The Story Teller



“How come there are no pictures on the walls, no photos?” asked my first date.  “Did you just move in?”

I lopinocchiooked around with alarm, embarrassed. . . .

Did I tell him there was little disposable income in our household for art and frames? That my mother was often depressed and had no interest in home decor?  That my father held maximal frugality in high esteem?

No.  Those stark white walls, that blank slate, took hold of my imagination and I said YES, we had just moved in.

But the next morning I called my friend Rosie Greene, whose house was beautiful, full of paintings and photos, whose mother treated me to plays and concerts, plied me with books I had to read.

“Rosie, can you and your mom help me?  I need to buy pictures to hang in my living room.”

My plea was Mrs. Greene’s command. Within an hour we were in a shop where canvasses were strewn upon tables, stacked in bins.

“Now look at this, girls.” Rosie and I stared, dumbfounded, at a rectangle covered with triangles, a floating eye. Was that an arm???

Noting our disdain, Mrs. Greene tossed that print aside and reached for a cacophony of squiggles.  We groaned.

“GIRLS — you have to broaden your horizons. Modern art is all the rage!”

Not for this girl. I was drawn to a wall of gilded frames. Elegant women gazing serenely from posh velvet chairs.  Dashing caballeros riding Arabian steeds.

New worlds opened before me.  Each painting told a tale.

“Bathsheba at Her Bath,” Rembrandt, said a tiny plaque, below the heroine of my favoritDonna - Bathshebae Bible story. I had always felt sorry for her. Plucked from her husband, by mighty King David, like ripe fruit from a tree. How could a great poet, composer of the Psalms, have such wickedness in his heart?

“No, no, no. That won’t do, dear,” said Mrs.  Greene, steering me away from voluptuous, lost Bathsheba.

“Let’s choose something less .  .  .  imposing.”

She redirected my attention to tangled red roofs and chimney pots, rosy-cheeked babies, a field glowing in bright sun.

Yes.  This time, Mrs.  Greene was right.  These indeed were more appropriate for my cramped rowhouse walls.

I bought the prints with my saved-up baby-sitting money, and in years to come would feel a thrill each time I saw these old friends in the world’s great museums.  I would come to know their makers well: Renoir, Cassatt, Cezanne.

My sweet Mom watched as we transformed her living room, a rare smile on her lovely face. Within a few years, she would be gone. Brain cancer. But that is a story for another time.

She offered us a dusty shoe box filled with old photographs and we culled the best from the stack — my little sisters and I dressed in identical taffeta dresses, my grandparents, a shot of my Mom and Dad at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where they met during the War.

Rosie and I hammered together frames. I cut a picture of Rock Hudson from a Photoplay magazine — he was my heart throb of the moment — and framed that, too.  His teeth sparkled as if this were an ad for Ipana toDonna -Rock Hudsonothpaste.

“Who’s that?” asked my beau on our second date.  “Your brother?”

“Yes,” I answered, fingers crossed.  “He lives in California.”

 

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The Dance of Love



Philadelphia was teen heaven in the 50s. A music Mecca.
Doo wop on the corner.
Bandstand after school. (Long before it moved to LA and became American Bandstand in living color, it was a Philly staple.)
We had the greatest disc jockeys in the world: Georgie Woods, the man with the goods; Jerry Blavat, the geator with the heater; and my personal favorite, Jock-O — “Oo-poppa-doo, how do you do.”
On Saturdays, radio station 950 held a dance club.

That’s where I met Virgil.

Danny and the Juniors sang “At the Hop” right there, in the studio, and we bopped and screamed.
Then the DJ played a slow one:  “All in the Game,” by Tommy Edwards.
A handsome, broad-shouldered boy led me to the dance floor. He held me close. Very close. And whispered the lyrics into my ear.
donna - slow dancing

“Then he’ll kiss your lips
And caress your waiting fingertips
And your hearts will fly away”

I felt warm and all aflutter. No one had ever held me like that. I was frightened. Thrilled. Overcome.

He led me to a table and got us a couple of Cokes. “What’s your name?” “What school do you go to?” He wanted to know everything about me. And I wanted to know everything about him.  It was like we were alone, in a room vibrating with kids doing The Slop and The Stroll.

Virgil was named for a Roman poet. He lived above his father’s pizzeria in South Philly. The opposite end of the earth from my neighborhood, where the boys I knew were named for their dead uncles: Izzie. Shlomo. Jake.

He gave me a napkin and a pen. “Write down your name and address. Tomorrow I’ll come over, after church.” I wrote, though I knew he was forbidden fruit. Taboo. Off-limits. But I was smitten.

The DJ was playing another slow one and we danced again:

“For your love
Oh I would do anything
I would do anything
For your love
For your kiss
Oh I would go anywhere”

We were besotted.

*******

Somehow, he found me.  Via bus, subway, trolley, he landed on my doorstep and I pushed him toward the street before my parents could see who rang the bell.

We strolled along a nearby strip of shops that were vibrant six days a week, but dead as a door nail on Sunday, in the age of Blue Laws.

We couldn’t think of much to say. I was cold; he was thirsty. Then the clatter of a trolley sealed our fate. He hopped on and threw me a kiss.
“Bye, Donna.”
“Bye, Virgil.”

We never saw each other again. I was sad for a long time and finally told my Mother why.
“Don’t worry, honey,” she said. “You’ll know when the right one comes along.”

***

Fast forward.

It’s the 60s.

donna - bossa nova 2I’m doing the bossa nova at a club in Atlantic City with a blind date.
A tall, very tall, guy cuts in.
I crane my neck to smile up at his pretty face.
He’s a great dancer, whirling me around the room with supreme confidence.
The next day he drives me back to Philly in his red Catalina convertible.
The top is down; my hair is blowing in the breeze.

“Where’d you get that pretty name, Donna Brookman?”

“I’m named for my father’s mother, Dora; he calls me Dvoyala. And you?”

“I’m named for my father’s brother, my Uncle Moishe.”

Click.

I invite him in to meet my parents.
I marry him.
Blame it on the bossa nova. The dance of love.

 

Little White Lies



Why are little white lies white?
Why aren’t they green or yellow?
What color are big lies?
Black?
I can’t imagine a black lie.
How would you see it, judge its contours, its depth?

Are we to surmise that a black lie is evil?
Unfathomable?
An opaque hunk of obsidian obstructing your view, in your face, blocking your progress?
Finite?
While a white lie prances along a rainbow, following the arc to infinity?

Is a white lie lyrical?
Does it hum a tune, have meter and rhyme?
Are characters in a white lie chaste, their motives pure?
Do they love their parents, feed the homeless, help old people cross the street?

Black lies probably are not gregarious.
They doubtless do not mix well at parties, network, participate in football pools.
Curmudgeons they!
You would not take them home to meet your mother or invite them to your beach house or ski chalet.

White lies, on the other hand, wear well, wear clothes well and sport the best haircuts, layered and sleek with just a few strands popping up in a pert cowlick.

White lies are transparent.
You can step right through them, as if they were not there.
They are never obstinate, opinionated or obvious.
You barely notice them.

At table, black lies hog the watermelon, spitting seeds out of the side of their mouth in a well-practiced maneuver that dirties your rug.
White lies prefer dainty tidbits, tartlets of crème fraîche and caviar (the real thing), thin strips of marinated carrots, Chantilly for dessert.
White lies are fastidious. At meal’s end they lift their napkin from their lap and tap the corners of their mouth, as if a trace of food lingered.

Black lies are bullies.
They push white lies against the wall and punch and threaten, torment them.
Their sharp elbows and loud guffaws startle white lies.
In the face of black lies, white lies become ever more reticent, shy.
They are quick to seek cover, change their tune, lose conviction.

Brick upon brick of black lies reach skyscraper proportions.
White lies may aspire to create tall edifices but succumb to gravity.
Their tiny legs cannot climb so many steps, their wee breath gives in.
They cannot stomach whooshing elevators that reach the clouds before you can say Jack Robinson.
Leaving black lies to rule heaven and earth.

Homage to Bradford Pears



I am a blazing Bradford Pear on the apron of Route 24, escorted by a clone, we two alone resplendent among a cascade of evergreens and dull deciduous species that transit the seasons in silence like supernumeraries upon a crowded stage.

I am more at home in Philadelphia or Washington than here in always splendid California, where my own magnificence might be overlooked amid your mountain and ocean vistas. But I adapt. My crimson leaves dapple in your long warm days, glisten under the spectacular canopy of stars that is your night sky.

As we tire of our brilliance, grow weary with exhibitionism, my clone and I will take a final bow, shed our gold lamé, red taffeta, orange brocade, and sleep, burrow like bears in Winter.

The geese fly in like Chicagoans to Boca Raton, as we go out, our candle snuffed. The squirrels have stashed their acorns, the bees have made their honey. We make our brief offering—beauty that delights the eye, warms the soul as  darkness descends—then rest, regroup, until our next act—March, when we will adorn your freeways again, our alabaster blossoms a chaste harbinger of Spring.

 

Who Will Speak for Pet Rats?



 

Squeak and Brownie

I speak for pet rats in their immaculate white cage, nudging each other with long snouts their owners find precious. I speak for them because they cannot speak for themselves. They cannot say their better natures are not what they exhibit here, lightly pummeling one another for a turn at the water spout, gaily rolling about, each trying to commandeer the short shaft of sunlight available to them.

I speak for pet rats who if they could would say they were never meant to live in a land of Legos and nerf guns of all calibers, of electronic airplanes and robots and a wall of books explaining a world they never asked to be part of.

They yearn for the thrill of the hunt, for ragged orange peels scattered among yesterday’s coffee grinds. Instead, their food is brought to them on Fiesta Ware, chips of apples, broccoli, cheese—a lot of cheese, suddenly, in this formerly lactose-free household.

If they could, they would tell their owners the alley is their game, where danger is not in the form of an old, blind cat who no longer can leap and scavenge downy tidbits, smiling in victory over his ruined prey, silver tufts hanging from his golden paw.

I speak for pet rats who if they could would say they are losing their skills: how to spread plague, how to dodge sots hurling empty bottles of Thunderbird at them, how to burrow in ivy till night falls then burst forth to forage in your compost bin.

What can they become in this unnatural habitat? As you caress them, tweak their so-called noseys, consider all this.

 

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