Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Memory Lane #17710

I have recently reconnected with a former sister-in-law, my older brother's first wife, L. It has been many years (close to 15) since we have seen or talked to each other. I called her back in January and we've been emailing ever since. L was married to my brother for a couple of years in the 70s and early 80s, but they split amicably and went their separate ways. When L and I first reconnected, I was reminded of a poem I had written about her father, which I shyly sent to her. Thinking about the poem reminded me of the summer I lived with L's parents in Long Island.

In 1978 when I was 26, I was a reckless girl. I had done a dozen or so cross-country car trips, looking for a place to plant myself. I had already bought ten acres of land in southern oregon and built a cabin on it (1974), I had waitressed at a popular cafe in a touristy beach town in California (1975), I had lived in a tipi for a summer on 40 wild acres in southern Humboldt county, living with a pot-grower. I didn't know what to do with myself, and college was out of the question. (Have I ever told you that I was a re-entry student at 29?) So, one day I saw an ad in East West Journal that said something about learning to become a "licensed polarity therapist." Wow. Was that ever for me. In 1977 there were as many shelves in bookstores devoted to spirituality and self-healing as there are shelves devoted to computing now. It was the ambiance of the times. So, I sent letters of inquiry to somebody in New York City, where the program was being offered, and made a decision to go.

It was spring. I moved in with extended family in Teaneck NJ, and learned how to navigate the buses and subways to NY. It was delightful, and very different from the life I had led up to that point. Even though I had grown up in New Jersey, I had been gone for seven years, and I returned a tanned California hippie girl to learn my adult way around New York.

Well, the Polarity Program was a bust. To make a long story short, and suffice to say I decided that a business license wasn't the same as becoming a licensed practitioner, and I told the director so, and left. I also decided to leave my aunt's house and move to Long Island, where L's parents had a business and said they could use my waitressing skills over the summer.

L's parents were caterers, and they specialized in catered weddings on Long Island. Their store front was on a busy road, and their lovely apartment was in the back. I moved into L's old bedroom and spent my time with J & M shaping radishes into roses. We did all the prep work there on the premises. They had a huge walk-in refrigerator and a giant-sized black cast-iron stove with two ovens and eight burners. We ate feasts every day. On weekends, we catered several affairs. I mostly worked the weddings. Going to two or three weddings a weekend was really quite revelatory for me. It was an opportunity to watch humans at one of their most cherished events. Nearly every couple that summer chose as their song "Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel. I heard over and over: "Now dancing to their song for the first time as Mr and Mrs so and so..." And then those words would come "Don't go changing, to try and please me..." Every couple smooshed cake into each other's faces. Every bride danced with her father. Somebody would always get drunk and stumble. Somebody always made a sexually intimate toast. The spoons knocked the wineglasses and the newlyweds obligingly kissed. I watched all of this, while I served from the left and removed from the right. Unattached ushers flirted with the wait staff. Everyone had a good time.

L's parents were remarkable people. Her dad was from Prague and her mother, if I remember correctly, was from a small town in Slovakia. They were both survivors of Auschwitz. They had each survived their devastations differently and bore their scars in their own ways. L's father was irrepressively cheerful, while L's mom was more reserved. She had had her tattooed number surgically removed from her wrist. They both had lost their immediate families in the camps. What I remember feeling at the time in their house, was that the way this nightmare was reflected in their daily lives was how their house locked up at night. They had locks on top of locks. There were safety bolts on top of their doors that went into the upper jamb, and locks on the bottom as well. When we faithfully locked up at night, we slept knowing that there was no way there could be an intruder. But what I remember most was how their lives revolved around food. It's what they did everyday, all day. My one contribution to their feasts was home-baked cornbread (the Tassajara breadbook recipe that I still use), for L's dad who was diabetic. I left out the honey, and he loved it. We were a fine little patchwork family that summer. I loved them for their graciousness, their solitude, and their resilience.

That summer I met my first husband, and we fell in love. I left J & M's, and we rented an off-season beach house in Connecticut on Long Island sound, while he studied film at the University of Bridgeport. L's parents came up to visit us that fall. It was the only time I photographed them, and the last time I ever saw them. L's dad died in the late 90s, and today her mom has Alzheimers. This is the poem I wrote about L's dad in 1995, and just sent to her.


His wrist with the tattooed numbers
reached across the fine table
over delicate linens
laid with silver and crystal
for yet another serving
of his favorite: chicken paprika

He said he put Auschwitz behind him
refused reparations and inherent entanglements
joked that the indelible blue number
was merely the zipcode for Shreveport, Louisiana
a place he should maybe visit, someday...

...but certainly not before he has cracked every chicken bone
drawn the precious marrow to his tongue,
sopped up the gravy with the remaining black bread,
picked up his dinner plate
and licked it clean.

L told me that the poem definitely captured a part of her father. She said that after he died, she was frantic that she had not thought to write down that number. That tattooed number. The hell writing on his skin that had become an essential part of him. But she found it in a photograph and wrote it down. 17710. His number.


  1. What an incredibly moving piece, Robin! This is not just a simple blog post; this, my friend, is literature of the highest order.

  2. Thank you so much, John. I wish the original comments to this post hadn't disappeared when we switched from haloscan to blogger comments. Interestingly, when I read this post I am struck by how much I remembered, and how much I have forgotten since then. This old brain ain't what it used to be. I am glad I have this record.