Tag Archives: memories

House Fire Chronicles: Saving Humpty Dumpty

November 11th, 2012:

Ventured into the house today—not all the way in, just a foot or two inside the front door, which stood wide open “airing the place out,” which, as I’ll explain in a moment, is a laughable impossibility.  The electricity is turned off in preparation for repairs to start, so the whole place is dark.  In this photograph, you can see all I saw.

I reached into the coat closet, which is still littered with our shoes, mostly mine:  about six pairs of soot-caked flipflops under the cover of all my soot-caked coats.  Now, I’ve been warned that even though a lot of our stuff looks “surprisingly okay,” it will never be usable again because of the persistent smoke odor.  It’s more than an odor, the fire inspector has explained (backed up by our former landscaper who—alarmingly—used to be an arson specialist).  According to these experts, all our stuff is so deeply penetrated by smoke, that the smoke has essentially changed the chemistry of each item so it is now actually part smoke.

There’s something very sci-fi about that but it seems to be true.  Yesterday, my husband brought a bin of Stuff-From-The-House over to the house we’re staying in.  He couldn’t bring it inside or our friends’ house would very quickly smell as if the fire had taken place here rather than there.

Jon told me to pick over the bin full of notebooks and school books, jewelry– mostly my daughter’s–and a few little chachkies, to see what might be usable.  A cloud of toxic dust rose into the air as I lifted the lid of the bin.  Gasping for breath, I rummaged, though it was clear that anything inside would need major rehabilitation before resuming its intended function.  But all my daughter’s beaded creations, acquisitions from Claire’s and friendship bracelets were in there, a memory attached to each.  If I could rescue just one trinket as a memento, I thought, just a pair of Zoe’s earrings; it would mean so much.  I gulped air as I hunted; the  soot and smoke smell from the bin’s contents was near asphyxiating.  Everything was thrown together and a uniform shade of dark grey, too, making it difficult to identify anything.  What I finally came away with were a pair of pink Eiffel Tower earrings from the Epcot Center.  So tiny, I thought, and so easy to clean.  Well, I scrubbed them for about fifteen minutes—black muck kept spewing from the diminutive crevices.  Each time I thought the earrings were clean, there was more.  Finally they sparkled.  Triumphantly, I presented them to Zoe.

“Do they smell?”  She asked, because even pre-fire, she was very sensitive to bad odors.

“I don’t think,” I said, not realizing that by this time I smelled just like the earrings and was past the point of noticing.

She smelled them herself.  “Yuck,” was the verdict.  She handed the earrings back.  I left them in the bathroom, but later returned to find that the whole place now smelled like an old man with a bad cigarette habit.  Just from those tiny earrings!  Into a Ziploc they went.

It occurred to me then that if these earrings couldn’t be salvaged, even after being cleaned to look like new, the job  of salvaging bigger stuff, of fumigating and reconstituting our home, is a bigger one than I’d thought.  Today I hauled my “go-to” every day boots  out of the coat closet, as well as my snow boots and (alas) only one of Zoe’s.  (I didn’t bother with Theo’s stuff because, number one: he’s not attached to any clothing and, number two: hand-me-downs have been raining down on him and on Jon since this happened; Theo has six pairs of snow boots now; Jon has five “pre-owned” new suits.)

I was so glad to get my boots out, even though I could see and smell that they’d function better as smokestacks now than garments.  But hey—they were black to begin with, right?  I’m putting them in a garbage bag and going to research online to see if there’s a fairy godmother for rescuing your favorite boots when they’ve been through a house fire.

What’s weird though, is how easy it is to get rid of the stuff that was just stuff.  From a whole toasted-up drawer of paraphernalia, to extract one special thing: a letter, a photograph, a rock with a tree painted on it and my son’s haphazard “THEO” crayoned on the bottom—and then to say: toss the rest without a single pang of regret.  We had so many things we didn’t need, I realize now.   This kind of reboot does nothing if not show you what really matters.

I have here (in a Ziploc) this one tiny composition book in which I recorded some sweet, early anecdotes about both children.  A treasure rescued.   It is worth more than all the wedding china that lies splintered all over my basement floor.  A sample:  Theo, aged two and a half—we were reading Mother Goose and had just gotten up to Humpty Dumpty:

“Hey, Mommy.  How come Humpty Dumpty gotta go up on that wall every time?”

Humpty just didn’t get cause and effect no matter how many times we read the book.  I’ll take this recorded memory over the good china any day.  I don’t really care how it smells either.

When Cancer Chose Him

(This is the second of two short excerpts I’m including in this blog from my essay First to Go: A Nice Jewish Girl Survives the Love of Her Life, about my parent’s marriage.  For the first excerpt, “A Mixed Marriage in 1950,” click here.)

About 25 years before his diagnosis

I must have been a junior in high school the night my dad got mugged, because he had yet to give up smoking.  They followed him into the elevator—two young black guys—with a hey man and a what’s going on? to which my dad responded in kind.

“You got a light?”  One of them asked (a lot of people ignored the rule against smoking in the elevators—understandable, since they all still had ashtrays in them.)  My father reached into his pocket and pulled out his lighter, only to discover that it was dead.

“Too bad …” the one sighed.  “Maybe this will work …” and produced a long switchblade which he proceeded to press against my father’s neck.

While the unarmed one stopped the elevator, the one with the knife turned my dad around and shoved him face first into the corner.  He held him fast, keeping the knife to his neck, shouting, Come on, come on!  at his partner–who frantically stripped my dad of everything he had on him except for his keys (still in his hand), his wedding ring (on the same hand), and the defunct lighter.

When the men were done, they started the elevator again and got out at the next floor, leaving my father physically unharmed.

I know I woke up when he got inside our apartment on the seventeenth floor.  I heard the anxious voices of both my parents, as my father told my mother what had happened.  I don’t remember if I got out of bed then and joined them, or fell back asleep and heard the story the next morning.  In any case, my father was still badly shaken.  He kept repeating the part about the knife against his neck and how, if the mugger’s hand had been any less steady, he would have been dead.

It was the first time my father had ever seemed vulnerable to me.  My whole life, no matter what was going on, he’d always seemed in command of every situation.  Now some stranger had robbed him of all his authority in a matter of five awful minutes.  He never fully recovered it.

Dad spent a good part of the next day at the police station, going over volume after volume of mug-shot books.  Endless photographs of young, black men on the wrong side of the law. What did it mean to him, I’ve always wondered, that the muggers were black?  What did he have to grapple with as a result?  My father’s brother, Herman—one of my least bright uncles, whom I never met because he’d died long before my birth—had frequently prefaced statements with the phrase:  “If niggas would just learn to act right …” directly attributing the persistence of racism to the bad behavior of black people.   This had outraged my father.  Still—all those photographs.

Nothing had changed outwardly after the mugging, yet my father was never quite the same again.  He suddenly seemed older, smaller, more fragile.  He got sick more frequently.  It felt like he was living—writing—on borrowed time.

I’ve never been able to shake the notion that the mugging was when Cancer chose him.  I know my theory is totally unscientific, but it’s possible that the emotional trauma was extreme enough to affect his body chemistry.  My father’s doctors initially gave him just three years.  The cancer had already metastasized, so removing the prostate would have been pointless.  The best they could do was keep things in check, slow down the progress of an already slow-moving cancer.  They tried him on a new experimental treatment—a form of oral chemo—a set of pills to be taken three times a day for the rest of his life.  There were some side effects, including some weight gain and moodiness.  But for the most part, the drugs were effective and did what they were supposed to do.  He survived more than five years, remaining mostly symptom-free for the first three and a half.

Once my father died, my mother made a very conscious decision not to.   She poured herself back into life with a vengeance.  It would be another four years before she retired, but she began to travel almost immediately.  We went to London together the summer after he died, though we were both still part-numb, part-reeling from the loss.  We made ourselves to go; we had to do something to mark a new stage, where we would celebrate life the way Dad would want us to.   We had a great time in his honor.   By day we’d split up and take in different sights—museums and shoppes and parks and streets and squares whose names I recognized from so many books I’d read over the years.   In the late afternoons we’d come together again and wind around the city until we found a restaurant for dinner.  Sometimes we took the Tube, but more often we walked, talking the whole time, and all through the meal, mostly about my father.  The memories of him as he’d been in his prime—strong and whole and laughing and free of disease—began flooding back on that trip, replacing those of the last year and a half he’d spent in bed.

For my mother, the London trip had sparked a new passion for adventure.  Or maybe it wasn’t so new (she’d married my father, after all) but simply dormant.  In any case, the first thing she did when we got home was begin writing a grant for a new curriculum for her school on the journeys of Columbus and his fellow European explorers.  She got the grant, which meant a month-long, research-filled European tour for her—Spain, Portugal, Italy.   She devised the trip and booked everything on her own; she went alone.  She speaks only English, so it was a daring endeavor which basically showed everyone in her life—herself included—just what sort of stuff Lorraine Williamson was made of.   I believe it impressed everyone just how well she stood up on her own after nearly half a century of marriage.

Since her retirement, she’s taken traveling to the next level.  She’s been back to Europe several times, China twice, visited Viet Nam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Ecuador, and Africa three times—North, South, and Central.  She’s ridden camels and elephants, hiked the Himalayas, and snorkeled off the Galapagos Islands.

My mother has been busy at home, too.  She tutors; she’s a docent at the Jewish Heritage Museum, and the most loving, involved grandmother my two children could ask for.  She’s part of a book group; she goes to plays, concerts museums—everything the city has to offer.  On some level, I think she’s afraid that if she’s still for a moment—or has too quiet a weekend—age will find her and get the best of her.

When my father was dying, my mother had been part of a support group for women whose husbands were battling cancer.   Seventeen years later, a handful of the widows, my mother included, continues to meet for monthly dinners out.   They still discuss their late spouses—who brought them together after all—but these days talk centers primarily on the here and now: whose daughter is getting married, whose grandson’s bar mitzvah is coming up, and who’s finally moving to Florida.  Some of the younger ones have remarried; others, like my mom, are busy with the grandchildren their late husbands never got to meet.  The discourse flows, I imagine, from past to present and back again.

At one point during the most recent of these dinners, the conversation turned, as it frequently does, to fond reminiscences of the departed.  One of the women sighed, lamenting:  “I wish I’d been first to go.”

As the others took in the statement and gravely nodded their assent, my mother cleared her throat.   “No you don’t.” she said.

Chasing the Dream: A Lesson From Dad

Two beautiful members of my father's legacy

It wasn’t until after his cancer diagnosis in 1989 that my dad began to focus most of his efforts on his memoir.  The writing process was different from previous works.  It was good for the family—for my parents’ marriage—because it involved less research, less travel.  He was home more, though by that time, I was living in Boston.  Fortunately, Pan Am had this great New York to Boston Shuttle which cost fifty bucks for a round-trip ticket, so I came home on weekends whenever I could.  My mother would park the car and my dad would wait for me at the gate. 

That’s one of my clearest visual memories of him, actually.  Dad’s eyesight was so bad that he couldn’t see me until I was right up close.  But I could see him.  He wasn’t a tall guy, so the first thing I always picked out of the crowd was his wide, brown dome of a forehead.   He’d be waiting there, hands on hips, face full of anticipation as I came down the ramp.  His embrace felt like home.

Of course, once we got home, the time I spent with my parents was limited.  I’d be lying if I implied that seeing them was my main reason for flying to New York those weekends.  I was in my twenties with lots of friends from high school, college and my old ballet school swarming the city.   The social scene was what drew me back each weekend.  I might have dinner with my parents or spend a few hours with them in the afternoons, but at night I went out, stayed out late and slept until eleven the next morning.  Like many very young people, I believed time was limitless.  When I woke up, my father would have already put in a good five hours at the typewriter.  He’d get up before dawn—as he did all his life until he got really sick—put up the coffee, pour himself a mug (black with loads of sugar) and begin his work. 

By then had become clear that the memoir was the thing he should have been working on all along.  This was going to be his triumph.  Dad believed—because this was the way the publishing world had worked when he was at Viking*—that he could get his “four chapters” done and would then be given a big advance to do the rest. 

My father remained idealistic about his work to the very end.  He could always imagine success waiting just beyond the horizon.  “When my ship comes in …” was the phrase I heard him use over and over again.  

Though the ship never came in, I am proud of my father nevertheless.  He left me a gift that most daughters never get: the first ten chapters of a richly detailed memoir, ten more chapters outlined.  Some people have suggested that my mother and I try to finish the book, so his legacy lives on.   It is a beautiful thought, but I know, lacking my father’s experience and perspective, we’re incapable of doing that.   Besides, I believe that his legacy lives on anyway—in me and in my children.

Of all the lessons I’ve learned from my father, the most important is: set your goals high, but don’t squander the present.  No matter how my father chased his dreams, he always had time for me.

Enjoy the love of your family, your children’s joys and wonderings.  Strive for the future, but don’t let NOW pass you by.    

*My father was an art director at Viking Press from 1959-1981

Valentine’s Eve Remembrance

My father and me in 1993

When you lose someone you love, the loss becomes part of you.  As time passes the loss changes shape, weight, texture, but you carry it everywhere.  It’s experience that changes you, wisdom to share in measured doses, depending on how willing another is to receive.

My father died of cancer seventeen years ago today:  February 13th, 1995, the day before Valentine’s Day.  We sat shiva for just three days before we felt him urging us to get back out into the world and live—on his behalf, on our own.  I remember walking outside on February 17th and thinking what a lonely place it was without Mel Williamson.  Lonelier still for those who’d never known him.  And then something happened—I don’t remember what—I saw some interaction between strangers on the street: something Dad would have made a comment about or laughed at, and I remember smiling.  A private smile, between me and Dad’s memory.

Since the day he’d died, I’d been getting back memories of the real him—not the fragile man who’d been in his bed for the past year and a half—but the hearty, brilliant, loving and funny guy my Dad was before.   But that day, walking, thinking of him, imagining his smile, hearing his rich bass laugh in my head, it was suddenly clear: I’d be okay.

In the beginning, I cried every day—many times a day—missing him, longing for him, saying angrily, he should still be here!  But mindful of his pain, I’d add: not like that.  The first year was hardest; there was still so much I wanted to ask him and tell him.  The next four years were the next hardest.  With every milestone, including my wedding in 1999, I’d think it: you should be here, Dad.

Once I met a woman who lost her father before I lost mine.  She told me: the first ten years are the worst.  Then it gets easier.  And it’s true.  Sometime after the tenth anniversary of my father’s death, I stopped feeling angry that he was missing so much of my life—and by then my children were born.  I actually started enjoying the wistful moments: what would Dad have thought of this?  What would he have said to that?   My children enjoy hearing about him; I enjoy seeing traces of him in them.  It is easier now.

As I gain distance from my father’s death, I want to share the balm of time that’s made my loss easier to bear.  But when I meet others who have recently lost parents, or who are losing them, I hold myself back from saying things like “you’ll get through it,” or  “it’s hard, but it will be okay.” Everyone’s loss is their own, as is their pace of recovery.  I can’t tell you how it’s going to turn out for you and your loss.  I can only say, you’re not alone, and if you need to talk, I’ve been someplace similar.

*

In June 2010, I published Soul Food Shiva, a more detailed essay about losing my father to cancer, in the Defenders Online.  You can read it by clicking here.