(photo credit: Courtesy)
He said no, but there were stories he could tell, stories about his Red Cavalry,
stories about a war doctor. “But I would never put anything in
“Then your stories will die with you.”
“So they will.
Who needs stories of yet another Jew?”
“I need them. Without stories, there is
nothing. Stories are the world’s memory. The past is erased without stories.
When you get a chance, at least write about the war doctor.” (Old Men at
Midnight, Chaim Potok, 2001)
Although our town was technically part of New York
City, we were located on the outskirts of the largest borough, and many of the
original residents were still fishermen and dockworkers. In the late 1950s and
early ’60s, we found ourselves often cut off from the municipality’s systems
during snowstorms and citywide power outages. New Yorkers in name only, there
was a small-town feel to church barbecues and school dance festivals. Everyone
came out: longtime Irish residents, accented Italian first-time homeowners, young
Jewish couples who could not yet afford property on Long Island. Class trips
took us to the Bronx Zoo or the Wonder Bread factory, ensuring that all children
were safe at home by the time Buffalo Bob shouted, “Hey, kids, it’s Howdy Doody
My mother kept the schedule of the Bookmobile taped to the inside of the
pink Formica kitchen cabinet, and after mastering the alphabet by the middle of
kindergarten, I learned how to navigate the grid that showed when the rambling
truck would park for an hour on 159th Avenue. It would be years before the town
built a proper library, but nothing seemed grander than the updated model of the
first book wagon that traveled the US in 1905.
I cannot remember a time
when I did not love books. Even though I was an outgoing child and did not lack
play dates, my imagination was best fueled from the adventures of fictional
children and rabbits that I met on rainy afternoons while sitting Indian style
on the carpeted floor of the family rec room.
Early on, I befriended
Heidi, Pipi, the March girls, Scout and Scarlett, eliciting promises of lifelong
friendship and fidelity.
The bookshelves that lined the upstairs hallway
of the faux Colonial home we later inhabited lured me to worlds more daring than
the tamer tomes of my childhood. Both my parents were avid readers and,
thankfully, their tastes ran more toward history than histrionics. I was
introduced to the greatest Jewish writers of the previous century: Sholem Asch,
Ben Hecht, Jerzy Kosinski, Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, Saul Bellow,
Bernard Malamud, Ayn Rand, Leon Uris, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Irving Wallace,
Arthur Miller, Chaim Potok, Elie Wiesel and E.L.
Doctorow. And because
the 1960s ushered in an era of previously unseen rebelliousness, secretly I
would discover the unrestrained rage and sexuality of Erica Jong, Cynthia Ozick
and Allen Ginsburg.
I was shaped by books. But today, raising children,
working several jobs, negotiating a social life and assaying to remain upbeat in
a land beset with strife can interfere with the typical reveries of a dreamer
like me. And still I attempt to lure my children into a memory zone that offers
perspective on our personal history, both macro and micro, while allowing space
for their own contributions to the unfolding tale. Time lines don’t
Many years have passed since my children asked, “Can you
tell us again the story about when the eggplant Parmesan fell in Grandma’s lap”
or “Did Great- Uncle Shuie really steal a white dress for your bubby’s
graduation?” I thought that they’d eventually grow bored, but now their children
sit on my lap and want to hear the same yarns.
Needing to update my
repertoire, the encyclopedia of family lore now includes tales of personal bad
behavior that turned out well and the subsequent lessons learned. Looking into
the face of a now-adult child, I can recall the days of neonatal wards, heart
monitors and the things I shouted to nurses that cause me to cringe at the time
of this writing. By recalling the experience, the rapt listeners can also smell
the hospital ward, listen to the ominous beeps, taste the fear and shame that
stuck in my cheeks that, oddly, tasted like metal.
Because I bear the
heart of a beauty queen, I know that imagination is a superior exfoliant,
inexpensively keeping the skin smooth and supple. There is a story in
everything, and I believe we can will ourselves to experience all moments, both
real and imagined.
Walking home from town the other day, I noticed a
large pile of books neatly stacked next to the dumpster on Rehov Aza. At first I
felt outraged: How do you throw out books? But then it dawned on me that the
trash site had been transformed into a de facto miniature literary
Books do far more than tell us what was and what is. They serve as
portals for experiences that reach far beyond our respective kens. After all,
what good is the gift of imagination if after watching Swan Lake one doesn’t
secretly execute a clumsy arabesque or hamstring- threatening grande jete? That
said, after I throw in a load of laundry and finish washing the pots that have
been soaking in the sink, I think I’ll grab a hairbrush and act out my
performance for American Idol. When done, I’ll dress for work and practice my
opening monologue for an upcoming appearance on Oprah.
My advice to
anyone interested is: Read. Dream. Tell. In doing so, you’ll leave a
legacy. Because the things that we imagine seem to be far more edifying than
gray-edged truths that stifle our infinite capacity for optimism.