The last thing I should have been doing that day was cleaning.
It was a Monday in early spring. I was getting ready to travel the following Saturday.
Travel, from this isolated spot in Vermont, is as segmented as a centipede. First, you drive an hour and 50 minutes from home to the airport nearest us (BDL, at Hartford, Connecticut). Of course, these days you’re supposed to be there two hours before flight time, which often makes for mighty early departures. Even after you get to the airport, run the stress-inducing security gauntlet, and board your plane, it’s always a you-can’t-get-there-from-here deal: you’ll have to change planes at least once, maybe twice, maybe twice plus a stop, to get to where you are going.
In this case, I was going to Portland, Oregon, for the IACP conference (inadvertently by way of Denver, Colorado and Boise, Idaho). Over a nine-day period, I would teach four workshops, all writing-related: two at the conference (Deep Feast, the banner for which is below, and The Recipe Deconstructed) and two independently (Fearless Writing and Deeper Feast).
I had pieces of all these done for all four workshops, but none of it was completed. Nor was the ordinary packing, planning, etc.
House-cleaning? At that point? No, no, no.
And as if all this wasn’t enough, there was another reason why cleaning at that moment was a capital B Bad Idea.
warning: destruction imminent
In a month or so cleanliness and order would be pointless: we were about to (cue up theme music from Jaws) renovate.
No matter how serene and wished-for the outcome of having work done on one’s home may be, it begins with destruction. Having your house worked on while you live in it is, in my experience, the single most chosen disruptive force of life (though nothing, of course, compared to unchosen disasters: wars, earthquakes).
There is always a point, amidst the sheet-rock dust, picking and installing the new windows Graceland Residential Windows or another source, saws whining, and the inconceivably large checks one is writing, when one asks oneself, “Why did I knowingly bring this into my own home?” Later, when happy with the outcome, one tends to have amnesia about the hell of construction, presumably like women who’ve who have more than one child do about childbirth.
But I have lived through enough renovation hell (particularly after my kitchen exploded, in 2003, an accident involving some plumbers thawing frozen pipes with a defective propane torch and not anything culinary — all another story) enough times that its true level of dislocation and deep, messy, unpleasant, disruptiveness has more or less left permanently grill-marks seared in to memory.
So. Unready to travel, knowing physical chaos was around the corner, I cleaned anyway.
the irresistible allure of a clean tidy home
Why? I knew even a little housekeeping would be so calming, and I needed calm. I heard, in the back of my mind, a line of poetry my complex, contradictory, loving, exaspertaing mother used to quote with what was then, to me, annoying frequency. It’s from The Monk in the Kitchen, by Anna Hempstead Branch: “Order is a lovely thing / on disarray it lays its wing.” I hear it a lot in my own mind to this day, so I am now annoyed with myself, too.
But would I hear it were there not some lasting truth to it? Even a little cleaning would lay surely its wing upon me.
It usually does. But on that April 12, it did and it didn’t.
And dang if it wasn’t that that mother-thing again. Love, ambivalence, discovering your parent as a person with her own life, hearing the uneasy reverb in yours.
Is it inevitable that we become our mothers? I’d say no.
Well, then, is it inevitable that the hands which rocked our cradles must continue to rock our world?
On that one, I’d say the jury’s still out.
preview of coming distractions
The coming renovation is, assuming my brother and I work out all the financial and familial details, David and I are putting on an addition to our house in which my mother, Charlotte
Zolotow, will live.
Charlotte, as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, is a former children’s book editor and writer. She’s about to be 95 (she was born in 1915). The plan, as it stands today, is that she will move up here to Vermont, perhaps with her caregiver, Denise (complicated: Denise has three children); for sure with her cat, Tumbleweed, this fall. (Left: Tumbleweed and Charlotte, in Charlotte’s front hall, June, 2009).
So why, that night as I should have been getting ready to leave, was I beset by the urge to clean?
I was fraught. Overwhelmed, anxious, driven almost to undoneness by the magnitude of my to-do list — the pending trip, and even more so, the pending renovation and CZ’s move.
Given this, the physical chaos of the large old (1795) farmhouse in which David and I live seemed to mirror my inner chaos. Like any two mirrors which face each other, this gave the reflected illusion endlessness, chaos extending into infinity.
But if I cleaned, something interior would click into place. I’d know, experientially, what I knew intellectually: that both order and disorder are temporary states; an . alteration from the latter to the former is possible, and an improvement, albeit a temporary one.
the way of accumulation
Our home is often somewhat messy (I don’t have a housekeeper, as both my mother and aunt did). But the chaos level has been over-the-top since January. That was when Aunt Dot, my mother’s older sister, had died. David and I and a put-together crew of friends and my brother Stephen’s friends and employees had cleared out her apartment. She had been living it since Pearl Harbor Day (December 7, 1941)… 69 years.There was a lot of clearing out to do.
And while we got rid of far more of Aunt Dot’s things than we kept, David and I found enough treasure in the detritus worth bringing back from New York to Vermont in a U-Haul — a U-Haul
on whose side was emblazoned a slogan which had strange resonance
for me since I just helped Aunt Dot leave this world: “Where will U go
Standing by the truck in the west side of Manhattan as we got ready to drive it back to to the east side to pick up the boxes and loose items staged and waiting in the basement of Aunt Dot’s apartment house, under a sky filled with roiling, boiling clouds in various shades of threatening gray (we would drive from New York to Vermont through rain of, at times, biblical proportions), I looked up and thought, “Yes, Aunt Dot, where have you gone and where will U go next?” Knowing these are variations of the greatest unanswerable questions with which human beings grapple, and with which I grapple constantly, didn’t stop me from asking.
So, into our already-messy house was dropped, after that long, soggy, nerve-wracking drive, David in the U-Haul, me in our Dodge Neon, more stuff — objects that had been Aunt Dot’s, which we’d chosen to keep.
Stuff about which, in the frenzy of clearing out, we’d made decisions: keep. Throw out. Precious. Junk. Useful. Not useful. Valuable. Worthless. Able to shed meaning on life -Dot’s, ours, in general. Or not. In hindsight, maybe we should have considered hiring something similar to the Rochester area dumpsters to sort out all that was being discarded more effectively.
This is the way of accumulation. Individual items have a potent patina, a mix of
association, memory, value, good intentions, history. But in aggregate, these items are clutter.
the things we carried
What did we keep?
Photographs, of course. Joe Arnof, Aunt Dot’s first husband, handsomer than I ever knew him (he was much older than Dorothy, an old man when I knew him as a child, always gruff — except with Dot, whom he adored, extravagantly — and for many og his later years. an invalid).
Here is a portrait of the young Joe, who I never knew, a native of McCrory, Arkansas (yes, I had Arkansas relatives). And here is some of his stuff: a passport case, with his name embossed in gold; a hip flask, dating, I’m sure, from Prohibition; and the envelope in which he sent, from London, an airmail love-letter to my aunt on their 25th anniversary. She kept this love-letter under her glove box for decades; I found it during the big clean-out, and I wept over it, as I suspect she did when she first received it, though for wholly different reasons.
The twin photos of my grandparents, hand-tinted in round frames, also younger than I would or could ever have known them, dead 45 or so years now: Louis and Ella Shapiro, Dot and Charlotte’s parents.
In the time-warped, multi-layered, double-triple-quadruple exposure process which is creativity, memory mixes with personal imagery, with imagination and what-if, what one wishes could be, or could have been.
Charlotte combined the bewildered kindness of her gentle father, my Grandpa Louis, a conservative Jew who kept kosher and could never imagine why his younger daughter chose not just to be a writer but to marry another writer, a neurotic firebrand who, it seemed to him, held nothing of respect towards tradition, religion, the work ethic, or that daughter. Louis and Ella did not attend my parents wedding; there were years of complete estrangement, and distance always. Yet Charlotte loved her father, and in her book My Grandson Lew, gave him a wisdom, understanding, and sophistication he did not have. In the book she created a perfect grandfather — and a perfect depiction of a child’s mystified grief. The ingredients of her portrayal of child’s grief were partially made from my observance of my own: when my other grandfather, Harry (on my father’s side) died while I was in summer camp, my parents didn’t tell me because they thought it might upset me; and perhaps I didn’t remember him that much anyway.
What else did we bring home? Silver: a chafing dish, a tea set, a cake server — though I’ll never polish it, will I? No, almost certainly not.
And linens — we brought linens, impeccably ironed, sometimes commercially — some still in the disintegrating string-tied boxes of long-defunct laundries which had,
long ago, pressed the cloth meticulously, carefully laying in pastel tissue paper along the larger folds. Ironing I do do, but only occasionally. Those linens, and their owners, lived in a different world than I do. Some of the tablecloths, like that pictured left, were heavy jacquarded linen, with a heavy sateen finish, so smooth and silky my garden-rough hands catch on it when I stroke it. Some were embroidered, or trimmed in cutwork, or with crocheted lace. Time had yellowed most of these items, once white, to ivory. And some of the napkins, and pillowcases were monogrammed with the letter “S” (for Shapiro, the family name of my maternal grandparents), or “A” (for Arnof, Dorothy’s married name).
The bamboo-handled grapefruit spoons with the serrated tips, for me personally iconic of childhood’s bewilderment at the adult world: of course we brought them.
When I ate with them as a girl, I always felt a little frisson of danger, as well as disbelief that the grown-ups were letting me. You’re not supposed to run with a lollipop in your mouth, yet you eat one particular kind of fruit with a special spoon that actually has a little knife on the end, and you put it right
into your mouth, where it could do all kinds of things terrifying to imagine, to your tongue, and yet, somehow, they not only let you, they somehow neglect to even say “be careful” ? Who could possibly understand such an illogical world as that the adults inhabited? )
The disintegrating leather booklet of ration coupons from World War II, would you believe? I couldn’t — and yet there they were, in my hand, from the bottom of one of Dot’s overflowing desk drawers.
But could that pricey piece, given to Dot, I’m guessing, either later in her married life, once Joe had “made something of himself” financially (or possibly given to her by Jim Cherry, the love of the pre- and post-Hoe eras of Dorothy’s life), really have meant more to her than the enamel pin he had made for her?
Look at that pin, closely, front and back:
DAS: Dorothy Arnof Shapiro, of course in the blue ranges she always wore. And on the back, a love note from Joe. Susses, Yiddish for “sweetness.” I remember him calling her that, pronouncing it “Zussie”, sort of like Susie with a Z. I do not ever remember her wearing the pin — but there it was, in her jewelry box. And the date: that was her 29th birthday.
How could it not come home with us?
And the clothing! Oh, I was ruthless with it. I gave away some to my old friend Shelley Olson, who I had known since 9th grade, and who had known and loved Dot, and who came for several days and did a yeo-woman’s job of helping with the great clear-out. Some — a particularly fine coat of heavy brushed beige silk lined with sheared seal (I tried to talk my aunt of buying it, back in the 70’s, but she would not be moved by the plight of baby seals being clubbed to death) — I I gave to Vanya, the exuberant Dominican woman who helped my brother’s girlfriend’s mother during her last years, and whom my brother had also called on to help us, and who, like her son Donny, and Shelley and me and David, worked like a dog.
I gave most of the the better pieces to Vintage Thrift, the store run by the United Jewish Council of the East Side (they sent a slight, lovely, boho-dressed, fey young man up, who went through everything with a practiced eye and ruthless efficiency), carrying off the booty in undignified white garbage bags, sack after sack.
But some I had to keep.
Like the custom-made turquoise and green silk jacket, with the black
silk knotting at
the top, from Hong-Kong — a jacket not really my
style, but not not my style, and an excellent fit, and so very
Dot, exactly the blue to bring out her spectacular sapphire eyes, and lined with more silk, of a bright grass-green. (Modeled, here, by me, in the wonder-world of our greener-than-green front years in early May.)
the mink jacket, and the mink coat, 3/4 length, both impeccably maintained.
and mean, to sell both on E-bay; the boy from Vintage Thrift cast a practiced eye over them and appraised them for me, impressed at how “well-maintained” they were. Never mind that I have never even used, let alone sold, anything on E-bay, and thus, there they are, waiting to be sold, hanging in the guest room closet, reproaching me.
In addition to the self-reproach that comes with this territory, there’s a second layer; it’s a little creepy, as a vegetarian, to open my closet and see them there. And the raccoon coat, in which she, a Wesley student, had gone to football games with her Harvard boyfriend, in the Roaring Twenties. The raccoon coat was somehow a little less creepy. I may even keep it. Still.
Then there are the six or seven X-shaped gadgets with clever chains, on which one rests a book or magazine upright, for reading while eating. “I grew up with these!” exclaimed David, delightedly, as he came across the first of what would turn out to be six or seven of them. I too grew up with them, of course, not only because Aunt Dot’s husband, Joe, imported them, but because both of us were the type of children who “always had their nose in a book”, who would read the back of a cereal box at breakfast if there was nothing better.
“Yeah, we should take all of these,” David said, in happy wonder. “I haven’t seen them in years, I don’t even know if they make them anymore.”
I don’t know either, but with six or seven of them, I now never have to worry about it.
Then, of course, there were the books themselves.
this is dedicated to the one I love … sometimes
There was also Aunt Dot’s collection of my mother’s children’s books (as well as many of my own, and my father’s).
If you’re a reader who pays any kind of attention to a book’s “front matter”, you’ve no doubt noticed most books are “dedicated” to someone by the author.
This custom begun as a statement of gratitude towards a patron, someone who supported he writer during his or her work on the piece. Not many of those around these days; even when writers receive support from, say, the NEA or the
Macdowell Colony, they tend to say their thanks in the acknowledgments or afterwords, not
“Shakespeare is said to have received £1,000 for two
dedications to the Earl of Southampton, ” notes Tim Dowling in an article in the Guardian on the subject). Another gem from Dowling: “Boswell’s dedication to
Sir Joshua Reynolds in the first volume of A Life of Johnson (“My Dear
Sir, Every liberal motive that can actuate an Author in the dedication
of his labours, concurs in directing me to you …”) outlines the
various purposes of most dedications – to indulge pride in knowing
someone important; to acknowledge gratitude for help received; or to
seek the imprimatur of a recognised expert (Reynolds, insists Boswell,
merited all three).”
Over time, as patronage of this kind that originally spawned dedications fell out of
fashion, writers began to use dedications as gifts, public declarations of love or
fondness. Personal dedications — perhaps in lieu of things writers are often in short supply of, such as cash, real estate or jewelry — were and are written to
friends, spouses, children, parents, siblings, mentors, colleagues.
(Restored Vintage Ferrari: $985,000. Three-week trip down the Amalfi Coast: $36,795. Dedication: priceless.)
Because Charlotte was so extremely prolific, just about everyone she knew or cared for, sooner or later, received a dedication. The first, The Park Book, was to her husband, my then-future father: “To Maurice, a former boy.” Of course she doesn’t remember much these days; but even when her memory was normal, she herself sometimes couldn’t remember who the person was she had dedicated earlier books to. The second, , was to her son, my brother, Stephen. ” ” The third, an uber-fifties Wonder Book published in 1952, was “For Stevie’s Aunt Dot.” Many books to each of us family members followed, with gaps in between for friends, editors, children of friends.
Now dedications, which are published, are in every single copy of every single book; though some caddish authors, allegedly like novelist Peter Carey, attempt to extirpate the names in dedications of spouses should they become ex-spouses. But besides dedications, authors may also inscribe their books: that is, write a personal note, by hand, to particular people. Usually they date it; at least if asked. And always, they sign it.
Inscriptions are not seen by the general public. Thus, they are more personal. Thus, especially taken en masse over time, they tell a story.
In the case of the many books my other inscribed — to me, to her sister Dorothy, and to my father (her husband, then ex-husband, then friend-with-benefits-though-not-the-ones-you’d-think), Maurice — they tell many stories, all of them layered with ambivalence.
Whenever a book of Charlotte’s was published, she’d sign a copy to her big sister, about whom her feelings were intense and mixed: love, jealousy, fierce loyalty, frustration. It’s a contradictory range that’s probably more often typical of what relatives feel towards each other than otherwise.
Only, in the Zolotow family things were amped up, at a louder volume. And they were made more permanent in writing: both in the books as printed, and in the hand-written inscriptions family members gave each other with each published book.
That night, when I felt I had to clean the house, or some part of it, I decided on just one room, just one hour. The front room seemed simple enough, and obvious. Welcoming or chaotic, organized or not, clean or untidy, it’s what you walk into when you open the front door. Bringing a little order to that, I thought, will give me some peace. And then I can go back to real work.
the white bookcase
The front room is a hall, smallish, uncomplicated (I thought).To the left of the front door is a white bookcase, three shelves. Not fancy but well-put together and nicely cornered with a little cove-molding. Ned Shank, R.I.P., not a carpenter but with a carpenter’s knowledge of how things should be done, made it. Ned, my late husband, gone from life ten years this coming November.
My mother adored Ned. Recently I asked her, “Charlotte, do you remember Ned?”
“Of course, ” she said, “Who could forget Ned?”
And then she, who had spoken at his funeral in 2000, said, “And what’s he doing these days?”
I said, “He’s dead, Charlotte.”
And she said, not so much mournfully as thoughtfully, “Still dead?”
The bookshelf Ned made had three shelves. And, three of us Zolotows chose to make their lives as writers. One of us, me, is still choosing. Another, my father, is dead. The third, my mother, is, well… what tense do I use for Charlotte-the-writer? She no
longer writes. She doesn’t remember having written. But she is still
alive, and so are her books, two distinct entities.
I put my own published books (children’s
books, cookbooks, two novels, a book of poetry) on the top shelf. The middle shelf I gave over to my
father’s (show business biographies, two novels, one book on politics).
On the bottom, my mother’s (children’s books).
Charlotte was /
is the most prolific of us all. If you go to a library and check our names
— Maurice Zolotow, Charlotte Zolotow, Crescent Dragonwagon — you’ll
find far more of her books than mine or my father’s.
My aunt and my mother, both working women in the days when jobs came with pension plans and health care and you were rewarded for staying with the company, the more decades the better — both of them could both afford cleaning ladies who came in several times a week. I grew up in a house that was clean and organized, a
kind of default physical serenity I gave no thought to at the time. Clothes
placed in the wicker bathroom hamper simply appeared in the bedroom
clean, sometimes even ironed (imagine!), hung up in the closet or
folded in the bureau drawers. Rugs did not have crumbs. Kitchen floors did not have muddy footprints. Picture frames and windowsills did not accumulate dust.
This is not the case in my and DK’s house. A housekeeper comes in maybe three times a year, usually before we are having some big party. The rest of the time cleaning happens on the fly. Though rarely actually dirty (beds are always made, sheets changed, dishes washed), the home does not and cannot approach the standards possible when someone comes in and, for a fee, cleans your house five days a week.
And so though I can’t possibly keep these standards for myself — not and work full time — messiness and physical chaos at home are disorienting, makes me feel things are out of control (which, in the largest sense, they probably are, because life is not controllable, though God knows we hubristic humans would like it to be; but that’s another philosophical point altogether).
I even remember, dimly, when I was very young, a time when the women who came to clean my mother’s house and my aunt’s apartment were called “maids” and wore uniforms, black with white aprons. Now bear in mind that neither my mother nor my aunt were upper class ladies of leisure. As I’ve said, they were both working women (editors, my mother at Harper’s, my aunt at Macmillan) . It was the the prosperous, still somewhat proper 50’s: they wore white gloves on many occasions, up until the late 60’s. That was an era when a middle class two-income family, even a one-income family, could afford help, and was expected to.
I set about the hall, and I started with the white bookshelf Ned had made.
At one time, back in Arkansas and when I first moved to Vermont, I had all the Zolotow books arranged chronologically. Charlotte’s titles ran from her first (The Park Book, 1944) to her last ( Who is Ben?, 1997). Reissues — books published more than once, with different illustrators and sometimes by different publishers —- were filed in the year of each edition’s publication, and still come out from time to time.) It’s been awhile since then, but now I had a whole new set to incorporate — the copies Charlotte hd signed to her sister, Dorothy, part of that precious detritus we had brought up from the apartment.
Okay, I thought. Might as well start over and do it right, re-order them chronologically. “Them” being, more or less, three sets of her books: the copies she signed to Ned and me, the copies she signed to Maurice, and the copies she signed to to Dorothy.
She loved us, her sister, her husband/ex husband, her daughter (me) and her son-in-law (Ned). She would have protected us fiercely had anyone attacked or thresatened us in any way. That was a private privelege, reserved, along with her love, for her. Her love was as genuine as her anger and ambivalence. You can see it in the inscriptions. There are some that sting, across the pages and years; some that are loving and kind , though often with an edge. There are caresses and wounds. A complicated, gifted, and for much of her life somewhat tortured woman. (wound of childhood)
A decade ago, even five years ago, I could not have opened my home and heart to Charlotte. But there’s an up side to memory loss. With memory loss, Charlotte can no longer brood over the slights and injustices of the past, nor obsess about the future. She is in the present, and, it turns out, when past and future are gone, what mainly remains in her present is love. She has become unambivalent. All the rest has melted away. It is sweet to be with her now.
“Sweet!” she used to say to me irately, insulted. “I hate it when people call me sweet! I’m not sweet!” And she wasn’t, not to us — though often she was sweet, very much so, to the people who said she was; and whom, in private, she later ripped apart for doing so. She had impeccable public manners and a gift for saying exactly the right thing to those she knew slightly or in a professional realm. But now… she is sweet, and it’s a good thing, not at all the insult she considered it. Pure bhakti. Being together has never been easier. I am amazed that we’ve lived long enough to find ourselves here.
But it was mad to suppose I could quickly sort all the books chronologically. For one thing, it required opening each book to see the year of its publication. And of course, if a book, like when the wind stops, had been reissued X times, with x different uillustrators, it went in three different places. I sat on the carpet, an island in a sea of books. I kept forgetting which pile I had designated ’70’s and 80’s and ;80’s; 50’s and 60’s I had on the shelf. Dust made my throat scratchy.
When the wind stops is a book I’ve always liked though I loathed the first set f illustrations, by Joe Lasker in 1962. (decsribe)
But I finally found a Lasker, and opened it for the publication date. It turned out to be one of the set she had signed to my father, and the inscription was like no other. Also, clearly, she had sent it to him some time after 1962.
To Maurice, a former husband
See page 5 of the
text and remember on
November 21at, 1969.
a former wife
1969 – the year they divorced, after 33 years of marriage. Was the 21st the day it became official? I turned to page five, to find the following, with some text underlined by Charlotte.
“But where is the sun going? ” asked
the little boy. “Where does it go when the day ends?”
“The day doesn’t end,” said his mother. “It
only begins somewhere else. The sun will
rise there, when the night begins here.
Nothing ends. It only begins in another
place or in a different way.”
“Everything?” asked the little boy.
“Everything,” said his mother.
Nothing is wasted on the writer. Not mystery. Not love: love given or witheld, or transmogrified over time to begin in aanother plavce or a different way. The chaos of a life, and living it; of looking over its precious detritus.
I got another gaze into my mother, and her complex and conflicted
creative life — a life that will soon affect mine hugely, again —
as told through the inscriptions in her books.