2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist
Butterflies in Flatbush
Intimations of my future came to me on a tricycle.
Sixty eight years ago I began pedaling inexorably forward on a brand new, gleaming red tricycle, up a block in Flatbush, Brooklyn, traveling on my own for the first time at what seemed to me the speed of light. I felt an energy in my arms, legs and small body, propelling me with confidence toward the unknown. Which at that time meant the end of my block. “Hello, everybody!” I’m three years old today, and my name in Jewish is Ziesel!”
“Unknown” may not be quite accurate. The parameters of my universe extended well beyond 1342 East 18th Street, between Avenues M and N. My parents had stressed to me the grave urgency of memorizing this information, as friendly policemen were everywhere, patiently waiting to bring lost little girls home. Provided, of course, they knew their address.
I had traveled to far-flung places, but always with my parents: There were daily outings with Mommy to the Kings Highway deli, where I would peek over the top of the wooden barrel to watch the pickles swimming in their pungent brine. Sometimes at the bakery my mother placed the number she drew from a fascinating machine into my hand as I waited patiently for the piece of fresh baked rye bread with caraway seeds she was sure to share with me. The delectable odor of smoked whitefish, sturgeon and lox permeating the appetizing store had already been deeply imprinted into my consciousness.
Daddy and I took subway rides to a small, dingy millinery shop on New York City’s busy Lower East Side. There, tucked between two larger stores on Delancey Street, my lively Aunt Lottie made amazing hats: jaunty felt concoctions with fluffy feathers, dyed straw hats with delicate veils. Each one was different. As soon as one was placed on her head, Lottie’s customers always smiled. “Judy, doesn’t Mrs. Cohen look gorgeous in that hat?”
I had begun to old explore Daddy’s musty, paper-filled office on Lafayette Street, where a layer of mummified dust covered the oversized windows, substantially reducing visibility, muting the light of even the sunniest of spring days. (Apparently the windows had last been cleaned shortly before World War II). Mommy said Daddy went there every day to make money, but I searched in vain for a printing press turning out crisp, green dollar bills.
His black and grey furniture was sturdy, metallic. From a small cubicle in what to me was almost an alternate universe, on a sturdy black Remmington typewriter weighing just over 33 pounds ( the original Heavy Metal) my father typed his invoices:
Herman M. Mahl,
Catalogs, Brochures, Business Cards
For two long summers, at Brighton Beach, (also a subway ride away) I’d played in hot wavy sand and immersed myself in cool ocean currents. The touch of my father lingers, as he patiently combs the tangles from my thick, damp curls, then miraculously removes the sand between my toes with sprinkled talcum.
Still, in those moments on that almost-summer day as I pedaled like crazy on my first ever, birthday bike, moving rapidly through time and space without being firmly anchored by one short arm to an adult, I first became aware of being my own, defined person, headed for who-knows where. I carry this through life, a moving symbol, and it propels me forward.
When I open the door to this memory, I revisit Ziesel. Sometimes I’m surprised I felt free enough, even at three, to succumb to an irresistible urge to shout my secret name in the street. It means “sweet little one”, and till then I’d kept it well-guarded. Precious things were kept locked up. Other people could damage them or take them away. They could be irretrievably lost.
Ziesel is my invisible inheritance. The name had belonged to my grandmother Sophie before me. Sophie to me has always been a woman in a small, sepia-toned photo, dressed in a dark, turn of the 20th century ankle-length dress, standing formally upright, dreamy eyes forward, one arm resting gracefully on the shoulder of her seated husband, Isidore, occupying a circumscribed space on an end table in my parents’ living-room, an area filled with formal mahogany furniture. There are no shared memories of Sophie’s life to animate this picture; I’ve always known my father could only remember this mother lying in a sickbed, dying slowly of cancer. He was five years old.
Following the Jewish custom of naming children after the departed, my mother had given me Sophie’s Yiddish name. Naming someone after the departed fixes a person in memory; it carries their personality, but also their best qualities, into another generation.
Around this time I learned the living can honor more than one departed soul. New neighbors had moved in across the hall on the fourth floor of our five story apartment building in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Soon I was calling them “Aunt Hilda” and “Uncle Abe,” because, my mother explained, they wanted a little girl or boy of their own but couldn't have one so I could be their special niece.
My mother had shown me a picture of Abraham Lincoln. I was struck by his resemblance to Uncle Abe but soon realized that much as these two heroes looked alike, they were not identical: President Lincoln was not longer living. And, yet more telling: he wasn’t Jewish.
Whenever I received Uncle Abe’s undivided attention I felt beams of light traveling towards me. He was so tall, so high up, that those eyes, set deep in his dark face, were like distant stars gleaming in the black night sky. On hot summer nights I watched the stars from our fire escape. Daddy, Mommy and I would take folding chairs and sit outside our small living room. Daddy wore a summer undershirt and I could see the hairs on his chest, then look up to see stars winking at me through the velvet sky.
Aunt Hilda’s eyes were often sad, and her thoughts not quite with me. She could be suddenly sharp, frowning and telling me, “Don’t chew your food so loud!” Meanwhile, I chattered on about God, or the Good Fairy, thoughts I had discussed with my mother, who seemed to know mainly about the Good Fairy. I wanted to know about God. Whenever I brought up this subject, Hilda would make a point of letting me know I could believe what I wanted, and a lot of people believed in such things, but not her. I tried to steer clear of this topic. But, somehow, my tongue just couldn’t keep things to itself.
When Hilda’s belly started getting big, my mother told me a baby was inside. I could see Hilda’s eyes were getting happy, and she hardly ever snapped at me. But after her belly flattened there was no baby. My mother explained it had died right after it was born. “What kind of baby was it, Mommy?” “It was a beautiful baby girl.” I knew I had to work extra hard as a substitute child. One day soon afterwards, we were walking up our block when a neighbor greeted us: “Hello, Hilda! How’s your new baby?” Aunt Hilda’s hand tightened, so I could feel how sad that made her. I tugged on it and said, “Let’s go Aunt Hilda, Mommy is waiting for us.” And we walked right by that woman, like it didn’t matter.
The next day Hilda bought me a book, an event that was to blossom into a life-long love affair with words. My father had already begun teaching me about the power of the spoken word. It was World War II, and he worked the early shift in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Every morning I dressed quickly in the chilly bathroom while he shaved. Then breakfast of orange juice and cold cereal in our tiny kitchen. After reminding me to speak softly, Mommy was still asleep, my father would carefully teach me a New Word. I still think of this in upper case letters. He would speak the word, explain its meaning, use it in a sentence, then leave for the day. I knew that in the evening he would ask what I remembered about this latest word, and in anticipation of his unvarying “That’s…very good, Judy”, as sustaining to me as consuming my supper, I would memorize and practice throughout the day.
I was prepared when Hilda gave me my first book, tall and thin like Uncle Abe and filled with words and pictures. Although I couldn’t yet read, with Hilda’s coaching I memorized every poem. I had a favorite: “ Little drops of water, little grains of sand,/ make the mighty ocean, and the fertile land.” My child’s mind reached for the end of the mysterious yet familiar ocean.
I could augment this feeling of being very little, yet part of something very big, by coaxing Daddy into singing me his one and only song:
“How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?/ How much do I love you? I’ll tell you no lie./ How many times a day do I think of you?/ How many roses are covered with dew?/ And If I ever lost you, how much would I cry? How deep is the ocean? How… high… is the…. sky…?”
It was another sunny day, but almost thirty years later, in 1974. I was married and living in Williamsburg with my husband and two small children. It was Uncle Abe’s birthday, and he was driving to a party in his very safe Volvo. Another car turned the corner of Nostrand Avenue and hit his head-on; Abe died instantly.
Hilda and Abe had finally produced a son, but with Abe suddenly gone even Larry couldn’t make Hilda happy anymore. She didn’t want to speak to people, not even her Judy, and she was definitely not ready to talk about God “If there was a God, he never would have taken Abe from me!” On my mother’s advice I left Hilda alone, and almost thirty more years passed before, in 1992, my mother called suggesting I visit Hilda because she had advanced cancer.
I ring the bell on East 20th Street and a shrunken, elderly woman, her flesh folding over her bones, answers the door. She is stooped over a cane, but her eyes are on fire. A big hug. “Judy! Judy! Would you know me if you saw me in the street? Do I look so different?” “I would recognize you anywhere, Aunt Hilda. Of course I would!” I know it’s not true, but it’s the good answer.
She leads me through her immaculate, monotone, gray living room, with its gray furniture, gray rug, gray drapes, ecru walls. It was always like that. Depressing, my mother called it. We enter her bedroom, where slowly, painfully, she seats herself on an armchair, and I perch on the edge of her bed. We catch up on 20 years. Hilda tells me she is very weak, and hardly gets up any more, that she’s been excited all day, thinking about me, waiting for me to come. Yes, Larry is a fine young man, a teacher. Then we move to the place we both want to go, the past. A sweet and salty tide rolls in. She asks me if I remember that day on East 18th Street just after she’d lost her baby, how I tugged on her hand so she wouldn’t have to face that neighbor. I do, and I tell her so. We reminisce over that poetry book, reciting “Little drops of water” together. She adds two lines which I’d forgotten, which I can’t remember now.
Hilda seems ready. “I mourned too long after Abe died, but eventually I got over it.” Hilda pauses. “Everyone is born innocent. How you turn out depends on how life treats you, and how you treat life. Judy, it’s a good feeling to know you remember so much.”
I want to offer Hilda so much more. I want to talk about “Olam Ha Zeh”, and “Olam Ha Ba.” “This world” and “The World to Come”. Aunt Hilda, it is time to speak of the mysteries of the soul. My tongue is silent. So I look into your eyes and hold your hand, careful not to bruise the parchment-paper skin. You smile just a little, say “I had a lot of energy today. Maybe I won’t feel good enough to see you again.” A month later, Hilda was gone.
I still ponder those little drops of water and little grains of sand, those stars in the heavens of an infinite, starry universe, and I hear clearly my father as he sings to me about roses and the sky and the bottomless sea; things he never, ever spoke of. He smiles at three year old Ziesel in her carefully ironed pinafore, and I marvel at the certainty of a child that everything visible is a sign, a token of the invisible.
I never made it to the end of the block on that vanished, ever-present day in 1945. Was it Destiny, in the form of Queenie, a small, black and white, panting dog with a squashed in face, that began to follow me? Talk about fate dogging your heels! Queenie was a barker, a familiar figure. Had I been with my mother, we would have crossed the street to avoid her. We always did; it was my parents’ way. On my bike, however, I felt I was invincible. I speeded up. Then Queenie speeded up. She started showing her teeth, started nipping at my back wheel. Someone (I don’t remember who; maybe it was Hilda) had to rescue me, to escort me and my red tricycle home. It was discouraging. Is this when I began to look for clouds at the end of rainbows? Or to wonder how, or maybe even, if, love is as deep as the ocean?
Today I think there must be many Hildas reading beautiful poems to little girls, and not just in Brooklyn either. Next springtime, find yourself the right tree on a very clear day and look straight up through the leaves. Open wide, then narrow your pupils. You’ll find interlocking, sticky threads of silk suspended on some high branch. Inside, a tiny heart is pupating; it waits unknowingly, all the while preparing to emerge from its translucent chrysalis, for the precise moment when it will fly away home.