IMG_0541When my mother died at the end of November 1993, she left among her effects an old photograph, mounted on board, of a young woman in a long dress and long pearls, gazing up at the heavens with a tragic expression. The woman did not appear to be a family member. But who was she?  Why was she so important to my emigrating mother, aged eighteen, that she had chosen to bring her photo out of the nascent Soviet Union as one of the few personal possessions she was allowed to take with her?  And why had she kept the woman’s picture till she died?  There were no photographs of her own mother surviving among her effects.  What made the lady with the pearls so special?

The photo bore a name at the bottom printed in Cyrillic lettering. But at the time I found it, I didn’t know how to read all the letters.  Moreover, even if I had been able to piece together a name for this woman, in 1993 the internet was a mere fledgling.  Very few personal computers were then connected to it.  Search engines were a thing of the future.  The woman remained a mystery.

Until a year ago, when I embarked on private Russian lessons with a tutor. (Not, I assure you, to ascertain the identity of the mystery woman.  I was searching for the sound of my “roots,” having conveniently forgotten that if there is such a thing, mine are not really Russian but Jewish.) It was an effort doomed to failure.  I hate to admit I’m too old for anything. But I was certainly too old — or else insufficiently motivated, roots or no — to retain the unbelievably complicated conjugations and declensions of almost every single word in this maddeningly elusive language, despite valiant efforts and the painful expenditure of $35 an hour. However, before giving up, I did learn to identify those funny-looking letters in the Cyrillic alphabet.  Now I could laboriously decipher the mystery woman’s name printed on my mother’s card.  It was  — as you learned in a previous post — Vera Kholodnaya.

And now also there was an almost omniscient internet available to me.  Perhaps some answers at last?  Given the little my mother had told me about her girlhood and its pleasures in wartime Baku, I had thought Vera would turn out to be a famous and idolized soprano or else a stage actress of renown.  Not a bit of it.  My teen-age mother had been spending whatever spare time and few rubles she had at the movies!

Vera Kholodnaya was the biggest silent screen star Imperial Russia had ever known!   Her large gray eyes and often extravagant costumes made her a fascinating enigma for Russian audiences everywhere. By the time of the Russian Revolution, a new Kholodnaya film was released every third week.  One of them (“At the Fire Side”) was so popular it was being run in cinemas as late as 1924, six years after she died — when the Soviet authorities ordered many of her films destroyed. (Too bourgeois?)


Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Vera’s specialty was melodrama.  In the photo below, she is suffering both anguish for the man in her arms (played by Ivan Khudoleev), a circus performer who has fallen from his airborne perch, and humiliation by the suave suitor at the left (played by Ossip Runitsch), a wealthy man who desires her and whom she rejected before Ivan fell.  Now she has been forced to accept money from Ossip so that Ivan can have medical help.  My recognition of Cyrillic letters does not extend far enough for me to read the words of dialogue printed on the screen in silent movies, so I don’t know what price Ossip has extracted in exchange for his filthy lucre. But you can imagine.  Nonetheless, Vera is clearly happy that Ivan will be made well again, despite what is to come at Ossip’s hands.  Thrilling, isn’t it?


Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The scene is from her last picture, and three minutes of it survives on YouTube, if you’re interested in details of how Ossip was rejected, how Ivan fell, and Vera’s look of shame at accepting the money. It’s called “Molchi, grust… molchi.

My mother was just fourteen when Vera died, and didn’t leave Baku with Vera’s photograph in her luggage until four years later.  However, Vera’s life and death may have been even more melodramatic and appealing to a romantic young girl than the stories in her films.   She was only seventeen when she married Vladimir Kholodny,  said to be one of the first Russian car racers — be still, my beating heart! — and the editor of a daily sport newspaper.  Vera would often accompany him in the car when he raced, many of the races resulting in road accidents.    But after he was drafted to fight in World War I, she was also rumored to have begun an affair with the French ambassador!  And there’s no smoke without fire, right?

Official government records state that she died at the age of 25 of Spanish flu during the epidemic of 1918-1919 — a tragic end right there. But others believe she was poisoned by the French ambassador with whom she was having the affair after he became suspicious that she was a spy for the Bolsheviks!  Talk about your melodrama!  When Alexander Vertinsky, a well-known film and song writer who venerated her and was a frequent visitor to her house, learned of her death (however it occurred), he wrote a poignant song in her honor that my young mother may have heard: “Your fingers smell of church incense, and your lashes sleep in grief….”  And a director with whom Vera had frequently worked filmed her large funeral, which seems to have become her best-known film.

She was also, in some photographs, quite lovely:


Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

So now I understand why my mother, whose head was full of romantic dreams for longer than she may have ever been willing to admit, might have brought a celebrity photo with her to America.  It was a photo of Vera Kholodnaya, the silent screen star who had led such a brief and dazzling life of romantic drama and tragedy.

But why did she keep the photograph of Vera till she died, when she almost certainly threw out any photographs of her own mother she may have had, together with all her mother’s letters, after she learned of her death during World War II?  I think I know the answer to that one now, too.  Her mother’s face may have been too painful to keep, once she was gone.  Whereas she didn’t care at all about Vera after a while, and just forgot she was there.





Hi everyone,

My first published piece is in print!  The Iowa Review just announced the arrival of its Spring 2014 issue, containing — at last, at last! — a memoir of my thirteenth summer, “Falling Off the Roof.”  Never mind that I first submitted it three years and three months ago;  I have outlived the waiting period!

I hope those of you who are interested in reading this kind of thing will take a look.  I’d love to know what you think!  TIR is offering opening snippets of some of the Spring issue pieces  on its webpage —  to whet the appetite of potential purchasers, I suppose.  But they’re not offering a snippet of mine.  So they probably won’t mind if I do it myself.

Here are the first two paragraphs of “Falling Off the Roof” — just to get you going:

Back then you knew, even when you were very little, what you were going to do when you grew up. In the nineteen-thirties only daddies went out to work in the morning; the mommies all stayed home and kept house. A woman went to business, said my mother, only when there was no one else to put bread on the table.

Later, the movies to which she took me almost every Saturday evening confirmed this fact of life: after the heroine and hero met “cute” and experienced a series of silly misunderstandings, all was eventually resolved by a proposal, after which the credits rolled to a surge of triumphant music and that was the end. There were also the stories that appeared, three per issue, in the ladies’ magazines she bought at the corner newsstand every month and I devoured before she had time to sit down and enjoy them. Sometimes the heroine was deeply in love with a foolish man distracted by a flirtatious and superficially glamorous competitor until he came to recognize the enduring worth of the heroine’s goodness, virtue and purity. In other stories another sort of heroine, with an overabundance of suitors, had to learn, during the course of the narrative, how to differentiate between Mr. Right and Mr. Wrong. (Mr. Right was the one who loved small animals and children, just like she did.) But it all came to the same thing in the end. Will you marry me? Oh yes darling yes.   I could polish off all three stories before dinnertime….

The rest of it — it’s about 10,800 words — is available at  Alas, the price per print issue is $9.95 plus $2 domestic shipping.  However, you can have it instantly for $4.99 from Amazon at the Kindle Store, if you don’t mind reading on a Kindle. (Or an i-Pad, or a tablet of any kind that takes the Kindle App.)  Just be sure to specify: Iowa Review Spring 2014.  (An earlier issue is also available on Kindle.)

You’ll be getting much more for your money than just me: two other pieces of non-fiction, six stories, two book reviews, and a lot of poetry.  [I told you this post would be shameless self promotion, didn’t I?]

And if you do decide to spring for it, please don’t keep your opinion to yourself.  Speak up. Don’t be shy.  Use the Comment section with abandon. Get full value by making yourself heard.  We’ll be waiting to hear.

The rest of you, thank you for your patience with the marketing.  Back to regular blog stuff next time!





I admit to many flaws; stupidity usually isn’t one of them. However, there’s always a first time. And here it is: a slender book called Monogamy which has left me feeling really dumb.

Not that Adam Phillips, the author, isn’t a terrific writer.  He is, he is!  But I’ve had to reread each page of his book at least twice to figure out (most of) what he’s getting at.  What seems evident to him is so much less evident to me that it’s hard for me to follow.  On the first go-round anyway.

Phillips also leaves me dumbfounded because what he seems to be saying here does appear to be the way things are, or one of the ways things are.  And my life might have been quite a bit different if I had been able to think about these things in the way he does.


19.  In private life the word we is a pretension, an exaggeration of the word I.  We is the wished-for I, the I as a gang, the I as somebody else as well.  Coupledom can be so dismaying because the other person never really joins in. Or rather, they want exactly the same thing, but from a quite different point of view.


27.  At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with; at its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.


39.  If sex brought us in to the family, it is also what breaks us out of the family.  In other words, people leave home when what they have got to hide — their sexuality — either has to be hidden somewhere else, or when it is best shown somewhere else.

If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nowhere to go. Which is one of the reasons why couples sometimes want to be totally honest with each other.


40. Every marriage is a blind date that makes you wonder what the alternatives are to a blind date.


45.  Rules are ways of imagining what to do.  Our personal infidelity rituals — the choreography of our affairs — are the parallel texts of our ‘marriages.’  Guilt, by reminding us what we mustn’t do, shows us what we may want; it shows us our moral sense, the difference between what we want, and what we want to want.  Without the possibility of a double life there is no morality.


Is all this is making you cross and headachy? It shouldn’t.  Monogamy is not prescriptive.  It’s not expository.  As you may already have noticed, it’s a collection of short — sometimes one-sentence — observations on its subject.  What the French call apercus.  There are only 121 of them.  Lots of white space on each page.  Lots of time to roll each around in your mind. No need to hurry on to the next.  (Except perhaps out of curiosity.)  You can open the book anywhere.  Put it down anywhere.  Go back and read some of it again before you’ve got to the end.

But let’s back up.  Who is Adam Phillips?  If you’re not British or in the shrinkage business, you may not have heard of him.  Not being in either of those two categories, I hadn’t heard of him either. Then he was interviewed about a recent book of his in The Paris Review.  (The book? Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.) What I read there whetted my appetite to learn more.

Phillips is not only an author but a prominent British psychoanalyst.  He studied English literature at Oxford before becoming interested in psychoanalysis. (His particular interest was in children.)  After finishing his analytic training, he worked in the National Health Service for seventeen years, and from 1990 until 1997 was principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London.  But when he found the Health Service’s tightening bureaucratic demands growing too restrictive, he left to open a private practice in Notting Hill.  He now treats adult patients four days a week and writes every Wednesday.

As a psychoanalyst, he has been a maverick, so that he’s been called “ludic and elusive and intellectually slippery.”  He also declines to defend psychoanalysis as a science or field of academic study, preferring to think of it as “a set of stories that will sustain …. our appetite for life.”  He has also said that for him, “psychoanalysis has always been of a piece with the various languages of literature — a kind of practical poetry.”

As a writer, his thinking has clearly been informed by his psychoanalytic practice with children. In addition, he’s  been described by The (London) Times as “the Martin Amis of British psychoanalysis” for his “brilliantly amusing and often profoundly unsettling” work; and by John Banville as “one of the finest prose stylists in the language, an Emerson of our time.”

[He’s also, as shrinks go, photogenic — if that cuts any ice with you.]

It may be that I made a mistake in beginning with Monogamy.  I picked it because it was short and sounded easy.  (Ha!) Here are some of the other Phillips books I might have chosen instead. [And this isn’t the whole list.  There’s even a new one on Freud’s life coming out this month.  His Wednesdays are apparently quite productive!]

  • On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored:  Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life
  • On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life
  • Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape
  • The Beast In the Nursery: On Curiosity and Other Appetites
  • On Kindness
  • On Balance
  • Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

On second thought, Monogamy was not a mistake.  Perhaps it’s the masochist still lingering in my depths even after twenty-four years of (non-consecutive) shrinkage. But stupid or no, I do find the book a keeper.  Here’s some more.  Maybe you too will develop a taste for it.

28.  There is always the taken-for-granted relationship and the precarious relationship, the comforting routine and the exciting risk.  The language won’t let us mix them up.  We have safety and danger, habit and passion, love and lust, attachment and desire, marriage and affairs.  We are not mixed up enough.  In other words, we still have bodies and souls.


58.   The point about trust is that it is impossible to establish.  It is a risk masquerading as a promise.  The question is not do you trust your partner? But do you know what they think trust is? And how would you go about finding out? And what might make you believe them? And what would make you trust your belief?

Trust is a word we have to put too much trust in.


60.     Self-betrayal is a sentimental melodrama; a deification of our own better judgement, an adoration of shame.  I am always true to myself, that is the problem.  Who else could I be true to?

When I say that I have let myself down, I am boasting.  I am the only person I cannot avoid being faithful to. My sexual relationship with myself, in other words, is a study in monogamy.


64.     It is always flattering when a married person wants to have an affair with us; though we cannot help wondering exactly what will be compared with what. In fact, we become merely a comparison, just a good or bad imitation.

To resent this would be to believe that we could ever be anything else.


65.  No one gets the relationship they deserve.  For some people this is a cause of unending resentment, for some people it is the source of unending desire. And for some people the most important thing is that they have found something that doesn’t end.


69.   There is always someone else who would love me more, understand me better, make me feel more sexually alive.  This is the best justification we have for monogamy — and infidelity.


121.   Monogamy and infidelity: the difference between making a promise and being promising.


51.   Serial monogamy is a question not so much of quantity as of quality; a question not of how many but of the order; of how the plot hangs together. Of what kind of person seems to be telling the story.


53.   The outlaw, the femme fatale, the heretic, the double agent, the pun — infidelity gets all the action. It has the glamour of the bad secret and the good lie. It travels because it has to, because it believes in elsewhere.

So what would we have to do to make monogamy glamorous? Or rather, what would we have to stop doing?


And how do I stop quoting?  [Monogamy, you see, becomes addictive.]  By reminding myself you can always get your own copy.  Me, I’m going on to Promises, Promises (see above).  That one is essays.  Essays I can do.  Apercus?   I’m still working on my French.





Sasha and Sophie are house cats.  They are not allowed to go out.  Not without me, that is.

Unfortunately, going out with me involves wearing a harness with a leash attached.  Cats don’t take kindly to being harnessed, and Sophie — the younger of the two — still will not submit to it.  Out come her claws as she struggles, and back into the drawer goes her harness. Another time perhaps.  But Sasha, now five years old, has learned the rare appearance of the harness means something exceptionally good is going to happen. She will get to explore the great Outdoors.

Our cats are not entirely housebound.  There’s a wire-fenced deck off the kitchen, from which they can smell foliage, hear birdcalls, spy on squirrels scampering through the underbrush in the rear of the condo.  But there’s no grass under the paws, no growing leaves to munch, no trees on which to scrape the claws.  And Sasha certainly appreciates the difference.

We don’t go out together often, Sasha and I.  Not in winter, when it’s too cold for both of us.  Not in summer, when it’s too hot for me, since I can’t crawl underneath the low spreading leaves of a grove of trees where it’s cool and shady.  But there’s still spring and fall.

However, walking a cat is not like walking a dog.  You go where the cat wants to go,  not vice-versa.  It takes a long time, it’s tedious, and sometimes it’s hard to get her back in the house when I’ve had enough.  Not that we go very far.  Usually she just slowly circles the five-unit structure in which our condo is located, investigating every ground planting in the front, and making a few careful forays into the uncleared and dedicated forest land behind.

Exciting though it may be for her, it’s boring for me.  Especially as there’s really nowhere to sit down while she explores.  But she makes me feel so guilty when I go out without her — and don’t think she doesn’t try to second guess which door I’ll be using so as to run out with me when I leave — that once in a while I carve out an hour of the afternoon just for her.

Sasha Getting Her Greens.


Then she can poke around to her heart’s content. Although it makes Bill nervous when he sees me do it, I do let go of the leash if she ventures where I can’t or don’t care to follow.  The harness is red, so it’s easy to spot, even at a distance.  And she doesn’t go far. When I call, she even waits for me to catch up. That way I have both hands free to try to take her picture.  Or should I say pictures? I have to snap six for every one that’s usable.



Occasionally, someone walks by pushing a baby carriage and does a second take at the sight of a cat on a leash.  But if Sasha’s off the leash, they do a second take at the sight of me, lounging against a tree or sitting on a rock in a residential neighborhood as if I had nothing else to do.

But I am doing something.  I’m enjoying her appreciation of the big wide world.





Eventually, though, even she gets tired.  When we pass the deck chair on the front walk, she settles down for a rest.  Soon I’ll be able to pick her up without her fussing, and carry her into the house.








[A story.]

The campus seems to clear out on Friday afternoons. Students who come from New York and find themselves without weekend dates go home as soon as their last class is over. It’s only two hours away. Even the dreary girl across the hall from Molly who plans to major in East Asian Studies has already gone back to Brooklyn. Home is a place to which it has not occurred to Molly that anyone in this exclusive, expensive women’s college would want to go, given her own eagerness to get here after high school.

But now, on the fourth dateless Saturday of her first semester, she decides immediately after her meager breakfast that since she too has a home to go to, she can study there as well as here. She pulls a small carry-on from the dorm room closet, a gift from her parents when news of the full scholarship arrived last spring. All she really needs is the current reading assignment for her Tuesday Exploratory Lit class – it’s Gide’s Strait is the Gate, in translation — and a few toiletries. Still in narrow jeans and jean jacket, she just makes the 10:10 to Grand Central. From there, it’s the familiar subway out to Queens.

Molly is 5’7” and weighs 125 pounds. The 125 pounds is new, the 28” waist of her new jeans likewise, both the rewarding results of rigorous dieting all summer long so as to begin college life looking right. She may be almost always hungry, but she’s also gratified right now by the sight of her silhouette in the dark window of the subway car as it hurtles from Manhattan to Queens.

How happy Molly’s mother and father are to see her! What a surprise! How beautiful she looks! How they’ve missed having her in what her father calls her “little room!” (It’s the smaller of the two bedrooms in the apartment, a half-room really.) They’ll celebrate! What would she like for dinner? A nice porterhouse steak? Peas? Potato? Poppy-seed rolls? (Her father’s favorite.) And of course a special cake from the bakery, because it’s such a special occasion! What does Molly mean, she can’t eat potato, rolls, cake? One slice of cake isn’t going to hurt her. Now that she’s thin, she has to start eating normally again.

Afterwards, when she looks back on how it all started, Molly won’t remember the dinner, or whether there were poppy-seed rolls. She will remember the cake: a large three-layer chocolate cake with chocolate cream between the layers and thick chocolate fudge icing on top and around the sides. She allows her mother to persuade her to have a slice, her father nodding his approval.   When she’s finished slowly eating every last delicious crumb while they watch lovingly, they urge her to have another. (“Don’t be silly, of course you can, what are we going to do with all this leftover cake? Actually, you’re a little too thin. You could use a few pounds.”) And on Sunday morning, the celebration goes on. Her father hurries out to bring back lox, cream cheese and bagels for a late breakfast because, “How often does this happen?”

Amazingly, the waistband still closes when Molly wiggles into her jeans again on Sunday afternoon. “Take the rest of the cake,” her mother urges as she watches Molly repack her carry-on. “Maybe your new friends would like some.” Molly doesn’t say she doesn’t have any new friends, not really. Doesn’t tell about her disappointing room assignment, at the end of a long hall, where she shares a bathroom with a plain girl from Brooklyn who studies in the library all day and every evening, comes back to the dorm at eight-thirty, takes a hot bath, and is in bed at nine. Or about the two sophomore girls in the next nearest suite of rooms who are somewhat distant. In fact, Molly tells her parents nothing at all. Why should they worry about her? Isn’t she supposed to be grown up now? Instead, she insists she can’t take the rest of the cake because it would only get squished in the carry-on. She insists although she does very much want to take the cake, one last sweet taste of home to bring back to her lonely and difficult new life. She thinks about the cake on the subway all the way into town.

In Grand Central, she has fifteen minutes to spare before her train. One of the station kiosks is near the gate. Perhaps a candy bar to tide her over until supper back at school? Isn’t that what “eating normally” is all about? She gazes indecisively at the attractive display of O’Henrys, Milky Ways, Almond Joys, Hershey bars, M&Ms; it’s been so long since she’s tasted any of them. But why decide which to buy? Now that it’s all right to allow herself an occasional treat, why not stock up, for later? Molly enters her gate with seven candy bars in a small brown paper bag, one of each kind to enjoy during the week to come, plus a second O’Henry for the ride. She anticipates the taste on her tongue of the caramel, peanuts and chocolate even when lifting her carry-on to the overhead rack and settling in near a window with her jeans jacket on the seat next to her, so she can savor this unaccustomed pleasure in privacy.

She does try to wait until the train has climbed from the underground tunnel through which it has to pass to emerge into the twilight of the Bronx. But waiting is impossible. Trembling with happy anticipation, she unwraps the O’Henry and bites into it while the train is still in the dark tunnel. She can’t not do it. She’s on automatic pilot now.

Soon the O’Henry bar is gone. And after she’s methodically eaten three more, it’s just not worth bringing the last three to the dorm. She can always buy more at the campus store. When she steps off the train at her station, only crumpled candy wrappers remain in the brown paper bag. Before getting into one of the waiting taxis, she tosses the bag. There! Evidence gone! The waistband of her jeans feels snug, but with her jacket on, no one will notice.

By the time she reaches her dorm, she has just enough time to climb the stairs to her room, set down the carry-on, unsnap the top of her jeans and walk all the way to the dining room at the other end of campus. Why should she skip supper? Calorically, the day’s shot. She might as well enjoy what’s left of it.

Meals at college are always cafeteria-style, which means you can take as much as you want, and even go back for more. Molly has never done either of these things. Sunday night supper is especially hard for the rigorous dieter; it usually consists of some kind of slumgullion that uses up scraps remaining from the previous week — accompanied by single-serving bags of potato chips, pitchers of whole and skim milk, long loaves of crusty white and light brown bread, already sliced, and tubs of peanut butter and grape jelly. Dessert? Spotty-looking apples for the health-minded and powdered doughnuts on trays, plus cocoa, for everyone else.

But tonight Molly begins with a lightened heart. She serves herself some sort of hash with an egg on it, and a generous squeeze of ketchup. She has never had it before, and therefore plans to return for seconds. She also puts two bags of chips on her tray, and helps herself liberally to the white bread, three slices of which she slathers generously with peanut butter and jelly. Allowing herself to have these things is okay, she reasons, as she plunges her knife deep into the peanut butter tub, because she’s only going to do it this one night.   She chooses whole milk over skim. “I’m just so hungry!” she exclaims to the two classmates who set their own trays down at her table. “I had to miss lunch to catch the train back.”

Her classmates seem to think nothing of it. After all, Molly is thin. When it’s time for dessert, all three return to the buffet together. Molly’s classmates skip the apples. They’re for powdered doughnuts. “Mmm, they do look good,” exclaims Molly, taking two. And they are, despite all she’s already eaten. So she waits, very slowly sipping cocoa, until the others have left. Then she returns to the doughnut tray, trying to look casual, where she wraps six doughnuts in double paper napkins to bring to her room. She would take more, but can only manage to carry three in each hand. On the path up the hill towards her dorm, she meets someone she recognizes from British History hurrying to get some food before the dining-room closes. “For my suite-mate,” Molly explains without having been asked, waving the napkin-wrapped doughnuts. “She didn’t feel like coming down.”

The future East Asian Studies major isn’t back from Brooklyn yet. She must be having supper at home. Molly closes her door, unzips her jeans, and sits at her desk without undressing further to eat the six doughnuts. She might have preferred to stop after three, but doesn’t want to leave the other three around for the next day, and so manages to get them all down. Only when there’s nothing left to eat does she become aware she’s uncomfortably full.

Molly knows in a general way that during less than three hours, she has consumed seven candy bars, two large platefuls of greasy hash with egg, two bags of potato chips, three thick peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two glasses of whole milk, a large cup of cocoa, and eight powdered doughnuts. But rather than think about it, she pushes her carry-on to the side of the room. Gide can wait until tomorrow. Then she pulls off her jeans, shirt and bra, leaving them in a tangled heap on the floor, and gets under the covers.   She falls into a deep sleep almost at once, and never hears anyone come down the hall, open the door opposite hers, use the shared bathroom and go to bed.

It’s been many years since Molly’s parents celebrated her surprise visit home with a three-layer chocolate cake. Yet she still remembers with perfect clarity everything she ate on that Sunday after she left their apartment in Queens to come back to college. She has no such clear recollection of subsequent episodes of aberrational eating. Indeed, on such subsequent occasions she will sometimes make a detailed confessional list of what she’s consumed before falling, groggy with food, on her bed — so as to help her remember this other self who lives in her body and eats so desperately.

There won’t be a subsequent occasion for a while. College will get easier. She will have friends. But nobody ever said that life is fair. And for grown-up Molly looking back, here – at the gateway to adulthood — is the template for the recurrent nightmare of her future life. Here is where she discovers solace for what isn’t fair. And here too are solace’s ever-present companions: shame, falsehood, secrecy — followed by sleep so profound it resembles a little taste of death.



While rummaging around the basement a few days ago, I found myself wrist-deep in the contents of a dusty old suitcase that hadn’t been opened for quite some time. It was the smallest and only surviving case in a three-piece set of Amelia Earhart luggage my parents bought for me when I set off to college in September 1948.  You wouldn’t want to use it as a suitcase these days.  It’s heavy (for its size) and has no roller wheels.  But it has remained useful over the years as a sort of storage box.

Indeed, when I managed to pry its two closures open, it was jammed full of yellowing correspondence from the time when people sent each other real letters on real paper — sometimes even handwritten — which were then folded into real envelopes with postage stamps on them.  These were letters that took at least two or three days to reach their destination, and sometimes longer.  You had to be patient.  Or else pace impatiently, until the mailman arrived.

We may revisit the interesting question of why I hang on to all this stuff in another post, after I’ve figured it out myself.  However, this post is not about that.  It’s about the folded piece of paper on top of one of the bundles of letters in the suitcase.  The rubber band holding the bundle together had dried out and it snapped when I picked up the bundle.  The top piece of paper slipped to the floor.  It was just asking to be read!  How could I not unfold it and take it over to a good light?

Long story short, it was a plea/demand straight from the gonads — its author being a young man I had met and in due time kissed, again and again, during the previous summer.  Unfortunately, he was now in a college twenty-five hours away from mine by train, racked by uncertainty as to my feelings.   He wasn’t quite as young as I was, but nearly — and was definitely hotter to trot. (At least when writing about it.)  Apparently, I was taking my time — too much time, as he saw it — in committing the degree of my desire to paper.

Having just reread his typed expression of angst for the first time in nearly sixty-six years, I like it much more than I did when I first received it. I even now like the not-so-surreptitious suggestion that I was being a bitch.  [“Bright EYE WET nose can be taught all manner of tricks”]  I probably was.  I sobbed at parting in Grand Central Station, but otherwise would go just so far, and no farther.

Nonetheless, I must have liked it enough, despite the jab, for him soon to become an important person in my early life, the one referred to elsewhere in this blog as “first serious boyfriend.”  And I like it so much now I thought other people might like to read it too.  I know he wouldn’t mind, if he were still alive.  He’d smile.  Maybe you will, too.

[Note:  I’d re-type it to make it easier for you to read, but I can’t reproduce the e.e. cummings style without a typewriter roller, and I no longer have a typewriter — not even in my rat pack basement.]

[Second note:   although e.e. cummings was cutting-edge stuff to the 1948 college crowd, his poetic style, emulated here, may not have aged well.   On the other hand, the feelings expressed have no pull date.  Some kinds of H-U-R-TZ never go away.]






They move away fast when you take out a camera.


But it’s spring. And you know where a young goose’s fancy turns in spring.


Maybe if we hurry around to the other side of the pond, we’ll be able to get a better view.

Ah!  That's better!

Ah! That’s better!


There used to be two. Now there are eight:  mama, papa and six little goslings.


I wish I could show you the six little balls of fluff huddled near their mama more clearly.


But the parents are protective; they just don’t come close to shore with their goslings.

And even the miraculous iPhone 5s has its limits.

As do I.

But if you click on a photo to open it, you’ll get a better view.

(Don’t say I didn’t try.)





IMG_0743I grew up without Yiddish.  The parental language in our house, reserved for matters I was not supposed to understand, was Russian.  But you couldn’t not hear Yiddish, at least little bit, if the place where you grew up, as I did, was New York.

It initially came from my first serious boyfriend — in other respects a highly literate and scholarly looking youth reading Great Books at the University of Chicago.  There was a hiatus during my years in California, where I was married to a man who was not Jewish. But eventually that husband and I returned to the Big Apple, where I earned our daily bread writing copy in advertising agencies with Seventh Avenue clients and therefore at the time heavily Jewish. Then — after a divorce — came movies from Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, and a second husband steeped in what Bill says were badly pronounced Yiddish words. (When  really angry, this second husband would stomp up the stairs shouting what sounded like:  “Quit ‘hocking me to China!’ ”  Bill says what he should have been shouting was “hok a chainik,” which means, colloquially, “talk someone’s ear off, yammer, yak” — although you don’t need to know that, even if I now do.)   Finally came Bill, whose grandmother — with whom he lived for several years — spoke nothing but. Which means he understands it.  Not as a language imbibed with mother’s milk, but close.

Understandably, over the course of all those years of intimacy with Yiddish users a few colorful Yiddish expressions have crept into my day-to-day discourse.  How could they not?  There’s nothing like them in English!  You can go round and round the bush with your proper Anglo-Saxon circumlocutions till you’re blue in the face, or get right to the point with a choice bit of Yinglish!  In fact, lots of people in and around New York and Los Angeles already have.  It wasn’t me who made up that word, “Yinglish.”   It’s right there in black and white in Leo Rosten’s “The New Joys of Yiddish” (completely updated), as published by Three Rivers Press.  Yinglish is particularly rich in deprecation and insult, which is always useful.  In addition, it’s handy for philosophic one- or two-word summaries of life.  The Rosten book is also fun because it not only shows you how to pronounce whatever it is, but also gives illustrations of its usage, often in humorous anecdotal form.

Feel like dipping a toe in the water?  I’m glad.  Because here come a dozen vocabulary enhancements right out of “The New Joys of Yiddish.”  What follows is not in quotation format only because I’ve selectively abridged each entry, and have also paraphrased in places.  However,the content is all Rosten’s.  Enjoy.


1.     klutz.  Rhymes with “butts.” A clod; a clumsy, slow-witted, graceless person; an inept blockhead.

Anecdote:  To Mr. Meyers, in the hospital, came Mr. Glotz, secretary of the synagogue, who said:  “I bring you the good wishes of our board of trustees, that you should get well and live to be a hundred and ten years old!  That’s an official resolution, passed by a vote of fourteen to seven!”  Glotz was a klutz.


2.     kvell.  Pronounced exactly as it’s spelled.  (1)  To beam with immense pride and pleasure, most commonly over an achievement of a child or grandchild.  “Watch her kvell when she reads his report card.”  (2)  To enjoy, gloat, or crow over someone’s defeat or humiliation.  “All right, be charitable, don’t kvell over his mistake.”

Anecdote:  (Mrs. Kovarsky is kvelling.)  Two ladies met on the Grand Concourse, Mrs. Blumenfeld carrying her groceries, Mrs. Kovarsky pushing a pram with two little boys in it.

“Good morning, Mrs. Kovarsky.  Such darling boys!  So how old are they?”

“The doctor,” said Mrs. Kovarsky, “is three, and the lawyer is two.”


3.     kvetch.  Pronounced to rhyme with “fetch.”  As a verb:  To fret, complain, gripe, grunt, sigh.  “What’s she kvetching about now?”  As a noun:  Anyone, male or female, who complains, frets, gripes, or magnifies minor aches and pains.  “What a congenital kvetch!”  “Don’t invite him to the party; he’s a kvetch.”

Anecdote:  There’s a prized lapel button that reads:





4.     mitzva.  Pronounced to rhyme with “fits a.”  (1) Commandment; divine commandment; (2) A meritorious act, one that expresses God’s will;  a “good work,” a truly virtuous, kind, considerate, ethical deed.  Mitzvas are regarded as profound obligations….yet they must be performed with a “joyous heart.”   If you do something especially honorable, kind or considerate, a Jew may say, beaming, “Oh, that was a mitzva!” or “You performed a real mitzva!”

Anecdote: At the end of a pier in Tel Aviv, a man was about to jump into the sea when a policeman came running up to him.  “No, no,” he cried. “How can a man like you, in the prime of life, think of jumping into that water?”

“Because I can’t stand it anymore!  I don’t want to live!”

“But listen, mister, please.  If you jump in the water, I’ll have to jump in after you, to save you.  Right?  Well, it so happens I can’t swim.  Do you know what that means?  I have a wife and four children, and in the line of duty I would drown! Would you want to have such a terrible thing on your conscience?  No, I’m sure.  So be a good Jew, and do a real mitzva. Go home.  And in the privacy and comfort of your own home, hang yourself.”


5.     naches.  Pronounced to rhyme with “Loch Ness” — with the kh sound a Scot would use in pronouncing “loch.”  (This is a noun somewhat related to the verb, kvell.)  It means proud pleasure or special joy — particularly from the achievements of a child.  Jews use the word naches to describe the glow of pleasure plus pride that only a child can give to its parents.  “I have such naches: my son was voted president of his play group.”  Alternatively, a self-pitying sort with under-achieving grown offspring might complain: “I get no naches from my children.”


6.     gonif.  Pronounced to rhyme with “Don if.”

  • Thief, crook.
  • A clever person.
  • An ingenious child.
  • A dishonest businessman.
  • A shady, tricky character it would be wise (a) not to trust, and (b) to watch every minute he’s in the store.
  • A mischievous, fun-loving prankster.

The particular meaning depends on context, tone of voice, inflection, and accompanying gestures.  If uttered with a beam, a grin or an admiring raising of the hands, gonif is clearly laudatory. Thus, a proud grandparent will say of a child, metaphorically, “Oh, is that a gonif!”  If uttered with pulled-down mouth, in a lugubrious tone, or with heartfelt dismay, the meaning is clearly derogatory:  “A gonif like that shouldn’t be allowed among respectable citizens.” Uttered in steely detachment (“That one is, plain and simple, a gonif“), the word describes a crook, thief, trickster. Said in admiration, with a wink, cluck, or shake of the head (” I tell you, there’s a gonif!”), the phrasing is equivalent to “There’s a clever cookie.”

Anecdote:  The first day home from school, little Milton was met by his mother who ran out eagerly to greet him.   “So what did you learn?”

“I learned to write,” said Milton.

“On the first day already you learned to write?  Gonif!  So what do you write?

“How should I know?” said Milton.  “I can’t read.”


7.     nudnik.  Rhymes with “could pick.”  A pest, an annoyer, a monumental bore.  A nudnik is not just a nuisance; to merit use of the term nudnik, a nuisance must be a most persistent, talkative, obnoxious, indomitable, and indefatigable nag.  A mother often says to a child:  “Stop bothering me.  Don’t be a nudnik.”

Anecdote:  Mr. Polanski complained to his doctor:  “Something terrible has happened to me.  I try to stop it, but I can’t…. Morning, noon and night — I keep talking to myself.”

“Now, now,” the doctor crooned. “That isn’t such a bad habit. Why, thousands of people do it.”

“But doctor,” protested Polanski, you don’t know what a nudnik I am!”


8.     nu.  (Or nu?)  Pronounced “noo,” to rhyme with “coo,” but with various intonations and meanings.  Nu is the word most frequently used (aside from oy and the articles) in speaking Yiddish, and with good reason.  It is the verbal equivalent of a sigh, a frown, a grin, a grunt, a sneer.  It is an expression of amusement or recognition or uncertainty or disapproval.  It can be used fondly, acidly, belligerently.  It is a qualification, an emphasizer, an interrogation, a caster of doubt, an arrow of ire.  It can convey pride, deliver scorn, demand response.  As in the following:

  • Nu?”  (Well?)
  • “I saw you come out of her apartment.  Nu?” (So-o?)
  • Nu?” (How are things with you?)
  • Nu?” (What’s new?)
  • Nu, after such a request, what could I do?”  (Well, then.)
  • “I need the money…. Nu?”  (How about it?)
  • “….and he walked right out.  Nu?!”  (How do you like that?  Imagine!)
  • Nu, I guess that’s all.” (I’ll be finishing, or going along now.)
  • “….and you’re supposed to be there by noon.  Nu?” (What are you waiting for?)
  • Nu-nu?”  (Come on, open up, tell me.)
  • “My wife was wondering what happened to the coffeepot she lent you….Nu?” (I hate to mention it, but — –)
  • “Did you or didn’t you tell him?  Nu?” (I challenge you.)
  • “They waited and waited.  Nu, he finally showed up.” (And so, in the course of time.)
  • “She accused him, he blamed her.  Nu, it ended in court.” (One thing led to another, and …)


9.     ongepotchket.  Pronounced to rhyme with “Fonda Lodge kit.”  (a)  Slapped together or assembled without form or sense; (b) messed up, excessively and anesthetically decorated; overly baroque.  “She wore her new diamond earrings, a necklace, bracelet, two rings, and a brooch.  Oy, was she ongepotchket!

Anecdote:  Mr. Fleishman, a new art collector, bought a painting that was much admired by his friend Meyerson, a self-proclaimed expert.  The painting was one large square of black, with a dot of white in the center.  A year later, Mr. Fleishman bought another painting by the same modernist genius:  a large black square with two white dots.  Proudly, Fleishman hung the picture over his fireplace and telephoned his friend Meyerson to come right over.  Meyerson took one look at the picture and wrinkled his nose:  “I don’t like it.  Too ongepotchket.


10.     shmatte. Pronounced to rhyme with “pot a.”

  • A rag.  “You call that a dress?  It’s a shmatte.”
  • A person unworthy of respect; someone you can wipe your feet on.  “They treated her like a shmatte.”  “What am I, a shmatte?” “Stand up for your rights; don’t be a shmatte!”


11.    pisher.  Rhymes with “fisher.”  A vulgarism, meaning ( a) a bed-wetter; (b) a young, inexperienced person; or (c) an inconsequential or insignificant person, a nobody.  Literally, a pisher is one who urinates; but in present and popular usage “He’s a mere pisher” means “He’s very young.  He’s still wet behind the ears.”  Similarly, “He’s just a pisher,” means “He’s a nobody and has no influence.”

Anecdote:  In France, an elderly Jew, tired of hearing a young man boast of his ancestry, finally said, “Listen, La Fontaine: I knew your grandfather, who changed his name to La Fontaine from Schpritzwasser [Squirtwater]. And he told me that his father changed his name to Schpritzwasser from what everyone called him, which was Moishe the Pisher!  So please don’t put on airs, La Fontaine!


12.    Oy.  Oy isn’t a word; it’s a vocabulary.  It’s uttered in as many ways as the utterer’s histrionic ability permits.  It’s a lament, a protest, a cry of dismay, a reflex of delight — the most expressive and ubiquitous exclamation in Yiddish.  Oy is often used as lead-off for oy-vey!” — which means, literally, “oh, pain!” but is used as an all-purpose ejaculation to express anything from trivial delight to abysmal woe.  Oy vey! is the short form of “oy vey iz mir!“, an omnibus phrase for everything from personal pain to emphatic condolences.  (Vey comes from the German weh, meaning “woe.”) As for the difference between oy! and ah!, there is of course a saying to illustrate the distinction:  “When you jump into cold water you cry, “Oy!” and then, enjoying it, say, “A-aah.”  When you commit a sin, you revel in the pleasure, “A-aah”; then, realizing what you’ve done, you cry, “Oy!”

Oy, accordingly, can be used, for example, to express

  • Apprehension.  “Maybe he’s sick?  Oy!”
  • Uncertainty. “What should I do? Oy, I wish I knew!”
  • Euphoria. “Was I happy? Oy! I was dancing on air!”
  • Joy. “Oy, what a party!”
  • Contentment. “Oy, was that a delicious dinner!”
  • Surprise. “She heard a noise and exclaimed, ‘Oy! Who’s there?””
  • Dismay. “Oy! I gained ten pounds!”
  • Regret.  “Him we have to invite? Oy!”
  • Astonishment.  “Oy, how he’s changed!”
  • Revulsion.Feh.  Who could eat that?  O-oy!
  • Pain.  “Oy, it hurts!”

And so forth.  Anecdote:  Mrs. Fishbein’s phone rang.  “Hul-lo,” a cultivated voice intoned. “I’m telephoning to ask whether you and your husband can come to a tea for Lady Windermere—-”

Oy,” cut in Mrs. Fishbein.  “Have you got the wrong number!”


Nu?  Enough already?  We haven’t even begun on the fine differences in meaning between calling a male someone a shmuck, shnook, shlump, shmo, shlemiel, shlimazel, shlepper, shmegegge, shmendrick or shnorrer — all very useful insults in a well developed vocabulary.  (Not to mention momzer and nebbish.) However, anyone who wants a second post delving into these matters has only to ask.  “The New Joys of Yiddish” is a very thick book.  Oy, is it ever!




Marquand Park is an arboretum and recreational area at the corner of Lovers Lane and Stockton Street in Princeton, New Jersey.  It has walking paths, a baseball field, expanses of grassy lawn and attractions for young children, such as a playground structure and a sandbox with trucks and sand toys belonging to the town. The park gets its name from Princeton University professor Allan Marquand, who acquired a parcel of property at this location in 1885.  In 1953, the Marquand family donated seventeen acres of it to the town for use as a park, and in 1955 a non-profit foundation was created to care for the new park.  Marquand Park now features over 100 species of trees and shrubs — none of which I can identify for you, although each has a small name plate telling you what you might want to know about it.

But one needn’t be an arborist to visit the park.  Especially in the spring and fall, it’s lovely to stroll its paths, or sit on the grass or on one of the conveniently located benches.  Last Sunday,  which was Mother’s Day, Bill and I did just that. The weather was glorious. If we turn the calendar back, you can come along too…..  Be warned, though:  there’s a lot to see, beginning with the views from the parking lot:





The children’s area is closest to the parking lot:




IMG_0590 IMG_0595

IMG_0732But then we leave children behind and enter the park proper:

IMG_0588IMG_0596IMG_0597IMG_0599IMG_0600IMG_0602 IMG_0607

IMG_0610IMG_0613Now we come into a shaded area:


IMG_0619IMG_0620IMG_0621IMG_0623IMG_0625IMG_0626IMG_0627IMG_0628IMG_0632IMG_0633IMG_0636IMG_0637IMG_0638And here comes the sun again:



IMG_0645IMG_0646IMG_0649IMG_0651A private house adjoins the park.

IMG_0652IMG_0654IMG_0655IMG_0656IMG_0657IMG_0658IMG_0660Time for a rest?  Probably….


IMG_0698IMG_0594Views from the bench:

IMG_0661IMG_0663IMG_0668IMG_0673IMG_0674Better get up and get going again….

IMG_0670IMG_0664IMG_0666IMG_0667IMG_0702IMG_0703IMG_0705IMG_0710IMG_0713IMG_0721[We’re nearly back to the car.  Just a little farther….]

IMG_0723IMG_0725IMG_0726IMG_0728IMG_0737And here we are!


I warned you there’d be a lot to see.

But wasn’t it a lovely day?



[A little something light after all that heavy reading about war, revolution and loss….]

IMG_0564 I wasn’t there.  I wouldn’t dream of driving across dreaded Route 1 to the Hyatt Regency to squeeze myself into a sold-out event sponsored by Princeton Healthcare System and attended by more than 1,000 people.  But I did avidly consume a report of the occasion by one Jennifer Kohlhepp (who I do not know) for the May 9, 2014 issue of “The Princeton Packet,” a throw-away town paper that usually goes straight from our front lawn into the recyclable garbage.  I suspect the report was written as local “news.”  I devoured it as celebrity gossip, to which I’m never averse as long as (a) I know the name of the celebrity it’s about; and (b) it’s free reading.

Knowing who celebrity gossip is about isn’t as easy as it used to be at the time I was a more au courant viewer of movies and television.  These days, when I no longer have exhausting ten-hour work days to recover from, I almost never watch the junk that passes for television entertainment.  As a result, I couldn’t tell you anything about those vapid-looking youngsters on the pages of “People Magazine” — which I idly peruse (for free) while waiting in line at the local supermarket to check out with my month’s supply of paper towels, toilet paper and like that.

But Diane Keaton?  She’s 68.  I knew her (in a manner of speaking) when.  What’s more, the reason for her appearance in these parts is that she’s written a book, recently published, called “Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty” — which Jennifer Kohlhepp has given me to understand is right up the alley of this blog:  a memoir of thirteen stories that explore life, beauty and aging in a world obsessed with appearances, “according to Ms. Keaton.”

I will make the not particularly rash assumption that you too did not attend the event, and that you might even be mildly interested in learning what this usually pleasant and unpretentious movie star had to offer from the podium at the Hyatt Regency on the subject of getting old. (Especially if you have nothing better to do with three minutes or so.) So without more ado, I offer you snippets from Ms. Kohlhepp’s account of the proceedings. [With a few asides from me within brackets.]

Ms. Keaton said she would like to ask her contemporaries if they look in the mirror, sigh and ask themselves what old age is for — why the liver spots, wrinkles, hair turning color, vocal cords changing, diminished eyesight, and reduced mental and cognitive thinking.  [Me butting in about this last bit:  “Oh yeah?  Who sez?”]

“On the bonus side, I’ve become friends with some of my business contemporaries,” Ms. Keaton said.  “One is Jack Nicholson.  When I first met Jack Nicholson it was not possible to be his friend … I didn’t want to be his friend.”

After they filmed “Something’s Gotta Give,” the two became good pals, with Ms. Keaton going to his ranch once a month for lunch, she said.  She then read a letter she wrote to him about “looking out for him” and “having his back.”  [Me again:  Is he infirm?  Has something happened to him that I’ve missed?]

Later she focused on her relationship with Woody Allen.  The duo still walks through New York City like they used to when they were young, “but not holding hands,” Ms. Keaton said.

One of the last times they met in the city, she said, “He looked at me with a really long gaze and mentioned I had a kind of beauty that required a beekeeper’s hat.”  [Me:  Is that a friend?]

In grappling with getting old, the self-proclaimed baby boomer said she has learned that 42 percent of her generation are extending retirement and 25% are not retiring.  Her research has also determined that she has a life expectancy of 86.

“I’m going to try my best to make the most of these 18 years,” she said.  “Being old is a gut leveling experience.  I’m in preparation for the incomprehensible … end zone of life.  I’m going to deepen my laugh lines and enjoy the underrated beauty of humanity….”

Ms. Keaton ended her talk saying, “One thing resonates … old is gold.”

Participants had the opportunity to ask Ms. Keaton questions through a moderator.  In answering, she said she would never return to Broadway because she doesn’t like performing in front of real people.  She also said she was the only person in the original cast of “Hair” who wouldn’t take her clothes off.

“Now that I’m older, I would love to take my clothes off, if you only ask me,” Ms. Keaton said.  [Me:  She’s got to be kidding!  Or else she’s in unbelievable shape! An aging female friend and I once agreed that if we were ever to start in again with a new man (and without clothes), it would have to be in the semi-dark and missionary position.  That way all the loose bits would hang down and out of sight of the one on top.]

Her greatest challenge as a woman has been raising two children at “a late age in life” and her greatest enjoyment in being an actress was “kissing all those men.”

On dating Warren Beatty, she said, “It was good.”

When asked what destination she has on her bucket list, she said “Heaven.”  [She’s evidently a double optimist.] 

In answering the final question, Ms. Keaton said, “Laughter is just everything.”

Well, there you have it.  Now you don’t have to read the book.  And aren’t you glad you missed going?  I bet she wishes she could have missed going, too.  If only churning out a book didn’t mean you also had to promote it…..



[Continued from five previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” When she was ten, her father died and her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]

IMG_0563LIFE IN BAKU.  This is what I know about my mother’s life in Baku:

School.  She said she had not been a remarkable student, and did not especially like school. Her best subject was mathematics. On a scale of 0 to 5, her marks — I am using her term — were always 5 in mathematics, usually 4 in everything else. (Mathematics probably meant arithmetic, at least at first, although later it would also have had to include algebra, geometry, and maybe even calculus.)  However, her academic performance was good enough to win her one of the few places reserved for Jewish girls in a “gymnasium” — one of the official schools in Tsarist Russia from which a diploma was necessary for entry to any institution of higher education.  Admittance to a gymnasium — for everyone — was by examination, but  the competition for the few Jewish places was fierce, especially where the Jewish population was large. According to a memorandum my father wrote of his own early life in Russia, the Jewish quota for all officially approved schools was ten percent of the student population. My father added that when his brother, five years older than he was, took the examination, there were not many Jewish families in Baku, and even fewer Jewish children, so it was relatively easy to win a place. But when the time came for him to apply, it was a different story!  A flood of people had come south, fleeing first the war, then the Communist takeover in the north — and of course among them many more Jewish families. My mother was two years younger than my father; her own disclaimers about her scholastic achievement to the contrary, her performance on the entrance examination must therefore have been very good indeed.

Piano.  She had wanted to learn to play the piano, perhaps because cousin Lisa had played. Lessons were available to her, but her half-sister had no piano on which she could practice. For a short while she tried to practice on the school piano after hours, when it was not in use. But this seems not to have worked out, and she soon gave up. When I was seven and she was thirty-four, my father bought a Steinway baby grand on time (monthly payments) and arranged for me to have lessons. My mother was very proud of that piano; it had the place of honor in our living room. Every day she dusted it lovingly and carefully wiped down the ivory keys one by one. But when I — the helpful seven-year-old — suggested that now we had a piano she could take lessons too and practice while I was in school, she shook her head. “No, it’s too late,” she said.

Crushes. As she entered adolescence, she lavished love on famous women opera singers and actresses. She even brought the cardboard-backed photograph of one of them to America — her favorite, I suppose.IMG_0541 It shows a  svelte woman in a floor-length dress and a long looped string of pearls looking up at the ceiling dramatically. The photograph is signed (in Cyrillic lettering) Vera Kholodnaya; I have no idea who the woman was.  Perhaps a silent film star? A renowned soprano? I remember my mother singing snatches of arias from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin while she did her housework when I was little.  [As a result, I can sing them, too:  “Shto-tyi, Lenski, nyi tansooi-ish?” Why, Lenski? Why aren’t you dancing?]

Appearances. One summer, she said, she had only two dresses, both white. But every day, she would wash and iron one and wear the other, so that she was always clean and neat.

Dieting. She also dieted, allowing herself every day only one small bunch of grapes and one piece of bread. [Here she would draw with her two forefingers on the kitchen table the outline of the square of bread which had been her self-imposed allotment.] She must have had iron self control. As for the length of time she maintained this spartan program, she never said. Telling me about it, when I myself was trying to slim down for college, was supposed to be inspirational. But by then I recognized a recipe for certain failure when I heard it, and did not seek further detail. My generation counted calories.

Vanity. She squeezed her feet into shoes that were too small for her because small feet, she said, were fashionable in Russia and she was vain. (It may also have been that during wartime and afterwards, pretty shoes were hard to find and you took what there was.) When I was growing up, she wore a 6 ½ and then a 7. She said that in Russia she had sometimes tried to get into a 4. As a result, she developed enormous red bunions that distorted the shape of her feet and later gave her much pain and many visits to chiropodists. It was not until she was nearly eighty that she gave up wearing stylish shoes and consented to become an old lady in sneakers.

Starvation. After the Red Army arrived in Baku in 1920, food became scarce. Soon there were no more potatoes. No more grapes. Bread was rationed. And what bread was available was so adulterated with sand she developed canker sores from malnutrition.

Romance.  At seventeen, she had a boyfriend. He was blond, with light-colored eyes; his oddly combed hair featured a wave at the upper left temple. He appears at the right side of the front row of a group photograph of university students, sitting on the ground and wearing a jacket with some kind of medal hanging on it.  My mother, unsmiling and plump (despite the diet), with long brown hair loosely heaped up beneath a large hat, is seated near the center of the second row.


Although they’re not sitting near each other, I know the blond one with the wave is the boyfriend because among the photographs she brought with her from Russia is a separate small photo of the same young man; the hair, wave and medal are identical.

IMG_0550On the back of the small photo, in pale violet writing so faint it would be illegible even if I could read Russian, is a personal message to my mother from the subject of the photograph.  They saw each other for about six months, she said. Once she also told me they were engaged. I now think this means she slept with him, a confidence she would never have shared with me at the time in so many words. [After becoming a mother, she put her own past conduct behind her and adopted the two principles on which American mothers were then allegedly raising their daughters: (1) Men want only one thing; and (2) No man will marry used goods.]

Another loss.  This fiancé was not my father. So how did they break up?  (At last, a juicy part of the story!)  My mother pursed her lips and smoothed the sleeve of one of my father’s dress shirts on the ironing board before sprinkling it with water from a glass. “His family was connected to the nobility,” she said. “So they arrested him.”  And? The hot iron made a sizzling sound on the damp shirt. “We went every day to the prison.” She didn’t explain who “we” was. “Until we found his name on the list.” “What list?” I asked. “The list of those who had been shot. ” My mother turned my father’s shirt over on the ironing board to do the back.

MY FATHER.  Not long afterwards, my mother met my father, an engineering student at the Technology Institute in Baku –probably during the summer she turned eighteen, or just before.  “How did you meet?” I asked.  “At university,” she answered.  My father was more specific.  They had mutual friends, who introduced them on the esplanade running along the shore of the Caspian Sea.  Four or five months later, he managed to bring her out of Communist Russia with him. They made this exodus sound simple when I first heard of it.  He asked if she wanted to come.  She went to ask her mother if she should go.  Her mother’s response is the only thing she ever told me Berta Isaakovna said to her.  There was no equivocation:  “If you can get out, get out.  There’s nothing for you here.”  My grandmother also sold a featherbed and a pair of pearl earrings to give my mother the money to pay her passage.

But it wasn’t simple.  “Getting out” was far from easy.  However, I have already written that story elsewhere. It appeared in an online magazine called Persimmontree. You can read it here, if you like. This may therefore be a good place to stop, before my mother and father reach America, speaking no English, but leaving war, hunger, and executions behind them forever.

When they were both in their early eighties and my father happy to reminiscence, I asked him once why he had invited my mother,  met so recently, to come with him to America. He thought about it for a moment, smiled, and said, “I wanted sex.”  I looked at my mother — that staunch advocate in my girlhood of “Men don’t marry used goods.”

“Mama, was this true?”  She nodded sheepishly, and lowered her head.  And never mentioned it again.  But who’s to say she was wrong to succumb so quickly, and so soon after the execution of the first fiancé?  I have to be glad she did, or I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it.

My mother’s experiences in America may well have further shaped the girl of eighteen who arrived on Ellis Island.  But what she experienced in those first eighteen years — the repeated losses, deprivations, dislocations, fear (whether or not I have got the details quite right) — was formative.  They crippled her as a person, a woman, a mother.  Until she died she was afraid of “them” and what “they” might do.  (You couldn’t ask who “they” were.  She didn’t know.)  She placed excessive value on “money,” both overly respecting and also envying those who had the security and comforts it could buy.  She thought you were nothing without a man, you must do all you could as a young woman to attract one, and then once you had him devote yourself to him and his needs for the rest of your life so as not to lose him  — irrespective of the cost to your own needs and happiness.  She thought it was safest to stay home, it was bad to be Jewish, it was good to be beautiful.  Once I was no longer a little girl, it was never easy to be her daughter.  But that’s another story.


So I will leave you with one last photograph of my mother and father on the streets of New York, six months after they arrived in America.  It was the summer of 1923, when she was nineteen and he was twenty-one and their whole grown-up life in a new country was still to come.




IMG_0534[Continued from the four previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” Suddenly, when she was ten, there was no more father, no more home. Her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]

BEING JEWISH.  Berta Isaakovna’s two pre-marital conversions seem to have been concessions to the requirements of her husbands, without spiritual content. Whatever Vladimir Vainschtain might have offered had he lived, there was no religious instruction in my mother’s life. No attendance at synagogue. No ritual holiday celebrations. No prayers. No belief in God. At some point after I began to read, I learned from the books my mother purchased for me and also regularly checked out of the childrens’ library that other children said prayers at night. I thought that might be a good thing to do and asked my mother, then the source of all wisdom, how to pray. From a colored illustration of Christopher Robin at bedtime in my copy of A.A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young,” I knew that you got down on your knees by the side of the bed, put your palms together, fingers pointing upward, lowered your head, closed your eyes, and addressed yourself to God. But who was God?

“A kind of spirit,” said my mother, trying to be helpful.

It wasn’t helpful at all. And what did you say to God?

“Whatever you like,” said my mother.

There was nothing in particular I wanted to say. I felt foolish on my knees beside the bed. And it was much warmer, and more comforting, under the covers. I soon gave up the experiment.

The papers with which she left Baku in 1922 declared my mother to be “Juive.” She regarded this classification of herself as being a mark of Cain, singling her out for bad luck and unfair treatment, and certainly nothing to advertise. It brought her no spiritual solace, no community, no source of help in troubled times. Irrespective of what she said to me about God and prayers when I asked her, she always believed in surviving on your own, no matter how difficult the problem or situation. No recourse to higher powers. “We’ll get by somehow,” she would say. With a sigh.

IMG_0556LISA.  Her cousin Lisa arrived in my mother’s life shortly after the separation from her own mother. She must have been Berta Isaakovna’s niece, as she seems not to have been connected to the married half-sister. Always referred to by my mother as “my cousin Lisa,” she had been at what my mother called “finishing school” in Switzerland when war broke out. Somehow she managed to get back to Russia and came to live in Baku. I have the impression she stayed with or near Berta Isaakovna, at least for a while. She would have been seventeen or so when my mother, aged ten or eleven, first met her, and she made such a strong impression that I may have heard more from my mother about this idolized  — and idealized? — young woman than I ever heard about herself.

Lisa was accomplished. She spoke languages — French and German probably, as well as Russian. She could play the piano, draw and ride horses. My mother thought she was beautiful. She is not especially beautiful in the one photograph that my mother brought with her, but she does look sweet, and intelligent, and — a word my mother would have used — “refined.”  Everyone liked Lisa. She was warm, and kind, said my mother, and took an interest in everything about her. Lisa was adventurous, too. When food grew scarce in Baku during the later years of the war, she took it upon herself to feed the family. She would ride her bicycle out into the country, where she bought sacks of potatoes directly from the farmers. Burdened with the potatoes, she would then manage to hitch a ride back with the soldiers on the troop trains heading into Baku. (Did they also hoist her bicycle on board?)

Listening to all this in the kitchen when I was thirteen and fourteen, usually when my mother was ironing and had time and some inclination to answer questions, I had mixed feelings about her cousin Lisa. I wanted to have what she had had, as perhaps my mother had also wanted it — finishing school, languages, horseback riding, charisma, sense of ease in the world. Lisa even had a romantic older brother, who had converted — ah, those convenient conversions in the Shulman family! —  and become a Cossack. He was attached to the Imperial Family, and fell in love with the Grand Duchess Tatiana, one of the Czar’s four young daughters. When his love letters to her were discovered, he had to be smuggled out of the country in a haycart!

But I also resented my mother’s admiration for Lisa. Did she love her more than she loved me? On the other hand, how could you hate someone who had evidently been so kind and affectionate to a little cousin without any real home?  Thinking about Lisa sometimes made me feel mean-spirited and selfish.  Especially when I learned that although Lisa was very attractive to men, she purposely sacrificed herself for the good of the family.  Beautiful and desirable, but living in perilous times, she sold herself to a wealthy and older Turkish businessman who had proposed to her, because he agreed to help her relatives with money in exchange for her hand in marriage.  At this point in the narrative, I would picture lovely Lisa in a white nightgown on her wedding night, lying meekly with parted legs beneath a fat and oily dark-skinned man with pock marks and garlic breath — all to save her relatives from starvation. No objective correlative supported this unappetizing picture;  my mother, who had actually seen the groom, said merely that he was “all right.”

IMG_0559Then Lisa and husband went away, to wherever he had come from, and there was in due time a little daughter whose photograph at age six or seven, with a big bow in her hair, Berta Isaakovna mailed after my mother had come to America. The daughter didn’t look “Turkish” at all.

Maybe when I grew up, we could go to Turkey and I could meet Lisa?  No, my mother told me. Lisa was dead. Of tuberculosis.

How old had she been?  Twenty-eight.

It’s possible my mother had no close woman friend during the rest of her long life in part because no one else could ever measure up to her cousin Lisa.

[To be continued….]




IMG_0534[Continued from the three previous posts:  “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” Suddenly, when she was ten, there was no more father, no more home.]

LOSS.  My mother’s only words about losing her father were these: “My father died, and my mother took my brother and me away to Baku.”  [Nearly seventy years later, I can still hear her voice as I type. Like many Russians, she could never pronounce “th” properly; it always came out as a “d.”   The “o” sound in “mother” and “brother” also gave trouble; it sounded more like “ah,” as in “far.”]

Even in my early teens, this violent fissure in her childhood sounded awful to me. Had her mother taken her and her brother away because of the war?

“No. Because father died.”

What had her father died of?

“He was older than mother, and had grown children already.”

Was this an answer?  Had he died of a heart attack? Cancer?

She didn’t know. “He was old.”  Which must have been what she had been told at ten, and had never revisited.  Rather like Vilna being forever “now part of Poland.”

And why had her mother chosen to go to Baku — so far south on the Caspian Sea?

She would shrug. “I had a half-sister there.”

It was exasperating. But at thirteen and fourteen, I didn’t know enough to ask more.   And at ten, she probably hadn’t understood enough of what was happening to be able to explain, even if I had known what more to ask. Now I wonder why Berta Isaakovna could not have remained in Vilna. Had the property been sold and the proceeds divided between the widow and all the children under the terms of Vladimir’s will? Did he leave it to a grown son by his first wife, who knew how to run the business? (Was there such a son?) Did he hold the land and house as a life estate, which terminated at his death? Had he merely rented the land and house?

Or was war already rumbling on the border when he passed away, so that his widow snatched up her children and traveled as far away from the front as she could, leaving the liquidation of her husband’s estate to his lawyers?  This last hypothesis presupposes Berta Isaakovna as a woman who played it safe. The German army didn’t actually reach Vilna until 1915.  It’s true that between 1915 and 1918, when it was under German occupation, food shortages and discriminatory levies on the Jewish population in Vilna did make living conditions there increasingly difficult. However, if Vladimir Vainschtain died when my mother was ten, then Berta Isaakovna left the area with her children in 1914, the year World War I began but a year prior to Vilna’s occupation by German troops.

Irrespective of the real answer to the question of why mother and children moved south, which I will never know — for the little girl who was my mother it could have made no difference. All at once she lost her father, her home, her friends at school. These losses were soon compounded by another. Berta Isaakovna apparently now needed to work. After reaching Baku, she entered a military hospital as a nurse, taking five-year-old Osia with her. Ten-year-old Meera, my mother, went to live with a married half-sister, so that she “could go to school.”  It’s likely that she never again actually lived under the same roof with her mother.

I don’t understand this. Osia would also have needed to go to school within a year or two of their arrival in Baku.   If there was a school for him near this “military hospital,” why not one for my mother? Moreover, my mother remained in Baku until 1922, long after the conclusion of the war and even after the conclusion of fighting between the Red Army and the Whites. Why couldn’t Berta Isaakovna at some point thereafter have taken her daughter back to live with her? But there it is: as best I can tell, mother and daughter continued to live apart, although both in Baku, until my mother left for America.

This separation may not have been quite as harsh as I first thought when I heard of it as a young girl, and as it still sounds when set down without qualification. At that time, I even imagined a wicked half-sister  — rather like a wicked stepmother — and a resentful half-brother-in-law.

Was her half-sister nice to her?  “Oh, yes, very nice,” my mother would reply. “She had no children of her own.”

And I now think it must have been true that the half-sister was very nice, for my mother took with her to America two pictures of a small, slender dark-haired young woman, aged about twenty-five, with heavy eyebrows and round dark eyes, who — by the process of elimination and laborious translation of the inscription on the back of one of the pictures — I conclude must have been this nameless half-sister.

IMG_0553 If I’m right, she was probably no more than thirteen or fourteen when her father married my grandmother  — perhaps in part to provide her with a step-mother. She must therefore have been living at Vilna when my mother was born.  Until her own marriage, she may also have been a kind of second “mama” to my mother.  My grandmother’s choice of Baku as a destination after Vilna may thus have been specifically predicated on this young half-sister’s residence there with her new husband.

The second of the two photographs of this half-sister also includes (a) my mother, aged eleven or twelve, in a plain pinafore and blouse; (b) a little boy about six or seven who is probably Osia, because he is the right age and looks like photos of Osia when older sent to my mother after she came to America; and (c) another woman, seated, with a strong family resemblance to the half-sister but slightly older, whom I take to be a second half-sister.


The two half-sisters look nothing like my mother or her brother, and therefore probably take after their own mother or else their father.  But this picture of brother, sister, and their two half-sisters may be what my mother considered her surviving family, since there was no separate photograph of Berta Isaakovna, her mother, in her effects after her death.  Admittedly, this is all surmise. But I fear surmise is as good a recovery of the past as I am ever likely to get.

About the half-sister’s husband I can say nothing, except that he seems to have made no objection to his wife’s little half-sister living under his roof for an open-ended period of time. I have some recollection of being told that he wasn’t there much. In the army? At thirteen, I didn’t think to ask more about him. Not surprisingly, my mother volunteered no confidences.

But did that mean she never saw her mother? Yes, she saw her. When there was no school. “And I went to see her at the hospital on Sundays. I had to step over the bodies of soldiers on the floor.”

When I was eleven (in 1942) — only a year older than my mother had been when her mother left her with her half-sister — my parents moved from Los Angeles back to New York, where we all three lived in a furnished apartment in Manhattan during the summer while they searched for an affordable unfurnished place near a “good” school district. What they found was in Kew Gardens, but the lease didn’t commence until after school began. So that I shouldn’t miss the first two weeks of seventh grade at P.S. 99, Queens, my father arranged with a colleague — a Dutch Jewish violinist who had managed to extricate his family from Europe just before World War II — to put me up on a folding cot in his daughter Betty’s room for the two weeks.  Betty was about my age.

Betty’s mother was pleasant to me. (Although she served stewed prunes and brown sugar on brown bread for breakfast and would not make hot cereal the way my own mother did, even when I asked.) I came home to my parents on Friday afternoon for the one intervening weekend of the two weeks. And my mother took the subway out to Queens two other evenings during each of the two weeks to have dinner with me in a neighborhood restaurant. But I missed her so much! I could hardly wait for her to come. When she finally rang the doorbell, I would fling my arms around her, my beautiful fragrant mother. And then, even while we were walking to the restaurant, and ordering, and eating, I would be counting the minutes I had left with her before she would have to go. It was all I could do to stifle the tears when she brought me back in time to get to bed when Betty did. And that was only for two weeks!

However nice her married half-sister may have been, the effect on my mother of permanent separation from her own mother, at a time when she had already just sustained major loss and dislocation, was literally unspeakable. She simply did not speak of her mother, who was my grandmother. I don’t know what my grandmother looked like, what she did, or (with a single exception, to be recounted later) what she said. The one possible photograph of her remaining in my mother’s possession when she died — if it is a picture of her, and it may have been of an aunt, her mother’s sister, who would then have been her cousin Lisa’s mother — shows a large-bosomed woman who is looking down, so you cannot clearly see her face.  If it is a likeness of my grandmother, it probably owes its survival to the fact that it is also a photograph of Lisa, whom my mother adored.


At one time, I used to suppose this was a photo of my mother in her teens with my grandmother.  But closer inspection of the photography studio’s mark in the lower right hand corner shows a date of ’14.  In 1914, my mother was ten, so the young girl in the photo cannot be her.  As the photo was important enough for her to put it in her luggage in 1922, I conclude it must be of the beloved Lisa, with either her own mother, or — less likely but possible — perhaps with her aunt, my grandmother.

I know my grandmother and mother exchanged letters and some photographs from the time my mother left Russia until the Kirov purges in 1937, after which all correspondence between the Soviet Union and the United States abruptly ceased. But when my mother learned, through revived post-World War II correspondence from my father’s family, of her own mother’s death in 1942 — she threw out all her mother’s letters. And perhaps any photographs of her mother she still had.

“How could you?” I cried when I learned — at the age of fifty-eight, long after the fact — what she had done.

“What did I need them for?” she replied, at the age of eighty-five. “She was gone.”

But once, when I was fifteen and my mother was in her early forties, deeply unhappy for a multitude of identifiable reasons (which would not have been the only reasons), and I sat in our sunken living room trying to escape her misery by reading, I saw her rise from her chair and almost run to her bedroom down the hall, where she began to cry, a thing I had never heard before. Her sobbing frightened me with its intensity. And then there broke from her a single word. “Mama!” It would have been about the time she found out that her mother had died.

[To be continued…..]