives, we have four seasons that, before we gave names to them, were a driving force all their own. These days we have Thanksgiving to define autumn, Christmas/Chanukah to define winter, July 4th to define summertime, give it an anchor. Celebrate. Dance to the music.
Not that I’m complaining. Seeing fireworks always makes me feel like a kid again. And the sound and light show I’m treated to each year since I’ve been spending the 4th with friends at their lake house is as good as it gets. This year brought the added pleasure of my two dearest long-time friends visiting for the holiday. We partied, went to movies—the exquisitely nuanced Fill the Void and quietly powerful The Attack. Both had their poignant and haunting moments. Each, in its own way, was a reminder of the complexities of personal/cultural identity in the Middle East. Both had love at their core: sometimes it opens our eyes, sometimes it blinds us. Yes, we did a little shopping, too. And (duh) we talked.
Sunday, friends gone, I ease back into routines. First some cleaning up, then a few sun salutations in the bright and airy guest room that doubles as my personal yoga studio. The phone rings. Sometimes, when I’m near the end of my practice, I’ll run down to answer it. This time I let it ring. Five times. I figure my husband is either outside or napping. Whoever called will call back.
It’s near dinnertime, another phone call, during which the power goes out. There’s only so much stress the utilities grid can handle in a heat wave. My husband and I decide to skip the not-yet-made salad and head out, hopeful that this is not a widespread outage, three of four hours if I were to wager. I turn off my cell phone to conserve battery power and we head down to a favorite Mexican restaurant. A little tequila always does the trick. Back in the car after dinner, I turn on my phone, a text from my daughter: Call me as soon as you get this. I broke my ankle. By my calculation that would have been the phone call earlier in the day that I missed.
It’s a sunny Father’s Day and my husband (thousands of miles from his daughter) is busy making the hill next to our house beautiful. Planting. Weeding. Watering. I’m on the deck watching. In the background is the perfect CD for the moment, Keith Jarrett, Bye Bye Blackbird. The title song is one I can never listen to without seeing/hearing my father, onstage at a wedding or a bar mitzvah when the band took a break, a drink or two to loosen him (not that he needed it), microphone in hand.
In the way that real life becomes the stuff of fiction, I used his love of singing (and a young daughter’s reaction to it) as the premise of a story. What better way to celebrate the day than to post a link to My Father’s Voice.
And speaking of fiction, another story of mine recently placed third in the Women’s National Book Association 2013 Writing Contest. What makes this all the more gratifying is that it was the first of what’s to become an annual contest.
Unlike the fictional father in the story, mine was a gambling man, and it’s taken me many years to recognize what I have of his, namely the gambling spirit of a writer. At the same time, I hear my mother’s voice as well: you live long enough you see everything.
In the best of all possible worlds I’d be in a state of presence 24/7, that in-the-moment place where time really has no measure, here and now one and the same. Not that those six turtles sunning themselves on a log don’t stop me dead in my tracks when I’m walking around the lake, (almost) a slave to that spinning turntable of thoughts. Or that the unmistakable sound of a heron taking flight doesn’t make me turn around. Just to watch it soar. Is it possible that, only now, ten minutes into my walk, I’m first hearing the birds, one song so different from another? The leaves on the trees are dappled with sunlight today, the air, after days of rain, makes me lift my nose like a dog. I don’t want to miss a thing.
And, yet, no sooner am I past the turtles and the heron than the volume on the turntable pumps itself up, a force all its own taking me out of the moment. On my mind is a family wedding, with its anxious mix of melancholy and joy. Melancholy for what’s gone—those aunts/uncles/cousins/grandparents, my mother and father—whose presence at any family gathering was a reminder that rituals (for better or for worse) were a kind of glue that held us together. Joy for what’s to come, a bride and groom in love, all the promise of a fresh beginning.
In the next best possible of all worlds, I’d leave anxiety out of the mix, the qualifier riddled with what we keep to ourselves—the echoes of gatherings just like this in the past, family dramas cast into the shadows of glittering gowns and crisply pressed suits. We drink to forget, eat to remember. Schmooze to keep the dark spirits at bay, dance to be lifted by the lighter ones.
Just like this . . . but not exactly. This wedding is an Orthodox Jewish one, a three-part affair. First the reception, where the bride sits on a ‘throne’ surrounded by women—until the moment the groom is brought to her, at which time a veil is placed over her face. The bride and groom know each other’s faces well by now, but this touch of symbolism is to put physical attraction in its place, raise the bar on the deeper bond marriage is supposed to signify. It’s enough to bring tears to anyone, including the bride herself.
Next, the ceremony outdoors, under a Chuppah (canopy), fortunately a beautiful May day. Then back to the reception room for dinner. A makeshift wall separates the men and women, making two parties of one celebration. Drinking and nibbling, we wait for the bride and groom, who have had their first brief encounter, alone in a room, as husband and wife. When they arrive, the women greeting the bride, the men greeting the groom, a cousin of mine says it outright: “Wouldn’t you want to dance with your husband at your wedding?” A cousin of the bride brings a different kind of wisdom to the plate: “Barely five months from being engaged to being married, and not to someone she knew for much longer. Couldn’t they have waited?” This is no idle gossip. These are words rooted in experience and observation and love. Another wedding, similar circumstances and the dialogue would not differ by much. I easily hear echoes of my aunt (the bride’s grandmother) and my mother.
Everybody’s got an opinion, a frame of reference, views that change over the years (or not). Even if it’s hard to fathom, as in this case, how a twenty-three-year-old brought up in a modern world has chosen to embrace a very Orthodox way of living so rooted in the past, we celebrate. More to the point: Is there any ritual that better embodies past/present/future than a wedding?
What’s gone is gone. And, yet, all I have to do is look into the eyes of a favorite cousin of my mother’s, frailer with age but as beautiful as ever, to know that every moment we live encompasses every moment that came before.
Her husband has Alzheimer’s. He greets me with a big smile of recognition and a hug. He dances with my brother and the groom. I stand at the threshold that separates the men from the women, no sin in looking. I snap a photo or two. A different kind of joy.
And those girls, so many of them, dolled up in their pretty pretty dresses! Hard not to be reminded of myself, a flower girl at the wedding of the very cousin of my mother’s sitting next to me.
* * *
The weekend following the wedding finds me in Newport, RI, celebrating the 60th birthdays of two of my husband’s childhood friends. I’ve been to Newport twice before, the first time for a romantic winter weekend in 1982 with the man who would become my husband. Years later, a trip with my daughter and a good friend, both in high school at the time. Walking the cobblestone streets now with friends has me somewhere between a dream and déjà vu: we visit familiar sites, eat lobster roll at a shack on the beach, drink the best martini (hibiscus) at a place called Yesterday’s. I kid you not.
You can’t go to Newport without visiting Cliff Walk, the three-and-a-half-mile stretch overlooking the ocean, some of it closed off because of hurricane damage. The mansions gated and set back from the cliffs may be a reminder of opulence but the ocean belongs to everyone, the view even more beautiful with age.
Home now, unpacking, easing back into reality (whatever that is), settling down for some Sunday night TV. There are any number of movies we can watch via DVR but the one that fits the mood best happens to be on network TV. So much to love about Back to the Future—its spirit, Michael J. Fox so young and handsome and Jack-be-nimble as it gets, Christopher Lloyd in the role he was made for. Not to mention the overriding message: one moment—make a left turn instead of a right, say no instead of yes to a date—and everything turns out so differently.
There was nothing but white, yet it was never the same white, but all the different tones of white, competing together, contrasting with and complementing each other, achieving the brilliance of light itself.
— Émile Zola, Au Bonheur des Dames
When my daughter was a young girl she had a favorite white dress, one she wore (almost) to death. Linen and lace and, yes, a blue satin sash at the waist. The kind of garment you give a lot of thought to buying before you actually do, weighing the inevitable smears of chocolate against the pricey preciousness. Suffice it to say we got more than our money’s worth. A girl, if you let her be, has a style very much a reflection of who she is, even at five. (True, the same can be said of boys, especially these days, but there’s more variety to what a girl can wear, which ups the ante a bit.) Some of it remains consistent over the years. Some of it not so much.
Style may be more subtext than subject in the tantalizing, soon-to-close exhibit at the Metropolitan Musem of Art, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, but the white dress in more than one gorgeous painting simply pops. Bringing attention to something has a way of reminding you it was always there, but raised now to a level of artistic note, it speaks to the reality that perspective runs much deeper than an artist’s eye. There’s color, too, of course, in all of its Impressionist warmth. And black in its elegance and sensuousness. Like any exhibition, this one comes with a point of view.
At last the subject matter of art includes the simple intimacies of everyday life in its repertoire. —Edmond Duranty, The New Painting, 1876
Down the hall, another gallery, a bit of time traveling connected by the theme of fashion. Punk: Chaos to Couture in no way measures up to the blockbuster Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (apparently the eighth most popular show in Met history) but it’s a trip so worth taking—a needed jolt in these troubled political times to remind us of the statements made by what we choose to wear. Not to mention the designer forces that gave rise to them. In the words of Vivienne Westwood, who, with her partner Malcolm McLaren, pretty much defined punk style: “The best way to confront British society was to be as obscene as possible.” There’s a lot of black here, and the signature DIY look —ripped jeans, studs and safety pins, bricolage, etc., and with it the suggestion of ways in which high-fashion designers coopted a look borne of working class Britain and middle class U.S.A. Gold safety pins on the shoulder of a sinewy Gianni Versace crepe-de-chine dress may not exactly render it punk, but the point is well taken. And Gareth Pugh’s ball gown made of folded strips of black plastic trash bags layered to look feathery is a statement all its own, echoing, with style and humor, those grand gowns of another time (minus the organ-damaging corsets).
Black, the color (or lack thereof) against which others are measured, as in ‘orange is the new black’ (a phrase cleverly taken as the title of Piper Kerman’s reflection on her year in a women’s prison), the irony being that a seasonal color trend is measured against the wardrobe staple for which there is no season. Timeless, basic black.
If it was, indeed, a stroke of good timing that had me seeing these two exhibits on the same day, their lingering effect calls up a truism from the Talmud (alternately attributed to Anaïs Nin): We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.
Nestled among small purses lined up on a shelf in my closet is a green wallet I use from time to time, my mother’s, one of the things I kept after she died. A pattern of tiny diamonds gives texture to the leather, a cross between emerald and evergreen. Tiered slots for credit cards and a zipper compartment for dollar bills make for a slim, elegant clutch. It was a present from me, one of her birthdays. Except for the tiniest hint of wear along the edge, it looks almost new. More than once over the years I teased her about the wallets multiplying in a drawer of her bedroom dresser, some gifts, some purchases of her own, none of them ever what they seemed at first. Call it a variant of the Goldilocks syndrome; Change purses with snap clasps that get stuck. Billfold wallets looking bloated by the time they start bending to your will. This one, made in Italy, was designed to last.
Whatever slips of paper there were in the wallet – sales receipts, a lottery ticket or two – I let stay, along with an AARP card that would outlive my mother. To my thinking they were part of the package, pieces of a puzzle that would continue to contain her presence. If memory serves me well, there may have been a few dollars in it, now gone. A wallet, in its intimacy, is nothing if not a repository for what we hold valuable at its most basic, day in/day out, as personal as it gets. There were no photos in the wallet; she had a separate compact holder for snapshots. Treasured moments at weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. Wallet-size portraits of smiling grandchildren neatly groomed, that classic blue background, picture day at school.
Like stories at their most multi-layered, when I open this wallet, another one, stolen years earlier, always comes to mind. Of all the things taken from my mother – the credit cards and the cash – it was the loss of something far less quantifiable that troubled her most. My very first published poem, ‘The Raindrop” or “Raindrop” or “Raindrops” – who can remember and does it really matter? – cut out from a mimeographed elementary school newsletter. This much I do remember clearly: the paper on which that newsletter, with its inimitable typewriter font celebrating the purest of all creative minds, young boys and girls, was green. Until the poem was lost, I can’t even say I knew she carried it with her. It’s a funny thing, the color that pride can take on, and how, in the hands and heart (and wallet) of a mother, the object of that pride is rendered a secret treasure.
* * *
It’s a beautiful Sunday morning. I head out for a walk, my husband gets ready for a day of golf. No special plans for me, which is just fine. A little reading, a little cleaning up, a nice dinner at home later, leftover grilled chicken and steak to be tossed into a salad, a glass or two of wine. Mother’s Day just the way I like it. My daughter has already decided to pamper me, a gift certificate to a local spa.
All the more reason to be surprised when I return from my walk to see a a Dooney & Bourke gift bag on my desk, a card from my ‘#1 and #1A Admirers’ tucked inside. The irony of receiving a beautiful new wallet within days of drafting a reflection on a memory-laced one is hardly lost on me. Some gifts really are priceless.Without wasting a moment, giddy and smiling, I start to fill my wallet – credit cards and museum cards, my driver’s license. Dollar bills and loose change. A favorite old snapshot (or two or three) of my daughter.
In the early months following the attacks on The Satanic Verses and the ensuing fatwa, Salman Rushdie finds himself questioning the very thing that had been one of his greatest joys, namely, being a writer. As he tells it in his chronicle of that extraordinary time, Joseph Anton, “If one spent five years of one’s life struggling with a large and complex project . . . and if, when it came out, it was received in this distorted, ugly way, then maybe the effort wasn’t worth it.” It’s his son, Zafar, who brings him back to himself, with a reminder of a promise: “Dad, what about my book?”
The book, culled from bath-time stories he had told Zafar, “dropped into his head like a gift.” And, yet, he admits, there would be many false starts to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, until he gets the right first sentence and, in doing so, recalls Joseph Heller once telling him about the way in which a single sentence can give rise to a book. “There were sentences that one knew, when one wrote them, contained or made possible dozens or perhaps even hundreds of other sentences.”
I couldn’t say it better myself.
—The last time I saw my mother I was propped on a phone book in a red leather chair at Jeanie’s Hair Salon.
It’s a good guess I was sitting in a hair salon when the line popped into my head. It’s an equally good guess there was no young girl sitting in a hairdresser’s chair. Whatever it was that brought that line and image into the deeper recesses of my brain had me curious enough to take it further. It’s the reason I write.
Turns out this would become a story about a young girl abandoned by her mother and raised by Jeanie, the hairdresser. In its more symbolic component, “Hair” is very much about identity.
Is it odd, or not so odd, that, with Mother’s Day approaching I should happen to read two books, back-to-back, connected by the thread of the motherless child? William Talmadge, the title character of The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin’s dazzling first novel, is twelve when his mother dies and he’s left with his younger sister to care for two ailing Gravenstein apple trees that would, indeed, yield fruit, ‘starter’ trees, in a way, for an orchard that would expand to many acres. In the novel’s poetic, sometimes harsh depiction of late nineteenth/early twentieth century life in the Pacific Northwest, there’s no dwelling on the mother whose death, like any mother’s, leaves a hole. If anything, it’s his sister’s mysterious disappearance when she’s sixteen that has a deeper impact: “He did not articulate it as such, but he thought of the land as holding his sister—her living form, or her remains. . . . He was giving her earth, to feed her in that place that was without it. “
All of which becomes a backstory to the day two teenage sisters, both pregnant, runaways from abuse, show up in Talmadge’s orchard. Their story becomes his. One will die, leaving behind an infant. The other, Della, will give birth to a stillborn, and the surrogacy of her sister’s child that falls to her will turn out to be as confusing as it is unsatisfying. Once Della’s preoccupation with horses takes hold, there’s no holding her back, and Talmadge is left to raise Angelene, the girl without a mother or even an aunt who might claim her. In chapters that alternate between Della’s life away from the orchard and the life Talmadge has made for himself and Angelene, a very compelling story in which the landscape itself becomes a metaphor for loneliness and nurturing takes shape.
The absence of a mothering presence, and its impact, may be subtle in The Orchardist but it’s there, a backdrop to the emotional wounds and rugged survival of the main characters. In Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride, a richly hued novel worlds apart from Amanda Coplin’s in terms of mood, setting, and style, the child left motherless takes center stage. What starts out as a story about a Jewish woman just arrived in Montreal in the wake of WWII (expecting to marry one man, only to end up marrying his brother) becomes as much, if not more, the story of the daughter she would abandon. In alternating chapters, the narrative shifts from a third-person perspective revealing more and more about Lily Azerov Kramer, the bride who mysteriously disappears two months after her daughter is born, and the first-person voice of Ruth, the daughter trying to make sense of the mother who walked away from her family. Why she left, who she really is, the uncut diamond in her possession that raises suspicion in a jeweler/friend, the packages she sends (beautiful rocks from places she’s been) as birthday presents to Ruth become pieces of a puzzle to fit together.
Early on in his memoir, Salman Rushdie reflects on the nature of being a migrant (i.e., a “Bombay boy” living in London) and how it got him rethinking the novel that would become Midnight’s Children. It boiled down to grappling with authenticity, the need “to make an act of reclamation of the Indian identity he had lost, or felt he was in danger of losing.” Is there some irony, bittersweet as it is, in that the first story I would publish, “Shoes,” was one that could not be written until after my mother died?
My mother, in her wisdom, would say it simply: timing is everything.
All of which makes it all the more odd that, as I put the finishing touches on this piece singing the praises of two wonderful new books and what I believe they have in common, I turn on the radio to hear Richie Havens singing at Woodstock, the line from his song, “Freedom” (“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”), ringing truer and louder than ever.