For my children; for theirs and theirs and theirs beyond. That they might better know me; carry me along and perhaps benefit from the mulch.
Memory has certainly been a matter of concern in writing this book. Remembering things that I felt I had previously remembered; previously mentioned; remembered differently, but repeating them again and sometime again. And then, the things remembered that may never have happened; victim of dreams, photographs, stories listened to or imagined, fantasies. There are countless circumstances that can regulate the accuracy or existence of memory.
And there is the matter of form which is an essential ingredient in all of my poetry and much of this is poetry. I might apologize for the prose, for I never was a good writer of prose. Too demanding; too rigid. The intention of this book was to be Autobiography or Memoir. One which advances, more or less, in a chronological manner, the other which is freer of form. This book jumps about in time, from page to page, paragraph to paragraph, so might be confusing or irritating to a reader. I find it so, but there were complications which, I’m sure, I spoke of earlier and later.
I had started writing an autobiography some fifteen or more years ago, which was discarded along the way and followed by a second effort a few years later which suffered the same fate;. Both failed but were used profusely in this final effort, realizing, at the less than tender age of eighty-three, if it didn’t happen now it would never happen, so I did it.
And finally there was the consideration of dealing with my journals. Were they compelling enough to be included to some degree ? I decided they were as interesting as anything that might be recalled from memory, and certainly more accurate in detail. So I’ve used my journal entries, not lavishly but constantly up until January of 1989, ten years ago this month. The rest is history, as I’ve heard them say, and that’s what an autobiography is all about.
December 13, 2008
Fort Bragg. California
I first decided to write of my life when that life had hardly begun. I thought I had lived sufficiently to compose a worthy narrative. I was wrong, for I had barely begun living. I tried again in my mid 40s feeling that I had accumulated enough history to produce a fairly compelling document. I stumbled through a hundred or so pages of dull and poorly composed prose and was relieved to suspend that project again (I was never able to write prose: too structured and contradictory for my aesthetic.).
Then, as I acquired some small degree of knowledge and experience as a painter and poet, I decided I might be ready and once again made the effort. I had been journalizing for some time and decided to write my life as a part of my journals beginning on August 12, 1995. I was seventy years old.
Emboldened and shocked by my advancing years I figured it would be now or never, but as with my previous efforts, I arrived at a dead end after several hundred pages of journal writing. It just wasn’t working. Something which was needed was not there.
I ask myself why am I attempting to do this again. Who could possibly be interested in reading about this life (Possibly my children). I’m driven by ego, smothered by self worth and self-deprecating. Strange bed fellows. I should get back to painting and poetry; where I belong. I’ve written thousands of pages of poetry, from garbage to commendable, and if anyone is interested in knowing whom I was and am let them find me there.
Advance twenty years. Now I’m eighty-two and suffering from a condition not uncommon with people of this age, in fact I’ve been aware of its advance for at least twenty years----loss of language. Most people are aware of this loss, to greater or lesser degrees; slowly, incrementally, vocabulary slips from the screen. Forgotten, remembered, forgotten and remembered again and finally forgotten. It’s words that name things; labels which apply to lots of things: people’s names, book titles, movies, vegetables, items, the nouns of language. These are the first things that slip away. Adjectives are next. We know what we want to say to describe some event, person or thing, but the appropriate word is not waiting for us. We are the ones who are waiting, and sometimes what we are waiting for fails to arrive.
If we are fortunate we are able to compensate for this loss with something we have managed to gain over the years; wisdom, compassion, patience: the ability to see through the scrim of our daily lives to other worlds, and realities. And as a poet I’ve gained more from the loss than I’ve lost, for my focus in poetry has always been form over content, and as my resource of language declines, my inventiveness with form has expanded. So it’s a challenge which I approach with pleasure, and it seems to me that I’m succeeding. More on this later.
Now I’m about to embark on a book speaking my life, and though it will be written primarily as prose, it will endorse the rhythms, repetitions and forms of music. This is the only way I know how to write, and this is the way it shall be done. I know it will re-ignite memories and take me down corridors to places I’ve never written about or remembered. It will be joyous and painful. A sour mulch; a glorious harvest. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, so I know I’ll enjoy the journey. This will be my final effort so I must succeed.
I begin with this life at about the age of six, though I could return to events much earlier. The musky-sweet taste of my mother’s milk. A baby carriage of white rattan. Me, there, outside a house in our neighborhood. Laughter from the inside.
I gazing to that ceiling of curved white rattan. (My mother told me years later we never had such a carriage. And years beyond those years I saw such a carriage in a book of old photographs. Showing it to my mother she replied, ‘I guess I’d forgotten about it.”
Events which I’ve spoken of were denied, but I know because I was there. In my diapers, in my yellow sun-suit with the netted chest, carried on my father’s shoulders at ocean-side. holding tight to his shoulders, behind his strong strokes as he swam us to a raft at Lake Geneva or Cottage Lake. And a distant lady,
when I was about four who said,, “Remember this day and this day will remember you”.
And I remember falling off a wharf into Puget Sound. Rescued by my mother’s best friend, Helen Shapiro. She carried my on her shoulders along the shore and people came up to me patting my behind, telling me what a brave boy I was. My mother said it never happened, but I remember it. How could it not have happened if I remembered it so well. There is, I believe, a vague distinction between memory, dreams and imagination, and much of what I have to say in this book may be lodged between one or the other.
I return to six which seems the best place to begin, as it had a strong influence on decisions I would be making from that time until today.
At an early age mother was studying piano at Cornish, the finest school of music in Seattle and one of the most prestigious schools of music in the country. She was to become a concert pianist. At least that was her father’s fervent wish. But when he first met my father, a teen-ager a year older than my mother, her father looked at the two of them and said, “There goes my daughter’s career”. They were married in less than two years and shortly began producing babies; me the final sibling of four.
When I was six my mother told me, “I agonized with your brothers and sister over piano lessons to no avail, so I’m not going to suffer, nor will you to make it happen. Instead I’m going to take you to concerts so that you can learn to appreciate music rather than struggle to play it.”
What a blessing. It was a time when concerts of classical music were happening with regularity at the Moore and Metropolitan Theaters. Great artists, mostly singers and pianists were on tour across the country. A smorgasbord of activity and I heard such luminaries as: Marian Anderson, Paul Robson, Igor Gorin, Dorothy Manor and Roland Hays to mention a few. And violinists,
celloists, pianists and orchestras were a part of this enormous gift.
By the time I was twelve I announced to my parents that I wanted to become an opera singer. No cowboys, firemen, doctors or anything else in my dream-book. I knew, firmly and resolutely, without the slightest hesitation or doubt that I wanted to become an opera singer, and I began studying voice, privately, at that unreasonably young age.
My memory of those teachers remains clear. I can see them in their finery and I can hear them as if it were yesterday.
Elizabeth Fournyea greets me in the shadow of her huge , but elegant frame. Formally attired in what seemed to suggest tapestries, she conducted me through her chambers to her grand piano. I handed her a few selections of sheet music containing songs I might sing for an audition and she grandly brushed them aside.
“First we must develop the stream”.
I looked at her with confusion and she hurried on.
“The stream of air to support the tone,” she affirmed. She then lit a candle and motioned me to the side. Then she placed her face before the flame and released a stream of fine hissing air which seemed to last forever.
“Notice,” she exclaimed, ”the flame barely fluttered and you must likewise develop the perfect stream, to carry your tone, before we hear a note of music”.
When my mother came with me after a few lessons to witness my progress, Madam assured her that I was doing very well and had me demonstrate with my stream upon the flame. Moments later my mother rushed me from Madam’s studio, her face flushed with anger, my face flushed with embarrassment.
Magnus Peterson, a mountain of a man. I was in my early teens, just recovering from the stream . He dressed formally and colorfully in velvets and brocade, with an operatic gate. His accompanist, an elegant lady of middle years, awaited my entrance, prepared to play whatever songs I had brought along. I stood by the piano before Magnus, sitting on the throne, his face set in
concentration. As I sang a few bars he arose in a gesture for silence. He told me to sit in his chair, stood before me and sang my song from beginning to end, to demonstrate in mesmerizing fashion how it should be sung. Searching my memory all I can remember of my lessons from Magnus and my efforts to replicate him was that I seemed to be listening ; he performing. I felt as though I was an audience of one, attending to a most entertaining singer. Once I had the courage to ask him if he thought that I might, someday, become a successful opera singer. He looked and me sadly and said< “Possibly so”. I believe I understood what he was trying to tell me.
There were others in Seattle whom I remember vaguely. Mr. Eddy, a fine lyric tenor who had a small shabby studio in the Orpheum building. A woman whose name I’ve forgotten, more an accompanist that a vocal teacher, and a man whose last name began with L who jumped to his decease from one of the low high rise buildings in downtown Seattle.
But returning to school, in general. I can still smell the hallways in John Muir grade school. Office of our principal, a tiny piece of dynamite, so feared and so loved. If one was called to Miss Lockwood’s office it was catatonic.
I wrote my first poem in the third grade. It was a Mother’s Day poem.
My mother is a good one the best I’ve ever seen.
She’s always good and kind to me and never never mean.
So Mother’s Day we’ve set aside to thank her every way.
But mother’s Day just comes and goes I wish that it would stay.
I’ve been reading this poem lately at poetry readings and it seems to be appreciated as much or more than any poem I’ve written since.
To Mrs. Bonnell, our music teacher, I was considered a non-singer because every time I was asked to sing a scale or melody by myself I froze up and could do nothing. Some of that feeling of fear is with me to this day, though no one who knows me would believe it. During this period I was singing with my synagogue choir, and our soulful choir director, Mr. Goldfarb, who could and often improvised during services, thought I had a great voice, and I often sang solos for the Saturday morning services from the choir loft. In dream state I’m often singing, most usually jazz, and I have an unusual ability for improvisation
(Interesting that in current time, 1/08, I’m collaborating with another musician on
projects which involve vocal improvisation, and I’m feeling excited and competent with the work we’re doing. It couldn’t be closer to my passion.).
I should say it took me years to overcome my fear of performance. It tortured me through high school though I masked it well, and through as assortment of
institutions of higher learning: U. C. Berkeley, U. C. S. B., San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Los Angeles School of Opera, and the University of Washington (where I learned nothing) and into adulthood when, in middle-age I went through that crisis and found myself as a poet. It was then that I felt my value and left much of that fear that had plagued me from childhood behind.
But returning for a moment, I was not a good student in grade school. I liked sports. Did track and soccer and loved ice hockey which I played from age six to age twenty six. In high school I was not a good student either, except in music. I sang in the choir, and sang in school events, a Gilbert and Sullivan Opera, H.M.S. Pinafore. I the boatswain with one great ballad,” He Is An Englishman, which I keep singing in reoccurring dreams”.
I fell easily in love, but was shy and admired a gallery of nubiles, parading promises from afar. My first love was Dorothy Brooks who vomited on me our first day in pre-kindergarten. From that time through high school I was rarely out of love and not in love with the same person for more than a semester.
What else to say of this childhood. We seemed a normal family so far as I
understood that term. My parents were superb role-models in terms of the way they expressed love for one another. I can’t remember harsh words between them. If they were here now I would know how to know them and not hesitate
expressing the love that I felt so deeply but could not understand or articulate. I know that I was loved and that was most important.
My most faded memories are of my brothers and sister. I remember my grandparents more vividly. There was my oldest brother, Melvin. As a child in that home my only memory of him were of the ferocious arguments between him and my sister, two years his junior. I would sit at the dinner table trembling with impotence, wanting to tear him apart while he attempted to savage her. I was terrified and angry and unable to rise in her defense, though she did a good job of holding her own. That’s all I remember of Melvin during my early childhood. He seemed a stranger in our family; an absent stranger.
I was told my sister loved me dearly; defending me whenever I needed help. I can’t remember her from childhood except for those awful battles with Melvin. I was to feel her love from my teen-age years and it continued in full flow until the time of her death in 1980 at the age of sixty. She was a brilliant but troubled soul and I will speak of her remarkable life , as I remembered it, at a later time.
Four years older than me, my second brother, Alan, was the family member most clearly remembered. He was my buddy. He looked after me when I was young, had a marvelous sense of humor, still does, and an eternally optimistic nature. I was broken-hearted when, as a mid-teen-ager he found friends his own age and seemed to abandon me. More about him later.
There was a grandmother, Nana Cohen, whose husband deserted her when they were living in Brooklyn and she was pregnant with my mother. He was off to Alaska in search of gold, to return a few years later and lavish my mother with gifts, and desert once more to Alaska in a hopeless quest for treasures. After several misspent years he returned to Seattle around 1908 and sent for the family, including his mother who was to become the oldest resident of the city.
I remember a picture of the old lady shaking hands with the mayor of Seattle; one-hundred-three at the time). He was to die from leukemia in Providence Hospital at the same time that my mother was in the same hospital giving birth to my oldest brother.
At that time, two years into their marriage, my mother’s mother moved in with our family, to live with us most of her remaining years, which were considerable.
She passed on at home in her mid-eighties. She was a difficult woman, bright, well read, political and extremely selfish. None of us were very kind to her; consequently it was difficult for us to like her. Now, I wish I had made more of an effort to know her. She was my mother’s mother and that was reason enough.
I can’t remember, but I think my mother must have told me she loved me many times, or at least she expressed it in ways clear to my awareness because I felt completely loved. She was a business woman working with my father in their jewelry store. She was very active in Hadassah, a national office holder and an ardent Zionist. She inherited her mother’s smarts, must have had an impressive I. Q.. and was highly regarded and loved by her many friends. Her energy was boundless.
We had live-in help because mom was so often away, though we were her top priority. I remember from the age of about six singing the popular songs of that time: “Animal Crackers in My Soup’”, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”, and the like. Mom was an excellent sight-reader and could pick-up on anything I put in front of her.
My dad was less of a presence in the family. A quiet man, a man highly regarded by his friends; a man of high integrity, referred to as a man’s man, but in no way macho. Powerful of build. Slightly over six feet in height. (My mom was slightly over five feet, and in her later years, slightly under.).
As a young man he was the city champion at handball. He loved baseball, took me to many games where we cheered our local minor league Seattle, Rainierrs. When they moved to their new stadium in Mt. Baker we often sat on tightwad hill. This was how we communicated; he the catcher to my pitches calling balls and strikes. I don’t believe he did this with brothers, nor do I remember having any deep conversations with him. That wasn’t the style in those days. I also don’t remember my dad ever raising his voice to me and he had plenty of opportunities.
Irving Glant and I took turns pushing our parent’s cars out of the garage in the early hours of morning before anyone was up, and taking joyrides around the neighborhood. We were about fifteen at the time and thought we were getting away with it. Then one morning at breakfast, dad with a sweet grin looked my way and said, “Don’t you think it would be nice if you put a bit of gas in the tank?”
A few years later I borrowed his Packard t6 romance a connection I had made over the telephone (I later learned that she was only thirteen and that her father was a policemen.). Anyway, I drove her out to Seward Park, down a deserted road with grass grown high over the rutted base. This was to be my first encounter and I was enamored. Suddenly there was a stomach-wrenching grinding, as an unseen barrier, a cement post, tore through the oil pan a gutted the underside of my dad’s pride and joy. All he did was tell me in a calm voice a few days later that it would cost him two hundred dollars to pay for damages.
And there was the time my parents came home a day early from an outing and found me in bed, their bed, with a young lady. I was in the navy at the time attending officer training at the University of Washington, and was due back at the barracks in a few hours. My father had to drive me there and continue out into the country with my amour, some many miles to her home.
I was eighteen at the time, too young for the V-12, Officer’s Training Program, and old enough to know better. Yes, my sweet father had plenty of opportunities to raise his voice in my direction, but I have no memory of him doing so.
Was I a bad kid? Certainly not so by my standards. Never booked, didn’t smoke, didn’t have my first drink until I entered the University and a virgin until about that time. Did I do things a bit later on, after my time in the Navy, that I wouldn’t brag about? Certainly, who didn’t? And if they did, they lived a dull life or are lying.
My father’s parents were a joy. Grandpa, short and sturdy. Innocent; almost
childlike through his entire life. He was born in Russia and loved to tell the story of escaping from the Russian army by leaping over a twenty foot concrete wall.
He never doubted that he did it so how could I? He told this story numerous times to numerous of my girl friends, sitting at our downstairs bar over a shot of kummel, his favorite liquor which he drank in some abundance, and he told the story with such authority, embellishment and joy, that it was always a pleasure to lure him into repeating it.
His brother, Ike, won a lottery and was able to send for grandpa who had become a watchmaker in London, and bring him to Seattle where he opened a jewelry store, The London Jewelry Company, on Second and Yestler, kitty-corner from the Smith Tower, the then tallest building in Seattle; at least twenty stories tall. It remains there today, still a landmark after nearly one-hundred-and-fifty years, dwarfed by practically every building in Seattle built since that time.
His wife, my much adored Nana Rosie, born in Winnipeg, half a foot taller than grandpa, oldest of twelve children, most of whom she raised, the youngest being the age of my father, and most of them finding their way to Seattle. I have no idea why or how, nor do I know how Nana’s parents found their way to Winnipeg. (Regretfully our memories rarely go back beyond our Grandparents
but that will not happen in the case of my children or theirs or theirs. Not if they look to my voluminous journals, this book or others which attempt to record as much as memory will allow).
Not a written word remains from my grandparents, and barely so from my parents. A letter or two from my sister, and doubtfully, much from my brothers. So I ‘m leaving a blatantly voluminous history for those of us to follow, and I ‘m rewarded in the belief that it will mean something to some of them. I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgia and this is my form of framing it. Without a doubt this of which I speak will be rife with contradictions and inaccuracies for memory can be clouded and elusive, and beyond memory the mixture of fantasy and dreams, desires and agendas can corrupt reality. I’m seeking clarity but realizing that I’ve forgotten much more than I’ve remembered and I’ve remembered, in detail, events which never occurred.
My Nana Rosie was an uneducated lady, but wise, filled with her own precious brand of philosophy, and loved by all. She was also Seattle’s first president of Hadassah. The nights I slept over at my grandparent’s apartment are memorable. I slept on the couch. Chairs were lined across its opening so I wouldn’t fall out. I must not have been more than five when I first slept over.
Nana’s salads were beyond description. They were sublime and I’ve been addicted to salads, abnormally so, ever since. When salads are served from a large salad bowl, at home or elsewhere, I will, at some time during dinner, ask all if anyone would desire another helping, and when appetites have been satisfied, I take what remains, usually the serving bowl, before me and conclude the contents.
But her salads were a creation of wonder and simplicity. Half or quarter head of iceberg lettuce, uncut, as in a chunk, with sliced tomatoes. I believe that was the only lettuce available in those days. Now you’ll only find it in MacDonalds, Denny’s, and a few such despicable fast food chains. (Of course, throughout the United Kingdom for a certainty). The real secret to Nana’s salads was the dressing, which she confided to me with mysterious pleasure. Fresh squeezed lemon juice and olive oil. I’ve tried a thousand times to replicate that recipe and failed with every effort. Could it be that memory has memorialized that experience. I think. I trust my memory on this one.
In understanding how I came to music I look as much to both of my grand-fathers as much as to my mother. It may have come from my mother’s father whom I never knew, but whom, my mother said, had the uncanny ability to pick up almost any instrument and play it as though he had been playing it for years. Perhaps a slight exaggeration but I understand the concept, as my son Drew has that proclivity. But it probably came from my dear grandfather, Robert, who knew nothing about music but loved all music with a passion to the core of his being. Whenever there was an opportunity for him to sing along he was available. His love for music was all consuming. I believe he loved it more than he loved his wife or any of us, perhaps myself excluded.
I was the only member of the family who dared take him to a musical event, and I did so whenever there was the opportunity. Not just he and I but he and I and my dates. (That was always a condition of my dating. Whenever it was appropriate Grandpa could come along). And he would participate whenever participation was an option, though not encouraged. (He had the feel of Mitch Miller flowing through his blood). It was an embarrassment to other family members because he had that tendency to sing along with whomever, whenever, wherever we might be, he would hum along, and he was good with harmony, though not appreciated by anyone within the range of his voice
As I said, my grandfather seemed always to be a child. Even his transition, during his final years, while living with us, to dementia, was barely noticeable, except for his confusion and distrust.
When I was studying composition at the University of Washington I spent hours at our grand-piano thumping away at dissonance, repeating the same short measures interminably to the huge displeasure of everyone whom I drove from the area, except grandpa. I have a memory of him, in profile, a beautific look on his face, conducting as I pounded the keys. How more completely could he have expressed his love for music and for me.