Coming Home

I am writing from Massachusetts! The dog, the cat, and I drove up from Virginia on Tuesday.

For the past couple of years I have missed spring in my hometown, mostly because of my mother’s health. Last year, for example, she was sick pretty much nonstop from March until late June. So we stayed in Virginia. We did see Virginia daffodils, but somehow the daffodils of home are always sweeter and yellower.

This year I was determined to take in some of the spring sights and smells in New England. I knew I couldn’t travel north until after last Saturday since I had committed myself to singing in a fundraiser in Virginia.

This is SUPPOSED to be a glamorous photo of me singing. My brother had technical difficulties, however. Next time, we'll pack a better camera--and I'll try to put on more makeup and stand still occasionally while performing.

I hoped that at least some of the Massachusetts daffodils would wait for me. They did!

As I drove through New York into Massachusetts spring greeted me. Leaves were just unfurling onto trees. Forsythia popped out in yards. Daffodils gently nodded in the breeze. To cap it all, the sky was cloudy so the light was almost always filtered, making the colors on the ground appear miraculous.

When I got home I even found violets underfoot.

To tell you the truth, I have mixed feelings about all this spring beauty. Part of me is sad that my mother can’t enjoy it this year. Like me, she cherished the promise of spring’s light green leaves and lawns.

On the other hand, I am HUGELY enjoying my little cat’s reactions to the spring air, the car ride, and her home in Massachusetts.

The start of our journey wasn’t entirely promising. Miss Rhubarb had never been in the car for very long, and she got bored after about an hour and a half. She was also miffed that I was unwilling to let her climb on the dashboard. After lunch, she blessedly decided to lie down next to her dog and nap, which she did for most of the rest of the trip.

When she arrived in Hawley late Tuesday afternoon, she was mesmerized. She had never seen grass up close and immediately decided that it is one of her favorite things. As for the house … after life in an apartment it seems to hold unlimited promise. So many rooms to explore, so many windows to gaze out of, so many piles of things to knock over!

She spent all of Tuesday night and most of yesterday exploring. She would return to me from time to time for food or a session of purring; then she would resume her walkabout.

Last evening she finally found an afghan in which to curl up and rest. She finally slept … and stayed asleep until morning.

Today she is wide awake again, nibbling on the pot of rosemary in the living room and taking in the sunshine through the windows. She makes me smile pretty much nonstop—and I know she would make my mother smile.

Perching in between them mentally, I feel ready to celebrate the season. And I’m even more determined than ever to get lots of work done so that I can afford to keep my lovely home in the country!

Getting ready to sleep at last......

A Letter from My Father

I couldn't find any photographs of my father in 1941, but the ones in this post come pretty close: my mother took them in 1942, when the two were first dating.

Some days I just love the internet. Thanks to that magical web—and to the research and kindness of a woman named Joan Weissman—I recently caught a glimpse of my father in his youth.

Joan is a textile artist who lives in New Mexico. Last week she emailed me out of the blue to ask whether my father had lived on West 108th Street in New York in the early 1940s. She had discovered a letter from an Abe Weisblat living there addressed to her mother and had found my contact information on the internet.

My brother did a little quick research and established that the Abe Weisblat in question was indeed our father. Joan supplied more information.

Her mother, Mata Rubin, was born in Poland but lived in Romania until she was 16. At that point Mata and her family moved to various locations before settling in New York, where she went to high school in the early 1940s.

Joanie (you can tell we’re already friends since I’m calling her Joanie!) told us that her mother hadn’t talked much about her past and had died of cancer in 1970, when her children were teenagers. Their father had kept souvenirs of Mata’s past in a box but had found looking at it painful. Now, after his death, Joan and her two siblings are going through the box and digging up details of their mother’s youth.

“Obviously, there was a lot of trauma,” Joanie wrote, “but from the letters I’m now discovering, she also had wonderful friends during the war years, and many meaningful relationships we knew nothing about.”

Apparently, my father was one of those friends. The letter from Abe to Mata was postmarked in 1941, when Mata was just 18 and Abe was 21. Joan mailed us a copy.

I had a feeling the letter was going to be pretty special when I read Joanie’s original note about it. She wrote that “the most surprising thing [was] that his heartfelt letter from 1941 seems to predict exactly the kind of person he would become, and the work he did. So, when I read his bio, I was sure it was the same Abe Weisblat.”

Here is a segment of the letter. In it my father is describing a trip he has taken to the Mid-Atlantic and New England states (with a brief stopover in Canada). I have corrected Abe’s spelling and punctuation just a little, something he frequently asked my mother or me to do. (He was a wonderful talker but not a polished writer.)

This country, especially in Vermont and New Hampshire, seems to be just as it might have been a hundred years ago. All you see for miles is mountains, green fields, more mountains, more green fields. Imagine going to a place where, when you want to wash in the morning, you have to go down to the lake with some soap—or in the better places, you have a bowl and a pitcher of cold water to wash yourself—a place where there are more cows than people (that’s true in the state of Vermont), where the kids go to the movies in their bare feet—and places where they don’t think at all about the war! They argue they have more important things to think of—their cows and their crops.

I could go on and on, but the point is that here are people that I have been looking for, people not interested in just going further economically, or becoming powerful. They’re poor, but they have enough to eat from their crops, and so they are satisfied with life. They don’t have to worry about hating people. Above all they are real people—people that could not be false. Maybe it’s because they live so near to the soil, and so haven’t been too much affected by our industrial life.

Ye Gads! I’d better stop this raving, before you think I have become completely mad. The point I wish to make is that in your letter you’re afraid that you won’t meet the real people, because they don’t exist. But believe me, Mata, they do. And when you meet them you will realize how wonderful they are, and how we who think we are the smart ones are but empty shells.

In some ways Mata’s letter was written by the man I knew in later years. It foreshadows my father’s career in agricultural economics, a field that wasn’t at all “natural” for a Jewish boy from New York City but that fascinated him all his life. It also demonstrates the enthusiasm and heart he always showed to his family, colleagues, and friends.

And yet … this document is also the letter of a stranger to me, an idealistic youth (with perhaps a slight bent toward socialism?) who displays a touching naivety.

The combination of old and Abe young Abe moved me. We seldom get to see the trajectory of our parents’ lives with clarity. I only knew Abe in his maturity; my parents waited a long time to have children!

It shocked me a little but pleased me greatly to get a glimpse of young Abe … looking out into the landscape of the country and his life with happy expectancy.

I am grateful to Mata for keeping the letter and to Joanie for getting in touch with me. Most of all, I’m grateful to my father for being such a rich role model. I plan to keep on cultivating the traits he exhibited in his letter to Mata—curiosity, optimism, warm heartedness, and enthusiasm.

My father certainly never smoked a pipe when I knew him--so either he smoked the things only briefly or this is a pose. (I lean toward the latter!)

Straightening Myself Out

Busy kittens can make their companions tired.

I don’t know how many of you out there cry on a regular basis. I’m not a frequent crier—and I think by and large I’m doing pretty well adjusting to being an orphan. Nevertheless, every once in a while I involuntarily turn on the waterworks. They came roaring out at about midnight a couple of nights ago.

A contributing cause for my tear fest was my adorable but sometimes maddening three-and-a-half-month-old kitten, Rhubarb. Like many babies of different species, she can’t manage to sleep through the night.

It doesn’t seem to matter what time we go to bed or how much I play with her in the evening before retiring. After three or four hours of shuteye (occasionally five if I’m really lucky!) she transforms herself from sleepy kitten to attack cat, pouncing on Truffle the Dog and me as we attempt to finish our night’s sleep.

If I lock her out of the room, wails of anguish fill the apartment. If I allow her to stay in the room, the mayhem continues until I’m ready to get up in the morning. At that point Ruby quietly curls up for a nap.

I know she will grow up soon. Meanwhile I’m perennially a bit groggy.

The other night I as was getting ready to go to bed I decide to search for the charger for one of my (too) many electronic devices. I ended up in the kitchen—not the neatest room in the house. As I lifted clean laundry to search underneath I managed to hit one of the wine glasses hanging on the rack above the kitchen counter. The small goblet fell to the ground and shattered into myriad pieces.

The broken glass wasn’t one of my late mother’s best—I’d guess that it dated from the 20th century, not the 19th—but it was graceful and attractive, with a curved cranberry cup and a clear stem. Its set was one of the few for which my mother owned twelve matching glasses. My brother and I now have eleven left.

The remaining glasses still hang in the kitchen. (They aren't this messy looking in real life; it's hard to take photos of glass!)

As I swept up the shards—or most of them; I found another just this morning—I berated myself.

I was a terrible daughter, I thought. I couldn’t take care of my mother’s things. I couldn’t even manage to put away my clean laundry—something that would have appalled her. I started crying, and for a little while, despite the dog and cat’s best efforts, I was inconsolable.

I put on my nightgown and washed my face as I cried. As I dripped down onto the bed with the animals around me, I recalled my mother’s attitude toward tears.

An eminently practical woman, she had absolutely no use for weeping. I decided that if she were looking down at me from heaven, she would more upset by the tears than by the broken glass. I have broken things all my life, and thanks to that practical streak she was pretty much resigned to the breakage.

I looked at the walls around me and noted that the pictures were all crooked. Worse than tears in my mother’s opinion were crooked pictures. She spent a lot of time adjusting them on the walls.

I got up off the bed and gently straightened the paintings. The worst offender, a portrait of me when I was 13 by M.F. Husain, looked a lot better when it wasn’t crooked.

Somehow the act of putting it into alignment it made me feel a little straighter myself. The tears subsided, and I went to sleep … at least until Miss R. decided it was time to start playing.

Lessons learned:

1. Action is better than moping.

2. Be useful rather than tearful. (This is really the same as lesson one–blame my kitten-induced fatigue!–but it sounds more positive.)

3. Put away the laundry as soon as you fold it. (This one is taking me a while to learn. A new pile has formed in the kitchen.)

4. DO NOT start search for things when you are tired. (This one I have taken to heart.)

I look--and feel--better when I'm in alignment.

Time and Talent

Here I rehearse for my upcoming Virginia concert with pianist Patty Pulju.

As readers know, I’m spending this year evaluating my career prospects and figuring out how I can (whether I can?) make a happy and lucrative living in the years to come.

Part of this process involves figuring out what I do well. Being me and therefore a bit too introspective for my own good, I’m not just wondering what I do well. I’m also wondering what it means to do something well.

How much of what we are and do is nature? How much is nurture? How much is the perspiration so beloved of Thomas Alva Edison?

My two greatest strengths—the ones that have brought me the most satisfaction in the past—are my writing and my singing.

To an extent I was born with both of these—or at least trained to them. My mother was an excellent writer; my father, an excellent talker. They brought me up in a household that abounded with grammar, editing skills, and imagination (not to mention humor).

My family sang all the time—in the house, in the car, at bedtime. My grandmother considered becoming an opera singer. She serenaded us with a sweet, strong soprano voice she passed along to several of her children and grandchildren.

I recall family song nights around the piano in her house … and in the Play House at my summer home of Singing Brook Farm. There music flowed all around, like the brook that gave the farm its name or the rolling hills that sheltered us like a cradle.

Of course, I pride myself on working at both crafts. I’m a rapid and intuitive writer, but I do spend time planning what I write—and editing it into better form. Likewise, I work at my singing: I rehearse often, recording songs about which I am unsure so I can hear the points at which my voice flags or goes off key.

I also spend time researching the original context in which my songs were written and performed. I don’t want to imitate the original singers, but I do want to understand why they did what they did—and why the composers made the choices they did—as I work on my own interpretations.

Nevertheless, I know that I wouldn’t be doing this work, improving my prose and my voice, if I didn’t have a basic skill set to work with.

So … do I have any right to be proud of what I do? My talent is just … a talent, an innate ability that I may help along but can’t really take credit for. In a sense every day I just borrow my mother’s writing voice and my grandmother’s singing voice.

I find some solace in the OTHER definition of talent—not “natural ability” but (here I quote Merriam-Webster) “any of several ancient units of weight” or “a unit of value equal to the value of a talent of gold or silver.” In other words, talent is not just something we inherit. It’s something we spend.

It’s up to me to use my talent well, to spend my artistic resources wisely and productively. This is a true challenge for me. One of my other natural talents is for spining wheels. I’m apt to waste both money and time.

I hope at the end of this year I will be able to say that I am proud of the ways in which I used my talent.

Readers, what are you proud of? How do you feel about your own talents?