There was a child went forth …

March 1958
March 1958

My concession to “Throwback Thursday” …

I had the good fortune to be born into a melting pot … “The Center of the Universe,” Mayor Lindsay called it. He was including my entire universe of five New York boroughs, a place filled with countless languages, omnipresent houses of worship, and restaurants as bland as The Green Tea Room and as chili-pepper vibrant as the La Fonda del Sol.

It was a wonderful place to start life. It sizzled. I loved it, though I was the most unhappening girl in that happening town, which teemed with beautiful, loveable multi-hued peoples from faraway places. We shared their foods and cultures. We learned something of their religions and history.

Because of the way immigration flows into the U.S. in response to wars, oppression or economics, in that day our doctors tended to be Jews or Catholics; our bakers German and French; and our ethnic restaurants, Greek, Italian and Russian. Our Chinese restaurants were Cantonese. We didn’t know from Schezwan or Henan. Our deli’s were generally Jewish or (in Bay Ridge) Norwegian. The Italians, of course, had their “pork stores.”

The ubiquitous newsstands and corner candy stores of that time and place were mostly owned by Eastern Europeans and Russian Jews with an occasional Puerto Rican or Irishman throwing himself into the mix here and there. A succession of such candy stores were owned by one Judah Asimov, Isaac Asimov’s daddy.

The candy store closest to us was owned by another Russian Jew who was the cantor at the local synagogue. He kept his store open until late at night and had the habit of practicing after dark. In the silence of cold snow-laden winter nights we occasionally caught his song wending its way along 86th Street. The beauty of that man celebrating his tradition far from his place of birth, far from the lost family of his childhood, still evokes tears.

The rag industry (fashion) was dominated by people from the Near and Middle East and Eastern Europe and so was the entertainment industry. Women’s Wear Daily and – to a lesser degree – Variety were staples of my youth. My father was a furrier, my Uncle Charlie manufactured lingerie, and for a minute, my shirttail-cousin Willie owned a dry cleaning shop. I started out as a model and I have relations and nearly-relations who are performance artists.

Italians were also prominent in the entertainment industry and most readers can probably tick off the names of several world-renowned New York Italian-American singers including Jerry Vale (Bronx, he passed away this May), Tony Bennet (Queens) and Danny Aiello (Manhattan).

Unfortunately in those days, hiring and promotional decisions were influenced by race, country of origin, and gender, creating ghettos of kitchen, housekeeping and maintenance staff and pink-collar workers.  Schrafft’s servers were young Irish women, usually newly arrived. Counter-servers in Nedick’s restaurants were black men as I remember. Secretarial and clerical support functions were largely handled by women. One wondered what arts and aspirations lay hidden behind their earnest ministrations. Such customs have changed at home as they have elsewhere and certainly they needed changing …

… but when I think of Brooklyn, it’s mostly of good old Brooklyn. I think of my mother with her intrepid trips to Manhattan’s theatre district and to work in the financial district and of my illiterate grandmother who seemed afraid to go out at all but was the stalwart cook and housekeeper for her ten children and for one grandchild, my big sister.

Sometimes I think I hear my Aunt Yvonne’s voice telling me and my cousins that the Lebanese are the Irish of the Middle East, presumably – and sadly – because of internecine conflicts. (That was well before Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement of 1998). And I remember the Irish, mostly fair and hardy and sometimes delightfully carrot-topped.  Irish or not, Catholic or not, almost everyone was Irish on St. Paddy’s Day.

In memory I still taste my Aunt Mildred’s Italian meat-sauce and pasta. I catch the scent of my father’s Metaxa and Turkish cigarettes, Mrs. Ekdahl’s freshly baked hallongrottor (raspberry thumb-print cookies), and the classic Italian cookies baked by PopPop, my cousins’ paternal grandfather, a professional Italian baker.

The thought of my Aunt Julie’s kielbasa, my Aunt Laurie’s New York Cheesecake, and Mrs. Levi’s pot roast, gravy and homemade knishes (a la Grossinger’s, so they told me) still have the power to make me drool, though I don’t eat meat or other animal products anymore. I’ve developed an aversion to cannibalizing our younger brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom. This would have flummoxed my parents were they alive today. Imagine life without stuffed grapeleaves, kibby (Middle Eastern meatloaf made with lamb) or leban (yogurt cheese)! Well I have learned to make vegan versions of all and a light marinara is perfectly lovely on pasta.

Food and theatre were and are the biggest of biggies in my home town. My once-upon-a-time Iowa-born-and-raised husband observed that when New York folk get together in California, you can count on them to reminisce about fine old theatres, who-was-who on Broadway, the plays they enjoyed and the food they ate.

Memories! They make us strong and break our hearts with the sweetness of people, places, and traditions gone and irretrievable. But every morning a new day dawns with a new happiness and we take our joy where we find it. It is, as the kids today say, “all good.” And often – as I have found – it’s even better.

“THERE WAS A CHILD WENT FORTH EVERY DAY,
And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or
pity or love or dread, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of
the day . . . or for many years or stretching cycles of years.”
Leaves of Grass, The First (1855) Edition, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), American poet, essayist, journalist

© 2014, words and photographs, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; photos are from the family album. Please be respectful.

Reliquary

photo 1-9I’ve finally put the finishing touches on an old poem, which I wrote about a friend and the trip we made one day from Brooklyn to Staten Island. It was a place we could get to by ferry (five cents back in the day – can you believe it?) or by car or bus over the Verrazzano Bridge.

On that day in the 60s two teens, one old enough to drive, saturated in Catholicism and Judaism, got their first taste of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan Book of the Dead in the overgrown hill-top garden of a modest Tibetan monastery. “Cool.”  Imagine how exotic that seemed to us. We had to pull out and talk about all our – mostly wrong – impressions of Tibet, Buddhism, and the Himalayan Mountains. The monks were kind to us and – I suspect – more than a little patient.

I’d packed a lunch and later we ate on the beach and talked about everything with the intensity and certitude that only teenagers have. After examining the monks’ love-worn copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, mortality quite naturally factored into our discussions. I think at that point in our lives our own mortality seemed more theory than reality.

~

We flew along the freeway yesterday under
a cold coastal expanse of cerulean ceiling.

It reminded me of you and how we dusted
the vaults of our minds to rid them of fear
and the old lexicons of grief and guilt, the
whalebone girdles of unfounded faith and
common conventions, saccharine and sticky.
I thought of that one sea-green day we spent

under just such a sky in a land far away and
how we changed your name then, reframed
your story to tell of hope and not despair.
You sketched flowers blossoming in the dust
of a spring that promised but never delivered.
Now we don’t speak of men but of cats with

their custom of keeping heart and claws intact.
We tell ourselves stories in rhythms that resound
in deep sleep. Soon now the ancient calls to
feral festivals will still and the time’s arrived when
our only play is in the margins, fate hanging
from our skeletons like Spanish moss on old oak.

It pleases me that life’s passage spins into poemed reliquary and
a memory of the pink peau de soie I wore to your prom that June.

© 2012, 2014, narrative and poem, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; 2014, photograph, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved

sleeping without walls

photo-19the fields that year taught the art of sleeping outside,
sleeping without walls, watching the stars and moon,
harvesting dreams from sunsets and morning dew

we slept in bedrolls configured of old white sheets
and army surplus blankets made of khaki wool
Did my uncles have those during the war?
i wondered, i pondered on many things, and

those months held sundry delights, climbing trees
and eating cherries without washing them . . . oh!
and there were blueberry bushes and fig trees and
i lined the path to the food hut with Sunday stones,
my own bare prayer while the big girls were at Mass

i marveled at my middle-aged mother’s plump knees
and marked her spirit for wearing shorts, joining
in children’s games and singing ‘round the fire

now i wonder at summer camp morphing into metaphor ~
all her life Mom lived with her yield of dreams,
an outsider artist sleeping without walls . . .

© 2014, poem and photograph, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved

I Remember You and the Amber Moon.

file3761333734081When I remember you
I remember the amber moon
and the burnished brown of old oaks,
their leaves like hands waving goodbye
Summertime, as dusk transitioned to dark,
we’d sit on the beach by slow cooking-fires,
their coals gone from hard black to gray dust
I cherished your warm hug in the chill of the night
and falling asleep, safe

I stopped loving you,
but I never stopped loving the memory of you
I carry that with me on lunatic trips of the heart ~
though my preference is to rest solitary on forest logs
with their stunning imperfections and
the secret-lives swirling in the sunless damp on which they rest

I think of the path that led from then to now,
a mix of smooth and rough along a rocky coast ~
I live near the sea to breathe
I imagine you living, wherever you are -
by an ocean with your skin still smelling of Old Spice,
with your well-formed hands, the hands of a pianist and surgeon,
and the high-tensile strength of your mind

In the odd geography of life, no one knows where we came from
or how it was, how it felt to be us in the days of promise
when the spell of Hudson Bay fell like a prayer to St. Christopher
That bay is no longer our safe harbor,
but it gave us our sturdy roots and strong wings
and so the nights, the nights by this bay are good
When I smile at the amber moon, it smiles at you

Some may remember this poem, which I wrote a little over a year ago. I’ve just now put the finishing touches on it. I’ve been sorting through old poems – in some cases – totally rewriting them. That’s my project this spring and summer, when I have time for it. Thanks for reading …

© 2013, poem, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved, 
Photo credit ~ Anne Lowe, Public Domain Pictures.net