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found poem: DEFINE

found poem © j.i. kleinberg ~ DEFINE
found poem © j.i. kleinberg

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found poem: sitting there

“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.

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

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.

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.

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.

perfect

Dorothy age 2Not yet three years old, Dorothy — they would have called her Dottie — sits motionless and polished for her portrait. Her shoes — spats? — and lace-trimmed dress and the tiny finger ring on her right hand, even the portrait itself, speak of privilege and a degree of “perfection” that would be a burden to my mother throughout her life.

Before long, the darling toddler, who could be doll-dressed and encouraged to smile for a morsel of praise, had unmanageable red, curly hair and buck teeth. Her mother (who, to her credit, turned out to be a wonderful grandmother) already favored her firstborn son and couldn’t bring herself to embrace this messy, imperfect girl.

Distanced by her mother, teased by her brother, Dottie invested her hopes in her father: the youngest of ten children, a good-hearted joker who was coddled as the “baby” of the family throughout his life. He was playful and kind to her, but his work and the child-rearing practices of the day — children were “seen, not heard” — kept him at a distance. At any rate, he was no match for his more serious and imperious wife, who made and enforced the rules and set the expectations that the young Dorothy was never able to achieve.

Her life was shaped by that duality — perfect girl on one hand, zany misfit on the other — and the long, painful search for unconditional love.

Papa

LRK about 1951In this undated photograph, my father is about 40 — his hair mostly gone, his bow-tie askew, his signet ring from Case Tech in place. I don’t know why he had this picture taken and I’ve never seen the final print, if there was one, but he looks tan and serious and much the way he would look for the remaining 40-plus years of his life. He was a good man — intelligent, loyal, honest and affectionate — and I know I was very, very fortunate in having him as a father.

Mother’s Day

first Mother's Day jik-DAKIt’s my first Mother’s Day. I’m three months old; my mother is 37. Neither of us look entirely certain about the arrangement.

In my baby book, Dorothy has already noted that I “grew high and wide from the beginning,” that I was “unusually greedy for food” and that by the time this photo was taken, she had already added cereal to my formula because I “was always hungry.” Though it’s hard to know what she might have imagined about motherhood, this was more than she had bargained for.

It took her a long time to realize that neither she, nor I, could go back. The clock would not be unwound; her carefree life could not be recaptured.

Her hope for that miracle persisted, but, to her enormous credit, she became Mommy. If her enthusiasm for the role was limited, my father and Dr. Spock offered balance and direction. I thrived, grew high and wide, and learned to tread lightly.

I’m grateful — for all she did right and all the many, many things she could have, but didn’t, do wrong. Still, I wish that somehow she could have had the life and happiness she wanted.

priming

1961 - DAK priming canvasIn this photo, my mother is priming a canvas. Straw-hatted and gloved, she’s just outside the garage, dipping her wide brush in an old Yuban coffee can. She loved that hat and wore it until it fell apart, dropping flakes of straw everywhere. Loops of garden hose hang on the wall behind the larger canvas. The driveway, dappled with shade, slopes up toward the street.

My father would have stretched the canvas for her or mounted a plank of Masonite on a frame he had built, perhaps pulling the screws or nails from another of those metal cans — Yuban, Folger’s, MJB. They were everywhere in his shop, filled with bolts and chalk, rubber bands, cup hooks and small pieces of doweling that might be useful sometime.

Dorothy is not quite fully smiling, with an oh-no-are-you-really-going-to-take-my-picture-right-now look on her face, happy to be seen but already in the middle of the possibility of what this painting might become.

gift

LRK to jik 1997In his sculpture, my father returned repeatedly to this form — the object both joined and separate. Reflecting the natural shape of the branching tree, it suggests relationship as well as the individual standing with arms raised in praise or plea.

This small “WINGED FORM,” as he described it in his carefully annotated and illustrated log, was made from two pieces of black walnut “doweled and epoxied together” and affixed to a black walnut base. My father made it for my birthday in 1997. It was one of his last sculptures and it was the last of my birthdays we would celebrate together.

In addition to the “Love — Papa” signature on the bottom, the piece itself is carefully scribed on the four faces of the lower, joined, section: my initials, J and K, on two sides, 97 and his artist’s monogram, a conjoined LRK, on the other two.

It is conceived and crafted and finished with love, infused with memories and embodied with the calm strength of his warm hands. A gift that transcends time and loss.
. . . . .
LRK to jik, 1997, “WINGED FORM,” 10” high, base 3.25” diameter

making pictures

Dorothy in Venice, 1963My father, no doubt in sports jacket and bowtie, stands in a precarious spot to capture this quintessential moment of my mother’s Venetian happiness: beret, gloves, Michelin guide and two handsome young men in the picture. This was how she had imagined the trip, and herself in it.

Those months of making notes, bookmarking pages in the guide, asking my father whether he was interested in this or in that. But he didn’t care; this was her domain. In his heart, he would have opted to stay home, to putter, away from the office for ten days.

Though born in Hungary, he had left as an infant and had no nostalgia for Europe. The War — his un-discussed war — was still a raw scar twenty years later, reminders everywhere, even in places he’d never been. Like Italy. But he was a good sport and a good husband and, once committed to a situation, knew how to make the best of it. He enjoyed their travels, this trip a sort of celebration after a prolonged period of work and money difficulties.

Through it all — the belt-tightening, the going without, the slow recovery — Dorothy had continued to idealize each situation, each outcome, and her heroic role in it. The problem was that the reality seldom attained the ideal. She warned me repeatedly against looking forward to anything.

Yet in travel, when she could be anyone, be the person she envisioned, she came closest to the place where the picture in the scrapbook matched the picture in her mind: smile wide, attractive and excited and contented, a woman everyone would admire and want to know.

the cards we’re dealt…

playing card by DorothyIn a cupboard, in a box inside another box, in a small plastic bag, are four little paintings. They were a class assignment, I remember my mother telling me, in which the students had to design playing cards. Each of the four is entirely different from the others, executed with a precise hand in flat paint on a hand-cut card.

Whether the images were copied or suggested or imagined entirely, I cannot know, but Dorothy was good at this. She played cards — something she later gave up in her marriage to my father — and perhaps was able to envision the pleasure of laying a hand face down on the table to show the glossy repetition of her design.

She was 28 or so, a bad marriage behind her, the war a distant rumble and the man who would become my father as yet unmet. Now free of her mother’s house and her husband’s control, she sought self-discovery and redefinition.

That period of about ten years, between her divorce and her pregnancy with me, may have been the happiest and most intense of her life. She took classes, plunged headlong into a poorly-considered and ultimately ill-fated love affair, took a job at Lockheed (the only job she ever held), had good friends and a horse, and fell in love with the man who would be her husband for the rest of her life. Right there, at that time, she didn’t just play her hand, she created the deck.

seeing…

1940s Dorothy in Palm SpringsDorothy is about 30 in the photo, on a trip to Palm Springs with her mother, Elsie. Perhaps Elsie’s husband, Max, was there; maybe he took the pictures. It’s hard to know.

I’ve looked at these photos hundreds of times. I turn them over again and again, hoping to discover a fragment of the story. But the reverse is always blank, so I look deeper at the image, trying to decipher something more about the woman who would become my mother.

A while back, I wrote about a photo that was dominated by the looming shadow of my mother’s brother, Bob. Today, after looking at this photo uncounted times, I notice it, too, has a shadow: Elsie.

The metaphor is unavoidable: Elsie and Bob were the twin shadows in my mother’s life. But I am surprised, too, at how easy it is to recognize someone by their shadow alone — and at the mysteriously selective process of seeing, which also offers this circularity: a daughter dominated by the shadow of her mother writes about a daughter dominated by the shadow of her mother.

Father’s Day

LRK and Taco - 1964Put off by the weight of advertising circulars in each day’s newspaper, I think about how little my father relished shopping. He would find something he liked — faded blue denims, for example — and buy several at once, railing at the world when they eventually became unavailable and he was forced into change. He accepted my mother’s additions to his closet, mostly without notice or comment, though he was always reluctant to part with the clothes that had been wear-softened to perfection, with their frayed edges and incipient holes.

He readily got dirty with whatever engaged him and eagerly got clean when it was done.

He wore bow-ties for every occasion that required a tie, including work, but vastly preferred casual comfort, changing from street clothes into old favorites as soon as he came home. (I do this too.) When he retired, his ties retired, and except for the rare wedding, he never wore them again — sometimes being the only man in the room without one. I think he was not unaware that he was a handsome man, but never preened or fussed, his appearance being merely another given, like hair color or height. He was easy in himself.

I miss him.

. . . . .
photo: Les with Taco, a brand-new member of the family, 1964

random gratitude…

Dorothy at 36
My mother made the Two Hardest Decisions entirely on her own, without discussion or persuasion.

One day, when she was in her 80s and my father was still alive, Dorothy announced that she was not going to drive any more. Another day, about three years after my father died and my mother was already on the slippery slope of dementia, she turned to me and, absolutely lucid, said, “I’m feeling too isolated in the house. I want to move to assisted living.”

In each of these choices, once she determined her path, she never looked back. That’s not to say there weren’t some terrible struggles getting her into and out of the car, when she would plant her feet and stiffen her frail 100-pound body, refusing to bend, responding to a Stop sign that only she could see. And that’s not to say that she didn’t sometimes complain about the food at the place she called “this hotel.”

But for all the difficulty we had being mother and daughter, these two decisions were immeasurable gifts and I continue, more than a decade after her passing, to be grateful.
. . . . .
photo: Dorothy at age 36

shadow

1940s Helen and DorothyDorothy and her sister-in-law Helen look glamorous in this mid-1940s photo. They would have been in their 30s, the war over and life in their favor. But what interests me most is the looming shadow of my mother’s brother, Bob. No matter that the two women are bright and sun-kissed; Bob’s shadow looks massive and overcoated.

If my father’s family was sprawling and inclusive, my mother’s — at least the local branch — was small and self-involved. Bob and Helen and their son, Bobby, who was about my age, lived nearby, as did my grandmother, Elsie, and our families socialized with some frequency.

Uncle Bob was a cigar-smoking joker, loud and a little flashy. He was unfailingly kind to me, but my mother had nothing good to say about her brother. Two years older, he had been her childhood tormenter, teasing her, pulling her hair, jumping out from behind doors to frighten her. Yet the degree of her resentment went beyond a younger sister’s memory of past pranks and she did not forgive him. His presence, even after he had moved away, was sinister, the looming shadow more than a metaphor, and as an adult I came to suspect that there was more to the story than my mother would tell.

inheritance

This is JakeI never knew my mother’s father, Jake, who died more than a dozen years before I was born, but among the things my mother kept was a small notebook of his. It’s soft leather, pigskin, perhaps, and much worn with handling. Embossed on the front are the words COMPLIMENTS OF BRODY & FUNT* and a New York address. Calendars for 1907 and 1908 line the front and back covers and printed pages include a compendium of essential information, such as USDA Weather Bureau Explanation of Flag Signals; the National Bankruptcy Law; Facts about Panama; Height and Weight of Men; New York Hotels; and much more.

Jake sold insurance, and tucked inside the notebook is a cellophane cigar sleeve imprinted with his name and New York Life Ins. Co. There’s also a long (14 column Jake's notebookinches!) newspaper article from the Milwaukee Journal, “Journal Carrier Upholds His Rights,” that recounts the trials and triumph of young “Jakey,” whose newspaper delivery route put him crossways with a local citizen. I imagine him bringing out the ten-year-old much-refolded article to regale customers and anyone else he might encounter on the road.

The blue-graph-paper pages of the notebook are covered with my grandfather’s untidy writing, the contents as eclectic as the book’s printed pages. Some are reminders, scrawled and crossed out, “Ma G birthday Oct 2,” (his mother-in-law, my great-grandmother). Many pages are covered with columns of names and numbers — perhaps a record of installments paid or owed by his customers.

But the pages that interest me most are collections of cryptic notations — “Barber, where do you get shaved” — “Keep off Michigan Ave. (rubber ball)” — a firm line dividing each note from the next. Whether these are observations, punch lines, song lyrics or random firings of Jake’s magpie mind, I can’t know.

Maybe, if I keep studying it, this little book will teach me something about my mother. Or maybe a few of these unmelodic lines will find their way into poems: collaborations with the laughing man I never knew.
. . . . .
*Brody & Funt, as the first interior page explains in eight lines of text and a half-dozen different typestyles, were “Makers of well made popular priced Ladies’ and Misses’ Cloaks, Suits, and Tailor Made Wash Suits, separate coats and skirts.”

the ram’s horn

LRK with shofar 1992My father’s faith was as solid in him as his bones. His father was a rabbi and as my father was growing up, the stories and practices of Judaism were familiar friends.

He was not a literal believer, but saw each tale as an opportunity to question and his intellect ranged through a wide field of philosophical thought. As he grew older, he seemed less inclined to formal practice, rather than more, but he still treasured the traditions of the table — and the deep connection to family that they symbolized. We celebrated the Jewish holidays with cousins — my father’s beloved nieces and nephews — and for quite a few years he was the eldest at the table.

The blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, at Rosh Hashanah, marks the call to the sacraments of the new year. Its blasts are heard traditionally at the holiday morning service, but the shofar made its way to our dinner table and each year the youngest acolyte would blow the prescribed notes.

Now and then, not every year, the shofar would get passed to someone else at the table who would purse their lips and blow — more often than not little more than a puff of air, no sound at all. In this photo, perhaps my very favorite of him, my father, who’s 80, shows his absolute delight at having coaxed a note from the unmelodic ram’s horn.

Beyond faith, beyond even my father, his expression seems to say something about the possibility of joy in the world.

A worthwhile wish for the New Year. L’shana tova.

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