chocolate is a verb

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Tag Archives: childhood

May 30

1954 - DAK-LRKUntil 1971, when national holidays began to wander the calendar in search of Monday, my parents each had a claim on May 30th: it was Memorial Day and it was my mother’s birthday.

By the time they met, the war was over; none of our family photos show them together with Les in uniform. The remnants of my father’s war were few: dog tags, Zippo, foot locker, sleeping bag, photos, and a slim folder of paperwork. His scars were not physical and, like others of his generation, he bore them with stoicism and little comment.

If my mother’s war had been a time of personal strength and freedom, she seemed equally willing to set it aside in favor of her new life with my father.

Each year on Memorial Day my father honored his memories, his lost family and friends, with a quiet walk among the headstones at the Veteran’s Cemetery. While my mother claimed to be unsentimental about her birthday, she never accompanied him on those walks, his brief abandonment of her like a small stone in the birthday cake.

But my father would return, soothed and soothing, and, wounds attended, the birthday would resume.

Each of my parents owned a part of the day, and a part of me. It seems we still celebrate together.
. . . . .
photo: Dorothy and Les, 1954


Mother’s Day

jik to DAK undatedHacked from an envelope and illustrated, figure and ground, with colored pencils of many hues, this is probably a picture of my mother. Though without words (except for my name on the reverse side signed with a backwards J), her red hair is a giveaway.
And the dress? Well, what can be said about the dress, except that Dorothy would have worn it if it existed. However old I was when I drew it, and however conventionally she put herself together on the outside, I already understood that within her there was a zany being aching for expression.
Happy Mother’s Day.

a Sunday in spring

jik - Easter ValentineAt age 6, things didn’t get much better than hearts and bunnies. A girl could be forgiven if the excesses of Valentine’s Day overtook Easter. All these decades later, I can’t account for the red cross, but the bunny has everything a bunny needs on a spring Sunday — a fat, chocolatey body, baskets over each arm, exceedingly long whiskers, a pink blush inside each ear and love radiating in all directions. Happy Easter.

found poem: your childhood

seen and unseen

at 3 mos - jik-DAK-LRKI like this photograph. I like that it contains a little puzzle, though it took me a long time to recognize it.

That’s me, at about three months, looking skinny and serious in my mother’s hands, and that’s my father with the camera. He’s smiling and focused on me, I’m not smiling and looking back at him, and Dorothy is flirting with the person taking this photo, whose identity will forever remain a mystery.

This is a red-carpet moment for Dorothy. She is apparently (or at least momentarily) recovered from the ordeals of pregnancy and childbirth, she looks stylish and happy, and under the gaze of two cameras, she’s aglow with attention.

Good Cheer

1950 ChristmasMy third Christmas rolled around when I was still a couple months shy of three years old. Dorothy’s card that year was a linoleum block print with the red colored in by hand. The three of us are lined up on the couch, each pair of feet missing the sock that’s hung on the mantel.

Though I’m sure my mother intended it to be amusing, there’s a hint of sadness in this year’s image. She was already feeling the wounds and disappointments of motherhood and she would soon be sent away to “rest” and “get better” (what I was told) for some months. She wouldn’t make another Christmas card for four years.

December 8

jik to LRK birthday insidejik to LRK birthdayMy father’s birthday and a card holds up the faded mirror of my young self. I don’t know how old I was when I made this card, but I was already coloring inside the lines. The heart and the figure of my father are carefully outlined in pencil, and there’s a pencil line to indicate the floor. I loved coloring, and had plenty of crayons and paper, but wasn’t allowed to have coloring books; I had to make my own designs. (The lesson must have stuck; I have no desire for any of the scores of “adult” coloring books currently on the store shelves, just astonishment at the size of the sudden trend.)

With its little brackets, the table is easy to recognize: it’s the card table in my mother’s studio, the one I had occasion to study most often, as I stood in the doorway, hoping she’d show some interest in me, but mostly just annoying her.

Perhaps the big hovering pink thing is a practice cake, where I was working out the concept of roundness. Anyway, the important parts are there: my father, the cake, and love. Happy Birthday, Papa.

Veterans Day

LRK 1942 Camp YoungMy father, who served during World War II, did his military training at Camp Young — the headquarters of the Desert Training Center, in California’s Mojave Desert, and the world’s largest Army post. Although the work was serious and hard and dirty, the war itself was, for the moment, far away.

He wasn’t big on mementos and didn’t own a camera until much later in his life, but there remain from those months of training a small collection of 8-by-10 glossies of Les, age 31. He never said why they were taken — perhaps for a newsletter or Army recruiting materials. Some are informal, like this one; others are lit dramatically.

As with the rest of his military service, Les spoke little of these months in the desert. The one story I remember was the one he told me each time I pulled out his Army sleeping bag for a slumber party. Near the foot of the bag, on the inside, was a hand-sewn patch, about four inches square. He told me that a field mouse had burrowed through the fabric and dropped a litter of pups in the soft filling. The mother mouse escaped and Les removed the babies, putting them, he assured me, “in a safe place.” As my father watched, I would cautiously unzip the bag, spread it flat and inspect the patch for recent incursions.

The story, with its frisson of the wild kingdom, long outlived its smallest characters. But it was one he could share with his young daughter, and one he could tell without threatening the edifice of silence within which he — and so many soldiers — lived for the remainder of their long lives.


DichondraMy friend Jane lives 1200 miles from here, in the over-cultivated desert of Los Angeles, not far from my childhood home. Her garden is constantly evolving in a low-maintenance and drought-tolerant direction and this past summer she replaced a grassy area with clumps of Dymondia, which is a no-mow groundcover well-suited to L.A. but, much as I might admire it, a poor candidate for the soggy Northwest. When I talked with her this morning, she told me that her Dymondia was, annoyingly, being invaded by Dichondra.

The moment she said Dichondra, I recalled the house at the corner near where I grew up. It was small and tidy and mostly unremarkable except for its Dichondra lawn. An unblemished expanse of green, it was a hands-and-knees labor of love for the owners, who were “older” and stern and unforgiving of untethered dogs and children on bicycles who might want to shortcut across their yard. When I mentioned it to Jane, she told me that her street, in another neighborhood, also had a corner house that was maintained by fierce Dichondra fanatics.

I remember my mother being both envious and disparaging of the neighbors and their immaculate Dichondra, though no less agitated when dogs or children trespassed on the ivy in our front yard. She would crank open the kitchen window and shout, “Scram!” or “Get your dog out of the ivy!” as I hunkered down, hoping no one would see me and associate me with such a loud and embarrassing mother.
. . . . .

Good luck.

Dear MomWhat might have temporarily removed me from parakeet-feeding duty at age 8 is anyone’s guess; perhaps I was at camp. Blueboy was my friend and companion, but, more urgently, my responsibility — another way in which I might prove or fail.

With careful loops and links, I test newly learned script, forego “Mommy” for what I intuited was the more mature and less needy “Mom” and sign my name in reverse order — Yduj — not mirror-writing, but a turnaround that offered the possibility of a secret identity. I remember, at the dinner table, my father sounding out our “other” name — Grebnielk — with a kind of gutteral messiness that made me laugh.

It’s unlikely my mother would have forgotten to feed Blueboy, but she had no affection for the bird and I wasn’t taking any chances. Already, the written word was talisman against such failure.

found poem: I grew up


1954 DAK portraitShe was not someone I knew — her hair red, her lips redder, her earrings stilled from some distant flamenco rhythm. She was a model, captured by my mother in a single long sitting during an art class.

The portrait was small, and stood among five or six dozen paintings — some framed, some not — in the tall cupboard above the closet in her studio. The closet and its high shelf were off limits to me, but now and then Dorothy would recruit me to assist as she stood on the step-stool and handed down paintings, each one transferred to my hands with cautions about where I put my fingers and where and how I propped the painting against the wall in the hallway just outside her studio.

This ritual had some purpose, now lost to me. Perhaps Dorothy was looking for a canvas she could recycle, an image she recalled, an application of color or texture she wanted to revisit. The woman in the small oil painting was like a cousin I saw only occasionally, her story unknown, her beauty unchanging.

found poem: hand-me-down


Kleinberg Special GreetingsI was not yet 2 years old but already had the holidays (and everything else) well in hand, if the depiction on that year’s family greeting card is to be believed.
As always, my mother’s deft lines captured something uniquely right about each of us, the message drifting up from chimneys lining the bottom edge and the red and green highlights added by hand.
Merry Christmas!

found poem: this rambling

rules of engagement

phone cornerThere was one phone in our house. Really, there was no need for more than one as long as I followed the rules about when and how long I could talk. It wasn’t until long after I had moved out that the phones proliferated, finding their way into bedrooms and kitchen.

Our phone lived in the very center of the house, outside my bedroom, in a little corner of the long T-shaped hallway. Black and heavy, with a rotary dial, it sat on a small, ornate table accompanied by a slender chair, both of which had belonged to my mother’s grandfather (and both of which now live in my house, though not side-by-side). (The photo, with its sleek Princess-style phone, was taken decades later and in the lower right features a doorbell that my mother used to recall my father from his workshop in the garage.)

As an adolescent, I suddenly realized the phone afforded no privacy and discovered that the black cord (which then had no coils) was just long enough to reach across the hall into my room. If I closed the door carefully over the cord, I could sit just inside with my back to the door and there, for the 15 minutes I was allowed, talk in peace.

Unless, of course, my mother interrupted me, knocking on the door to complain about the hazard of the cord, or my secrecy, or the closed door. Once she yelled at me because I had called a boy. I don’t remember who he was or why I called him or how she found out, but it was a clear violation of her rules and in the lecture that followed she told me that I was a slut. She had a lot of rules. Some, like that one, I only learned about after I had broken them.

untroubled waters

undated artwork by J.I. KleinbergIn the living room on a rolling cart there was a five-gallon tank where a pair of near-colorless fish clung to one another by their round mouths.
Tiny tetras shot silver and neon darts around them and mollies finned along, small black shadows.
I was amused by the busy explorers, the whiskered ones, catfish and plecostomus, which I loved equally for its name, worth repeating over and over.
The bubbling hum of the filter was ever-present and each evening my mother would flick on the light in the tank to set the colors aglow, turning it off again before she went to bed.
Sometimes there would be an outbreak of snails, hitchhikers from the fish store, their faint trails drawn through the glaze of algae on the glass, and I would get to net the fish into a clean bowl so my father could scrub and de-snail the tank.
For a long time there was Oscar the oscar.
And in my room there was usually in those days a single fish circling a bowl. One or two green strands of plastic anchored in the gravel. A small box of fishy-scented flakes.
These quiet companions, ever captive, uncomplaining and finally one by one floating and flushed until there were none. And the tank and bowl and gravel and net were washed once more and put on a shelf in the basement, all memory of fish set aside.
. . . . .
undated artwork by J.I. Kleinberg

Hamlet, my tragic hero

baby_desert_cottontail_by_sataikasiaI was perhaps 8 or 9 when my father came home from work carrying a large cardboard carton with his old red flannel shirt jumbled in the bottom. The box hardly weighed more than the shirt itself, and he indicated, without words, that I should set it down and look inside.

I was thinking “squirrel” when I caught the first glimpse of fur, but lifting away the folds I uncovered a tiny bunny, no more than three inches long: perfect little ears folded flat against its back, impossibly soft fur, twitching nose at one end and a white poof of tail at the other. Hamlet.

He was a wild rabbit, a cottontail, and my father had found him on a job site. Hamlet moved into a cage in my bedroom and I fed him with an eye-dropper until he could eat the alfalfa-fragrant feed and carrot tops and the clumps of grass I pulled up from around the house. Set on the floor, he’d hop along the carpeted hallway, every few hops depositing a hard round pellet, a tidy little poop dispenser.

In spite of my diligent attention to cleanup, my mother grew tired of this, used the “underfoot” word repeatedly, and a decision was made that Hamlet would be relocated to our unfinished daylight basement, where he would have the run of the entire house.

In this new environment, Hamlet quickly lost any domestic tendencies. I would sit on the bare dirt next to his food and water bowls, a lettuce leaf or a slice of turnip in my outstretched palm, and wait. Sometimes he would come and accept my offering, but he’d no longer allow me to pick him up or lay more than a single finger on his soft back. I had terrible dreams that I had forgotten to feed him.

Hamlet had lived with us for about three years when my parents announced that we were going to “let him go.” Our back yard adjoined a huge cemetery, where I had often seen rabbits, and my parents assured me that Hamlet would be happier there. I was devastated, but I was a kid and couldn’t yet envision the fate of a semi-domesticated animal set free in the wild — even the wild of a mowed and manicured cemetery.

The underlying reason for this change was that my mother had discovered some pest in the house and had engaged an exterminator to spray, including Hamlet’s below-house realm.

So, dutifully, I left Hamlet’s last official meal in the usual place, left the basement door standing wide open and walked away, sobbing. The exterminator came and went. Each day, just in case, I’d fill the little bowls with alfalfa pellets and water.

Perhaps four or five days later, my father came up from the basement, excited. He had been taking some logs off the woodpile that lined one wall of the basement and Hamlet had hopped out from among the logs and right out the open door. I tried to imagine whether he had never left, or left and returned, and whether he would come back again. But the basement door was now firmly closed, the bowls banished, and much as I might examine the shrubs and the hillside and the green expanse of the cemetery, I never saw Hamlet again.
. . . . .
photo by sataikasia


Olvera StreetDowntown Los Angeles was perhaps 15 miles from our house, but now and then, something would draw us in that direction — a necessary visit to the central library, for example — and we would make the long and scenic (pre-freeway) drive down Wilshire or Sunset Boulevard.

These trips might include a detour to Olvera Street, L.A.’s “oldest street,” a cobbled alley lined with shops and stalls between buildings dating from the 1800s. Every child growing up in L.A. learned about Olvera Street, but our rare family visits made the place seem terribly exotic.

What I recall is the sensory experience: the sound of strolling mariachis, the intensely sweet fragrance of the candlemaker’s shop and the sparkling wonder of spun glass. To watch the glass worker’s molten thread turn a bit of empty air into a rearing horse or a magnificent sailing ship was a kind of magic. Down a few steps, the candle shop was not just a collection of glossy tapers, but marvelous suspended racks fringed with wicks that dipped and hovered over troughs of wax. A beautiful dark-haired woman in a lacy black shawl and a full-skirted dress that was all red ruffles danced in front of the musicians, her heels echoing on the cobblestones.

I was discouraged from wanting things, from wanting generally, and learned not to ask, and while it seemed such trinkets might turn a drab girl into a swan, the memory of Olvera Street has surely outlasted the candles and purses and perfect glass ballerina that seemed so desirable — so necessary — at the time.
. . . . .
Olvera Street postcard


fringed figure by jikThe drawing is undated, but my mother’s notations on similarly-fringed crayon artwork suggest I might have been between 3 and 4 when I made this one. How constrained it is, already. How tidily the blocks of color meet, but do not overlap, one another. And the palette — no red, no green, but these dark hues, and two pinks and a generous lozenge of yellow. Who was this girl and what did she see, without or within?

Home from several intense days at a huge writers conference, I leaf through a tattered scrapbook until I recognize this small figure rendered in such odd colors. I’ve returned with stuffed pockets — materials and conversations and the words of fine writers to be sorted and recalled, considered and absorbed.

Still buzzing and overwhelmed, not yet bursting with concrete ideas, I feel the electric pull of possibility as I lean into the wide canvas of morning.

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