Face to Face with the Image of God

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Everyday, Hanna needed to go out into the world and encounter some people… any random people. It did not much matter who. The possibility for interactions, for dialogues, for giving joy, or praise, or even advice… well, if there was such a thing as a pregnant pause, then surely there could be expectant possibilities. These were all that is needed… that, and a little bit of boldness.

Hanna had reached an age when she could get away with things–things she could not do as a younger woman. In her 60s, she could directly, abruptly, amusingly speak to a random couple on the street, at the market, or leaving a movie theater. In her 30s, 40s, maybe even 50s there was this… what shall we call it… some psycho-socio-sexual something-or-other that would prevent her from doing exactly the same thing. Freedom. She had freedom to act freely. On the other hand, she was able to imagine that there might be an upper limit to this privilege. As a 90-year-old, she might elicit a dismissive reaction: “Oh gosh, here comes that old nut! Let’s get away. She tells the same old story every time we meet her!”

But if that were the case–if she’d become dotty–then she probably wouldn’t mind or even notice. She’d chirp, “Every day, I meet the nicest people,” …over, and over again.

Find more people to smile and laugh with. That was Hanna’s goal. This is what fed her, gave her hope and strength and kept her resilient and happy. She had finally learned to take care of herself, and how to properly do so. She was no longer fitting herself into the busy schedules of everyone around her. It was okay to not get her “to do” list done. Okay, to go lie down and rest; okay, to nap today–and yesterday. The possibility of gleaning some joy, an insight, yet remained.

Tonight, Hanna might dream; she might recall the dream; and perhaps that dream will help her resolve some anxiety, some unfinished worry… but tomorrow, in the bright new day, she will engage life again, and find more random people to meet face to face. If we are made in God’s image and God’s presence is manifest in the face of the other, she cannot be too selective. That presence must be in an anxious face just as much as in laughing eyes.

Last week, she noticed how big her grandson’s feet had become. “Wow, looks like my shoes might fit you!” she declared. So he tried them on. “I feel like I am wearing Omi’s shoes,” he said, bemused. Hanna wasn’t sure if that was a good, or bad, or neutral statement from an 11-year old. Maybe a bit of each.

Then she remembered the day before her wedding, feeling that she was walking her mother’s shoes. As she crossed a parking lot she heard the clop clop of her mother’s high heel shoes. She felt that she was inhabiting her mother’s actual shape. So she said out loud, but quietly: “Hello Mother. Thanks for being here with me today. I wished you could be here… and so you are.” She did not often think of her mother, nor wish her presence, but as she grew older into the freedom to act free stage of life, her mother came to mind more often. In fact, since she reached 63, the age of her mother’s death, she often thought things like: “She would have been interested in this or that development,” or “Who would Mother have voted for in this election?” or “Would she have mellowed and been easier to be with at this age?” and, perhaps, most wistfully: “I wish you were around, Mother; I’d like to talk to you about something.”

Hanna’s mother was a bold woman. Bright, brave, witty, beautiful, but something was not right. Too many quarrels, too many directions, too many husbands, too much alcohol. Not a happy person. It took Hanna many years to appreciate her mother, to understand her, to admire her, and to feel compassion for her. A wonderfully stranger idea came to her. “Wow, the person I have become could easily have been a good friend to her, encouraged her. I could have made her laugh.”

And with that, to herself, Hanna laughed.

Fixing Everything

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I am always fixing things.

Prying open something with a screwdriver; applying glue; oh that reminds me the veneer on the leg of the dining room table needs glue. Quick before it falls off. The vacuum cleaner must have banged it.

Shopping bags—paper and plastic—are dropped and forgotten. Inside are the materials necessary to fix something. Who remembers? Is this me in my dotty old age? Surrounded by bags full of unfulfilled projects!

Would I recall what project was intended if I peered into one of these bags? Or conversely, if I resolved to finish a particular project can I find the bag with the needed materials?

Kibbutz Woman

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It was mid afternoon as I entered my kibbutz; the motor urged me up the hill and I parked the old pick-up truck in front the members dining hall. No one was around; it was rest time for some and others were still at work. Zurichka eyed me from a distance as he advanced in my direction. Stocky, self contained, and dressed in blue overalls, he had a modified swagger that was common among the men here. He had never spoken to me, but he, like everyone else, had taken in and made their preliminary assessment of the new arrival: a freshly divorced woman, an American immigrant from Jerusalem and her two pretty daughters. I also knew how to drive a car—and a stick shift, at that. Only one other woman on the kibbutz could do that.

I could sense Zurichka distilling his thoughts to the essential words only.

“Did you just come from Jerusalem?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Did you come up through the Bekaa? (The border road along the Jordan River.)

“Yes,” I repeated.

He took in the scene and pronounced: “At hevremanit.”

He didn’t wait for a response; there was none to make. I repeated the phrase to myself not sure yet what exactly he had said. I thought, but wasn’t sure, that I had been complimented. I took the phrase to my relatives and they confirmed what I had settled on. A “hervreman” is one of the guys; an okay fellow. “Hevremanit” is the rarely used feminine form.

I had received the ultimate Israeli compliment from a kibbutz old-timer.

No Language in Common

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No language in common.

At an FA meeting today I read a taped story called “blackout” and this prompted some very intense sharing by Barbara and Diana and Eliz about having whole chunks of their lives lost. No memory.

Sharing with Ken I repeated what I have said often that I feel that I have no memory of my teenage and college years. People remember me and I have no idea who they are.

Spoke of making friends, having friends…or Not.
Why not? What kept me from being present and with memory.

These FA people spoke about being in the food. I wasn’t. But we were all deep in insecurity, doubt and fear. That is where I was. This kept me from friendships and belonging.

Debbie chose me and saved me at Rumson CD School, two lost friends in high school and Paula in college. No one else…anywhere. I remember wondering why I had no women friends. What scared me? Insecurity; no custom of longevity so why bother; and no common language (culture). The culture codes were foreign to me. I did not understand or was afraid of not.

Never a joiner.
SD Women’s Club is a tight-knit group.
French Hill is populated with Camp Ramat-niks.
In Rumson, I was the foreigner who spoke 2 other languages and dressed very differently.
In Israel I was the American
In many places I am the Jew.
Among some Jews I wasn’t Jewish enough…or too Jewish.
In my family I am either the Jew among non-Jews or too Jewish among the Jews.
I am alone and used to it.
In my mother’s house I was the outsider child of Sioma’s.
In my father’s house I was the outsider child of Jane Ellis-Morrow.
I am missing from all family albums.
On the kibbutz I was the American and other things too.
To Lilly I was OK because I was European.
I was always the new child who assumed that the new school culture was unknowable.
To my father I was always inadequate. The perfection goal was always out of my reach. If I got close, it was moved higher. Sarah Lawrence College was no longer a good place after I got in.

In my childhood home I was spoken to in a language that was different and separate from the English that everyone else spoke.

I love Ken

Dear Melody (The Exit Sign)

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Dear Melody,

Consider yourself hugged every which way.
Remember when you didn’t sign that contract that wasn’t offered to you?

Remember how somehow we never imagined that ill health, fruitless job hunting, family wars, wayward children, dying parents
…was what we were in for?

They get us every time!   Who reads the fine print after all?!
We are just happy to be jumping into life…

And remember when there would always be more time to change directions?  More time for more projects, experiments and adventures?


The imagery I use to explain this to younger people goes something like this:

At 20 something, you don’t even know that you are in a hallway.
At 30 something, your peripheral vision picks up something reddish that is too indistinct to recall.
At 40 something, you can see a reddish spot at the end of an extremely long hall.
At 50 something, you can make out that it probably is an “EXIT” sign but it’s so far away.
At 60 something, you can clearly read the Exit sign and there is a slight panic feeling as you look at all your plans on the shelf.
At 70 something, you are rushing around trying to get everything done, discarded or reassigned.
At 80 something, you are so close to the sign, you hear it buzzing, and if you have done it right, you are enjoying your last projects.
At 90 something you are becoming part of the sign and smiling at those 20-somethings.

May I offer you some advice about your mother?  I am not waiting for your answer, so here goes…

She will die…and probably sooner rather than later.  It is wonderful that you are making that trip back home with her. So take a tape recorder or a video camera (or both) and record all the tender details as well as the obvious events.

you, Melody…you must shut your eyes and try to think of all the things you have ever wanted to ask her about the family, your father, her parents…your childhood…anything that comes to mind.

Do not censor yourself. Note every thought and find a way to ask the questions. Tell her whatever you need to get her to talk. You are a reporter, so if she recoils at being recorded about some of the material, get rid of the machine and take notes. (You will not remember accurately, so please take notes!). Ask all those questions you will regret not having asked. Couch it as “for the grandchildren” if necessary, and occasionally say: “this question is not for them; it’s only for me.”

If there are wounds, repair them now.
If there is pain, express it now.
If there is regret, apologize now.
The hope is that she can do the same for you.
But remember: no expectations; it may not happen…but at least, you’ll get all the rest.

I tell you this from personal experience of Not having done this and many times needing some info, some contact, some word. Ken and I both lost our parents in our early to mid 30’s. We were not at a point in our lives to even really know about the EXIT sign so we did not think to ask anything before it was too late. We have seen so many end games in other families because as book dealers we are there at some part of the end.  We have seen many unsuccessful endings; people who can’t let go; some who are so eager to dump it all; adult children who are still struggling as if they were teenagers with deceased parents who can never give them the resolution they so badly need.  All this from buying books!

Replace the stuckness, sadness and pain with resolve and you may get resolution (and information)!

Write whenever you want or need to.
many hugs

Entering Farmland

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The craggy farmer said ‘Ma’am” to me and I felt like an old woman. At least an older woman.

What was it that was so weird? He wasn’t a teenager or a young man saying “Ma’am”; he was my age and maybe older. Maybe not.

Outdoor workers look older than their urban counterparts. The sun, the hard physical labor…and maybe simply never having to worry about getting all the dirt out of the creases. These are not well-ironed office staff. These businessmen negotiate cows or tractors and rows of corns and haystacks rather than deals.

He sent me to look elsewhere, so I drove a distance. I crossed the cultural divide, drove my sedan into the world of John Deere. I drove into a space without obvious roads, walkways, entrances… stopped the car in the middle I think and looked to my left and right. Where to find a human being to ask? I had come in search of 10 bales of hay.

Such quiet and no clues. But just then a child’s laughter pulls my focus to the extreme left.

A picture perfect family scene is on display. Two parents sitting on the edge of their porch and two children–one girl and one boy–in the lawn below them, playing. The girl is somersaulting and practicing handstands; the boy, more cautious, is tossing and trying to catch his baseball cap.

A split second to capture the idyllic image…Leave it to Beaver transplanted to the farm.

I turn my car around and park it as if by an imaginary curb and walk into the picture. Green grass at my feet, I make my way toward the house, its porch and America at rest after a long day of work. The girl engages me asking if I want to see her stunts. Another perfect moment as I smile yes and stop pointedly to observe this 7 year old show off her budding gymnastic talents. If the long walk through their green lawn isn’t enough, this pause gives the parents more time to observe the intruder.

I grew up in cities. What idyllic view of family life can one conjure up for my kind of child? A family of four all riding down the elevator together?

Never mind. We’re in New England farm land now.

Maïa Hellès

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Written in 2008, on behalf of her friend, renowned ballerina, and wellness advocate, Maïa Hellès. Maïa passed away in 2016, at the age of 99.

Mme. Hellès as we knew her was the girls’ dance movement/exercise teacher for about 15 years between 1960 until 1975. During my last years at the Lycée, she was my favorite adult. I have kept in touch with her over the years and recently, we have reconnected more intensely. The exercises she taught us stayed with me through the years and when I shared them with others, they would ask “where did you learn this?”

Maïa Hellès has been teaching the movement exercises she learned from her mother Fée Heller. Fée or Fea was born in Russia, but truly became well-known in Paris at her 33 Champs Elysées studio where she taught the wealthy, famous, and intellectual women of Europe for 50 years. Fee changed her name to Hellès to show her preference for Greek rather than German culture. In movement she was inspired by her friend Isadora Duncan and her observation of the movements of infants. Her goal was to free the body and that all movement should be gradual, physiologically correct, and aesthetically satisfying. Beauty is central to the experience.

Maïa took her mother’s name and has taught her mother’s method for over 70 years.

Name changing seems to be a family custom, because Maïa’s real name was Maïa Leah Abiléah. Her father was also born in Russia and his original name was Leo Nesviski. He changed his name to Ephraim Abiléah (father of Leah) the night Maïa Leah was born. His brothers took the name too. Google Abiléah and you will find them everywhere and doing interesting things. Leo/Ephraim was a wunderkind pianist and won prizes at various prestigious European conservatories. He was known as one of the founders of The Society for Jewish Folk Music in St Petersburg. He spent the last years of his life in Israel playing and teaching. The most well-known melody for the “Ma Nishtanah” song recited at the Passover Seder each year by the youngest child is his most remembered composition.

Fée Heller was his piano student and they fell in love. They traveled a great deal and had three daughters. One made her life in Israel, one in England and our Maïa came to America. She came to accompany the painter Bezalel Schatz. He was the son of Boris Schatz, the founder of the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. Yes, our lovely, elegant Mme. Hellès speaks French, Russian, Hebrew and English.

She taught at the Lycée Français de New York for fifteen years from the mid-1950’s until 1970. Those exercises have stayed with me throughout the years and when I share them with others, they always ask “where did you learn this?”

This November, Maïa Hellès turned 91. She is elegant, graceful and a lovely teacher. I invite you to meet her and learn something quite wonderful—new and old.

Faith is Frost

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On a brisk and startling morning
Frost comes in and covers everything
But as the sun commands the day
The frost…it disappears.

The ground has sucked it in
Deep, deep the wetness seeped
Roots relish the black black drink
The frost…it disappeared.

Tomorrow—another morning
Frothy white covers
Million crystals twinkle
See. Frost …it reappears.

Names of Flowers

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One day they will plant me deep in dark brown earth.
Family and friends will pass and throw in handfuls of this rich moist stuff.
Thuds against the plain pine box will send shudders through the company.
Huddled and brave, and not so brave, they’ll stand around and watch.
Above them in the center, the bluest sky belies their pain.

Tall progeny…you are so beautiful!
Come back in spring and see the sprigs of sweetness spread all around.
I never learned the names, but the petals are delicate and pale.
My mother knew the names of flowers but kept the secret safe.

In the South, they know the names of things, prepare dainties for trousseaus, and “put up” the earth’s bounty, and use sealing wax.
“Dear Heart” she called me, “My Benjamin.”
But in the North, one becomes a communist, marries and divorces, marries and divorces. Break your parents’ hearts, and keep the secret safe.
Don’t give them names lest I grow flowers in my heart.

We buried what was left of her — gray granules of nameless parts. I volunteered to pry the tin and shake out the remnants of solid sadness into the dark brown earth.

My saplings, my seed — come visit me — go visit her. Learn what I could not possibly have taught you and speak the names of flowers to our graves.

The Role of My Grandparents in the Fairytale

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Understanding herself is not a battle Pauline saw as worth waging. She has relegated her past to hidden places. What an extraordinary feat it might have been for her to reach and find her causes. Sioma relished the past nostalgically, but not as a means to anything unless it was grudges.

I have often said that I need to understand my grandparents in order to understand my father and my aunt. Who were these people and how were they, that they produced the likes of Sioma and Pauline. If this were a fairytale…I could see their mother whom they brought with them to America as a talisman, as the rescued damsel, as a prisoner, or as the force of their lives. The father who had died in France could become the defeated dragon, or the heart and soul of the family and death had left them floundering and eating each other up; the life force that was too intense, or the fire that partly destroyed them. He is mysterious but very relevant. Snippets of stories about him tantalize and resolve nothing.

The mother …well, I think of other mothers I have known. Was she like Lilly who mothered Perle and Larry? Or like Betty with Carol and Ken? Or like Jane with Zoe and Rachel? Or like Pauline with Jean Pierre and Philippe? Was she a major player or a passive wonderer? Did she create the scene or is she just watching it bewildered?

What happened?

There are those who would say: who cares. Why are you stuck on this. Just get on with your life.

Who they were is a lot about who I am today. It would help to know, to understand and maybe I could free myself of certain demons. I did not grow up with stories told and retold of family lore. I am stranded on a desert island. I am a detective with a magnifying glass. I am a pathologist with a scalpel. I am not willing yet to forget it and make it all up.