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Tag: love lessons

the underground and me: how my papa tried to save me

papa letter

the first draft of history is what journalism’s been called. and so, today, i take a crack at one such draft; i write not knowing quite what epiphany will come, toiling more as an excavator, seeing if there is any shimmering shard buried in the layers of history, my history, a piece of which recently unfolded — in three crisply typed pages — and stirred up the long long ago. turns out, it’s a love story…

it’s not everyday the artifacts of your past tumble out of the cracks of history. but one of mine came in the mail week before last. it was a letter, dated january 7, 1975, written by my papa, mailed to a beloved high school english teacher, a teacher i remembered most vividly because she was the one who asked a prescient question the monday after homecoming of my senior year, a question that foreshadowed the arc — the heartbreaking arc — of that last year of high school.

what i’d remembered was that she was the teacher, the arch, very cool at the time, teacher who’d assigned kerouac and burroughs and zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, works with their thumb on the pulse of the thrashing that was 1970s america. what i’d never forgotten was standing outside the library on the monday morning after i’d been crowned the homecoming queen, an unlikely event if ever there was because i was nothing like most homecoming queens. i was not beautiful, not even close. i wasn’t a cheerleader, or one of the pompom girls. all i was was kind. and i remembered the names of just about each and every someone in my 2,400-student high school. and all the janitors, too.

as i was standing there, this teacher we all loved and were afraid of, in equal measure, strode up to me, raised one eyebrow, and volleyed her question: “barb, have you read ‘the demise of the homecoming queen’?” a book apparently with a very bad ending.

consider me unsettled. i answered no, and marched on with my day, the query sufficiently stinging.

but that odd interaction has nothing to do with the letter i got week before last. it only underlines the impact of running into this teacher at synagogue a few weeks back, on rosh hashanah to be exact, when a woman whom i did not recognize, leaned into our pew and exclaimed, “barb!!!!” while my brain gears churned to figure out who in the world this was, she went on, and soon i realized it was ms. feder, the high school english teacher we all feared and loved.

as i climbed over the legs between me and the end of the pew, so i could leap into the aisle to hug her, she went on with a story she was bursting to tell me. (mind you, i’d seen her only one other time in 43 years, when i bumped into her on a train riding downtown and i was carrying a baby, so this encounter was swiftly sweeping me back in time and space and emotion.)

she’d been cleaning her basement, she recounted, barely pausing to breathe, and was rummaging through piles and years of stuff accumulated, when she unearthed the first-ever issue of mother jones magazine, and as she lifted it from cobwebs to give it a look, out from its spine tumbled a 10-cent-stamped envelope addressed plainly to “Ms. Feder, Deerfield High School.”

inside, was a three-page letter from my very own papa, meticulously typed by his secretary of many, many years. in it he explains in thoughtful measured tones that it had come to his attention that the underground newspaper, for which ms. feder was the faculty advisor and to which i was a contributor, had recently raised a few eyebrows. scatalogical jokes, perhaps. he didn’t exactly detail, except to mention that they might be “in bad taste — more befitting bathroom walls than a student publication (even an unofficial one).”

and then toward the end of said letter, my papa takes off his official hat — he’d been writing as a member of the PTO board and editor of its newsletter (of which i have zero, zip, nada recollection) — and mentions that, on a personal note, he has exacted from me a promise that my name would no longer appear on the masthead (my first foray into journalism outside the walls of our basement, where i typed up the neighborhood news complete with comics, was the underground newspaper of our not-so-radical white suburban high school). he went on to write that “I have told her [that would be me, his scribe of a daughter] that I feel that her material has been completely acceptable and in no way of questionable taste.” but — brace yourselves — “Frankly, I am embarrassed to see her (and my) name in even a loose juxtaposition with some of this material.” and he asked that my name be deleted from any future publication.

apparently, that’s when i went even further underground and assumed the pseudonym under which i wrote for the rest of the year, or at least until i was taken out of high school in may, and plunked in a downtown hospital, a skin-and-bones girl who’d whittled down to 85 or 90 pounds (i can’t remember the low point), in the vanguard of that scourge known as anorexia nervosa, a clinical coupling of words that grates at my soul (and my psyche) to this day.

some decades ago, perhaps at a high school reunion, one of my fellow underground rabble-rousers had recounted this incident to me, told me the story of how my papa had forbidden me from writing any longer for the Student Voice, as our anti-establishment rag was called. i remembered not a wisp of it, couldn’t imagine my laser-focused-ad-man of a father paying one bit of attention to my underground toils. i considered it apocryphal, a story someone had conjured up over the years when i became — thanks to my early and strange diagnosis — grist for the small-town rumor mill.

thus, word of this letter’s actual artifactual existence intrigued me completely. to say nothing of the fact that i have astonishingly few (read, almost none) letters or personal writings from my dad who wrote two monthly magazine columns for the ad biz. and the finding of even a page — let alone three — was a find of supreme proportion.

i ran to the mailbox day after day. when two weeks had passed, but no letter had arrived, i began to search for ms. feder. i found what appeared to be a phone number, called, left a message. she called back. she’d made a photocopy, she explained, then put the letter aside. she’d forgotten, but she promised to send.

the day it fell from the pile of mail, i took a deep breath and pulled the three still-stapled pages from the 44-year-old envelope, mailed originally from my papa’s downtown office.

right away, i heard his long-silenced voice, oozing up from the spaces between the typed alphabet letters. i heard his tender protectiveness. his measured level-headedness. in fact, he began by defending our faux-radical shenanigans: “While much of it is irreverent, iconoclastic and generally anti-Establishment, that really didn’t concern me,” he wrote. and then, when i got to the part about my promise to erase my name, i got teary. when i got to the part where he wrote that frankly he was embarrassed, i winced.

this is not the memory of my papa i’ve kept tucked closest to my heart. the scenes that have played, over and over and over, are the ones where i’m in the hospital — a psych ward is where they put me, if you must know, and if i’m completely honest — and it’s lunchtime, and my lunch tray has just been delivered, and the door to my room nudges open, and in walks my papa, face beaming, brooks brothers suit crisp as ever, even after his long walk down michigan avenue, from his high-rise office tower to my hospital. he is clutching a white paper bag, one he’s been handed in the women’s auxiliary cafe just off the hospital lobby, where every day they sold sandwiches and every day for that month he bought one. he sat beside me, pulled a straight metal chair right to the edge of my bed, sometimes taking my hand. he unwrapped from wax paper his choice of the day — chicken or tuna salad on white bread, almost always on white bread. he chewed while i tried to. he never missed a day. not once in the month — the terrible, awful, loneliest month — i was there.

and that’s the love i’ll never forget. that’s the love i lost — or so it felt — when he died.

but now i have another story to tell. the day my papa made me give up my name, and go deeper underground.

i cherish them both. my papa was paying attention, such close attention. and i was blessed to be in his sights.

was there someone in your life who paid close attention to you, closer perhaps than you realized at the time? and what was the difference it made? 

p.s. perhaps the sweetest part of the letter was that i could show it to my beloved blair, who read it the night it arrived as he rode home on the el (i’d taken a picture of each page and sent along to my mom, my four brothers, and blair and will and teddy, wanting everyone to share in this closest encounter of the typed-and-stapled kind). blair’s texts came in two parts: “Loving the letter. Have read first two pages. So, so wise and precise…eager to see conclusion….” and next: “Wow! Loved it. What a good parent. 3 pages of controlled passion. He loved you so much, Fred. I’m thoroughly impressed.”

the love of my life has only gotten to know another love of my life through the dribs and drabs of story, and now the three long-lost typed pages….

retracing time…

WK cake from video

i don’t remember what started it. something like a root being tugged deep inside. some primal mama root, an urge that could not, would not, be stopped. i wanted to grab hold of long-ago time, to loop it forward and back, to get lost in the nooks and the crannies. to turn back to the start of the holiest story i’ve ever lived and breathed. the one that over and over has filled me beyond the brim, prompted me to whisper in my deepest, holiest, truest hours, “thank you for this plenty. thank you, and thank you, and thank you.”

and so, a few days ago, i found myself on my knees, tugging hard at the drawer that hasn’t been opened in quite a long while, the drawer that never really wanted to open, a stubborn pine drawer in a stubborn pine chest. but inside was a box, a blue box, with a stack of 27 cassettes, each one smaller than an index card, and each one holding moments for me that have been swirling to life, ever since i plugged in the old clunky video cam, the one i never much knew how to work.

it’s been dizzying, as the moving pictures have swooped and dipped in and out of the frame, and in and out of focus (no one in this house claims cinematography skills). but every once in a while, when the camera held still, i got a glimpse — a whole string of frames — of moments in time that in rewind and from this perch of a quarter century later (my firstborn turns 25 a week from today) are doubly precious to me as i study each one for the first hints of who these boys would become and how deeply, gently, exuberantly, they were loved.

the moments i’m watching, the ones that have me glued to the itty-bitty lens (i don’t know how to hook it up to any bigger screen so i watch on the just-bigger-than-a-postage-stamp-sized screen that flips out from the camera), map in fine detail this journey into the center of my heart.

there is my sweet boys’ papa, holding a four-month-old in his lap, reading page after page in a whole stack of most-loved picture books, reciting in those homespun meters and warbles and trademark whimsies (the ones parents and children invent, putting a signature twist to particular pages of particular children’s adventures in dramatic reading), the ones that laid down the roots — the foundational truth — that joy could be found tucked between the covers of even the cardboardiest book. and there, two years later, is the sweet boy perched at the top of a step stool, leaning over the butcher-block counter, describing to me in glorious detail the train cake (complete, for some reason, with “strawberry garden” just to the side of the tracks) he and our twice-a-week nanny baked for my 39th birthday. and, back to the one-year-and-nine-months version of that breathtaking child, there he is echoing on cue the words his papa whispers: “mommy is beautiful,” then adding his own improvisational “daddy is beautiful.”

it’s now my new favorite activity, the one i squeeze into all the margins of hours, in between chopping or stirring. while awaiting a call or the handy repairman. i pop in a tape, and whirl back in time, never knowing what precious moment is just around the bend, a moment i’ll watch and re-watch (thank goodness for “rewind”). did i mention i watch through tears every time? and sometimes the tears come so hard and so fast, i need to mop up the spills on my cheeks and the cutting board below.

all week, i’ve left the video cam sitting out on the kitchen counter. once or twice (or thrice), i’ve captured my favorite little sequences onto my itty-bitty iPhone. i sent one such bit off to the faraway legal scholar, the one currently working in washington, filing briefs on critical matters. just in case he wanted to watch his nine-month-old self in heart-melting action.

it’s a bit, um, kooky, i know. but through the magic of moments captured on digital tape, i’ve yet another way to pay even closer attention — to time, to the first seeds of the boys who now talk in complete sentences, who no longer get tangled by S’s and diphthongs (those smack-ups of vowels that prove quite a challenge to the tongue just finding its way through the jungle of words on the long road to talking).

i feel my soul reaching back, leaping forward, in time. if someone offered a master’s degree in the study of new-forming children, in the art of raising and teaching a child, of loving day in and day out, and doing so with godly measures of patience and gentility, i’d be the first one in line. there is a good dose of something akin to aching here, of wishing for yet another chance, of wishing i’d realized the first time around just how sacred these hours were, even though i believe that deep down i never lost track of that truth. and in watching, i never lose sight of that critical eye, the one that has me scrutinizing my each and every move. the one that sometimes wonders if i hit the pause button often enough in those early impressionable years, did i slow down the frames to relish each one, did i realize i could never come back to these moments, to the script as it rolled the first and only time through?

i stumbled in so blindly, back at the beginning. led only by heart and a gravitational pull toward loving. as i watch that child, those children (for eventually, eight years after the start, the second sweet boy came along), as i consider who he was, how we loved him, against the backdrop of who i know him to be today, i am washed over in holy gratitude for the raw capacities — the combined graces of the man i married, and the parents who taught him (and me) how to love — that kept us so unmistakably focused on quietly, gently teaching. and, more than anything, bathing him, bathing both blessed boys, in love upon love.

tape after tape after tape, it’s a whole-body immersion in loving and examining love, in resuscitating moments and hearts and the passing of time. these moments, forgotten in the everyday, live deep in the core of who we’ve become, me and the boys i so love. it’s where i’ve been lost — and found — in this past string of days….

on the brink of father’s day, a day when we celebrate the men who’ve loved us and shepherded us through the wilds and pitfalls, i thank the heavens for the one i so loved. and the one who so loves the boys who i birthed. and for all the fathers among us who teach with gentle and certain abundance. 

have you gotten lost — in pages or film or videotape — in your past, and what lessons did you extract, and if you could do it all over again, what might be the few things you’d try hard to live with more grace? (no need, of course, to spell that out here; i’m just echoing the question i’ve lived with all week…)

if i’d known…

bambkchuppah

a quarter century ago, on a steamy august sunday afternoon, i remember peeking out my bedroom window into the backyard of the house where i grew up. i remember the swiss lace curtains rippling in the breeze, catching in my veil. down below, beneath a canopy of old oaks, oaks whose boughs arced across the yard, a dappled dome of leaves reaching out to oak leaves, tidy rows of white wooden chairs stood sentry. a brass quintet began to play. the chairs filled in.

boysand me weddingmy father wasn’t there, had been gone 10 long years by then, so my brothers, all four of them, took me by the arms. i’d walked down the stairs i’d once tumbled down as a clumsy little girl, the ones where i sat after bee stings, on afternoons when my mama dried my tears. we’d walked out the front door, my brothers and i, arm in arm in arm, the five of us, and threaded through the garden gate. the late august garden was in bloom; my mother had made sure of that. and there, at the dip at the bottom of a sloping lawn, where the chairs gave way to chuppah, was the tall, dark, quite handsome fellow to whom i would wed my life.

BKsyl

we wed — in catholic and jewish, with priest and rabbi, and chuppah and seven blessings and smashing of the glass. we wed under the cathedral of trees, and all the while i worried that my beloved’s 80-something-year-old grandma might cave in from heat and sauna-like steaminess. (i’d prayed for no rain, and my prayers were answered; i forgot to pray for no sauna.) i remember much of that day, frame after frame still tumbles clearly through my memory, because a wise soul had instructed me: freeze-frame the moments, one after another, seal it to your soul.

but now, 25 years after that picture perfect day, i’m afforded a perspective, a longview, that shifts and changes everything. the whole of it is deepened, the colors richer, the lines sharper-edged, even as the pictures in the album begin to fade. it is a portrait of life and love in all its messy, wrenching iterations, and, yes, in all its magnificence. it’s a portrait i take in with breath-catching awe. love does not come easy, but love when it lasts, when it sinks deep down into your marrow, it carries you to places you’d not imagined, places you never thought you’d know. it carries you across unbearable stretches, and delivers you to moments you’ll never forget.

from where i stand now, i can see all that’s unfurled since that august sunday. i can see the light and shadow. i recall the hours when my heart pounded so hard i could hear it thumping sharp against my hollow chest wall. i riffle through the frames, the glories and the tight spots. i can see the night when i nearly howled in sorrow, when my baby girl’s string-bean of a tiny self slipped into my hands, miscarried in the deep of darkness. just beyond the bathroom door was the man i’d wed.

the man i wed is in every single frame of every single story that matters.

when i tick through the litany — the life and death, the anguish, the exhaustion — that we’ve navigated, side-by-side, heart-to-heart, i begin to catch a glimpse of the rootedness of what it means to whisper vows, to seal promise after promise, before a crowd of those you love, of those who’ve known you longest, or best, or most deeply.

we made a promise to be the hand at the small of each other’s back. we made a promise to search always for joy, for hope, and to find and collect sparks of God all along the way.

we could not have known that there would come a day when that meant one of us was staring at her watch in a surgical waiting room outside the chamber where the doctors threaded a wire into the heart of the other one of us, and we both prayed mightily that they’d zap just the right spot, and the awfulness would end.

we could not have known that there would be a day when emergency room doctors would look us in the eye and talk of airlifts and our firstborn’s spinal cord. and, during that longest hour of our lives, we would both pray the very same prayer. and we would both end with signs of the cross (his made backwards, because he’d never before made one, but this moment seemed to beg the unimaginable).

we could not have known of the late-night phone calls, the sleepless nights, the groggy mornings when the bad news wouldn’t lift, and we felt sunk before we even slid from under the covers.

but we do know now. and we know that somehow — together, as much as deep inside the solitude of our own many-chambered souls — we found our way to the clearing, to the place where shafts of light once again dapple the landscape.

we’ve tread together the topography of deeply-held promises. we know the canyons of despair. and we’ve glimpsed our share of beauties from the rises along the trail.

there are particular lessons to be learned in long years entwined. when the one soul you count on — even when you’re without a clue of just how you’ll navigate the latest labyrinth  — is the one who’s watched your hair streak through with silver, and your face grow etched with lines.

we’ve inscribed the pages of our book, the chapters of our life well and deeply loved. we’ve birthed two souls, breathed all we could into their every day and struggle. we’ve made a home, a sacred refuge where the door is always open, an extra place always set. we’ve kept our promises.

if i’d only known. i would walk down that aisle once again. i’d take your hand — and your heart. and i’d whisper all those promises. from this day on, for life.

IMG_7994

what a quarter century has brought me: this huddle of the deepest love

amen.

i know that life journeys come in countless iterations — alone, entwined, shattered by loss. and while i don’t often write of the one to whom i’m married, i couldn’t help being struck by the power of love long-held. love sealed august 25, 1991.

what’s the love that sustains you? or what lessons have you learned across the long haul? 

p.s. prayers for someone i love having hip surgery monday. prayers for everyone at the table — especially one particular mama — weathering heartache.