I’m up again. Fatherhood seems to be somewhat of a theme for me as of late!
Hearing about the demise of my Yiddisher bube was like being socked in the kishkas, you see she had been dead to me for as long as I could remember, written out of society, the best kept secret there ever was.
I was sixteen when I heard the news. These were the things that struck me: If only I had known that I had a bube who lived and breathed just twenty something miles away, I could have visited her. I was old enough to have taken the train to Banstead, to walk the two miles from the station to the mental hospital that was tucked away beyond the woods, invisible from the road.
Upon entry to the mock gothic building with its red brick turrets and barbed wire surrounds, I might have found her working in the laundry, folding sheets or starching the doctors’ coats, because that’s what the women inmates did. At one o’clock in the afternoon I could have accompanied her on the daily constitutional around the spacious grounds, held her hand and squeezed it to let her know I was there.
My bube’s name was Klothilde Raudnitz. It was a hard sounding name with too many consonants for my liking. Maybe it had been shortened to Tilly. I hoped so. Tilly sounded soft and round and altogether more modern. After my bube’s death, I thought about her a lot, and I missed her. I didn’t think it was possible to miss someone you never knew.
I wondered what we had in common, Klothilde, incarcerated for almost forty of her eighty-one years, and me. Did her hair curl like mine around her temples? Was it due to her that I had gold-green eyes? And what of my varicose vein, or my love for the written word? Might I, in my moments of melancholia have been hospitalized like her, had I been born two generations earlier?
After some research and many years of prying questions, this is what I know for sure about my bube. She hailed from Vienna, Austria, where she was born in 1901. The youngest of three children, she lost her sister in a toboggan accident when it crashed into a tree. Klothilde was riding with her and suffered a concussion. The event was said by many to account for her “strangeness” thereafter.
By the time she married my English grandfather, the only relative she had left was her beloved brother Kurt. She wanted to take him with her to London on that last boat out of war-torn Eastern Europe, but it was impossible, and he was turned back at the border. “I will find a way to bring you to us,” she promised him. And she tried. By golly she tried, all throughout the blitz, until 1945 at the end of the war when she found out her tireless campaign had been futile. Her brother, my great uncle Kurt had perished at Auschwitz.
Her decline was quick after that. She was diagnosed with non-systematized delusional insanity, certified and committed to Banstead Mental Hospital. Her three children (my father included) were told not to mention their mother. Before long her name was taboo. She was relegated to silence, as if she had never been here at all.
I know she was plump, with high cheekbones and an even smile. Uncle Henry remembered that much. He was three years old when his mother was taken away. My father must have been four. I thought about them having their mother one day and not the next, and how long it must have taken them to stop crying for her, to collude with their father, and believe that she was dead.
Bube, my bube, may never have known me, or known of me, but our lives are inextricably linked. Her suffering has informed my life’s work, the telling of stories, the championing for justice. For when everything else is said and done, stories and truth are all we have left. When my children play piano with such finesse, I think of Klothilde and her heritage, Vienna, the classical music capital of the world. She comes to mind with the turn of a Yiddisher phrase, an apple strudel, or a pot of Hungarian goulash. In those moments I think I have come to know her.
egotist, egoist noun boxing is a sport that breeds egotists: self-seeker, egocentric, egomaniac, narcissist; boaster, braggart; informal show-off, big head, showboat.
http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/landofsunshine/arrival-stories/arrival-story-tanya-frank.html Tanya Frank: Wooed by the Weather, Terrain and Girl Down The Block | Arrival Stories | Land of Sunshinewww.kcet.org
"With so little greenery and so much grey, I was prone to daydreaming, to wanting for something better. It was called America."
I found my diary from 1978. In it I am thirteen, and my writing is small and spidery and without punctuation.
I am babysitting tonight for one of my mum’s friends. She said she will pay me two quid. I’m going to put it in my post office account for my holiday to Majorca. I already have twenty quid saved up.
I had a row with my mum over something very minor and she hit my foot with a shoe.
I had another argument with my mum. We used to get on so well together, but now all we seem to do is have rows with each other. It was all over that bloody holiday to Majorca. I keep worrying all the time about the new things I want to get, and my mum hid my post office book, so I can’t draw any money out until nearer the time.
We have a new English teacher at our school, because the other one left to go and live in Sweden. His name is Mr. Walters, and he seems quite nice. There is just one thing I don’t like about him, and that is that he winked at me.
Today at school I had the second lesson of English with Mr. Walters. I noticed he has a habit of screwing his face up and winking one eye, so he meant nothing yesterday, it is probably just nerves.
I had French today. I think our French teacher is the most beautiful person I have ever seen. I don’t know if there is such a thing as girls having crushes on lady teachers, but I’ve certainly got something like that on her.
I was restless last night, as if something had come unmoored in me. Each time I closed my eyes I floated to a place that was so lonely I couldn’t sleep there, so I jolted myself to upright and propped up my pillows. The clock on Nance’s side of the bed read 3:30 A.M. too early to get up, too late to be awake. I felt her strong legs, slim against my own, and I wished that legs could twist and coil like old telephone cable, so I could intertwine us, make us one, because even though she was right there next to me, I felt untethered.
I reached for my laptop from the top of the ottoman and cracked it open. The light spilled out, and my Facebook page marked my most recent foray into cyber world. Nance pulled the edges of her sleep mask into place. She had acquired the eyewear during a recent flight on business class. It hung on our bedpost during the day, and I joked that visitors might see it as a kinky sex aid, rather than for what it really was—a means for her to cope with my nocturnal habits, and late night tap tapping on my keyboard.
Some mornings she rose when I was just done with R.E.M and settling into orthodoxy, and that’s why I never heard her. But I could see and hear her now, her small head so very still in the white beam of technology. She was an amenable soul even when I thwarted her rest. For this I felt grateful and just the slightest bit guilty.
If it was just a chat I wanted I could have called Zach. It was ten thirty in the morning U.K. time. He had recently moved in with his father for what we agreed would be a six-month stint at recovery. I missed him, especially when it was quiet and I could remember how he had been before the breakdown, how he had felt as a baby, sturdy and whole, with a keen appetite for his Farley’s rusk. I smiled at the memory of him lifting his hand into the air, grasping my fingers and guiding them to his head, and how scratching his scalp—something he loved—made me feel primal and protective like a chimp.
Underneath my smile there was a well of sadness, and a spark of fear too, a reminder of how life had been interrupted for Zach, for us all.
The guilt I felt about Nancy having to don a sleep mask was nothing compared to the reproach I felt about sending Zach away. It wasn’t just banishing him to a place the other side of the world that stung my conscience, but the fact that he and his father had been more or less estranged for a decade.
I had left the U.K. in 2002 bound for America. A single mother with Zach and his brother in tow, I envisaged a better life and hadn’t calculated the toll of immigration, of borders and separation, not until the psychiatrists did. They sat tall at their desks in their ergometric chairs and scrawled on their lined pads, trying to make sense of Zach’s condition.
I felt responsible. I was responsible.
It hadn’t been that long ago that mothers, such as myself were labeled as schizophrenogenic, clinically defined as dominant, overprotective but basically rejecting. I liked this notion. I wanted my son’s psychosis to be down to me. If it was something I had done or said to cause his brain to short-circuit, to be flooded with dopamine, to lose cognitive function and short-term memory, then surely a change on my part should suffice to bring about a cure, should it not?
“Zach being with his father might be a good thing,” I told the neighbors. “Maybe they will bond and it will help him psychologically.” It sounded Neo-Freudian, especially to my feminist ears, but I was running out of things to say that wouldn’t stigmatize us further. Lacking rationale was just one more lack in a list of many, lack of funds, lack of health insurance, and lack of sleep.
Nance shifted and threw back the quilt. It was hot and dry and the Santa Ana’s snaked around the house and through the palms before prying a window loose above my head. I opened a couple of redundant emails, threw them into the trash, and heard the electronic crunch that accompanied the operation. It struck me how easy it was to get rid of things, to throw them away, leaving no trace, as if they’d never existed in the first place.
I clicked the laptop shut, returned it to the ottoman and turned out the light. I inched closer to Nance, slung my arm over her waist and placed my foot beneath her own. Our legs might not be able to weave together like I wished, but her instep was warm and yielding, and familiar.
The following piece came about as a result of an exercise designed by my creative writing professor at U.C.R. It is what she calls power writing. It was modeled on the principles of mindful-meditation and I think I understand why.
I was a bit skeptical before I tried it. But after just one focused and applied practice, I became a convert. My prompt was, “my mother is a woman who looks like.…who sounds like….who smells like….who tastes like….who feels like.” I set the alarm on my phone, giving myself ten minutes as instructed.
The idea is not to use punctuation. Commas and full stops do exactly what they are intended to do, stop us in our stride, make our brain think we have to start again, and come up with a new or different thought. By just writing we can tune in and go deep and get to a place of vulnerability that makes good prose.
I turned off my editing brain, the one that is obsessed with the minutiae of structure and cutting and pasting, and this is what I got…..
(Note: This version has punctuation marks to aid readability.)
My mother was a woman who looked like a man, a manly man at that. Her hair was short and black, she shaved it with clippers that she had bought from the jumble sale to trim the dog, cropping her head all over without using the safety guard. Afterwards there were bald spots, places where her scalp showed through, blue-white and wrinkled.
She was large, a good thirteen and a half stone, mostly bosoms and stomach and spindly legs, like Big Bird on Sesame Street. She had eyes as black as cobalt, shiny and polished as if ready to be set in jewelry. Her nose was long with a bump on the bridge, a Jewish nose. We measured our noses once with a ruler because Mum was insistent that mine was longer. She was wrong.
Mum had square feet with short toes like paddles, good for swimming. She wore Doctor Scholl sandals with leather uppers, and soles of hard heavy wood. She threw them at us when she was about to get her period. My brother and I learned how to duck really well.
Mum never wore make up or perfume or pearls or pretty dresses. Once a child asked if she was a woman or a man, and she lifted her top to reveal her pendulous breasts and said, “what do you think? What are these?”
I was ashamed of Mum for a long time. Her underarms were pungent, and her nicotine stained fingers reeked of Player’s Number Ten cigarettes. I pretended to detest, yet secretly craved the familiarity of those odors, smoky and musky and deep, just like her voice.
Mum was a woman who sounded like a foghorn. She bellowed when she was angry, and her chest vibrated from the depth of the tone.
She tasted like chlorine after swimming on Sunday afternoons, bleached all over, every square inch of her. “Suck and smell,” she said, pointing to her forearm, and I did, and then we laughed.
Sometimes she whiffed of the chips she fried, all salt and vinegary. Other times when we had been to the off-license, she was sweet from Fry’s Turkish Delight. She never smelled of face cream or lipstick or cologne.
After her bath she filled the room with an aroma of Head and Shoulders anti-dandruff shampoo, and Wrights Coal Tar soap, medicated and herbal and clean. The scent was strong, like her.
Mum was a woman who felt soft, her heaving bosom, a built-in portable pillow, the most comfortable one in the house. Her stomach a great mound of flesh often gurgled like the River Ching, and it was hard and firm, as if everything she ate had turned to stone.
It was that stomach that killed her in the end, bloated and cancerous, it took her out of the game.
Auntie Betty in America bought me The Diary of Anne Frank for my thirteenth birthday, and when I confessed how much I was moved by the tragic tale of the girl who like me was Jewish and thirteen and a writer, and whose last name was Frank, she bought me my very own diary in green mock leather. It locked with a key, and it was this that made me wild with excitement.
“You can confide in these pages,” Auntie Betty said, “make them your own.”
I hoped that Anne Frank might be a relative of mine, however distant. We seemed to share a certain likeness, something about the way our thick dark hair waved at the nape of our neck, and our eyes shone. I stared at her photograph in the preface of the book, and when I penned my own pages, I took myself into the hall cupboard, where it was dark and confined, and I had to use a torch, where I could better imagine what it meant to be in hiding. I wanted to know myself and Mum and Auntie Betty like I knew Anne, I longed to discover all the Yiddisher secrets that had been hidden away over the years.
I looked at the silver key that locked my dairy, at the words that made those pages my own, and I wondered what it would mean to leave a legacy in words. Would it differentiate me from my ancestors who I couldn’t even name, those who had perished in gas chambers and been flung, skeletally thin and twisted into unnamed mass graves. Who were these people and who was I?