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found poem: DEFINE

found poem: DEFINE

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.


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.

another postcard…

Elsie and Jake postcard back

Elsie and Jake plus two unknown -- postcardNo note suggests the place or tells their names. Nothing in their faces says Wish you were here. But in their Edwardian garb, their solemn stares, my grandfather’s firm grip on my grandmother’s arm, the faint trace of ivied column in the background, the image says occasion. The postcard was never sent, and shall not be.

Still cinched into
my slenderness
my practiced gaze
behatted bride
I do not know
that you will die
so soon but only
that your earnest
heat can melt my ice
and make me laugh.

© j.i. kleinberg 2013


the mare and the manicure

Elsie and Easy Does It 1945During World War II, my mother worked as a draftsperson at Lockheed — the only job she ever held. She was divorced from her first husband and living on her own. The photos from that time don’t show her at her drafting table, but wearing boots and a bandanna at a small Chatsworth ranch where she was part-owner of a horse with two of her Lockheed friends.

It’s hard for me to imagine her pitching hay or mucking a stall, though the three young women look happy with their filly, Easy Does It. The pictures suggest a degree of carefree competence, of physicality, of outdoorsy fun that I never knew in my mother.

But one of my favorite photos from the time is of my Grandma Elsie, my mother’s mother. Born into Victorian comforts and constraints, Elsie was elegant throughout her life. It’s quite possible she didn’t own a pair of pants. Here, at age 60, skirted and stockinged, earringed and hatted, she sits with perfect posture to offer Easy Does It a morsel on her outstretched “Careful!-keep-your-hand-flat!” palm.

Dorothy remained friends with one of the other women for the rest of her life, but once my parents met — perhaps a year after this photo was taken — the horse, like the war and Dorothy’s brief tenure at Lockheed, slipped into a zone of nostalgic reverie. Her war so different from his; their life together all that mattered now.

Elsie’s gloves…

Elsie's glovesElsie was born in 1886 into a family of top hats and tails, gowns and gloves, fans and frills. She wore gorgeous clothes, married twice, traveled widely and lived long enough to be the only grandparent I remember.

From a drawer, I lift out her gloves, softest kid, ivory and fawn and black and near-black chocolate, beaded or embroidered or ruched or seamed or plain.

I pull on a long glove, an opera glove known as a mousquetaire. It clings, black and weightless, above my elbow, the fingers slender and snug. At the wrist, a narrow three-button opening offers a seductive glimpse of pale skin, pulse.

I turn my hand this way and that, then shake myself back to jeans and sweats, pull off the glove, which is too small anyway, and fold it away, a bit of Elsie’s softness still palpable in the fading scrapbook of my memory.

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