As the year inexorably winds down to the orgies of consumption I sometimes call the holydaze, I find myself unaccountably nostalgic for the “old daze,” when my parents, grandparents, and perhaps an aunt, cousin or guest gathered around the table at my childhood home in Connecticut. Along with my parents and theirs, five of my twelve first cousins have since departed to their final destinations. Of the survivors, one of us lives close at hand and she’ll be with us on Thanksgiving, hopefully with stories. Her mom was a fabulous cook who threw large dinner parties I well remember that I’ll never upstage, even with Peking Duck as our main course. (Don’t ask why. It just happened that way.)
I can recall only a couple dozen of my older relatives’ names and faces. The ones before my time beam or glower at me from faded photos, mysterious people frozen in obscure locales. I remember sketchy details of where some of them lived, but almost nothing of our family occasions. Several cousins have compiled lop-sided family trees, but they present only names, dates, and bloodlines of my forebears, free from any living context. Few stories about those great-great aunts and uncles have tumbled down to me and, as my cohort tips into oblivion, few survivors remain to remember and record them.
Womenfolk tend to fare worst in histories. They tell most of the stories but tend to get short shrift in genealogies and biographies. Yet so many of the family stories I know came from my and my father’s mothers. Thankfully I have the voice of my mom, Sophie Pincus Dutton, remembering her childhood in New York City on tape, recorded by her friend Honor White in 1980 when she was 70. [ Eight min. MP3 audio]. I also have a memoir her mother wrote in the 40s that relates fleeing Tsarist Russia to America in steerage with her mom, sister, and brothers, growing up, working, and getting engaged to my grandfather. [ 19 page PDF]
It’s a blessing to have a few family stories on tape and in type to pass on. In that spirit I offer a poem of childhood memories in a suburbanizing small town in the 50s, illustrated by an 1882 aerial map of it (Cheshire, Connecticut) by O.H. Bailey. When I was born we lived in an eighteenth-century house barely visible to the right of that church spire left of center.
i am from a farm town that slid into suburbia in time-lapse frames
as i pedaled my paper route after school with a big canvas bag
bringing news of interstate highways and fallout shelters and Sputnik
and that the computers were coming but nothing about the internet
and remember seeing constellations and eclipses and shooting stars
and watching kittens being born and hearing insects everywhere.
Oh the crickets and cicadas and fireflies and tiny frogs chirping in trees!
i am from a spreading Catalpa tree by our porch planted on her honeymoon
by an old lady we knew with popcorn flowers and string bean pods that
i had to rake up after they dropped and before i mowed the grass sitting
on a sulky my father had kindly made for our Reo lawnmower and
i remember my grandmother’s gardens full of primroses and
sweetpeas and sunflowers and roses and petunias and zinnias.
i liked her morning glories best.
i am from New England and upstate New York houses with quiet
parlors dimmed by Coleus and Geraniums smelling of damp and
tobacco with oriental rugs and overstuffed furniture and flyspecked
wallpaper and radios bigger than me and i remember a boy next door
who i never met practicing American Patrol on his trumpet over
and over even though the big war my father did not go to was over.
i was five when i saw soldiers suffering a bitter Korean winter on TV.
i am from pogrom-scattered Russian Jews transposed to New Jersey,
merchants morphing into American farmers but forsook the land
for education and lost touch with traditions except i remember
aunts and great aunts making blintzes and matzo ball soup
and gossiping about their relatives in Manhattan kitchens while
the menfolk smoked in the parlor and worried about the news.
When i moved to there for college only a few were left to visit.
i am from mineral collections and model trains on a ping pong table
and electronic projects and my chemistry lab where i made soap
and dyes and fizzy stuff and high explosives that should have
killed me but i was lucky and i remember turning my lab into
a darkroom when i got my first camera and father taught me
to develop and print photos like the one i took of a chipmunk
after waiting an hour for him to emerge from his burrow
under my treehouse where i went to read comic books.
i am from preachers and teacher elders who could bring out the best
in people even if they did not know how they did it except by
listening to people and being helpful even though they did not
always get along with each other, especially with my grandfather
upstairs watching Cronkite and sitcoms and with his devoted wife
and ranting about juvenile delinquents and commies and liberals.
i remember his pride in the hundreds of books that lined his study
that i sold after he died but now in my study i write at his big desk.
And i am from a mother and father who earned little but burnished
the world with their generosity of spirit and activism and taught me
to value truth telling and learning and respect for all and made
me do my homework and feed the chickens and gather eggs and
i remember being sent to sunday school at the church next door
where i colored bible pictures and drew one of the holy family
flying in an airplane in the clouds with their pilot Pontius.
That was my first pun.
Before letting go of you, in case you are looking for holydaze presents, you might consider giving books. And perhaps you’ll find one you’ll like at the Perfidy Press Bookstore at bookshop.org, a sidelight of my vast publishing empire. Even if nothing on my lightly stocked virtual shelves tickles your fancy, you can browse and search around the site to find almost any book in print, usually at a discount. In addition to sales commissions, bookshop.org donates ten percent of sales to support indie bookstores. Part of Amazon’s profits, in contrast, are deployed to boost Jeff Bezos into sub-orbit to survey the planet he’s monopolizing. My ardent hope is that once you shop bookshop.org you’ll never buy books from Amazon again.
At my bookshop you’ll find paperback and eBook editions of my novel Turkey Shoot, a fine gift for those on your list who enjoy conspiracy thrillers and/or political insurgencies. There’s also a shelf dedicated to a muse, the late John le Carré, including his latest, Silverview, released posthumously last month by Viking.
Not sure what book to get for oddball Uncle Ira, who’s into UFOs and serenades his neighborhood tooting band music on his clarinet? A bookshop.org gift card might be the answer. After all, its the thought that counts.
Click here to visit the Perfidy Press Bookstore, and have a nice browse.
From Perfidy Press Provocations, a quasi-monthly newsletter
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