Category Archives: Loss

Apartment #17D – An Ode

nick nacks 17DThis is the site of my childhood. Notches on a closet doorway mark my growth. Outside, on the balcony, a dark stain on one brick betrays the spot where Teenage Me hastily stubbed out a cigarette as I saw my father approaching. This apartment has seen my first steps, heard and felt an ocean of my tears, witnessed my friendships and my loves—wholesome, thrilling, sometimes toxic. I said my last goodbye to each of my parents here. For Dad, that was twenty-three years ago. For Mom, it’s been two months.

And now I face the task of packing up, clearing out, cataloging the pieces of our history. The estate sale “specialist” broke it down for me. Everything—every thing—can be placed into one of four categories: Sell, Donate, Trash, and Keep. A simple formula. But wherever I turn, something indispensable catches my eye: An ancient datebook, a ring, the sort of icepack they no longer make. A telegram sent in 1947—my father assuring his mother that he had arrived somewhere safely. I have no idea where or how to start.

We were the Williamsons—Dad, Mom and me. The only family who has ever lived here. Mine is the only childhood these walls have held. The building went up in the late fifties, part of a complex of four red-brick structures with one- and two-bedroom apartments to rent. My parents chose one above their means at the time: A two-bedroom at the end of the hall on the seventeenth floor for two hundred dollars a month. It looked out on the corner of One Hundredth Street and Columbus Avenue, boasting a balcony from which you could see Central Park if you craned your neck. From the dining room window, you had a red-and-orange steam-bath of a sunset in summer; cool, lavender twilights in winter. From one spot behind our dining room table you could gaze past rundown church steeples and the dingy sides of housing projects to catch a glimpse of the Hudson River. Everyone who visited would remark on the view I took for granted.

It took cunning to rent such a place back in the nineteen-fifties. My parents had a system for apartment hunting. Mom would view each place by herself, my father’s long list of preferences and aesthetic requirements in mind. Dad knew about real estate. His parents had owned two homes back in Chicago: One that they rented out, and one where they lived with their sprawling family of children and grandchildren. But Dad could never accompany Mom to view any apartment until she had signed a lease. To rent the apartment of their dreams, my mother needed to present her prime qualification: whiteness. Her husband, she would tell the building manager, was at work—which was true. What was also true, but what she didn’t share at this point, was that her husband was black.

Mel and Lorraine

Mom and Dad moved here ambivalent about children, but not entirely opposed. When they wed in 1950, friends who were interracially married and parenting mix-raced children didn’t recommend it. Their kids were picked on at school, accepted by neither the black kids nor the white kids. No. Best leave well enough alone and enjoy one another without children. My mother was a teacher, surrounded by kids all day long. She claimed that she had no need for her own. Her work taught her all the things that can go wrong with children, the risks of illness and disability, the emotional turmoil they could face in the best of circumstances. Best not, she agreed with my father. Best enjoy the children of friends, to be God parents, to be free. Then Mom turned thirty-nine and changed her mind. “I want one,” she told him. “I want my own.” “Let’s have one then,” Dad replied. And crossed his fingers, hoping for a girl.

Here is another box of photographs, starring me as a newborn, an infant, a toddler. It happened easily considering their ages, the pregnancy, the birth, though my early months were marked by colic. No one slept much until I was at least a year old. But in the pictures of that year, my parents’ faces betray nothing of the challenges, only the joy. In me, in one another, in the life they’d made from scratch. Together they created a joint culture in our home, made of art and music and books. Made of black and Jewish heritage, made of Chicago and New York and Louisiana (from his parents) and Russia (hers). And that was our place.

“You just need to decide what you want,” friends have said. Just. A word offered to simplify, minimize the effort involved. These friends have been supportive, accompanying me to my mother’s place (it hasn’t been Dad’s for twenty-three years), they have washed, folded, tossed and recycled, and again and again, held up some vase or salt box or kitchen tool, eyes questioning.

As my friends exhume relics of our life, as they dust, shine, wash and dry, our dining room table fills with the mismatched decorative pieces—Dutch cookie jars, Egyptian Scarab beads, and Senegalese wooden masks—looking like a life-raft packed with strangers thrown together after a shipwreck.

But through the chaos and clutter, I still see us three, sitting here: Mom to my right, Dad to my left at the head of the table. They trade sections of the New York Times, talking politics over my head.

“That S.O.B.” My mother says, which I know means Nixon. She begins to read aloud, but Dad cuts her off.

“You see? You see?” He sets down the second section of the paper to drum an index finger on the table. “This is the kind of thing I’m talking about.”

Williamsons 1970It was part of an ongoing discussion in which terms like race and fascism and civil rights were thrown around. When the discussions were too intricate, the words became a soft, spring rain on my shoulders, nurturing, soothing. Because even as they ranted, their joint indignation would keep me safe from whatever evils were out there. It’s what I believed unequivocally.

What do I want? I want my parents back. Of course. But I’ll settle for the obvious things, like my mother’s photo diaries, my father’s memoir, his unsold screenplays, his short stories and articles. The sentimental things. My father’s Panama hat—straw with a colorful pink and green band. My mother’s gold chain belt from the seventies. I want the photographs with all three of us together, but also the ones that predate me, documenting those first sixteen years of their marriage. My parents, living it up at the Vanguard in 1952. With friends on the Maine coast in 1954. I want the photographs that date back even further, to the years before they met. My father at the back row of Class 5B at the Willard School. My mother and her little sister at the 1938 Chicago World’s Fair. Dad in the army, Guam World War II. Mom as the Queen of Hearts in the University of Illinois Hillel Stunt Show, 1945.

Time is running out quickly. The place must be emptied by the end of the month. My parents are gone. I live with my husband and children in another state where we are rapidly accumulating our own memories. It’s time for this apartment to hold someone else’s stories.

There is healing in the going-through of my family’s past, in touching each treasure, each building block of our existence. In both hands I cradle a stone water-buffalo that my mother acquired on a trip to China. I breathe life into it for one final second, then set it down for good.

Me 17D

17D CW photo

Image above: me photographing “Nobody Knows My Name” by my father’s friend and mentor, the great Charles White

 

On A Motherless Mother’s Day, Remembering to Heal and to Laugh

mom and me - Copy

You wanted to know how I am—meaning since my loss, since my mother died. I say, “doing okay,” because sometimes I am okay. Sometimes I forget, and life feels normal. I say, “You know, it comes in waves,” meaning grief comes in waves, meaning sometimes it’s sharp and sometimes it’s dull and heavy and sometimes it lifts into nothing.

“Doing okay. You know—it comes in waves.” It is a comfort to me to say this because it sounds healthy. I am being honest, real, but not falling apart. I mean to reassure you. Friends like you distract me, which I appreciate more than you can imagine. Work distracts me. Other people’s lives and problems and needs distract me. If I couldn’t work, if I couldn’t listen, I wouldn’t be back. But I can so I am.

I’m being honest because you asked in a way that I trust. I can tell you care. A lot of people care, a shocking number of people care, which is nice, but which overwhelms me, makes me feel guilty because –What if I forget to acknowledge your caring? What if I forget to express my gratitude?

Because I am forgetting a lot lately, forgetting to manage the things I normally manage with little difficulty, forgetting what day it is. Forgetting who has to be driven where and picked up when and who just saw the orthodontist and cannot eat anything hard for a few days.

Sometimes, like I said, I forget she’s gone. I think I just haven’t called her yet today, that she’s still in her apartment in the city and later, when I’m out walking the dog, I’ll give her a call. Sometimes I do pick up the phone to give her a call. And then I remember.

Sometimes, of course, I am not okay. You know that, I’m sure. Because when I say it comes in waves, meaning grief, I’m referring to the surges. There are times when the weight in my heart is so heavy I cannot remain standing, and collapse on my kitchen floor, literally. I make sure one is around then but the dog, who comes and licks my tears away. Sometimes, there are too many tears to lick, and my face winds up a swimming mess of sorrow and dog drool.

Sometimes I think: how is it possible for me to be here on this earth, when there is no longer her? She has always been here in my life, since my first breath. Before.

And there is the sadness about my father too—whom we lost twenty-three years ago.  Not that I’m mourning him again, just mourning them together. My parents as a unit. Of our small family—just us three—no one is left but me.

Still, I am lucky. I have so much of them left: photographs, manuscripts, letters, mementos. Works of art that Dad created with Mom as his muse. A book about Brooklyn that Mom wrote and Dad illustrated for the children in one of her first-grade classes.

My mother was a story teller, as you well know. Over the years, she’s told me the stories of their life together before me. The sixteen years that they were Mel and Lorraine, before we were The Williamsons. In recent weeks, going through her apartment, sorting her endless things, I’ve unearthed boxes photographs that accompany the old, before-Lisa stories. One crumbling envelope reveals the trip to Maine where there were fresh blueberries and cream every morning. Another holds their trip up the coast where they tried to cook out on the beach and were assaulted by bees. Here are the gatherings at their first apartment, in Flatbush. Lola and Sam’s wedding. A waiter at the Vanguard in 1951.

My favorite photograph is a later one from a trip to Barbados when I was already out of college. This is how I remember them best together, smiling, free to enjoy one another and life. And me. I make an imprint of this image on a scrim inside my mind, bringing it up during those moments when I need them.

mom and dad jamaica Continue reading

Internalized Homophobia Wreaked Doom at Pulse

rainbow dance

As a psychotherapist, part of my job is being open to the inner worlds of people who may be different from me, culturally, ideologically, religiously, racially, in orientation and in gender identity. I am trained to be curious and non-judgmental, to make people of all descriptions feel safe and accepted. When people are hostile and negative, I am trained to look to their pasts for explanations: trauma, loss, abandonment. My training tells me that every person is a living story, searching for an outcome to ease their deepest emotional wounds.

That said, I believe Omar Mateen was a monster. The kind of monster whose hatred-of-self led to the destruction of a free and joyous group of people whose joy and freedom was hard earned and long-overdue.

I am furious at him for robbing these young people of their futures, robbing their families of them. I know I would be incapable of treating him in my therapy practice. Nevertheless while families, friends and the nation mourn the forty-nine young, vibrant lives he took Sunday morning, I am trying to look at Mateen through the lens of my profession.

He was mentally ill, according to some of the reports I’m reading. Bipolar, violent toward his wife. Radicalized. A word I take exception to because of its passive tense, as if radicalization were something done to him. No, he was a radical, not radicalized. His homophobia knew no bounds, as is so often the case with the closeted.

I am familiar with this kind of inwardly-born, outwardly-directed homophobia. I once saw a young couple who were planning a family and were concerned about how their different beliefs would play out when it came to parenting. The woman was a Christian, she said. Her husband, though he was skilled at quoting the bible, had declared himself atheist.

When I met with the man alone, as I do with each member of a new couple I am seeing, he began unprompted, by condemning gays. Nothing about homosexuality had come up in the couple’s session, so my ears were pricked for relevance. Gays were sick, he told me. They needed to be corrected, not tolerated. America, he went on, was a weak country because it was accepting of homosexuality. He said that there were no gays in countries that condemned it, providing several African countries as examples. When I asked what connection the subject had to his marriage, he brushed me off, continuing his tirade. As I listened to this rubbish (the word in my mind at the time was considerably stronger), I couldn’t do my usual active listening, where I focus on the client’s every word, nodding, asking validating questions. Instead, I sat frozen, as his condemnation grew increasingly dark and hateful. If I had been seeing him longer, I might have asked him gently, what was so personal to him about homosexuality (I could guess). Why it was so important to him that I knew his feelings about it?

But I didn’t know him well enough as a client to probe or challenge what I strongly suspected was fueled by shame. Nor did I have it in me to engage this guy without getting political and possibly argumentative. He was six-four, with shoulders nearly the width of my loveseat. Confrontation would not do. Besides, he was a client, in my office for support. When the hour was up, I let him go, confident I would not see him again. His wife came a few more times on her own, sessions in which she expressed her worries about the late nights her husband often kept.

I think of that couple sometimes, wonder whether or not they stayed together, if they ever had children. I hope with all my heart not. The possibility of that man parenting an LGBTQ child is unthinkable.

He was not a killer. (Based on the admittedly flawed assessments I did for homicidal and suicidal ideation.) But if my hypothesis was correct, his hatred of gays was rooted in his inability to accept his own complex—or not so complex—sexuality.

This is not an uncommon theme at all. Look at recent American History. The most outrageously LGBTQ-hostile politicians—Randy Boehning, George Rekers and Roberto Arango to name a few—and clergy—Tedd Haggard and countless others—either came out as gay, were outed, or else were at the center of sex scandals involving young men.

Similar implications about Omar Mateen are dribbling out in the news. He may have been using a gay dating app; he had been a patron of Pulse long before the murders. His widely professed animosity toward the LGBTQ community amounted to protesting way too much.

It has been suggested that one reason so many sex offenders have been drawn to the priesthood—where all sex is prohibited—is the wish to silence their own urges. Similarly, Omar Mateen may have found in radical Islam—the part that condemns homosexuality—a balm for his own self-loathing.

Mateen was a Muslim, but from some reports, not a terribly devout one. I believe his homophobia had little to do with the Qu’ ran, and more to do with his inability to accept his own sexuality. He could not tolerate the mirror that the Pulse’s vibrant clientele held up before him. Nor could he stay away.

Mateen could not see beyond his own image to take in the beauty alive in Pulse that night. Instead, raging on internalized homophobia, he sought to destroy it. He failed though. In our memories of and tributes to the victims, hope and promise live on.

pulse memorial

“Latkes and Paper Birds” or “How I Took Back Christmas”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1995, the year my father died, the eighth candle of Hanukkah fell on December 25th. I could not have been more relieved. Though my father had died months earlier, as the December holidays closed in I was feeling increasingly anxious and ambivalent. How would I, could I, do Christmas without my father? For me, Christmas revolved around Dad.  Of course, my mother did all the baking, all the cooking, as well as the bulk of the shopping. But everything was orchestrated by Dad. The tree, the decorations, the annual four-letter-word-enhanced battle with the strings of lights, which would devolve each year into a massive tangle in their box. The music on the phonograph—from early morning gospel (despite Dad’s atheism) to Handel in the afternoon, to late night Louis Armstrong. It was all Dad. Who was, after all, the child of Christians—real ones. For whom Christmas was not about gift-giving and shopping and cookies and sweeping up glass because the damn cat got into the tree again.  No. Christmas, for my paternal grandparents, was about the guy himself. Jesus. It was His Day. And for my grandmother—who died long before I was born—this involved Church. And cooking and gifts and keeping the dog out of the tree. But first and foremost Jesus.

So with Dad around, I could embrace Christmas for what it was to my family. An annual tradition of sharing—gifts, music and food. Inviting loved-ones from around the area, telephoning loved-ones too far-flung to see in person. Taking the time to pause and love one another. My mother participated wholeheartedly. Being Jewish was her history, her family background, but not about religious affiliation. Besides, there was nothing in my family’s “Christmas” traditions that went against Jewish culture or values. (See above: love, food, music, sharing.) My parents had co-created a unique family culture during their long marriage and Christmas—Williamson-style—was just part of it.

We did Hanukkah too—there was a Menorah, dreidel, chocolate gelt and actual gelt coins which came tucked in little pockets of specially designed cards. And of course, latkes.

But Hanukkah is neither the Jewish Christmas nor the Jewish answer to Christmas. Hanukkah may be the most famous Jewish holiday as far as gentiles are concerned; it’s the one all of them know about. Because it coincides with Christmas, Hanukkah has taken on a commercial meaning in the same way Christmas has. (Why should Jews be left out of the December shopping frenzy?)

It starts for little kids in school. In planning the Holiday art project. Children are asked—not are you Jewish?—but which does your family celebrate, Christmas or Hanukkah? (Now, they are including Kwanzaa and Ramadan, but they didn’t even when my children were little.) The teachers just want to know how many trees to cut out, how many Menorahs. But what is created is a false sense of balance. They have Christmas; we have Hanukkah. So it’s fair.

But the analogy is half-baked. Hanukkah is not as to Jews as Christmas is to Christians. We have our High Holy Days and Hanukkah is not one of them. Instead, it is a beautiful holiday commemorating a miracle, celebrating freedom.

But this mini-rant wasn’t the point of my post.  The point was Christmas 1995—my first without Dad—and the coinciding last night of Hanukkah.

For some time, I had been struggling to justify celebrating Christmas as a Jewish person. What right had I? On the other hand, as a person of color, constantly questioned about my claim to Jewishness*, how could I call myself a Jew if I grew up celebrating Christmas anyway?

Clearly, the problem was celebrating Christmas itself. If I took that off the table, I’d have nothing to explain, nothing to justify. So how convenient was the timing of that eighth candle? I think it was a relief to my mother also, not to have to recreate the Williamson Christmas without Dad at the helm. It would have been too sad. Too soon.

What we did instead was throw a big, beautiful latke party. We invited all the friends of the family who used to join us at Christmas—most of whom were Jewish anyway.  There were about three or four Hanukkiahs but no Christmas tree. There was loads of food and plenty of music—klezmer, Jewish folk songs, Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah!, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena! As well as some Louis Armstrong thrown in for good measure. It was a wonderful, healing night.

And for me, it was a send-off to Christmas itself. My father was gone. I had new traditions to make. Christmas was part of my past. It was time to say goodbye. Things went on smoothly from here. I got married to Jon, who was Jewish—more culturally than religiously, like me. We celebrated the Jewish holidays with family in a low key sort of way, ate Chinese food on Christmas, took it as a given that our future children would do the same. We’d explain Christmas the way many Jewish families do—as a holiday for others. I didn’t miss Christmas; neither would they. As American conspicuous consumers, we’d make fanfare and share gifts for Hanukkah.

And so we did, until our children were one and three.  Something changed my mind. No, it wasn’t a visitation from some spirit of Christmases past. It was a shopping mall, frankly. One of those spectacularly American, sprawling malls, where you can buy everything from fine furs to motor oil. I went to this mall with a friend—another mother of two, who was there to do her Christmas shopping.

And, while I can think of nothing more bah-humbug-eliciting than a mall at Christmas time, there was something there that touched me. It was not the Christmas Carols, pumping aggressively from every speaker; not the endless array of oversized wrapped faux-presents or oversized branches of faux-holly or gargantuan faux pine trees sporting gargantuan balls and lights. It was not the cloying scent of too-sweet cookie samples on trays outside every chain bakery in the place, or even the mile-long line of sweating parents with screaming children determined to sit in the well-worn lap of Santa. (What’s wrong with that man? My daughter asked, pointing at the red-suited sage.)

It wasn’t any of that. But it was sort of all of it. All around me—as far as the eye could see—was stuff my dad would have poked gleeful fun at. The cartoonish decorations, the over-the-top promotions, the music, the urgency in the eyes of the shoppers (acquisition as a competitive sport!), the music, the clawing one’s neighbor for a spot in line to see Santa, the absurdity of the whole thing, would have just tickled my dad to pieces.

As I walked through it all, pushing my son in the stroller, checking occasionally to make sure my daughter was holding on tight, I found myself flashing back.

I’m five or so, Christmas shopping with Dad, heading for Gimbels on East 86th Street, to buy my mother a present. Normally I love Gimbels because of the lights and colorful scarves and exotic smells of perfume, but today I am frightened because of the men in red suits who guard all four entrances. They have white hair and beards and say Ho-Ho-Ho in a deep, throaty growl. When we get close to one of them, I begin to scream and refuse to take a step further.  My father is used to this. Each year, he and my mother assuage my fear of Santa Claus by assuring me that he is only pretend. Well, this guy looks pretty real to me. My father slips guy a five dollar bill to make himself scarce long enough to get me into the building. Inside there are no more scary men, just beautiful things to see and touch and smell. At home, my mother is baking gingerbread men that I will decorate later. Then I will fasten my special family of paper birds with wire feet to the lower branches of our Christmas tree.

All these years later, pushing a stroller through a mall in New Jersey, it occurs to me that I still have that family of birds—or my mother does—somewhere in a box, wrapped in tissue along with the other decorations from my childhood.

And it also occurs to me that maybe—regardless of my religion or lack thereof—these birds and the traditions that went with them are still part of me. And part of my children’s birthright.

So, before I left the mall, I bought my children each a painted wooden Christmas ornament—one in the shape of a toy train, the other shaped like a dancing doll. Later that night, I shared my epiphany with my husband, who understood—about my dad, about the birds, about my wish to share it all with our kids. Let’s get a tree, he said. We’ll do this.

And from that year on, we did. Christmas—in our modified, Rosenberg kind of way.

_________________

*In truth, the two components of my ethnic identity have never felt mutually exclusive to me. But as a social work grad student, for whom the topic of racial identity came up in class just about every day, I kept finding myself in a position of having to explain and frequently defend who I was. How can you be black and Jewish? If you claim Jewishness, aren’t you also claiming whiteness and rejecting your blackness? If your Jewish Grandmother rejected you, how can you in any way identify with her culture? And so on. It is one thing to know who you are inside, but another to be put on the spot to explain it every day. I did not always have the right words ready to defend myself. Why bother? To whom did I owe an explanation? Ultimately, to no one but myself.

 

 

 

Aside

I know it’s been ages since I’ve blogged. I’m not even going to look at the date of my last post. In any case, I’ve had a much needed hiatus, during which I’ve been building my private practice, working hard … Continue reading

The House Fire Chronicles: The Things I Wore

Serving cake in my favorite purple sweater

Serving cake in my favorite purple sweater

I don’t write about clothes.  I’m not a fashionista; I don’t think I’m qualified to give anyone wardrobe tips.  But I’ve had to think about clothing—my clothing—a whole lot in the little-less-than-a-year since our fire.

What a strange almost year it’s been.  Living in a house that isn’t mine, several blocks away from the house that is mine.  So close to home but not home at all.  Everyone asks about the house (it’s coming along nicely; we’ll move back very soon) and about the kids (doing great considering.) Everyone asks how our insurance has been (pretty good—not perfect) and of course how we all are.  We’re doing really well, given the whirlwind it’s been.  I haven’t written about the fire for months and months, mostly because after the first few posts, I couldn’t.  I was sick of hearing myself talk about it.  I just needed to live and take care of my family and make the best of the situation we were in.  We’ve been so lucky, to have insurance that really took care of us, for friends that helped in too many ways to count.  For the supportive schools my kids are in, both of which cushioned the blow.  We are beyond grateful for this community.  We are more than fine.  My family is whole and mostly healed and poised to move back into our new-old house.

I wrote early on about the mementos and pictures and trinkets we managed to save.  Enough of us for us to feel like ourselves.  As for the little things we no longer have, we think of wistfully of them from time to time and move on.  Things occur to us, like the wall where we’d marked off our children’s increasing heights over the years.  We’ll never get that back.  But for everything we lost, it seems like there are many more important things we recovered.  Pieces of our identity.

But for me, there’s something I realize I’m still mourning just a bit.  My clothes.  My boots and dresses and silly sweaters and jeans that might have been sort of out of date but who cared?  The things I put on every day that went into making me me.

There were the a-line skirts I’d bought in the 1990s at the Limited, which had held up for some reason.  There was the blazer I’d bought before my daughter was born, at a stoop sale in Brooklyn Heights, tweed, hip-length, by some German designer, which was just about the most flattering thing I’d ever owned.  It went with anything, could turn my casual-mom outfits into work-ready ensembles in the blink of an eye.  Utilitarian sweaters in abundance, one for every mood, every configuration of my body image, every kind of weather.  And dresses, little black ones, flowing, floral ones, more dresses than I needed, but a memory was tied to each.

Right after the fire, the insurance company gave us a lump sum that we were to use right away, a short term advance to replace what we needed immediately.  The fire took place right after Hurricane Sandy, on November 2nd.  Winter was coming, so what we needed were warm clothes.  For my kids, this meant replacing hoodies, easily done since the cut of zip-up sweatshirts doesn’t fluctuate much from year to year.  But I needed sweaters, and found nothing anywhere to replace a single one I’d lost.  (When I shop, first stop for me is always Target, then Kohl’s, before I’ll even consider moving up to Bloomingdales.)  All the sweaters I found were drape-y and thin: no buttons, not even a zipper to close and keep in the body heat.  Otherwise they were skimpy and low-cut with funny, asymmetrical ties.

Here’s the truth: I’d expected to show up at a store and find ALL MY OLD CLOTHES, waiting for me cheerfully from their racks, as if to say: Surprise!  Here we are!  We weren’t in the fire after all!  And there would be a big reunion.  Me and those amazing, quintessentially-Lisa wardrobe finds dating back to 1989.

Of course it wasn’t like that.  Nothing on the racks felt very much like me.  I spent the winter, and then the spring, in a few basics from the Gap and some hand-me-downs from a friend who is close to my size but way more fashionable.  It will take time to rebuild my closet, adapting what I have of a fashion sense to what there is out there now.  Slowly but surely I’m doing it.

I know I am very fortunate; our insurance company was good in terms of content loss.  This isn’t about money; it’s about missing old, faithful duds, my reluctance to replace them with strangers.  Almost a year later, I still remember how each piece felt, how it looked, what it went with.   Some of them I still see in the photographs we salvaged—not always flattering, but a record nonetheless of what I once wore.

Emotional Scar Tissue

??????????????????????????????????????I write a lot about body image and identity–the connection between the body—shape, weight, height, physical capacities—and the self.  The body you live in is a house for the self; from
your body you negotiate the world.   People make inferences about you based on what they see, and those inferences, whether you believe them, whether you know them or not, are part of your ascribed identity.

But today I’m thinking about the pieces of identity no one can see on the outside.  The Trials, losses, illnesses, upheavals.  Though people can’t necessarily see the tough stuff you’ve been through, it’s part of you.  Being bullied as a child by a “best friend,” losing a parent, enduring the aftermath of a house fire—these are pieces of my baggage, which I’ll carry to my grave.  They are not all of me, but are included in me, inextricable parts of my identity.

I’m thinking about loss a lot lately.  Last week, my husband lost his aunt, a brilliant, wise and sensitive woman.  I’m thinking about the way her illness and death have affected those who were closest to her, her children, her husband, her beloved sister, how the strength of her love and the beauty of her memory will one day heal them.

A week earlier, tragedy struck our town not once but twice, as a college-bound high school senior took his own life, as a terrible accident took the life of the parent of one of my daughter’s schoolmates.   Our town feels like a different place today.

You are forever changed by your experiences of suffering.   You may be far into the healing process by now.  Possibly you have finished healing and are happy despite your suffering.  But you are YOU because of it.

Sometimes the strongest layers of the self come from our emotional scar tissue.

For so many artists, poets and writers, this scar tissue is one of the richest sources of creativity.  Though I am not blogging much these days (my energy is focused on a “revise and resubmit” arrangement I have with a literary agent), over the next few weeks, I am going to devote some posts to fellow bloggers who have channeled their life-trials into creative works—books, blogs, blogs-that-will-be-books—that are sure to touch and enrich the lives of others.

Boston’s Journey Back to Itself

images[1] (5)Just over a week after the Boston Marathon bombing, I learned about her.  I’ve been thinking about her ever since: Adrianne Haslet-Davis—the beautiful, young ballroom dancer who lost her foot to one of the blasts.   Her foot.   A dancer’s connection with the earth–the very foundation of her career.  Haslet-Davis may not be unique among Boston’s recent amputees; many were runners, people for whom athleticism and movement were part of their identity.   But she stands out for me.  As a former dancer, I know what the loss of a foot would mean.   According to the articles I’ve read, Haslet-Davis has bouts of sadness and rage in the face of her lost limb, but holds onto hope.  She is determined to some day get back to the dance studio, to make a comeback with the Viennese Waltz.  Haslet-Davis survives, believing in herself and her future, thanks to her faith in advanced medicine, science and technology.  I have no doubt that she will dance again.  But her reality has changed; she must adjust her physical identity accordingly.  She and the other amputees embody the mission faced by Boston itself: a journey back to its post-bombing future.

When disaster strikes—natural or manmade—it shakes up a community.  Things you’ve always trusted—that your neighbors are your neighbors, not hostile strangers; that law enforcement is sufficient to provide safety—gets shaken up.  Home is suddenly not home, not quite the place it once felt like.  The rules are changed; daily life takes more thought, simple movements are now belabored, shrouded in fear and mistrust.  I remember the weeks following nine-eleven, when the world felt different: so unsafe, so newly dark and uncertain.  I remember the days after Hurricane Sandy and—more personally for me—the period right after our house fire.  Our identity as a family had changed.

Just as Boston’s has now.  More than lives were lost in the bombing, more than limbs; something deeper and less tangible was taken.   The nation has mourned along with Boston, but now we must watch and cheer the town on as it clamors to its feet, purging what one Boylston Street business owner called “bad energy.”

I lived in Boston for a year, back in 1989-1990, as a member of Boston Ballet II, and though I was in rehearsal most of the time and made too little money to partake of what the city had to offer, I remember its character.  Old American beauty thrown up against a bare toughness that rivaled the bare toughness in sections of Brooklyn—only with pinker cheeks and flatter vowels.  There were the Public Gardens, evoking memories of history lessons as well as my favorite children’s books, from Make Way for Ducklings to Trumpet of the Swan.  A mere stone’s throw away was the “red light” district, disconcertingly close to where we performed Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet.  Like New York, it was a great walking town, with ethnicities and neighborhoods on display as you walked, as varied as those in my home town.  Like New York, but unlike it, too.  A little shorter, a little slower, a little less of a chameleon.  I haven’t been back since I left twenty years ago, but still I remember the Boston-ness of the town, how I knew I’d always be an outsider, but appreciated the fact of calling it home for that season.

Things are getting back to normal there, but because of the bombing, they will never quite be the same.  Like those who lost limbs—each of whom must now face different lives and find their own, new versions of “normal,” each day will be marked by the triumph of overcoming unimaginable loss.

Soul Food Shiva (reposted)

The Defenders Online Website does not seem to be functioning, which means that there is no way to access my article, Soulfood Shiva.  For that reason, I am placing it below as a regular post.  The following was originally published in The Defenders Online as part of the Father’s Day Edition in 2010.

When my father laughed, he’d show his wide, white teeth, wrinkle his broad nose and let loose.  I remember the sound of it, rich and soulful, with music in the background: Motown and jazz that he’d play when my parents threw parties.  I remember the colors of those big nineteen-seventies bashes: bold red and turquoise plaids leaping from scratchy synthetics; paisleys in dizzying shades of orange, pink and purple.  I can smell the smoke in the air, mingling with the aroma of my father’s fried chicken or my mother’s latkes.   I remember dashikis, bell-bottoms and blazers with suede elbow patches.  I remember afros, which abounded amongst our friends, regardless of whether they were black, like Dad or Jewish, like Mom (everyone was one or the other).  Dad’s afro was short but not too short to play with.  I’d poke his hair down in one spot just to see how long the finger holes would stay.

“Don’t mess up the ’do,” he’d grin at me, reaching for his pick.   (My mother wouldn’t let me play with her hair either, though I longed to.  It was shoulder-length, straight and flipped like Mary Tyler Moore’sthe height of seventies chic.)

Williamsons 1970

But it’s the laughter I remember most.  The humor was adult, usually political, and therefore, miles over my head, but the sound of it thrilled me.  Laughter, I understood from an early age, was courage in the face of pain, hope in hard times: the ultimate measure of survival.  Any time my parents laughed together—which was often—I felt safe and warm; things were good and would stay that way.

My parents’ parties were loud and boisterous, but always wrapped up at a reasonable hour.  My father was an early riser with no patience for late night carousing.  When it was time, he’d turn off the music, turn up the lights and clap his hands.

“It’s that time, folks,” he’d boom, in his rich, good-natured bass, “That’s all she wrote.”

I was the lone kid at the parties, in my parents’ world in general.  By the time I reached kindergarten, all the little friends I’d had in our building had moved to the suburbs.  Their families hadn’t wanted to pay for private schools, my mother explained.  She and I were alone a lot after that, since Dad worked in publishing and was away at the office all day.  My mother taught, but was home whenever I was.  When Dad made his nightly entrance, we were complete.  We’d eat dinner together most nights, breakfast most mornings.  I wasn’t lonely; I had friends at school; I had my parents.

Besides, I could while away endless hours alone, just exploring our apartment.  Dark wood cabinets held leather photo albums, my father’s sketch books, and old things from before I was born.  There were trinkets on shelves, matryoshka dolls and other artifacts that friends had brought back from the Soviet Union.  There were African masks, African sculpture, and a giant stone head of a man, which sat on the edge of my father’s desk.  The sculptor was semi-famous, a friend of my parents.  “The Head” would be worth a lot one day.

On our walls hung original paintings by my father and his friends.  The people in the paintings were black except for a few of my father’s nudes who were white.  (I always assumed the nudes were my mother.  I’ve been told otherwise, but I still think they’re her.)  My dad painted people with posture and facial expressions so vivid, you could feel their emotions.  I knew these paintings by heart; the people in them were family.  I didn’t like it when my parents changed the display; someone was always missing, replaced by something new.

Constant, however, were Dad’s cigarettes—burning away in his hand.  I remember watching them circle and dive, punctuating his arguments as he talked on the phone—about the Vietnam War, race relations, or the city’s economy.   Then he’d inhale fiercely, gathering new words.

For the record, cigarettes weren’t what killed him. There’s no known link between smoking and prostate cancer.  Instead it’s more about being male and black—as if that weren’t enough.   No one but Cancer really knows why it starts, whom it will choose.

I was twenty-three when he got the diagnosis.

“I just want to hip you,” he said, coming into my room, red wine in hand.  I was home visiting from Boston, where I lived at the time.   He explained that his brand of cancer was the best kind a guy his age could get.  It would move slowly; we’d barely notice it.  He looked the same as he’d always looked—neither concerned nor the least bit sad.  He made it so easy for us both to remain in denial for the next few years.  We had my mother to do the worrying, to handle reality for us.

Two weeks before my father died, his blood pressure fell dramatically; we were told “it could be any time now.”  My mother and I took our leaves from work and The Wait began.  We left the apartment only to run errands, to go to therapy, or for short walks to get air.  We’d hurry back, afraid he’d go while we were out—a notion I couldn’t bear.

Dad withered to about seventy-eight pounds, consuming nothing but the few ounces of apple cider into which they mixed his morphine.  There was nothing keeping him alive and yet he lived.  He began to do strange things, like clap his hands over and over again; I never knew why, maybe to reassure himself that he was still there.  The nurse explained that he was “checking out, bit by bit.”  He struggled with words, with names.  He seemed to see people who were not there, but whom he knew, yet I was a stranger to him.

The night before my father died, my mother suddenly announced that she couldn’t take it anymore: the waiting, holding, swabbing, wiping and listening, alternately to Dad’s cries of agony and, in calmer moments, his labored breathing.  We fled to the living room where we had a tiny television set, leaving my father in the care of the Visiting Nurse.  We had no cable out there; all we could get was Batman Returns.  We didn’t care that we were picking up the thread in the middle.  Tim Burton’s Gotham City was just the escape we needed: this dark, surreal, uber-NewYork.  Most freakish of all was Danny DeVito’s Penguin.  They’d whitened his face, darkened his eyes, lips and teeth, given him wild, silver hair, and a long pointy nose.  With the evil umbrella, monocle, and demonic laugh, he was just about as sinister as a guy standing five feet tall can be.  But he also looked so thoroughly ridiculous, that his image sent my mother into a fit of giggles.

My mother snickers when amused, chin buried in one shoulder.  Her laughter is usually at someone’s expense; it’s sometimes rude, but always contagious to me.  All along, I’d had this selfish fear that when my father died, my sense of humor would go with him.  My boyfriend, my friends would tire of my moroseness and desert me one by one.   Now the bitter end was upon us, my father breathing his last, occasionally crying out in pain in another room.  Yet here we were, in stitches, laughing harder still at our own guilt.

My father died at home, on the day before Valentine’s Day in 1995.   We were both at his side.  My mother said, “Goodbye, Mel,” and kissed him for the last time, after forty-five years of marriage.  When I touched my lips to his broad, brown forehead, it had already begun turning cold.

Once he’d been taken out, my mother began making phone calls. I went back into their bedroom, which still looked and smelled like the hospice room it had been for the last few weeks.  I steeled myself and went about transforming it, so my mother wouldn’t have to.  I changed the sheets on their bed, first removing the pads from my father’s side.  I got rid of the bedpans and swabs and blue plastic covers and everything else that had enabled him to stay at home.  Next, I dressed myself entirely in his clothing—a pair of yellow sweatpants with the legs cuffed and waist cinched in, a black sweatshirt, his rag-wool socks.  When I came out into the hall, my mother was still on the phone.

“Mel died this morning,” she was saying to whomever was on the line, and that made it real.

For three days after that, people who had loved him and who loved us poured into the apartment bearing food, memories and their company.  During the day, mostly neighbors came, along with my mother’s colleagues from the school where she taught.  In the evening, friends of the family arrived—the ones I’d known since childhood, who used to show up in dashikis, bell-bottoms and afros, many of whom I hadn’t seen for years.  The first night, their faces were grief-stricken as they hugged and clung to us.  My friends came by later, adding their youth to the mix.

Our shiva was not a real shiva.  There were no boxes, no covered mirrors or quiet.  While most people did bring roast chicken, matzo ball soup, and boxes of rugelah from Fine and Shapiro, others bore ribs and plates of collard greens.  I played Bach at first, then jazz, blues, rock and also gospel, because my father had loved it all.  We set out the food and wound up throwing a party he would have been proud to host.  There were tears, but more so, the sharing of memories and laughter.

On the second day, Valentine’s Day itself, one of Mom’s colleagues brought over a stack of condolence messages from the children in her third grade class.  The substitute teacher had made time that day, not only for this project, but also for the creation of Valentine’s Day cards.   Several of the children had conflated the tasks, decorating my mother’s notes with elaborate hearts and rainbows.  The stand out in the bunch came from a boy who had written in a small, awkward cursive:

Dear Mrs. Williamson,  I’m sorry your husband is dead.

By Sam 

Then, in a cheerfully swirling red:

 P.S.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

Something about the juxtaposition of sentiments: Mom and I were instantly consumed by laughter once more.  We proceeded to clutch each other, new tears streaming down our faces, joining the sea already cried that day.   It went on a while; we’d stop, look at each other, look back at the card, and lose it again, residual chuckles erupting for several hours.  Two nights before, Danny deVito had given us respite from the waiting game.  Little Sam had reignited the pilot light of our family’s spirit.

After three days of our alternative shiva, it was suddenly enough.  I was tired of the crowds reminiscing, tired of the limbo.  I remembered the parties of the seventies and heard my father’s voice:

“That’s all she wrote.”

Goodbye Hadiya: An Ode to the Lights in our Lives

zoe baby (19)

Your daughter dreams big.  Why shouldn’t she?  She looks at the future as a wide open sea of possibility, a canvas to be filled with color or left full of open spaces as she sees fit.  She trusts that the future will come and take whatever shape she gives it, so she can live in the present where she belongs—with her friends, their jokes, their music and clothes.  The wonderful things they do together.

Special things happen to your daughter, they make her heart race with excitement, yours swell with pride.  You try not to gush—not to our friends or neighbors, not to the woman behind you at the checkout whose name you can’t remember but whose kids are the same age yours are—but sometimes you can’t help it.  Because, as much as your girl lives in the present, you see her in the full circle of her days: the infant you held, the toddler you chased, even the striking, accomplished woman you know she’ll be.

Sometimes, when you watch her with her friends, or listen to her as she tells you about her day, you find your eyes welling up because it’s going so fast, so magically, beautifully, painfully fast.  You don’t know how it will all turn out, but what an exciting ride—wonders around every corner.

But then, a phone call comes, the phone call you’d never expect, bearing impossible news.  Your girl has been shot.  Yes that’s right.  Your beauty, your sunshine, your light.

And hours later she’s gone.

As she huddled with her friends under a canopy to escape a downpour, you’re told, a man with a gun came running out of nowhere, fired on the group, then jumped into a car and was sped from the scene.  “I’ve been shot,” your daughter said to a friend, who tried to catch her as she fell.  Those were among her last words.

You get the phone call soon after.  You don’t think about statistics; you don’t consider which factors increase or decrease gun violence; you don’t blame the NRA or some negligent mental health professional.  Instead, you stand there in horror as your heart breaks in two.

Hadiya Pendledon, aged 15.  Majorette, Volleyball player, Honor Student, Daughter.

Hadiya Pendledon, aged 15. Majorette, Volleyball player, Honor Student, Daughter.

So … no—it wasn’t your daughter, or mine for that matter.  The fifteen year old murder victim was Hadiya Pendleton, a majorette at the exclusive King College Prep, who had just performed in Washington DC at the presidential inauguration.  She was an honors student and volleyball player who thought of becoming a lawyer, a pharmacist, or possibly going into politics.  Dimples framed her warm, bright smile; her pretty brown eyes glowed optimism.  On NPR, I heard her father say these words: “They took the light from my life.”  I don’t think there is a parent in the world who can’t identify with him.

Since December 14th  in Newtown CT,  when Adam Lanza took twenty-six lights from the lives of their loved ones, about 1,500 people have been killed in gun violence.

It seems so senseless and it is.  The piece I have the hardest time making sense of, is the argument that arming more private citizens would prevent this sort of attack.  We can look at each crime, take apart the pieces and assess: was the perpetrator insane? (was he in therapy and can we then blame his therapist?) did he acquire the weapon/weapons legally (or did he swipe it from his mother who had acquired all her guns through legal means), but nothing will change the fact that these gunmen were, are murderers.  Murderers who—regardless of their clinical mental state—had no business wielding firearms of any sort.  Any law that makes it harder for a murderer to commit murder with a gun is all right by me.  Even if it means that I will have to work much harder to get a gun myself, should I want to protect my children from an intruder—or four or five intruders—as fantasized by Gayle Trotter.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) advocates arming educators to prevent such violence.  “I wish to God [Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung] had an M-4 in her office locked up so when she heard gunfire she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands.”   I understand that sentiment; I am sure if I’d been there, I would have wished for this to happen.  But realistically, how good is the average private citizen’s aim—even with “extensive firearm training?  All I know is that police officers (and last I checked, the police receive pretty rigorous training) fire their weapons accurately in time of crisis only 34% of the time.  For private citizens, it’s less than that.

In the movie theater in Aurora, CO, would a private citizen have been able to disarm madman James Homes who opened fire?  (Keep in mind, Homes was wearing protective gear, began shooting in a noisy, darkened theater, after releasing a canister of gas.).  Would the hypothetical armed teacher in Newtown have gotten Lanza (who also wore a bullet proof vest)   on the first try?  Or would she have missed, angered him and exacerbated things. ( Just remember, Lanza had two semi-automatic handguns and an AR-15.)  Statistics generally show that gun violence tends to beget gun violence.  Even guns kept in homes for self protection are far more likely to kill the gun owner or a family member, to go off accidentally or to be used by domestic abusers than in self defense.

Though Hadiya Pendleton’s immediate neighborhood was safe, with little gun violence, she lived in a city which, despite having tough gun laws, is virtually overrun by them.   Chicago’s gun violence has been climbing even while New York’s has fallen.  Hadiya was the 40th person killed by a gun in Chicago this year  Is it that the restrictions are too tough and therefore prevent civilian would-be-stoppers of violent criminals?  Or, is it that there are already so many guns in circulation (many attained outside the city) that anyone inclined to violence can get one without much effort, no matter the laws in place?  I imagine it’s not difficult for law abiding private citizens to get their hands on guns in these circumstances either, though I just can’t see how any armed bystander might have been fast enough to save Hadiya.

In any case, I join the rest of the country in mourning for her, just as I have for the children and adults slain in Newtown and all those lives lost between.