Not exactly sure I qualified for a series about “older writers,” I checked my birth certificate. It said 1927. “Hmm,” I said to myself. “that might work”
I’ve spent the last 21 years teaching a memoir writing class which is still functioning. Well, of course, that is sheer hyperbole, since I have not devoted all daily 24/7 hours to that noble cause. And this does not begin to account for the decades prior, trekking the Himalayas, dispatching singers to deliver custom written singing telegrams and – yes more. But for the purpose of this treatise I need to reprise the famous words of Anonymous, which I daresay are mangled by now: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” May God bless those who do both.
In my specific case, I came to the memoir with the distinct handicap of having had two loving. non-addicted, middle-class, average parents who loved me and my sister and each other. Not crazy love. Just everyday, stable, caring, respectful, occasional-hostile-outbursts -of -offense -and -defence kind of love that maintained a safe environment for us kids .And my subsequent life was equally quotidian. What possible “hook” would I have for creating a successful blockbuster? This, then, is no pretense at being a “memoir.”
Additionally, I had suffered eternal PTSD as a result of the following traumatic experience during my passion-for-writing years in my thirties. In those days publishers showcased their wares as well of those of rivals, displaying bibliographic splendor in retail establishments along Fifth Avenue in New York. (and among others places, as well) One day as I was lost in awe in the Simon and Shuster store – or was it Doubleday? – no matter – I took myself to the “bargain” basement where I knew I could find treasures. And sure enough, therein housed several barrels, as in pickle barrels, of books under signs hoisted above that read: ’REMAINDERS: FIVE CENTS EACH, THREE FOR 10 CENTS .”
These were not Emily Rosen-type unknown shlolck writers. I waded in and pulled out Hemingway, Roth, Fitzgerald, Bellow, Plath, Faulkner, Welty. And then I stood in homage in front of the barrels, my treasures in hand , thinking, “OMG! Their lives, their dreams, their souls plopped into a pickle barrel. Is this the destiny of a writer?” I managed to hang on to that motivational axe throughout my life as a peripheral non noteworthy writer.
My Brooklyn childhood was littered with the absence of angst. Or, to steal a line from my late husband’s quiver of metaphors, my life was a “Beige Dodge,” translation: “Colorless.”
Nonetheless, from an historical point of view, I witnessed the seismic changing of the world. My first lasting five-year old memory was a scene of our family huddled around our old Philco radio listening to President Roosevelt delivering a “Fireside Chat.” My proactive suffragette mother took us through all four of the Roosevelt presidential campaigns. The most searing in my memory was Roosevelt vs Wendell Wilkie. By then, 1940, I was a grown thirteen year old, delegated to lead the neighborhood cheers, screaming, “Roosevelt in the White House ready to be elected. Wilkie in the garbage can ready to be collected.”
Stories of Holocaust atrocities seeped into my consciousness during family auto trips to my maternal relatives in The Bronx, when I remember, a ride on the East Side Drive, listening to the car radio describing in graphic detail, scenes that separated me from the hop-scotch and “Your-Hit-Parade” reality of my daily life. I felt the tears welling, my first real memory of emotional expression, as I pictured the truth of what was happening to my Aunt Sadie’s sister in Poland. Of course, it didn’t stop there, as living reminders lurked within the walls of my predominantly Jewish immigrant neighborhood.
I graduated from High School on D-day. Several of my friends’ boyfriends were mowed down at Omaha Beach that day. I can still hear the sounds of agonized wailing in homes down the block.
Most of my male fellow grads were slated for Army service or some sort of college service training. And by the time I attended my first Economics 101 class at N.Y.U., “the boys” were returning in droves from the war. Many of them, lacking any clear plan for a future, took advantage of the G.I. Bill hoping for a miraculous source of guidance. Only in retrospect can I sense their frustration as they attended the swelling lecture hall of Dr. Backman, assuring us that not more than a handful of his audience would ever earn more than $5,000. a year. Nostradamus, he was not – in 1945.
As a prodigious letter-writer, the circumstances that cheered our “men” in the trenches were perfect fodder for my penchant. Our family mailman was literally unburdened with each delivery to our house. Among the pile, was a solid bunch from the young man I married when I was 19.
An Air Force Bombardier stationed in England, he had hired an artist to paint my picture on the back of his leather jacket after our correspondence had entered the territory of romance, even before we had met. During his first furlough home we were barely restrained enough to avoid “going all the way.” When shortly thereafter, he was discharged, I – we — still would not “go all the way.” And so, we were married, in order to “go all the way.” Such were the times in 1946.
At the end of four years together, we acknowledged to each other that we had never really known each other, the rush of post war life and career choices having hung heavily on our priorities. Ergo, youth being what it was – stupid! — we parted amicably, (childless by choice) seeking our solo destinations.
Some time around that period of turmoil, I was blessed with a paroxysm of self revelation. True, I didn’t really know who he was, but more to the bone, I didn’t know who I was. And what was even more perplexing, I wasn’t sure how to fix that.
I will tell you, as an investigatory project, this is on par with Diogenes’ quest for an honest man. Accompanying the myriad of branches hanging from my tree of life, I have interspersed a non-academic search for self among its leafy twigs. The thing about a “search for self,”—for me — is that it is not a 24/7 project. It is happening daily. It is changing daily. It is steady, casual, semi-scholarly, non invasive, driven by nature, yet has been more Yellow Corvette than Beige Dodge.
As Covid has settled in, coinciding with my end of life years, taking its toll on the emotional stability of the planet’s collective unconscious, I am able to sit back and spent time reflectively, reliving the colorless and colorful- ness of my life. Truth is, I am happy to use social distancing as an excuse to avoid the boring contacts life frequently imposes in the name of “graciousness.” And as a proponent of developing one on one relationships of depth, eschewing multiple person sit-downs, I have managed to succeed, allowing myself the pleasure of continuing my lifestyle even during Covid.
People often ask me the “secret” of my longevity, which by current standard is not so remarkable. Superstitious as I am, I hesitate to glory in my relatively good mental and physical health, independence and mobility. “Gratitude,” “Mindfulness,” and “Luck” are always the first words that come to mind. Adding a bit of salty humor, as in “Broccoli and Sex” keep them wondering about the voracity of that statement.
We are all powered by our belief systems—religious, spiritual, political, cultist, out-of-the-box. It is a rare human who is able to dislodge the rigidity and often binding incongruities to which we cling in defiant indifference. I have been trying for lo! these many years to punch my way out of some of mine. There is no dearth of online social messaging which purports to sum up, with magic words, that if followed, will guarantee eternal earthly nirvana. Or non-earthly, if that’s your gig.
My own “Less Is More” version boils down to the following simplistic mantra:”Learn to distinguish between what is Reasonable and what Realistic. Train yourself to“ EXPECT” only the realistic.” It is reasonable to expect the world to live in peace. It is reasonable to expect your (clueless) significant other to notice that you had your long tresses chopped off. It is reasonable to expect your teenager to avoid embarrassing you in front of your boss. In each case, and so much more, none of the expected reaction comports with the specificity of the premise. When EXPECTATIONS line up with reality, you do not experience disappointment, anger, hurt, and the slew of toxic reactions that are compounded. Check out my book on the subject, pub date some time around my 100th birthday. Reviewers are likely to take my age into consideration.
Thus I have meandered spottily on the periphery of my life, displaying no attempt at focus. How freeing !