A LONG AGO LETTER TO THE GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION, September 20, 1994

A LONG AGO LETTER TO THE GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION, September 20, 1994

I am a 56-year-old writer who has applied for a Guggenheim grant for the last 25 years Each year I have dutifully and scrupulously filled out the forms, written apologetic beseeching requests to my references, and sent your committee the required “narrative essay” of my projected plans and my list of publications. Many of my references — those who taught me, those who supported– me are now dead or are too old to refer me. Wallace Stegner died last year at the age of 84. Andrew Lytle is 92 years old. Milton Hindus is not well. George Core, editor of The Sewanee Review, has explained that he (he!) has felt snubbed by your refusal to award me a grant and thus will not write again. Norma Klein is dead. Lynne Sharon Schwartz is recovering from the Epstein-Barr virus. Alice Adams, I am told recently, had cancer surgery. Cynthia Ozick has written for me for at least the last eight years. She and Bob Stone, my classmate in the Stegner fiction workshop at Stanford in 1962, are lately overwhelmed by requests to appear and receive literary prizes and honors.

How can I ask them to write for me again, merely to insist one more time that I am a talented writer who deserves a grant – for what other content can be found in these letters? Let me save all of them the trouble this year. Allow me not to cringe with embarrassment in order to beg their favors one more time. Let me not beseech these illustrious and absorbed artists who would – out of friendship and obligation and goodwill – take time out of their dwindling years to write the required form letter to Guggenheim.

Please accept instead this reference letter from me or kindly consult the 100 letters sent to you in my behalf in the past 25 years. This letter is to state that I have published fourteen novels and four volumes of short stories, I have won major literary prizes, I have lived the dedicated life of a serious writer, I have suffered the requisite years of rejection and I have seen enough turn-down letters to kill a horse, letters which for some reason arrive every year on my birthday, March 15th . Their annual message urges me to understand that, as always, “a large number of excellent candidates had to be denied.” The Guggenheim committee and I have been writing the same letter to one another for 25 years. This year I find I must alter the nature of the exchange. Enclosed is a comprehensive narrative of my life as a writer. Please consider me for a grant before the year of death finds occasion to be added after my name.

Merrill Joan Gerber.

 

MARRIED NINE MONTHS IN in 1935—NOTES FROM MY PARENTS’ BOAT TRIP EIGHTY TWO YEARS AGO and a birthday poem written by my mother to my father (and found in a suitcase). Transcribed by Merrill Joan Gerber

 

 

Jessie Gerber’s story written on river boat stationery:

On America’s Finest River Trip

Hudson River Day Line, On Board the Peter Stuyvesant August 10, 1935, Saturday

For History’s Annals: And so we celebrated our nine months anniversary! Equipped with sun glasses, chicken sandwiches, the Saturday Evening Post which we swiped from behind a hatchet, and a lovely sunny day, we are set for our voyage. This boat goes to West Point, where we hope to see the parade.  We start back at 6:15 and arrive at 9:15. A saxophone moans feebly in the offing, which probably means dance music.  We have reserved two seats in the upper deck, and can see all the big steamers sailing for points east!  Oh, well, some day…

Going out to get some sunshine—and will describe the parade later on.

No parade today! Of all days, Saturday is the day when the poor darlings loaf!  But we had a swell time anyway—

And a great big fight that very night.

Jessie S. Gerber

 

William Gerber’s story written on river boat stationery:

On America’s Finest River Trip

Hudson River Day Line, On Board The Pisher Styve

Ve vas going up the Rivah and vat do you tink up jumps a whale into mine wifes lap was she surprised. I’m tellink you she almost did in her oizen. Now dis whale was a prince what was betwitched by a bat bat whitch. Whitch dis whitch had cast a spell on the prince whitch could only be broken by a young beautiful woman whitch mine wife was so to make a long story longer whitch do you think she preferred the Prince that the whitch had bewitched or me whitch she had taken from bad to worse. So my wife and he lived Happily Ever after.

The moral from this story is if you find a whale in your lap spit on him and drown him or the whitch which bewhitched him might bewitch you too.

Meyer Volf Gerber

Poem written by my mother to my father on his 27th birthday, November 1, 1936

To My Husband on this Birthday:

I.  A gift I have for your, my sweet.

I think you’ll like it too.

But you must follow my command,

And here is what you do.

II. First face the kitchen sink, turn right,

Take three steps straight ahead

And then you’ll very slowly walk

To the foot of the Murphy bed.

III. Turn to your left, hop one, two, three,

Then skip to the bathroom door.

Then you must scrub your dirty face

And squat near the tub on the floor.

IV. And now arise and follow your nose

Till you reach the studio couch.

Then sing the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Come on, don’t be a grouch.

V.  Now sidestep right and look into

The mirror near the hall.

Make lots of funny faces

And neigh like a horse in a stall.

VI. Now don’t you fret, my darling pet,

The worst is almost done.

You’ll get your present very soon.

The battle’s nearly won.

VII. Just waltz around the room, my love,

And curtsey here and there,

Then rhumba to the telephone

And flop in the easy chair.

VII. We’re almost thru, you may arise.

Now prance to the hall near the chest,

And if you still want your birthday gift,

With patience you must be blessed.

IX. Now you may open the closet door,

And tightly shut your eyes.

Then reach your hands a way, way up

Till you feel your humble prize.

X.  And now, my sweet, the mystery’s done,

There’s nothing more to unravel.

Let’s pack our duds and hurry East,

We’ve got an excuse to travel.

Always,

Your Je

(The gift is a Gladstone bag.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AT THE DMV

 

 

At the DMV, seated on a green plastic chair, an African-American woman is using her smart phone as a mirror as she applies mascara to her eyelashes.  Next to her a teenaged Asian-American girl, wearing mini-shorts and sandals, keeps her head down, her black hair falling over her face, as she checks her phone. A young Hispanic couple come rushing in the “Appointments Only” door—the woman holding a baby and the man looking baffled as to where to go or what to do next.  Against the side wall are the restroom doors—a single restroom for each sex, and seven or eight people waiting on line to get into each, in a building that at this moment holds what seems at least a hundred people.  I have been in the women’s rest room: there is no hook for a purse and the floor is always wet.

My husband sits in the front row of chairs, waiting with others to be summoned for an 8:15 AM drive-test and I sit in the row behind him.

Twelve years ago a macular hole appeared in his right eye and he had surgery to close it. As a result, the DMV has required him to take a behind-the-wheel driving test every year.  Though his eye has been stable, and each year the required eye exam attests to it, the drive-test is required.  I always accompany him to the DMV and I always wait here for him.  I wear my shabbiest clothes and oldest shoes.  As soon as I get home I shed and toss into the trash everything I wear in this environment.

When they call my husband’s name I go up to Window 22 with him.  Of the two women at the desk, one, a black woman, wears a knitted cap low over her forehead, almost over her eyebrows.  She is dressed in a gray t-shirt with a stretched-out neck.  The woman beside her has breasts that are falling out of her blouse.  In wonderment, my eyes cleave to her cleavage.     “Your license, your insurance, your car registration,” the black woman says and holds out her palm.  My husband, whose hand is shaking slightly, hands her the papers. She studies them.  “Your current eye exam.”

He offers her the two page document he got last month from the ophthalmologist.  She glances at it and hands it back. “You need a current eye exam, this one is from last year.”

“No,” I interject.  “This exam was done last month!  See the date?”

The woman takes the papers from my husband’s hand and shoves them toward me.  The date on it is last year’s date, not this year’s.

“It’s a mistake!  The doctor obviously made a mistake; we were just there last month.”

“Sorry,” the woman says, “We can’t accept this.”

“But we have a drive-test appointment.  We had to wait months to get it. I swear my husband had his eye exam last month.  I was there with him.”  I am, to my surprise, close to tears, swearing to this woman in the crazy knitted hat that now seems to be down over her eyes.

The young woman with the breasts is listening in. “Can you contact the doctor and have him fax us a corrected exam?”

“I don’t know! I could try!”

The scheduled hour of my husband’s precious drive exam is slipping away. The woman hands me a slip of paper.  “This is the fax number here.”

I don’t know how I will achieve this task. I dig my cell phone out of my purse.   The noise in the DMV is rising around my ears like a tsunami wave.

My husband sits down, his head bowed.

“I’ll see what I can do.” I go outside where the sun is blinding, where some guy is smoking, though it is forbidden at the DMV.  I begin the impossible: calling the HMO, asking for the eye exam department, asking the receptionist there if she can solve this dilemma.  “Help me,” I say to her.  “We are lost at sea.  We are at the DMV and my husband can’t take his driving exam without his eye exam and Dr. So and So [your imbecile doctor, I am thinking] signed the wrong date at the bottom of the form and we are desperate.”

“The doctor is with a patient. I can’t speak to him till he finishes the exam.”

I give her my cell phone number and the fax number at the DMV.

“Please call me back as soon as he sends a fax,” I beg her.

I tell my husband what I have done. His hands are visibly shaking.  We are so stressed that I now see this ordinary movement of his in a different, more sinister, light. My husband has what is called an “essential tremor”—not a disease, not Parkinson’s, not progressive, in fact it’s genetic, his mother had it. (And therefore, our children could one day have it. I am horrified, suddenly, at this dangerous inherited possibility. It’s his mother’s fault. So much of what is wrong with him is his mother’s fault.  And she, who hated me till the day she died, lives on as one quarter of each of my children).

What further horrifies me is how we could have gotten to be such old people. My husband’s birthday is tomorrow, on which date his driver’s license will expire. In the DMV we see dozens of young people of various races, all here to continue their wild and fortunate lives of driving cars to places where they will do their sexy, healthy, exciting stuff and then there are just a few old folks, like us, whose freedoms could be snatched away in a second.

There are warning signs on the walls of the DMV declaring that threatening an employee will lead to an arrest and court date and a fine and conviction with prison time.  Also that it is illegal to bring firearms into the DMV. People in front of various windows here are arguing with people behind the windows. There is a level of anger in this building that is palpable. At the least there should be more than one restroom per sex.

The endless drone of the loudspeaker bombards us. “Now serving G003 at Window Number 6.  Now serving B013 at Window Number 11.”

I’m holding my cell phone in my hand. More than a half hour has passed since the scheduled drive-test appointment. A half hour later, I go outside and call the receptionist at the eye doctor’s again. No progress has been made; he is still with a patient.

We sit and we stare aimlessly forward. If I were home, I could be playing Spider Solitaire on my computer; I could be eating the one leftover donut in the box on the kitchen table.

So many young and handsome people pass before my eyes.  In their short skirts, the girls have perfect thighs and adorable knees, the guys in their white undershirts are macho, sexy, powerful looking, many with mustaches. There is an incredible aura of sex in this room.

My phone vibrates. I run outside so I can hear who is calling.  The receptionist informs me that the doctor has sent a fax.  I rush to tell the woman with the hat that the fax has been sent.  She leaves her desk.  I indicate to my husband by hand motions that some progress is taking place.  The woman comes back and shows me a note scribbled and signed by the eye doctor: ”Sir, the exam was this year. I indicated the wrong year.”

“We can’t accept this note,” the woman tells me. “He has to fax us a new, complete, eye exam form, filled out.”

“What? The doctor faxed a correction. He signed it.”

“Sorry, you’ll have to get a new completed exam form signed.” She lays the note on her desk. “I’m on break now,” she says and walks away.  The woman with the breasts (and so soft and comforting they now look to me) says, with pity: “Maybe our manager will approve this letter anyway.  I’ll be right back.”  And she rushes away with the paper.  I turn toward my husband who is watching me from his chair.  There are times that time stands still and this is one of them.  The breasts come back toward me.  “I got it approved,” she says, smiling.  “Your husband can take his driving test.  Have him bring his car around the side of the building, and put these papers on your dashboard.”

“Thank you, thank you,” I can’t thank her enough, this angel who has managed to free us from these hard chairs. As we go out of the building, I see again the same black woman I saw earlier continuing to apply mascara to her eyelashes.  How beautiful, exactly, does she, does anyone, need­ to be at the DMV?

 

The inside of the car is hot; this is the end of July in California.  My husband drives the car around the building and gets on line for the drive-exam.  His hands are trembling.  Two cars are ahead of him.  Waiting on a concrete bench nearby are parents or a buddies of a hopeful driver, each waiting for the car, with his person in it, to come back with the examiner.  Their anxiety, if they have any, is invisible. Those with phones are texting away, or talking, or taking selfies.  A guy in ragged jeans, wearing a helmet and a leather jacket, is sitting in full sun.  A tattooed girl in a halter top, her back and arms covered with snakes, is applying lipstick to her pierced lips.  If I hadn’t married my husband so long ago, I wouldn’t be in this hell now. There were so many young men who admired me in college.  My life could have gone in any direction but this one.

Ahead I see a kind-looking female examiner with her clipboard introducing herself to the driver of the car at the starting line. She looks human, almost sympathetic, if only my husband could get her!  But off she goes, and the next examiner comes to the car ahead. He looks Chinese.  We watch the routine: brake lights, turn signals, hand signals, horn honking, and then the man gets into that car.  Now it is our turn.

We move up slowly to the white line.  A man comes toward our car and my gut clenches. He has a sour, fierce, dark, ugly face.  He says to me through my husband’s open window, “Exit the car now.”  This man is a Nazi.  I grab my purse and get out, and go to the trunk to retrieve a folding chair I brought along for this very purpose.  The man is speaking in harsh tones to my husband as he goes through his commands and then he gets into the car.  Oh God, we are doomed.

I drag my chair to where there is a drop of shade in the waiting area.  My husband is apparently listening to the man’s instructions. He releases the brake and drives slowly forward.  Then he is gone.

The book I brought to entertain myself during this time is called “A Widow’s Story,” and is a memoir by a woman, my age, whose husband dies unexpectedly and her life is destroyed in the blink of an eye.  This of course is my ultimate nightmare, the terror that my husband will die and leave me abandoned.  In any case, one of us will surely lose the other.  Several of the women I know are widows and have survived the brutal job of taking care of a dying husband (some for months and some, unimaginably, for years).  .

The author of the memoir, though nearly insane with grief and terror, has many friends who support her, and who send her “grief baskets.”  Deliveries of food arrive, health-fruit drinks and cheeses and huge pears and sausages; also potted plants and even trees.  I take account of my friends, not so many after all, and realize none would send me so much as a banana.

I sit outside of the DMV reading, checking my watch from time to time: where is he now, what critical mistakes is he making? So much as bumping a curb will end the test.  No matter how rotten and afraid I feel now, no matter how I fear that my husband will lose his license and we will both be shunted directly into an old age home, nothing I feel is as bad as the terror the widow feels in the book I am reading.  She can’t eat. She can’t sleep. She imagines hideous basilisks beckoning her to die.

I close the book.  Why didn’t I just bring along a New Yorker or a crossword puzzle?  There is something wrong with me that I am so willing to jump into suffering with the pure certainty that I deserve it.  I knew this since I was a little girl.  Life will end badly, incredible pain will be my lot, I will be left alone and bereft.

A familiar form materializes in front of me.  What?  My husband is back, how can that be, it’s too soon.  The Nazi is walking ahead of him to the door of the DMV and my husband says to him, “Will you tell my wife what you told me?”  The Nazi looks at me with disgust.  “Your husband has a severe, dangerous tremor, he should not be on the road, I am going to recommend that his license be revoked, I will report him to the Safety Division.”

He goes in the door and shuts it in my husband’s face.  “What did you do wrong?” I accuse him.

“He said I drove not up to speed on Orange Grove.  He said my hands were shaking.”

“Did you tell him you don’t have a disease?  That you’ve had a perfect driving record for sixty years?” I look at my beautiful, handsome, beloved husband and he seems beaten, diminished.  I adore him.  I would kill for him.

“I have to make an appointment to take another drive test, if they let me.”

I follow him back inside the DMV, he gets on a line, he gets an appointment for a month hence. He then has to go to the “Photo Room,” where they take a picture to put on his temporary license.  He looks like a dead man on the picture. His face is sunken and white, his eyes are blank.

We drive out of the DMV.  I ask my husband if we can go to Chang’s Garden for lunch.  Some antidote to this poison is required. He just points the car toward home.  We are on borrowed time here. He may have only days left to be my personal driver who takes me on our adventures, takes me to visit our distant children, takes me (rarely) to the beach so we can walk on Santa Monica Pier and let me play Skee Ball in the arcade.

Do I drive?  I drove till a year ago when a big rig hit me on the freeway, spun me around into oncoming traffic whereupon two other trucks crashed into me.  I had been on my way to the watercolor painting class at the Cancer Support Center.  Painting was thought to be helpful and calming to those recovering from cancer treatment.  My car was destroyed, I was banged up badly but not killed.  The shatter-proof glass of my Maxima shattered in little jewel-like pieces all over my lap.  As I sat there facing three lanes of oncoming traffic, as I waited numbly for a Highway Patrol Officer to reach me, I gathered up some little glittering pieces of my windshield and put them in my pocket for a souvenir.  I knew was never going to see this car again.  So yes, I drive.  I just don’t go far, not more than a mile or two and only when necessary.  I drive to my Depression Solutions group once a week.  We talk about suicide there, and other desperate matters.

We get home alive.  In the garage, I step out of my shirt, my pants, and my old sneakers and toss them in a pile.  For good luck, I peel off my underpants as well.  I enter the house naked.  I don’t explain the reasons for this to my husband.

 

Within days, the US mail brings an official letter from the DMV.  “The Department of Motor Vehicles has the responsibility of evaluating drivers to ensure the safety of the motoring public. You must have the enclosed medical forms completed by your doctor.  If your medical condition indicates an immediate risk to the public safety, your driving privilege will be withdrawn and you will be notified by mail.”  A six page medical evaluation form is enclosed, asking if my husband has psychiatric disorders, types of dementia or cognitive impairments, Alzheimer’s, impulsive behavior, impaired language skills, depression secondary to dementia, impaired visual spatial skills, and is he currently taking addictive drugs.

“Kafka had the same problems,” my husband, the professor that he is, says to me.  But did Kafka have a wife like me who had to call an HMO and arrange for all these forms to be filled out?

Life at home has changed considerably.  My husband spends hours at his computer playing “Free Cell,” his jaw set.  We don’t talk.  We are under siege here and we are helpless.  We are in a totalitarian state.

In a few days, we go to the HMO to pick up the form completed by my husband’s doctor.  Under “Prognosis” he has merely written the word: “Fair.”

Fair?” I cry to my husband, as we examine the form in the waiting room.  “Couldn’t he have written Good?”  My eye travels to the bottom of the page. Where it says “Date” the doctor has stamped his name and address, but he has not filled in a date.  We go back to the desk, give the form to the receptionist and ask that the doctor date the document.  Of course he is with a patient. Of course we have to wait another hour.

“Could we go to Chang’s Garden for lunch?” I ask my husband.  He doesn’t seem to want hot and sour soup or fish in black bean sauce.  He has hardly been eating these last days.  His manhood is under threat. Sinister forces want to remove him from his vehicle, which in California is like being removed from your basic freedom to breathe.

My husband puts his arm around me.  “Maybe tomorrow we can go to Chang’s Garden.”

 

There are lots of jokes about bad Chinese drivers.  In Toronto, my friend Wing Ning tells me, a bumper sticker with the letter C on it adorns the cars of some Chinese drivers.  I have read about an Asian woman who took the driving test 950 times before she passed!

 

At Chang’s Garden I get fish filet with sweet and sour sauce, and my husband gets fish filet with black bean sauce. All around us sit Chinese diners—a sign, my husband says, that the food is good and authentic. What I feel, however, is that it’s a sign that Chinese are taking over America, and that I am becoming the lonely outsider.

 

My husband has decided to take a refresher driving lesson and he makes an arrangement to do so. “Natividad” is going to be his date for this experience, and he goes off to the driving school in his car.  He takes two lessons with her. Natividad gives him a letter stating that he is a good driver.

 

Another legal letter arrives –my husband must appear at the Licensing Operations Division of the DMV to be interviewed under oath. A determination will then be made about his ability to take yet another driving test.

We drive there, to an unfamiliar distant city, and when we get near to the required address, the GPS says, “Make a legal U-turn and then make a legal U-turn.”

We have no idea what this means. Are we lost in some nightmare of DMV tricks?  “Make a legal U-turn and then make a legal U-turn.”  The voice insists upon this.  “Do it,” I also insist.  “Maybe she knows something we don’t know.”

I watch my husband make a legal U-turn and then as soon as he is able he makes another. But the GPS is right. After we make two legal U-turns, we find ourselves right in front of a huge building that says on it “STATE OF CALIFORNIA.”

My husband’s examiner, the letter says, will be Mr. Medrano. After a long wait, my husband is called in by Mr. Medrano. He is a short, dark-haired man, slightly balding.

“May I come in with him?” I ask and Mr. Medrano says, “Why, does he need your help?” Is he another Nazi?   I see a sign on his office wall echoing one in the DMV stating that anyone threatening a state employee may be arrested and go to jail.

“This interview will be recorded, and we will now begin. Raise your right hand. Repeat after me—‘I swear that everything I say is the truth and nothing but the truth.’”

My husband swears. I don’t see a bible.  Maybe this is not the “so help me God” kind of oath.  Mr. Medrano states that everything said here is for the record.  He asks my husband his name, his address, his age.  He stamps various things on his desk as evidence that must go into the record: the verified eye exam and the many-page medical form from my husband’s doctor. There is also a note from Natividad of the driving school attesting that she has administered a two-day driving course.

Mr. Medrano asks my husband how bad his tremor is, does it get worse on different days, does it keeps him from holding his hands on the steering wheel , does it interfere with his steering the car. My husband hesitates.  He’s thinking.  I poke his thigh hard, out of sight of Mr. Medrano, to urge him to answer. Answer now!

Mr. Medrano announces that my husband will have to take a special drive-test with a specially trained instructor who is an expert on medical illnesses that impact driving safety. This examiner will have the ultimate decision about whether my husband will lose his driver’s license.

We are dismissed. As we stand to leave, I venture one question.

“What if my husband fails that driving-test–will he be allowed to take another?”

“Not if he makes a serious mistake that could put someone’s life in danger.”

This time, when we get into the car, I wonder, could my husband actually kill someone? Kill me?  The GPS voice says: “Make a legal U-turn.”  But only one legal U-turn is required this time, and when my husband makes the turn, we are skillfully pointed in the direction of home.

 

When I can’t sleep, I pick up “A Widow’s Story,” and allow myself to imagine my husband dead. But he isn’t dead.  How lucky I am!  We could go on for years, we could live to a hundred.  In bed, he still holds me tight.

The desperate widow is feeling abandoned, unprotected, stranded in her house that she once loved but now hates to enter. Still, friends surround her, feed her.  She even gives a little dinner party in her own house and someone brings along a man she doesn’t know, a professor at her college.  This happens toward the end of her book where she is shown in a photo with her dead husband, and the words: “Of the widow’s countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband’s death the widow should think I kept myself alive.”

On an impulse, I Google the writer’s name. I discover that within a year of her husband’s death, she eloped and married again. She married a good-looking Jewish guy from Brooklyn.  Brooklyn, where I was born!  I check her name under “Images” and there she is, the new bride, dancing with wild happiness at her wedding celebration given by friends, wearing a brilliant red satin coat, and kicking up her feet in joy.

How fair is that? How likely is that?  If I were widowed, what are the chances of my finding a good looking Jewish guy from Brooklyn?  In fact, I am married to a good looking Jewish guy from Brooklyn.  Let me not go there.  I never want the opportunity to find another.  I have been in love with my husband for more than sixty years—may we live, as the saying goes, to 120.

 

My psychiatrist, who is a pretty young woman from the Philippines, wants me to add Melatonin to the Trazadone I take for sleep. She is dubious about my wanting to discontinue my anti-depression drug which, as we have discussed before, has, in her words, “serious sexual side effects.”  Yes, this medicine kills all sexual desire in a tradeoff for a less depressed state of life.  The puzzlement is this: how can one be less depressed if sex has flown from one’s bed?  She only allows me ten minutes, which is what the HMO permits for a checkup of one’s psychotropic drugs and any adjustment that be required.  “Do you have any stressful situations that may be coming up in your life?” the psychiatrist asks me, typing quickly on a keyboard in her lap as she speaks.

“Oh, not at all. Nothing stressful is coming my way.”

 

In my Depression Solutions group, we do discuss the sex lives that are now our lot. One guy says that fifteen years ago he used to look like Brad Pitt and got laid twice a week. Now he gets all the affection that his mother never gave him from his dog.  I love this group because even our therapist shares her troubles.  She tells us about a theory of sharing pain, it’s called “Tonglen.”  When we are suffering, we can do good in the world if we agree to take on the burdens of all others who are suffering and take the pain from them so they can be free of it for a time.  We acknowledge this way that not only do we suffer, we all suffer.  There’s a breathing exercise that goes with this idea: take a deep breath, inhaling all the pain in the world, yours and others, and then blow it out, blowing away pain, freeing ourselves and others.  Our therapist confides that she wants to have a husband one day, badly enough to take two weeks off for a little face lift and time to henna her hair.  She, who is really young and gorgeous, says to our group that she envies me that I have been married so long.  Is being envied a true satisfaction in life?  I don’t think so.  Is my depression improving? I definitely am not going to take antidepressants any longer.

 

On the morning of the scheduled drive-test, I change my tactics. For breakfast, I make my husband French toast with fresh blueberries and pure maple syrup.  I play a CD of Pachelbel as we eat and drink our coffee. I shower and apply coconut scented hair conditioner. I dress in my flowered chiffon dress with a lacy neckline and the wavy, uneven hem that moves delicately with every step. Finding a pair of gold and pearl earrings, I clip them on and slip my feet into my leather sandals.  My husband, picking up the spirit of my mood, goes outside to polish the car.  I help him by pointing at places he missed, little streaks on the windshield, a powdering of dust on the dashboard.  We empty the back seat of all the bags now required to carry groceries out of Trader Joe’s.

I pretend that we are not going to the DMV but on a road trip to Big Sur.  My heart is light, my spirit excited, this will be a kind of honeymoon trip. I don’t let my thoughts wander; I have blinkered them like a race horse’s eyes to keep my focus.

I suggest to my husband that he wear the bright Hawaiian shirt I got him in the thrift shop.  While he’s in the bathroom, I use the attachment to his shaver to clip his sideburns neatly.  He is so handsome, with his square jaw and his thrilling brown eyes.  How lucky we have been all these years.

Nothing is going to stop us enjoying the rest of our lives, not some petty bureaucrat interfering in our plans. If he can’t get his license he’ll just drive without one, he’s never been stopped even once, ever, by a cop.  We are going to overcome our troubles and transcend them.

 

While he gets dressed in his Hawaiian shirt and his brown dress pants, I go out in the yard and watch the hummingbirds dip into the sugar water in the hanging feeder. I practice “Tonglen” breathing, taking into myself all the suffering and troubles of the world, including ours, and then exhaling all the bitterness and pain upward to the exalted heavens.

Please, I say, let these troubles be lifted from us. To whom or what am I talking?  It could be a hummingbird, what does it matter?  It’s out there or up there or in here.

“Okay, let’s go,” he says, “I’m ready.”

“I’m ready, too.”

 

This time I am not going to enter the DMV.  Let my husband manage his necessities.  When he parks, I wish him Godspeed and I take my little folding chair and my Kindle to a place in the shade and set myself up for the duration.   I check the books I have recently downloaded: Being Mortal, Why Norma Jean Killed Marilyn Monroe, The Joys of Uncluttering Your House with Feng Shui, and You Are Always Safe With Me.  The latter is a romance set in Turkey.  I’ll go for that.

I have a pretty sun-hat with me in case the glare gets too bright.  I feel some sense of exultation which I do not question.  There is a breeze coming over the tops of the cars waiting on line.  Eventually I see my husband’s car come around the corner.  I just keep reading about the handsome Turkish captain sailing his little gulet through the inlets of the Turkish coastline and his attraction to the pretty woman who is one of the guests on the boat.  By the time the other members of the cruise have gone on a shore excursion and the captain and the woman he loves are left alone on the deck of the boat, I am totally engrossed.  There is a love scene, both delicate and sensual that takes place after the two of them kayak in the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.  Though she may not be able to remain in Turkey with her lover, is it possible she might conceive his child?  This is her desire and dream.  The gulet rocks softly in the peaceful waters, the sunset sends a glaze of beauty that encloses them in a cocoon of love.

When my husband taps my arm and I look up, he nods at me. The examiner is walking ahead of him and holds the door of the DMV open for him and then he follows my husband inside.

 

Later that evening, my husband and I sit by the pool and appreciate the pandemonium of screaming parrots that cut across the streaks of sunset in the sky. My husband takes my hand—I feel no tremor in his.  We are being mindful that summer is coming to an end, that the full moon will be overhead at midnight, that this winter El Nino may lessen the drought and our trees may not all die, but just a few.  Later, when we go to bed, could it be?  I have a shimmering sensation that the sexual side effects of my drug may be lifting.

MY JEWISH BOOK CLUB –EXCERPT FROM “BEAUTY AND THE BREAST: A TALE OF BREAST CANCER, LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP.

 

 

Before I learned I had breast cancer, I belonged to a Jewish book club. Eight Jewish women meeting for forty years, once a month in one of our houses.

Did we ever read a book? Who knows? Did we ever discuss a book? We had arguments every time:

“Why should I read a historical novel when I’m not interested in historical novels?”

“Then why should I read a book about how Yiddish is coming back from a lost language when my grandparents only wanted that it should be a lost language?”

“They told secrets in my house in Yiddish so the kids wouldn’t know what they were talking about.”

“I think next month we should read a modern romance novel. There’s a new one on the bestseller list.”

“I’m against reading bestsellers. They’re crap.”

“I’m too old for romance. I can’t be bothered with romance.”

“Molly, you’ve had three husbands. How did you manage that without romance?”

“Look at my breasts! They speak for themselves. Also I’m a good cook.”

“Could it be your cooking poisoned the first two?”

“Funny that is not.”

“Sex must figure in somewhere.”

“If it figures, it figures. Remember how in Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings, ‘Do you love me?’ and his wife answers, ‘For twenty-five years I’ve cooked your meals, washed your clothes, shared your bed …. If that isn’t love, what is?’ ”

“It’s your bosoms, it’s not your cooking, that got you three husbands.”

“They should live and be well,” Molly said, patting her bosoms lovingly. “But you never know. One in eight women gets breast cancer. It could be one of us.”

“Never one of us. We’re not the type.”

We are the type, in fact. We are especially the type. Women with Ashkenazic genetics are especially at risk. If we carry the Braca gene mutation, we have an eighty-five percent risk of being diagnosed with cancer in our lifetime, and are also at high risk for ovarian cancer.

Sprinkled over the years among our discussions of life and literature were exchanges of really important information. Who were the best pediatricians? Orthodontists? The best summer camps for the kids? When busing started in our city, most of the neighborhood children were pulled out and put into Christian or Catholic private schools. And since all of us in our book club had been educated in the public schools of New York—the Bronx or Brooklyn—we strongly resisted private schools. Pay for schools? Ridiculous! Didn’t we all feel grateful for our public school educations? And look how smart we were!

Smart we were. There was no argument there.

UNPLUGGED

UNPLUGGED

By Merrill Joan Gerber

 

It happens innocently at first—you intend to make a phone call to your daughter, you pick up the phone and there’s no dial tone. Hmm. Did you leave another phone off-hook?  Better check.

No dial tone there…or there. Wonder why the phone is out. Probably some local outage that will be corrected shortly.  Instead of the phone call, you’ll send an e mail to your daughter.

But wait, the computer says “no internet connection.” What’s this?  You call down the hall to your husband, who is at his computer.  “Are you on line?”

“Funny,” he says. “No, I can’t get on line.”

“What about the TV?” We both go into the kitchen and turn on the TV.  Nothing!

Nothing! Better call the cable company.  Okay, I know how to do it, I know the number by heart (and why would that be?  This has happened before.) I use my cell phone, which has limited minutes (very limited).

After you listen to the message, give your phone number associated with your account, hear it read back to you, say Yes, this is my number, the automated voice says that most problems can be corrected by rebooting your modem. “Do you want instructions as to how to do this?” “No! I do not!  Representative!” I cry, helplessly, into the non-human tape recording keeping me from a human being.  “Tell us in a few words what your problem might be, such as ‘I can’t use my phone.’”  “Representative!!” I cry again.

In time a human being gets on the phone, a person from another, distant country, whose language does not resemble mine. “We do not see an outage in your area,” the person says. “The outage is in my house!” I say, “that is definitely in my area.”

Further words are exchanged; I cannot understand this person. I make it as clear as I can: “We have no phone, no internet and no TV.  We can’t call out, we can’t do our work!  We can’t send an e mail.”

He determines that a service call may be in order, three days from now.

“Three days! That’s unacceptable. We are paralyzed here.”

“I can possibly offer you an appointment tomorrow night between 6 and 7 PM.”

“Tomorrow night!”

I am informed there’s no sooner appointment. Tough luck. Life is hard. Technicians are busy with broken equipment city-wide.  I lose my cool. I say, “I pay $250 a month to your company—I require better service than this.”

The foreign voice is firm…tomorrow night and someone over the age of eighteen must be home when our technician arrives there.” (My God! We are nearly sixty years over the age of eighteen, I think.)

I tell my husband our fate. All the rest of today and all tomorrow, unplugged.

We take it in, we try to control our panic. Perhaps I can take my Kindle to Starbucks or to the library or to Kaiser to send my daughter an e mail.  Let us not fall to pieces over this.  We have things to do in our house—don’t we?  I can sort my underwear drawer.

My husband can do…well, whatever he usually does when not playing FreeCell on his computer. Let us handle this logically.

The day moves on. We can still light the stove and fry some eggs for lunch. I can wash the dishes. The afternoon looms.  My husband brings into the kitchen a book!

We are going to be forced to read books! I also have a book I was thinking of reading…for years.  I get my reading glasses and open to the first page.

Somehow, we count the hours. We feel oppressed, cut off from life, deeply uneasy, deeply threatened. When I check “wireless settings” on my computer, I see a list of the names of neighbors all around me, with various titles like “Williams Residence,” “Maggie 22,” “Hot Dog”—all of these lucky people plugged in and happily oblivious to this vacuum of silence we face.

As we approach 6 PM of the next day, my heart quickens. I watch out the window as for a lover.  Where is he? Is he coming? And if so, when!  When!

At 6:30 the beloved image of the cable truck pulls up to the house. Relief is almost here.  A large and imposing man, laden with belts and other things around his waist, rings the bell, shakes hands with my husband, asks to be taken around to the back of the house.  Then back in the house, he unplugs a cable from my TV and tests it in a black machine.  “Totally dead,” he says. “I need to get up a pole but it’s not in your yard.  It’s two houses down the street.”  He clanks out the door, his equipment swinging and disappears.  Is he leaving?  Oh no, don’t let him leave.

But he is back in five minutes. No one is home but a young girl at that house with the precious pole in the yard. She says her parents won’t be home for a while.  “If they get home, here’s my card, call me, I’ll be in the area for another hour and I’ll come back.”

He gets into his truck and drives away. I stand in our front yard and watch for a car to come  home to the now most desired of houses with poles.  And a car comes!  Parks in the driveway!  The parents are home.  I pull out my cell phone and call the cable guy.  The phone rings and rings: “Sorry, the voice mailbox for Mr. so and so is filled and can take no more messages.”

We are doomed.

(Does any reader want to waste more of his time than he has already spent on this? Everyone knows the dance, everyone has heard the music of this dance, “Frustration Rag” it is called.)

We go to bed at night without the evening news. We can’t even find our portable radio. Not interested, anyway.

In the morning, repeating the call to the cable company (I won’t recount the deadly nature of it again) we are told a tech can come out today between 1 and 5 PM. “We are desperate here,” I remind the person in the foreign country. “We are sorry for the inconvenience.”  The voice is either from  India or the Philippines or the deep South…I decide.  Why don’t they hire someone in California, who talks like me?

By now I have knocked on the door and met the man who lives in the house with a pole. He’s very sympathetic, he has in the past been hit by this blight.  He generously writes a note for me to give to the cable guy, allowing access into his back yard and to the pole. (He will keep his dog locked in the house today.)

Again, after 1 pm, I begin to watch the road, watch for the truck to appear…And suddenly, at 1:30—how lucky is that?—a cable truck pulls up across the street.

No one gets out. The man inside is busy. Doing paperwork, or checking his I Phone, or finishing his lunch…but he’s there.  After twenty minutes, I ask my husband if I should go out to his truck and tap on his door, tell him he’s at the right house.  But no, we will simply wait. And then, oh my God, can this be happening, he revs up his motor and drives away.  He disappears!  He’s gone!

I use my cell phone to call the cable company. “He was here, and he never rang our doorbell. He’s vanished.” “Let me check, Madam, can you hold?” “I’m using up all my cell phone minutes, how long do I have to hold?”

The phone goes dead, anyway. We are now reaching the end of the third day.  I slump in my chair.  My husband is reading an enormous book, the history of the Civil Rights Era.  He has the gift of patience and application. Unlike me.

And when we least expect it, there’s a knock on the door. Outside is yet another cable truck, and at the door is a handsome, young, cheerful tech…who shakes my hand and tells me he is Leonardo.  He has lovely tattoos on his hands and arms, and in his ears are white disks, the kind that extend the earlobes.  I don’t mind.  I love this boy.  My husband and I accompany him down the street to the house with the pole.  We go in the side gate, as instructed. No one is home, but we are allowed to be here.  And there at the far end of the yard is the magical pole that holds the answer to our yearnings.  Bravely, this young tall man begins to climb the pole…up and up, higher and higher, shaking palm fronds from a neighboring tree out of his way.  For me he is risking his life.  He is doing something up there with tools.  My husband and I stand in this neighbor’s yard and wonder at  the challenges of having a life like this young man has.

He calls down: “Squirrel chewed up the wires. I’ll get it, don’t worry.”

We go home and wait for him to return to our house. He’s smiling.  “Turn on the TV,” he says, and we do, and there it is, big as life, a commercial for a heartburn drug.  Oh, thank you so much!  So very much.  This young man isn’t from a foreign country, he’s a local boy, with elegant tattoos that seem to be of flowers and lace. One never knows who will become meaningful in one’s life and will always be remembered.

After dinner, we turn on the TV for our fix, for news of the world, of the coming election, of Trump vs Hillary. But no, there is no news of that.  There is instead a horror happening, in two places, far from each other, in Minnesota and Louisiana, in both instances a white policeman has shot and killed a black man. One man was stopped for a broken taillight, and one man was selling CDs outside of a convenience store. Within minutes, each man was shot dead.

Without warning we are shown the video taken by the girlfriend of the man in the car with a broken taillight. She is filming the policeman even as he is shooting off the arm of her boyfriend.

Her four year old daughter is in the back seat. The woman is saying “yes sir, yes sir” to the cop, and begging him not to shoot her boyfriend again. He is slumped over and slowly bleeding to death.  His girlfriend assures the cop, “I’ll keep my hands up, sir” and then she finally screams in the horror of what she has just witnessed while her little girl, behind her, says “I’m here with you, Mommy.”

My husband and I now have TV access to horror. And more to come, more! Hours later, at a peaceful rally about “Black Lives Matter” in Dallas, a sniper shoots and kills five policeman from the top of a tall building. He injures six more.  The injured are taken to Parkland Hospital.

Does this recall the days of the shooting of President Kennedy? A sniper in a tall building? A wild ride to Parkland Hospital.

In those days, when we were young, we had no TV. We had a one year old daughter. We didn’t want a TV in the house.  Then Presidentl Kennedy was assassinated. We went to a friend’s house to watch the funeral procession.  The friend asked us if we weren’t someday going to get a TV.  My husband joked, “I guess we better, to watch all future assassinations.”  A sardonic joke, perhaps, but we did buy a TV, and we were in front of it when Martin Luther King was killed, and also when Robert Kennedy was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Tonight we sit dulled and in shock in front of the TV we so badly wanted to have restored to us. The pain of the world pours out of the screen and buries us in terror and fear and outrage and helplessness.  In recent days Americans have been forced to watch these events again and again, the carnage, the bloody killings, the humans who were spared but fell next to those who were killed– and within days, the names and faces of the dead appear on our screen, we learn of their plans to marry or of their pregnant mourning wives. We are told of their services to their country, their good hearts.  One or another, picked off by a madman in a dance hall, picked off by a sniper on a roof, or murdered by an enraged and terrified policeman.

Plugged in again, here we are, lost at sea, at risk and heartsick.

 

 

 

 

 

A DAY AT THE BEACH

A Day at the Beach

By Merrill Joan Gerber

 

I once took a poetry class with a poet who published poems about Superman, Wonder Woman, Dixie cups, skate keys, Good N’Plenty candies, Blackjack gum—all things that live in our memories and still create a shiver of pleasure when we think of them. He advised us to name every poem “A Day at the Beach” in order not to give away the heart of the experience, the meaning of the poem, the shape of the poem—all of which remained to be revealed by the elements, the words, the journey on which the poem was devised to take us.

Recently I had an experience I want to call “A Day at the Beach”–a trip to my chosen medical facility where I had scheduled four appointments in one day with doctors and trained medical personnel, all highly paid, all of whom had access to my body or, as my Buddhist friend calls it, “my meat suit.”

At 8 AM I began at the Mammogram Super bowl–the drill well-known by nearly every woman in the civilized world: Enter the dressing room: remove your shirt or blouse, put on the gown open at the front, then sit and wait with other women in the small waiting room wondering which of us is destined to be the “one in eight” who will have breast cancer. (I already know. I am the one in eight.  I have already been treated for breast cancer with two surgeries, a year of chemo, and radiation.)

Even now, years hence, I cannot calmly manage to have my mammogram, without feeling panic. I am this month five years out from the day of my first surgery, the magic five years that some suggest means you have got away with your life. But it’s not the case, it’s never the case with cancer, every three months I still have a blood test for cancer markers and for abnormal readings in other organs, every three months I see my oncologist who examines my breasts and every year the mammogram is still required.

Today, I endure the crushing of my breast and a half. I ask the tech if, since I have had cancer, I might get a radiologist to tell me results of this mammogram before I leave and not have to wait the required ten days for a letter to arrive. She says no radiologist has yet come in, but why don’t I stop back later. Later?  I tell her that my next appointment is with a knee surgeon to verify if I am a candidate for knee replacement surgery, and my appointment after that is with my oncologist, “Dr. B.” “Oh,” the tech says, “she is my oncologist, too.”  “You have had breast cancer?” “Mine is colon cancer.” “She’s a wonderful doctor,” I volunteer.  “Yes, she’s amazing,” the tech answers.  “The best!”  I go into the dressing room, discard my hospital gown get dressed, and find, in the waiting room my patient husband, doing a crossword puzzle but willing to rush with me to my next appointment.

The knee surgeon is an hour and a half late. My husband and I sit in the examining room where there are brochures on hip replacement, knee replacement, and various size purple gloves.  After the first half hour, I wander out in the hall. No nurse is around.  After the second half hour, I go out to find someone, some nurse, and I’m told the doctor is really backed up.  I inform her that I have an appointment in twenty minutes with my oncologist which I can’t miss. “You may have to reschedule with the surgeon,” she says to me, and I tell her I refuse to do that!  I explain how difficult it was for me to schedule these four appointments at which I have to appear today!  It was almost a feat of magic.

After fifteen more minutes in the room, in which I have begun to open cabinet drawers and count syringes, I rush out into the hall and nearly crash into a man who says to me, “I’ll be right in!” “Are you the knee surgeon?” He admits that he is. He isn’t what I expected. He’s quite short and he is smiling.

One minute later he comes into the examining room and asks me what level of pain I am in. “None,” I tell him. “I’m sitting down.”  He glances at my knees, asks me to bend them forward and back and then to wiggle my ankles up and down.  He tells me he has looked at my ex-rays, my knee bones are grinding like razorblades upon one another and I am a definite candidate for knee replacement.  He states, “I want you to know knee surgery has the most painful recovery there is from any surgery. And there is a four to five month waiting list. Think it over and let me know.” He adds. “I know you have an appointment with another doctor now.  I believe you can make it if you hurry.”

As my husband and I rush across the hospital grounds toward the Oncology department, as I am imagining my knee being sawed off and a metal prosthesis being stuck into my thigh bone, I hear my name being called. The tech from the mammogram department is running after me, flapping an envelope in her hand. I gasp with alarm as she approaches me, calling, “I knew you were having an appointment in Oncology. I have the report from the radiologist.”  She hands me the envelope and I hear her saying “Don’t worry, it’s good.”  I figure out what she must mean and begin to cry.  We hug each other.  We both are crying in this remarkable moment.

Weak with gratitude, I thank her and proceed into the “Oncology” door to see my beloved oncologist, a woman who glows with some kind of radiant light, ability, without guarantees, to reassure her patients that they are going to live.

She and I go over my recent lab tests, my blood work is okay, my liver is okay, my kidneys are okay…but let’s see, my cancer markers have gone up a second time. “Don’t worry,” she says.  “I’ll put in an order for another CEA test, in a month, and we’ll see what it says.” We both know that if these cancer markers go up a third time, I will be having CT scans of bones and lungs and brain to look for possible cancer sites. She examines my breasts. I glance down: they are what they are now.  I am lucky to have what’s left of them. “You have a good report card,” she says. “Try to enjoy your life.”

Off I go off to the last appointment of the day—it’s a field of vision test after which detailed photographs will be taken of my optic nerves which my optometrist has told me are asymmetrical and may be indicators of glaucoma.  I rest my chin on a little cup (newly wiped with smelly alcohol) and I’m told by the male tech to push a button when a see a flash of light anywhere on the black screen.  I push and push, sometimes I push when there is no light, and I don’t push when there is a light.  My neck hurts at this strange angle where I am positioned. I am so very tired.  I push and push the button till I finally ask the tech to tell me when this will be over.  It’s not over.  He’s a big tall guy with a grim expression.  Next he has to take photographs of my optic nerves. “Look at this light, don’t move your head.” Then he has to test the thickness of my cornea. Then he has to numb my eyes and take a pressure reading.

I’m burning to ask him what he sees so far. And suddenly I do.  It’s forbidden, but I’m old enough to be his mother.  I ask him if so far he thinks I have glaucoma. (My mother had glaucoma, she went blind in one eye.)  Of course he says he can’t tell me.  “But I’m a grown up, and these are my eyes.  If you know something about them, I’m entitled to know, don’t you think?”  He thinks, I can tell, that I should shut up. “I know you know the answer to my question.” He’s immovable. “But when will I know the results?” “It will take a full week for your doctor to get them.”  “A week?  When you know right now?” “You’re all done,” the man says. “You may leave.  Don’t rub your eyes; they will be numb for some time.”  He has the same first name as the knee surgeon.

My poor tired husband is waiting in the downstairs lobby, sitting by the player piano that doles out its dull, monotonal tunes.

I feel as if we are like tri-athletes that have run three, no four, races in this one day. A ridiculous challenge, simply to get it all done at once, not to have to drive these 24 miles more than once for my appointments. What stress, what exhaustion, And certain results still lie ahead!

On the way home, we pass the Yum Yum Donut shop. My husband slows down and asks me, “Would you like me to get you some donuts?”

“I would love a donut,” I tell him, “but let’s pass in the interest of health.”

Not eating a donut, I am sure, will prevent our falling prey to cancer, glaucoma, knee surgery and even death.

As we drive on the freeway, the sun disappears suddenly and we find ourselves under a black cloud. Thunder roars!  Lightning flashes!  Rain beats on the windshield so hard we are nearly blinded.

My husband is trying to steer us to safety. Suddenly the sun comes out again, brilliant and blindingly.  Who knows what all this means? At home, exhausted, we fall straight into bed and sleep till midnight.  The day has been a long poem, a mystery, an adventure– or merely a day at the beach.

On The Writing of Beauty and the Breast

beauty_breastI am so pleased that my breast cancer memoir is now complete, and though it won’t be published till October 1, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it has been brought to life by Coffeetown Press, Seattle, and it is up on Amazon now for advance sales.  Please click here to pre-order and read more about the book.

Here’s how I came to write the book:

During my cancer treatment (I was undergoing radiation at the time), my husband took me to see a concert of the six Brandenburg Concertos by Bach. As I sat in the darkened church listening to this most transcendent music, as I watched the musicians on stage, particularly the women playing violins, a thought came to me: “Breasts are everywhere in Brooklyn.”  I got a pen from my purse and wrote down these words on my program. Further, I reflected, “Breasts are everywhere on women!”

Should this thought have come to me as a revelation, a surprise? I remembered the Italian sisters in Brooklyn who helped me sew my 8th grade graduation dress.  I remembered the big-breasted girl in my class who was always fending off the boys who circled around her.

I began to make notes on the sides and top of my program, suddenly realizing the enormity of the story I could tell, that perhaps I was now destined to tell. Though I was a writer, I had never had an intention of writing the story of my breast cancer journey. Though I had taken photos during my treatment, of my own breast, of the ultrasound image of my cancer, of my nurses and friends, and though I had written a few notes to document my medical treatment, now, suddenly, I saw there was a greater story to tell. Perhaps it was the thrilling music of Bach that loosed a flood of words and images in me.  “Beauty and the Breast” was the result.

OLD AGE LIVING: OUR NEW FUTURE

 

Here is what’s happening with some of my friends—my friends who are over 80 (how can that be possible…people of that age used to be my grandmother’s friends, old ladies who walked slowly along Avenue O in Brooklyn, stopping to sit on the bench in front of our house and talk to my grandmother).  Many of my friends are now over 80 and they have no benches in front of their houses.  In fact, there’s a powerful message going around that their houses are liabilities—soon my friends will be too old to care for them, even to live in them, cook in them, and enjoy the accumulations of fifty years  of stuff in these houses.  The message has a subtext: soon you will may be helpless.  You have made decisions all your life but eventually you may be too feeble to make decisions and carry them out.

 

The second sub-text is: don’t leave a pile of grief for your children. When you are too old to manage matters on your own, your kids will then be responsible for getting you into some place where there will be helpful aides, and institutional food, and assurances of safety.  They will be the ones who have to get rid of all the old furniture, and the knick-knacks you’ve accumulated, they’ll have to clean out the garage and the attic and throw out all the margarine containers you’ve saved, not to mention precious souvenirs from trips you made (like your plastic leaning Tower of Pisa, for example, or a piece of coral you found on the beach that looks like the “Elephant Man” with his one eye visible).

Third sub-text: where are your kids, anyway?  They’ve moved away!  You took good care of them, you loved them, you got them educated, they grew up, and they found jobs across the country somewhere.  Do you even know your grandchildren?  Well, they see you on Skype a few times a year and thank you for the presents you send them.  Mainly, you have no kids nearby to help you out. (Maybe you helped out your old parents, maybe one or another of them even lived with you till they died.  That’s not happening anymore.)

But the modern world now has an answer for you. These are the new campuses for the old!  Just as you did in college, you can take classes there.  Never mind Bingo—you can now study existential philosophy with a visiting professor.  You can have your own private trainer in a workout center where you live. There’s a spa for massages, a beauty shop for manicures and haircuts, a library for study, a theater for movies and live concerts, a heated pool and spa for low-impact exercise.

These homes away from home have thought of everything.  An alarm button in every room in case you feel ill or fall.  Free house- keeping services and free trips to your various and frequent doctor appointments (within a certain few miles of your new home).

 

There’s just one major thing most of you will have to do: sell your house and give these institutions the money. There are various plans, but they all require a look at your financial information and your medical information—and they all charge alarmingly high monthly fees (now that most of you have paid off your houses, and have no rent to pay).

Is it a good deal?  Most of these places promise to keep you till the very end—moving you (after you move in in relatively good health) to “levels” of assisted living that help with the tasks of dressing and feeding and transferring, to “memory gardens” (when you can no longer think for yourself), and to skilled nursing care when you require more constant monitoring.

Homes like these are arising all over the country as a service to the “baby boomers”—those who came of age in the sixties and are now reaching the age where help is needed or soon will be.

My husband and I have visited some of these elegant places; they offer tours, they offer free lunches, they can direct you to those who conduct estate sales, those who help with “gentle transitions” and all manner of reassurance that it can be done, that it is a wise choice, you will never regret it, and you will never again have to call a roofer or a plumber of an electrician.

When we get home from such a visit, we look upon our messy kitchen almost with ecstasy, we walk in the weedy springtime yard with joy, we note the peeling paint near the bathroom tub, we rejoice in that fact that we still see (maybe not so well), still hear, still walk, and can still make our own toast every morning.  Maybe we can’t do the ultimate calculation now!  Maybe we simply refuse to do it at this moment.  Maybe it will never happen to us at all—growing old and helpless.

Why not decide to merely be here now, as we always have been,  to live as we always have lived, to manage as long as we can…and wait for further news from existence?

 

 

 

 

FOLLOW THE THREAD INTO THE LABYRINTH

“FOLLOW THE THREAD INTO THE LABYRINTH”:
A FOND RECOLLECTION OF ANDREW LYTLE

When I first entered Andrew Lytle’s writing class in 1957 (the year he published The Velvet Horn) I was a nineteen year old girl from Brooklyn who had come to the University of Florida by way of Miami Beach. My family had moved to Florida when I was fourteen to escape the cold winters of New York; to me “the south” was mainly a place where a person could get a good suntan.
Our writing class met at night in a rickety wooden structure. Mr. Lytle would arrive, smiling, his glasses strung around his neck on a black grosgrain ribbon, and greet us all heartily. The students sat around long wooden tables, and Mr. Lytle sat in a very old, overstuffed chair. Behind him was a row of windows and, beyond them, were the lights of the library shining in at us. Beside Mr. Lytle, during each class, sat Smith Kirkpatrick, who also taught writing classes at the university and who was, even then, working on his novel The Sun’s Gold. Kirk, with his kind, intense face, usually sat smoking, listening carefully. When Mr. Lytle could not elicit from us the answers he was seeking, he would finally turn to Kirk, who always knew the flaw or excellent thing to which Mr. Lytle was hoping to draw our attention.
Before discussing the students’ stories, Mr. Lytle liked to read one of his own favorites to us. He was an inspired actor, and any story he read took on the dimension of theater. I can still see his face as he began reading Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” (“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind…”) Mr. Lytle’s eyes sparkled with the thrills he knew were coming. Now and then he could not contain himself and would burst out laughing as he read one perfect comic line after another.
On other nights he showed a more somber demeanor; when he read James Joyce’s “The Dead” in class, Mr. Lytle became very serious, indeed. I still have the notes I took on the night of April 16, l959 (I found them in the pages of our textbook, Gordon and Tate’s The House of Fiction.) Here are a few of the comments I took down that night:
“Parts 1 and 2: Gabriel is in his last and sinning state.

Part 3: Gabriel is regenerated.
“The supernatural appears only through the natural.”
“The three fates (the three muses) are the three women–virgins–completed–living in death.”
“Debauchery and asceticism are both forms of death, one by denial, one by excessive use.”
“Age is dead youth.”
“The head is the upper phallus.”
“Trappist monks don’t speak.”
“In the end we all come to earth.”
This kind of talk was heady stuff to a girl who, before college, was widely read in Seventeen Magazine and who thought she aspired to publish there.
Each night when class ended, the women students had to race back to the dorms to get in by curfew. We were aware Mr. Lytle often stayed to talk with the men after class, but the women did not have such privileges. I knew that Mr. Lytle often visited the male students in their rooms and talked with them about life and art late into the night. The men in our class boasted of this–and I was jealous.
One day I took courage and asked to have a private conference with Mr. Lytle. I’d been writing a story about a young girl who was deeply troubled and who spent a long hot summer crocheting a purple and yellow snake-like rope which she wound into an ever-expanding rug. I called the story “The Purple and Yellow Summer” and I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was about. It seemed sad enough and dense enough to be “artistic”; I thought he and I should talk about it. Mr. Lytle invited me to come to his study at his house in Gainesville. He told me he rose before dawn to work, and asked that I arrive in the early morning, about eight. I distinctly remember walking to his house in the chill woodsy morning. Fall leaves were underfoot and the sun was newly up. I carried my “work” under my arm–never before had I felt so serious; I was a serious writer, on my way to have a talk with the great master.
Mr. Lytle showed me the carved wooden chair in his study; he pointed out the ouroboros on it; it was his favorite symbol–the snake eating its own tail. I indicated my story, which Mr. Lytle had already read, and asked him to help me with the characters and “the plot.”
“What should I have them do?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. Then he said, “Merrill, there is only one way to write: you must follow the thread back into the labyrinth; there and only there you will find the meaning.”
While I was pondering this (in fact, I am pondering it still), a call came from the house. Mrs. Lytle needed help! The baby had broken a jar of peanut butter, and all hands were needed in the cleanup!
I became acquainted with the family, and made friends with the Lytles’ two younger daughters, Kate and Langdon. On several occasions, I babysat for them. One evening as the Lytles were getting ready to go out, Mr. Lytle’s wife, Edna, came from her bedroom to give me some instructions about the children. She looked beautiful in a stunning red dress; when I admired it she took me into her confidence. She smiled, and said (rather mischievously): “When a woman turns forty, Merrill, she either takes a lover or buys a red dress.”
One afternoon I met Mr. Lytle on campus. “I trust you have a story to read in class tonight,” he said. “I’m counting on you.”
“Oh yes, I have one,” I said.
“Good, I’m looking forward to it.” I watched him walk away, feeling extreme panic. It was 2 p.m. I had exactly five hours in which to invent and write a complete short story! I remember thinking, as I ran to my dormitory room, “He’s counting on me!” I sat down and began to type. By 6:45 p.m. I had written a twelve-page story. When Mr. Lytle read it in class that night, no one knew the ink had barely dried on the paper. He admired the story publicly. He was proud of me.
Another time, I had written a story for class about a character I called “Crazy Harry”–Mr. Lytle was much taken with this story and told me that the following week, when he was leaving for New York to meet with his editor, he intended to bring the story, himself, directly to the offices of The New Yorker. Imagine my state of mind during his absence! All week I waited for a telegram! None came. And when I saw Mr. Lytle in class after his trip, he seemed to have no special news. In fact, he gave me no signal at all. After class I tapped his arm, trembling.
“Mr. Lytle. What did The New Yorker say?”
“The New Yorker? Oh my! I forgot about that.”
It seems to me now that the students in our particular writing class (that year, that time, that place) constituted a sacred circle; we were blessed initiates in a mysterious and difficult art. Once the door to that small classroom was shut and Mr. Lytle began reading in his wonderful, expressive voice, a magical aura enclosed us.

In my first semester of graduate work, I applied for a small fellowship from the English Department to help with expenses. I asked Mr. Lytle for a reference; he said he’d be happy to write one. To my delight, I was awarded the grant. When I went to collect my check, Alton C. Morris, then the head of the English department, seemed puzzled.

He said, “Miss Gerber, on the strength of Mr. Lytle’s extremely fine recommendation we decided to give you this money, but now that I am looking at your transcript, I see that you aren’t as brilliant as he said you are. Look at this–you had grades of C in the physical sciences!” With a look of extreme annoyance on his face, he handed me the envelope. “We hope we haven’t made a mistake,” he said.

The following September, I came back to the University of Florida to begin a job as a graduate teaching assistant in the English department. A day before the semester formally began, I received a wire from Brandeis University informing me that a scholarship for which I had applied had just come through. I was beside myself with confusion. My husband-to-be was a graduate student at Brandeis; I wanted to be with him, and to study literature, myself, in their graduate program. But I had committed myself to my rented room and promised my services to the university. (Also, I remembered Dr. Morris’ comment.) I went to Andrew Lytle with my desperate dilemma; he suggested that I search my soul (that cloudy labyrinth?) and do what was necessary. When he saw the answer on my face, he led me to his green Cadillac, drove me to his bank, loaned me enough money to buy a plane ticket to Boston, rounded up some students to help me pack and drive me to the airport. He kissed me goodbye and wished me Godspeed.

DINNER OUT AT THE LOBSTER HOUSE…OR NOT

 

The necessity to eat dinner comes up so often— and there is always a decision to be made about which action makes the greater demand on our energy: staying home and cooking (I do the cooking) or getting dressed to go out for dinner. This involves discussing what we might want to eat, where we might want to go, what night of the week it is (will it be too crowded on the weekend at our favorite places?)

 

What are our favorite places? I have to admit I don’t like pricey restaurants where the waiter reels off the night’s “specials” and then hangs out behind our chairs to ask, too often, if everything’s all right or if he can get us anything more. I don’t like places where they take your order, bring rolls and a salad, and 45 minutes later there is no sign of our food. By then, I’ve eaten enough and don’t need dinner anymore.

 

There’s a Japanese place we love: they bang a drum to welcome us as we come in, they offer us the sushi list, which we bypass to order our standard favorite: salmon teriyaki, California roll, salad with ginger dressing, and tempura. The dipping sauce is sweet and delicious, the rice is a fluffy beautiful texture, the chopsticks are a brave pleasure, and the tea is strong and full of flavor. I could come here every night.

 

A friend gave us a gift card to a lobster place. Tonight we decide to venture there. Inside the restaurant we smell a decidedly fishy stink and suddenly we are in front of the lobster cage– the water-filled tank where the creatures are handcuffed and waiting for their death. This is not a pretty sight—a bunch of lobsters are crammed in a corner, standing upon one another, hoping to hide from a pointing finger and a voice saying “I’ll take that one.”

 

There is one enormous lobster in the tank who is trying to get our attention, he’s scrabbling around and coming to the glass to look at us with his beady eyes. “Don’t take me,” he’s telling us. “Don’t you dare.” A young woman appears with a grappling hook and flings it into the case to capture this lobster, thinking he’s the one who has caught our fancy. She lifts him out and we are face to face with this creature of innumerable antennae and limbs and claws (taped together, of course) and all his sharp edges.

“How do you usually kill him?” I ask conversationally.

 

“Oh, the chef stabs him with a knife right here,” she indicates a point behind his eyes. “They feel nothing, lobsters have no brains.”

 

“You don’t boil him alive?”

 

“Oh, no. He would struggle in the pot and splash the chef with boiling water if we just dropped him in. That’s why we stab him first. Or sometimes we freeze him to make him sleepy before we boil him.”

 

Don’t tell me this lobster has no brain. Of course he would struggle in a pot of boiling water. He is looking at us with his black eyes, and he knows what this conversation is about.

 

“You know,” I say to this young woman, “I think we’ll come back another time, thanks for all the information, though,” and I pull my husband out the door.

 

We have a few other choices: there’s a burger place where, once you place your order, you are given a device that flashes when your burger is ready. I really don’t like to hold this device which dozens of others have held and then hold my burger in the same hand. Furthermore, this place features deafening music that makes us want to run outside with our hands over our ears.

 

There’s a pizza place that lets you choose from a list of fifty items to put bits of on your pizza– bacon chips, grated apple, pork rind, cow tongue, spinach, pesto sauce, ground almonds, mango chutney. This asks for too many decisions.

 

Now we really are tired and hungry, and though we don’t discuss it, we automatically know and accept the fact that whatever we eat tonight will have been killed days or weeks prior to our dinnertime. We understand the arguments made by our vegetarian friends, yet we are of a generation that grew up being fed “chopped meat” and chicken soup by our loving mothers.

 

Chicken in every dimension was our mothers’ antidote to life’s problems. My husband and I are so tired and hungry now that we both feel a desire to eat chicken tonight. A place called “Steer and Ale” is around the corner, and Monday is their fried chicken special night. Lots of retired folks go to this place, the price is right, they give you a pile of napkins, and, even before you ask, the waitress brings you take-out boxes.

 

We decide to go for it—my God, what incredible comfort food, a whole quartered chicken fried to perfection, a baked potato sloshing with butter, sour cream and chives, a slab of dripping buttery garlic bread. And, for dessert, we know what is coming are bowls of tapioca pudding topped with whipped cream.

 

We eat with a kind of rapture, with gratitude that such simple joys are still possible for us. That just for tonight we will indulge in this kind of wild orgy and be utterly satisfied and happy. We tear with pleasure at our crunchy pieces of fried chicken. We look at each other and smile. Dinner out. A great thing tonight.