It is a stunning fall morning here in New England, air crisp, the leaves shot through with sunlight, glowing...and my father is not rising to eat his morning oat bran chased by a glass of orange juice. He is not putting on his khakis, worn brown belt, button-down with one of his older ties dating from the seventies, and blue blazer. He is not taking his stack of graded papers tied together with multi-colored rubber bands and heading out the door to the community college where he's worked for more than forty years. He is not listening to Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel on the stereo of his Saab as he drives with the controlled aggression and skill of the high school football player he once was, and he is not swinging into the parking lot he's entered so many fall mornings nobody could count, eager to begin his day.
No one says, "Hi Professor Bobkoff," as they pass a tall, curly-headed man walking along the campus path, broad shouldered, moving with the stiff, determined gait of an athlete, leaning forward, steps energized by thoughts of his lesson plans. My father will surely take the stairs, sometimes two at a time, to the top floor of the classroom building where he will enter a room of fresh-faced kids and take the helm of Comp. and Lit. 1, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, or his famous Holocaust Studies. His teaching will be fair, humorous, detailed yet easy to follow, spiced with classroom games that keep the students engaged, the same way he made games for me that took the boredom out of learning.
I will never forget Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, because my father paid me a quarter for every composer I could guess, especially if I could do it within the first measures, and Humperdinck was the one I did not know--I was ten, sitting in the back seat of his car, listening to the opera, and I was stumped, furiously stumped. Finally my father told me this odd name, Engelbert Humperdinck, a name no mother should ever give her child, a name as strange as Rumpelstiltskin, and befitting the composer of an opera based off a fairy tale.
My father's lessons were never forgotten. In particular I recall the entire year of third grade in which I could not, for the life of me, learn to alphabetize. I delegated every assignment to the children sitting next to me and managed to somehow slip under the teacher's radar until that fateful spring afternoon when she forced me to find something in the dictionary, standing over me, peering down through her spectacles, as I rifled through the pages, nervous fingers flipping, turning, pretending, until I finally came up blank. A note was sent home to my parents: "Julia did not learn to alphabetize the entire school year. We need to address this issue immediately." And my father did address it immediately. Within one hour of sitting beside him on our white couch, through his patient, step by step instructions that made so much more sense to me than my teacher's, I suddenly saw the light, and from then on could find a book in the library or a perfect word for my writing in a thesaurus, or a poet's dictionary.
I still remember that little red book of rhymes, a gift from my father, to aid me with my poetry writing. I would sit every weekend at my little red desk that matched my little red book and write stanza upon stanza, one of my fourth grade epics entitled: "The Quest for Companionship," a phrase that elicited a laugh from my father as he leaned over my shoulder one day. I was deeply insulted. How could my father laugh at my work, at the sense of loneliness I had spent days trying to capture in words, that longing for a kindred mind or soul? I pointed out that I had used a new word he taught me earlier that day--cavalcade. He read the line aloud, with his perfect cadences, the voice of a seasoned lover of literature: "A cavalcade of tender leaves enclosed above my head." When my father read this, I could imagine an audience of rapt listeners. He smiled at me and suddenly the sting of his laughter was gone. Pride zinged through every cell of my body as I returned with renewed vigor to the composing of twenty stanzas.
I still remember that number and how hard the task I set myself seemed, but I did complete it and my teacher, Mrs. Gochman, added the poem to her collection of my work in her special file cabinet, the one where she forever saved the brilliant offerings of her most talented students. Like my father, Mrs. Gochman seemed to believe that I had a special call to use words to impact the world. Years later, when I was in a difficult slump, having left film school, ill, and struggling to write screenplays while raising three children, an envelope would arrive in the mail, addressed in Mrs. Gochman's looping script, and inside I would find the carefully preserved poems and drawings I gave her so many years ago. A note was enclosed, encouraging me to continue to write and follow my dreams and let her know how things turned out.
And how does life turn out? Sometimes your heroes die. They just do. Until his very last days my father continued to push himself to teach. He could no longer drive due to the side effects of powerful cancer medications. His feet hurt when he walked, the soles tenderized by the pills he took. He told me that he felt about ninety years old and that sometimes he pretended to stop along the college path and admire a fall leaf twisting down so as to fool the student body into thinking he was simply lost in professorial thought rather than too ill and in pain, too riddled with tumors, too near death to move one leg in front of the other. Though I am sure all his doctors told him to give up and resign himself to his bed, my father willed himself with that steely will, the will of a competitive athlete, the will of a man who never gave up, the will of the father who taught me to slam that tennis ball over the net even if there was no hope of winning the set, to hit that baseball out of the park even if the game was not weighted in my favor, to run as hard as I could across the finish line of the fifty-yard dash even if my shins were fractured, as they were in college, even if they were bound with tape and fractured further with every step, for it was more important to finish one's tasks, to cross the last line, to go out with a bang, than to give in with a sigh. So my father would stand there, waiting until the power of his call to teach overwhelmed the sting of approaching death, and he could press forward along the path, open the door of the classroom building, nod one more time at the lady at the front desk who always loved him, take those firm steps, perhaps this time to the elevator, enter the classroom now, place his papers on the desk, turn to the wide-eyed faces that never suspected a thing was amiss, try to hold his tears in check, and begin, "Today we are reading Pudd'nhead Wilson...does anyone know why its author, Samuel Clemens, chose the pen name Mark Twain?"
A silence in the room, the waiting for his answer, just as I once waited at the breakfast table, staring into my Cheerios, stumped, yet again, by his questions.
"Samuel Clemens worked as a riverboat captain on the Mississippi River. He loved his job. In fact, if it hadn't been for the outbreak of the Civil War, he might never have left and eventually become the famous writer we now know. But back to the story of his name. When a boat captain was not sure if his vessel could pass through certain depths of water, he would drop a weighted measure, each degree marked with a special name. Mark Twain was the minimum depth the riverboat paddle wheels needed to travel safely to their destination. It was a favorite name amongst captains: Mark Twain."
When my father said that name it always rolled off his tongue with a certain resonance...with the love he possessed for the author, and for the teaching of his stories, year after year.
And now, as I put my pen to the page, only months from my father's death, I hear those riverboat captains still calling across the Mississippi: "Mark Twain...."
The depths that are necessary, the depths by which we choose to still travel forward to our port.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle, Out of the Ninth-month midnight, Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander'd alone, bareheaded, barefoot...
My Russian grandmother, Tessie, born in the winter of 1911 with a shock of wild, red hair, raised with her sister Jennie in the Bronx and a slew of brothers, gave me the gift of Walt Whitman.
It was a large volume, heavy in hand, illustrated with modern photos that Whitman could never have imagined when he first composed these lines.
Out of the cradle...
What does this mean: Out of the cradle?
I think of cradle gifts...not just our God-given talents, for some the ability to shape thoughts into perfect sentences with a stubby, bitten-down number 2 pencil, or the determination to saw away with a barely rosined bow on a quarter-size rental, the relentless Suzuki beat that morphs into high school symphonies and eventually the scholarship to Eastman...
But sometimes much simpler pleasures, like the gift of mimicry, my brother imitating Carol Burnett, making me laugh so hard in the back seat of our Volvo on the way to Martha's Vineyard that I almost wet the mustard yellow seats (guess it would have just blended in)...
A gift, so deceptive in its simplicity that I never would have guessed driving that day to our happy, childhood retreat, that years later he would stand before the congregation at our father's funeral--a simple pine box with the star of David before us--and use that humor to save the downward spiral of his eulogy, so that when we all thought the pain of memory would kill us, the laughter brought us up hard again, and we could remember with some joy. Yes, it is gifts like these that hold us in good stead.
Cradle gifts...out of the cradle endlessly rocking the gifts rise, with a murmur or a sigh, as a mother or a father bends down to kiss us, and lift us...
Gifts that gain strength in childhood when we rise from the skinned knee, throw that strike, climb a tree, leap the puddle, kick up leaves, or stand up and speak boldly at show and tell, or secretly write on the bathroom wall...
Gifts of friendship: point shoes, dog-eared books, skating on the black-ice pond. Gifts of poems tucked with frantic love into another's desk. A red leaf pressed in a book and given to our mother. And that strange gift of a punch to the solar plexus that wakes us up hard on the playground.
And if not de-railed, these gifts become our life-song, journals written under the covers with a flashlight become the novel, the plastic doctor's kit exchanged for a metal stethoscope hung around the neck of the exhausted intern. We become our gifts and the gifts become us--and that is how the world will know us in the end.
My father was a professor and he posted carefully chosen snippets from newspaper articles, little phrases and things that caught his eye, on my brother's bedroom door. I remember this one phrase in particular: "To be young, gifted, and Ben."
And the statement beneath it, based off of his middle name: "Mark the Spark."
These were not the ramblings or strange hobby of a man that made his living by words. This was my father's poetry--his way of marking the doorpost of my brother's life, and mine too, also covered in phrases like "Jumping Julie." My father wrote our cradle gifts on our doors. Ben remains young despite the death of our father, and he is a gifted teacher and photographer; he is and shall always shall be: Ben. His name shines like a cinder in the dark--he's the spark.
And just the other day, so sad about my father's passing, I pushed my way out through the surf at our local beach and fought back my fear of the waves--I jumped them like a little kid. I was the only one out in the ocean, no one else would brave it, and I jumped and jumped and jumped until the grief jumped back a little.
Then I remembered what he called me and I understood it better.
My father took that solid Walt Whitman anthology off my shelf when I was fifteen and underlined key passages in his blue, ballpoint pen.
I could not believe he would mark up my book like that! My sacred book gifted from his mother to me!
Then I found out why...when he read from that book at her graveside, before the mourner's kaddish floated over our heads and carried our grief up and out. I still recall the measured cadence of his voice:
A few light kisses.... a few embraces.... reaching around of arms, The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag...
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood. Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.
I don't like when childhood seems to end.
The child must leave his bed, wander alone, bareheaded, barefoot...
There are so many good-byes, but I especially remember a sweet hello.
It was the day I met my youngest brother.
I was fourteen, only a year away from losing my grandma Tessie, but I did not know that then. I did not even suspect that the strange fevers and the wasting away, the desire to stay indoors, the disinterest or lack of energy to color her hair that rooster red, were all signs of the sadness to come. When I was fourteen all I could think about was the imminent arrival of my new sibling.
I remember that December afternoon, following my father into the hospital, down a long hallway to the baby ward. I remember the glass wall, approaching it, pressing my nose against the glass, and my father saying, "Can you guess which is your brother?"
It was a scary question. What if I got it wrong? It would almost seem like a sacrilege to not know him instantly. My eyes ran to and fro over the faces of all the little babies wrapped up in their pink and blue blankets. My heart was racing like an overwound watch, every cog tight--and then I saw him: he had an almost tan colored skin, and he was lying in profile his face turned to the right, so that I noticed the slant of his nose, which reminded me of my father, and I knew it was him. I pointed and my father smiled with delight. His daughter had passed the test and, being adopted, I am sure my father was thrilled that blood seemed to recognize blood. That was a sweet hello indeed, standing there with my dad and my little brother...my little cradle gift.
And what was the name my father posted over Dan's door? "Dan the Man."
Yes, Dan the man, now a tall, wide-eyed young man, shouldering the new responsibility of protecting my mother as she enters the long corridor of widowhood.
And it is a long, long corridor, full of shadows, shifty and gray. It makes me sad to see her walking there, bereft, longing for my father.
Dan came into the world as a special gift for many, but especially for her.
Julia, Benjamin, Daniel--we all stand around her, my mother's cradle gifts. My father wanted desperately to have children--he longed for blood relatives above all other things, and when we came into the world he never stopped snapping photos of us, recording our little voices on tape and our antics on super 8 film.
I suppose this blog is my gift to him, a memorial of sorts, a love song, a eulogy, a passing on of the torch as I also keep a record, like he did, of what we were and will, I hope, continue to be.
Like my father I am a writer and a teacher, and everything he ever taught me, invested in me, all my cradle gifts, shall appear here, in some form, as a gift to you.
From this cradle to yours--here is my blog.