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Tag Archives: Dorothy

“Be thou my wife”

LRK-DAK honeymoonIt is December 20. Seventy years ago today my grandfather, a rabbi, officiated at the wedding of my parents. In the scrapbook, two small documents mark the event, one a California Certificate of Marriage and the other a Jewish Covenant of Marriage.

There is no photo of the occasion. No gown. No towering wedding cake. No picture of the smiling bride and groom. For my mother, it was her second marriage and she would have considered it “unseemly” to make a show of it. My father was still finding his way home from a long war, and anyway would have shunned the fanfare of an elaborate wedding.

I’m not sure where the ceremony took place — in my grandparents’ home, perhaps — or who attended, though it was likely a very small, close gathering of family. The witnesses were the sisters-in-law, Helen and Charlotte, the wives of my mother’s brother and my father’s brother.

There was probably food, a toast, many mazeltovs, and then Les and Dorothy (she would have been Dottie, or Red, at the time) drove off to honeymoon in Death Valley, where this photo was taken.

I wonder what Dorothy was thinking that day. I know she was thrilled to be marrying Les, but did she miss the lace and tulle? Was she intimidated by the religious trappings of the ceremony? Did she feel welcomed by my father’s family or was she already constructing reasons to divide herself from them? How did she picture her future?

She spoke to me of many things, but she never talked about that day.

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an in-between

Dorothy and foalI’ve written before about this time in my mother’s life — the war years, when she was single, a draftsperson at Lockheed, and part-owner of a horse, Easy Does It. She had friends and independence, and if she yearned for something else, the longing didn’t show on her face — either in the photos, or later, when she talked about those in-between years.

Easy Does It foaled, and in this picture Dorothy happily nuzzles the young horse, her pleasure transparent.

The photograph is damaged, a dark blotch at the top and a streak scarring the horse’s shoulder and leg. But what intrigues me is the complexity of shadows. In the foreground is the blurred shadow of Carmie, Dorothy’s friend, co-worker, and horse co-owner. But while the shadows of Dorothy and the pony are further away, they are crisply focused in a band of light that looks like a reflection from a window. Mysterious.

It makes me think of those tests where you’re asked to manipulate a shape mentally to match it to another shape. I keep rotating the figures and the light source in my mind to try to make sense of them, but I can’t quite figure it out.

We often take shadows for granted, giving our attention to whatever’s in the light. But shadows make visible the position of things, their depth and distance, their contours and density. These family photos and their small stories are simply my way of deciphering shadows.

beginning

DAK - Death ValleyWho was this Dorothy? This boot-clad woman in the sweater I’ve never seen? What rough camp is this, with its big tables and bright windows? She isn’t posing, might be in the middle of saying something, in the middle of relaxing from a hike in the chilly afternoon.

The undated photo is likely from my parents’ honeymoon, December in Death Valley. They would have driven east and north from Los Angeles, across mountains and desert, filled with their own heat and promise, to reach this place of ghost towns and abandoned mines, this not-yet-a-resort. She was from a life of fur coats and Oysters Rockefeller, he the rabbi’s son with too many war years in the Army.

They would find their way, starting in this parched landscape of a zillion stars, set aside the familiar, the comfortable, to begin what might then have seemed the perfect union.

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.

13 years

DAK announcement cardSo much time. So little time. The date, April 15, not a stab but a gentle shake. The green line of my emotions on the oscilloscope no longer sharp peaks and plummets, but low swells.
Those last 72 hours a play enacted between two phone calls. The first from the assisted living, “Your mother…” and the second, late at night, from the hospital, “Your mother…”
And in between, keeping her company in her silence, trying to decipher the map on this last unplanned journey until the nurses said Go home, get some sleep. I never slept. Howled into the night for her release. Then the call and the drive back through the empty streets and the long walk down empty corridors and into the silent room where the lights were dimmed and Dorothy was there but not there.
And after we had spent some time together in that new stillness, I went home again and sat up for the remainder of the night scanning photos, printing and labeling and stamping the cards that would go in the mail at first light. And after that so many things changed.

Before we smiled

1940s Tobias et alThe photo is not dated, but my mother’s hair style, her cigarette and her voluminous fox jacket suggest that it’s mid-1940s. This is Dorothy’s family: her father’s brother, Uncle Tobias, her cousin Goldine, my grandmother Elsie, Aunt Sally, and Sally’s sister, Evelyn. My mother’s brother, Bob, is probably behind the camera. No one is smiling. Maybe they all smiled for the next picture, but in this one they’re not quite posed, still talking, brushing the lint off the coat, waiting.

I’m glad for the dust-up regarding the candidate’s smile. It’s something I’ve thought about. Perhaps the epidemic of smiling can be directly traced to the popularity and portability of cameras. A century ago, a photograph was as serious and rare as a painted portrait, something that might happen only once in a lifetime. It meant sitting very still for quite a long time. No one smiled. But move closer to the present and more and more people are saying cheese.

Some people are smilers. My mother was one. I am too. I probably learned it from her. Smiles are a social lubricant, an encouraging mirror. What bothers me is the command to smile, regardless. The “you’re so pretty when you smile” that barely conceals its opposite message. What bothers me is photos of children with their pasted-on grins, knowing that an adult is demanding a smile from a child who might be uncomfortable, tired, angry, shy, unhappy. As if that unhappiness is unimportant, impossible, as long as there’s a smile.

We’ve learned to smile. Perhaps we need to relearn what it means.

Mr Popper & Myself

D and Mr PopperMy mother is perhaps 13 in this small photo. It’s the mid-1920s and she’s looking a little flapperish.

On the back of the photo is written, “To Dorothy From Margaret West.” Perhaps on this spring day in Milwaukee Margaret and Dorothy dressed up and went to a party, or the silent pictures. On the way home they encountered the local constabulary, Mr. Popper, and Dorothy asked Margaret to take her photo. The ever-accommodating Mr. Popper is mildly amused.

Dorothy is holding a newspaper, part hanging down and part flipped up across her chest. Maybe there’s something noteworthy in the paper — something about Dorothy herself, or her school, or her father.

Or perhaps there’s no story, just a record of a moment when a girl shows a new composure, a new self-awareness, when grooming is not simply a matter of complying with Mother’s instructions, but a tiny and newly discovered window into self-expression.

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.

what we save

Dorothy hair and flowersIn my mother’s baby book — blue, with padded covers and thick, creamy paper — her mother’s notations say more about Elsie (my grandmother) than they do about Dorothy, who followed a much-favored firstborn son. There are some photos, a few notes about first teeth, first words and childhood illnesses, and, most tellingly, long lists of presents given at her birth (including silk quilt, silver spoon, French bib, silver napkin ring), her first birthday (embroidered pillow case, gold pins & two pair bonnet strings, bottle whiskey) and her second birthday (pink wristlets, silk stockings, Irish lace hood and blue silk kimono).

Where Elsie’s notes trail off, Dorothy saved what was important to her: letters from her father, whose insurance sales kept him on the road, and several newspaper clippings about a performance of a Red Riding Hood operetta by the Bluebells, when Dorothy was 8. A cluster of dried flowers is accompanied by a note in Dorothy’s hand, “My graduation flowers from 8th grade at Hartford. I was the valedictorian.” She was also Literary Editor of the school newsletter, The Hartford Crier, and a number of copies are folded into the book.

I turn the pages, mostly blank, and look at the photos. Then I find two bits of folded paper I’ve never noticed before: a scrap of newspaper with Elsie’s penciled “Baby hair” and another, tissue, possibly 1916 toilet paper, that says “5 years.”

As I unfold these fragile bits of paper, the hair on my arms stands up. A century after they were clipped from my mother’s head, these hanks of strawberry blond hair still contain her essence. The hair is fine and much less curly than Dorothy’s would become later in life (and much less curly than mine). It’s beautiful and soft, glossy and drenched in an innocence that squeezes my heart.

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.

deux femmes

1966 - DAK w Tête de femmeIt’s 1966. In Antibes, at the Grimaldi, my mother examines Picasso’s Tête de femme aux grands yeux. My father’s black-and-white photograph emphasizes the rough texture and stark volumes of the sculpture. His own woodcarving was much influenced by the abstracted forms of Picasso, Brancusi, Arp, Noguchi and Henry Moore, which he studied with an engineer’s eye — not to replicate but to understand.

In the photograph, through some trick of light, angle or scale, the perspective is slightly off. Dorothy and the Tête seem to vie for the same plane, advancing and retreating, one in front, then the other. Whether my father saw that, at the time or later, I don’t know. Nor can I guess whether he framed the image with tongue in cheek, these two commanding women caught side-by-side in the stillness of their unique beauty.

stories

DAK - What is a line

When she was in her 80s and already on the precipice of her long decline, my mother enrolled in an autobiography class at a local community college. The class met weekly and the same people enrolled semester after semester, sharing their stories on paper and aloud.

Dorothy loved it. Through the writing, she retold her personal history and found a new starring role on the stage of these fragments. More than anything, she loved standing before the class and reading her stories aloud. She dramatized and flirted and used the language of her body and voice as much as her words.

After some years, when my mother could no longer see well enough to read her own stories, the teacher generously read them on her behalf. But Dorothy missed the performance, spent much of each class session asleep in her chair, and finally dropped out.

In the bottom drawer of one of my file cabinets is a fat folder filled with Dorothy’s stories, laboriously typed on her word processor — some by her and later, when she could not make sense of them, by my father. I know these stories; they’re the ones she always told — about her childhood friends, her grandfather, her first meeting with my father.

I remember them. I heard her read many of them aloud. But I cannot bring myself to open the folder and read them all again. To decide whether I’ll transcribe them or simply recycle the paper, printing something of my own on the blank side. She’s been gone more than ten years, but her voice lives in that folder, retelling herself anew, the movie of my mother playing over and over in my head.

. . . . .
words and scribbles by DAK

lawn

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.
. . . . .
Dichondra

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.

portrait

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.

making lines

DAK pink stitched piece, undatedI don’t recall my mother ever sewing anything as practical as clothing or curtains, but sometime after I had left home a sewing machine was installed in her studio. She began to ‘draw’ on paper with lines of stitches.

In this piece, the underlying paper (8″ x 10″) is visible only at the very edges. Except for that ragged and tormented margin, where a tint of paint can be seen, all of the apparent color is thread, stitched and overstitched, turning the paper into a dense, canvas-like material. She may have used the painted image as inspiration, but at some point, all that was left of the painting was the lines of thread that covered it completely. Some deep puckering suggests that the paper must have ripped, but she kept stitching, row upon row, in an impasto of thread.

I don’t know if Dorothy considered this finished, or successful. Parts of it are quite beautiful. There’s a kind of fierceness about it — an aggressive attempt at mastery — an imperfect draft of a difficult poem with a few worthwhile words.

(Here’s another example.)

drafts

DAK color study - backThe shelves and file drawers still bulge with my mother’s small paintings, drawings, handmade paper, collages and other ephemera. I consider these one by one, as I do the photographs, hoping for insight.

A rejected portrait of a pear occupies the back of an undated, unsigned 6 x 9-inch abstract color study on Arches paper. Dorothy applied the paint — perhaps acrylic — in translucent glazes, considering the colors, the roundness, the gloss of the fruit. But in the end, it was not the pear she wanted and before using the other side, she scribed a firm X through her effort.

She often painted on top of previous paintings, preserving some elements or obliterating the original entirely. But something about this pear was evidently beyond redemption — perhaps its bulging shoulder or pinched waist — and could only remain a haunting substratum to any future image. Still, she loved pears as both food and objects and painted them summer after summer.

Whether with brushes or words, we keep trying to get it right, every poem or essay (the very word!) a sketch, an underlayer to something better — or not. We pick away at vision and understanding, archaeologists with dental tools, miniaturists peering through the magnifying lens, hoping some part of the image will resolve, make sense, escape, for a while, the banishing X.
. . . . .
more on sketches

selfie

1980s DAK self sketchMy mother wanted to be a photographer. Not as a profession, but literally to “take” pictures — to bring home with her the abstractions of color, line and form she saw everywhere.

She struggled with one camera after another. My father patiently showed her and wrote cues to help her remember the sequence of buttons. He gave her his own camera, which looked so easy and which she was sure she could master, and when that defeated her, he found her a simpler one. But that, too, was just an incomprehensible box of buttons that she eventually stuck in a drawer, giving up the idea of taking photographs.

Dorothy would undoubtedly have found a cell phone equally daunting, but she would have loved the idea of selfies. In fact, she created hundreds of them, with pencil and brush, pastel and ink. If they did not provide the instant gratification she hoped to achieve with the camera, they left a record of how she saw herself, stripped of artifice — a harsh beauty seen through an acute and unforgiving eye.

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