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I don’t really remember much about it in the States. I seem to recall that every November 11th. an elderly gentleman would be standing out in front of Sendik’s on Downer, selling red crepe paper poppies in memory of the fallen. I don’t recall any big parades or city or state officials participating in any public way. Maybe I simply wasn’t that interested and didn’t notice what commemorative ceremonies were being carried out. It seems my concentration at that time of year was on Thanksgiving and what to prepare.
In the US, the day has been renamed, since 1954, “Veteran’s Day”, to commemorate the fallen from all the wars. The US entered WWI quite late and the loses it suffered, in terms of sheer numbers, cannot compare to those of France, England, Germany and Russia.
But in Paris, November 11th, Armistice Day, is a striking reminder of how this country, France, was ripped asunder by the horror of the “Great War”, WWI. It’s positioned between two other very major tragic events that overtook France, with the wrenching upheavals during the War of 1870 before it and WWII after it.
As I came up from the metro Franklin Roosevelt which is along the Champs Elysée, the most famous and stately avenue in Paris, the sky was nacre, grey and pearly, broken by moments of clearest blue, the morning sunlight washing down. I noticed it was closed off to traffic and down its broad expanse, all the military units in the French Armed Forces were marching in formation, to the 4/4 beat of unit bands. Both men and women, some dressed in contemporary uniform, others from earlier periods, plumed hats, fringed epaulettes, ceremonial swords marched from two directions, marching from the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde. Mostly young faces, like those who ended up in the mud of France fighting to advance no more than a few square yards, or who returned to civilian life irreparably damaged. This was a war initiated by cousins, the King, the Kaiser and the Tsar, all trembling on their thrones as their empires rumbled with ethnic discontent and that ever recurring yearning to recreate the nature of man, which history shows usually ends in catastrophe. We see that today in Iraq, though one difference working to the benefit of those fighting in that quagmire, is the medical units, which are so good and the equipment so advanced, that many lives are saved that in other previous wars would have been lost.
All along the Champs Elysée, the tricolour of the Republic was displayed and under the Arc de Triomphe, a huge flag was flying, just above the eternal flame at which Sarkozy layed a wreath. There are still two veterans from the Great War alive in France, 107 and 110, I think. One of them was present and laid a small bouquet beside the eternal flame. The other refused to attend on principle, still feeling bitterness over the futility of it all. France lost over 1.3 million in that war, many of them still unknown, whose bodies could not be retrieved for proper burial.
Ironically, I was on my way to see an exhibit that had just opened at the Musée Maillot, named after that wonderful sculptor of the female form. The Milwaukee Art Museum has one of his life sized bronzes and as a kid in high school it was one of the pieces I loved to see most in the museum. This exhibit is entitled: Allemagne: les anées noires (Germany, the black years). It is an incredibly moving exhibit of the German WWI anti-war artists, who themselves served in the German army and were hence able to portray the horror first hand. WWI was the first war to employ new technologies in warfare; massive tanks that crushed everyone/thing in its deadly path, poison gas, hand grenades that gave off shrapnel, shells with an explosive power unseen before 1914. It was the first war to make use of aviation as a killing device.
Last night on the telly, they had a programme dedicated to WWI which showed the present day locations of some of the worst battles; the Somme, Marne, Verdun, Chateau Thierry, now pastoral spaces that give no hint of what went on there. But researchers are still finding human remains, identity tags, and unexploded shells. When an identity tag is located they match the number of the regiment to the individual number, hence identifying the soldier and giving them something to bury in the nearest military cemetery. I don’t think France has lost more of its young men, mostly 19–22 yrs old, than in WWI.
The exhibit displayed the works of Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Jakob Steinhardt, and one whose work I had not known before, Ludwig Meidner. They had a display of postcards which Otto Dix did in the trenches and which he sent, after passing the military censor, to his mistress, Helene Jacob. They portray, in a style that alternates between cubism and almost pure abstraction, the maze of trenches, the ravaged countryside, burnt, bombed, everything the eye can see turned to smouldering rubble, the pockmarked craters, ordinary scenes from the life of his comrades in the trenches as well as portraits of his friends. After the war, most of these artists began portraying its consequences, the veteran amputees begging in the streets, the capitalists who profited handsomely from the war and continued to heighten the levels of consumerism and the eventual inflation that made money useless, the prostitutes and the increased phenomenon of “lust murders”. These same artists captured the grinding poverty and disruption of the middle class, the widows and the orphans, the constant political agitation and street political violence. In 1919, there was the attempt to form a soviet republic in Bavaria by decommissioned sailors and unemployed workers and the right wing response with the formation of the Frei Corps, in which Hitler got his start. All of this leading up to WWII, the malevolent birth of Nazism, and the Holocaust.
So, for the French, Armistice Day is not just a day for selling poppies. It is profound, visceral remembrance. After the military parade was over and the military marchers were again just ordinary citizens, smoking a cigarette on their way to their cars or buses, I saw a number of British vets who had attended the commemoration, their suit jackets laden with medals from the various battles of later wars. I want to share a poem with you that I think is one of the best war poems written, though this in no way discounts those by the English war poets who experienced the same horrors in WWI, Rupert Brook, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. But here I am in France so this is the one I would like to share by Arthur Rimbaud, written not after or during WWI but the War of 1870 which also scarred France profoundly. The title in French is: Le Dormeur du Val (The Slumberer in the Valley)
It is a verdant hollow, where the river sings,
Hanging madly on the grass, remnants of silver;
Where, the sun from the proud mountain shines: it’s a
Small vale made frothy in the suns rays.
A young soldier, mouth open, neck exposed
his nape bathing in the cool blue watercress, sleeps
he is spread out on the grass under the cloud,
pale in his green bed where the sunlight rains down.
His feet in the gladiolas, he sleeps. Smiling, as smiles a
Sickly child, he naps: Nature, cradles him warmly: it is
The sweet scents will no longer rub against his nostril;
He sleeps in the sunlight, his hand on his peaceful breast.
There are two red holes on his right side.
So, all in all, an Armistice Day to remember, not only the millions of fallen but those still falling just as futilely. Tonight begins another transit strike.
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Here’s something. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to anything, but a memory, a reminiscence, at least, using my words along with those of one of my favorite poets, the Brit, Philip Larkin, who worked for years as Librarian at the University of Hull. This particular poem, below, conjures up images and remembrances of my old da, in the last years I was with him.
My good Milwaukee friend, Laura Murphy loves poems as much as she loves flowers on her tables. She loves nature poems that affect the senses like the delicate scent of her cut peonies or the sweet peas from off her backyard trellis. When I sent her a favorite poem by Larkin she returned a silent reply. When asked why, she casually offered up her simple reason: “dark and grim”, all about the fading rather than the blooming, I think she meant. Both of us were dealing at the time with aging parents in their decline. I tended to identify with Larkin’s poems dealing with waning vitality and the rembembrances of a youth still so strongly sensed but so weakly felt, since it was so apparent to me watching my father. Larkin certainly has many beautifully wrought poems dealing with the power of nature and the blooming rather than fading. But it was my father’s fading I was dealing with and I found these poems made it easier in some way.
My father, Jack Sullivan, who left this world on Christmas Eve 2004 at the age of 92, was the courageous survivor of three strokes. He was a simple man, a Whitefish Bay native, with an infectious laugh and a bawdy sense of humor which came more into play as his sexual prowess diminished. As I would wheel him in his wheelchair up and down Silver Spring Dr. ending up at the bluff of Klode Park overlooking the shore where he swam as a young boy, he would stare out into the blue summer expanse of Lake Michigan, look up and remind me in his stroke speech that maybe he was 90 but up here, pointing to his head, I’m still 18! It was that confession that drew me to this particular poem of Philip Larkin. Jack, this one is for you.
“Groping back to bed after a piss
I part the thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.
Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,
The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone coloured light sharpening the roofs below)
High and preposterous and seperate-
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,
One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.”
24 April 1968
In the Blink of an Eye
It was around 10:45am on a Sunday morning. I was on my way out to a park I especially like in the 19th, Buttes de Chamont. I like the area around it, especially the collection of little street named Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité. One could spend all ones time in Paris just visiting its marvelous parks, from the craggy Victorian Buttes de Chamont, to the futuristic and techno Parc André Citroën, built on the site of the old Citroën automotive plant, which always makes me think of the old American Motors plant that consumed an entire city block, or so it seemed to me as a kid, on E. Capital Drive.
I had a change at Metro Stalingrad which is not a great neighborhood; lots of drug trafficking. As I was going up the escalator to transfer to another line, a man push in front of me, while another stood behind me, further down the escalator. I thought
nothing of it. As I arrived to the top, the man in front of me dropped a packet of cigarettes. He bent down to pick them up, preventing me from passing him. He kept saying: “excuser-moi, excuser-moi” and I thought to myself why is it taking so long for him to pick up this damn packet of cigarettes! As this was going on, I felt nothing behind me but of course I was being pick pocketed. The next moments were a blur, gray, run together moments. I immediately knew what had happened the instant my hand touched my back trousers pocket and felt the awful flat feeling of no bulge from the wallet. “God, how stupid could I be”, I kept telling myself, having heard stories of this trick from others. One of them ran down the stairs, the other disappeared into one of the long corridors that vein the Paris underground. I bounded down the stairs using my eight octave vocal work from the Roy Hart Theatre workshop of yrs ago. At about the fourth step from the bottom, I fell, nothing broken, but bruised
and sore, both in pride and body. The thief was long gone. As I started to hobble up the stairs, the second one appeared at the top and without a word tossed the wallet down to me, minus the 150euros I had just taken out of the bank for that week’s needs. Everything else, thank God, was there. I would not want to have to go through French bureaucracy or American for that matter in order to cancel, retrieve, reorder, etc. So, overall, it could have been worse, a disaster, a disaster I wouldn’t even know was a disaster because I might be dead or minus a passport that ended up in the
hands of a terrorist! So, this week will be a bit leaner. I can stand it, I told myself, after all these mornings of des pains aux chocolates. Yet, all in all, it was an unpleasantness on a Sunday morning. I could have done without the whole episode,
and more with the 150euros. American men tend to carry their wallets in their back pockets and I stupidly, very stupidly, thought the button on the flap of my back pocket was a sufficient safeguard. Wrong! These thieves would put the artful dodger to shame.
I made my way to the ticket agent who smacked his lips upon hearing my story, and I didn’t need to be a Gallic scholar to understand the subtext: “damn stupid tourists.” He told me where the general police station for that section of Paris was, in the Gare du Nord, so I made my way there and filed a report. The French police were helpful though all of us knew there was no chance of retrieving the cash. I gave as best a description as I could: two North African males, late twenties, early thirties, black leather jackets, jeans, Marlboro cigarettes, a description that would fit over three quarters of the population at Metro Stalingrad. So, here was my second encounter with the French police;
Never made it out to Buttes de Chamont. Another time, with my wallet in by breast pocket and half of whatever money I am carrying tucked inside my sock.
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Les Petites Affaires
The first thing that has to be understood about Paris is that it is expensive. Most people know and expect that, so its not a surprise. At first, its as if you are playing on a big Monopoly board and using play money. So what, you tell yourself. Its the ambiance you’re paying for. But then you’re suddenly struck down by the realities of the market. You draw out 250euros for the week and then check your bank statement to find out $350 has been deducted. You are hit between the pockets when you change the remaining dollars in your wallet and see that you have received so much less than you did the previous week and that the dollar has crossed the $1.40 mark. And to think when I started making my pilgrimages to this city, the exchange rate was around $1.15.
It’s not that Paris is really any more expensive than NYC. I don’t think it is, but, your money goes much faster here because of the lack of parity between the dollar and euro. Every time I buy a filet of fish at Poisonnerie Pepone opposite my apartment, and I pay $15 for two fillets, I keep telling myself it would be the same at WholeFoods and after all I am getting a kilo of goods rather than a pound. That’s what I tell myself.
After a week or so of riding the metro in Paris, I found myself asking the following question: under what circumstances do people smile; the when, where and why of the matter? Do Americans usually greet each other when in public places, i.e. subways, buses, trains, by smiling? I mean not a leering grin or anything; but just a crack of a smile accompanied by a slight nod of the head, meaning: “OK, I know you’re here and I respect that and do not want you to elbow or kick me when you get up or sit down, and vice-versa. That’s the understood public decorum.
In Paris, its not quite like that. If one is riding the metro for the first time and you observe your fellow passengers, the first thing you might think is that something very serious, calamitous even, has happened to the French nation that day. There they sit, en face, two facing two, with faces that look like the lot of them should be on some form of anti-depressant but collectively forgot to take it this morning. The feeling I had after about the third day of observing the same grimness was that Parians really must think if they smile in public something horrific will happen to their facial physiology, something irreparable.
Then there is the question of the width, on the metro cars I mean. The older cars are narrow with about as much space between the rows of seats as a Nathan’s frank. If there is an available seat which you have your eye on, the knees of the other, say three passengers, suddenly are required to contort in all directions for you to move in. And don’t even think about what is required when getting up to leave the car. This is almost as complicated a maneuver as learning the intricacies of French grammar. No overhead bars to cling to, oh no. You just have to master the maneuvers as you make your way, like some practitioner of the most radical form of modern dance, through a sea of unsmiling faces. Since the cars are so narrow, there is no room to stand in the aisles so people bunch up just inside the doors, which at rush hour can make going home seem like a two day triathlon. And do NOT try it on the day you’ve decided to do it like the French, carrying the baguette for that night’s under your arm. The response can be painful to the bearer of bread.
On previous visits to Paris, I have always made my way to synagogue on Shabbat, but this time, I was here for the High Holydays, which required some planning. I found a small but very active Conservative congregation on line, Adath Shalom. “Conservative”, for those who may not know the nuances, is less strict than the orthodox but stricter than the Reform. The prayers service is almost identical to that of the Orthodox, but there is total gender equality and no separation by sex. I have been going to this same congregation on Shabbat and found them quite friendly, once they know you will be around for awhile. Rosh Hashana services were held at the synagogue which is located on the ground floor of a modern apartment building on a street named after the Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw. For the first night I was invited back for dinner at the home of the Ellisons. Mr. Ellison was from Manchester, England, his wife a fourth generation Parisian, originally coming from the very old Jewish communities of Alsace Lorraine. There was a Japanese couple visiting them (Mrs. Ellison, Odile, spoke Japanese), with the rest of the guests very varied. Paris seems to have quite a number of converts through marriage, this evening attesting to that fact with one female spouse from China and one male from Czechoslovakia. Their son David, a graduate of the Poly Technique, a very prestigious school from which to graduate, had just returned from a month in China where he was assigned to a group whose factory job entailed wrapping CDs!
Yom Kippur, the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, was held in a huge room at a Marriott. By sundown at the concluding service of Ne’ila, there must have been over 300 people, all there to ask for forgiveness, no matter how loose their connection to anything Jewish might be during the rest of the year. After a day of fasting and communal prayer, the sense of solidarity and joy is overwhelming. About an hour before the end of Yom Kippur, as the sun sank, a mother and her son, of North African descent as are most of the Jews in France today, in his early 20s came and sat in front of me. They had not picked up a prayer book as they came in so I gave them one opened to the right page, in French and Hebrew. They followed it for a short time, not knowing much Hebrew, the son pointing out the Hebrew as the cantor chanted from it. Then at the point toward the end of the evening service, just before the shofar, the rams horn is blown, those who descend from the line of priest get up in front of the congregation and bless us with the blessing given by God to Moses. At this point the woman opened her handbag and took out the tallit, the prayer shawl, to cover herself and her son under it during the blessing. That is what they had come for, to get the blessing, mother for son, son for mother. In front of me was a couple, a French Jew of Moroccan origin and his converted Hebrew speaking Chinese wife. He turned to me and offered to take me under their talit, as the priests chanted the blessing over the congregation. It was one of the most moving experiences I have had on Yom Kippur.
After the shofar was blown indicating that the day was over, I was invited back to the home of a couple I had met at Rosh Hashana dinner at the Ellisons- Hélene and her Czech husband, Jan, and 8yr old daughter, Leah, to break the fast. For me, the opening of this new chapter in Paris was wonderful and I hope it will continue. Its a vibrant community.
One often hears much about how secular France is and how the churches are empty. I wanted to test this premise, knowing that France is indeed a very secular society, with a strong separation between church and state. Laïc, laïcité, its called. On the rue des Abbesses, very near my studio, there is a large beautiful arts and crafts period church, St Jean de Montmartre. As I was walking to the metro, the bells rang the hour and I decided this was a good time to take the attendance test. Would it be empty of worshippers for the Mass? Would most of them be Spanish or Philipino maids? I walked in to find the church thronging with people, all gathered neat the entrance in a circle, while others remained at their chairs in the nave. The priest had before him a table on which was a large silver bowl of water. It was a baptism ceremony as part of the Mass. There were perhaps five or six children to be baptized, some of them infants, one a young boy or 6 or 7. After the priest poured out the water on each young head, the father took the child, and beaming raised it high over his head, as the circle of people cheered and clapped. (The father of the 6 or 7yr old got his son about up to his shoulders). It was an incredibly vital and joyous moment for that congregation of families. Afterward, the proceed to the sanctuary where each set of parents was presented with a lit candle as their children were anointed with holy chrism and as the organ played (inexplicably, I thought) the aria from “Turandot”, “Nesun Dorma”. As I left to go to the metro, a young gypsy girl was outside the church, begging. This is something you see everywhere, outside every church on Sunday mornings. Also the winos, who are everywhere here in Paris, though usually in groups and very often with their pet dog.
So, there you have it. My recollections of late on this city that is presents Americans with another way of living, not better or worse, but certainly different, where a simple walk almost anywhere in this space can be transforming, even amid all the unsmiling faces that are nonetheless always ready to give directions to the stranger.
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Paris in September
The #95 bus goes from Montmartre, where the studio I am renting is located, to Montparnasse which is near to Reid Hall where I am presently working. On the way, it passes the Comedie Française, the Opera, Louvre and Grand Palais,and over the Seine. This is on a mundane “work day”. I say work day of course because that is what it is, but also to point out that this time in Paris (like at Tate & Tracy’s wedding a few weeks ago at which I officiated; another first)is a “why is this time different from all other times. Essentially, because this time when I greet the morning upon awakening I don’t ask myself the question: “what am I going to do today?” It’s answered for me: I go to work.
Work is at Reid Hall, a center founded in 1922 by Miss (or Mrs., I’m not sure) Elisabeth Mills Reid as “a center for university women of the United States and other nations of the world.” It is still run by women and feminist issues play an important role in much of the research being done here. There are both undergrads and graduate students doing their work here.
My work takes place in the library, an intimate space not much changed from 1922, I suspect, though rigged up for internet services. The library is presided over by Parick Negrier, a tall, lean man of middle age, silent but always ready to answer questions. I’m told he has been working here for 12yrs and earns very little money (and believe me when the French say “little”, they mean “little”). Patrick is always face in book or research questions related to Free Masonery on line. He is fluent in Hebrew and Greek, having studied and taught at the Institute Catholiqe here in Paris. Some sort of rupture seems to have occurred in that relationship, an subject on which one does not probe.
This week I have been entering MA theses into the system. Then too I am sent follow up work from the NYC office as well as requests for letters to be sent out in the name of the CU President. So there is generally enough to do to fill the day, whose work hours are more flexible than in the States.
The children here. The relationship between them and their parent(s) has me entranced ever morning and late afternoon. Everywhere, children are walking hand in hand with their mothers or fathers, satchels on their backs, on their way to be dropped off at school. Many I’m sure are being driven, but what I notice is the number walking and how many are engaged in conversation with their parent(s). Yesterday in the elevator at the Metro Abbesses near my flat, an American woman was standing next to me with a young child I assumed to be her daughter. She had a friend with her, perhaps a schoolmate, who would flow from English into French like a Wallenda on a trapeze; Then the friend was asked by the mother if she spoke Swedish with her grandmother, and she replied but of course, except when French friends are visiting, then they speak French! And I, at 60, am still trying to figure out what the right preposition or article is to put before or after a certain verb.
Summer has unquestionably finished and one can detect a change approaching. The mornings start off misty and gray, heavy. Then the early afternoon enters and the skies open blue and remnants of summer linger until early evening and then one perceives the approaching shifts in currents; The breezes are soft but make enough of a presence that the leaves, not yet crisp and russet, begin to rustle. Last Sunday I strolled in Jardin de Luxembourg, sat, sipping a glass of white wine, under those magnificent chestnut trees that are now dropping their shiny fruit along the boulevards of the city, as I listened to a brass band play everything from Stauss to the Beatles. They were assembled under a large gazebo which was surrounded by a rather high metal railing which was laid siege to by a small group of small children, who were absolutely entranced by the music; There they stood, holding onto the bars of the railing, their tiny heads popped through them as their feet moved up and down like basketballs. One little boy, with the body of a rugby player soon to be, would shake his head in syncopated motions to the sound of trumpets and French hors as he
dashed along the narrow rim of the platform, watched over by his birdlike mother seated in the first row of chairs. Brass bands seem to do it for kids. As I watched this pleasure of an afternoon, I wondered if, in my hometown of Milwaukee, such a scene would occur on an early Sunday afternoon in the beauty of that city’s Lake Park. Sadly, I think not.
A few times a week I make my way to Metro St.Paul in the Marais to visit the kosher butcher, Chez Andre, where I pick up a roasted chicken, a lamb chop or two or some of those divine Moroccan sausages, Meurguez, flavored with mint. I then went to the cinema Champo, which shows old films (much more of that here in Paris than in the States)where I thought I would catch a 6PM viewing of Vittorio de Sica’s, The Garden of Finzi-Contini, only to discover that on Thurs, there was no viewing at 6,only 8. So back to rue Lepic for the carnivorian delight but not before some crackling bread with a soft cheese from Savoie, some lemony green olives and a wonderfully good and cheap bottle of Tourine white. After this repast, I decided to go out to see the Tour Eiffel. I mean here I am in Paris, not Omaha or Racine, but PARIS. Get thee out, I
The Eiffel Tower never ceases to amaze when you see it close up and at night; Today, Fri. is a very big day here. It is the Rugby Playoff for the World Cup. The city, usually associated with soccer mania (as is the south of France, Beziers, especially, with rugby)has taken to rugby like a overzealous convert and to indicate this national conversion, the Tour Eiffel was brilliantly lit up in green and gold with a football shaped rugby ball floating in the open space between the base and the spire like tower itself. Alongside, two intense beams of light stood like sentinels
reaching whatever night star seemed to be in command of that Thurs sky.
I walked along the Seine, passing the golden flame around which were hundreds of floral bouquets to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, which occurred qt this spot on the road passing underneath. I passed the bateaux mouches, at rest for the night, until the morning when hordes of oversized Germans and Americans, and the ubiquitous Japanese with their cameras, would make these workhorse boats groan, as they panted up and down the Seine. At Assemblée Nationale, I descended and returned to my temporary home, as if it were my own.
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Paris in September II
Memory? When does it come? Today, September 9th, is the 33rd memorial of my mother’s death. Not that I don’t think of her everyday, but today as on every 09–09 I do more so than on other days; my thoughts become more expanded, past and present, as the thoughts filter through my consciousness, of people; places, smells, textures, all those things that have gone into making me the me that I am today.
I am very aware today that when my mother died in 1974, she was 63, only 2.5 yrs older than I am today. So memory, on one hand, serves as an anchor, while on the other as a trigger setting off not only things recalled but new perceptions and awareness’s as well. I am the product of one man and one woman from all of history, they are to me as no others on earth, yet I am not them. I am my own creation, having formed myself by allowing others, both people and events, some chosen, some not, to become “incarnate”, as it were, in me by providing me with the active ingredients in making the “me” ness of who I am.
As I set out on this Sunday, I decided spontaneously to trip out to Jardin Andre Citroën on the western outskirts of Paris. This is a very planned, contemporary park built over the site of the former Citroën car plant. Its an open, green space with an expansive lawn bordered by flowing water, falls, pools, channels. Between two immense glass structures housing plants of Australia, is a slanted granite floor which has more than forty shooting water columns which play off one another in a computerized program, a dance, really; Everywhere there are paths that meander between this garden and that, four rows across and eighteen long of carefully pruned magnolias, with their gorgeous waxy leaves, not in flower at this season. But the new thing that really catches my eye is the immense air balloon in the center of the park, with a metal cage attached at its base. It is here by the grace of Eurotelstat whose office block is one of the surrounding buildings, and sees the idea not only as a novelty but an effective means of advertising. It is anchored by a cable that allows it to ascend to a height of what seems equal to a 30story building. Then it can rise no further, though the winds blow it laterally.
I decide I’ll wait until I am here with someone. Though I’ll go on any amusement park ride, pure heights make me query and I cannot look at this balloon at its height unless I am holding on to something. But it was that cable, which on one hand allows it to rise, while on the other keeps it tethered, that made me think of it as a metaphor for memory. I move up and down, anchored to a certain past with certain players in that past, yet my perceptions of those same events or my selection of some over others, will be very different from those with whom I shared them.
So, here I am, in this wonderful open space on this cool morning, as scores of people encircle me as they jog in a belt like loop, exerting themselves, utterly concentrated on the course they are running. Occasionally, the scent of a wonderful cologne interacting with human sweat hangs behind, after the runner has disappeared behind a box elder which is redolent of cat piss. My mind goes back and chooses a moment from the early 50′s in which to wallow with the utmost pleasure. This memory; like all memories, is selective of what it chooses to remember, and not always does it remember linearly.
A winter, early evening. My father and grandmother are absent for some reason. I am no longer clear on that. Snow had fallen that day and was still pristine as it blanketed everything outside. I don’t recall if I asked or if my mother simply decided but there she said we were going out into the snow. I remember her standing there, wrapped in a gray, woolen “storm coat” with a faux fur collar, her head covered in a blue floral wool “babushka” and rubber golashes also faux fur trimmed on her petit feet. We brought out the sled from the garage and she pulled me through that winter fluff, the sky blazoned in orange, my first recollection as a child that a sky could be such a shade. And the stillness of that evening and my mother with only the sound of the metal runners of the sled slicing through that layer whiteness, as she pulled her son behind her.
The second memory of here comes from a later stage of my life, from what I seem to recall as my early college yrs. I had come home during one of the holidays and was about to set off back to school. This image is of my mother, standing beside her ironing board between the living and dining room, filterless Camel cigarette in one hand (always without filer; she liked to salt the tip of her cigarettes) iron in the other, an empty Drury’s brown beer bottle used to sprinkle an assortment of shirts and trousers. She would perform this same act ritually, before every departure back to school or some trip out of town. This was an action, like pulling that sled, that I felt my mother was sure about, confident in performing, of a very concrete way to express her love, no questions asked, just take wrinkled, press it out, get it right, from start to finish. Then the presentation, no words needed, of the finished product to make me look better. A way of saying: “not for me, but taking the time for you”. I still smile and think of her every time I put on an unironed wrinkled shirt.
So today is for her, for my mother, bearer of three sons, one, her first born, my brother John, who was such a beautiful baby that a whole conversation between my mother and grandmother (her mother) was devoted to whether or not he should be entered into a Gerber’s baby contest. It was to enter a picture of the baby for them to decide which one would grace the label of all their baby food jars. There was apparently a sum of money that would go to the winner. But my grandmother would not hear of it. She nipped that idea in the bud. She made it clear that no grandchild of hers would be so exploited. She felt such commercialism was vulgar and though she was hardly a woman of means, she had her Irish pride.
My mothers second son was my brother, Timothy, called just Tim. He had been born with cerebral palsy and was with my parents for only 27 months before he died. His loss was something my mother never really recovered from. Her first cousin was a priest and he tried to comfort my parents by stating simply that Tim had entered heaven and was now an angel. Yet, deep down I think my mother, given the choice, would have preferred a healthy, kicking baby whose jaws would not clamp down on the spoon in spasm every other time she fed him, to an angel.
And finally, me, the boy whom everyone thought would be a girl- name, Ann, already picked out, and everything in pink. And when I arrived home from the hospital, so I’ve been told, my grandmother picked me up to check that every part of me was present and in order, just as she would the Thanksgiving Day turkey when checking it for pinfeathers. And I close with an afterthought: They certainly may have been surprised by my sex-I was no Ann, but a James, with all the appendages that entailed quite in place. However, the pink…well, that I can say, −60yrs later, they got right.
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