Walking yesterday, up near Frazier's sugar shack here in Vermont, I heard an animal rustle in the underbrush edging the woods by the gravel road. Though I stood stock-still and watched, I couldn't see what it was. Too large for a chipmunk or a squirrel, smaller by far than a deer, I was left only with the sudden sound of its movement.
But that was enough. It brought back a particular moment to me as vividly as if it had happened an hour earlier. This was a moment with my late father, the writer Maurice Zolotow, who has been dead now almost twenty years.
But, when I heard that unseen animal, he was alive to me again. "No one ever steps in the same river twice," wrote the Greek philosopher
Heraclitus, "for it is not the same river and one is not the same
person. " I feel that way, too, about memory's river, into which I necessarily step when I think about Maurice.
Another river, the King's, in Northwest Arkansas, is involved in the
moment I recalled.
As is a great blue heron.
(The one pictured left is not "ours" , which I'm about to tell you about, but one
photographed by Sheila L. Chambers for Birdwatcher's
As is the inadvertent transmission of wisdom, with which sometimes, if we are fortunate, our parents gift us, almost incidentally.
I've written about Maurice here often, most notably in this post. So I''ll give only a brief back-story. For it was a long way from the circumstances of his birth and later life to the King's River.
Born Morris Zolotoff on November 23, 1913, in Brooklyn, New York, he was a first-generation American who was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Like many of similar background, his idea of sophisticated, upper class America was informed by the movies, and it was towards this world he gravitated, eventually writing magazine articles (for Billboard, Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Look, Life, and, later, Playboy, Reader's Digest, and Los Angeles) and books, mostly about entertainment figures, musical, theatrical, and cinematic.
Sometime between his graduation from New Utrect High School and his entry into the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Morris became Maurice.
He could (and did) legitimately drop names and anecdotes across an astonishing spectrum: Duke Ellington ("The only place we could eat in together in New York was a Chinese restaurant," he told me many times. But no matter how many times he said it, it was never without a tightening of his mouth, a slight shake of his head, and a tone of outrage. Racism of any type was incomprehensible to him. He recognized its reality, but, to him, it was so despicable it defied belief, let alone acceptance).
He gave Count Basie his first national review (in Billboard), and interviewed most of the sex goddesses of his time: Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe (about whom he would write many articles, and then the first of her countless book-length biographies), Ursula Andress (best known for her role as Honey Ryder, the Bond Girl in Dr. No), and Grace Kelly (she may have been a princess, but he wrote about her — making her his subject!).
The now all-but-forgotten outrageous show-business personality/actress Tallulah Bankhead remained memorable to him: during an interview he did in her apartment, she got up to use the bathroom, and continued talking, leaving the door open, as she urinated. She also had a parrot, which she allowed to fly uncaged, It swooped around her living-room room, to my father's great unease, its droppings cleaned up by a maid who stood on guard. Comedians? He interviewed dozens: Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Dudley Moore, Fred Allen, Allan Sherman, countless others.
For a change of pace (and probably because he needed the money) he even took on John Wayne. In the picture above right, there's the Duke, with Ann-Margret and my father. This was taken on the set of The Train Robbers, released in 1973, a year before my father's biography of Wayne, Shooting Star, was published).
As I said in the previous post I did about him, at the time of his death he was working on a memoir to be called "Famous People Who Have Known Me." Which about says it all.
Except it doesn't. Not even close.
"I contain multitudes," Walt Whitman may have exulted in Song of Myself, and I think most of us do. But few collections of multitudes can have been so wholly contradictory as those contained by Maurice. I'll touch on just one here: side by side with his enchantment with celebrity, talent, glitz, and being where the action was, was his abiding love of nature and the solacing quietude that comes with immersion in it.
Where did this come from in him? How did it get there? I don't know: I only know that it was always part of him intermittently. And in the last twenty years of his life, it became one of his transcendent, transforming refuges.
Once, sitting on my porch in Arkansas, he saw a black-and-blue mourning cloak
butterfly lit on a snapdragon. Maurice leaned towards it, then stayed perfectly still. The butterfly, likewise, remained on the flower for a long time, its only movement the two wings, fanning like breath.
I had come out the door, and I too stood still, watching not only the butterfly, but watching my father watch the butterfly. When it flew away, he turned and looked up at me. Normally ebullient and wildly talkative, he was wholly quiet. His usually animated face was both illuminated and still, silenced by wonder, even awe, and peace. He looked as if he had seen the face of God and creation itself, and was still stunned by it.
Whatever he found in that butterfly had been with him for awhile. He attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he met my mother, the former Charlotte Shapiro, in a class on French Romantic poetry. And one of the ways he courted her was by taking her canoeing on Lake Mendota. Where and how did a wholly nonathletic, overly intellectual, skinny, neurotic, glasses-wearing Brooklyn boy get that?
Later, after they married, Maurice and Charlotte rambled England's Lake District, as famous for its natural beauty as its poets.
Still later, as a couple with children, they resided uneasily in the suburbs of New York City, Westchester County. My mother would have preferred "real country", my father, Greenwich Village or the Left Bank. Westchester, a compromise, left them both unhappy and resentful. Yet even there, Maurice, Charlotte and I (I don't remember my 7-years-older brother ever coming along) occasionally went on long walks together, often around the less-developed parts of Tibbett's Brook Park.
By then, they were both famous, my mother as a children's book author and editor, my father as a biographer. The Zolotows were, as the above cover, from the September, 1951 Writer's Digest says, a "Big-Time Writing Team. " They were also, increasingly, big-time unhappy. My father's drinking, my mother's martyrdom, and the generally anxious, repressed, and sexist tenor of the times, captured accurately in the television series Mad Men: all these played a part. I've written, too, about both their casual, medically and socially sanctioned drug-taking in this post. They divorced in 1969 (I was sixteen.) A year later, my father moved to Los Angeles. A year after that, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
And it was in those last twenty sober years of his life that his love of the natural world took its deepest root in him. He became a member of both the Sierra Club
and the Audubon Society and went on Sunday hikes sponsored by both
organizations, often. (Left, a picture of Solstice Canyon, one I believe he hiked, from the Los Angeles Sierra Club's site). "Isn't it amazing, Cres?" he would ask me rhetorically, bursting with his customary enthusiasm, when I came to visit him in LA. "Here we are, in the middle of a city, but you can smell the night-blooming jasmine and orange blossoms, and do you know, in just 20 minutes — 20 minutes! — I can be out on a hike or a bird walk in a canyon!"
It was in this phase, too, that he had that encounter with the mourning cloak butterfly on my porch. He came to visit me at least once a year in Arkansas.
And sometimes we floated the King's River. "Oh, yes," said my father confidently before we put in the first time. "Of course I know how to canoe. I used to take your mother canoeing on Lake Mendota, you know." But that was a lake, 40-some years earlier, and this was a river; albeit a gentle one, there were little rills of white water. My father wasn't kidding anyone. He was scared, but he was psyched. He was up for it.
My friend George West, who organized the whole thing, always remembers that my father showed up wearing a safari jacket. George still says, fondly, "Here it was, the King's, to me a very placid little creek, not at all challenging. I looked at Maurice and it was clear that to him it was like, The African Queen. And I realized, anything could be, with that level of enthusiasm and adventure. Walking to the mailbox could be The African Queen. And that was what Maurice gave me. "
The first float we took together — that time 'we' being me, George West, my late husband, Ned, and my friend Suzanne, then Suzanne Euler, now Suzanne Tucker, and Maurice — he was still youngish, maybe 63 or 64. He still had some pretty good
vision, was in decent shape, and, with George's help — George being the most experienced canoeist present — Maurice could participate fairly fully. (Left: a family portrait of my friends, the dear Mitchell-West clan, left to right: George West, Starr Mitchell, Logan and Cane West, their sons, to whom I am a Cres-Aunt).
But there were a few Mr. Magoo moments that day on the river: George calling out, "Watch out for that branch, Maurice!", Maurice whispering to me (I was in the bow, he in the stern that trip) sotto vocce, "Cres? Do you see a branch?" two seconds before starting to get lightly smacked in the face by the branch, and then, belatedly, ducking. (Of course everyone present could hear his covert whispers to me.)
These days I live in Vermont, not Arkansas. Ned, my husband, has been dead for almost ten years; Maurice, almost twenty. My present, and for-the-duration partner, David, is older than Maurice would have been on that first float. And I take a lot of walks.
Rarely is there a day, at this time in my life, when a walk in the green cathedral of the woods does not, at least for a moment, lift me out of myself. Most often it's the light: the way it comes through the trees, dappling the leaf- or pine-needle covered path or sending an almost Biblical ray down to illuminate a single leaf or, as I wrote about here, the ears of a deer. Since the land I walk is honeycombed with water, springs and seeps and little creeks and marshy areas, sometimes it's water, or light on water, or the sound of water, or a combination of all three.
But often it's wildlife: bird, insect, reptile, mammal. Wild, life: both the wildness — untamed, unpredictable — and the life . A tiny burnt-orangey-red salamander (an eft, they're called) on the path, can thrill me, as can a bumblebee, droning drowsily as it moves from wild rose to foam flower in the deep woods, if I stand still and just watch it for awhile.
And the other day a plump brownish gray and white chickenish-shaped game
bird ran across the old gravel road, the part hardly anyone travels, right in front of me.
It was making first a
soft, melodious clucking, which later, as it rustled in the brush &
ferns, turned into an almost purring sound. When I came home, I spent a little time trying to ID it on the Internet (as if that would or could have made it
more wondrous). I think it was a Spruce Grouse. (Picture, right, from
audobon.com, taken by a Glenn Tepke.)
But it was its sound, especially that strange almost-purr that spoke most to me, even more than its shape, beauty, and, for me, rarity.
For sound, like light, water, and greenness, often brings that lifting-out-of-one's-own-small-world, too. The woods and meadows are loud with birds this time of year, in contrast to the near-complete stillness of winter in Vermont.
Which brings me back to the rustle I heard in the woods the other day, and to my father, and to the King's River — the final float we took together. By then my father's eyesight was very poor, but he still wanted to go.
What did I learn from my father? In that earlier post, I mentioned much of what I imbibed from him about writing and being a writer. But of course, there was – is – more.
Enthusiasm. Joie de vivre. Digging under the surface to find the deeper intricacies of the story, of almost anything and anyone. Reading. Quoting the greats, always with attribution (it is his influence that has brought both Heraclitus and Walt Whitman into this post, for instance.)
Most of all, I think Maurice gave me a sense that a continual falling in love with the world was possible and desirable, despite its — and one's own — losses, sorrows, and limitations.
On that final float, we rounded a bend, and George (with Ned in the canoe ahead of Maurice and me). said suddenly, softly, urgently, pointing with his paddle, "Blue heron! One-o'clock!"
My father, the bird-lover, with equal urgency: "Where, where?"
Me (softly, pointing a few feet to the right): "Just there, Maurice."
He turned his head in the direction I was pointing, and said, in a voice wretched with disappointment, "I can't see it."
Just then the great blue heron took off from the stream in which it had been standing. They are big birds, with a wing-span that ranges between 5 1/2 and 6 1/2 feet. And this one flew right over our heads. Right, directly over the canoe in which Maurice and I sat.
My father tipped his chin up. And he said, in a voice that was overwhelmed with a joy, gratitude, and a deep satisfaction even larger than his sorrow of a few seconds before, "I can hear it, though."
(Picture above, again not "our" heron, but by Jules Frederick. I am so grateful to have found this image!)