Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Violet" (1904)

Until last summer three packing boxes filled a hallway cubby hole in my house.  Inside them were family pieces---silver and china---wrapped in recycled newsprint sheets left over from my mother’s last move.  At age eighty-one, my mother had arrived from Oregon to spend, as it turned out, the last decade of her life with me in Flint.  Stevens Movers, a venerable Michigan company and still full service, was lavish with paper.[1] 

Two mature women joining into one household meant duplication, decisions about which silver and china to save for “best”---to re-wrap and put away.  We held protracted parley in the course of which my mother and I recalled family and events connected with this stuff.  In the end, each of us mooted a case for this or that item and the rest was boxed, shoved into the hallway cubby hole for later. 

My mother died six years ago and I am back again to one life in this Michigan house, not two.   There is no need to “save for good” anymore; future state occasions are unlikely or---let’s face it---my participation in them is not assured.   

Time for a different household philosophy.

I pulled out the boxes and opened one; out from their stiff paper nests and into my life tumbled objects I remembered that my mother always identified by their original owner’s name or a past event.  Burgundy colored felt rolls unfurled, their soft pockets releasing silver teaspoons, pearl handled forks, napkin rings that clattered onto the table.  Vestiges of elegant dining in my grandmothers’ time.  

Pearl-handled cutlery still seems a bit over the top for a kitchen drawer.  Those pieces were tucked back into their rolls, their grosgrain ribbons retied, but the silver teaspoons have entered my daily life.  A set of six: their handles are engraved with the letter “V”---the first initial of my maternal grandmother’s new married surname---and probably a wedding gift.  The script grapheme lays gracefully in the oval blank toward the top of the tip.  I decided to use them every day. 

My grandmother, Esther Wilkins, was married in Caldwell, Idaho, on February 15, 1912.  The wedding date is engraved in the bowl of a different teaspoon in the felt role, a commemorative piece.  Esther was thirty-two when she married, a bit beyond youthful prime.  She had been sent out west from Indiana because of poor health.  She lived to eighty-eight.  Her maternal uncle, George Little, was a judge in Caldwell, a respected town figure and a family man with wife Flora and children, Edna and Wesley. [2]  What year my grandmother arrived, I cannot say.  Decades later, she still corresponded with “cousin Edna.”

Esther worked in a bank in Caldwell and earned her own money.  She liked nice things and remembered proudly how she ordered gloves and shoes from Chicago. Old photographs show her with three other young ladies, all in puffy white shirtwaists, their long dark skirts billowing in the wind.  The ladies clutch their broad brimmed hats as they pose in front of a house in glaring sunlight.  No other buildings can be seen.

Idaho territory was admitted to the Union in 1890.  Besides farming or ranching, gold and gem mining lured prospectors there and Esther relished adventure.  She told of suitor who took her on an excursion to the gold mines.  He gave her a gold nugget that she had made into a pin. 

When Esther married in 1912 she chose an easterner, Samuel van Hyning, three years younger than she was. Ladies must have remarked on this.  Samuel had run away from his Ohio farm home when he was seventeen; the story was his father would not let him have a buggy.  He survived in Idaho (among the Basques, he said) working as a shepherd.  “Lonely beyond imagining,” he told my mother. But by the time he married Esther he ran a grocery store in Caldwell.  A metal scoop from the store survives.  “Folger’s---van Hyning Grocery---Caldwell” reads the raised stamp on the inside.

But back to the spoons.  The pattern is Wallace “Violet,” first issued in 1904.[3]  The design has the sentimental sweetness of many flower patterns I’ve viewed online, unlike formal designs available in the Edwardian era.[4]  They give tactile pleasure---their handles fit comfortably in my fingers; the bowl is deep. The spoon has “balance”---its tip and foot rest evenly on the table.

Stories about my grandmother come to my mind each day when I use her teaspoons.  But my strong attachment to objects and their stories also complicated my life.   My Catholic schooling cautioned us impressionable girls that “worldly goods” were inferior things, dead weight that kept you from rising to spiritual heights. 

Equally powerful was my family’s adherence to social propriety.  Acquisitiveness was a double whammy: both ill-mannered and a sign of weak character.  “Greedy Mae,” my mother would chide me---or some unsuspecting child who took the last cookie on a plate.  I imagine that my grandmother Esther must have called her that.  My mother was acquisitive too.  

My attachment to things is inherited. 

As an only child I spent hours observing things---household objects, clothing, accessories, furniture and all their intriguing shapes and textures---while adults talked.   I observed people too, but objects did not move around or stare back at me, interrupt my gaze and question me.  Objects were silent as I was, complicit and, so I thought, waiting for me to inspect them more closely.

All this childhood peering at stuff might serve some higher purpose for a future artist, a painter or sculptor, a craftsman or perhaps a physicist, even a collector.  I can say in my defense, however, that long observation of objects led me to observation of people and sharpened my intuition. 

Decades later in Poland, I met an elderly lady helped me learn Polish while I did small household tasks for her in return.  She lived in one of the cinderblock apartment buildings of the time. The flat was two rooms, a bathroom, and a windowless kitchen; in the first postwar decades people were grateful to get one. A Biedermeier cherry armoire covered half of one wall; its rosy, reddish-brown wood warmed the bleakness of the room.

I was instructed to serve her tea, placing the sole silver teaspoon in the household on her saucer.  Relatives, she said, had been deported to Siberia; a spoon was the most valuable item one could have.  Armoire and teaspoon, relics large and small of a time when objects of daily life were beautiful and useful.  In times of calamity, life sustaining.

Shortly after my grandmother’s teaspoons entered my kitchen, I read Susanna Moore’s “The Life of Objects.” [5]  On the eve of World War II, Beatrice Palmer leaves Ireland for Berlin to work in the aristocratic Metzenberg household.  She enters a German family with Jewish connections where generations of wealth and taste have amassed a significant art collection.  From tapestries, sculptures, and porcelain, to stationery and cigarette holders, all manner of objects bespeak refinement.  Beatrice learns the German term, vorz├╝gliche: exquisite.  Her cultural education occurs as the Metzenbergs flee to their country estate. Disdainful of Hitler, unable to abandon their heritage, they sell or barter their possessions for food and safety.  Eventually the Metzenberg world crumbles under Allied bombing and Russian pillage.  Beatrice survives, more educated and perceptive, and without regret as she says, “having passed through fire and into selfhood.”[6]

No fires of war singed me into selfhood. My young education occurred in a peaceful time---idyllic as I recollect it now.  The objects that entranced my gaze were minor in comparison to those described in Susanna Moore’s novel.  Still, the fate of objects is to break or scatter, to be cut loose from their settings as their owners’ lives dissolve.  I write to evoke the fragments of my grandmother’s life that some silver teaspoons represent to me.

Other stuff remains; two of the three boxes returned to the cubby hole this summer.  Next year, I’ll pull them out again.  Just now I’m still not ready tackle the china, but I think I’ll take another look at those napkin rings. 

Read more essays like this in East Village Magazine at

[3] According to Wikipedia, Wallace “grew to be the largest manufacturer of flat tableware in the world. At the start of the 20th century, about 3 tons of steel and 1.5 tons of nickel silver were used daily. The company opened selling houses in New York and Chicago.”

[4] The teaspoons are not the full 6-inch size that would be part of a full place setting.  They are the “5 o’clock” size:  5 and 3/8 inches, designed for tea---extra teaspoons usable for any occasion.

[5] Susanna Moore, The Life of Objects, 2013.

[6] Claire Messud, The New York Review of Books, Feb. 7, 2013. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Writing for Gary. December 28, 2014

I'm at my desk on this gray December morning.  Today’s writing ritual honors Gary Custer who is far away in Michigan in an intensive care unit.  It's 10:15 in my California time zone and I have another good hour to go.  Gary lays in a bed, intubated and semi-conscious, I am told. His devoted brother, Ed, sits nearby.  Ed waits for a sign of communication from crotchety Gary.

Gary edits and publishes the East Village Magazine, a monthly news magazine published in Flint, Michigan, since 1976. The eight-page publication---all 620 issues of it---is Gary’s life work. In thirty-eight years he has never missed an issue.

The magazine is part of a nonprofit entity called the Village Information Center.  According to Ed, the term "village" came from Marshall McLuhan's concept of a global village in the 1960s. Gary is that kind of village man. 

As Gary describes it, the magazine began “as an information co-operative, a group of people working together to provide the group some of the information they needed to protect and improve their neighborhood.” [1]  Confidence in a changing composition of an “information co-op” where each person provides something toward the production of the magazine---reflects the idealism of the founders. Gary is one of the last of them.

Contributions and several small grants and keep the magazine afloat, bobbling atop red ink waters. Unclassified ads supply some revenue. Contributions from local supporters and from all of us writers help.

It’s a slim publication, but when I see the glossy East Village magazine cover downtown at the Farmer’s Market or at the Lunch Studio I think I’m in New York. A slick urban sensibility emanates from the black and white cover photographs done by Gary’s brother Ed. In recent years their subjects often have been local architectural compositions that arrest the eye.  An artist and photographer, Ed provides stark shots that render the magazine distinctive, instantly recognizable in the sad stacks of flyers slipping off tables and falling through racks in cafes, markets, and campus lounges around town.   

My home town, Mill Valley, had characters like Gary---people defined by one pursuit, monothematic, and indefatigable.  Characters tend to sturdy and long lived, immediately recognizable by trademarks of dress and language and concerns. It takes time to acquire the distinction of being a local character.  When they disappear we suddenly realize how essential they are to the place we love.    

Gary fills the character bill in baggy jeans and a denim or flannel shirt.  A beard. His transportation mode is bicycle. He lives in the Village Information Center at 720 East Second Street which is also the magazine office.  He works seven days a week, sixteen-plus hours a day.  The office walls are stacked with old issues.  There’s an antique computer, a couch-like piece of furniture, a table and a couple of chairs. Toward the back of the room a partition screens a stove or hot plate and a bathroom.  A bottle of Bushmill’s sometimes emerges for Sunday proofing sessions, though he does not imbibe.  Gary is, not surprisingly, a beer man.

When I retired from teaching, people congratulated me.  They said, “Now you can travel and relax.  Enjoy life.”

Gary said, "Good.  Now you can write."  

I told Gary that I wanted to write personal essays for my blog.  “Fine," Gary said. "You can send them to me first.”

And so I did, but not enough to satisfy Gary. He is the copy omnivore. Every few weeks the new East Village Magazine gets ready to go to press.  Layout and proofing finished, Gary can begin to think about beefing up the online version of the magazine where space is limitless.  He shoots me a cryptic email.  It's usually something like, "Anything for our discerning readers?" 

I kick it back with a metaphor like, "Got a couple of pots on the back burner.  One is almost ready."  Gary will answer "Stir and send."  He will not be sucked into imagery. Gary wants copy; I want to procrastinate. Gary supplies the nudge an amateur writer needs.  More like an elbow to the ribs. “Just write,” he says.   

Gary is an old school newspaper man.  After an essay of mine reaches him, he makes few changes, but the changes are telling. Titles, definite articles, verb forms, and paragraph length are his blue pencil territory. 

My submissions carry a title---some enigmatic phrase that sparked my idea for the essay, a reminder of the notion I want to reprise in its conclusion.  My titles mean something to me. 

Gary prefers curt and telegraphic titles.  He extracts them from the body of the essay and discards what I’ve sent in. Whenever possible he omits definite and indefinite articles. Once he removed a definite article in a poem title.  The poet was offended; staff writers went on the warpath.  It was all over by the next deadline; we gave up, and the poet mailed in a check. 

Gary is not big on the subjunctive---to which I am academically inclined.    I studied foreign languages; teachers drilled the verbal nuances of wishes and doubts, or the counterfactual and the hypothetical into my brain.  He is a man of the indicative mood.

Nor is Gary much of a clause man, as in subordinate clauses (where subjunctives may lurk). One of my happy grammar school experiences was to diagram compound and compound-complex sentences on a blackboard.  Later, as a scholar, I learned the utility of the semicolon. Syntactical variety is not Gary’s metier.  "Subject, verb, object," he says.

Gary likes short paragraphs---punchy, you might call them.  I was trained in the topic sentence followed by development tradition.  When I first see my writing in print or online, it strikes me like a kid with a bad haircut.  Over my five years writing for Gary, however, I have capitulated.  When I re-read what he has printed I like it better than what I’d submitted.   

After Gary puts an essay online, he will send another cryptic email.   “Good essay” or “very good,” he will write.  I am happy.   And then he will add, “Any corrections?”  This is Gary’s amalgam of editorial exactitude and making nice. I sigh. Unless I detect an error of fact, I am resigned.  Titles, articles, paragraphs---I bow to Gary’s blue pencil.

Last November, in a moment of uncharacteristic effusion, Gary described the current staff the best he’s ever had.[2]  The magazine was poised to move from eight pages to twelve. We writers were elated.  Now, however, we meet in emergency session, stunned and sorrowing.  The most important member is not likely to return. 

Gary believed that “there are always people who don’t contribute, but we provided them the magazine in the hopes they would change their mind when they found out the value of the co-op.” [3] He lived this conviction with a mind over matter determination.  The hospital ICU will do its best for Gary’s heart and lungs, but the magazine is up to us now.

Read more essays like this one in East Village Magazine at

[1] Gary Custer (GPC) East Village Magazine Editorial: Your information co-op could use your help Saturday, November 01, 2014

[2] Gary Custer (GPC) East Village Magazine Editorial: Your information co-op could use your help Saturday, November 01, 2014

[3] Gary Custer (GPC) East Village Magazine Editorial: Your information co-op could use your help Saturday, November 01, 2014

Friday, October 24, 2014

Last one at the dinner table

Two years ago I retired from teaching.  My original Social Security card lays in the left side drawer of my writing desk.  The ballpoint ink of my signature as a fifteen-year-old is still blue.  My signature has matured, but I can remember signing the card.

Officially, I’d been a college professor for 26 years.  Before that I worked as a grad school teaching assistant and an English instructor in Poland. I worked in libraries, bookstores, and nursery schools.  Along the way odd part-time gigs kept me going---serving as a Shabbos goy in a private home, an office assistant for an auctioneer, typing bills of lading in a shipping office out on a pier in San Francisco.  

More than forty years of work life passed in the blink of an eye, as the clich├ę goes.  

I was stunned when I reached “my full benefit age”---that foundational concept of the Social Security Administration.  

What hit me hard was how little life was left to do anything else.  Twenty-five years remained if I matched my mother’s life span.  She lived to 91.  Fewer years if I lived as long as her mother, my grandmother, who lived to 88.  I call them my hardy matrilineals. Less time left than the “blink of an eye” I’d just lived through.  

Time to go.  Now. 

Unfinished goals that still nagged me---a second promotion, a monograph in my field---what did they matter now?  More money, more points along an academic career graph. Did I want to spend my only years of life left on them?  I re-focused fast.

Since then I’ve settled into what we call retirement. I’ve pondered the language. In Jane Austen novels it meant to withdraw from social life, to live in seclusion.  Or to be diffident and quiet.  As in, “she’s a very retiring person,” or she lives in the country “in retirement.”  

When Germany pioneered modern social insurance for workers in 1889, we got the notion of retirement from paid work.  Historian Richard Gabryszewski narrates a video about the development of social insurance behind our Social Security system.  You can find it on the SSA website. It’s a noble story and I love it.  I’m proud to be a part of a history that (if we skip the workhouse era) includes Aristotle, olive oil, Frances Perkins, and FDR.

Thanks to them all, my monthly social security benefit slips silently into my checking account.  I have time to write, to cook and to garden, to read.  Few dates recur in my calendar---yoga classes, the dentist, the financial planner, and the doctor.  There’s time to understand point and figure charts, to practice long form tai chi.

All in all, my transition has been successful.  My daily life habits are comfortable. As I say, I have settled in.  Or so I thought.

One day last year, making the bed and gazing absently out the unwashed windows of my now mortgage-free house, a surprising thought surfaced from my subconscious. It flickered, illumined, and then slipped below again. 

The thought is hard to re-capture, but the gist is this.  So much of the advice elders dinned into my once youthful and compliant head seems irrelevant now. Family expectations and exhortations (and the views and values they rested on) aimed at girding me for the precarious path to a future successful adult life. 

My elders worried, I suppose, that I might not make it to this point.  Their worry has long since been laid to rest. What remains of their counsel has transformed completely, or just fallen to the side, shards of another era. Here I am.  Except that I’m someone else.  

Why would this thought emerge now?  

I think it has to do with the irony of retirement, maybe its paradox, or even a subtext, as the literary say.  

This is pretty heavy. I’m writing an essay to try to figure it out.

My parents and grandparents were well-meaning and I don’t fault them.  They wanted happiness and security for me. They survived the Depression and World War II.  We lived together, three generations. They told their stories around our dinner table:  a job lost in New York City and pushing a Good Humor ice cream cart, dismissal from college because of debt, surviving in the Pacific during the war, a paralyzing stroke and no medical insurance, having to sell the family store and move in with relatives.
I was the only child and much beloved, listening at that table.  I absorbed these family tales.  Accounts of disaster seemed normal to me.  My elders’ history was so real to me that growing up I thought everyone had these same stories.  

My parents had scrambled on to a narrow ledge of 1950s prosperity.  Their expectations for me centered on college, the education that history could snatch away at any time.  By 1959 I was on the march in my blue blazer, plaid skirt, and the Spaulding shoes of my Catholic high school uniform.  College meant the liberal arts---English and history, Latin and the classics, modern languages. Fields like sociology so popular among my girlfriends were beneath consideration.  (If I’d had any aptitude for math or sciences things might have been different.) 

Other family expectations remained hazy: a good marriage, dignified work (no real professional career), travel, maybe some artistic or creative pursuit.  By my senior year in college, I suspected that---unlike belief in education---these expectations were shaped by social convention. With no immediate prospects of attaining any of them, and graduation imminent, I began to question my life. I embarked on my belated rebellion.

It wasn’t hard. The upheavals of the 1960s spurred me on.  I’d missed civil rights---a bit too young. One day my English lit professor stopped his lecture to explain Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement.  I went to anti-war rallies and sat in at sit ins. Women’s issues burbled below the politics. 

I sleepwalked through some of the counterculture’s colorful enthusiasms---pot and music. Concerts at the Fillmore auditorium conveniently combined both.  The movement years waned.  Institutions I’d been raised with papered over their gaps and fissures, and hobbled on. I graduated from college but was never the same.  

I wrestled with mistakes of judgment (a difficult marriage). But the education thing perdured---a word that age and time teaches you to love.  In midlife I plunged into grad school and completed a PhD. Through dogged determination and fortuitous circumstances, I got a faculty post, and then tenure. I supported myself, raised my son, cared for my aging mother, and paid off a house. 

Academe became my home, the source of meaning and a livelihood. I hung onto it tightly, clutched it as sure and worthy.  

When I retired, friends asked about my plans. They chirped excitedly about travel and  volunteering---eager to offer ways to fill time once hogged by gainful employment. Bring satisfaction and value to retirement, people said. Give back, do more, keep active.  

That’s where the irony came in.  Other people’s enthusiasm was unnerving.  After decades of marching through education, work and profession, this pressing you to do something else disconcerted me.    

I panicked.  Untethered from a job would I drift into dissatisfaction and depression? Had I misjudged the whole 25-year rest of life thing? 

It took a year to accept this irony of retirement---that no one wants you to withdraw into quietness at all.  I’ve pretty much let that go.  My time obsession has shifted into its sister dimension.  It’s become more like space left to me---open and uncluttered, airy and agnostic.  I am learning to feel free, perhaps for the first time since adolescence.  I can explore again, without the anxious anticipation of adulthood. 

And there’s some work only I can do---understand how people and experiences changed me. I ruminate about my elders’ ideas of a successful life, chiseled in hardship and the demands of inherited social convention.  Maybe this is why the notion of their expectations surfaced in my mind.  It illumined something---that I’ve long been someone else.  It’s a paradox of retirement that now I can love my elders again, though their advice seems antique and their wisdom has transformed or just fallen away.

If there’s any subtext to retirement (a risky proposition), maybe it’s something structural.  If another phase of retired life follows this one, I won’t be surprised. But for now it’s time to get on with this inward journey.  

In dreams and in my mind’s eye I see those elders who drilled their exhortations and expectations into my young self.  Now I have the ridged nails, the crinkly skin, and the sinking chest of my hardy matrilineals. I wish they had told me more about their lives then, lives of middle age and old age, though I wouldn’t have understood.  But it’s alright.  I talk to them again.  

I’m the last of those around my family dinner table.

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