Monday, July 02, 2012

Something Twenty-One Mamaroneck Avenue

The house I was "born in" was on Mamaroneck Avenue. I don't recall precisely its number; I seem to remember hearing it as something ending in "twenty-one". Perhaps it was 421. There is no easy way to tell now: the house itself is gone and snapshots of it don't show the number.

And whether I was really born in it or in a hospital, I don't know either. At some point in her life, my mother became a Christian Scientist. Was that before or after I was born? I don't know. Did becoming a Christian Scientist lead her to take a stand against going to hospitals at all, even for having a baby? I don't know. I do know that when I was in elementary school, I was amazed at how many of my classmates - by their own accounts - had been born in either Stamford Hospital or Greenwich Hospital. What a lot of kids must have had something wrong with them to be born! I was sure then that it had not happened to me, for if it had, I would have heard about it. (I'm not so sure now. My mother was extraordinarily reticent about such matters.) I used to hear my mother speak of Dr. Marsland (the family doctor) and Miss Edmunton (the public health nurse); but whether I was OB'd in a hosptal or midwived at home I have no idea.

I was five years old when we moved away from Mamaroneck and came to Connecticut, leaving New York State for good. I remember nothing of the preparations for leaving or of why we were going to connecticut. I do remember my brother Tom's talking about the new high school he would be attending, and we joked about its name - Greenwich. He must have been told it was pronounced "Grin-itch", for I laughed when he first said the name, and I said (and kept repeating for our amusement) the word it immediately suggested: "spinach". In later years, after I had acquired a wider vocabulary through reading and listening, I realized how funny the name of Tom's former high school [was], suggesting as it did a dislocation of the cervical vertebrae. Mamaroneck did not have its own high school then, and the Mamaroneck students attended one in the neighboring town of Rye - more specifically, in the section known as Rye Neck. I have wondered whether anyone saw the humor in the name Rye (wry) Neck High School after a season of dislocating football injuries.

Monday, September 01, 2008

New Year's Day 1968: A Quiet but Invincible Optimism

1 January 1968

I suppose I am risking snow blindness in looking out our glass doors onto the snow covered hill behind our house, but I am in a mood which I like to think of as a reverie, and so I stare out. What I see is not much besides the blinding whiteness: the deep blue of a noontime sky; shadowy geometries cast on the snow by the children's "swing set"; the observation platform, ladder, and fringed canopy that are a part of the swing set itself. A static scene, except for the movement of two thin icicles swinging from the canopy, reminding me of the tinsel "rain" on the Christmas tree. A moment ago, a dried oak leaf glided erratically over the snow crest looking like a frail piece of abstract sculpture foraging for a meaning, then it passed beyond sight.

Except for the cold and wind, I should enjoy planting the Christmas tree today. The sun and sky seem to have touched me with a quiet but invincible optimism: despite having been uprooted a week before Christmas and kept until a week after Christmas in a warm house, somehow it will survive the shock of having been replanted (in a new location) this 15-degree day. And I know that, despite the cold, I will get the tree planted today. This is what I mean by invincible optimism. In other years I should have left the tree in the garage for a day or so -- letting the tree get accustomed to the cold, I would tell the world -- before planting it. Today I don't feel the need for any such evasion: I shall go out there within the hour, not joyfully, perhaps, but but at least without hesitation. A third tree shall commemorate a "live tree" Christmas at this house. Some day, I suppose, our custom must come to a stop; we shall run out of space. But today is a day to dwell only on infinite possibilities.

The snow on the back hill is as new and unmarked as the year. It is a part of this optimism I feel that the year, like the hill, will be marked most conspicuously by footsteps taken in pursuit of the pleasures of human society. Half a day old, at the moment, the year is like a blank slate -- or rather, like an untracked hillside. Each will eventually be erased -- the one by time, the other by time's vicar the sun, and each will have been touched and marked by signs of quest, play, duty, or futility. But surely those ventures of compassionate and hungry human associations will leave marks upon the snows of the year that even the most intensive cross-trackings can never quite efface. Events of the past year have shown this to be a sound expectation.

Faith, Hope, and Charity

Her name was Hope. Fortunately, no one at that time saw the irony of her name. No one, that is, except her mother. The elder woman had a saying she used often: "Where there's strife, there's Hope -- right in the middle of it!" She'd begin with a despairing here-we-go-again note, but end with a motherly smile so that everybody got the joke. Her daughter, after all, was twenty-four, and it was too late now to do much about her proneness for catastrophic involvement. (Once again, Hope had become entangled in someone else's personal problems. This time it was Halcyon Somerset, a somewhat fluttery friend of twenty-two, whose stormy engagement to Buster Bragdon was nearing the breaking point.) In fact, it was likely to be atomized at any moment. The Gaines family was sweating out another of Hope's vicarious crises.

If Hope had a talent -- a theory no one seemed eager to defend -- it was her apparent knack of innocently precipitating a disaster while in the act of averting another, or of simply making a fouled-up situation worse by maladroitly rendering the assistance she was asked for. On occasions of relatively minor cheerlessness, Hope might be simply the bearer of dire report -- someone's house burglarized, auto stolen, or pet animal killed. But when trouble's gravitational pull was stronger, and if the fates were working in diabolical connivance with misfortune, Hope might find herself directly caught up in the event as a sort of secondary victim. How soon, and to what extent, Halcyon Somerset's troubles would become Hope Gaines's troubles, no one could at the moment predict.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Keeper

He blends, at first, with the corrupted landscape;
and then you see him: a gross blue figure
panoplied in overalls and contempt, moving,
perhaps, a step or two to survey
impassively, wiht porcine eyes,
each citizen come to cast
non-goods on more non-goods in this
anti-matter kingdom.

From ranched,
split-leveled, and garrisoned lives
they turn this Sunday morning, briefly,
as every Sunday morning, to leave
their leavings. Each car or truck in turn
receives his house-detective scrutiny,
for he sees that the simple protocol
is followed: drive up, dump, drive off.
Hands thrust importantly in pockets,
he nods them through the course -- salesman,
buider, teacher, clerk, who for a brief
half-hour play at being
the necessary pariah.

does not play. The dump is his,
and all that therein is.

uninitiated -- or rash, found a chair he no doubt thought
could be upholstered back to life.
He got it halfway to his station-
wagon, then, crimson-faced, returned it
to its resting place after
the thou-shalt-not's had thundered.

Our follies, set down in black and white,
that we so fatuously consign
to the waste paper basket first,
and then the garbage barrel,
were better burned, or flushed down toilets.
For at the dump our scribblings
don't die at first; they lie nakedly
or get blown about. And who is strong
not to yield to their temptations?
The man in blue overalls sees that only
the man in blue overalls sees.

power in the world to him who wants it.

Qualifications Examined

The job that I must do some day --
Fill an excavation or fule a flame --
I hope will not be asked of me too soon.
Were it tonight, or, say, tomorrow noon,
The fire would sputter, to my shame,
Or else the hole that's dug would be
So unexpectedly full of space
They'd think they'd buried in that place
Someone already more than half a ghost.

It's not the job that I mind most.
What daunts me is the sense that I
Won't have enough of me to make it worth
The trouble everyone will go to
To get me properly combusted up the flue
Or bedded tidily in the earth.
What's worse, it's certain that they'll know
How ill I fit the job, and so infer
A life spent on the perimeter
Of Life, where growth takes longer. I'm not the right size yet. I need more time.

Until that job opening comes through,
It's living I must do and do.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A Solstice Incantation

The sun has hurled itself far far away;
it will not draw near us soon.

They say the universe is expanding.
Is this then what we are to look out on,
feel sucking at the heat left on our skins
till we are caught up in the dispersal,
struggle against lest hearts be ripped
from us by that receding magnet?

Then I renounce that universe
that zero raised to the power of infinity.
And I would make of my heart a lodestone
not to annul the sun's flight
nor to be sooner torn asunder
but to pull, and feel the pul from, other hearts.

Outward and outward the sun goes.
At night, on a clear clear night
the very singleness of each star
makes the star seem more remote
and I can believe those who say
the universe is expanding.
And a chill steals into me as I wonder:
Will those stars disappear one by one
over the horizon of the galaxy
as if the earth and all its fellow planets
were things to be avoided, things to be left alone?

Alone I stand at the edge of a wood
on the side of a hill on a cold bright day.
I look up at the gray skeletons overhead
and see, here and there, a brown leaf
moving convulsively and hear it cry
in the wind. The wind is cold.
I say a prayer for the leaf;
for where would I go if the wind
dislodged me? Would I become part
of the great dispersal
adrift in an ever-enlarging sea of space?
The far sun shines
but it is a far far sun, a withholding sun.

Is it because of the cold
that I can not feel?
The ground is somewhere beneath my feet.
The snow on the ground is beneath my feet
somewhere. And out there at my finger's tip
is a tree, is a rock, is air, somewhere.
And somewhere
just a little outside my heart
and my bones and my flesh is my skin
And somewhere out there
beyond the tree and the rock and the air
at my finger's tip
is a finger tip I can't quite touch
but it's there.
Is the distance too far
for the message to leap from tip to tip,
the message that travels along the skin
through the bones and the flesh
from the heart to a heart out there

I should make of my heart a lodestone then,
let the flying sun go
(it will be back some day)
and pull my universe together.

I will say this to the somewhere: Let us now
as the sun rides on
down the hill of night
touch one another.
Let our tears flow in one stream,
our songs blend.
Let us speak frank words,
exchange naked hearts,
converse in our close universe,
and looking into one another's faces
smile and say It's you, It's me
after the most ancient and honorable
human way
before there was a Them or a They.
Let us seek as our ancestors sought
some honorable cave wherein to wait
(as if there were still some waiting cave)
the long long winter out
as if we were all the life there is
and all the love.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Uncontested Passage

The row of houses sitting face to face
Watch to see which house is first to move.
Between the rows extends a whitened space
Wherein of sidewalks there's but token trace
And all there is of street is a feathered groove.

But I am certain that the homes will stay in line;
They look cemented in by the solid snow --
By nature's deed first, now by man's design.
Not soon will shovel-zealots undermine
Snug indolence: there is no place to go.

For snow has stopped the town's activity.
So in the street I boldly walk along,
A peer of moter cars, and feel in me
The kind of joy in rebel liberty
We feel in venturing where we don't belong.
- Ken McLintock

Monday, December 13, 2004

Instructions for Using the Survival Equipment

It's done like this:
you zip yourself inside
a kind of bag at first,
to separate you from
the shouts and doubts,
keeping the zipper tab
inside, at easy reach. You
wait for quiet, let it grow
and penetrate your cells.
Then, when all you hear
is the second-by-second
second-to-second calm pulse
of affirmation, saying
All right - I'm ready,
slowly, carefully unzip
the bag, emerge, stand like
a rock, yet warm inside,
complete, invulnerable. You
have taken your first step.
Next, you find another,
teach him the bag trick,
stand by him when he emerges.
That's four steps taken.
Watch him as he teaches some-
one else the bag trick
and stands by. (See? How many
steps already!) Keep
watching, standing by.
Always. Give aid, love, strength.
Remember what you're building.
Just concentrate on that.
Never mind how many millions
are in your town or world.
Nobody ever said that
walking up the Andes or Himalayas
would be easy. Neither is living
or staying alive these atom days.
This is how it's done.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Tales My Mother Told Me

Savannah-born and Georgia-educated (Wesleyan Female Seminary, Macon), my mother came north to complete her musical education. Some of her musical instruction -- both piano and voice, I think -- was under a Miss Coburn, who was related to the actor Charles Coburn. The Coburns and the Cavanaughs (my mother's family) were good friends, and my mother always referred to Charles as Charlie. (She also had a way of slighting the r in his family's name, so that what I always heard were references to "Miss Cobin" and "Charlie Cobin.") Although he was always "Charlie", she was always "Miss Cobin," so I think she must have been his aunt rather than an elder sister. That he did have a sister I am sure because both of them were in the theater and even appeared on the stage together. As I said, the Coburn and Cavanaugh families were friends, and more than once Mother told me of the time Charlie saved her from drowning when she was caught in an undertow off Tybee Island.

For years, so far as I knew, Charles Coburn -- if he was still living -- was retired and still living in Savannah. But one day (I was probably in high school by then), I was reading aloud some movie advertisements in the newspaper to help my parents and me decide which movie to see. Among the cast listed for one movie was Charles Coburn, which I pronounced carefully "Charles Co-burn", not having the faintest idea who he was. "Oh! Charlie Cobin!" my mother exclaimed, surprised and delighted that her former "beau" was in Hollywood, having taken up a movie career. However, I thought I'd better tell her she was mistaken. "No, Mother, not Cobin -- Coburn." I don't recall what her reply was, but I think she was puzzled. After all, she had been pronouncing Coburn "Cobin" all her life.

P.S. We saw that movie, and nearly every subsequent movie in which Charlie appeared.
P.P.S. Coburn had evidently kept in touch with some of the Savannah people over the years. Mother's sister, Aunt Blanche, who had moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, showed me a Christmas card she had received from him. It showed what had evidently become, over the years, his trademark: a tamoshanter and a monocle -- no face: just the tam and monocle.

Once she was in New York City, Mother studied with Mrs. Eames, mother of the Metropolitan Opera soprano Emma Eames. The Eameses were from Bath, Maine, and Emma was among the first American-born singers to sing at the Met. Needless to say, Mother attended many of Emma Eames's performances, and for years pictures of the singer in her various roles -- Elsa in Lohengrin, Marguerite in Faust, Desdemona in Otello, among others -- hung on the walls of our home.

Mother received excellent training; after all, her teacher had also been the opera singer's teacher. One result of the training was a fine sense of pitch. If she heard a singer on the radio singing flat, she would utter a cry of pretended pain and make upward motions with her hands as if to push the singer back up on key. Thanks to her training also, her pronunciation of German, French, and Italian was excellent. It was, if anything, too good. She once told me that after a recital, a woman who had been in the audience came up to her and began speaking to her in French -- an embarrassing moment. She had learned to sing French words flawlessly but had never learned to converse in French.

Mother's training, though, was not for the opera stage. Instead she sang with New York's Oratorio Society for years, and was soloist in a number of churches in the New York area. She also was a member of at least one church choir and even one synagogue choir (that of the famed Temple Emanu-El). Among the members of one of the choirs was Harry T. Burleigh, composer and arranger of Negro spirituals (as they were then called), including "Deep River". Burleigh was already well on in years when Mother knew him, and as the years went by, he would announce solemnly each year that this would be the last year he would sing "The Palms" at the Palm Sunday service.

Mother knew, directly or indirectly, a number of interesting and prominent (at least in their day) people in the music world. There was Frank Damrosch, brother of Walter. I don't recall what musical group he presided over, but my mother would say that he must have had something against tenors because he would tell the tenors exasperatedly to "sing with your brains as well as your voices." There was Victor Harris, director of the Oratorio Society, whom she admired. There was Kurt Schindler, who not only was choir director somewhere but also was compiler and arranger of a collection of songs by Russian composers (Glinka, Tschaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, et al.). One director (I don't recall who) had a stammer, and to break the stammer he would sweep his hand across his face. And there was Keith McLeod, who directed a male chorus on one of the New York radio stations, WEAF, now WNBC. It was he who got Mother a spot on WEAF for a short time. I recall seeing a note from him to Mother and noticing he had signed it with his initials, K. McL. -- my initials, too!

Most people, I suppose, who are fond of "classical" music rate the celebrated Beethoven Ninth Symphony highly. My mother did not. I think that was mainly because when the Oratorio Society performed that symphony with the New York Symphony Orchestra, the altos were always placed close to the kettledrums, and Beethoven could be unstinting with the use of that percussion instrument, especially in the Ninth, where the kettledrums attack the listener repeatedly with fortissimos. And, according to my mother, you never got enough used to them not to jump.

Besides her concert and church work, my mother did other singing: recitals. Early in this century, musicians were invited to the homes of well-to-do people -- either their New York mansions or their country estates. One such family, the Sooeysmiths (an odd name) had a place in Greens Farms, Connecticut, and my mother had happy memories of that family and that place. (I think they were the people who owned a St. Bernard dog named Clumsy.)

Finally, there were the army hospitals. World War I ended almost two years before I was born, but even as late as the mid-1920s, when I first heard about her singing to the wounded, the sight and voices of the men -- especially the faces of the
"shell-shocked" casualties -- still haunted her. What did the men of the men of the hospitals enjoy hearing? I don't know, but I suppose the songs included "There's a Long, Long Trail", "Roses of Picardy", "Over There", and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary". These, particularly the first two, were probably the very first songs I heard (that must have been when I was three or four) and the first I learned to sing. (I was particularly fond of "There's a Long, Long Trail".)

I must not neglect to mention what we in our family called the phonograph, but which others called, perversely, the grammophone, and which still others, yielding to vulgar commercialism, called the Victrola. The one we had usually sat on the floor and usually in the way, though now and then it sat on a large round wicker table, which itself was even more in the way. (A more expensive model featured the standard record player at a convenient height, with record storage space below.) Our phonograph, made by the Victor Recording Company, was, in size, about a two-foot cube. It had a deep lid, with the familiar picture of the fox terrier listening to "his master's voice" inside. The front had two doors that opened out, revealing a slatted sound chamber from which came the music or speaking voices. The steel turntable, 12 inches in diameter and covered with green felt, was nominally one-speed (78 RPM), but the machine was equipped with a speed control that pivoted: "Fast" at one end of the arc, "slow" at the other end. Being a boy, I could not resist the temptation to find out what the music sounded like at either extreme -- an experiment that annoyed my mother exceedingly. Sound was picked up from the record by the old acoustical device, which simply amplified the vibrations produced as the rotating record grooves passed under the "needle" held by the pick-up. (Needles were either steel or "wooden" -- i.e., bamboo. Both wore out after only a few plays, so the phonograph was provided with built-in cups to hold new or discarded needles.) The turntable was powered by a spring-driven motor, and a removable crank was used to wind up the spring when necessary.

Like most of the things in our home during my early years, the phonograph had already been there before I became aware of it, but the reason for its presence was obvious: the many records made by some of the singers of opera's "golden age". Caruso was certainly among them, Alma Gluck was another. I'm not sure of any of the others, though we (that is, Mother) might have had a recording or two of one of the DeReszke brothers, Jean or Eduard.

Mother got memorable glimpses of musical people, which she shared with me. One was the sight of Australian composer Percy Grainger walking up a New York City street one winter day in a snowstorm, coatless, hatless and wild-haired, and carrying a harp. She would have agreed, one guesses, that Harpo Marx could not have looked more bizarre.
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