FROM MY FATHER (Part Two)

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From left to right: Menia (my father), Monia (on violin), Bertha (pretending to play the piano), Bronia, Father (my grandfather), Mother (my grandmother). Probably taken in 1909 or 1910.

[My father died at the end of January 1986, just after his 84th birthday. When he learned he was dying, he began to write a memoir of his early years. He didn’t get as far as he had hoped before he felt too weak to continue. So what I am offering here is all there is. Since English was not his native language, I’ve cleaned up his manuscript a bit. But not too much. I did try to preserve his locutions, to give you the flavor of his speech.

I have no idea who will have the patience to stay for long with a dying man wishing to preserve what he can of himself and his family on paper before he goes and at the same time trying to relive his youth one last time. If you think we should quit — because you came to read me, not him — let me know in the comment section below. However, until I hear from any of you that I’m just humoring myself, I’m going to keep on typing till I get to where he stopped…. A visit with my father wasn’t always 100% interesting. But one usually came away with something to remember in the end.]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY

[Continued from previous post….]

August 5th, 1984.

This is an eyewitness story of twentieth century events, as seen by me and into which I was born in the year of 1902.

I was never really sure if the date or year of my birth was truly January 18th, 1902, because I never saw my birth certificate. Nor was I ever told by my parents when I was born.  There were never family celebrations of anyone’s birthdays — neither of my parents nor sisters nor brother.  It always was a deep secret about each one’s age!  Why?  I never knew.  Of course in those days a birth certificate could have been gotten from Tsarist officials with a good bribe, for any date and year — which at times came in handy if it was for a boy, in order to escape compulsory military service. In any event, in my later years I reconstructed everyone’s ages by events; whether I arrived at the correct ages or slightly incorrect is not very important!

I placed my birthplace in the City of Ekaterinoslav in Ukraine (at the present time called Dnepropetrovsk) in the year 1902, on the 5th day of January (old Russian calendar) or on 18th of January by the present day calendar.  Ukraine today is one of so-called “independent” Soviet Republics.  The three large cities are Kiev, Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk.  In these cities are very large Jewish populations and still larger populations of anti-semitic Ukrainians.

My recollections of early years are not very clear. I remember playing by the house where we lived in a large sand pit, shoveling sand with my little wooden spade and building little houses.  I remember wearing a cast-off little dress with pockets (probably from my sisters) which were always full of fine sand. But that’s all I remember, except that besides Father and Mother I also had a brother and two sisters.  One of the sisters (Bronia) would play with me.  Even later I never knew what my Father did for a living at that period, although Mother would occasionally reminisce of that time and mention Father worked for a lawyer.

When I was two years of age, Russia was embroiled in a very disastrous war with Japan, which Russia lost!  In 1905, the first Russian Revolution also broke out and was murderously crushed by Tsarist Cossacks. As usual, “pogroms” against the Jews started all over Russia!  Someone had to pay for the Russian defeat, and most convenient victim had to be the Jew! The police organized bands of hoods, armed them and aided them to go after the Jews. These bands of hoods were called “Black Hundreds” and specialized in torturing and murdering whole families of Jews!  Evidently we were very lucky to escape the fate of other unfortunate families, as Father was able to bribe someone for foreign passport and took the family out of Russia and to Germany!  By then, I was about three years old, and the next few things I remember are while in Berlin.

August 6th, 1984.

In Berlin we lived in a apartment on the second floor. The floor was shiny yellow, probably well waxed parquet, but with very little furniture, practically bare rooms.  I know now that at that time the ages of my sisters were: Bertha 13, Bronia 11. My brother Monia was 9. Father was approximately 33 and mother 31. I was the youngest.

I did not know then, nor ever heard later, what Father did in Germany for a living to support such a large family. But I do know now that Father was a very brilliant man; he admired everything German and became fluent in German — speaking, reading and writing all self learned. He was also fluent in Russian, reading, and grammatically and correctly speaking and writing, and knew a lot of Jewish, speaking, reading and writing it.

His admiration for everything German carried over to wearing a mustache “a la Kaiser Wilhelm,” then German emperor. It was an enormous mustache. He was proud of it and always had the pointed ends turned upwards. He was great music lover and his secret desire was to be a concert violinist. He learned to play the violin himself and of course, not much good came out from his efforts, because simply without time to practice and good teacher, it is very difficult to accomplish good results, even with talent.

He was of medium height, medium weight, and other than the famous “mustache” was always cleanly shaved.  No beards, sideburns or hair anywhere else, except on the head — but in summertime the head was also cleanly shaved for coolness, in style of German Generals!

Like I said, I did not know what Father did for a living in Germany, but later I heard that Father made good connections with German industrial manufacturers for representation and credits in the new part of Russia: Baku. The manufacturers advised Father to go to Baku because it still was at that time a sleeping oil giant; the area was developing and riches awaited anyone willing to work hard. So after the 1905 Russian Revolution was crushed by the Tsar, we would all return to Russia and go directly to Baku. At that time there were only very few Jewish families there, and all of them either in professions or in businesses.

Father and Mother married early in life: he was twenty and she was eighteen or so.  By the time I was born, there had already been four children in the family before my birth. Only three survived. One died either in infancy or as a young boy. Except that it happened, there was never any talk about the dead brother.  If he had lived, he would have been 6 or 7 years of age.  As it happened, I was born as a replacement for a lost son!  Large families were very important in those days; they were insurance for parents against old age, and especially important were sons!

August 7th, 1984.

And so, coming back to my recollections of life in Germany, I vividly remember my new sandals made of yellow leather, which I treasured very much and when not wearing them would leave them in the corner and constantly from time to time go to inspect them, to see if they are still there!  I loved to smell the leather, and often polished them. I just loved my little sandals!

Then I remember playing in the street with a shiny yellow wheel which I was rolling with a little rod up and down a clean and very wide sidewalk by the house. Down below our apartment was a little market where Mother used to shop. At times she would take me along. The owner of the store was a big, fat German man in a white smock or apron. And as he knew me from coming with Mother and playing with my wheel on the street, sometimes when Mother was too busy to go herself downstairs to the store, she would give me the money and a big copper pitcher with a tight cover and send me down to the store to buy milk. I would run and ask the owner in German: “Eine canne milch, bitte.”  I remember this little speech even now! The owner would smile and pour milk into my pitcher and I would proudly run upstairs to Mother and deliver the milk. I saw very little of my sisters and brother. Either they were at school or I was asleep when they were around.

The rest of our time in Germany did not leave any lasting impressions in my mind.  Also I don’t remember when and how we returned to Russia. All that I remember is that in Baku we were in apartment, also practically unfurnished; we were sleeping on the floor covered with bed sheets and I would wake up very often because of the heat. The heat was terrific. It must have been summertime! We lived in this apartment till I was about five years old. Little by little the apartment got furnished with most necessary furnishings. There was a hall gallery that had a large table which was used for many purposes, but mainly as a dining table; and there were rooms for sleeping, and after a while there was a maid to help Mother with family chores.

I remember that maid very well! One morning after everyone left — sisters and brother to school, Father to business and Mother to markets — I remained in the care of the maid alone at the table. She was giving me my breakfast and the food was still on the table: bread, butter, cheese, milk and, in a metal can, Holland cocoa! The maid was a very nice young Russian peasant woman from some Russian village who came to work to Baku for better wages. She had a boy friend: Russian soldier. That boy friend was visiting her often and at times was taking her out for a few hours in the evenings. (The maid lived with us.) On that morning, she attempted to educate me and to explain how babies came. She said that a man had a “special instrument” that helped to bring babies. She never explained what the “instrument” was and left it to my own imagination! I liked the maid very much; she used to play with me and tell me fantastic fairy tales.  One day, to my great sorrow, she left — never to come back.  Apparently the “special instrument” of the soldier had something to do with it!

[To be continued….]

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FROM MY FATHER (Part One)

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[My father died in Palm Springs, California, at the end of January 1986, just after his 84th birthday. He’d known for at least a year and a half he was dying. He had a serious cardiac condition his doctors thought would be hazardous to try to correct with surgery. So when they told him he might expect only another year or so to live, he sat down at his Royal typewriter and over the course of nine days in August 1984 began with two fingers on the keyboard to tap out a memoir of his earliest years. But while he was still telling about his life as a little boy, he must have felt too weak to continue.

He wrote in English, although his native language was Russian and he had learned English without formal lessons, just by living in New York. But he loved to talk and to read, so it’s surprisingly good English for someone who disembarked at nineteen knowing not a word.  His spelling is excellent. He remembers more often than not to include the articles “a,” “an” and “the.” However, his punctuation could use improvement, and his paragraphing is non-existent. And because he wasn’t really a writer, he sometimes repeats himself. I’ve therefore cleaned up his typescript a bit to try to make it more readable, while also preserving some of the Russian-language verb usage and locutions that make it sound as if you were with him, not me.

I have no idea what anyone else will think of this experiment in transcribing my father.  Although he gets off to a strong start in his Introduction (see below), and apparently had grand plans for what he was going to recount, much of what he actually managed to write may be boring to anyone who didn’t know him  — now only me and my two sons, who both already have photocopies of the original document he left. It’s true he does inadvertently give us bits of early twentieth century sociology as he goes along, a kind of child’s eye view of what life was like for Jews in Tsarist Russia. But I wonder who will have the patience to stay for long with a dying old man wishing to preserve what he can of himself and his family on paper before he goes and also trying to relive his youth one last time. 

Bill thinks I’m making a mistake in giving my dead and sometimes long-winded immigrant father a six-post platform on an internet he could never have imagined while he was alive.  If you agree and think we should quit — because you came to this blog to read my sort of posts, not his — let me know in the comment section below. On the other hand, until I hear from any of you that I’m just humoring myself, I’m going to keep on typing till I get to where he stopped….  A visit with my father wasn’t always 100% interesting. But one usually came away with something to remember in the end.]

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BY MICHAEL RAGINSKY 1984

Introduction

As I stood on the deck of “Marmara” on a glorious, sunny afternoon in October 1922, watching the ship slowly moving away from the pier in Batoum and probably looking for the last time in my life on the Russian land fast receding from my view as I began my voyage into the uncertain future — a stream of thoughts and dreams kept flashing through my mind!

The Black Sea was green, clear and transparent, calm and beautiful. The octopuses, playfully grabbing each other in the warm afternoon sun, swam close to the great ship, totally mindless of the dangers of the turning sharp blades of the motors. And I thought, looking at them, it’s just like myself: starting a journey into a strange world — without knowing anyone or knowing exactly how or where I will land — in order to call the new place my new home and my new life!  But one thought drove me on: to get out as fast as I could.  I felt like adding all my strength to the ship to push it faster and faster away from the land where I was born and grew up.

It never entered my mind how I was to accomplish all this.  I was going without any money, without any valid foreign admittance visas, without a thought what will become of me if I should fall ill or be destitute in a strange country, without friends, relatives, language. I was banking on my youth, my strength and my driving ambition just to get out of Russia and, if very lucky, to make it to U.S.A.

And then, suddenly breaking up my thoughts and dreams as the ship was already sailing into the open sea from the harbor — the sounds of staccato machine gun shooting from a small naval coast guard boat rapidly approaching “Marmara” and ordering it to stop for inspection!  My heart sank and I thought, God! what’s wrong now? I hope all my Russian exit papers are in order…

In a few minutes, three armed men dressed in familiar black leather jackets of the dreaded secret police CHEKA, the predecessors of no less dreaded present KGB, were aboard our ship!  This was the beginning of our journey!!!!!!

But I must start my story from the beginning, and will return later to my adventures on the trip from Russia to U.S.A.

[To be continued….]

AT ROSCOE

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[A story.]

In the summer of 1937, Anna and her mother and father went away to a place in the Catskills called Roscoe. It was during the two weeks her father didn’t have to work. Anna was six. There was a big main building with rooms for guests and a dining room where everyone had meals and also a lounge where grownups played cards, checkers and chess, and listened to the radio and talked after dinner. The swimming pool was on the lawn behind the main building; it had a shallow end for children, and all around it were places to sit and lie in the sun. There were also two much smaller buildings down a slope on the right called Annex A and Annex B; they had only guest rooms in them. Anna and her parents were in a room in Annex A because it was a little cheaper than the rooms in the main building, which each had a private bathroom. The two Annexes had only one bathroom to a floor. But each room in an Annex had its own little sink for light washing up, so sharing a bathroom wasn’t so bad, said Anna’s mother.

The Pool

If you got tired of swimming and sunning at Roscoe, you could go for a stroll to the village in the late afternoon, when it was cooler. In the village was a little store with a wooden floor where Anna’s mother and father would have iced coffee and buy Anna an ice cream cone. But most of the time they stayed beside the pool, where her mother put lotion on herself so as to tan instead of burn, and chatted a bit with other ladies. Her father didn’t use lotion; he sat under an umbrella and had lively conversations with other husbands.

After Anna came out of the children’s end of the pool, she would spread her towel on the grass to hear what was going on. Usually she settled near her mother, because she didn’t understand what the men talked about, like how President Roosevelt had saved us and the bad things that were going on in Germany. But sometimes she found a shady spot near her father’s chair, and that felt better than getting sweaty in the sun where her mother was, even if she couldn’t follow the conversation.

Soon she began to notice that not all the ladies stayed in the sun. When her father was talking, a few of them always moved over to listen. “Your father is such a wonderful raconteur,” said one of these ladies to Anna. “What a lucky little girl you are!”

 Divorcee

The guests at Roscoe were all married to each other except for one lady who wasn’t married any more, although once upon a time she had been. Anna was sorry for her at first because she was the only one without a husband, but the other ladies seemed not to like her. They especially disliked the way her bathing suits showed off the tops of her big boobies, which didn’t droop even a little bit. She also wore makeup all the time, even to the pool. And when she walked, her behind wiggled from side to side. Whenever this lady went to sit under a pool umbrella where the men were, the ladies who stayed behind in the sun near Anna’s mother would talk about her — in soft voices, so she wouldn’t hear.

 Luck

A man sitting by the pool said to Anna’s father that nothing was like it used to be and nowadays you sure needed luck to get by. Anna’s father said, “I’ve got news for you, mister. You always needed luck.” Then he told a story about coming to America with Anna’s mother.

The story took place a long time ago, before Anna was born. Her father and mother were in a big city called Constantinople, in a country called Turkey. They had arrived there on a ship from Russia. Then they needed special papers from the United States in order to get to New York on another ship. But there was a problem. A very powerful third country called England wanted to keep ships from coming in or going out of Constantinople because Constantinople was the only way in or out of Russia by water, and England didn’t like what was happening in Russia. (What was happening was that it wasn’t Russia any more; it had recently become the Soviet Union.) England had many warships, and could do what it wanted, said Anna’s father.   So Anna’s father and mother needed to get those papers very fast, before England decided to act.

“Anyway,” said Anna’s father, “the United States had an office in Constantinople where doctors gave health inspections to anyone wanting to come to America. If you were healthy you could come, but if even a little something was wrong — then you couldn’t, until you went to another doctor and were treated for whatever was wrong with you. Which of course took time. And money.”

“Why was that?” asked a lady who was listening intently. “If it was just a little something?” It was the lady with the big boobies, who had no husband.

“Well,” said Anna’s father, who seemed not to mind being interrupted. “Those doctors in Constantinople weren’t American doctors, who can fix you up one, two, three. No siree! They were Turkish doctors. Out for all they could get!”

Anna’s father went on with his story. He and Anna’s mother arrived at the health inspection office early so he could look around. At the front of the nearly empty waiting room he saw a chair and a small writing table that held two saucers filled with colored buttons — red buttons in one, black in the other. Behind the table he also saw several open medical examination rooms. He didn’t know what the buttons were for, but he put a few of each color in his pockets.

Soon the waiting room filled up and an official-looking person arrived, carrying a big leather-bound book. This person settled himself at the table with the buttons, took out two rubber stamps and a stamp pad, and began to call names from his big book for the health inspections: man’s name, woman’s name, man’s name, woman’s name. Anna’s father heard his name and then her mother’s. The person at the table motioned Anna’s mother into one of the examination rooms and her father into the other. “As soon as my examination was over — and it was very quick, let me tell you,” said Anna’s father, ” the doctor gave me a black button and said I could leave. But when Masha came out of her examination room, she had a red button in her hand! What did that mean? Which color meant yes? Which color meant no?” Anna’s father paused for dramatic effect. “How could I know? What I did know was that — red or black — we should stay together. So I took away Masha’s red button and gave her a black one from my pocket. Then we went together to the official with the rubber stamps. He looked at our black buttons and stamped our papers: ‘Approved.’ We made it onto the last boat out of Constantinople.”

“Oh, that was luck!” said the lady with the big boobies. “Except why did they give Masha a red button?”

“Masha still had long hair,” explained Anna’s father. “They told her she had lice. Of course she didn’t. It was a scam. I later heard that they said that to every woman with long hair. The treatment by another doctor would then cost fifty dollars, which the two Turkish doctors would split.”

On the way back to their room in Annex A, Anna told her mother what she had just heard about the red and black buttons. Suppose her father had guessed wrong? Would he have come to the United States alone? Would her mother have had to go back to Russia?

“Don’t think about that story,” said Anna’s mother.

“Why not?” asked Anna. “It was a lucky guess about the buttons, wasn’t it?”

“Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t,” said her mother. But she wouldn’t explain what she meant.

 In Annex A

Anna’s father liked to play chess. So did some of the other men at Roscoe.   Mostly they played after dinner in the evenings, but one afternoon after lunch (which you could eat in a bathing suit with just a shirt or robe over it), Anna’s father said it was too hot for him by the pool and he was going to look for a chess game in the lounge. Anna’s mother went back to her blanket and towels on the grass where the women she was friendly with usually sat, and Anna jumped back into the pool. But she had drunk a lot of water and lemonade at lunch, and soon she needed to go. What a bother! It would have been so easy to do it in the pool; no one could see if you stood in water up to your waist. That was wrong though, Anna’s mother had said, because other people used the pool too, and some of the other children even swallowed the water by accident. So Anna dutifully pulled herself up out of the shallow end, told her mother she was going to the bathroom, and hurried along the path to Annex A.

The Annex was dark and still. The maids did the vacuuming and made the beds in the morning; Anna thought now she might be the only one in the building. She and her parents had one of the two front guest rooms on the second floor. Up the stairs she went, as fast as she could. The bathroom on that floor was at the other end of the hall, between the two back guest rooms. She squeezed her thighs together so as not to have an accident. And then — oh dear! — the bathroom door wouldn’t open.

“Hello,” she called, rattling the doorknob. “Is someone in there?”

No answer. How quiet it was. She could hear herself breathing.  “Please? Will you be out soon?”

Nothing. Not a sound.  It wasn’t right. Shouldn’t the person inside answer? At least say, “Just a minute, little girl?”

She tried again. “I really have to go.”  Did she hear a sigh from the bathroom?

The door stayed shut. She clutched herself between her legs and looked around for help. Someone. Anyone. That’s when she saw the door of the back guest room on the right was partly open and the lady with big boobies was sitting at a dressing table inside, combing her dark hair in the mirror and keeping her gaze fixed on the reflection in front of her as if Anna didn’t exist. Hadn’t she heard Anna talking to the person in the bathroom?

The lady was wearing nothing but a slip. It was peach-colored and satiny, with creamy open lace at the edges; you could see the outline of the tips of her big boobies through the satin. Even though the maids had made all the beds in the morning, this lady’s bed was messed up, with the sheets and bedspread thrown back every which way and the pillows tossed around. And even though this lady didn’t have a husband any more, there was something black thrown on a corner of her bed over the tangled sheets that looked like a man’s bathing trunks. They were the kind of black knitted bathing trunks Anna’s father wore.

Then Anna knew she shouldn’t wait any longer for the bathroom door to open. She turned, ran downstairs, out of the Annex, up the path towards the main building, and reached the children’s end of the pool just in time.  Her mother noticed she was back and sat up on her blanket. “Everything all right?” she called.

The sun was in Anna’s eyes. Waist deep in water, she squinted in the direction of her mother.

“Anna? Are you all right?”

That was a different question. Anna nodded yes, she was all right.

           

A QUICKY

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I heard this one before Russia became Russia again in 1992.  It seemed funny then.  It better be funny now too, because we were out late for Father’s Day dinner yesterday and I was in no condition afterwards to come up with new material.

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A man was traveling alone on the Trans-Siberian Railroad when a woman got on, entered his compartment and sat opposite him.

He inspected her for several versts.  “What is your name, Comrade?” he asked at last.

“Olga,” she replied.

“Where are you from?”

“Minsk.”

“And where are you going?”

“Pinsk.”

“Enough of this lovemaking!” the man declared.  “Undress!”

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Yes, I know I should be ashamed of serving up such a trifle.  But since I have, this may be a good time to ask:  Does this short short story mainly demonstrate the boorishness of Soviet men? Or does it just go to show that Pinsk is really close to Minsk?

 

DREAMING TRUE

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I’m not talking daydreaming here. By its very nature, a daydream isn’t true. Or isn’t true yet. It’s what you wish would happen. Or think you wish would happen. (Have you ever thought of what it would really be like to live twenty-four seven with the man of your dreams – buff and studly and always with only you you you on his mind. Spare me!) All right, two weeks in Paris, five-star hotel, three-star eating, all expenses paid, with a somewhat less buff and studly guy, maybe even your own husband – yes, that would be lovely. But is that what you really daydream about?

Dreams when asleep are another matter. You might think they aren’t true either. But you could be wrong. I once had a colleague whose husband had awful nightmares about his second wife at least twice a week and sometimes more often. My colleague’s view was that her husband’s unconscious apparently went on hating this wife even twenty years after their acrimonious divorce, although he never saw her again after the court hearing. On the other hand, maybe dreaming about wife two was a metaphorical way of letting himself know how he really felt about wife three, who was my colleague. So perhaps the husband had been dreaming true, in a poetic manner of speaking.

Now if I had been the colleague, I don’t think I would have told me. A husband’s repeated nightmares about one’s predecessor could certainly suggest to others that one wasn’t really on top of things, wife-wise. She tried to make a joke of it: “When I married him, I didn’t think she’d be in the bed, too!” I laughed, to be polite. All the same, I would have kept it to myself.

I only dreamed about a spouse once. It wasn’t really a nightmare, although it was unexpected and therefore somewhat scary suddenly to see through the windshield of a car I was driving in the dream that the nose of the car had my second husband’s head on it in profile – rather like the three ships that used to adorn the nose of Plymouth automobiles when I was a little girl. We’d been divorced for at least seven years by the time his profile, featuring a large nose of his own, showed up on the car. So I don’t understand this dream at all. It couldn’t have meant I thought he was still trying to lead me around, because I was the one doing the driving in the dream, not him. By then I was entirely independent of him in real life anyway. And it couldn’t have meant I thought he was an ornament. He was all right in the looks department, but not particularly ornamental. Whatever my unconscious was trying to tell me, it failed.

I also once had a scary dream which might have qualified as a nightmare: an unknown masked man rang the doorbell where I was living with my mother, pointed a gun at me when I opened the door, and pulled the trigger three times. I heard the pop, pop, pop – but nothing happened. The man had shot blanks. I didn’t fall down dead or dying. (And no, it wasn’t about unsatisfactory sex – even though that could have been truthfully said about real life with my first husband, with whom I was still living at the time.) But I was in therapy when I had this dream. The therapist thought the unknown man was my father, and that my unconscious was telling me not to be afraid of him anymore because he was harmless. The therapist was probably right, as I had already figured out that my father was mostly bark and no bite. So that was another instance of perhaps dreaming true. But if I already knew what the dream was telling me, what did I need the dream for? I decided I had dreamed it to be able to tell the therapist about it. Then we could stop talking about my father and move on to my mother – a conundrum of a woman if ever there was one.

But mostly I don’t dream much when I sleep, or don’t remember the dreams, even in fleeting fragments. Although not so long ago I did have one amazingly real-seeming dream I remember very clearly. It was about another stranger, younger than me and definitely not my father, a strong and sensitive man who was making wonderful love to me. He knew exactly what to do and where and how to do it. Unfortunately, just after the preliminaries and his entry (if I may put it that way), Sophie – our younger cat – decided to pay my stomach one of her nocturnal visits with her paws and woke me up. Pouf! The delicious stranger was gone! It may not have been an instance of dreaming true, but I wanted him back so badly.

Which illustrates the most important difference between daydreams and dreams when you’re sleeping. (Unless you’re a shrink treating a patient, in which case content is always important, day or night.) The ones when you sleep seem so real. Really real. As if they’re happening.

That’s why for several months when I was fourteen, I was entranced by a late nineteenth-century novel in which the heroine taught the hero, whose life was not happy, a thing or two about dreaming. They had loved each other as children, and met again as adults after she had been married off to another, thereby becoming the beauteous Duchess of Towers, and had also had a son. Alas, they were parted for life when he accidentally killed his guardian in self-defense and was condemned to life imprisonment. The book is Peter Ibbetson, the first of three novels by George du Maurier, who was the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, which was made into a Hollywood movie for Joan Fontaine to star in when I was a girl.

George du Maurier’s most famous novel was Trilby, but Trilby didn’t do it for me. It was Peter Ibbetson — sentimental, anti-Semitic, and turgidly written that grabbed me. (You can safely deduce from the three adjectives that you shouldn’t go running off to read it. Or if you do, don’t say you weren’t warned.) One night  before he gets to prison, Peter has a dream more real than reality in which he meets and speaks with the Duchess of Towers and in which she teaches him how to “dream true.” (Yes, the expression is du Maurier’s, not mine.) From then on, he is able to return to his happier childhood past in dreams.

At a subsequent meeting in real life, the Duchess reveals she has had the same childhood dream as he — and at the same time! They had been in the same dream together! However, she forbids their meeting in further dreams because she feels bound to her husband. Stern mistress!  But after he is condemned to prison for life, he dreams the Duchess appears to tell him her husband and child are now dead, so that although separated by prison walls, they can be together by “dreaming true” again. Thus, for twenty-five years Peter lives willingly in his prison, each night rejoining the Duchess, whose given name is Mary, in their beautiful childhood home. The years of their joy pass swiftly by. The lovers get so good at dreaming true they can travel into past centuries together, visiting the forebears from whom they descended.

You’d think so much nightly happiness might be enough. But wait, there’s more! Mary dies. Unable to reach her in his dreams anymore, Peter goes mad with grief and is confined to an asylum. While he’s there, she finds a way to come back to his dreams to give him hope that one day they may be together again. Naturally, he gets well immediately and is released from the asylum to live out his days in prison. There he continues to dream true, returning in sleep to the childhood scenes he still loves, where sometimes Mary manages to come back from death to join him.

In 1935, Gary Cooper made a movie version of Peter Ibbetson. (Ann Harding played Mary.)  I was four at the time and therefore didn’t see it. But ten years later I discovered the book. What a wonderful concept! There were so many people – not surprisingly, all male – with whom I wanted to dream true:

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, for starters. If he could come back from the dead in a dream, why not?  I was afraid of meeting Byron, and Keats was too tubercular, but I did think Shelley might like me. (Older and wiser now, I’m sure I was wrong.)
  • Thomas Wolfe. I would take a class with him in our dream, come up to his desk when the hour was over, standing very close in a snug cashmere sweater, and then the ball would be in his court. I knew he wouldn’t fumble.
  •  Leonard Bernstein (when in his twenties). He would discover me, a sudden orphan, selling records after school in a music store; enchanted, he would adopt me and wait willingly until I grew up, when we could enjoy even greater bliss together.
  • Gerard Philippe. My high school French was getting better every day.  Even if he didn’t know English, we could therefore redo “Diable Au Corps” (“Devil In the Flesh”) together every night by dreaming it true without that milksop of a French actress who had also been in the movie.

Reader, I tried so hard. How I concentrated after I had turned out the lights! What bargains I made with whatever entity out there might be running things! I even ventured into formal prayer. Nothing doing. “Dreaming true” was just not for me.

So what brings it to mind again after almost a lifetime? In a word, death. So many people I used to know are gone. Often it’s hard to grasp they’re not still here – at the other end of a telephone line or a quick email. It’s easier to believe in “dreaming true” than that I won’t ever see them again.

Which suggests that perhaps I’m not wholly a skeptic, even now. “Dreaming true” may not have worked for me. But if you decide to give it a whirl, do let me know how you do.

WHY I DON’T KNOW WHAT SIZE I WEAR

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It’s not that I change radically from shopping trip to shopping trip.   And if you’re a woman of middle height, as I am, a numbered size gives you about ten pounds leeway up or down anyway.   The XS-S-M-L-XL range is even more elastic.  (We’ll get to that later.)  It’s that the sizes themselves have become so shifty.  You just have no idea what to say when a saleswoman — if there is a saleswoman — asks, “What size?”

Time was when you knew where you were with the American dress.  That was a “when” during which most women mostly wore dresses, except for sport.  Even in the house.  (The house ones were called — surprise, surprise — “house dresses.”) A few women, who went out to “business,” might occasionally wear a suit instead of a dress. Still fewer women, like Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn, did wear pants in public. But they called what they had on “slacks.” In any event, the suits and slacks came in the same sizes as dresses.

Here’s how it worked.  First, you had to know which department to go to:  Misses’ Dresses, Junior Dresses, or Women’s Dresses.  That depended on your body type.  If you were about 5’3″ to 5’7″ and of normal weight, or not v-e-r-y overweight, you could usually wear a Miss size.  If you were shorter, or short-waisted (meaning shorter than average between shoulder and waist), or small-breasted and slightly hippier than a standard Miss size but not what anyone would call fat, you were a “Junior,” irrespective of your age.

And if your body was, um, “womanly” (and I don’t mean sexy) — requiring a one-piece undergarment with hooks and zippers that held you in from shoulder to crotch — then you went to that third dress department.  There the sizes ran from 22 to 36 or higher (sometimes up to 52), and everything was in navy rayon or muted floral prints.  I can’t tell you anything more about it, except that eventually it developed a little-sister department called Half Sizes — for women (and I still don’t mean sexy ones) who were too short for the standard Women’s Dress merchandise;  there the dresses ran from 22 1/2 on up, up, up, but still relied heavily on navy and muted florals.

Okay, back to Misses and Juniors.  In the years when I had just outgrown the Girls’ Department, Miss sizes ran from 12 to 20.  I kid you not:  Hollywood stars were a perfect size 12.  It was the size that dreams were made of.

Can you guess how you sell more dresses?  (If you’re a dress manufacturer, that is.)  You make dreams come true.  Pretty soon — right after World War II, as I recall — the Misses size range dropped.  Now everything came in 10 to 18.  It’s not that American women had got thinner.  Size 12 had got bigger!  More women could wear it!  Even I could wear it when I went off to college! Hooray!

Junior sizes, by the way, played copycat; the former 9 to 15 size range dropped to 9 to 13.  (And then Junior sizes disappeared entirely, to be replaced by Petites, which were Miss sizes with a P after them: 10P to 18P.  Simpler for the buyers, I guess.  Besides, adult women were complaining that Junior styles were too “youthful.”  (How times have changed!)

As I moved into my thirties, I noticed everything I was interested in was beginning to be sized 8 to 16.  And then the currently common 4 to 12. (Unless it’s very expensive, in which case it runs 2 to 10.)  Today, I wear an 8, or sometimes even 6, depending on whose name is on the label. But a size 14 wool jacket bought in 1965 from Henri Bendel, which I kept because I liked the op art pattern of the fabric, is slightly snug.  Go figure.  And then figure out how much lower sizes can go, now that some of them have reached 0.

00?

Of course, jeans are sold by waist size, which is a whole different ball of wax.  Except it’s not really your waist size unless you want a high-rise, meaning the waist is really at your waist, which is where it used to be when I was in college.  Otherwise it’s the size you measure wherever the top of the jeans hits:  28″? 29″? 30?” 31″?  Unless you’re looking at pipe cleaner legs (and you really shouldn’t, unless your legs look like pipe cleaners, too), in which case the waist size may be misleading and you will have to spend at least half an hour in the dressing room struggling in and out of various jean cuts from various manufacturers.

Which brings us to the convenient S-M-L (sometimes with forgiving elastic in the waistband, if it’s pants you’re buying) and its friendly extensions: XXS, XS, XL and XXL.  Actually, all that lettering solves nothing.  I just bought two linen knit tops on sale from Eileen Fisher.  Same fabric, same manufacturer, slightly different design:  One is a S (all they had left), the other is a M, they both fit.  How can that be?

Then we come to European sizes.  Or should I say, English sizes, French sizes, Italian sizes?  English numbered sizes are generally one larger than ours (our 12 is their 14, although our 8 can be their 8 or 10) — but what will actually fit remains a mystery.  French and Italian sizes are both in the low to mid-40s (and perhaps also include 38, but I’m not a 38 so it doesn’t matter) — only different from each other.  Am I a 42? A 44? And in which country? Sometimes the American representative will attempt to offer an American size equivalent, but isn’t always right.

And let’s not start on footwear, especially if one foot is slightly smaller than the other, or you have a wide foot but a narrow heel.  That’s a whole other post.  Have you noticed that Nikes run smaller than Nu-Balance?

In fact, what with these sizing dilemmas, shopping in real stores has become so exhausting I rarely do it in person.  It’s so much easier to shop by computer and mail things back and forth until you’ve got it right, or nearly right.  (With some types of apparel, good enough IS good enough.)  If you end up finally keeping something, postage is free after the first time.

Unfortunately, blogging about sizes online is not easier than writing about them offline.  So now I’m going to hang up my new M and my new S from Eileen Fisher and lie down. As we used to say in the days of 12 to 20, I’m all tuckered out!

 

IRONING, ETCETERA

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I am full of useless information. That’s what happens as you get on in life. Gradually it becomes unnecessary to know the things you once learned in order to cope with the world you grew up in.

For instance, I know how to erase typewriter mistakes when there are carbons in the roller behind the front page. Now there are no more typewriters. Or carbon paper, either. I know how to not clog the kitchen drain with the liquid fat left in the pan after you’ve cooked bacon. Or not clog the toilet, if you thought you’d go that route. You pour the fat into an empty frozen orange juice can and put the can in the refrigerator till the fat hardens. Then you can throw the can in the garbage.

You might think that trick with the bacon fat is still a handy thing to know. Except now we’ve learned bacon is terrible for you — not just because of the fat and salt but also the carcinogenic nitrites with which it was cured. And you know orange juice is full of sugar calories, don’t you? Much better to eat the whole orange, even though it’s useless for congealing melted bacon fat.

And then there’s ironing. Does anyone still iron? In the home, I mean. When my sons emerged from college, impecunious, I attempted to teach the ironing of business shirts. Each gave it a half-hearted try, yielded to failure and found the nearest laundry. Yes, ironing can be hard. Apparently even harder than paying the laundry to do it when you’re short of cash, and then figuring out where to recycle the wire hangers the shirts come back on.

However, once upon a time there was much more than business shirts to consider. Those were the days when there was no such thing as a synthetic fabric that you didn’t have to iron. (Except rayon, which was considered, and looked, sleazy.) No such thing as wrinkle-free. There was no air-conditioning except in movie theaters; everyone – male or female — carried cotton handkerchiefs, sometimes monogrammed, in order to mop up up perspiration, handkerchiefs which then needed laundering and ironing. There was no sleeping in t-shirts or nothing at all. Men wore cotton boxer shorts as underwear and cotton (or silk) pajamas at night, all of which also needed guess what. My mother sent out the sheets and my father’s formal shirts to the Chinese laundry. But she did everything else herself — week in, week out, even in summer. So it was essential for a girl who might not have marriage to a millionaire in her future to learn to iron herself.

Thus it was that one summer afternoon I jumped the gun and asked her to teach me. I was eleven, already taller than she was, certainly tall enough to wield a hot iron on the board without danger of tipping it over. And there was a lot for me to practice on. Even in winter, my father put on clean underwear and a fresh white shirt twice a day — once in the morning and a second time when he went to work in the afternoon. Now that it was summer, he changed again after he came home at night on the subway and before having his late supper in the kitchen. “He’s a very clean man,” said my mother. He also used at least three white handkerchiefs a day, and often more; these too had to be done just so. And he had many more pairs of cotton pajamas than I did; whenever a pair got sweaty at night, it went into the laundry basket and later showed up on the ironing board.

We began with what was easiest. My mother set the ironing board up in the foyer and took his handkerchiefs out of the refrigerator, where they had been waiting for a couple of hours — slightly dampened, rolled up in a towel, and cool to the touch. (No steam irons then.) First you unrolled one and ironed all around the edges, pulling the cloth taut as you went, until you had a perfect square. Then you ironed the inside of the square flat, quickly enough not to scorch it yellow but not so quickly that it didn’t come smooth. Then you folded the square in half, ironed the crease, folded it in half again horizontally, and ironed the second crease. Now the handkerchief was a long narrow rectangle. You folded it twice, careful to keep the edges even, which produced a neat small square. And then you were done with one handkerchief, and had to start again.

However, after I got the hang of it and had finished five or six, ironing handkerchiefs became boring. Maybe boxer shorts would be more challenging? But when my mother let me try, I ran into trouble. The boxers were cut with a set-in waist and set-in crotch, so that you couldn’t get any parts flat without burning your fingers on the iron. And they were dampened more than the handkerchiefs, so that they steamed when pressed. The steam got the wrinkles out better, but made me very hot. By the time I had started on a second pair, I felt sweat rolling down the backs of my thighs. Perspiration began to drip from my forehead onto the board. I gave up, propped the iron on its stand, and went to run cool water on my wrists in the bathroom sink. When I came out, my mother was finishing the boxers I had left half done. And there were still more pairs, plus the remaining handkerchiefs, and the shirts and pajamas, to do before starting to make dinner.

She let me off the hook that time.   She had “The Story of Mary Marlin” to listen to on the big Stromberg Carlson radio in the living room, a daily soap opera fix which apparently made her hot travails with the pile of clean but still un-ironed laundry somewhat easier to bear. But eventually, I did learn how to do it all. Which was lucky, because I did not marry a millionaire. Twice, I didn’t marry one.

Now, more than seventy years later, I still have this boring skill that’s good for nothing. These days I send cotton shirts out. (Whenever either of us wears one, which is rarely.) It’s just easier. And the rest of our stuff comes out of the washer and dryer looking just fine. (Like jeans and t-shirts and sweats and yoga pants. What else do you put on nearly every day when you’re “retired?”)

On second thought I take it back about the “boring skill.” My ironing know-how is not entirely good for nothing.  I just got a whole new essay out of it.  Nothing obsolete about that.