I’m bad at multi-tasking. I can really think about only one thing at a time.

For the last eight months or so, that has been blogging.  It was good for me, in what is called “retirement” (meaning you don’t get paid for what you do), to have to sit down every day and come up with a relatively polished post that anyone might see.  Blogging gave life structure, purpose, a sense of keeping core skills in use.  In time, it also brought virtual friends — in some cases from parts of the world I would not have thought my words would reach — and invitations to come visit.  (I wish, I wish.)

But now I confront a dilemma.  Several weeks ago, I heard from a New York literary agent. He wrote he had very much enjoyed reading my piece in the Spring 2014 issue of The Iowa Review, called himself a “fan” of my writing and thought I might be publishable.  He meant publishable in book form.  Open offer: What did I have to send him?  He didn’t want collections of short pieces, not at first anyway.  He said book publishers would not be interested in collections unless there were a novel or book-length memoir behind it.

I did some research.  He’s been around for quite a while.  Represents some published names I recognize. Seems to know what he’s talking about.

It just so happens there is “a book” on the hard drive.  Half of a first draft of one, anyway.  I wrote it on Fridays while still practicing law four days a week, and also during multi-week summer vacations on a small Greek island during the very hot afternoons when it was best to stay in the shade.  And then I couldn’t decide how to do the second half, if it in fact needed a second half.  Or even if I wanted other people to see it.  So I put it away without deciding.

I described it to the agent. He thought we should start there. I asked for six to eight weeks to look it over and clean it up.  (My style has changed somewhat since the Greek island, for the better, I think — thanks to blogging.)  So that’s where I am.

I have no idea if anything will come of this.  But it deserves my best shot.  Hence the dilemma.  I can’t do blog and book simultaneously.  I know there are some WordPress writer/bloggers who can, and do.  Alas, we all have our limitations, and this one is mine.

Bottom line: The Getting Old Blog is taking a summer break while I sharpen my metaphorical pencil and get into serious editing.  I’ll still be keeping an eye on my Reader.  Newer followers have eight months of my archived stuff to explore.  And if anyone is really dying to hear from me, there’s always e-mail.

I’ll let you all in on how it turns out when I get back. [I’m not holding my breath.  But who knows?]  In the meantime, my best wishes for a wonderful summer!




I’m not a great fan of historical fiction, if by that we mean novels about fictional characters placed in a historical period for background color and to add pages of authorial research to the plot.  Long, long ago, when I was still consuming books from the children’s section of the public library, I very much liked “The Little Maid” series — A Little Maid of Bunker Hill, A Little Maid of Ticonderoga, and so forth — which gave its young readers digestible snippets of American history served up in stories about  patriotic little maids saving the day for the adults.

But once I had persuaded everyone who mattered (the librarian and my mother) that I was old enough to go upstairs to the grown-up section, the allure of historical fiction began to fade. As my taste gradually matured, most of this sort of reading matter became less believable.  Forever Amber was exciting in my adolescence because the fictional Amber slept around so much, not for its unpersuasive description of the court of King Charles II and seventeenth-century London.  Gone with the Wind was slightly better, but  probably only because many of my generation saw the movie before reading the book. And now that I’m really grown up (so they say), A Georgette Heyer Regency novel, for instance,  featuring a proud but financially challenged fictional heroine in a high-waisted column of white dress and carrying a reticule just doesn’t do it for me, even if her similarly fictional counterpart is a strong-jawed disdainful hero with a title, horses, property beyond belief and secret longings in his heart for the heroine.  I suppose Baroness Emma Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel (1901) or Rafael Sabatini’s wildly romantic Scaramouche (1921) and its many sequels were acceptable page-turners for the times in which they first appeared. And A Tale of Two Cities, a standard in the American public high school curriculum when I was young, is simply Dickens, irrespective of its historical context, stirring words  (“It was the best of times, It was the worst of times….”) and Sydney Carton redeeming himself by being guillotined in the end.  (“It is a far far better thing than I have ever done….”) That said, I have by and large closed the door on bodice-rippers and tales of derring-do.

But when we turn to fiction about identifiable historical persons, who actually did live and love and suffer and die in centuries gone by, we must discriminate between bad, okay and very good — the distinction based largely on the quality of the writing and one’s ability to suspend disbelief.  For a short while in college I was indeed in thrall to Mary Renault’s three novels about Alexander the Great, despite the fact that his bisexuality tilted strongly in favor of his own sex. Her work made his conquest of the known world seem (to me, then) somewhat real.  But it was also frustrating, because Alexander was dead at 33, and all cut up with battle scars by then, and wouldn’t have given me the time of day anyway. Girlish reasons, I admit, but what can you expect from a college girl? (Renault also wrote one about Theseus, but that was less gripping because Theseus was mythological and not a real man.)

There are other such books, of perhaps higher literary merit. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Burr are probably the best of the five or six he wrote in this genre.  I do intend to tackle Marguerite Yourcenar’s Hadrian’s Memoirs (in translation) at some indefinite time in the future.  But the absolutely most enjoyable and entirely convincing literary fictions about a historical figure I have read are Hilary Mantel’s relatively recent Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies.  She’s not only an accurate historian and an imaginative novelist but a superb writer.

As you may know, these are novels about Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII’s defection from the Catholic Church and his divorce from his first queen, the man who sent supposedly saintly Thomas More to be burned at the stake, divested the church of its property in England for the benefit of the crown and shortly thereafter contrived to have Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, convicted for adultery (and incest with her own brother) so that she could “legally” be sent to the executioner when she was unable to produce a male heir to the throne.

Sound like a bad guy? Don’t rush to judgment.  Mantel shows you early sixteenth-century England exclusively through Cromwell’s eyes.  You are there.  You live his life. She omits no known historical fact in the public record, but benefits enormously from the almost complete absence of any record of Cromwell’s private life by creating one for him.  You not only see with him, but also think with him, feel with him, maneuver with him, sympathize with him.  In a way, you become him — whether you approve of yourself as Cromwell or not. Give Mantel fifty pages, more or less:  if you can get through that much, you will be hers, and perhaps Cromwell’s too, until he dies.

Unfortunately, neither she nor he are there yet. She is still writing the third book of the trilogy.  So until she finishes and this ultimate treat reaches publication — what might there be of equal allure to get me through hot damp July in Princeton?  What a question!  More Hilary Mantel of course.  Before she tackled Cromwell, she labored intermittently over the French Revolution for almost twenty years.  The book, finally published in 1992, is A Place Of Greater Safety, and it tells its panoramic story through the lives of three of the most important figures of the revolutionary period :  Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. It runs 749 pages in the paperback edition and I’m only at page 220.  But that’s far enough to report that I am half in love with Camille, of whom I had not known before.  (He’s the one who jumped up onto a table in front of a crowd gathered before the Bastille on July 14, 1789 (le quatorze juillet) and delivered a speech so incendiary the population erupted and the monarchy soon toppled.

A Place of Greater Safety, written earlier than the Cromwell books,  is not as smooth a read.  It has a much larger number of significant players to keep straight in your head and a more intricate and shifting scheme of political events to follow, so that if you begin it, I cannot promise easy sailing all the way through. But if your idea of what the French Revolution may have been like while it was happening is based on Hollywood screen sets populated with heavily made-up movie extras in picturesque rags who are going to go home at the end of the working day to a gin and tonic and a nice dinner — then look at how Hilary Mantel sets the scene.

We learn early on (page 26) about bread:

When the Lieutenant of Police goes to his desk — today, last year — the first piece of information he requires concerns the price of a loaf in the bakers’ shops of Paris. If Les Halles is well supplied with flour, then the bakers of the city and the faubourgs will satisfy their customers, and the thousand itinerant bakers will bring their bread in to the markets in the Marais, in Saint Paul, in the Palais-Royal; and in Les Halles itself.

In easy times, a loaf of brown bread costs eight or nine sous. A general laborer, who is paid by the day, can expect to earn twenty sous; a mason might get forty sous, a skilled locksmith or a joiner might get fifty. Items for the budget: rent money, candles, cooking fat, vegetables, wine. Meat is for special occasions. Bread is the main concern.

The supply lines are tight, precise, monitored. What the bakers have left over at the end of the day must be sold off cheap; the destitute do not eat till night falls on the markets.

All goes well; but then when the harvest fails — in 1770, say, or in 1772 or 1774 — an inexorable price rise begins; in the autumn of 1774 a four pound loaf in Paris costs eleven sous, but by the following spring the price is up to fourteen. Wages do not rise. The building workers are always turbulent, so are the weavers, so are the bookbinders and (poor souls) the hatters, but strikes are seldom to procure a wage rise, usually to resist a cut. Not the strike but the bread riot is the most familiar resort of the urban working man, and thus the temperature and rainfall over some distant cornfield connects directly with the tension headaches of the Lieutenant of Police.

Nearly one hundred pages later (on page 122), we see five lines inserted between two paragraphs of the story:

Price inflation 1785-1789:

  • Wheat     66%
  • Rye          71%
  • Meat         67%
  • Firewood 91%

And then (on page 136), we get to January 1789 in Paris. This is no Hollywood movie set.  This is why I like Hilary Mantel so much:

New year. You go out in the streets and you think it’s here: the crash at last, the collapse, the end of the world. It is colder now than any living person can remember. The river is a solid sheet of ice. The first morning, it was a novelty. Children ran and shouted, and dragged their complaining mothers out to see it. “One could skate,” people said. After a week, they began to turn their heads from the sight, keep their children indoors. Under the bridges, by dim and precarious fires, the destitute wait for death. A loaf of bread is fourteen sous, for the New Year.

These people have left their insufficient shelters, their shacks, their caves, abandoned the rock-hard, snow glazed fields where they cannot believe anything will ever grow again. Tying up in a square of sacking a few pieces of bread, perhaps chestnuts: cording a small bundle of firewood: saying no good-byes, taking to the road. They move in droves for safety, sometimes men alone, sometimes families, always keeping with the people from their own district, whose language they speak. At first they sing and tell stories. After two days or so, they walk in silence. The procession that marched now straggles. With luck, one may find a shed or byre for the night. Old women are wakened with difficulty in the morning and are found to have lost their wits. Small children are abandoned in village doorways. Some die; some are found by the charitable, and grow up under other names.

Those who reach Paris with their strength intact begin to look for work. Men are being laid off, they’re told, our own people; there’s nothing doing for outsiders. Because the river is frozen up, goods do not come into the city: no cloth to be dyed, no skins to be tanned, no corn. Ships are impaled on the ice, with grain rotting in their holds.

The vagrants congregate in sheltered spots, not discussing the situation because there is nothing to discuss. At first they hang around the markets in the late afternoons, because at the close of the day’s trading any bread that remains is sold off cheaply or given away; the rough, fierce Paris wives get there first. Later, there is no bread after midday. They are told that the good Duke of Orleans gives away a thousand loaves of bread to people who are penniless like them. But the Paris beggars leave them standing again, sharp-elbowed and callous, willing to give them malicious information and to walk on people who are knocked to the ground. They gather in back courts, in church porches, anywhere that is out of the knife of the wind. The very young and the very old are taken in by the hospitals. Harassed monks and nuns try to bespeak extra linen and a supply of fresh bread, only to find that they must make do with soiled linen and bread that is days old. They say that the Lord’s designs are wonderful, because if the weather warmed up there would be an epidemic. Women weep with dread when they give birth.

Even the rich experience a sense of dislocation. Alms-giving seems not enough; there are frozen corpses on fashionable streets. When people step down from their carriages, they pull their cloaks about their faces, to keep the stinging cold from their cheeks and the miserable sights from their eyes.

Six months later Camille Desmoulins climbed up on that table in the midst of a roiling crowd of such desperate people and precipitated the fall of the Bastille.

I proceed towards page 300.  Anyone care to join me?





1.  No matter how old you are, some things you don’t forget.

Last Sunday, Bill and I went to a neighborhood meeting for people interested in joining Community Without Walls. We all had to affix to our shoulders a paper tag on which we had printed our names. At the end of the meeting, we got into conversation with a man who hadn’t taken off his tag yet. The name on it ended with a “cz.”

“Polish?” Bill asked.

Yes, he was from Poland, said the man. He was fit and spry, but his face didn’t look as if he were very much younger than we are.

“Forgive me for being nosy,” I said. “But were you in Poland during World War II?”

He nodded again.

“You must have been a baby,” I went on.

“Not such baby,” said the man. “I still remember bombs. So many bombs.”

“Bombs?” Bill asked. “Did Germany bomb Poland? I thought it was very quick. Hitler marched in and Poland surrendered.”

“He must mean Russia,” I said to Bill.

The man ignored this. “Germany not bomb?” he said. “They were bombing all the time. Lost 25% of Luftwaffe over Poland. Of course Poland lost whole air force, too. Bombs, bombs everywhere. Even now,” and here he looked up at the clear blue of a Princeton summer sky, “even now, when I hear sound of propeller — whrrrr whrrrrr – I am frightened. I duck. Even now.”

He and his Polish wife are both scientists. They’ve lived and worked in the United States ever since completing their university studies. Although they do return to Europe twice a year, their preference is to rent an apartment in Paris for a month in September, and again in April. His wife is fluent in French.

“They’re lucky, “ said Bill after we got home. He was thinking Paris. “We’re luckier,” I said. “We don’t have to duck.”

2.  No matter how old you are, you can still learn something new.

The man we met after the Community Without Walls meeting who came from Poland did not have clear handwriting. Or maybe I just need new glasses. I had to squint to make out the name on his paper shoulder tag. It looked like Kaganovicz.

“KagAnovich?” I asked uncertainly.

“No,” he replied. “KaganOvich.”

“I thought the accent was on the second syllable,” I said.

“Third,” said the man. “In Russian it’s on second. You’re Russian?”

“Her parents were,” said Bill helpfully.

“Ah,” said KaganOvitch. “That explains it. Russians say KagAnovitch. But in Poland, always KaganOvitch.”

While I was digesting this phonetic difference, which I hadn’t known before, he added something. “There was a KagAnovich. Lazar Moiseyevitch. Famous Old Stalinist. Murderer. Killed many people. But Russian. I’m Polish. KaganOvich.”

“Lazar Moiseyevitch KagAnovich,” I repeated. “I shall have to remember that. At least long enough to look him up.”

“Just remember KaganOvitch,” said KaganOvitch.

And you see, I have!




My copy of Marlene Dietrich’s ABC book is faded and grubby-looking, and its newsprint paper has turned brownish with age.  The pages are also falling out of the binding into which they were glued fifty-two years ago.  Well, what do you expect?  This was the “Mass Market” paperback edition, and I bought it new in 1962 for only 50 cents.  But don’t belittle it because of how little it cost me. Used copies, in “good” or “acceptable” condition, are today priced from $5.00 to $39.95.

I’m not sure why I bought it.  In 1962, when the book came out, Marlene Dietrich was sixty and past even her late performances in movies, which I had never much liked anyway. She always played glamorous husky-voiced European women who destroyed men.  Not a good role model for a young woman who was becoming aware that her biological clock was ticking. Dietrich on the screen was definitely not a baby maker.

But by 1962, she was pretty much out of movies and performing almost exclusively in a one-woman cabaret act in large theaters throughout the world.  She apparently relied on body-sculpting undergarments, nonsurgical temporary facelifts, expert makeup, wigs, and strategic stage lighting to help preserve her glamorous image as she grew older.  I never saw her in this second incarnation, nor wanted to.  However, she did once say in an interview that she continued with this career even when her health was failing because she needed the money.

Need is relative, I suppose; she supported her husband and his mistress until he died of cancer in 1976. They had been separated for decades, but he was the father of her only child, and she had her loyalties. She herself had by then survived cervical cancer in 1965, fallen off the stage, injuring herself badly in 1973, and broken her right leg in 1974.  Her performances effectively ended in 1975 when she fell off the stage once again during an appearance in Australia and broke her thigh.  By then she had become increasingly dependent on painkillers and alcohol.

After that she withdrew to her Paris apartment and refused to allow herself to be photographed, even when Maximillian Schell made a film about her (Marlene, 1984); he was permitted to record only her voice as he interviewed her, and had to rely on a collage of her old film clips for the visuals of his movie.  In her early eighties by then, she sounds old, disillusioned and bitter, although still sharp. She died of renal failure in Paris at 90.

But at sixty she was not yet bitter. And her ABC is clearly hers — not the creation of some ghostwriter.  The opinions in it are too  idiosyncratic to have emerged from someone hired to write them for her. I may therefore have bought the book after coming upon it in a bookstore because I was then thirty years old, one year divorced after a disastrous marriage, and possibly hoping for some tips on how to manage life more productively going forward. I hope I wasn’t expecting Marlene to steer me towards the sort of second husband who would be a good father for my as yet unborn children. She would have been the wrong person for that.  She was herself bisexual, wore both male and female ensembles with equal panache, and maintained short and long-term liaisons with partners of both sexes although she and her husband never divorced.

I’ve kept her ABCs though, not for the same reasons as the three Nazi membership books described in my last post.  I like to sit down with Marlene every ten years or so when I come across her while looking for something else. Some of what she thinks is dated, or too sentimental for my taste. But much of it is not.  So before her book completely crumbles between my hands, here are some of the “not”s.  You might enjoy them, too.  It’s rather like meeting a charismatic woman at a party and listening for a while to what she’s got to say.

ART.  A much abused word.

BACH, JOHANN SEBASTIAN. I used to love him. I practiced his solo sonatas eight hours a day. I strained the ligament of my fourth left finger. My hand was put in a cast. The hand came out weak. I was told that, with exercise, I might regain full strength of the finger but that I might not be able ever to last through a concert. I gave up the violin. I never liked Bach after that.

BACKSEAT DRIVING. Grounds for divorce.

BELLE-MERE.  The French chose this word to give to the mother-in-law. It means: beautiful mother.

BODY.  A heavy body weighs down the spirit.

BOOKS. You do not love a book necessarily because it teaches you something. You love it because you find affirmation of your thoughts or sanctions of your deeds.

CAUSE AND EFFECT. A logical event that no wishful thinking can erase.

CHEAP. Nothing that is cheap looks expensive.

CHEWING GUM. A pacifier for adults.

COMPASSION. Without it you mean little.

CORNED BEEF. A most persistent childhood memory is that of feasting on corned beef sent to us by our fathers serving at the front. American soldiers would throw the cans over to the enemy when the war of trenches quieted down by nightfall and the crickets made peaceful sounds — which is how my father described it in his letter.

CREDIT SYSTEM. The American Tragedy.

DAUGHTER. Your daughter is your child for life.

DEMAND AND SUPPLY. Give what is needed. “Let them eat cake” is too easy. By the same token: If nothing is needed, give nothing.

DISREGARD. With a good deal of disregard for oneself, life is a good deal easier borne.

EATING.  All real men love to eat. Any man who picks at his food, breaking off little pieces with his fork, pushing one aside, picking up another, pushing bits around the plate, etc., usually has something wrong with him. And I don’t mean with his stomach.

EGGS. Scrambled: To each batch of three room-temperature eggs, add one extra yolk, salt; beat with a fork, not with an egg beater. Heat butter to golden yellow, not brown. Pour the beaten eggs into it, flame low, turn slowly with the fork. Turn out flame. Keep turning with the fork to desired consistency. Serve immediately.

EINSTEIN, ALBERT. His theory of relativity, as worded by him for laymen: “When does Zurich stop at this train?”

EMBARRASS. To embarrass anyone falls into the category of bad manners. In America, it is practiced almost like a sport.

EMERSON, RALPH W.  “Do not say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”  I have gooseflesh when I read this, think of this, or write this down.

FAIRY TALE.  The certainty of the happy end is the magic of the tale.

FASTING. You must have an important reason to be able to fast. If you don’t, you must make an oath to yourself, an oath important enough to take the place of the important reason. Vanity is not enough of a reason. Health isn’t either, as long as you feel well. Make a time limit for the fasting. A day, for instance. It is easier to fast one day entirely than to eat a little for a week. It is very healthy to do that. Don’t think you are going to collapse on the street. Drink water and go to bed early.

FLEXIBILITY. A great asset for body and mind.   In advanced age both tend to rigidity. One of the reasons why young people find it difficult to live in close contact with the old is the loss of the mind’s flexibility. Rigidity of thought, decision, opinion is by no means reserved for the old, but the danger of becoming rigid of mind increases with the years. Old people are most conscious of their stiffening bodies; they are completely unconscious of their stiffening minds.

FORGIVENESS. Once a woman has forgiven her man, she must not reheat his sins for breakfast.

GENDER. At the best of times, gender is difficult to determine. In language, gender is particularly confusing. Why, please, should a table be male in German, female in French, and castrated in English? French children, for instance, are male even if they are girls, in English there seems to be considerable doubt, in German they are definitely neuter. Even more startling is the fact that the French give the feminine gender to the components of the male anatomy that make him male, and the male gender to the components of the female anatomy that make her a female. In view of all this, let’s keep a stiff upper lip.

GENERAL DE GAULLE. The personification of my beliefs and code of conduct. When he made the unique speech in June 1940, he put me in his pocket for life. Whatever he did or said since I do not try to evaluate. He can do no wrong.

GERMANY. The tears I have cried over Germany have dried. I have washed my face.  (See Israel.)

GLAMOUR. The which I would like to know the meaning of.

GOSSIP. Nobody will tell you gossip if you don’t listen.

GRANDMOTHER. Judging by the world press, I am the only grandmother alive in the world. Should there be any other grandmothers around, I salute them all. Ours is a great joy and a great task. Here are the rules:  (1) We must tiptoe at all times. (2) Never tiptoe on anybody’s toes. (3) Be there when needed. (4) Never be more than ‘Mother’s helper.’ (5) disappear when not needed. (6) Bear without self-pity the silence in our own house. (7) Keep both ears cocked at all times for that call to action. (8) Be ready when it comes. (See Mother-in-law.)

GRIEF.  Grief is a private affair.

HABIT. Often mistaken for love.

HANDS. I like intelligent hands and working hands, regardless of their shape in relation to beauty. Idle hands, stupid hands can be pretty, but there is not beauty in them. Of course, children’s hands are miracles from every point of view.

HAPPINESS. I do not think that we have a “right” to happiness. If happiness happens, say thanks.

HATE. I have known hate from 1933 till 1945. I still have traces of it and I do not waste much energy to erase them. It is hard to live with hate. But if the occasion demands it, one has to harden oneself deliberately.  I do not think I could hate anyone who does harm to me personally. Something greater than myself has to be involved to cause me to hate.

HEAVEN AND EARTH. A great meal for summer evenings, a peasant favorite because it is good and cheap: apples (for heaven) and potatoes (for earth). Cook tart, sliced apples with sugar or, better, honey, or make applesauce. Boil potatoes, peeled or with the skin.  Put two bowls on the table. Everyone has his own way of mixing the fruits of heaven and earth.

HOLLAND. Everything cozy.

HOUSEWORK. The best occupational therapy there is. It is also the most useful occupational therapy. It is one of the rare occupations that show immediate results, which is very satisfying, to say the least.

IDLENESS. It is a sin to do nothing. There is always something useful to be done. I have no respect for the idle rich who discharge their duty to be useful by staging charity balls.

ISRAEL. There I washed my face in the cool waters of compassion.

JEWS. I will not try to explain the mystic tie, stronger than blood, that binds me to them.

JOIE DE VIVRE. How few of us have it; and what a great gift for the person who has it and the people who witness it.

KETCHUP. If you have to kill the taste of what you are eating, pour it on there.

KINDNESS. Practice it; it’s easy. Just put yourself in the other person’s shoes before you talk, act, or judge.

KING-SIZE.  I’m agin it.

KISSES. Don’t waste them. But don’t count them.

LETTERS. There is no excuse for not writing letters. My mother used to say: “Don’t tell me you have no time to write to someone who is waiting. There is a quiet place where no one disturbs you. You visit it every day — there you can write. You want to know what the place is? The emperor goes there on foot.”

LETTERS (of Love). Write them. Otherwise no one will know what wonderful feelings fill you. Even if the king or queen of your heart is unworthy (as you might have been told), write them — it will do you good.  Keep copies.

LIAISON. A charming word signifying a union, not cemented and unromanticized by documents.

LIBRARY. The most precious of possessions.

LIFE. Life is not a holiday. Should you approach it thus, you will find holidays aplenty.

LIMITATIONS. Know your limitations.

LOYALTY. Should be one of the Commandments.

LUKEWARM. When this adjective applies to feelings, stop feeling whatever you are feeling.

MAILMAN.  Let’s all walk. They say mailmen have no heart attacks.

MOP. An implement falsely credited with cleaning floors. (Except in the hands of a sailor.)

MOROCCO. Looks better in films.

MOTHER’S DAY.  Although it might have been invented by the United Florists as a business venture, let’s be grateful to them in any case. It does remind neglectful sons and daughters to give a sign of life once a year.

MOTHER-IN-LAW. When you feel your wings grow, you’re good at it.

OPTIMISM. Have it. There’s always time to cry later.

ORDER. I need it. Emotionally and physically.

PARLEZ-MOI D’AMOUR. Yes, please do. The loving heart is a bad mind reader.

PHYSICAL LOVE. Any society that allows conditions to exist in which the adolescent begins to connect guilt with physical love raises a generation of defectives.

POLITENESS.  Easy to learn, easy to practice.

POTATOES.  I love them. I eat them.

POWER POLITICS. Boys playing: You-show-me-yours, I-show-you-mine.

QUESTIONS. If they are personal, don’t ask them.

QUIT. Don’t, if the goal is at all attainable. You won’t like yourself in the morning if you do.

QUOTATIONS. I love them because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognizedly wiser than oneself.

RICH. Most rich people are pretty dull.

RUSSIAN SALAD. (One of them.)  Sliced apples, sliced tomatoes, sliced onions. Salt. Children like it without dressing. You can add oil and lemon. But no other kind of salad dressing. Serve it in large bowls. Makes a very good dinner with nothing else but cheese, bread and butter.

UGLY DUCKLING. Lucky is the ugly duckling. Keep that in mind and don’t envy the pretty duckling. The dizzy pursuit of pleasure the pretty duckling easily succumbs to, does not tempt you constantly. You have time to think, to be alone, to be lonely, to read, to make friends, to help other people. You’ll be a happy swan. Just wait and see.

UP.  Look there.

UTMOST. When people say, “I’m doing my utmost,” they are underestimating themselves greatly.

VACILLATION.  A woman’s beauty of heart and mind renders man’s vacillating emotions constant. Her looks attract him, they do not keep him.

WAR. If you haven’t been in it, don’t talk about it.

WASTE. I hate it with a passion.

WILL. It is almost impossible to put on paper what one would want done after one is dead.

WISDOM.  “For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:18.

ZABAGLIONE. Mix three yolks of eggs with three tablespoons of sugar until the mixture is creamy and whitish. Then add a bit more than half a cup of Marsala wine. Mix. In a double boiler beat the mixture with an eggbeater till it rises. Do not boil the mixture. Use a large enough pot so that it can rise almost to double the amount. If you are courageous you can forget about the double boiler and do it on a direct low flame. Serve it in wide-top glasses when it is warm.

She stained and waxed her own parquet floors.  She called it one of those household occupations providing immediate results.  She became an American citizen in 1939, and during the war repeatedly risked her life entertaining American troops as close to the front lines as the Army would let her go.  But when the Berlin Wall came down, she left instructions in her will that she be buried in Berlin, city of her birth, near her family.  After she died, her body was therefore flown there to fulfill her wish. She was interred in Friedenau Cemetery, next to the grave of her mother, and near the house where she was born.

If you want to read more ABC than I’ve served up here, you can get the whole thing on Kindle for $7.69.  More recipes for peasant cooking!  Several longish (and old-fashioned) essays on Beauty and on Marriage!  However, I’m sticking with my crumbling old fifty cent copy.  If I put a rubber band around it to keep the pages together, it’ll be good for at least another ten years.  Let’s hope I will be, too….



Their names are Hermann Rosencranz, Karl Munch and Walter Schieber.  Karl’s last name has an umlaut over the u, which changes the pronunciation, but WordPress makes no provision for umlauted u‘s, so you’ll have to remember Munch doesn’t rhyme with lunch.

I call them Nazis because of three small red books I happen to have.  The first one was given to Hermann in Munich on June 30, 1936.  His party membership number is 3483589.

IMG_0879On the frontispiece inside, under a swastika and seal, is the name of the organization that issued the small red book: National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. [National Socialist German Workers Party.]

IMG_0880 The second small red book was given to Karl on September 4, 1934. His party membership number is 717410.  Karl was born earlier than Hermann and joined the party earlier, too.  You can see that his number is lower. Hermann’s book is dirtier and duller in color, though. He may have perspired more heavily. Or dropped it somewhere. It’s hard to believe that either of them would have been sent into the dirt and sweat of battle. Perhaps they were World War I veterans.  But they were both too old to fight in 1939.

IMG_0878The third small book is Walter’s.  His party number is 557979.  He was born 29 years after Karl, and 21 years after Hermann. The very low number he was given when his book was issued to him on June 30, 1941 may therefore have been one that had been retired after the death of its original owner and was now being put back in service with Walter.


A brief pause for back story.  How did these three National Socialist Party membership books make their way into one of my bookcases, where they now repose quietly on top of a small paperback copy of Marlene Dietrich’s ABC  which I purchased in New York City for 50 cents in 1961?   I can tell you why I put Hermann, Karl, and Walter with Marlene. It’s because their books are the same size, and — more fancifully — because all four of them spoke the same language.  It also pleases me that the three Nazis were politically poles apart from this German-born woman who bravely entertained American troops at the front wherever and whenever Army regulations permitted.

But I can only surmise how the three red books reached America at the end of World War II.  My second husband was the youngest of three brothers — and too young for either enlistment or the draft. (Probably also too near-sighted.)  But the middle brother was drafted, and then trained as an Army weather man.  He was therefore in Europe, although not on the front lines, after D-Day.  It’s my guess he picked up the three red books, and maybe more than three, as small compact souvenirs to bring home when the war was over.

My former brother-in-law is now 91 and living abroad with his Dutch-born wife in an assisted living facility near her daughter and other family, so I can’t easily ask him if I’ve guessed right.  The first I personally knew of the three red books was when my second husband showed them to me, twenty years after the end of the war.  He had no use for them even then, and left them behind when we eventually parted after our children were grown.

That was in 1987.  I have jettisoned a lot of stuff since then. However, I still hang on to Hermann, Karl and Walter and have sometimes asked myself why.  There are probably two reasons, one less important than the other.  The lesser reason is that I never really learned German, therefore cannot read what Hitler had to say in these little red books, and want to know — before passing the books on to someone else. [Bill thinks they might be worth something, but I’m not so sure of that.  It’s all so long ago now that at least some uneducated young people have never heard of the Holocaust and others who have heard of it deny it ever really existed. So who would want to pay good money for my three Nazis?]

German was supposed to be my second foreign language for earning a doctorate in English, and I did get through the reading exam — a paragraph on the novels of Sir Walter Scott written in German. But only by spraying myself heavily with Arpege beforehand, saving up all the vocabulary I didn’t know (which was a lot), and then summoning the young proctor of the exam, who was permitted to give help with “one or two” words per exam-taker.  Overcome by fragrance, he as good as translated a third of my paragraph for me.  So I’m not really in great shape vocabulary-wise to share Hitler’s message with anyone.

But now there’s this blog, which has at least three German-speaking followers, and the occasional German “visitor” too!   Perhaps one of you — and you know who you are — would be good enough to translate, or summarize, the Fuhrer’s words for us in the comment section below. Feel free to editorialize as well, and as much as you like!

IMG_0881 IMG_0882 IMG_0883However, the more important reason I can’t let go of Hermann, Karl and Walter is that they were three flesh-and-blood human beings, with birthdates, and handwriting, and faces as real as if they’d been photographed yesterday. (Hermann even appears to be slightly smiling.)  And these three men, who probably had wives and children, would have looked at me, if I had been so unlucky as to be a little girl in Europe, and seen only a specimen of vermin to be exterminated as efficiently as possible.

IMG_0886 IMG_0887 Hermann died on March 1, 1943.  It’s pencilled in at the top of the page.  (I do know what “gestorben” means.)  He was 57.  If he hadn’t died during the war but lived on and on, so that I could confront him now, in the flesh instead of in his photograph, he would be 128, which is of course impossible.  I have his photograph, though.  I’m still alive, and he’s just a photograph.  I know it’s ridiculous that this gives me some satisfaction, some sense of vindication. But it does.

Karl is “gestorben” too.  It happened in November 1943.

IMG_0891 IMG_0892 He died at 65.  He would be 136 today.  I have a feeling Karl was more ruthless than Hermann.  He seems more smug in his photograph.  Of course, feelings are subjective. And photographs lie. I know that.  But I hate Karl more than Hermann.

When Bill read the first draft of this post, he stopped at that sentence, the one just before this one. ‘Hate’ is a pretty strong word,” he said. “You mean ‘dislike,’ don’t you?”

No, I don’t mean “dislike.”  It’s senseless, it’s illogical, I wasn’t there, it’s an accident I even know Hermann and Karl and Walter existed. All the same, when I look at their photos there’s real hate in my heart.  Perhaps I should think of them as victims, too. Brainwashed by rhetoric, mesmerized by a charismatic leader.  That doesn’t cut it for me. This isn’t about Germans, or Germany, or the language, or Angela Merkel (whose well cut jackets I quite admire).  It’s not about Bach or Beethoven or Brahms. I’d love to visit today’s Berlin before I die.  But Hermann and Karl and Walter looking out at me from the pages of their small red books,  those three I can’t forgive.  They are the faces of perps — perpetrators of a twentieth-century genocide I may have escaped but which tangled my growing-up years in ways too complex to tease out in the short space of a post.

Walter, the baby of the group — born in 1907 and only 32 when Hitler marched into Poland — does not have “gestorben” written in his book.

IMG_0897 IMG_0898Although photographed in civilian dress, Walter was probably mobilized when Germany went to war.  He was young enough, and also the only one of my three to have received an award: something in “Bronze” on April 1, 1940.

IMG_0899While Walter may not have been classified as “gestorben,” he must have been separated from his red book at some point after March 1943. Beginning in April of that year, there are no more stamps in the book showing he paid his monthly party dues.  And something did happen on April 29, 1943;  not knowing the language, I cannot tell you what.  Again, perhaps a German-speaking follower or reader can explain to us what this cryptic notation inscribed on the inside cover of Walter’s book may mean:

IMG_0896If he survived the war and life after war, Walter would be 107 today.  Remotely possible, although not very likely.  And in truth, what could I possibly say to such an extremely aged man in such a fantasy reality?  I may know what “gestorben” means, but I can’t speak his language. And I’m sure he never learned mine, or not enough to understand me and my feelings.  Especially as I don’t really understand me and my feelings either, when it comes to Hermann, Karl, Walter and the three red books.

Given the date of my birth, I know I was beyond fortunate to have been born where I was born, a whole ocean away from the murderous venom that was flooding Europe during the years of my childhood — the very same years when Hermann, Karl and Walter were dutifully paying their party dues. But my good fortune changes nothing.  I have been on the moving walkway at Yad Vashem, hearing the endless litany of names of little children like me, starved, gassed or slaughtered by other Hermanns, Karls and Walters — names, names, names echoing through a dark and starry universe.  It’s therefore ironic that these three Hitler loyalists should come to rest with me and my hostility as I grow old, that I should be the curator of their last effects.

I began this piece thinking such artifacts might be of general interest. Having written it, I suspect I was wrong. The feelings these three red books incite in me draw so heavily on the past and on my ethnicity (if you can call it that) that they may be incommunicable. If so, it seems only sensible to put Hermann, Karl and Walter back in the bookcase and leave them be.

You can’t win ’em all.  As Hitler (and perhaps Walter) finally learned.