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.