Hodara Memoir Workshops Showcase
On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, writers gather around the heavy wooden table at the Hudson Valley Writers Center to share stories from their lives. Week after week, they come with their memories of love, loss and life-altering events, while outside, the majestic Hudson River changes with the seasons.
One by one, the writers read their work aloud, sometimes pausing as a train whooshes past. There are tears, chuckles, gasps of surprise; there is admiration, the acknowledgement of courage, sometimes gratitude that a writer has captured a poignant truth and pinned it onto the page.
And there is critique: suggestions of where to add details, what to delete, how to end the piece. Someone is confused; someone wants to see the setting; someone wonders when what happened took place. One person says, can you describe how you felt? Another asks, what is the story you are trying to tell?
The writers listen to one another, digesting the feedback they receive. They read their revisions the next week, and sometimes the week after that. Words are changed, paragraphs are rearranged, meaning is deepened. Their stories evolve until they are done.
And now they are here, for you to appreciate. The Hodara Memoir Workshops Showcase presents polished pieces completed in the center’s morning and afternoon memoir workshops. They are the products of receptive minds and concentrated effort. They are about a range of subjects, but they share one trait: they are all true stories of lives being lived.
_Susan Hodara, instructor
The Talent Show
By Susan Barocas
My third-grade teacher was a firecracker. Young, pretty and vivacious, Miss Kroll made learning fun. Every day following traditional lessons, we’d push our desks to the side of the classroom, and she’d plug in her portable record player and teach the class to dance. At age eight, most of the kids were shy, awkward, whining, or uninterested. But not me!
I loved the daily dance lessons and was a fast learner. Pretty soon I could cha-cha, foxtrot, samba – keeping up with Miss Kroll step for step. I became her “pet” and thought she was the best teacher ever.
An only child, I spent a lot of at-home time on my own. My parents had a busy social calendar, and most nights I was left in the care of our housekeeper, Daisy, who’d sit in the kitchen listening to her radio.
To fill the hours, I created an imaginary world where I was as beautiful as the stars on TV. I’d play one of my parents’ albums on the stereo and pretend to be Doris Day, Julie Andrews or Dinah Shore, lip-syncing into a pretend candlestick microphone. I was applauded and adored.
So when Miss Kroll announced the news – she was helping to plan a student talent night, I didn’t need convincing. This was my chance to be in a real-life show!
Auditions were held in the auditorium. Miss Kroll and two other teachers sat at a table facing the stage. I waited nervously for my turn as names were called one by one. Finally “Susie Miller” was announced, and as I walked up the steps to the stage, I glanced at Miss Kroll. Her wink and smile calmed the fluttering in my stomach.
I can’t remember what song I sang, but I did the best I could. Much to my surprise, I was among the names read who made it into the show. Miss Kroll congratulated me with a big hug.
Because the music teacher would accompany singers on the piano, I was asked to bring sheet music to the first rehearsal. My mother took me to a record store where I chose “April in Paris” for my performance.
Then I decided what I would wear. My favorite dress was ivory with a pattern of tiny pale pink roses and a pink satin ribbon tied around the waist. It had a full skirt with a crinoline and looked just like the ones the TV stars wore.
I walked on air into the first rehearsal. Miss Kroll wasn’t there. The two other teachers who had judged the auditions were supervising. I sat on a folding chair on stage along with the other students waiting to perform.
When it was my turn, I handed the sheet music to the pianist. It was a magical moment. I was part of a great show business adventure.
When I finished my song, one of the teachers signaled to me to come down from the stage. He walked me to the back of the auditorium where it was dark and deserted. He spoke in a whisper as he told me the show was running long and my song was being eliminated. But I knew what he was really saying: “You’re just not good enough.”
Joy and happiness drained from my body. I felt queasy and dizzy. I’m sure he said something like he was sorry as he walked away, but I didn’t hear another word. I think he told me to go back to my classroom, but I stood frozen, tears streaming down my face.
Unable to face my classmates, I went directly to the nurse’s office complaining of a stomachache. The nurse took my pulse and temperature, but of course I wasn’t sick. I convinced her to call my mother to come take me home.
As I waited, Miss Kroll walked in. She had heard what happened. I wanted her to be outraged and tell me she would demand I be put back in the show. All she offered was a sympathetic pat on my head. I never felt the same about her again.
Following a decades-long career in marketing communication and public relations, Susan Barocas joined the memoir workshop to explore her skills and potential as a writer beyond the professional world. She is discovering new, inspiring aspects of the creative process, learning how to process constructive criticism and enjoying the company of talented, supportive people.
My Memoir Affair
By John M. Delehanty
Once a week I leave my lawyer’s life behind for a few hours and drive to a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. I sit around a large table with seven strangers in an old Victorian train station. Each of us reads a short memoir.
These stories are remarkable and fascinating. They are painful, funny, original and true, and often reveal intimate details of our lives that we have not shared with anyone else. We critique the writing and don’t always agree. The comments often say as much about the listener as they do about the writer.
We try to focus on the writing, but can’t help but relate the stories to our own lives. Death, illness, addiction, familial conflict and loss are universal. Regardless of whether the writing has been polished, the profound emotions of the writer always come through. And the setting is magnificent, the broad river with its endless vistas and the trains rushing by. Although the trains may only be going to Albany, with a little imagination they can evoke a feeling of adventure and mystery, which is perfect for our group.
Unlike some of my fellow writers, I am not compiling an extended story of my life. That is what most of my friends think I am doing when I mention the word “memoir.” I write separate, free-standing vignettes, each of which evokes a small slice of my life in a particular place and time. I have written about 30 of these pieces over the last few years. Someday they could all be strung together like beads on a necklace and tell a future reader something about who I am or who I was. But that is not my intention. I am not trying to create a legacy or share these stories with the world.
The satisfaction of memoir writing for me is purely personal, and to quote our teacher’s latest prompt, my “indulgence.” I do it because the writing process itself immerses me in long forgotten memories that flood my consciousness as soon as I type the first sentence. While I write, I can recreate my two grandmothers and put my younger self in a room with each of them, hearing one play the piano while the other rattles her rosary beads. I can conjure my childhood neighborhood from my perch in a chokecherry tree and feel like I am eight years old again. I can experience the love of my mother as we worked together for hours wallpapering or painting a room, and the contrasting distance of my father, who spent much of my childhood in a neighborhood bar.
Writing not only whisks me back to my past but helps me explain it. I can see the connection between my father’s horrific experience in World War II, his economic frustration after coming home and his escape into a bottle of whisky. And I can discern my mother’s seeking refuge in her oldest son as a replacement for the love and attention she did not get from her husband.
In my writing, I can also relive my biggest crisis as an adult, when I faced a life on dialysis because of a genetic kidney disease. I was rescued by a friend who gave me one of his kidneys. The swirl of emotions generated by this event is profound. I feel compelled to keep them alive in my writing. I can never write enough about the selflessness of my friend, the miraculous resurrection of my body after the transplant, the overwhelming support of the people around me during my recuperation and the unexpected and very rare spirituality I experienced, which led me directly to a conversion to Judaism.
Writing also forces me to convey images that are as sharp as a motion picture in my mind to my seven fellow writers around the table. They have not seen this movie before or any of its prequels or sequels. They can only see my grandmothers if I tell them about Adelaide’s robust playing of her piano and the organ in the church next door, her knitting of afghans with gnarled fingers, Delia’s rosary beads worn smooth with thrice daily recitations and the tea leaves that, ironically, she valued just as highly as the beads. Choosing the right words to bring them back to life is both a challenge and a joy.
I sometimes wonder as much about the things I don’t write about as those I do. I have been a successful litigation lawyer in New York for more than 45 years and, like most lawyers, have many stories to tell. But those professional stories struggle for attention with the more interesting stories of my early life and don’t come to the surface; they will have to wait.
I also don’t write much about my three sons and my relationships with them. I know I was a more caring and involved father than my own, but I think my competitiveness with my sons for Judy's attention and my high fatherly expectations for them crept into the mix and dulled my enthusiasm for writing about my life as a father I hope that will change.
My memoir trysts in Sleepy Hollow may not be titillating, but for me they are a perfect way to spend my supply of Wednesday afternoons.
John is a recovering litigation lawyer who has recently shifted his focus from starting lawsuits to mediating them. He uses memoir writing to enhance his understanding of the roots of human conflict.
Tappan Zee Bridge Prose
By Eileen McGovern Carey
Over. Under. East. West. North. South. The Tappan Zee Bridge has ferried me from childhood into adulthood.
Loaded into the back of Mom’s Ford wagon, the five youngest of my parents’ 13 children would travel west from White Plains over the bridge, then north to Windham Mountain to ski. On the way back, crossing the Hudson River east, the view of Lyndhurst castle signaled I was almost home.
In my early twenties, I drove 25 miles west for a date with a man named John in Chestnut Ridge, and a romance was born. Engaged, then married, I left my family to move to Rockland. Of my commute to Westchester for family visits, my mother lamented, “I hate to think of you crossing that bridge!”
Pregnant, I travelled for checkups in White Plains. Was I afraid of giving birth? No! I was afraid of giving birth on the TZB during Labor Day traffic (no pun intended)! Turns out traffic is a walk in the park compared to childbirth. Welcome, Shannon.
I travelled across that span countless times as our family grew. Beach traffic to the shore posed a threat for Jack’s June 17th arrival. When Liam was due, I fantasized about a police escort. “Hurry!” I panted from the back seat. Luckily, the 4am crossing was a snap.
A family of five needs a boat, John said. We named her “Carey’d Aweigh,” docked her in Piermont, and buckled up our children’s lifejackets as we motored north. The kids would scream as we passed under the lower causeway, the massive metal structure echoing back their cries. As they grew, they loved tubing, water skiing, and wakeboarding under the bridge. But, like London Bridge of nursery rhyme fame, ours was falling down!
Construction began on a new, dual span. An engineering feat unfolded as giant steel pylons were pounded with ear-splitting loudness into the depths of the river. We motored around the construction, gazing at the wonder before us. The Left Coast Lifter, the largest crane on water, travelled from San Francisco across the Panama Canal to Nyack-Tarrytown. Excitement grew as we watched the progress from above and below: north-south on-the-river boating showed us a completed roadway; east-west in-auto crossings revealed installed lighting and signage.
Now that the kids are off to college and beyond, John and I are embracing the empty nest. Evenings we drop anchor on the river to watch the sun set; the lights on the bridges – new and old – paint a diamond tiara in the purple-orange sky. We are eager for the opening of the western-bound span. Soon, a promised bike/pedestrian path will offer us a new way to travel across our beloved Hudson. Instead of seatbelts or lifejackets, we’ll strap on our helmets for an active journey: this time on two wheels, moving forward, a bridge into the next phase of our lives.
“Tappan Zee Bridge Prose” was one of four short pieces written by Hudson Valley Writers Center-affiliated writers selected to participate in “Bridging Art,” a celebration of the Tappan Zee Bridge and its replacement, the Gov. Mario Cuomo Bridge. Eileen McGovern Carey presented her work in front of an audience of 50 during the celebration’s showcase in September.
By Bonnie Chwast
I often think about a favorite brown and tan houndstooth scarf I lost in a garage a few years ago as I hurried home from work, hands full and my mind on other matters. It was made of soft merino wool and big enough to be a shawl. I liked to wear it on cold days over my coat to cut the chill and show it off. It must have slipped from my shoulders, where it was loosely hung, and landed on the asphalt floor without any sound to alert me. I’m certain that it made someone’s day when they found it, but I have lamented its disappearance ever since.
The scarf had come from Italy and I loved its “throw caution to the wind” design. Rows of identical checks occupied the middle ground, interlinked and orderly; then the checks broke free of one another and took off running like AWOL soldiers, scattering and changing shape until they reached the edges of the fabric and vanished. Those Italians know how to craft their designs; they don’t worry about what happens to them at the end of the day. They accept impermanence without a fuss.
Take Venice, a city that will sink one day and drown in the water that gives it life. If you go there, you may be struck, as I was, by how the Italians embrace their aging city with little fanfare, coming and going nonchalantly from crumbling buildings that wear their decay like a badge of honor. I walked the streets there for hours on a recent visit, taking in the views, all the while wishing I might grow old the Italian way. I stopped in some stores I passed to look for a scarf like the one I lost, but no such luck.
I once knew a little Italian girl named Lorraine Ribis at a time when I was little, too. We were classmates in third grade and sat at school desks across the aisle from each other. The desktops were grooved and scarred from years of use. At the beginning of the school year, each child arrived with a length of oilcloth to cover the desk’s surface and make it smooth. Festooned in colorful cloths, our drab classroom came alive. Lorraine’s oil cloth was bright red and mine a light shade of green.
In the right-hand corner of each desk top was a circular hole where once a reservoir filled with ink had supplied thirsty fountain pens. It sat empty and obsolete. We liked to drop paper clips into the hole and fish them out in the desk’s belly below; it gave the hole a purpose.
One day when I came to school, Lorraine’s seat was empty, no familiar notebook visible on her desk. She had stepped off a curb the day before and been crushed by a cement truck turning the corner. Sitting high up and looking out, not down, the driver didn’t see her in the street. Her mother had been nearby watching. In class, we weren’t encouraged to talk much about what had happened. I felt sad and frightened; no one ever knew. I still revisit the scene in my mind; it unfolds like an old-time movie, no color, no sound, just swift action and a small, lifeless body on the pavement. Lorraine’s oilcloth remained on her desk after the accident until one day my teacher, Mrs. Stein, rolled it up and took it away.
When the ambulance rolled up to the door on an overcast morning in December to take my mother away to the funeral home, there was nothing shocking about it. She was in her ninetieth year and had been bedridden the month prior with a failing heart. I knew we were approaching the end and she did, too. The night before, I had been by her bedside in the house she loved when she told me she was short of breath. I offered and she declined a trip to the hospital. Her voice was hoarse, her words indistinct, but her message was clear: she wanted to die at home. As I nodded in acquiescence, she stretched out her frail arms to smooth her rumpled bed linens. She had been meticulous in her life; she hated unmade beds and wasn’t going to leave this earth in one if she could help it.
I record this story with an appreciation of my mother that I did not always have. She was gone from me for much of my life, unavailable in her bedroom with the door closed when I was a child, unavailable in distant places with my father as I got older. They travelled the world together to ever more exotic destinations, snapping photos and bargaining for art and antiquities to line the shelves of their home. They were inseparable and always had each other in sight wherever they went. My brother and I remained in the rearview mirror and managed mostly on our own.
Years later, and by then in her eighties, my mother was left on her own when my father died. Resentment and anger might have permeated the time we had left with her. We might have remained strangers. But that is not our story. My mother, with all her flaws showing, came back to reclaim her children, and my brother and I came back to repossess her. Little by little, bit by bit, we reconstructed our relationships. My brother came east to visit often and stayed in my mother’s house. My mother and I ran errands, drove through the countryside, sipped coffee together, worried about her declining health. She saw her grandchildren more and was present at all of our family gatherings. We spent the last years of her life celebrating the homecoming of our prodigal mother.
During the years that they traveled, my parents returned to Italy again and again, amassing a large collection of Venetian blown glass in all colors and
sizes. My mother loved to sit on the living room couch, facing her wall of glass pieces, in silent contemplation. I like to think that she was imagining herself a young woman again, an artist, bohemian, unfettered, running down cobblestone streets in an ancient city, searching for her future.
One large vase, rounded and ample in the middle, then tapering toward its mouth, was her favorite, as it is mine. It is called End of Day glass. As the work day ends, the glass blower gathers molten leftovers from his pots, retrieves discarded bits of colored rods, and shapes them into a marbleized whole, a new form that comes to life with the remnants of everything that came before. When I look at the vase, now on my own shelf, I marvel at its beauty; I feel its heat; I weep for what I found.
Throughout her career as a clinical psychologist, Bonnie Chwast listened with great appreciation to the stories her patients told her. Now in retirement, she is finding time to tell some of her own.
The Nelsons & the Rockefellers
By Lisa Peterson
His century-old skin felt like velvet as I took David Rockefeller’s hand. He looked up at me from his chair in the church’s fellowship hall, his blue eyes sparkling as I stood before him. I leaned down so he could hear me speak.
“On behalf of the Nelson family, I wish you a happy 100th birthday,” I said.
“Thank you,” came the soft reply.
David Rockefeller would turn 100 in just five days, on June 12, 2015. To celebrate, Union Church held a piano recital for its oldest, most famous benefactor and member. A renowned Carnegie Hall concert pianist came to play new works dedicated to the stained-glass church windows created by the artist Marc Chagall. Just like David, the was church was turning 100 years old. As a third-generation church-goer, I was invited to the celebration.
When I arrived in the hamlet of Pocantico Hills, New York, on that sunny Sunday afternoon, familiar memories met me inside the church’s highly varnished wooden door. As I walked into the sanctuary, built in 1922 by David’s father and grandfather, I saw the brass and wood plaque I had had made in my grandfather’s memory, listing all the pastors who had served.
My grandfather first attended Sunday school there in 1910, and 50 years later, his wife, my grandmother, would serve on the Board of Trustees with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. When I was christened here, I was surrounded by Rockefellers: David, and his wife, his brother Laurence and his wife, and Jay Rockefeller.
My early religious upbringing was formed in the non-denominational “Rockefeller church.” It was a nice place to learn about God. Before the age of eight, I went to Sunday school there and enjoyed Easter egg hunts. I remember a Sunday when my Dad was an usher in church, and I drew him a picture of the green and gold stained glass Matisse Rose window, planning to drop it into the collection plate. But when he ended up on the other side of the aisle, I burst out crying. Decades later, I fought back tears among the pretty windows as I gave my grandmother’s eulogy.
Today, a Steinway grand piano was rolled in on a red carpet just for the recital. As the pianist played beneath the Rose window, the space came alive with bold notes and soft interludes. Located above the alter, installed years before the Chagall windows, the Matisse was commissioned by and later dedicated to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, David’s mother. It was Matisse’s last work before his death.
When the wind picked up it jostled the trees just outside the stone chapel, and the moving trees made their shadows dance across the Rose window in a rippling wave. A dazzling light show, made by nature and man, of stained glass, trees, and wind. A perfect visual accompaniment to the music.
After the concert, we headed into the fellowship hall for the birthday celebration. There were three wooden chairs with pale yellow upholstered seats, arranged in a row on a square burgundy rug in front of the stage with its drawn burgundy velvet curtains, like a royal backdrop. David sat in the middle seat, as if on a throne.
At least 100 guests held champagne glasses, clinking a toast to the centenarian. Standing tall on a table before the honoree was a Wedgewood blue, three-tired, pyramid-shaped cake. It reminded me of the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill. How fitting for a banker! The cake also reflected the art deco architecture of Rockefeller Center. It was adorned with silver swirls and lettering stating the obvious: David Rockefeller. After biting into the hard fondant outer shell, a soft burst of vanilla, almonds, and fresh raspberries filled my mouth.
After the toast, we all moved towards David for a quick chat. When my turn came, I explained to him that many members of my family — the Nelsons — had worked for many members of his family during the last century. My grandfather, grandmother, and father had served as a chauffeur, dressmaker, and flight mechanic. Most notably, however, was my grand uncle, the first caretaker of David’s Hudson Pines estate, just down the road from the church, where he would die at the age of 101.
I wish my grandmother could have been at this celebration, not just to see the cake baked by her mentee, but to feel a family bond with the Rockefellers. The best I could do was proudly wear the gold Swiss brooch that she had worn to church almost every Sunday for more than 50 years. When I was done listing all the Nelson/Rockefeller connections, David grinned and said, “Well then, I guess we are indirectly related!” We both chuckled and raised our champagne flutes.
Lisa Peterson — a lifelong equestrian, dog show judge, and fourth-generation estate dweller born in Sleepy Hollow — writes about horses, hounds, and history at LisaUnleashed.com. Lisa lives with her husband and two Norwegian Elkhounds in Newtown, Connecticut, where she is a weekly newspaper columnist and writing a book about the mysterious disappearance of Regina Brown.
Pictured: David Rockefeller at 100 with the author.
The best and most beautiful things
in the world cannot be seen or even touched
– they must be felt with the heart.
The Strongest Muscle in the Body
By Cherish Galvin-Bliefernich
After the accident, some of the moments I missed most during the first four months of recovery were the “car conversations” the kids and I would have whenever we were running to the grocery store, doctors’ appointments or the holy grail of stores, Target.
The conversations had a wide range of topics, jumping from one random question (“Mama, did you see the dinosaur in the cloud?”) to another (“Mama, how did they get the door off of you? You had no handle.”)
Being told that I had to wait until almost November to drive was hard – hard on my nature to be on the go and independent, hard on the routines I used to love doing with my eight-year-old daughter, Aly, and my five-year old son, Jacob. In what felt so long but was really not long at all, we were back to driving together: changed, but embracing time spent making observations and asking questions.
Our “car conversations” restarted hesitantly, wedged between hyperawareness and physical memory, but then quickly returned as we became more relaxed and settled into routines again. By January, Jacob had sparked one of the most interesting dialogues I’d ever had with him.
It began with a song. I still had a few favorite Christmas jingles on my playlist, and an a cappella version of “Go Tell it On The Mountain” had come on. Apparently, Jacob was listening.
“Mama, how old is Jesus?”
About 2000 years old, I told him.
“Wow! That’s old!” Quiet in the backseat as he ruminated over this information. Then, “Mama, how old is God?”
Oh, dear Lord. I took a deep breath and said, “As old as the universe, Jacob.”
Wide, blue eyes stared back at me in the rearview mirror; blonde eyebrows arched in surprise and a look of shock spread across his young face. “Wow! God’s got some serious magic to live that long!”
His response prompted my heart to giggle at his sincerity. I love when these big questions come during mundane tasks, lighting up my days with perspective and wonder.
Valentine’s Day was no different. On the way back from school, with brownie hearts on our minds, Jacob asked, “Mama, do you know what the strongest muscle in the body is?”
I smiled to myself and remembered all the conversations I’d had with my sister, Teka, who has worked with the hearts and lungs of babies for over twenty years, and obligingly said, “The leg muscles?”
“No!” Jake replied. “The heart!”
He proceeded to tell me that it is about the size of a fist, and I realized that Mrs. Steimle must have talked about the heart in class.
The heart is the strongest muscle in the human body. It should be. I know that it has a physical job, a really important one. The day of the accident, the only artery that hadn’t collapsed in me was between my heart and my brain.
Which one kept the other going? When my immobile, trapped body and unseeing but open eyes could not tell me if both of my children were okay in the back seat, my heart was pounding, and my brain was trapped between a memory and a dream. I needed to hear the voice of an angel, in the human form of our local fire chief, Ann, to tell me that my “kids were fine” in order to let go and leave my life in the hands of EMTs and doctors.
When I met with Dr. Policastro in a follow-up appointment one day in August about six weeks later, he told me that a person on his operating table who did not have a family to live for would not have survived the first two surgeries I had had to repair the trauma done to my abdomen. So I feel pretty confident that my heart kept me alive.
Then again, maybe what kept me alive was all the germs from my children and the hundreds of children I have taught. Dr. Aspirinio, who performed my third surgery a week after the accident, told me, “I think your immune system saved you.” According to him, I need to thank every sneeze that has ever exploded onto my face, every midnight vomiting over the last eight years, every sloppy kiss on my cheek.
Though my immune system may have helped, I disagree with him. I think it was the versatile heart, the physical and emotional stubbornness of the heart, that saved me.
The heart. The heart that is filled with anxiety over health insurance battles and, yes, an unknown future, accepting that my life has changed. The heart that cringes from criticism, beats with outrage and leaps with fear. The heart that aches with grief for parents who have lost their own children to tragedy, yet is laced with thankfulness and tinged with guilt because I still have my own.
The heart that fills with laughter when I watch my husband, Matt, bury Jacob in a pile of snow, leaving only a University of Minnesota-clad head poking out from the top, a face-splitting grin on our young son’s face. The heart that glows with pride when Aly spends afternoons creating Lego cities and sewing skirts to wear to school. A heart that smiles when a sister says something sassy and prompts sassiness from my rusty, sassy depths. A heart that, in the critical moments between life and death, leaned on the love and support of a partner to keep beating.
The heart. It has to be the strongest muscle. It has to be, in order to live. Our hearts keep beating through those moments when we think they should stop.
“You’re not finished yet,” Dr. Policastro had said to me that day in August.
Nope. I’m not.
Cherish Galvin-Bliefernich is an elementary school teacher living in Sullivan County with her husband, Matt, and their two children, Alyena and Jacob. While recovering from a traumatic car accident, she has turned to writing about her experience in hopes of finding purpose and making a difference in other people's lives.
By Alicia Medina Sotomayor
Front and center is a little girl of three or four, a mound of curls against her pudgy cheek from the new doll she cuddles with one hand over the other. She stares directly into the camera, her chin slightly lowered and a hint of a grin that suggests she’s shy and quiet. In the black-and-white photo now faded into shades of grey, she wears a knit hat with a barely discernable pom-pom resting on her right shoulder. Her long winter coat covers most of her legs, nearly reaching the rim of the socks slipped into black Mary Janes. Perhaps it’s Christmas day.
This frameless photo lying on the palm of my hand makes realize that even then I had the long fingers of a pianist. My mother is standing behind me, I realize, recognizing the small portion of her skirt that’s evident. I remember the baby-soft nap and the bands of thunder gray that gradually turned to cloudy white as I slid my little hand over the length of the skirt as it lay on her bed. In the photo, they appear as wide, horizontal stripes.
Next to her, almost above my head, a man’s large hands hold a paper bag, the top rolled shut into a fat handle. He wears a pair of wide-leg pants and black wing-tipped shoes. Although only his left leg is visible, I’m certain it is my father.
To his right, a portion of a bicycle tire appears, pointing ahead as though the rider had stopped just long enough to stay out of the picture. On the far left, a man in a charcoal-grey suit steps away from the camera, so close that it looks like he’s about to bump elbows with my mother. I imagine the three of us were at a park or in a busy shopping area because of the crowd in the faint background.
I’m saddened by what is not in the photo: a full view of my parents, both in their mid-twenties; a missed opportunity to capture the young family. I can almost hear my mother saying, “No, no, don’t take my picture,” as she has most of my life. Even now, my disappointment grows each time she hides her face behind a restaurant menu to avoid a group shot, no matter what the occasion. Looking at myself as a little girl, I wish she’d told my father, “Take a picture with your daughter.” Maybe she did, and he might have said, “No, no, just her and her doll.”
He always beamed for the camera. If he had joined me – leaning down on one knee, I’m sure – both of us would have had wide, matching smiles.
Alicia Medina Sotomayor is a graduate student at the New School currently working on a memoir about growing up in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border. Most weeks, she commutes from Manhasset, NY, to join Susan Hodara's workshop on Tuesday afternoons.
By Bonnie Chwast
The golden maple bowl was a big glowing half moon to my young eyes, fallen from the sky. Entering the dining room from the kitchen, it stood to the right of the doorway on three wooden legs positioned like a tripod to support it. It was wide-bellied and, suspended on its legs, almost half my size when I was five years old.
The room it occupied was filled with Heywood Wakefield furniture – a blonde oval dining table in the middle, with a matching mirrored buffet to one side to make the cramped room seem larger. A simple lighting fixture above the table gave the entire room an amber glow. It was a warm space you wanted to eat in together. We seldom did.
We were a family that came and went, catching meals on the fly in the kitchen when our stomachs signaled it was time. My father worked long hours as a policeman on the beat. My mother taught school far from home and came back tired and distracted. Meals were not times for social connection; they were practical necessities.
Except when my grandmother came with her culinary gifts in tow, none of which she had passed on to my mother. Then, the scents of blueberry muffins, freshly made applesauce, just-roasted beef and finger-formed meatballs filled the house and spilled out into the neighborhood when the windows were open. My brother and I arrived home from school deliriously hungry on the days she came to cook, and we would eat and talk with abandon as she stood nearby us at the kitchen table.
The dining room was never important in my childhood, at least not for dining. It mattered because it housed the bowl, the great big three-legged wooden bowl to the right of the doorway. The bowl was the designated repository for all our belongings when we returned home from school. Gloves, scarves, hats, bags, books, toys, miscellany all found their way there. Jackets were hung on the hooks at the back door, but everything else went into the bowl.
The bowl satisfied my mother’s need for tidiness at all costs. Messiness was painful to her, like a nagging injury; it put her in a bad mood. We were children, careless and carefree, while she was fighting to keep gloom at bay. She managed the challenge by tucking away our playthings in basement closets and crawlspaces, and by organizing the ones remaining in view meticulously on shelves. She managed by discarding whatever she considered excess without consultation from us. And she managed by allowing the bowl to absorb the overflow of our belongings, which, if left unattended on the floor, were like flotsam and jetsam to her, a wrack line of ugly childhood debris.
As a kid, l learned the value of neatness early to maintain peace in the house. My mother yelled less when our things were put away. I learned as I grew older to keep most of my life out of sight. The messy stuff – my doubts, my worries, my questions – went underground, unaddressed, My mother assumed oversight of all the early spaces in my life except a space deep inside me that she never chose to see.
What is curious to me still is how much I loved that big wooden bowl. It was a strategic weapon for my mother in her fight against mayhem and moodiness, but for me it became a one-of-a-kind safe space, sturdy and constant as a good friendship. Its familiarity was comforting when I came home from school to a quiet house. Its reliability was a reassurance when no one was around. It confined me, but it contained me as well. I always knew where to find my mittens on the way out the door.
Throughout her career as a clinical psychologist, Bonnie Chwast listened with great appreciation to the stories her patients told her. Now in retirement, she is finding time to tell some of her own.
At the Airport
By Madeleine Jacobson
My husband, Alan, and I were at the Atlanta airport waiting for our sandwiches at a restaurant when I was startled by an intrusive sound: a loud forceful woman's voice counting, “20, 21, 22, 23... 30.” I tried to place this in some meaningful context. I could not.
I bolted out of the restaurant. There, kneeling on the floor, was a woman dressed in a pink rhinestone-studded sweatshirt and a pink rhinestone-studded cap giving cardiac resuscitation to a tall, heavy man lying beside her. I assumed she was an EMT worker; it seemed odd that she was dressed in pink rhinestones, but I recalled that the next day was Halloween and chalked it up to that.
The man’s entire torso was exposed, revealing his plentiful, flabby abdomen, which rippled in response to the woman's life-saving activity. Another man crouched at the patient's head, tracking his pulse.
My own heart was pounding. I felt utterly pulled into the drama in front of me, simultaneously observer and silent participant. Alan, who had followed me out of the restaurant, could not bear to watch and walked away. I looked around for someone who might be the man's family. No one had stepped forward to claim him. He was alone.
Another man approached carrying a small black device he used for electrical cardiac stimulation. Two minutes had gone by, but it felt longer. Still no pulse. Now I could see the patient's pale, lifeless face. He looked very far away, almost peaceful in spite of the rigorous efforts being made by the woman in pink, who now was looking spent. Then she and the man at the patient's head traded places in a wordless exchange. The counting and thrusting continued. I heard one of the men say, "Still no pulse."
I found that I was annoyed with the dying man. He was not that old. Had he ignored his doctor's orders to take care of himself? Why hadn’t he lost some weight? Would it have made any difference in preventing his imminent death? How much control over our lives do we really have?
I am a cautious person; I follow the rules for healthy living, believing it will make a difference. Perhaps my dying man had thrown caution to the wind. I thought of my brother-in-law, who lies in the sun without sunscreen. He claims the sun's rays bounce off of him. He is a brilliant, successful man, yet he flirts with danger in this risky, foolish behavior.
Alan circled back and gently took my arm to lead me away. "Let's leave this poor man to die in private," he whispered. I felt glued in place by my need to see what would happen to him, but, reluctantly, I let Alan walk us slowly to our plane. Putting on my seat belt, I felt locked into myself. Stunned, I felt I had just had a personal loss. I had never seen anyone die.
Madeleine Jacobson is a retired psychoanalyst and psychotherapist using her gift of time for memoir writing and classes. She lives with her husband in Tarrytown, close to her daughter and granddaughter. Her passions include ballet, literature and time with family and friends.
By Lynne Reitman
There was a hole-in-the wall coffee shop on the southwest corner of 89th Street and Broadway. When the weather was nice, a large window opened onto Broadway and people could buy coffee, a soda or frank while standing on the street. There was also a door on 89th Street where you could walk in and order “to go” or sit at the long counter where there were a few stools. The place had no name, just the words “Coffee Shop” on the awning over the door.
I was renting a room in an apartment on 88th Street when I decided to go inside one day, sit at the counter and order a cup of coffee. A well-dressed middle-aged man walked in and sat down next to me, ordering eggs and potatoes with toast. The man behind the counter shouted “Potatoes! How can I make potatoes in this place! The grease would splatter all over the place! I would be cleaning all night!”
“Sorry,” the customer said quietly. “Can I have scrambled eggs?”
“Sure,” said the counterman. “I’ll fix you a decent plate.”
I was relieved. I just asked for coffee.
The counterman’s name was Benny. He was a tall man in his 60s, with large hairy ears and an enormous nose. His belly protruded under a white apron that was covered in grease stains. He wore a fishing cap on his head. His teeth were very small. He spit when he spoke and he smelled of herring.
I was curious to see what a decent plate was. He served the man scrambled eggs, grilled tomatoes and a grilled corn muffin on a white ceramic oval plate.
Over time I learned that the menu at this place wasn’t why people came. Benny’s toaster wasn’t big enough for bagels so if you wanted your bagel toasted, you got it grilled. Otherwise, there was white and rye toast. There were franks, grilled cheese and tuna fish. You could get coffee, soda or orange juice. That’s it.
The seat I liked best was at the end next to the wall. I could lean against the wall and watch everyone come in and out of the place while looking out on Broadway. I was there nearly every morning during my last five years of medical training. I thought of it as home during that time. Every day at 6 am, before running in Riverside Park, I would grab a quick cup of coffee. After I showered and dressed for the day, on my way to the hospital, I would stop by for another cup, a bagel, maybe eggs. I liked the simplicity of the menu and, of course, I liked Benny.
During my tenure at Benny’s, there was an anxious old actress who came in many times a day muttering to herself, the therapist who brought her tiny dog, a handsome though insecure lawyer who worked for a state legislator, an alcoholic writer who frequently asked me about his health issues, a feminist activist who railed against pornography, a journalist and the guy who owned Murray’s Sturgeon Shop down the block. He would occasionally drop off some lox that would be passed around to whomever was sitting on the stools, creating a festive moment.
Since we sat on stools, usually facing Benny, we didn’t look at one another much, and like driving in a car, this led to a more relaxed conversation that didn’t require filling in silences. Essentially we were all talking to Benny, who responded or absorbed or deflected whatever was said. We all felt a bond with Benny and with one another through him. Kind of like siblings.
In the 1980s, buildings were going up all over the Upper West Side and prewar rentals were going coop or condo. People who had lived in their
apartments for decades were either cashing in or hunkering down to fight the good fight. No more homeless or prostitutes on Broadway. No more people who lived by their creative wits. No more students. Only people with money and expectations who were buying the apartments. Not surprisingly, a builder had a plan for the southwest corner of Broadway and 89th.
Benny had been working that corner for 30 years. He opened at 6 am and left at 3 pm, six days a week. He was getting tired. This was an opportunity for him, and the handsome lawyer who was a regular helped him cash in.
The last day at Benny’s was poignant, a sad and grand moment. The crowd all showed up and we had a good-bye celebration with Benny at the Chinese restaurant across the street. We all took souvenirs from the shop. I took one of the white oval ceramic plates. After the festivities, the lawyer and I had sex at his place on West End Avenue.
Many years later, I ran into Benny’s nephew, whom I knew from the coffee shop. He had just seen his uncle in Florida. Benny was spending his days by the pool, smoking cigars and playing cards happy, content, livin’ the life.
Lynne Reitman lives and works in Dobbs Ferry, where she walks, sees friends, takes yoga classes and writes.