Monday, December 12, 2011

Boardwalk Empire – To the Lost

If the creators of Boardwalk Empire were looking to end the season with a bang, they certainly succeeded. In fact, there were many “bangs” throughout the episode. The bloodshed that had been mostly absent for the last two weeks returned in a big way tonight. In fact, two people were murdered in the first minute of the show. Of course, the murders that took place in this episode were all a means to an end, as Nucky took back Atlantic City.

At the beginning of the episode, Horowitz declares that Nucky should not be as revered as he is. That he would “be nothing” in Odessa, which he considers a city of crooks. How wrong Horowitz turns out to be! The season finale certainly showed that Nucky will stop at nothing to save his own skin, and whoever crosses him is going to meet an untimely end. Nothing is sacred to him, not loyalty, not love, not even family.

First, he creates his new family by convincing Margaret to marry him, then he makes amends with his actual family by pulling Eli back under his wing. But THEN he destroys Jimmy’s struggling family (and his own humanity, I think) by killing Jimmy. Despite the fact that Jimmy was a flawed, murderous character, I was extremely disappointed to see him go. I can’t see how future seasons will play out without him. We are left to ponder the future of the next closest person to Nucky— Margaret.

At the beginning of the episode, I was starting to worry that Margaret was losing her edge. She agrees to marry Nucky, knowing that he is probably playing her, and she seems indifferent to the fact that he has a star witness in his trial murdered. She was starting to play out like a Carmela Soprano-like character, complicit in Nucky’s dealings and always at the ready to look the other way to ensure her own comfort and survival.

 Margaret, bless her, actually comes out as the master of deception. With all Nucky pulled off in this finale, he has nothing on her. He may be reassured now that she’s his wife, but he will find out next season that he has met his match. Don’t mess with a suffrage woman! Hopefully, he doesn’t try to kill her as well when he finds out that she’s signed his deed to prime New Jersey highway land over to the church. It’s not clear what her ultimate plan is, and it will be a long wait until next season to find out.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Boardwalk Empire – Under God’s Power She Flourishes

Each character in this series is painfully corrupt. Some were corrupt at the start of the series, and others we’ve seen become more so from week to week. Can any of them be saved? Or in Nucky’s case, does he even care to be?

Margaret sees how corrupt she’s become, and has been trying to get right with God. She truly believes that God is holding her accountable for her sins. First by giving her daughter polio, and now by making sure she answers in court for allowing Nucky to order her abusive husband killed. On top of all of this, the maid overhears Nucky’s bodyguard flirting with her, so now she fears she will be called to task for cheating on Nucky. She’s been trying so hard to be a woman of God since her daughter got sick, but you can see by the expression on her face that she thinks it is too late. Nucky is no comfort to her, because he is pretty content with his “moral” code.

Nelson, altered by the birth of his daughter, has been cooperating with the federal prosecutor on Nucky’s case and sticking to the straight and narrow this season. He even turned down a bribe from bootleggers this week. Unfortunately, his past transgressions have come home to roost. I had almost forgotten that he drowned Agent Sebso last season. Now that Nucky’s lawyer and the federal prosecutor know about this, Nelson is an uncredible witness, and Nucky may not have to face a trial. This would pave the way for Nucky to take back Atlantic City, and just in the nick of time, because Jimmy is not doing so hot since his wife’s murder.

My favorite part of this episode was the flashback to Jimmy’s time at college. It was compelling to see this character in his more innocent days, enjoying a budding romance with Angela and flourishing in college. (Note the scene where he is discussing John Webster’s play “The White Devil” in English class, it’s no coincidence that the theme of the play is corruption.) Everything is hunky-dory until his mother Gillian comes to visit. It’s then that his life begins to unravel. First, he finds out that Angela is pregnant. Then, he is forced to deal with the repercussions of his mother’s visit and the affect she had on his college professor…and ultimately Jimmy himself when Gillian seduces him. This was obviously the turning point for our dear Jimmy. He promptly joins the service to escape his mother, and his service in the war turns him into the cold-blooded killer he is now. Angela’s murder brings all of these unsavory memories back to the surface for Jimmy. While in the middle of throttling his mother for ruining his life, he is attacked by his father. This family tiff culminates in Jimmy murdering his father in self defense…and at his mother’s urging. How Oedipal!

Next week is the season finale. Though it’s hard to imagine these characters becoming worse people than they already are, I don’t imagine they’ll all sit down to a nice family dinner together, either. Either way, I’m interested to see how it all plays out. Until next Sunday….

Monday, November 28, 2011

Boardwalk Empire – Georgia Peaches

What to do when you’re caught in situations beyond your control? Pray? Pay? Create your own brand of justice? Limitations, both physical and situational have wreaked havoc on the residents of this little boardwalk town.

Margaret, desperate to have her little girl not become crippled by polio, goes to the only place she feels she can turn – her church. It was quite the stomach-turner to watch her priest guilt her into making a devotional by alluding to the possibility of a miracle. And Margaret falls for it! Yet, after giving all of her socked away money and new jewelry to the church, her daughter is still paralyzed. Margaret realizes that her prayers will go unanswered, and her priest used religion to not only take her money, but her hope as well. This may be the event that completely delivers her to the dark side.

Nucky is dealing with helplessness at home and in his public life. He cannot solve Margaret’s problem, nor can he make his legal troubles go away. Despite all of his bribing, payoffs, and efforts to deter attention from his illegal activities, Nucky’s trial for election tampering will soon commence, and he may have to serve jail time. Arnold Rothstein recommends the lawyer who is defending him for allegedly fixing the 1919 World Series. Even Nucky seems impressed with the sleaziness of this lawyer. Will more backwards dealings really help him to overcome this seemingly impossible situation? The way this story has unfolded so far, I suspect so. Until then, Atlantic City will continue to fall apart without his leadership.

As predicted, the African-American workers strike has brought the city to a standstill. Jimmy is ill-equipped to handle negotiations with Chalky White, so the strike drags on. His father, The Commodore, hindered by the affects of a stroke cannot even give his son advice. Their associates recommend strike breakers, but that approach only makes things worse. The demonstrators are only strengthened in their resolve. Would it be corny to say “strike one” on this issue being settled peacefully?

Poor Jimmy, not only can he not control the city, he cannot control his relationships. His failed assassination on Horovitz has manifested in the most unfortunate way. Despite Jimmy’s attempt to smooth things over by sending Horovitz cases of liquor, he fails to recognize the Yiddish butcher’s vengeful streak. This was a disturbing scene for me to watch, Horovitz murdering Jimmy’s wife and novelist female lover in cold blood. However, cold-blooded killing is nothing new in this series, it’s just usually Jimmy doing the killing. With the last two episodes of the season coming up, I fear the violence can only get worse from here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Boardwalk Empire - Battle of the Century

This week’s episode was full of rebellion. Some I was glad to see, some I would have rather not seen. Set against the background of the Dempsey-Carpentier boxing match of 1921, in this episode, we saw the main characters take on fights of their own.

Margaret’s strength is certainly tested when she finds out that her daughter has contracted polio. Every week, I find myself marveling at this character. She is probably one of the strongest females portrayed on television right now. She’s brilliant at using her reputation as a widow, a mother, and even as a kept woman to her advantage. The other characters always underestimate her, and it is quite thrilling to see her show what she is really made of. This week was no exception, as she is forcibly kept from her daughter who is considered highly contagious. The scene where Emily receives a spinal tap was pretty heart-wrenching. However, Margaret really shows her fortitude and spirit when she rebels against the doctors’ orders to sneak into the restricted ward to comfort Emily.

Nucky is unaware of the troubles at home as he has traveled to Ireland under the guise of burying his dead father. What we soon see, is that he intends on supplying guns to Irish rebels in exchange for whiskey. The Irish obviously prefer continuing to fight rather than negotiate peace with the British government. It was a little off-putting to see how much they really wanted those guns. They had no problem ridding their group of any naysayers to Nucky’s offer.

Though Nucky is not in Atlantic City, his influence is still working for him. Chalky White, working on Nucky’s suggestion, encourages a group of African-American workers to stage a walk-out. Demanding better wages and better treatment, an entire restaurant kitchen staff leaves in the middle of their shift. From the looks of the previews for next week, this will become a larger demonstration. It’s great to see this portrayal of early civil rights in action, but as we all know, everything that happens on this show serves a dual purpose. The reason Nucky encouraged Chalky to have the workers rebel in the first place, is to make Atlantic City contentious and a difficult place to manage for Jimmy.

In his second week as “king” of Atlantic City, Jimmy is not doing as well as he thinks he is. Sure, he’s living the life of a fat cat, ordering around his underlings, partying, and womanizing as much as possible, but he does not realize that everything is unraveling around him. Jimmy orders another assassination, this time on Horovitz the Yiddish butcher, and unbeknownst to him it goes awry. That was a scene I could have done without, no one should use kitchen tools that way! At this point, it remains to be seen whether Jimmy is strong enough to win control of the city.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Boardwalk Empire – Two Boats and a Lifeguard

This week struck a chord in me for a few reasons.

First, there is Nucky coming to terms with the death of his father. He spends most of the episode badmouthing and cursing his father, even at the funeral home. Nucky doesn’t grieve for his father until he is left alone with the casket. Maybe Nucky respected his father at least a little considering he stands over his body weeping. It is his own father’s death that causes Nucky to want to be more of a father to Margaret’s children, and he asks them to start calling him “dad”. It may also be in part the reason Nucky decides to step down as Treasurer of Atlantic City, and hands the reigns over to his “son”, Jimmy. I think he’s really just trying to teach Jimmy a lesson. Nucky always has a plan.

With all the new responsibilities, Jimmy is starting to ignore his own home life, but his wife has found a diversion. She befriends a newcomer to the series, Louise. Louise is, of all things, a free-spirited novelist. Now, we’re talking! This new relationship is sure to spark things up in Atlantic City. Louise is already breaking the modesty laws (that bathing suit was considered racy!), and appears to also be a lesbian, or at the very least VERY open-minded. This is already stirring a response from Angela, who was until now suppressing her homosexuality by marrying Jimmy.

This episode also gives us the return of Jewish gangster, Arnold Rothstein and Yiddish butcher Horovitz. Why do these two characters always seem to appear in the same episodes? I feel it’s only a matter of time before they meet, but right now they are still in opposite camps. It is Rothstein who encourages Nucky to hold back and be patient, even in the face of an assassination attempt. Rothstein is incredibly impressive in his restraint and calculative demeanor, but what is going on under the surface? In actuality, Rothstein was an incredibly successful gambler for many years, so the character on this series seems to match the legend. Equally mysterious in his motives is Horovitz, who approaches Jimmy for his liquor which still is yet to be delivered. Jimmy, drunk on power and bootlegged whiskey is pretty insulting to Horovitz. Mickey Doyle tries to warn Jimmy to be accommodating and less anti-Semitic to Horovitz, but that gets him thrown over a balcony. I don’t think Jimmy will be as successful as Nucky was at running Atlantic City. He’s much too hot-headed and violent. Not looking forward to an increase in violence on this show, but I am interested to see how Atlantic City fares with Jimmy at the helm.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Boardwalk Empire: Peg of Old

Just how twisted can the roots of a family tree get? From suggesting a brother be bumped off, to a mother abandoning her newborn, to siblings being unable to forgive past grievances, loyalty is not a virtue for this extended bootlegging family.

Jimmy is the only person struggling with where his heart lies. The thought of assassinating Nucky, who he considers a father, is eating him up. On top of this predicament, Jimmy’s relationship with his mother, Gillian, is probably the most unnerving relationship on the show. Every time Gillian gets close to Jimmy, I shudder. Of course, when a girl gives birth at 13, the mother/child relationship is bound to be slightly unconventional.

Speaking of giving birth, having a new baby doesn’t seem to catalyze the mothering gene in Lucy. She has no problem using her child as a bargaining chip to extort money from the men in her life. A little cash from Nucky, and Lucy abandons her child to pursue a chance in the limelight. Nelson, who began in the series as a slightly creepy character, surprisingly becomes the most family-oriented person in this episode, quickly adjusting to his role as a protective single father.

Resident single mother, Margaret, travels to New York to visit her Irish family this week. The stroll through 1920s Brooklyn takes me back as Margaret seeks out her working-class brother and sisters. The writers give a real sense of how hard immigrants had it starting out in America. Every person works in Margaret’s family. Despite their struggles, Margaret’s brother is too proud to accept monetary help from Margaret. He still cannot forgive Margaret for an unwed pregnancy, and he struggles with the fact that she is a kept woman.

Perhaps it is being faced with her painful past that drives Margaret into the arms of family bodyguard, Owen, or maybe she is more modern than anyone suspected. Margaret betrays Nucky as well as jeopardizes the family they’ve created. Distracting Owen means that Nucky is left unprotected at Babette’s supper club (another Babette’s dinner party. If it were mine you would have been there!) and an attempt is made on his life by Jimmy’s crew. Of course, federal agents thwart the set-up or the show would be over! As Jimmy quickly exits the club and realizes that Nucky was not killed, I can’t help but wonder if he has a look of disappointment or relief on his face.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Boardwalk Empire “The Age of Reason”

The main characters are confronted by religion, and the part it plays in their respective lives. Make no mistake, none of these people are beyond reproach, they are all corrupt. The characters struggle to make peace with themselves and their actions, and they all end up falling short of that goal.

Margaret prepares her son, Teddy, for his first confession, and is surprised during her meeting with the priest to find out that she, too, must make a confession. Of course, this concerns Nucky, as he does not want her revealing sensitive information (i.e. his criminal pastimes) to a priest. He needn’t worry, though. Margaret skirts the issue and confesses instead to having a crush on Nucky’s new driver, Owen.

After last week’s barn explosion, Agent Clarkson is hospitalized with third degree burns, and is sure to die soon. Deeply religious Nelson, who doesn’t realize that Agents Ziwicki and Clarkson were only at the barn to track him, prays to God to heal Clarkson. Mid-prayer, Nelson is interrupted by Clarkson, who says, “I know what you did”. Now, most people would chalk a comment like this up to the ramblings of a dying and deeply sedated man. But, most people do not have a pregnant actress stashed away in an apartment waiting to give birth. Nelson is sure that this is a message directly from God. Guilt-ridden, Nelson calls his wife, admitting that he’s a sinner and not worthy of her or his job as a Prohibition agent.

Jimmy, the only character who seems to be comfortable with his inner demons, has a busy schedule this episode. After making a deal with the Yiddish butcher, Horvitz, last week to traffic alcohol, Jimmy sets his plans in motion. What he does not realize, is that Nucky is also transporting alcohol, with the help of Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein. When Jimmy spots one of Horvitz’s henchmen with Nucky on the boardwalk, he’s sure that Horvitz has betrayed him. They both find out, however, that Horvitz is the one who was betrayed. The whole affair plays out in Horvitz’s meat locker, where Jimmy gets the information he needs before making short work of the unfortunate turncoat. Jimmy, Horvitz, and the gang ambush Rothstein’s men and Nucky’s liquor mid-transport in the woods. Rothstein’s associates, Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky, talk Jimmy into letting them deliver the first shipment, with the agreement that they will work together in the future to betray Nucky.

Throughout the episode, Lucy is giving birth in her secret apartment to Nelson’s child. While he is tied up elsewhere receiving supposed messages from God, Lucy endures labor alone, and eventually gives birth to his daughter. By this time, Nelson has realized that Agent Clarkson is indeed rambling on his deathbed and comes home to find Lucy with his new child. Unfortunately, his wife Rose concerned by his confession call, has come looking for him. She also discovers Lucy and the baby as a result. How’s that for divine intervention?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Last night after I watched “Boardwalk Empire,” on HBO I dreamed that my father’s body was up there on the screen with the other murdered bootleggers.
     He had vanished without a trace of the ordinary clutter and detail of a life, leaving not a shadow nor footprint. There were no letters or insurance papers. Not a watch or drivers’ license or birth certificate.  No marriage license or diploma. It was as if my mother had wiped away my father’s existence like a teacher with an eraser. Or that during the 29 years of his life on earth he was already a ghost.
     When I was old enough to ask my mother about his death, she told me he died of pneumonia. I was four or five years old but I knew it wasn’t the truth.
     So when I was twelve, I did what I always did when I wanted to know something. I went to my brother. I looked up to Kenny at his advanced age of sixteen. Tall and street-smart, he could drive a car and work after school and figure skate at the Elysium and yell at our mother. He had already answered my questions about sex, but the answer I sought now seemed more dangerous.
     “Why won’t Mom ever talk about our father?” I asked him. He was in the kitchen opening a can of chicken noodle soup.
     He shrugged, dumping it into a pot.
     “All she ever told me was he died of pneumonia,” I said.
     He stopped and looked at me. “Pneumonia? That’s a good one.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “He died of murder. He was a bootlegger in a turf war with the Mafia and they killed him. You can read about it in the newspapers downtown in the library. It’s all there, everything that happened.” He said he remembered the night, the screams, the police, the reporters, the commotion.
     “How do you look it up?”
      “By the date. They were killed on your second birthday.”
     “They? What do you mean, they?”
     “Uncle Addie was killed with him.”
     I didn’t know what to think about two murders on my second birthday. And who was this Uncle Addie? I had never heard of him.
     “Was Uncle Addie a bootlegger too?”
     “Naw. Poor guy, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In the Cleveland Library I got a ten-year-old copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer . There was a picture on the front page of a handsome young man with full lips, dark hair and deep-set eyes, captioned Louis Rosen.
     “That’s my daddy! That’s him!” I tell the librarian, who barely nods, as if children find their lost father on the front page every day.
      Reading the article I learned the truth:
     My mother and Aunt Della were upstairs, sleeping, when they heard shots. Rushing to the window, they saw two bleeding bodies in the driveway, and dashed outside.
     Two or three neighbors came running and pulled the sisters in their bloody nightgowns off their husbands’ bodies as their howls reached the star-lit sky in a grotesque duet of high C’s.
     My father and uncle lay in the driveway, still bleeding; my father from a sawed off shotgun blast through his heart, uncle Addie from two 32-caliber bullets through his throat and head; both bodies brutally slashed, cut down in the moment of their blatant confidence in themselves—their blood thick and fast; their muscles tight and hard; their groins ready at a moment’s erotic memory or thought or flashing sight of some random feminine leg or nape of neck; their futures untested and their minds full of the grand dreams of youth. Now, shot and slashed to death they were frozen in their heyday, old age transcended, to be passed in years by their own children.
     They had fought bitterly, valiantly. Stabbed, slashed, bleeding, they got up again and again, fighting back, arm wrestling the killers for the knife, dodging, ducking, side-stepping in a macabre ballet of death. Finally, still alive, they had to be shot.
     Subdued at last, dead at last, the sudden silence was so powerful it seemed to paralyze the earth’s very rotation.
I do not like watching  “Boardwalk Empire.” It is too violent and ugly. But I watch it anyway, trying to find my father.

Adapted from the author’s memoir:
             “Lost And Found”

Sunday, October 16, 2011

THE SCARF, Chapter Two

Coming into the cafeteria after my 11 o’clock history class I see Fairfield standing in line. I turn my back and move over to the salad bar station with my head down. Stupidly, I hadn’t figured on running into him like this. Stupidly, I thought after leaving his class I’d be safe. But there he was behind me like an apparition or spook. Putting some lettuce on my plate, I tell myself to calm down. He can’t make me talk.           

I note out of the corner of my eye where Fairfield is eating, move to the other side of the room and sit down with my tray. There are three girls and two boys at the table.
I say hi. They say hi, and then continue their chatter. I feel uncomfortable at this table with these kids. I feel uncomfortable in this place of learning with or without Adam Fairchild. I don’t know why. Isn’t it what I’ve always wanted? To be in college? Even before I met Ben? Wasn’t I smart in high school? Didn’t I even get a scholarship to Ohio State that I was too broke to use? So what if I do like my classes here? So what? After living with Ben Gold, the four-year age difference between my classmates and myself feels like an abyss. Toying with my salad I feel sick and tired of always being the other—a misplaced college student, a misfit in Ben’s lavish house, an escapee from my mother’s booze—but have no idea what to do about it. Newly widowed, newly out there on my own after going from my mother’s bed (a double bed costs half as much as twins) to my husband’s, fenced in by poverty, then by marriage to a dangerous man, I am as new in the world as a paroled convict or a recanted nun, trying to find my place.

The next day as I leave my ten o’clock psychology class I see Fairchild standing in the hall, smiling at me.
“Miss Brady,” he says, “you left some papers in my office.”

I stare at him. I left no papers in his office.
 “Room 321. Twenty minutes,” he says, and vanishes down the corridor as I stand there, confused.

I know he’s trying to get me into his office for another interrogation. I also know I want to go. What is wrong with me? Later, I understood  I was lonely. Later, I understood  I wanted a connection with someone. Later, I understood I only thought I had resisted that face and magnetic field.
So telling myself that I can handle whatever Fairfield dishes out, I proceeded to room 321 after ducking into the Ladies to check my hair and lipstick.

He opens the door to my small knock.
"Thank you for coming,” he says.

I step inside. “Mr. Fairfield, I didn’t leave any papers here.”
"How else could I get you to come?” he says, smiling.           

I want to wipe that infuriating, exciting, smile off his face. What does he want of me?
“What do you want of me?”

"Please sit down,” he says.
I stand. “I’ve told you everything I know.”

He settles down behind his desk. He clears his throat. “I confirmed what you told me last week.”
 Curious, I sit down. “How?” I ask, remembering my lies.

“I have my ways,” he says.
“Well, well. Good for you.”

“I don’t blame you for being upset,” he says. “It’s my fault. I handed the interview badly. Please accept my apology.”
“No,” I say. I’m beginning to enjoy myself.

“Look, Miss Brady—Kate--I was just doing my job—nothing personal.”
On my guard, I get up and head for the door.

He stands up. “Coffee? Please? Danny’s Deli at 5? I’ll wait for you.”
I run for my life.

But I show up at Danny’s. Of course I do.
Fairfield rises from his table and holds a chair out for me. The room smells of pickles and pastrami. Coffee.

And then somehow, mysteriously, I feel as if  I belong somewhere. Even if it is a dinky deli with a man I’m afraid to trust.
He sits down. “Thanks for coming. I didn’t know if you would.”

“Either did I, “ I say.
“Coffee? A sandwich?”

“Just coffee.”
He signals the waitress as I wait, absurdly content.

He sips his coffee and looks at me. “So can I lure you back to my class?”
“You’ve already lured me here.’

“Yes. Absolutely. But I’d really like to see your lovely self in the last row of my classroom.”
“So you haven’t given up.”

“Given up?’
“Information. Trying to get information.”

“You’re wrong. This is not for information. You checked out. I told you.” He flashes that irresistible smile. “My dear Kate Brady, can’t you tell when you’re being flirted with?”
I look at him. “Yes, usually, but not by you,” I say, thinking, bad cop in his office badgering and insulting; good cop in the deli flattering and flirting.

“Why not me?”
“I think you know why not you.”

He folds his arms. “Okay, you just won’t believe me. And that’s the way it is.” He signals the waitress for the check and pushes his chair back.
I don’t know whether his anger is real, or another strategy to get me to talk. But If  I’m getting set up, I don’t care. After all my caution, suddenly, I don’t care. I look around at the smattering of people sitting around the tables—grown-ups talking quietly, regular people I could understand. I reach across the table and touch his hand.

He takes it and leans forward. “So are you free for dinner Saturday?”
“I thought professors can’t date students.”

“I’m not a professor, I’m an instructor sent here for public relation purposes by Hoover. Dean Conroy agreed to hire me on the condition that enough students sign up. So many kids enrolled he’s considering getting a permanent criminal justice professor for next year. But it won’t be me.”
He stops and clears his throat. “So what about dinner?”

I sip my coffee. Stalling. Thinking. Well, why not? So what if he is trying to get information. Adam Fairfield underestimates me if he thinks his looks and charm and apologies will get me to talk. The truth is I am twenty two years old and tired of  being a recluse. The few dates I’d had so far were disasters. I had to fight off the swimming coach who licked my ear like a friendly puppy; a student from my history class who bored me to death; the boy I met in the cafeteria who took me out for jazz and beer and seemed so young, too young. With Adam Fairfield I feel something like gravity pulling  me in. I felt it in the classroom. I felt it in his office even when he made me mad. I feel it now sitting across the table from me in Danny’s Deli.
“So Kate? Dinner?”

“Okay,” I say.
Seven thirty?”

But don’t I know better than to allow an F.B.I. agent into my life? What’s wrong with me? I feel as confused and fragmented as one of my mother’s messed-up jig saw puzzles.
I sigh and give him my address.

I dress for the date feeling again that my life is in pieces, that Ben Gold, invisible and vicious, is like some buzzing fly that you keep swatting and missing, swatting and missing, that keeps circling back and back and back. I don’t believe in reincarnation—and anyway, even if I did, I’d expect Ben to come back as a vulture— not as a big buzzing fly that’s beginning to drive me crazy with nutty fantasies that it’s him.
I look in my closet among the beaded chiffons and close fitting, low-cut gowns that Ben bought me, searching for something quieter to wear. Fairfield needs to be reminded that I am not some gangster’s moll.

I decide on the dress I had bought for Ben’s funeral, dressing it up a bit with a pretty scarf and high heals. No jewelry except for my emerald earrings—the rest of the jewels Ben had given me are in the Safety Deposit box at the bank, along with the million dollars I discovered when the Probate officer had opened Ben’s box and discretely left.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

THE SCARF, Chapter One

September 6, 1935

It is the first day of my criminal justice class at Cleveland College. Waiting with the other students for the professor to arrive, I try to look innocent. I have taken the precaution of sitting in the back row between a boy with acne and a chubby girl with a pretty face and too much makeup. I wish I were like them. I wish acne and weight were all I have to worry about. I wish I could shake the plump girl until her teeth rattle. I want her green life.
           Someone has carved initials in the wood of my desk. Does “H. R.”  belong to the wood carver? Or to the wood-carver’s spouse? But that’s
silly-- eighteen-year-olds aren’t married. As I was. To my regret. And surely to my former husband’s, who is now safely buried with the other dead Jews in Mayfield Cemetery.
           Now the door opens and the dean arrives with a man so handsome I am aware of a collective intake of breath from the girls in the room. Who is he? I knew Dean Conway from his boring speech to the freshman assembled last week in the auditorium, but would have remembered if I had ever seen the other one. You don’t forget a face like that.
           “Good morning, students,” Dean Conway says, with his pasted-on smile. “I have a swell surprise for you. The professor in your class will be a real-life F.B.I. agent Adam Fairfield,” he says, gesturing to him grandly. “Before joining the Bureau, he taught law and criminal justice at Ohio State University. How about those credentials? How lucky can you get?” Someone starts to clap, the dean joins in and then the rest of the class.
Fairfield is standing a bit to the side, his hands in his pockets, looking like Tyrone Power or maybe Douglas Fairbanks without the mustache.
I slide my eyes over to the door. Too far away.
“I leave you now in the capable hands of Special Agent Fairfield,” Dean Conway says, pausing and lifting his chin as if posing for a photograph.
“Thank you, Dean. I only hope I don’t disappoint after that introduction,” he says, grinning as if he knows better.
He takes a sheet of paper from the desk. “Please stand as I read your name so I can get a look at you.” As he reads the names, each student stands, saying, “Here.” Waiting for him to call my name, I start to sweat. When he does, I rise, manage a mumbled “Here,” and slide back down in my chair. His eyes linger on me. Or am I imagining it? No. I am not imagining it. He knows who I am. I thought I could disappear among hundreds of college students. I thought by using my maiden I could skip the part when I became Mrs. Ben Gold. I was wrong. I should have packed up and gone as far from Cleveland as I could get—California. Oregon. Anywhere but here. Well, it isn’t too late--this is my first day in Special Agent Fairfield’s class. It’s a big country.
I see that he’s dressed for the part of charming professor in one of those tweed jackets with leather on the elbows, a blue shirt and neatly knotted brown tie. It’s hard to tell his age—30’s? 40’s? Even though his hair is cropped short, I can see the grey starting.
After the roll call, he looks at me again. I make myself  return his stare as if that will make him drop his eyes. It does not. I drop mine.
He looks at his watch. “There’s still time for me to tell you a bit about the F.B.I,” he says, sitting down on the edge of the desk. “Before J. Edgar Hoover became Director it was just the Bureau of Investigation. But Hoover got it federalized so we could cross state lines to chase the bad guys. How many of you have heard of  Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde and Machine Gun Kelly?”
A bunch of hands shoot up.
“I can tell you that we know Nelson’s in San Francisco, a source has Machine Gun Kelly in Chicago, and we’ve spotted Bonnie and Clyde in Des Moines. Believe me, their days of robbing banks and killing people are numbered.” There is a sudden gravity about him with that grim look you see on agents in the movies. 
The boy with acne raises his hand.
“Mr. Flemming,” Fairfield says, nodding.
“So how does a person get in?” the boy asks.
“You want to be an F.B.I. agent?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Well, son, you’ve got some years to go—you have to be twenty five. And before that, you have to have gone to law school. You have to be a lawyer. And come from a good family.”
Good family. That lets me out.
The boy sits down. 
A skinny girl in a navy blue dress raises her hand.
“Miss Sawyer,” Fairfield says. But he is looking at me again.
I feel the familiar blush of redheads and look down at my white schoolgirls’ blouse to check on buttons.
“Does the F.B.I. take women?” She asks.
“Not any I know of now,” he says. “Although there were a few. Emma Jentzer back some twenty years or so. Also, Alaska Davidson and Lenore Houston in the old bureau.” He stops, as if searching his memory. “And oh, yes, Jessie Duckson.” He lets go of his charming smile. “Maybe by the time you’re twenty-five Hoover will let women in. So go to law school, just in case. And if you can’t be an agent, you’ll have a back up. You can be a lawyer.”
“I don’t know any women lawyers, do you?” There was a nice edge to her voice. I liked her.
“Well, no. A great injustice. But perhaps you’ll change all that and be
the first woman agent in modern times.” The girl doesn’t look convinced. Another hand is raised.
“Mr. Linsky,” Fairfield says.
I am impressed with his memory of names after only one hearing. More to worry about.
“So how come Mr. Hoover can’t catch Dillinger?”
“Well, Mr. Linsky, we have it on good authority he’s in Dayton, Ohio. As we speak. He moves around a lot but we’ll get him. Sooner or later we’ll get him.” He narrows his eyes. You can imagine him wearing sun glasses, a fedora, and that serious expression, moving silent as a cat, stalking Dillinger, ready; you can imagine him shooting. No questions asked. Just the Springfield Armory Model M 14 machine gun with 20 round USGI—like the gun that laid under my husband’s side of the bed. Or the Smith & Wesson 22, with a clip that holds 12 rounds. Small enough to fit in a pocket. Small enough to fit in a woman’s hand. Like I used. I feel a small thrill.
           The boy sits down.
Fairfield looks at his watch again, opens a notebook, and recites the course agenda: Intro to Criminal Justice; Criminal Law; Criminal Investigation; Intro to Forensic Chemistry; Human Relations. I dutifully write the list in my notebook with a shaking hand, now convinced that he knows who I am
           “Class, please read chapters one through four in your ‘Intro to Forensic Chemistry’ by the next class,” he’s saying. My classmates begin noisily scraping chairs, murmuring, moving toward the door. A couple of girls almost trip as they turn for one more look at Fairfield.
           I close my notebook and gather up my books.
I am almost at the door when he calls from the front of the room, “Miss Brady.”
Pretending not to hear him, I put my head down and keep on walking.
“Miss Brady!” he calls. “My office, please. Room 321.”
Three or four of the girls look at me. I see envy in their eyes.
Caught, I find my way to room 321, four or five doorways down the hall. I hear him hurrying behind me. He doesn’t speak as he unlocks the door, and I cannot. He politely holds it open for me--I enter and pause in the middle of the room. I think he can hear my heart pound. I stare at my hands. No blood. In fact my fingernails are painted an innocent shade of pink which I had applied the night before as I listened to Amos & Andy on the radio.
           His office is bare, as if he is just passing through. A desk, a couple of chairs, a few books—no plants or pictures on the wall. I see that there are no photographs of a blond wife and adorable children. Could he be single?            I lower myself carefully into the chair he is offering. Through the window I see luminous clouds drifting by; I want to be out there with them. I want to be anywhere but here with this stranger who is staring at me with knowing eyes.
He sits down at his desk and gazes at me. He’s actually better looking up close than from the back row, if that’s possible.
I clear my throat. “What did you want to see me about?”
“Let’s just say I want to welcome Ben Gold’s widow into my classroom.” He smiles at me. “It isn’t often that I have the pleasure of teaching the former wife of a notorious gangster.”
           “How did you know?” I ask. I can’t help myself.
           “I saw you at your husband’s funeral.”
           “You were at Ben’s funeral?”
           “Hoover always sends agents to gangsters’ funerals.”
           I wince, thinking how the Mafia  had sent its members to mourn Ben Gold. Where police mounted on chestnut horses had to hold back the crowds. Where peering down from their handsome horses they knew which mobsters supplemented their meager Great Depression income for looking the other way. The City of Cleveland is broke, paying its employees in play money called script, making the police more than willing to be corrupted.
The gleaming black coffin was covered in gardenias and roses emitting a sickening perfume as if to cover Ben Gold’s rot in life and death. But people were respectful, clad in proper black suits and fedoras; the few women in dark-colored dresses. It could have been a funeral attended by bankers putting a colleague to rest.
           “Given your background,” Fairfield is saying, “I can understand your interest in a criminal justice class.”
I’m getting mad. What does this complacent man know of my background? How I had lost my job at Shapiro’s Bakery. And then lost my scholarship to Ohio State for the simple and terrible reason that there was no money for room and board and books. How after a while—a long while—of looking for a job that didn’t exist I just stopped looking. This arrogant know-nothing professor-man has no idea what it is like to be eighteen years old with no future and then have the handsome, magnetic and rich Ben Gold come into your life. An older man of 26 or so. Who took me to fancy restaurants, to the movies, for Sunday drives, his hand on my knee in the car, his proximity emitting heat.
Then after work one day, still in her maroon uniform, still smelling of permanent wave solution, still sober, my mother said, “You probably should get married.” She said it smoking her Camel, picking a bit of tobacco off her tongue. She said it sadly, as if I was a hopeless case with no other chance of a future. Which, of course, I had already thought of because the truth was that it was true. So on my next date with Ben Gold I wore my halter top cut low and tight skirt that showed off my backside—and then pushed him away when he got on top of me on the couch of his fancy living room. I figured by holding out I’d get him to marry me. My strategy worked—we were married by the Justice of the Peace at City Hall, attended by his bodyguard and accountent. Later, my plotting made me ashamed, but back then I thought I was so smart. Maybe I got what I deserved. Maybe I outsmarted myself. Maybe clever girls who use their sex to get what they want wind up getting punished. Or punishing themselves. As I did. So I blamed my mother for putting into words what I already figured out. I blamed her because it was easier to blame her than myself for screwing up.
“ Mr. Fairfield, I am also taking English, History, and Psychology. I’m going to be a writer.”
“A writer! Well, well. Ben Gold must have provided you with plenty of material.”
I get up. “I resent being subjected to this.”
           “You’re a person of interest to us.”
           I sat down. “What does that mean?”
           “Look. We have a file on Ben Gold thick as a book. Robberies and murders going back to 1920 when he was fifteen--sixteen.”
           “I didn’t know him then.”
           “No, but you knew him when you married him.”
           “He told me he was in the insurance business.”
           “Mrs. Gold. Come on.”
           “My name is Kate Brady.”
           “Okay, Kate Brady. You really expect me to believe you lived with him for two years and thought he was in the insurance business? Please.”
           “Well, I did,” I lie. “Anyway what do you want of the man? He’s dead. And what do you want of me?”
           “Information. Names of his associates. Conspiracies. Mob conflicts. Any bit of information you have, no matter how small, can be significant.”
           “I have nothing to tell you. I married Ben Gold when I was 18 years old,” I say slowly, as if he is dense or hard of hearing. “I married him because I lost my job. I married him because I couldn’t afford money for room and board and lost my scholarship to Ohio State. I married him to get away from my mother and her drinking problem. Do I have to pay for it the rest of my life?”
My eyes fill with real tears, I fish in my bag for a handkerchief and blow my nose. I stand up and gather my books and handbag, feeling as marked as if Ben Gold had written his name on my forehead.
“All I want is to do is forget I ever laid eyes on Ben Gold.” I look at him. “Or you.”
He rises from his chair and stands, shifting his weight, looking uncomfortable. “I’m sorry you’re upset, but if anything does occur to you about Gold or his associates—again, no matter how small--we’d appreciate your cooperation.”
           He opens the door for me. “See you tomorrow in class.”
           “No you won’t.”
“But I apologized.”
“That’s not an apology and even if it were, I wouldn’t accept it,” I say. I leave the office slamming the door behind me. Hard. I am more than relieved. I am pleased.

Driving home, I calm down, deciding to simply drop Fairfield’s class. Besides, I tell myself, even if Fairfield has me under surveillance, I really have nothing to hide. I have no contacts with anyone from my life with Ben, in spite of calls from his hit man, Sam Bernstein. His last call was just a week ago telling me he’s out of work, complaining that none of the Jewish outfits trust him because of his long association with their rival Ben Gold and that the Mafia won’t have him because he isn’t Italian. He said he wants to be my driver and bodyguard.
“Sam, I’d love to hire you,” I said, carefully, knowing full well of his lethal temper. “But I’ve learned to drive and since Ben’s gone, I really have no need for a bodyguard. Do you need anything? Money?”
“I can always use a few bucks. Especially since I aint been workin’.”
“I’ll send you a cashiers check for a thousand dollars.”
“Thanks, Kate. You always was a good dame.”
“But Sam, it’s better if you don’t call me. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay, I get it. You’re done with the life, you’re gonna be a college girl now. Your mother told me,” he says huskily. “It’s just that I miss Ben.”
“I miss him too,” I lied.
“Okay, so I won’t call you no more. Anyway, thanks for the dough.”
“Oh, Sam, you’re so welcome! And I appreciate your understanding. Take care of yourself. I’ll call if I get any ideas for you, or if something turns up.”
“Well, thanks. Like I said, you always was a good dame.” 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Here is a poem for wives


My husband is watching me iron.
Steam reassures him. The hiss of starch
The probing slide around each button of his shirt
Speaks to him of Solway Street in Pittsburgh.

As for me, the wicker basket is a reproach.
There is last summer's nightgown,
And several awkward round tablecloths
Which refuse to lie flat.

My house specializes in these challenges.
Bags of mail I did not ask to receive
Choke the floor of my linen closet.
A photograph of me, holding a baby on a beach.
But which beach and, for that matter, which baby?
A  Japanese chest whose bottom drawer has irresponsibly locked itself,
And who can remember where I put the key?

That night, waiting for sleep, I whisper,
I did only trivial things today.
And he asks, Why aren't you painting?

                Elizabeth Pierson Friend

Thursday, June 30, 2011


 I was an infant when my bootlegging father, and innocent uncle were murdered in my father’s turf war with the Mafia.

When I was old enough to ask my mother about my daddy, she told me that he died of pneumonia and never acknowledged my uncle’s existence. I think I knew even at three or four years old that she was lying.

So at the age of 18, I began a search for the truth. I read old newspapers in the Cleveland Public Library that described the murders in screaming headlines. I asked questions of surviving relatives and researched a book about the Jewish Orphanage where my mother grew up from the time she was 3 years old until she graduated at 15. The book, “Inside Looking Out” provided a  profusion of information about the orphanage in 1900 to 1915 during my mother’s time, that was like something out of Dickens. I read the family history my older brother wrote, who remembered the night of the murders--the police, the reporters, the neighbors, the screams of our mother and aunt.

Part catharsis and part an author’s recognition of a good story, I wanted to write a book about my family. I also wanted to protect its secrets. Which meant that it had to be a novel.

 But for the first time in my life I had writer’s block. Draft after draft filled my wastebasket but, I finally I got it. It was as if there was some voice within me, or in the air, or somewhere, that said simply, "It’s time for the truth to come out of the shadows."

 I started over. As if truth has an intimate power and life force, the words now flowed as in a dream. And my memoir, LOST AND FOUND was born.

When the book was published, I went on a publicity tour and got a huge surprise. Each time I spoke to a group there were always two or three people who would pull me aside and tell me THEIR family secrets. Listening, I felt released from my feelings of shame and isolation and connected to others in a new and dynamic way. It was like opening a window into fresh clean air.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Great Depression

Since the economic downturn there has been much written about the depression of the 1930’s, as if there were some connection to today’s Recession. But those born after the Great Depression—the majority of Americans--have no idea of what it was really like.

The unemployment rate was three times what it is today. There were bread lines and suicides. Fathers couldn’t support their families and had to split up their children to live with different relatives--who were also suffering. Or they were among the thousands of homeless families housed in hundreds of miserable makeshift camps around the country. Called “Hoovervilles,” they were named after President Herbert Hoover, who was widely blamed for the depression.

My mother worked for Cleveland’s’ Engineering Department. But the city of Cleveland was so broke it  paid their employees with “script,” which was as useless to pay for food as Monopoly money. When I was six years old my mother sent me into grocery store after grocery store to ask if they took script, while she waited in the car at the curb. When I finally got a “yes” she would go in and do the grocery shopping.

But there was an extraordinary camaraderie in the country. Unlike today, with the huge income gaps between the rich and middle class—not to mention the poor—everyone was in the same boat which unified the country. There wasn’t today’s underlying anger and bitter political conflict. And potatoes were a penny a pound!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


People who know I write for love and not money probably think there’s something wrong with my moorings. They don’t quite comprehend that writing can be an end in itself—and a profoundly rewarding one. In fact, it goes into the making of a good life.
            A good life, for me at least, means making connections with the world around me. It means a heightened awareness of people with sensitivity to all sorts of subtle shadings. It means an existence without murkiness. The discipline of writing conditions the mind for this kind of life. It enables me to develop the tri-dimensional or stereoscopic habit.
            The women in my life become more defined in their own uniqueness, and, as I write, I feel a sisterhood blossom like Spring flowers. We are wives, widows, daughters mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts; we run houses and businesses, we nurture babies and husbands; we take care of parents; we garden and run for Congress, we listen and console.
            The man seated next to me at a dinner party has always been a bore, but now I look at him through different eyes. He fascinates me; he is literary fodder. True, he is a “stereotype”; the golf-playing cigar-smoking, back-slapping business man; but now I talk to him, draw him out, and he lets me have a glimpse of the part of him that is not a cliché. Before I started to write, this kind of evening would numb me; now it excites my imagination.
When I sit down to write, I change places with fate. I am its master at last. For a little while I am no longer one of millions dominated by forces quite outside my control; I become truly omnipotent. What could be sweeter? I create my characters, I make things happen or not happen to them. I make then happy or sad. I look at life from a few steps back, as if viewing a painting. I manipulate, maneuver and fashion. I know what is going to happen because I make it happen.
We humans are a mixed lot; invincible and vulnerable, independent and needy, insecure and powerful. I have tried, in my writing, to understand and celebrate the gloriously complicated lives of people for my own and my readers’ discovery. To me, this is the supreme function of writing. It is no easy calling, but its rewards go so far beyond the mundane, that I hope to practice it for as many years as I have left on earth.


Monday, May 9, 2011

WRITING YOUR LIFE, Part Five: Yours Alone

Although someone else in your family may have experienced the same event or person in your memoir entirely differently, this is your memory, your truth and your experience. My brother remembers our mother as being weak and frightened. I remember her as being strong and brave. Perceptions are complicated and personal and singular, and the more your respect your own unique insight, the more fun you'll have writing and the more your memoir will come to life on the page.

The writer and teacher, Brenda Ueland, says that you must write from your true self and not from the self you—or others—think you should. No individual is exactly like any other individual.

No two identical persons have ever  existed—including twins. Therefore, if you tell the truth and speak from your true self, you cannot help having something important, unique and interesting to say that will be treasured for generations to come.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Think of a performance on stage. It has a setting, it has action, it has dialogue, it has a time and place, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. And it gets plenty of attention.
Say you're writing about your honeymoon trip to a resort. The two of you are having dinner in the dining room.
A gentleman in a tuxedo is playing Let's Do It on the piano. You describe the blue, fringed draperies on the windows. The Dover sole, wild rice and mushrooms on your plate. The mauve chiffon dress you are wearing from your trousseau. The aromas of your husband's steak, your perfume, the red wine in your glass.
You notice a strange-looking man at the next table. He has a pock-marked face, icy blue eyes and white hair. He needs a shave. He is dining with a beautiful young woman in red lace. He is shouting and slamming his fist on the table as the beautiful young woman weeps.
Your new husband becomes so distressed that he cannot eat and insists on checking out of the hotel immediately and going home. Your marriage lasts only three more months. (Your children never knew you had been married before.) This  is a scene.
What you write about doesn't have to be that dramatic to be interesting, but you do want to lay the words of the page with as much detail as you can so that your readers can relive the scene that you are capturing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

HOW TO WRITE YOUR LIFE, Part Three: You Do Remember

You remember more than you think you do. It’s all there in the recesses of your mind, and will return through the very process of writing. Writing is the trigger you use to release your memory. Don’t worry about precise names, places, facts and dates. It is the memory of your feeling and the incidents you have chosen to write about that can be truer, more significant and more interesting than chronological facts. (They can always be checked or reconstructed later.)

            Keep a notebook in your car, in your handbag, in your pocket and on your nightstand to record random memories and thoughts. It is important, because these flashes of memory or ideas can otherwise drift through your mind and vanish like a dream. Catch them and write then down.

            Then set aside time during the day or evening to write. Write and write with no judgement about the results. Write and write freely and recklessly. Write and write even if you hate what you’ve come up with. Most professionals keep only about ten percent of what they produce, but they understand that writing the discarded ninety percent is how they will get to the buried memory, the treassure, the sentence or paragraph or passage that says what is in their heart and mind. It’s a wonderful feeling when it happens—like hitting a hole in one, playing a grand slam, winning a lottery. It’s what keeps writers writing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


As long as you’re not hurting anyone who is still alive, reveal family secrets. It is what your children and grandchildren want to know, it will bring your story to life and it can be an important cathartic experience for you.

            Martha Norman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, writes, “Every family has something they don’t want to talk about. In my family it was epilepsy and suicide. In other families it’s violence, or depression, or stupidity, or sex, or money, or even genius.The human condition can probably be defined as the stuff families won’t talk about.”

            In my very own family, it was murder. Or murders. My bootlegging father and my uncle (who was innocent and just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time} were murdered by the Mafia in a turf war during Prohibition.

            I was an infant at the time, and when I became old enough to ask Mother about my father’s death, she told me he died of pneumonia. To the end of her life, she was unable to tell me the truth, and it remained a tightly held secret within the entire family.

            After my mother died, I researched my father’s life and death and wrote about the secret in my memoir, Lost And Found. When the book was published, to my surprise, it was received with compassion and fascination by my family and my readers (who often took me aside at book signings to tell me their family secrets. And I experienced first-hand the liberating, life-changing, power of the truth.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Every life has drama: joy, loss, surprise, knowledge, conflict, wisdom—the stuff of memoir. Writing yours can be a treasured gift to your children, grandchildren and others because it tells them something eloquent about who you are and who they are. It can also be a gift to yourself by providing the motivation to look back on your life with wisdom and experience, discovering yourself anew.
Start simple. Write abut a trip, your first date or a teacher who changed your life. Other topics: your wedding or your divorce, the birth of a child, an illness, your grandmother, a friendship, a falling out. What you choose can be sad or funny, short or long. The only rule is that you choose a theme from your life and your heart.


Check out from the library or buy The Art of the Personal Essay by Philip Lopate. It contains nearly 800 pages of short, wonderful memoirs, any one of which might spark an idea of your own.
There is Joan Didion’s Goodbye To All That in which she writes, “Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve. For that is how those years appear to me now.”
Here, too, is Adrianne Rich in Split At The Root, describing her Jewish father and gentile mother, her ambivalence as a Jew and “the daily, mundane anti-Semitisms of my entire life. Split at the root, neither gentile nor Jew, Yankee nor Rebel, still trying to have it both ways.”
You’ve heard of many of the writers, others are strangers. But they all impart important wisdom, often delivered wryly. In Hubert Butler’s Aunt Harriet, for example,
He writes, “My mother said Aunt Harriet became a Christian Scientist because a certain Mr. Davis had failed to meet her under the clock on the platform at Kingbridge Station in Dublin.
The essays touch on events and themes that may resonate in your own life. Think of them and everything you read as a potential starting-point for your own work.


Friday, April 1, 2011


In the pictures I have of my mother she looks like the Duchess of Windsor. My husband, who didn’t like her, would say, Oh oh, here comes the Duchess, when he heard her car in the driveway. Raised in an orphanage, how did she come by that royal presence? How could she have been so fragile, and yet accomplish so much in her young widowhood, raising my brother and me? How can she exist so powerfully after she is dead? She seems to have left tracks in my brain like indelible markers that are more than memory, leaking into my present.
            She died while I was downstairs in the hospital coffee shop drinking a milkshake and leafing through Newsweek. I found her on the floor of the room after her last desperate moment of pride trying to get to the bathroom alone. She was crumpled on the floor at the foot of the bed, a terrifying stranger in a hospital gown. I screamed for the nurse who came running. It took the two of us to get her back in the bed where she lay, dignified once again, even in this unbelievable death.
            In life she didn’t look like anyone’s mother. She was too young-looking, too chic. Back then mothers stayed home but she went to work every day in high heels and bracelets; people thought she was my sister. She fascinated my friends with how unmotherish she was, how charming, vivacious, flirtatious; how much like a girlfriend. But I wanted her to be like their apron-clad moms who didn’t scare and excite and hypnotize and then slip away like ether. I longed for safer plumper arms, the smell of dinner cooking in a warm kitchen. My mother brought home cardboard cartons of Chinese food for our dinner, smelling of her office and stale perfume.
            In those days the sex life of single women was hidden, but I could always tell when she had a date with a new boyfriend because she’s get in such a high mood. Once she sent me to live with a relative while she went off to a hotel. To my vast relief, that one lasted only a couple of months and she came back for me. Other times I remember hearing a man’s voice from my bed at night, laughter, the clinking of ice in glasses. The next day my mother would look younger, prettier; even then I recognized the signs. The whisky glasses. The scent of a male mixed with the sort of flowery mannerliness my mother had in those days. Once there was a whole bouquet in a vase; he was a sport, my mother said. She was always alone when I got up for school the next morning and I wondered if maybe her boyfriend was married. But I pretended she didn’t let him stay overnight because of me--for her dignity and mine.
            Self-educated in literature, music and art, fluent in the German and Hebrew that she learned growing up in the Jewish Orphan Home, she had nothing but scorn for the institutions the rest of the world lives by—school, organized religion, government, marriage, politics. But anyone who dared label her iconoclast, existentialist or feminist or any other “ist” would have been meet with a withering look. Her independence and courage thrilled me because I always knew how alone and frightened she was. She was my heroine. No book or movie ever had such a star.
            But she was too alone and overwhelmed for mothering, too damaged from her orphanhood. Exhausted most of the time, often asthmatic, she shipped me around to the relatives she didn’t like. I never rebelled, not even in adolescence. My girlfriends’ complaints about their mothers amused me because when it came to mothers I was the one with plenty to criticize, and I never did. The way I saw it the only thing that stood between me and total terrifying orphanhood was my flawed and fragile mother. Who somehow always managed to be there. Sort of. More or less. Anyway, I wasn’t about to pick on my mother. I felt this kind of weird loyalty. I had to take care of her. But of course I couldn’t. I was too young for her neediness and fragility.
            So I broke away from her grasp on my life and heart into a teenage marriage. Her unhappiness at my abandonment ooze from her pores, her moist eyes, her eager misery, blackmailing me into visits I didn’t want to make, sneaking money to her from my grocery allowance. I was a dutiful daughter, attentive to her complaints and demands for attention, feeling as guilty as if her frailties were my own.
She could electrify a room with her brilliance and charm, but she didn’t know when or how to stop; people became restless; they looked away, they would leave if they could. I was ashamed of her. I was proud of her. But I didn’t know what I had learned from her. That is, until my divorce. Needing independence and courage, I discovered it within myself, put there by her spirit. Also, the pleasure of learning and the life of the mind. Integrity of the self. Compassion, from watching her struggle, and even, from my own unmet needs, how to mother my children.
I was often asked why my attractive youthful never remarried. But deprived from birth of parental love and widowed at twenty-eight, she seemed to demand more love than there was in the world, more than anyone could ever give her, souring every relationship of her life.
The night before her funeral I dreamed I was the only pallbearer.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Jewish Orphan Asylum Part II


In the orphanage my mother was always hungry. While doing her dawn-to-dusk chores, during her hours of Hebrew and Bible study, she was hungry. Attending classes in German, English and mathematics, history, social studies and geography, she was hungry. Sitting among the five hundred other orphans at long, wooden tables, there was never enough to eat, and for every hour of each and every day, for the next twelve years, she was hungry, climbing over the eight-foot fence to steal food from nearby grocers or neighbors’ kitchens.
            At mealtimes, five hundred orphans sat at ten long tables in enforced silence. The food was boiled in huge vats. Breakfast was a kind of gruel the children called mush, weak coffee and a slice of stale bread thinly covered with margarine. Dinner was a stringy stew or green pea hash. Her twelve years in the Home must have left her so famished for so long that it didn’t feel like hunger, only a vast, incomprehensible inner vacuum that could have been confused with the absence of love.
Once a week the children were assembled in the Prayer Hall on the top floor of the schoolhouse for one of the director’s lectures on personal morality, integrity, uprightness, virtue, and the Ten Commandments. Determined to shape his charges’ minds and characters toward a moral, ethical and honorable life, he told them to be truthful and honest, obey laws and rules, honor the elderly, love and respect their parents, resist temptations, be good citizens and patriots, keep their promises, control their temper, love their neighbors, refrain from jealousy and envy, work hard, trust God and stay close to Him, be modest and humble, be grateful and appreciative, love the president of the country, be good and righteous, respect their teachers, plan for the future, help those in need, be kind and obedient, be happy and strive to make others happy, meet troubles and hardship with a strong mind, be faithful to the Jewish religion by observing its laws and history, love all children alike without showing favoritism, atone for their sins and be anxious to improve.
Taught religion, my mother became an agnostic; taught truthfulness, she lied; taught humility and gratitude for an orphan’s room and board; she developed a ferocious pride. Instructed on modesty in dress and behavior, she exchanged her scratchy uniform for the glittering dresses she loved and spent her widow years before the Crash as the quintessential flapper.
But she was also smart, every year in the orphanage performing academically at the top of her class. And at the age of fifteen on a lovely June afternoon in 1912, my mother graduated Valedictorian from the Jewish Orphan Home.
After the ceremonies, her Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Adler, climbed the stairs to her dorm where my mother was packing her few belongings. “You’re to go to the office,” she told her. Clutching her valedictorian medal, she ran downstairs. Mrs. Goldstein, the secretary, was standing in the administration office with a woman my mother had never seen before.
“This is Anna Smith,” Mrs. Goldstein said. “She is your mother.”
Anna Smith had never visited her daughters. Not once. Not once in 12 years.