The Used Violin



The son of impoverished refugees was given a used violin for his tenth birthday which he neither asked for nor wanted.  old violin

After months of attempting to master the instrument, he came to believe that screeching discord would forever be the fruit of his labor. He could not make it resonate with beauty. His heart would never dance when he eyed the thing in its ragged case or plucked its weary strings. And, though always a gentle boy, in a fit of frustration one day he smashed the violin and hid the pieces in his closet.

“Where are you going?” his mother called, as he attempted a nonchalant exit from their little backyard, where she was hanging laundry. “You have to practice.”

Suddenly overcome with remorse, he couldn’t look at her, knowing that she had saved pennies from her tailor’s wages to finally purchase the object he had just destroyed, an object that had been lovingly handled by scores of boys before him.

He never played an instrument again, but he loved his mother dutifully evermore and upon the birth of his first child he purchased a piano as an homage to her. His children became musicians and at each recital, each concert he felt her presence, her pride and her forgiveness.

 

 

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Ironing Handkerchiefs



minnie and donna0001

Remembering my mother

It is 1977 and I fold a load of laundry at the kitchen table. The noonday sun suffuses the large airy room and my mood with warm comfort and I reminisce:

It is 1972 and I am folding laundry in my bedroom. The radio is on and a frantic voice says “George Wallace has been shot.” My baser self thinks, “Good,” but my kind side, the one I inherited from my mother, thinks about his wife and children. Does he have parents? I am a mother and daughter, primed to sidestep politics and feel the human side of a story.

I take my husband’s shirts to the ironing board, out of the sun’s reach, and think of the Tillie Olsen story that begins with a woman ironing and musing. I am that woman, musing about my mother sweating over the ironing board in our dark, cramped apartment, teaching me to iron handkerchiefs.

I have a PhD in ironing handkerchiefs.

 

Ocean Air



kids in ocean (2)In the time of corona, I long for the sea.

From Philly, where I grew up, it was only about two hours to Atlantic City. As we approached the coast, the air grew cooler and the humidity of the city faded from memory. A stench of sulfur told us we were passing Egg Harbor. Then salt air breezed in, wiping away all unpleasantness and we knew we were almost there.

I practically hung out the window waiting for the Atlantic City skyline to come into view. This was decades before gambling and glitz took over, and I could pick out each grand old hotel, Steel Pier and Million Dollar Pier, and the spot where Mr. Peanut would bow genteelly to passersby and wave them in to a shop that roared with the frolicking sound of the roaster and teemed with the delectable salt water taffy coveted by visitors each summer.

Once we arrived at our rented flat it would take only a few minutes to toss our stuff into our rooms and head out to the beach. The best moment was climbing the stairs to the boardwalk and then clambering down another set of stairs onto the broad expanse of scorching sand. With burning feet we’d find the perfect spot for our blankets and umbrella and, amid shouted warnings from our exhausted parents, rush into the endless, gray Atlantic. If we were lucky, the jelly fish and stinging flies had not appeared yet and we could float and swim and ride the waves in bliss.

In the lonely time of corona, my mood lifts when I recall those days.

And just as the mood of my parents lifted then, as the sea air enfolded us, my mood lifts with anticipation of a day when I will walk along the water’s edge, my thirsty feet splayed among an array of shells peeking out of the cold mud. I will meet friends for dinner and we will drink a toast to all we have endured and enjoyed, to life.

I Wish — May 29, 2020



The murder of Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4, 1968, produced civic unrest all over America. In Washington, D.C., from ‎April 4 through April 8, 13 deaths and 1,098 injuries were attributed to the uprising.

The murder of Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4, 1968, produced civic unrest all over America. In Washington, D.C., from ‎April 4 through April 8, 13 deaths and 1,098 injuries were attributed to the uprising.

For four days in 1968, after Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4, a Washington DC neighborhood burned.

We lived in Rockville, Maryland, about 30 minutes from the flaming 14th Street corridor, but were embroiled in the event as our three news channels broadcast frightening images 24 hours a day. Images of the smoking remains of shops and apartments.  Images of people lugging televisions, groceries, even washing machines, from the riots_68 AP photorubble. Looters. The story became more about looters than the murder of an American hero. More about the National Guard aiming their firearms at frenzied, fed-up citizens, than about the murder of an American hero who would become an icon; whose name would be emblazoned on street signs, schools, monuments all over the world; whose birthday would become a national holiday.

When the flames finally had been extinguished, the salvaged delis and appliance stores boarded up, we assessed the damage and hoped those four raging days and the hopeful message of the martyred King had changed America.

We hoped America had seen the light. We wished it so.

I left Washington in 2002, thirty-four years after that apocalypse, just as its burnt-out remnants finally had been cleared away to make room for gentrification, for Whole Foods and over-priced condos. The 14th Street corridor was becoming Washington’s theater district!  Reminders of those four days in 1968 were eradicated.

But today they are resurrected in my memory, as flames engulf neighborhoods across America after another incomprehensible murder of an innocent black man, George Floyd.

Our world has not changed.

And wishing won’t make it so.

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.

 

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.”

 

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.

 

Redolence



I wasn’t crazy about Matilda, but I adored meetings in her office. Her desk was always almost bare, her In-Box nearly empty. The framed posters hanging on her wall were never askew. Like her person, the room was pristine. When I sat in one of the royal blue, lightly padded chairs that surrounded her small teak conference table, I felt serene.

Maybe it was the tea. Matilda was the only person in our unit, maybe in our entire multinational corporation, our entire Sixth Avenue skyscraper, to keep a silver tea tray on her credenza. The tray held a porcelain pot and sugar bowl bedecked with blue and yellow posies. Tins of tea leaves, a strainer and a dish of thin lemon slices completed the tableau. If there were visitors from our London or Delhi office, a tiny pitcher of milk appeared.

She didn’t offer tea to everyone; you knew where you stood with Matilda by whether or not that offer came your way. And, it might come on one day and not another. She was given to ‘moods.’ On a good day, Matilda poured a fragrant cup of lemon balm into your delicate cup, or perhaps hibiscus or rosehips, and it was all you could do to stay awake for the meeting at hand.

She, herself, never drank the tea, not that we ever witnessed, which caused talk of a possible ploy meant to keep her teammates less able to outperform her. Alas, the members of our team actually were opponents, one-upping one another at every turn, fighting for supremacy in the eyes of our higher-ups, who also preferred to meet in Matilda’s office, to sip her tea, to inhale the subtle fragrance of the lotion she applied to her hands several times a day, an exotic floral and spice blend that permeated the room and pleasured the senses of all but the most allergic of us.

I last saw Matilda on the day before our budget forecasts were due. I didn’t actually see her, because she told her assistant to cancel any scheduled meetings and kept her door closed. This was disconcerting. I needed a cup of tea and a whiff of her fragrance to calm my nerves; budgeting was my short suit.

I rang for the express elevator to the lobby, where a vast Starbucks franchise operated, and took my tea there. As an afterthought, I plucked a paper-wrapped scone from a tray on the counter and carried it up to Matilda’s office, knocking timidly on her door. No answer. I rapped lightly again.

“Yes.” I heard.

“Just me, Matilda. I have something for you.”

“Slide it under the door.”

“That’s not possible.” The scone had a redolence of its own, and I decided to abandon my good intentions and eat it myself. “Never mind,” I called. “I’ll come back later.” As I walked away, I sensed that Matilda cracked open the door to see what I was carrying, having second thoughts, I surmised, in case my delivery was budget-related and vital to her task-at-hand.

The scone was delicious—raspberry—the tea had settled me, and I dug into my work, blocking out the world until, at around noon, the hall outside my office took on an air of Pamplona in July. “What’s happening?” I called, as the herd rushed by. Someone shouted back, “Matilda!” I waited a moment, then sauntered after them with utmost nonchalance.

The door to Matilda’s empty office was open. It was not like her to leave without locking her door. Had something terrible happened? I didn’t even know if she had children. Was she married? Perhaps a parent had died. I vowed to introduce some details about my personal life in our next conversation, with the hope that she would do the same.

I elbowed my way through the crowd and saw that Matilda’s desk was bare, save the In-Box and telephone. Her empty chair was turned toward the wide window with its unobstructed view of the Empire State Building, which had always enchanted me. The credenza was bare, the tea tray gone. Matilda’s scent was gone, too, obliterated by the bodies that filled the room: creatives from my department, assistants, bookkeepers, tech men. They had always longed to be inside and now, finally, they were. “It’s past noon,” I said, in as stern a voice as I could muster. “Shouldn’t you be having lunch?” They filed out reluctantly and I followed, closing the door behind me.

My voice mail alert was flashing when I returned to my office and there were several frantic messages from my boss’s secretary. “Hey, Arlene. What’s up?”

“You’re wanted on 27 immediately.”

I had a lunch date for one o’clock, and quickly cancelled, then headed down to the 27th floor, where the honchos resided. An ashen Arlene showed me into the office of George Duncan, the executive vice president of our division. “Hey, George. What’s up?” I asked, curious about the odd goings-on.

George indicated a chair and I sat. He opened a file that lay on his desk and pointed to the letterhead of his boss, the CEO of U.S. operations whom I had met once in Matilda’s office.

“I had hoped Matilda would do this, but she’s goddamned disappeared,” said George. He read: “After an intensive review of the last six quarters, the decision has been made to shutter the lowest-performing divisions worldwide.”

“Los Angeles, for sure,” I interrupted.

“For sure,” said George, then continued. “Leases and contracts will not be renewed. Urgent projects in motion will be assumed by other units. Please inform your staffs of this decision and the need to vacate your premises, effective immediately.” He closed the folder and stared at the building beyond his window. “And New York, too.”

I followed his gaze. It had always seemed odd to me that George’s spacious corner office was on the 27th floor, while Matilda had that sublime unobstructed view of the most important city in the world, the vista I coveted. Now, looking out at window upon window upon window of workers at their tasks, I doubted I would ever have an office with a view of the Empire State Building or a corner office. I certainly would never again sit in the fragrant comfort of Matilda’s office drinking tea with the higher ups. “And you?” I asked, when I found my voice.

George looked embarrassed and didn’t answer. He thrust another file toward me. My name was neatly typed on the tab. It was my severance packet. It would include a boilerplate reference, myriad legal disclaimers and the ream of paper that constituted our ethics policy. How often had I passed just such a file to employees who had failed to do the job or indulged in activities outside accepted corporate practice?

“You, George?” I asked again. “What’s your fate in all this?”

“I’m going to head the new Singapore office.”

“You’re just up and moving your whole family to Singapore?”

“No. I left my wife months ago. Matilda is coming to Singapore with me.” In my dazed mind, I heard my long-gone mother singing an ancient lament, “How Long Has This Been Going On?” George saw my bewilderment. “You must . . . . you must have known about us,” he stuttered. “And here I was, thinking everyone must know.”

I rose and George reached out to shake my hand, but I declined the gesture. I pivoted blindly toward the door, my file in hand, but a hearty sneeze stopped me, then another. I blew my nose with a wad of tissue proffered by George and was overtaken by a familiar fragrance. Matilda’s—her exotic blend that pleasured the senses of all but the most allergic of us.

 

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