Sunday, March 2, 2014

" Butterflies in Flatbush " by Judith Washington - 2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist 

Butterflies in Flatbush


Judith Washington

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,
                                     Photo Engraving
                         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.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Lessons From My Father" by Jeanine DeHoney - 2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

2013 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist 

Lessons From My Father Under A Blue Light


Jeanine DeHoney

I can still see the glow from the blue lightbulb from our floor lamp as it illumined our livingroom in our fifth floor apartment in Brownsville, Brooklyn. To me I was living in not the concrete urban jungle as Brownsville was often referred to, (Journalist Jimmy Breslin wrote in 1968 that Brownsville reminded him of Berlin after World War II; block after block of burned-out shells of houses, streets littered with decaying automobile hulks. The stores on the avenues are empty and the streets are lined with deserted apartment houses or buildings that have empty apartments on every floor. It was an oasis.)

Brownsville to me, the Van Dyke projects in which I lived with my parents and sister was a
place I proudly called home. I had friends above and below me and in buildings across the
walkway. I had Betsy Head Pool to stick my toes in on a hot summer day. I had a Jewish
neighbor, a kindly old woman who opened her apartment door after peeping through her
peephole when she saw me coming down the hall to offer me freshly baked cookies. And I had
my father. 

I was around seven or eight then, spending time with the most perfect man in the universe, my father on a Friday night. To say I was biased about him, an inspiring jazz musician would be an understatement. I was tone death to everyone else’s critiques, incensed sighs, and loud enough for me to hear whispers especially my mother’s.

Music was the heart and soul of my father. He had saved up what little money he had working odd jobs to buy a pretty golden saxophone in a red velvet lined case. As his baby girl, the one who was always underfoot, I learned early on if I wanted to be in his company, I had to learn to tolerate if not love his music. 

My father, James Dillard Rushing, was the only son out of three daughters of my paternal grandparents. Spoiled like buttermilk,” was what my grandmother referred to him as being and, not within earshot of my mother, she’d also say he was, “A lady’s man.”

 He was tall and dark and had natural not processed waves in his slicked back hair. It was what had won my mother over when they first crossed paths, she living in a tenement on Sumpter Street in Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn. He living a block away on Herkimer Street with his parents and sisters and neighbors with comical names like Mr. Boatride and Sweetcakes.

My father, who allowed me and my sister to call him by his nickname Sonny, put everything on the line to play his music even his marriage. Having a steady job wasn’t important which caused my mother to fuss and nag. Sometimes I’d take a glass and press it against my bedroom wall which was connected to theirs to eavesdrop on their late night rifts. 

“The rent is due,” my mother would say.

“Don’t you think I know that,” my father would reply.                                                                               

“Your daughters need some new school clothes,” my mother would say. “You need to get a job.”

“I’m trying my best. Got a gig in Harlem…” my father would say.

I could hear the enthusiasm in his voice when he talked about “his gig”, playing his
saxophone. It was like he was a child waking up on Christmas morning to see a Tonka truck or a bicycle or model train set under the tree after his parents told him Santa Claus was going to bypass their house that year because money was short.

I loved hearing that shimmershine in his voice when he talked about his music. I wished at times I could have put it in an empty coke bottle and sealed it up to offer to him when he needed a boost. At that young of an age, my concerns weren’t the same as my mother’s. It didn’t bother me that my stomach growled when hungry or knotted up from a week of black eyed pea leftovers. I didn’t care about shopping downtown on Fulton Street at Mays Department Store for new clothes. I longed for my father to play his music just as much as he longed to play it.

Whenever my father had a gig or jam session with his musician friends, I plopped myself on the edge of his bed to watch him practice. He’d set up his rickety music stand in my bedroom, put a number two pencil behind his ears so that he could make notations on his sheet music, a handkerchief over one shoulder for his sweat, and would play. After that he would shower and I’d still be there watching him get ready. Pants were ironed to a crease, a white shirt from the cleaners was pulled out of plastic from the closet and shoes got a quick swipe of black polish.
His face was slapped with Old Spice, his rosary was put around his neck and saxophone wiped
of any thumbprints until it twinkled like gold.

Watching him I’d stick my bony chest out with conceit wanting to call all of my girlfriends to see the treasure that was in my house; both my father and his saxophone. 

I hated to see my father leave though. Sometimes I was always afraid he wouldn’t come back. In our housing project that we lived in on Blake Avenue I had seen many fathers do that. Some for far less than to follow their dream. A neighbor once told my mother her husband went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came home.

So I kept vigil even if my father’s gig or jam session was on a school night. While my mother and sister slept, I’d wait for him as I sat on a pillow on my bedroom radiator watching the L train at the Sutter Avenue station go by. Sometimes after watching at least six trains rumble by I would finally see him coming up the walkway with saxophone case in hand. 

And then listening for his footsteps and deep hum to spill out of the elevator, I would open the door.

“Tell me what you played? Who was there? Did you get a standin’ ovation?” I bombarded him with. And he whispered in my ear names to this day I don’t remember, names he could have made up just for me, before picking me up and tucking me in my bed.

Friday nights were the nights I anticipated the most. It was then my father offered me lessons that would carry me through the cycles in my life especially when he was gone. 

Lesson number one under a blue light. I learned about the importance of rituals; how they create a sacred place in your heart for something you are passionate about. My father had a ritual he performed each time he listened to jazz. First he opened a window even if it was the dead of window. And then he watched as the curtains danced in front of him as if they had an innate rhythm in their fabric.

Next, he placed a bottle of Ballantine beer on the floor for himself and handed me a can of orange Crush soda. He filled a small plastic Tupperware bowl with potato chips and pretzels for us to snack on. He’d then put a blue light bulb in our floor lamp before finally spreading his collection of jazz albums on the floor like giant dominoes, asking me to pick one out.

I’d always pick the dark skinned man who looked like him, Miles Davis. Their expressions were analogous for they both seemed bitter and sweet at the same time. After he poured a glass of beer, and was satisfied that I was comfortable he’d inspect the album I had picked, take his handkerchief and rub its vinyl slowly, methodically, wiping away any minuscule particle only his eyes were trained to see. Then he’d place it on our record player and wait until needle and vinyl connected before he sat down.

“Good choice,” my father would tell me as I crossed my legs Indian style on the couch crunching a mouthful of salty chips and pretzels and taking a swig of soda in the same manner I saw him drink his beer. When Miles began to serenade us with his trumpet, all sounds around us ceased. The rumbling from the L train at the Sutter Avenue Station, a stray cat’s meowing for food, an ambulance speeding through the streets, people cursing and fighting, were all blocked out. We were frozen in some kind of rapture and shut out the world.

Nestled close to him, I inhaled an aroma of serenity in my father. And I witnessed my father’s metamorphosis what I could testify to the saved and sanctified at my grandmother church, First AME Zion on Macdonough Street. It was like he had stepped through those doors and the preacher had laid hands on him. 

Thus I never wanted his vinyl albums to stop spinning on my mother’s prized French Provincial record player that she scrimped and saved for from a furniture store on Broadway in Brooklyn. I wanted our Friday nights to be endless, ever embryonic. But those nights ended the usual way, with my mother calling my name for bed, and her hands on her hips letting my father know the music was too damn loud and the neighbors were going to start banging on the pipes or worst call the police.

I would stomp away with an ugly pout that my mother said would stay if I didn’t straighten up my face. Slowly, like the sand in an hourglass though a smile would tease my lips. There was always next Friday and the Friday after next.

Lesson number two under a blue light. I learned the importance of the word “Hush.” When you are silent you can hear the nuances of life and reap introspection. My father taught me to hush when I was in attendance of anything magnificent such as his music. He taught me that mediocre music was music that could be interrupted but great music by such artists as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, and Thelonious Monk required concentration and the hush of everything around you including your voice.  That was the only way to get to know an artist’s story. So I learned to “hush” in the midst of not only magnificent music, but people and even food.

Lesson number three under a blue light. I learned not to let my dreams dry up like those wrinkly raisins in a stale box of cereal. I watched a slow death in my father when he let his dream die. He eventually got a good job at the Post Office in Manhattan and pawned his saxophone at a pawn shop on Pitkin Avenue before I graduated from my elementary school, P.S. 255 in Sheepshead Bay.

Although at times I blamed my mother for killing his dream, deep down I knew it wasn’t her. She had once believed in him. She had bragged about how my father played the saxophone at their wedding. It was just that the rent had to be paid and she wanted the world for her two girls. I know that now. She wanted us to leave Brownsville Brooklyn, and move on up like the Jefferson’s. It was my father’s own demons; demons of self-doubt that slayed his dream.

My father died in 1996 from kidney complications after spending many years on dialysis in the same apartment we listened to his jazz music in under a blue light. Married then with a family of my own, I was living in East New York. We didn’t talk much. When we did our words were scarce. I knew it was because of his failing health.

I often wish I could write a different chapter for our lives at the end of his. If I could I’d remind him of his schooling; something I would have never received from books. I would have picked at least one Friday night a month to have a listening party of two, spreading his old jazz albums on the floor for old times’ sake, putting a blue light bulb in the lamp to take his mind off of dying. Music does that you know. It carries you away from your troubles to a better realm. It was what my father had done for me, as a little black girl growing up on Blake Avenue in Brownsville. He bequeathed me with a piece of Heaven on earth.      

Langston Hughes once stated, “Jazz is a great big sea. It washes up all kinds of fish and shells and spume and waves with a steady old beat, or off-beat.” Thanks to my father, jazz artist James Dillard Rushing who lived in Brooklyn all of his life, I’m a swimmin’ in that bottomless indigo sea and staying afloat.

Jimmy Breslin’s reference to Brownsville Wikipedia article:,_Brooklyn