A Centennial Celebration (with a little sadness)

Judy Garland would have turned 100 on June 10 … if she had lived. She died of a barbiturate overdose at the age of 47.

I adored Garland from the time I saw The Wizard of Oz when I was four. As Dorothy she was everything I wanted to be—spirited, brave yet vulnerable, and gifted with a singing voice that could melt the hardest heart. Over the years, I have seen just about every film she made and have heard most of her recordings.

To this day, when I’m learning a new song and haven’t achieved the resonance I want in my voice, I tell myself, “Judy.” It’s a reminder emulate a performance that always seemed heartfelt and honest.

One of Garland’s most memorable performances comes toward the end of the 1950 film Summer Stock. It’s a fantastic, peppy number, and Garland looks like a million dollars.

She wears a fedora angled over her face, a short black suit that shows off her remarkable legs, and high heels that step all over the male chorus around her. In the rest of the film, she has been slightly plump and has worn remarkably dowdy dresses. Suddenly, in one number, she transforms from Plain Jane to Femme Fatale.

And therein lies the rub. Apparently, “Get Happy” was shot weeks after the rest of Summer Stock. In the intervening time, Garland followed a lifelong pattern and crash dieted, aided by the pills Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had been feeding her since putting her under contract in 1935.

It’s hard to enjoy that wonderful performance and not acknowledge that her appearance reflects the emotional fragility and dependence on drugs that eventually killed her.

In fact, it’s hard to appreciate her entire career—and all of classic Hollywood—without being aware of the ways in which the studios exploited workers like Garland. Hollywood was called “The Dream Factory.” A factory that makes dreams is still a factory.

Still, I choose to follow Judy Garland’s daughters in celebrating their mother’s resilience, humor, and willingness to invite the world to share her emotions and musical gifts. I’ll smile as I sing “Get Happy” on Friday night even as my heart breaks a little for a woman who should have lived longer.

To hear me read this essay on our local public-radio station, click here.

Hard Times, Come Again No More

Laughing with Jerry after Our Concert

Lin-Manuel Miranda recently said, “We’re all like Tinker Bell in the play Peter Pan. We need applause to live.”

The creator and star of Hamilton was talking about Broadway performers. I perform off-off-off-off-off (feel free to add additional “off”s!) Broadway, in rural western Massachusetts. Yet I know exactly what he meant.

I recently gave my first vocal concert in more than a year and a half. Pianist Jerry Noble and I rounded out the summer season for our local chamber-music series, Mohawk Trail Concerts. We weren’t certain, going in, whether it would take place inside or outside the 1845 Federated Church in Charlemont. Fortunately, Jerry and I were able to perform indoors. I have a strong voice, but trucks and motorcycles drive by the church. I’m not sure I’m loud enough to compete.

The way things are going, a few weeks later we might have had to move the event outside. Still, for one magical hour and a half we enjoyed the church’s excellent acoustics and a feeling of community. The audience was masked, and Jerry and I positioned ourselves 12 feet from the closest listeners.

Our program consisted of music we had hoped to perform throughout the lockdown but could only practice in solitude in our homes. It alternated between peppy, comic songs and slow numbers. The evening was anchored by Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times, Come Again No More.”

Foster wrote the song in 1854. He was having personal and career problems. His home city of Pittsburgh suffered the double blows of a recession and a cholera epidemic. Looming over all this was the unresolved issue of slavery, which would plunge the nation into civil war a few years later. It was, in short, a time not unlike recent months. Foster’s lyrics urged Americans to pay attention to the woes around them.

The audience responded to our show with laughter, tears, and joy. One listener later wrote to me, “When you started off with “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” I thought I had died and gone to heaven, it was so beautiful. And so went the rest of the concert….”

I’m good, but I’m not that good. I think this woman and the other audience members were desperate for live music, as were Jerry and I.

I asked those gathered to hum along through their masks during the last song, “Over the Rainbow.” They did so quietly, so quietly that I’m not sure I could actually hear them. I could feel them, however.

The room reverberated with what musical-theater icon Audra McDonald calls “the holy communion between the audience and the artist.” That feeling was almost better than applause, although happily we had plenty of applause as well. And like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tinker Bell, we came to life.

Many days have you lingered around my cabin door. Oh, Hard Times, come again no more.

To hear a version of this essay on our local public-radio station, please click here.

Farewell, COVID Hair!

In many ways, the pandemic has been character building for me as it has for many others. Despite losing income, I have been more determined than usual to give to my local food pantry. I have reached out to older friends, relatives, and neighbors—sharing food, offering to run errands, or just acting as a sounding board.

In December, I sang Christmas carols by telephone, knowing that carolers wouldn’t be able to make their usual rounds. And I have done my best to support those who lost friends and family members to COVID-19.

I’m looking forward to doing great things as we all emerge (we hope!) from quarantine. I will hug people. I will feed them in person. I will perform again; I have been asked to sing an outdoor concert this summer! I will finish my current book.

I’m also looking forward to showing off something a little less grand. I recently went to the hairdresser and got rid of my COVID hair.

Over the past months, my hair had become shaggier and shaggier … and grayer and grayer. Only so much of the gray could be hidden by hats.

I have always detested and feared gray hair. I inherited mine from my father, whose coiffure looked like nothing so much as a pad of steel wool in his later years.

I remember the exact moment at which I first noticed silver threads among the brown on my head. I was in my mid-20s, and I was driving along a highway in Tennessee, where I lived at the time. I caught a glimpse of gray in the rear-view mirror. I was so shocked that I almost ran my car off the road.

I called my mother and told her what had happened. I should have known better. My mother had little sympathy for vanity … and her own hair didn’t start to show any gray until she was around 70.

So my pragmatic parent asked, “Is the car all right?”

I was appalled. “Your daughter is on her way to an early death, and you ask about an inanimate object?” I responded.

I began dying my hair at home. After what I call the “unfortunate incident” (the chemicals in an old package of dye exploded, terrifying me and forcing me to scrub the bathroom for days), I outsourced my coloring to my hairdresser, Hana.

It was she who restored my brown color last week.

I can’t describe my joy at looking in the mirror and seeing my true self once more.

I know I should feel petty. Hair color isn’t an earth-shattering matter. Instead, I feel like a million bucks.

Now, I just have to get rid of the COVID weight…..

Small-Town Democracy in Action

My commentary editor at New England Public Media suggested I write about my experience working at the election this past Tuesday in my tiny hamlet of Hawley, Massachusetts. Here’s what I came up with. If you’d like to listen instead of reading my report (it’s a fun listen, I promise!), visit this link.

On Tuesday I worked the afternoon and evening shift—from 2 p.m. until 10:45, when all of the votes had been counted … and recounted … and checked once more.

I don’t actually love tabulating the votes. I do love seeing other townspeople … especially during this pandemic year when we don’t get to meet often. And I enjoy knowing that I’m helping democracy function.

Hawley cast 231 votes, a record in this town of 330 people. 82 percent of the electorate turned out or voted early by mail or in person.

Six people worked our shift: the town clerk, her election supervisor, and four people manning the registration and voting tables. My job was simple: turn the crank in our ballot box when someone placed a ballot in the slot.

Around 5:30 the supervisor took over my post briefly while I zipped home to heat up quiche for everyone. My dog and cat were thrilled by this assignment.

Most of the day was quiet. In between clumps of voters we processed the early and mail-in votes, more than half of the total.

We came across one ballot that represented the fear of many in our country: it came from a dead person. Margaret Eggert passed away in her sleep a couple of weeks ago, but not before sending in her ballot. Town clerk Pam Shrimpton explained that according to the state we could still honor Margaret’s electoral wishes.

The rest of the time was spent sharing news of our neighbors, crocheting, and contemplating the election. We discussed the pros and cons of the Electoral College. Most of us agreed that it seemed out of whack, but as residents of a small town in a big state we could see its virtues.

Our oldest poll worker, nonagenarian Elvira Scott, met one of her neighbors for the first time when he voted that evening. “When I was little, we knew everybody,” she mused.

Despite the sadness in her voice, I was heartened. There were few voters no one knew, and the day gave townspeople a chance to greet each other, support the historical society through its bake sale, and come together with a joint purpose.

I wish we could replicate this experience on a national level. Well, maybe not the bake sale. I don’t think I could make enough oatmeal cookies.

A Little Fruitcake


Making fruitcake with my mother a few years back.

Here are two versions of my meditation on fruitcake, something my mother made yearly and I still make. Yes, I know not everyone is fond of fruitcake. I don’t eat it often myself, but I have relatives and friends who rely on getting it every Christmas. And it has special meaning and memories for me.

Below you’ll see the version that appeared in my local newspaper, the Greenfield Recorder, today. I also recorded a slightly different (and shorter) audio version recently for my local public radio station. You may hear that at https://www.nepr.net/post/fruitcake-does-anyone-it-does-it-matter.

They were both written (and in the case of the radio version read) with heart. Happy holidays. I wish you fun times in the kitchen and elsewhere!


Fruitcake is often the subject of jokes. I have been known to sing the novelty song “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake” at this time of year myself. Nevertheless, in my family baking fruitcake is a sacred (and fun) yearly ritual that connects me to my late mother Jan and to her late mother Clara.

It’s as much about that chain of bakers as it is about the sweet, fruity concoction it produces.

I’m sure I’m not the only fruitcake baker to have fallen in love with Truman Capote’s story from 1956, “A Christmas Memory.”

This reminiscence sketches the loving relationship in the 1930s between Capote as a child and his cousin, Sook Faulk. Mentally and emotionally, the 60-odd-year-old woman was, as the author recalls, “still a child.”

The two are allies and best friends, misfits in a home of adults who are nameless in the tale and seem to care little for the odd couple in their midst. The highlight of each year for young Truman and his cousin/friend comes in the late fall.

The two break into their piggy banks, shop for ingredients, and bake 30 fruitcakes. The fruitcakes make their way out into the larger world, presented to people who seem interesting or significant to the bakers. These recipients range from an itinerant knife grinder to President Franklin Roosevelt.

The story is written in the present tense, giving the reader a sense of being a part of the bakers’ world and their fruitcake creation.

“It’s always the same,” Capote writes. “[A] morning arrives in late November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blazes of her heart, announces, ‘It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat.’”

I love the insight this story shows into the ways in which cooking and food can bind us to other people and to our recollections of those people.

The Truman Capote who is narrating is two decades and more than a thousand miles from his cousin’s memory. Toward the end of the story he explains that not long after the Christmas he recalls in minute detail he was sent away to school. She died before he could see her again.

Nevertheless, by telling the tale of their baking adventures—their marshaling of resources, the creation of their shopping list, their daunting encounter with the bootlegger who supplies the whiskey that preserves the cakes—he brings both his younger self and his beloved cousin back to life.

I’ve participated in a fair number of theatrical productions. The only time I ever had to wear waterproof mascara on a stage was when I played the part of the older cousin in readings of “A Christmas Memory.” I couldn’t make it to the tale’s end without crying. I still can’t.

In the story, Capote and his cousin keep scrapbooks of the thank-you notes they receive from the scattered recipients of their cakes, notes that give them a feeling of connection “to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.”

Cooking gives me that feeling of connection to others every day, but most of all when it’s fruitcake weather. My precise grandmother and my lively mother made fruitcake every year of their lives.

When I make it, I am once more surrounded by the warmth, love, and laughter that filled their kitchens. When I share it as a gift, I also share their legacy.

Father’s Day (and a Russian Lullaby)

With Father’s Day approaching, I can’t help thinking and writing about my late father, Abe Weisblat. I paid tribute to him this morning on our local public-radio station. You can listen to that brief broadcast here–or read a slightly expanded version of my thoughts below. 

My smart, funny father would have turned 100 this year. He has been dead for 20 years, and sometimes I almost forget what it was like to be around him. Then a sight or a taste or a sound brings him back in full force.

Improbably, one of these triggers is … herring. He and my mother were often separated by their work. My father wasn’t much of a cook. When he was on his own his customary evening meal was a martini with stuffed olives and a jar of pickled herring accompanied by matzo or crackers.

He found this a perfectly balanced meal, pointing out that it provided protein (the herring), fruit (the olives), and a vegetable (the pimientos in the olives). He was proud to note that if he ate the crackers straight out of the box and the herring straight out of the jar, he needed to wash only two things at the end of his repast: a glass and a fork.

Eating—or even just seeing—herring now brings him vividly to mind.

I also think of him when I hear composer Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby.” Like my father, Berlin was brought to this country as a child by immigrant Jewish parents. Both Berlin and my father hurled themselves into American culture.

My father highlighted his Jewish identity. He came of age in an era in which discrimination against Jews was rife in the United States, but he turned his frequent status as a token Jew to his advantage.

His charm and his professional skill at bringing disparate people together came in large part from his status as an outsider. He understood what it meant to be on the edge of society—and helped people celebrate both commonality and difference.

Berlin seems to have been a bit more cautious about his Jewishness, trying to fit into mainstream (a.k.a., WASP) American culture and even composing “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.” Some scholars and singers theorize that the title “Russian Lullaby” is actually code for “Jewish” or “Yiddish Lullaby.” The voice in the song is that of a mother singing to her baby about the possibility of a better life in a far-off land. The melody is minor and haunting, with a hint of Eastern Europe.

At a party in the 1980s, friends were trying to remember the lyrics. My father suddenly launched into the chorus. I don’t know that I had ever heard him sing all by himself before that. Like his personality, his singing voice was sweet and true.

This year I’m singing the song a lot in his memory. Sometimes I think I hear him singing along.

Rock-a-bye my baby.
Somewhere there may be
A land that’s free, for you and me,
And a Russian lullaby.


Armistice Day

I’m not a historian of wars in general, but I have always had a personal feeling for the tragedy that was World War I: a pointless, desperate conflict that produced a few great poems but snuffed out millions of lives. The anniversary of the Armistice is coming up so I stopped in at my local public-radio station, NEPR, to record a commentary about the war, its end, and the lessons it offers. You may listen to it here—or you may read a slightly expanded version below.

This week we remember a solemn time in world history. On November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m.—the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—an Armistice went into effect between German and Allied forces.

This agreement brought an end to what was called the Great War or the War to End All Wars. Obviously, the latter name didn’t stick, and the war was eventually renamed World War I in order to distinguish it from World War II and all the other conflicts that ensued.

If war is hell in general, soldiers in the Great War found themselves in one of Dante’s lowest levels of the inferno.

More than 16 million people died in the four years between 1914 and 1918. For much of the war’s duration, the front lines barely budged. Soldiers on the Western Front fought in muddy trenches, subject to disease, vermin, chemical weapons, shell shock, and of course the enemy’s bullets and bayonets. Millions of civilians were displaced from their homes; refugees streamed out of Belgium, Serbia, Russia, Armenia, and France.

When I was a little girl, soldiers from World War I still marched in Veterans’ Day parades. Many of them wore a poppy. The flower gained its significance from John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” This poem was written from the point of view of dead soldiers during the battle of Ypres in Belgium in 1915. McCrae himself would die later in the war.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place,” it begins.

The poppies in the poem remind us that nature endures despite the horrible things men do to each other. To me these bright red flowers also represent the spilled blood and lost hopes of the war dead.

What were the lessons of World War I?

That we should never rush into war. That we should never conflate patriotism and militarism. That we should consider civilian victims as well as soldiers. And above all that the victors in a conflict should avoid punishing the vanquished. That happened at the close of World War I—and it ended up contributing to the start of World War II.

I would like to think that we have learned at least some of these lessons. I know we have to try to master them, to train our individual and collective psyches to see war only as a last resort—and to pursue it, if we must, mindful of our own humanity, the humanity of civilians caught in the path of battle, and the humanity of those we fight.

We owe this to ourselves, to our children, and to the memory of those who gave their lives in the Great War and the wars that followed.

As McCrae concluded, “If you break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”

from the Canadian Centre for the Great War

Ashes to Ashes

Michael at Work

We buried my mother’s ashes on Saturday. They are now in the same plot as my father’s casket.

My family doesn’t always do things promptly. Jan/Taffy died in December 2011. We arranged for her name, dates, and epitaph (“Short and Full of Life”) to be added to my father’s stone the following year. The ashes have languished in the house ever since.

We were waiting until all four members of the immediate family could be in Massachusetts together long enough to accomplish the burial. When I learned that my brother David, my sister-in-law Leigh, and my nephew Michael planned to visit me this past weekend, I emailed our neighbor Paul, who coordinates burials for the Pudding Hollow Cemetery Association.

Paul asked me what time we would like the “ceremony” to take place. I laughed a little. We weren’t really envisioning a ceremony; we planned merely to pop the ashes into the ground and say a quick goodbye. We had held plenty of ceremonies in the year following her death.

In the end, the experience of burying the ashes did have a feeling of ceremony. Paul arranged for a hole of appropriate size to be dug at the grave site. He generously left us a shovel and the dirt that had been removed from the grave. The day was appropriately gray and drippy at the cemetery, a lovely serene place where I myself will be buried one day.

It was moving to be responsible for putting our mother into the ground ourselves and then covering her remains with dirt. I go to a lot of funerals and a lot of burials. This was the first I’ve attended at which no official was present at the actual interment. Having just the family there rendered the occasion intimate and sweet.

Placing the ashes in the grave and covering them ourselves felt like a final act of caring for Taffy, six and a half years after her death, an act that brought our family closer together. In tribute to our father’s Jewish roots, we ended our time at the grave by placing a few pebbles on the stone.

David Places a Stone

I wouldn’t recommend keeping ashes in the house for years as a general rule. Yet waiting did seem to help us. It made the death a little more remote and therefore less sad. We were touched, but we didn’t cry.

Waiting offered us a dividend: labor. Michael was 11 when his grandmother died. Today he is a strong 18 year old, and he did most of the shoveling and lifting.

I’ll be continuing to remember my mother in the next few weeks as we approach what would have been her 100th birthday on September 26. Next week, on Saturday, August 25, I’ll be singing a few of her favorite songs in a concert that salutes songs and people born in 1918.

I also evoked her memory this week on television when I prepared her favorite coffee cake, Blueberry Sally Lunn, and then showed off the recipe and video in a blog post.

I never feel that my mother is far away—but as I practice singing songs she loved, continue to nourish people with her recipes, and contemplate the headstone she shares with my father in the cemetery, I find new ways in which to celebrate her spirit and the gifts she left me.

A Cup of Kindness

Happy New Year!

We’re in the midst of a frigid early January in most of the eastern United States. The year is still new, however. I like to make resolutions in early winter. I don’t see these as punishments for the person I was in the past. They are simply guidelines for the person I hope to be in the future.

I have never wanted to join the throngs in Times Square and other metropolitan areas to see in the new year. My New Year’s Eves tend to be quiet and reflective. I don’t always manage to stay up until midnight. (As my father often pointed out, it’s always close to midnight somewhere in the world.)

I DO always sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Like people the world over, I find the song’s nostalgic words and tune appropriate for a time in which we look simultaneously to the past and the future.

I am struck by the words “a cup o’ kindness.” I know the cup in the song is definitely alcoholic. I like to think of it in different forms, however—a sweet cup of sugar or a rich cup of cream. Whatever the cup holds, it’s a delightful concept.

As I lift my own cup, I have many resolutions. I hope to launch my new rhubarb book with fun and flair this coming spring and to perform in a 1918 centennial concert in the summer. This year is replete with musical 100th birthdays, among them those of Leonard Bernstein, Alan J. Lerner, Robert Preston, and my mother.

Jan/Taffy wasn’t a musician, but she was a great lover of song. She sang every day of her life and taught me that practice as well.

Above all, I hope we can live in a world where we pass around cups of kindness daily: for Auld Lang Syne, to make the present sweeter and more peaceful, and to teach younger generations to share love and kindness on a daily basis.

Moving Beyond the Fairy Tale

All the recent press and TV coverage remembering the death of Princess Diana 20 years ago led me to dig up a column I wrote a few days after her fatal accident. It appeared in the West County News, a small but sturdy weekly newspaper based in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, on September 5, 1997. I have edited it slightly.

Like media watchers all over the world, I spent much of this past weekend glued to my television set, trying to figure out what I and others thought about the fatally photogenic woman who used to be married to the Prince of Wales. Although I never had much interest in her when she was alive—except perhaps to envy her for getting her face on a biscuit tin (see above)—I find that Princess Diana’s death has fascinated me.

At first glance, the famous, regal Diana doesn’t seem like a natural topic for an essay in the West County News. Royalty doesn’t visit our quiet country towns very often. Nevertheless, most little girls—even little girls from rural western Massachusetts—have at one time or another wanted to marry a prince. Diana’s life choices, therefore, offer a lesson to us all, even to me.

Actually, I personally never really wanted to marry a prince. When I was small I did, however, cherish a burning ambition to become our nation’s first lady. This aspiration stemmed in part from my family’s reverence for Eleanor Roosevelt, who was rightly viewed in our home as one of the major figures of 20th-century politics and society.

More importantly, looking back, I realize that my desire to act at the White House in a supporting role also came from the sex-role training of my childhood. First ladies didn’t directly seek power; they merely enjoyed influence. They operated in the traditional feminine realms of charity, entertainment, and social issues. And of course they spent a lot of time wearing nice dresses, getting their hair done, and posing for glamorous photos.

I gave up my desire to be first lady a few years ago when I realized that in order to achieve that dream I would have to marry a politician: most of these creatures are supremely unappealing to a girl of taste. Nevertheless, I never completely lost the notion somewhere in the back of my mind that first-ladyhood would be a fun and noble thing to practice.

A bit belatedly for me, since I’m supposed to be a feminist, a look back at Diana’s life has thrown into question the idea of being famous as someone’s adjunct—as a glamorous, supporting figure. To begin with, at any rate, her wifehood was her sole claim to fame, a claim staked through her beauty, youth, and aristocratic connections rather than through any qualities of character. She was definitely not a figure to emulate.

Eventually, the princess turned many of the negatives of her situation around and became more admirable. Elevated to high privilege, she managed to embrace people who were not privileged through her charitable work, using her arbitrary celebrity in a directed, life-affirming way.

Her exposure of her own eating disorder led her to challenge the superficial ideals of beauty and thinness that had in part brought her her crown and her prince—and the attention of the public.

Finally, her divorce from Prince Charles led her to demystify the notion of royalty far more effectively than any speeches by members of Parliament or by pseudo-radicals like me. (At my one and only exposure to royalty, a public appearance by Prince Charles around 1989, I yelled, “Free the Irish!” Nobody paid any attention.)

All of these breakthroughs proved two edged, however. Diana’s charity work was always overshadowed by the personal renown of the woman accomplishing it; she couldn’t expose the unfairness of her exalted station without taking advantage of that station.

Despite her frank discussion of her eating disorder, the princess was still prized above all for her beauty—and clearly reveled in her looks, as a spread in Vanity Fair shortly before her death showed. I have trouble believing that she had conquered her obsession with slenderness when I study recent photographs of an almost painfully thin Diana. At best, then, her message about beauty was mixed.

Finally, even after her divorce from Prince Charles and despite her protests against the stultifying living situation of the British royal family, her royalty remained her base of power. Hailed in obituaries as “the most famous woman in the world,” she was famous mostly for being famous. That skewed fame was, apparently, what killed her.

If Diana’s life and death teach us anything, it is that it is time for all girls and women—from 19-year-old English aristocrats to 30-something New England journalists—to find more healthy ambitions for ourselves than marrying princes and presidents. We must all move beyond the scenarios of fairy tales in planning our lives.

Of course, I’d still love to have my face on a biscuit tin—but I’ll see whether I can do it by being me rather than by marrying someone.

Not regal but happy.