It's been snowing all day. The house at 29 Elm Place, where I grew up, will be sold in a month or two. It's the house in which my mother, the writer Charlotte Zolotow, quietly died 24 days ago. I am here going through her papers. This is a job which could, and in some ways will, take me the rest of my life. But I'm working hard to make a solid start in six focused weeks.
It is very quiet here.
My friend Susan Whelan, who lived (with Rick and the kids) just across the street from Charlotte for many years, wrote me on Facebook tonight: "So I was just thinking, as it snows, about you and how your first experience of snow happened just where you are right now. Have yourself a magic moment. We know your poet mother showed you that first snow."
Tonight I am recalling a snow moment with my "poet mother." (Above, a portrait of her taken about five years before I was born, for the author's bio flap of But Not Billy, Charlotte's second published book, brought out in 1947).
I don't think this snow moment was the "the first." But it's vivid. It's remained with me almost 55 years. "It", the memory, has remained; my mother, of course, has not. Her death is recent enough so I keep saying the words, edging up, then away, then back, to "never again" and "over" and "final." ( Yet, in all these papers I am going through, which span 93 of her 98 years on earth yet exist simultaenously, I am discovering that 'always' is contiguous to 'never.')
Like everyone of a certain age, I get it. This is how it goes.
Like everyone who grieves, I resist it.
It is wholly indifferent to my resistence. It has its work to do. I have mine.
Which, now, is to recall, in words, a time almost before I had words:
I have the chicken pox. It is snowing. We are downstairs. It is dark. It is late. My brother and father are asleep, upstairs. The house is quiet.
I am awake, exhausted, small, stunned with illness. I am seated in Charlotte's lap; she is seated in the wooden rocking chair, one of those vaguely early American stenciled black rockers. I am nestled miserably and helplessly into her. We are in the living room, by the window which faces the driveway and looks out onto the street. If she is rocking, her movement is so small that, when I recall this moment later, I will not find anything but stillness. The ridged white radiator below the windowsill is next to us. Some heat exudes from it. It clanks occasionally.
We are watching the snow. It falls, hard and thick, its dizzying steady movement illuminated by the bright cone-shaped light cast by the tall street lamp just outside, in front of 27 Elm Place, the Finkelstein's house. I would like to whimper, but am too sick to make a sound. I am completely still, on her lap, encircled by her arms. We are silent.
It is snowing hard. On the short looped wire fence marking the border between our driveway and the Finkelstein's, a mounded white cupcake of snow tops each round metal fence post. There are no lights on in our house, nor in any other house on Elm Place. The street, snow-blanketed, is perfectly still and dark, except for the streetlight, and the movement of the snowflakes, silently accumulating.
That room remained the living room for decades, until 2001. That's when I retrofitted the house after Charlotte broke her hip for the second time, making it into her bedroom, downstairs. For which she was furious.
"I am going to do physical therapy, I'll be bounding back up the stairs like a mountain goat in a couple of months!" she told me.
"Then we can move your bedroom back upstairs," I said.
"But you ruined it! You destroyed it!" she said.
"It's all still up there," I said. "If you start bounding like a mountain goat, it can be your bedroom again."
"Well that's good to know, at least," she conceded, then paused, not yet ready to be mollified. Angry again, she said, "But it was my house!"
"Charlotte, it still is. You didn't want to stay at the nursing home. I don't blame you. But they weren't going to let you out until there was an accesible place for you to live."
"But why didn't you ask me?"
"Because you would have told me no."
"For good reason!"
"But I had to make a decision, and line people up to do the work, and you were telling me, 'Get me out of this hell-hole.' They weren't going to release you unless I had an accessible place for you to go to. I had to get it done. And there wasn't a lot of time."
Two and a half months. I pleaded with the carpenter, plumber, painter, to rearrange their schedules so it could be completed by the time she finished her physical therapy and could return home, if home could be made ready for her.
That we pulled it off, I still count as miraculous, and kind (Thank you, Auggie; now and again, always; I think every time I walk past your and Fern's house, just down the street from Charlotte's). I was on the job site too, every day, picking out the step-in jacuzzi tub, finding tiles that were on sale but still handsome, occasionally assisting in things like the carrying of sheetrock, covering objects with sheets to protect them from sheetrock dust. Auggie and I worked out pocket doors, so Charlotte could have privacy even though her new room would be in formerly open, shared space; I found lace curtains for their windows; they'd let in light but still be private. (Of course, all this meant I wans't doing my own writing work, or generating income). The last step before Charlotte was to come back to Elm, I arranged the delivery of a hospital bed.
However, I don't say any of this. Charlotte, angry, miserable as a wet cat, continues to glare at me.
"Look, Charlotte, I had to say to myself, 'Well, maybe she'll be bounding up the stairs like a mountain goat, and maybe she'll be in a wheelchair.' I have to make it so either will be okay."
To say this to my angry, fiercely independent mother felt like the most dangerous of transgressions ("The important thing/ is the obvious thing / that no one is saying," wrote the poet Charles Bukowski; I was saying it). The word "wheelchair" caught in my throat, tearing soft tissue like a fishbone. When it came out, it changed the atmosphere into something thin, strange and new.
In a few months, Charlotte was in a wheelchair. She was never able to climb up those stairs again.
On their wedding day, she wrote in the foreword to the book Robert's Snowflakes, "… it poured a river of rain, but it couldn't dampen our happiness. So when Robert's aunts told me that rain on a wedding day meant good luck, I believed them." (Robert and Grace, pictured below.)
Until, later that same year, in the middle of the winter, Robert was diagnosed with bone cancer. "The treatment was grueling, and Robert was left listless and weak…" she wrote. "One night, I began to tell Robert a children's story about a mouse that wasn't allowed in the snow, just like him. Surprisingly, it became out pet project. I titled it Robert's Snow, and as it grew, so did our hopes for the future. "
Nine months later, Robert was pronounced cancer-free, and the book they had worked on was accepted for publication.
I had 61 years of knowing my mother, if any child can be said to know her mother. "All children have a narrow angle on who their parents are," writes Fern Schumer Chapman in her memoir Motherland. " After all, they come to us with a life half lived."
I knew her, of course, as my mother (a relationship always intimate, but concomitantly excruciatingly difficult, until the last eight or so years of her life; before that, though we doted on each other, we could not have been constructed with more different and oppositional temperaments).
I knew her as friend to many women and quite a few men who came and went from our lives, most of whom adored her. Again, she was supportive, generous, and loyal on the one hand; always ready to listen, to offer a glass of wine or a scotch, some brie cheese on a plate, accompanied by green grapes and the little grape shears, golden and shaped like a bird, the scissors its beak. Yet, on the other: she was easily, but almost always privately, enraged by those friends she thought were making foolish decisions, and harsh in her judgment about them.
As a child, I did not know what to make if this; was it polite or fake? As a teenager, I wondered: why was their admiration of her so important to her if she didn't approve of them, and why did she tell me about it? As an adult, I sorrowed: what made her so conflict-averse that she could not just have a good fight with a friend when needed and trust that they could get it over with, and move on?
I knew her, too as an adult younger sibling to her six-year's older sister, my Aunt Dorothy (who she loved and was maddened by, adored and was jealous of).
Perhaps most vividly, because her work affected the life of the family on a day-to-day basis, I knew her as a professional — driven, self-disciplined, conflicted, revered, hard-working, a mentor to many writers, in her role as an editor at Harper and Row, later HarperCollins. When she was at home and when she wasn't; what her mood was; who she was angry with and who she was excited by; this was the stuff, ever-present, of "the office." (Below: at her retirement party from HarperCollins, held at the New York Public Library.)
Yet most truly of all, and encompassing all the other people she was and roles she played, I knew her as a writer.
Her professionalism and seriousness in this was evident. I saw her discipline in submitting work, typing a dozen labels to a dozen different publishers, and preparing the manilla envelopes in advance, each time, each book (Going through her papers, I found file cards by the dozens, detailing who was looking at what; here are just two. One is on The Storm Book and Three Funny Friends, both ultimat
ely published; one a memoir of herself as a young mother, never published, called The Shaded Porch).
She was utterly unfazed by rejections; into the ready envelope went the turned-down piece to be looked at by someone else. She was by then at work on something new and that, the active in-process writing (not the piece she had already submitted), was what truly engaged her.
But far more formative was seeing how the creative, rather than the business side of her life as a writer. Seeing how observation, memory, and emotion overlaid contemporary experiences, each setting off and layering each other, and how this was expressed in her writing, writing sometimes became books. By osmosis, I took in the way she picked up, examined and merged these elements; how, in writing about them, she made from the chaos of life a personal and artistic whole.
Nothing and no one was off-limits, yet the initial elements transmogrified in her writing, through the acuity of her child's heart, sharp adult mind, and vast writing gift. In countless interviews, she called this overlay "an emotional deja vu" or "a double or triple exposure."
Her own love-hate relationships with her sister and her friends, for example, became Big Sister Little Sister, Do You Know What I'll Do, The Quarreling Book, The Unfriendly Book, My Friend John, The Hating Book, The New Friend, and It's Not Fair.
"I didn’t want you to move away.
You didn’t want to either.
maybe some day
we’ll grow up
and live near each other
I wish you hadn’t moved away."
Though my mother and I were opposites in temperament, we always connected profoundly in this one way: as writers. When people say, of my writing, "It must be in your genes," I demure (How, then, did my brother become a professional poker player? And what about my own hard work? My submissions, rejections, revisions, self-discipline, writing when I don't want to or am filled with self-doubt; that is not DNA, that is effort, choice, and earned, word by word and action by action).
Yet, though I think I would have been a writer regardless of the family I was born into, there is no doubt that I absorbed Charlotte's primary lived truth — observe what happens, feel it, write truthfully, and thereby make meaning, and literature, from whatever the material of your life is.
Until the last 7 or 8 years of her life, Charlotte and I knew and loved each other best not as mother and daughter, but as colleagues — as writers, fellow travelers creatively. Even in the fraught years that preceded these last blessed final ones, talking about our respective writing, each others' writings, and what we were reading, brought us equilibrium.
She told me, in my 30's or 40's, that she would like to make me her literary executor, "If you want it. It's a lot of work." I said I would be glad to do it.
We were sitting in the living room that would later become her bedroom. She said, with a wave of one hand and an air of vagueness, "And you know, there's a lot of work there that I never finished that's, really, pretty good. If you should care to finish some of it after I'm gone, I think you should." I said, casually but carefully, knowing as ever how easily she was displeased, and seeking clarity, "If I did do that, and it were published, would you want it to be in my name, your name or both of our names?" "Oh…" she said; thoughtfully, but again airily, "In both of our names, I think."
Here is how the night of the chicken pox, and the snow, appeared, reinvented, in my book Your Owl Friend (1977, illustrations by Ruth Bornstein).
The story is told from the owl's point of view, about his or her friendship with a young boy:
"In the winter, we can stand on the corner watching
the snow fall in the cone of yellow light from the streetlamp.
Standing in the snow, how warm each feels to the other!
Couldn't it always be dark,
and me on your shoulder, watching the snow?"
"No, no, my friend, no, no. That's not how it is."
"The wind stops.
Everything is still.
There is only the cold
cold cold cold
Oh hold my hand.
I look at you
and suddenly the air is full of snow."
But earlier, Charlotte's 1957 Over and Over (stunningly illustrated by Garth Williams), written when I was five, references not the chicken pox moment, but a still-living artifact: perhaps the "first" which Susan Whelan mentioned. Which, otherwise, I would have no way of knowing.
"…one morning when she woke up and looked out the window she was very excited.
'See! Come! See what has happened!" she called.
The garden was white!
'That's snow,' her mother said.
The little girl stared…"
Charlotte, for a year or two after she moved into the rehabbed house, continued to express her resentment, in the passive aggressive one-two punch that had always driven me crazy. "Jean George was over here yesterday," she'd say. "She thinks what you did to the house is absolutely stunning. She couldn't stop exclaiming over what a beautiful job you'd done. Really, everyone says it is so beautiful and what a lovely job you did." Pause, beat. Then, "Of course, it's not my house any more, but…"
A year or two after that, she said — just once, but it was enough — about the downstairs bedroom, "Thank you. I was wrong. I'm glad you did it after all."
Not long after that, the idea of the upstairs bedroom drifted away. She was finally no longer aware of where her bedroom was, only that it was in her home, and somewhere warm, safe, and cozy, from which people who loved her came and went, me among them (one week to ten days a month, for five years). She knew she was well-taken care of, and thanked her caregivers often, and loved them, as they genuinely did her.
She knew her black-and-white cat, Tumbleweed, often slept curled on her feet or at her hip ("I'm very… fond of that cat," she said to me one day about six weeks before she died. She hadn't been speaking much at all, for those last several weeks, and I thought those might be the last words I'd ever hear her speak. I was wrong, however.)
In 2004, Charlotte was 89. Her vision and mental acuity were declining, but she had not yet broken through to the peace and moment-to-moment joy that would characterize her last years. She was often angry. She was still, as she always had (in private, except perhaps with the authors she edited, in whom she encouraged freedom) trying to control the uncontrollable, while any semblance of being able to do so was slipping through her hands.
By this point I was also acting as, in effect, her literary executive secretary, answering her fan mail, sorting permissions requests and forwarding them to her agent. She also pulled me in as a kind of second editor, asking my opinoin when marked-up proofs of forthcoming books arrived, such as Seasons, a book of short poems that HarperCollins brought out in 2002.
The mail included, one day, a letter from Grace Lin. She wanted Charlotte to submit a poem, a haiku about snow, to an anthology she was creating.
"In March 2004, " writes Lin in the foreword to the book Robert's Snowflakes, "Robert's cancer returned. We were devastated. Our doctor told us that Robert's best chance for survival was a breakthrough in cancer research. So we decided to help the doctors the best we could… we decided to use Robert's Snow as an inspiration for a fundraiser, " an auction of wooden snowflakes painted by various children's book illustrators. Eventually the project became a book. It was a contribution to this book — 100% of its royalties would go to the Dana-Farber Cancer Ins
titute — which Grace was soliciting from Charlotte.
"I want to," Charlotte told me. "But I can't. Not now."
"Would you like to talk about snow together? " I asked carefully, again feeling the ground shift, though not so much as when I had said 'wheelchair.' "And then I can write something, and you can see if you like it , or change anything that doesn't work?"
"Yes," she said thoughtfully. "Yes, I think that would be good."
"Charlotte, " I said, "Do you remember that night when I had the chicken-pox, and we sat in the living room, watching the snow?"
"Oh, yes," she said, without hesitation.
I did three haikus; as it turned out, Grave and Robert wanted only one per contributor, and they made their choice. I can't find the other two now. But, "I love of them," said Charlotte, of all three. "Send them, please."
"Under both our names?"
Here is the one they selected, a slight thing, as haikus are.
It was the only such writing collaboration we did while she was alive.
Now she is dead, and I begin the work of going through her papers, her letters, her manuscripts, discovering and knowing her in ways I never did or could when she was alive. With this, a strange new form of collaboration begins. I can already feel the regrets and joys, the questions and surprises, forming. Sometimes my throat thickens, and tears, insistent on doing their job, prickle at my eyes. At other times, I laugh out loud. At still others, I want to tell someone of a discovery I've made — a letter baby Charlotte wrote to her daddy, illustrated with a drawing of a pen…
Louis must have been the one to wrote to her as God, referenced above. (I remember his lovely, faithful letters to me, sent each week, with two one-dollar bills paperclipped to the top of each).
Surely he was the one who saved these letters of Charlotte's, too, that I am just now discovering.
Yet, as I consider Charlotte's own later adamant insistence on writing for children as a truthteller, I wonder: how, as an adult, did she feel about her father's tenderness in writing that original letter, referenced here, as God, and yet, his betrayal, the lie of his so doing? How did it make her feel, as a child, about a God with whom she was on such personal terms — when that God, "Dearest Of All Spirits", could not and did not answer her prayers?
How much did this, and other, similar events that I don't and can't know about, shape her fierce sense that to speak with authenticity, even about painful matters, was the greatest gift she could offer her young readers?
Yet the person I want to ask these questions of is gone.
Yet she is here.
Gone. Here. Gone. Here. Love. Loss. Love. Loss. Love. Breathe in, breathe out.
Call the medical supplies place. Have the hospital bed picked up. Note the unbearable blank space, under the painting Marcel Marceau gave her.
Fill the space, somehow.
Here is literature, which lasts because it is out of time, like the infinitesimal timeless time between breaths, or heartbeats, or thoughts.
Writing this post, I Googled "Grace Lin". And learned that her beloved Robert had died, far too young, in 2007.
I think it was the reporter from the local Westchester paper, the Rivertowns Enterprise, who asked me, "When did you know you would follow in your mother's footsteps?"
I said, without hesitation, "I'm not following in her footsteps. Her footsteps were unique. No one could follow in them. "
Then I thought of all the writers who had told me how Charlotte helped them find their own voices, how, as an editor, she quieted her own writing sensibility in service to theirs
. And I added, "Nor would she want me to. I think she wanted everyone to create their own path. I think she believed we all have to."
And when the Los Angeles Times reporter (I think) called me, he said, "How long was she confined to her bed?" And I said, "You couldn't really called her 'confined.' "
What, after all, can you say of someone who finally was able to say "I love you," without appending a "but" to it, as she had, to her daughter, for 60 years; an "I love you," or "You're wonderful," or "I adore you" or, when I said I love you to her, "Me also" — all said with the ease and inevitability of snow falling?
Or of this exchange, maybe a year before she died:
Me: Charlotte, if you could have any wish in the whole world, what would it be?
Her (teasingly): I would like a big truck to come, and everyone gets into it, and they all drive away!
Me: Are you in the truck with everybody, or are you standing on the porch waving goodbye?
Her (suddenly serious, thoughtful, and intense): I just want everyone to be free.
Or, this, one night about six months before her death, late at night:
Her (apropos of nothing in particular): Since I've… had all the days — and they were wonderful! — I want you to do the same.
Me: Charlotte, did you just say —- (and I repeated it back to her).
Me: Hang on, I'm going to write that down.
(I go get a piece of paper; it happens to be a bookplate sticker from Little Brown, because in the other room I am signing hundreds of bookplates, which they've asked me to do for a special order of my picture book All the Awake Animals).
Again, I repeat it back to her, slowly, as I write it on the bookplate. "Since… I've … had… all… the…" I finish. "Charlotte, did I get that right?"
"And, " I ask her, "What will be the result if I do, if I take your advice?"
Charlotte said, "Wiser."
Writing this post, throughout a snowy day and a snowy night, I went downstairs, back to the living room turned bedroom, late one night. Soon, as I say, the house will be sold. But for now I am here. So is the radiator, the window, the street lamp. I watched the snow fall; recycled water, ultimately the same snow Charlotte and I watched some 55 years ago. Yet utterly new. Each snowflake is unique. Each snowflake is made of water. Different, same, different, same. Presence, absence. Loss, love.
Some things never change. Some things always do.
Sometimes, they're the same thing.
The Charlotte Zolotow Fellowship remembers and continues Charlotte's work as a nurturer of others' talent. It is an annual one-month residency-fellowship for writers of children's books or young adult fiction, at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow, a 501 (c) 3 which Charlotte helped support during her lifetime. Checks may be made to WCDH, noting 'CZ Fellowship' , and mailed to 515 Spring Street, Eureka Springs, Arkansas.