Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Abie's Christmas

                   I always have a fondness for Jewish people at Christmas time. I remember one dark winter night the week before Christmas many years ago, when Marge Coyle came to the door and spoke with my mother, their heads inclined, their words cloaked in adult whispers. She handed my mother a slip of paper that Mommy clutched in her protective palm. It was a furtive, conspiratorial handoff as if they were passing contraband.

                  The next day my brother Gerard and I walked fifteen blocks through the streets of The Bronx with our mother, following that mysterious piece of paper like a treasure map that brought us at last to Abie’s Toy Shop on West Kingsbridge Road. It was for Gerard and me like unearthing a chest of pirate’s gold.

                  Abie’s was, in fact, the answer to a Christmas prayer. My father, a bakery mechanic, had been laid off some weeks earlier, caught up in a wave of consolidations among the three national bakeries that still operated plants in the Bronx in 1961. It was to be a very humble Christmas. Still, we clung to our family holiday traditions. My mother assembled the cardboard fireplace with its red and white painted bricks and perched it snugly against the living room wall. We hung our stockings from its cardboard mantel. My brothers and sisters and I jostled daily to see who would get to open the new window of the advent calendar. And we got the tree. 

                  Every year we walked with my father down to Elm Place, a block away on E. 188th Street, to Mike Sedano’s tree lot outside The Mayo Inn. Dad and Mike would dicker awhile, then seal the bargain by spitting on their hands, shaking on the deal, and going inside the bar for a ball and a beer as the six of us sized up the tree outside. In perhaps my father’s proudest moments, we’d follow him home, Rose Ann, Elizabeth, Gerard, and I carrying the trunk, and Richard and little Christopher in the rear holding the tapered branches of the treetop in our annual family Christmas parade. The scent of freshly cut balsam filled the house. After the tree was decorated and draped with tinsel, we’d arrange the Nativity scene beneath it and then we’d lie for what seemed hours playing “Colors,” in which we’d announce in turn, “I’m looking at something . . . red,” and the rest of us would offer, “Is it this?” “Is that it?” all the while Christmas carols jingled from the record player.

    The Coyles were tenants in our building, decent, caring people who couldn’t bring themselves to celebrate the season of giving with their two sons, knowing that my parents had no toys for their six children that year. And so, as people of goodwill do in every time and place, they made arrangements.

                  Our working class Bronx neighborhood in the Irish Catholic enclave of Tiebout Avenue didn’t have much daily contact with Jewish people—or with many Protestants, for that matter. In fact, as far as I was aware, we barely knew any Jews. We used to know Terry and Herbert and their kids Bonnie and Howie, of course—friends in our previous neighborhood—but we’d lost contact with them years ago. There were the Siegels up in Apt. 4B and Mrs. Aaron in 2A with the strange little mezuzas beside their doors. And the Jewish family, the Starkys, in the  building across the alley, refugees from the Nazi atrocities in the war who were persecuted still by some people in the neighborhood. And then there was Mrs. Weinstein, the kind old woman several neighborhoods to the north, whose sidewalk Warren Bacon, Gerard, and I would shovel for a dollar and steaming, frothy cups of hot chocolate. But aside from Mr. Abromowitz, who owned the dry cleaners shop just around the corner, we had little contact with Jewish people in our daily affairs. Like the other parochial neighborhoods surrounding our parochial school, we were growing up, for the most part, among people just like ourselves.

                  So Abie was as much a novelty to Gerard and me as was his toy store. A small white-haired man with bushy brows and deep set eyes, he sat alone behind the counter of his narrow shop, rising to greet us as we entered. My mother muttered something to him in the hushed and reticent tone of one who knew that she was about to accept charity. I heard her mention Mr. Coyle, and Abie’s face brightened. His eyes, it seems to me now, conveyed the memory of one who had himself known what it was to want over the years. It wasn’t exactly deprivation—proud working class people would never allow themselves to use that word, for we never thought of ourselves as poor, and I can barely bring myself to use it now. But Abie’s eyes knew what it was like to be bruised by life.

                  “Ah, yes, yes, of course . . . come right in, mother,” he said in a grainy voice that made me want to clear my throat. “I vant that you should fill these bags . . . .”  He moved in a shuffling gait, his arm gesturing in a wide, sweeping arc toward a pile of bags on the floor behind the counter, as if we would somehow be doing him a favor by complying with his wish.

                  The toys in Abie’s Toy Shop were displayed everywhere. Toys of every imaginable description were stacked on shelves, hung from peg boards, or dangled like temptation from the ceiling. It was a child’s vision of paradise, and Gerard and I were lost in the luxury of it all: trucks and games and balls and skates, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, Mr. Potato Head and Fort Apache sets, cowboy hats and guns in holsters, spinning tops and yo-yos galore, as far as the eye could see.

                   But as we were leaving, burdened by our bundles slung over our shoulders, what I remember most was the kind, knowing smile on Abie’s face. “Vat for?” he responded to my mother’s humble thanks. “Merry Christmas, Mother, Merry Christmas,” he said with a gentle nod.

                  We made our way home through the holiday crowds that afternoon faster than we had come, despite—or perhaps because of—the sacks we carried. Old enough to be entrusted with the source of this bounty, at 13 and 14, Gerard and I were drafted into the conspiracy of adults in hiding the toys and their source from our younger brothers until—Christmas Eve come round at last—they would appear, mysteriously, under the tree. There would be no coal in the stockings that year after all, thanks to Santa Claus, Mr. and Mrs. Coyle, and a kindly old Jewish man named Abie.
                                                                                                                 -- Thomas D. Kersting                                                                                                                                                  


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Cornucopia of Books

            When I was very young, my mother bought for her six children a set of Collier’s Junior Classics from a door-to-door salesman. It must have taken my parents quite some time to pay it off, but that ten-volume collection of stories, myths, and poems planted a seed that I have been nurturing ever since. There were books of Fairy Tales and Fables from around the world, Stories of Wonder and Magic, Hero Tales, Stories From History, and many other tales and legends to fascinate young minds.
            Each book was a different color, each leather-bound, illustrated, and filled with the wonder that words can weave. I don’t know whatever became of the books, but nearly fifty years later I bought a set of them on e-bay. Today they’re among my most prized collections. I think it was in those tales and poems that I first was drawn to the alluring rhythm of words. In the budding imagination of a kid in the Bronx, Lydia Maria Child’s lines from “Thanksgiving Day” with their attendant lilt must have offered a rustic vision:
                                                Over the river and through the wood,
                                                To grandfather’s house we go;
                                                The horse knows the way
                                                To carry the sleigh
                                                Through the white and drifted snow.

And the opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha’s Childhood” enchanted me with their exotic sounds:
                                                By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
                                                By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
                                                Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
                                                Daughter of the moon, Nokomis.

A little later, I recall falling under the spell of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “The Land of Counterpane,” which fed my imagination with its simple metaphors and conditioned my ear with its sinuous rhythms and orderly rhymes:

                                                When I was sick and lay a-bed,
                                                I had two pillows at my head,
                                                And all my toys beside me lay,
                                                To keep me happy all the day. 
                                                And sometimes for an hour or so 
I watched my leaden soldiers go, 
With different uniforms and drills, 
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills; 

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets 
All up and down among the sheets; 
Or brought my trees and houses out, 
And planted cities all about. 

I was the giant great and still 
That sits upon the pillow-hill, 
And sees before him, dale and plain, 
The pleasant land of counterpane. 

        At about this time, an intoxication of rhythm and rhyme came to possess me in our family ritual called "Stage" when gathered at our cousins' house on Hermany Avenue in Castle Hill. With Nana and our parents sitting front row and center, we'd each take a turn "entertaining" the audience with a dance, a song, silly gyrations, or a goofy act worthy of "Ted Mack's Amateur Hour." Cousin Artie, who charmed the audience with his voice and guitar, always garnered the most applause. The rest of us were his opening acts. He still performs today in his 60s as "Party Artie." My act was always the same, yet ever-changing in its litany of rhymes. Years before "The Name Game" was to dazzle the nation, I'd take the stage and chant a string of nonsense rhymes along the lines of "Santa Claus was a turkey, and the turkey's name was Burky, and the burky's name was Furky, and the furky's name was Hurky, and the . . . ," and so on and on in what was to me an endless incantation of mesmerizing rhythm and sound. The audience had to applaud to get me off the stage. I would bow with a relish and take my seat in the audience, awaiting the next act.

        But it all began with that set of books. I didn’t know it then, but sprawled upon the floor amid that cornucopia of books, I was becoming attuned to the wonders of the imagination and to the sounds and cadences of language that lift the soul and captivate and move me still. Fortunately, my rhyming repertoire has expanded beyond my "Stage" act, though Cousin Artie still draws a larger crowd. 


Friday, September 20, 2013

For Seamus Heaney

                 When Seamus Heaney, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died on August 30th, I was struck by the loss of this humble, approachable man. I had met him only once, at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland, in 2003, when he was signing some copies of his books. He had a warm, engaging smile; a most amiable manner; and the rumpled look of a farmer. At home with heads of state, academics, and common people alike, Heaney was the recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, and, I think, our greatest living poet. The world that he had so illuminated in his verse is a little darker now without his voice.

                  From my first trip to Ireland in 1969, when Heaney’s native Northern Ireland was plunged into the sectarian violence that would seethe and detonate for three decades, I was captivated by the storied Irish landscape that transcended any political borders of the past century. The fields and ditches, the bogs and mountains of Heaney’s County Derry in Northern Ireland bore the same prehistoric stone monuments, the same ancient past as those of Counties Cavan, Sligo, and Donegal in the Republic of Ireland to the south that I would come to explore over the next forty years. Heaney, too, recognized that common ground in his poetry, often writing as if excavating both a personal and a cultural past.
                   In the turmoil that would come to be known as “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, the minority Catholic nationalists demanded equal rights and the unification of the six counties of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, while the majority Protestant unionists fought to sustain both their allegiance to Great Britain and their privileged status. Reflecting the tension of that conflict, Heaney chose to raise his family in the Wicklow hills outside Dublin in the Republic. As his poetry reflects, his identity is often Irish rather than British. In fact, Heaney once objected to being included in a book of British poets with these lines:

                                    Be advised my passport’s green.
                                    No glass of ours was ever raised 
                                    To toast the Queen.

                  Heaney’s nationalist sympathies were rooted in the discrimination he knew first-hand growing up in Northern Ireland, where the minority was long denied equality in voting, housing, and employment. His poems sometimes spoke of  “the troubles” in a historical or cultural context, but by 1975, three years after British soldiers fired into a crowd of civil rights protesters in what would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” Heaney’s poetry became more politicized. Yet he resolutely avoided becoming a spokesman for nationalist violence.

                  In his first published volume, in1966, when the long-simmering hatreds in the North were festering, his poem “Digging” had set the tone for his life’s work:

            Between my finger and my thumb
                                    The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
                                    Under my window, a clean rasping sound
                                    When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
                                    My father, digging. I look down

                                    Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
                                    Bends low, comes up twenty years away
                                    Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
                                    Where he was digging.

                                    The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
                                    Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
                                    He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
                                    To scatter new potatoes that we picked
                                    Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

                                    By God, the old man could handle a spade.
                                    Just like his old man.

                                    My grandfather cut more turf in a day
                                    Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
                                    Once I carried him milk in a bottle
                                    Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
                                    To drink it, then fell to right away

                                    Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
                                    Over his shoulder, going down and down
                                    For the good turf. Digging.

                                    The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
                                    Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
                                    Through living roots awaken in my head.
                                    But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

                                    Between my finger and my thumb
                                    The squat pen rests.
                                    I’ll dig with it.

                 It is no accident that Heaney opens this early poem with the image of his pen “snug as a gun.” Raised on a farm in the North, he was the first of his family to attend university. In poetry he finds an alternative to the agricultural labors of his ancestors, but as we come to see, he also rejects the violence that will scar his land for decades. In the end, there is no more mention of a gun.

                 In rejecting farming, however, Heaney also finds a dignity in it as nature imagery—the imagery of the land—pervades much of his poetry. The image of cutting “Through living roots” on the bog becomes a metaphor for all searches for our ancestral pasts. And his more literal image of digging for “the good turf” brings me back at once to a summer morning in Ireland in 1972, when I had gone up to the bog with my wife’s family to bring home the turf. With his reference to “. . . the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat . . . ,” Heaney captures precisely the sound and texture of cutting deep into the turf with a spade and slicing out a dripping sod the size of a loaf of white bread, then flinging it up to be stacked and dried in the sun. In a week or so, the turf—shrunken to a little larger than a brick—would be brought down the mountain to warm the fires of the home for the next year.
                  That is the power of Heaney’s poetry: its crisp, precise images; its accessible language; its affinity with the natural world and the ancestral past. And its ability to capture for all time a moment worth remembering. Seamus Heaney once wrote, “. . . I rhyme/To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” It seems now that with his death, he has “set the darkness echoing” for all time.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date”

            Chilled by a cool morning breeze this lovely mid-August day, I realize that the season is fading fast and, indeed, “summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” in the immortal words of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. Then, as the sun warms the air, I’m reminded once again that every day’s a blessing, and I am astonished at the beauty all about me. It’s found, mostly, in the little things, the small unheralded moments of joy, like the medley of birdsong that greets the promise of the day. The warble of a thrush, the subdued cooing of the mourning doves, the dit, dit, dit of the cardinal as if tapping out some Morse code to announce the glory of this day.

            Sometimes the beauty is found in the scarlet splendor of a cyclamen blooming anew amid its lush green foliage in a window pot. Or in the trembling glimmer of sunlight that plays upon the leaves of the chokecherry tree in the yard. Then, later, in the stubborn sway and tussle of the branches as clouds obscure the sun and a late summer wind sweeps by.

            At times, the shrill cries of children at play outside or the jingle of the ice cream truck triggers warm memories of earlier times on those same roads. As the day wanes in the lazy, languorous way of summer, the late afternoon sun casts a soft sepia tint upon the houses and lawns, the privets and trees, and soon the shouts of the children fade with the evening. Then—earlier now, around 8:30 or so—a soft glow appears in the neighborhood windows as dusk gives way to dark and the katydids begin their raucous overture to the night.

            The days grow perceptibly shorter now, and we ease our way toward the end of summer, the Labor Day weekend and the return to school. Pre-season football is back, while the Yankees faithful cling to the hope of a wild card berth. Soon it will be time to gather wood. Already some leaves, as if weary of clinging to their branches any longer, drift to the earth, a harbinger of the Autumn that awaits us just around the bend. And some nights in the suburbs even dip into the forties.

             While summer, in fact, will last until the Autumn equinox on September 22nd, still more than five weeks away now, we know that is just a calendar fact, that psychic summer ends much sooner. Yet there is so much beauty still to behold. It is to be found every day, in the little things.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

O Beautiful for Spacious Skies

               In Egypt, one of the world’s most ancient of nations, the military has just deposed the democratically elected president, its fragile young democracy having lasted but one year. As I write this, here in Falmouth, Massachusetts, the town where Katharine Lee Bates, author of “America the Beautiful,” was born, I think of tomorrow’s celebration  of the 4th of July, the 237th anniversary of our nation’s birth. Though we’ve had our problems—indeed, we still do—our country, so young in the annals of nationhood, has managed to endure for more than two and a third centuries.
                It has not been easy, yet our republic has survived the Revolution itself, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, our own devastating Civil War, the Spanish-American War, two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and various constitutional crises—including the contested presidential election of 2000, a low point in American politics. At times, to paraphrase George Orwell, it seems that all Americans are equal, but some Americans are more equal than others. Yet through countless debates, divisions, and disasters down through the decades, our nation has endured; through populist political extremes, our nation has endured; through racial, religious, and ethnic bigotries, our nation has endured. And through the horrific atrocities of September 11, 2001, and a wave of subsequent terrorism, we have endured.

                Though our government at times may be less than we want it to be, though our representatives in Congress may seem chronically dysfunctional and we may wring our hands in despair at the direction in which the country seems to be heading, America is more than any of these. America is an idea that through our worst crises, through our bleakest days, through our darkest hours, our nation will prevail. Though we are not yet that which we one day may be, we strive still to become that “shining city upon a hill” toward which all nations, all peoples, will aspire.
                                                            America! America!
                                                            God shed His grace on thee,
                                                            And crown thy good with brotherhood
                                                            From sea to shining sea.




Sunday, June 9, 2013

What's So Great About Gatsby?

           Suddenly, like the glow of fireflies on a summer night, The Great Gatsby is everywhere. The Leonardo DiCaprio remake of the film has generated a renewal of interest in the story. Tiffany’s is advertising The Great Gatsby Collection, and Gatsby parties are suddenly the rage. While we might expect  a revival of the fashions of the period as well, the style and excesses of the Roaring Twenties do not account for the greatness of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal work. Many astute readers make a case for The Great Gatsby as the “Great American Novel” for its tight story line, complex characterization, and luminous language. But in the end, the “greatness” of Gatsby lies not in the plot, or the glitz, or the age, but in the character himself.

            What makes Jay Gatsby “great”? It’s not his mystique, though from the start there is an elusive aura of mystery about him.  Someone says he killed a man once, another that he’d been a German spy, still another that he’d served in the American army during the war, and some that he was a bootlegger. “It was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him . . . ,” Fitzgerald tells us. And Gatsby himself seems intent on feeding the wild rumors. He’s the mythical masked man with a mysterious past who throws lavish parties “where men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings.” He wanders incognito among his uninvited guests, there one minute, gone the next, which adds, of course, to the mystique of the man. Gatsby’s enormous wealth does not define his greatness either, for the extravagant preparations for his parties—like the uncut pages of the books in his library—are a superficial display meant only to impress Daisy Buchanan, the girl of his dreams.
            Gatsby’s greatness is found, on the other hand, in his capacity to dream and his determination to pursue that vision, however improbable it seems. The narrator, Nick Carroway, says of Gatsby that there is “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” about him, “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness.” Gatsby’s capacity for wonder, his pursuit of a dream wrapped in enchantment, is captivating and “great” in both scale and imagination. In one of our first glimpses of Gatsby we see him stretching out his arms over the dark waters of the bay toward the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock across the way, as if in homage to his ideal Beauty, the Golden Girl of his dreams. Having amassed a bountiful fortune in order to impress Daisy, he later dazzles her with the evidence of his newfound wealth, only to find that the moment is anti-climactic, as Nick tells us:
                        There must have been moments even that afternoon
                        when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through
                        her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his   
                        illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. . . .
                        No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man
                        will store up in his ghostly heart.
            How does Gatsby’s dream differ from illusion? Well, perhaps it doesn’t, in a way, in that his pursuit of Daisy is not grounded in reality. Who could possibly live up to Gatsby’s idealized image of Daisy? Certainly not Daisy herself, given the shallowness of her character. He has in fact created an illusion of her, rooted in what she once was and in what he needs her now to be, the Golden Girl of his dreams. Yet, once Gatsby is reunited with Daisy, she cannot measure up to his dream and as with the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the enchantment vanishes. “His count of enchanted objects,” Fitzgerald tells us, “had diminished by one.”
            The enchantment gone, the remnant of Gatsby’s dream has become a delusion as he squats beneath the bushes of Daisy’s window seeking to protect her from her abusive husband. Inside, she plots with him to abandon Gatsby to clean up her mess.
            And so, we learn from Gatsby in the end that while great passion is admirable, great delusions may be lethal. Nick tells us in the final paragraphs of the novel that he
                        thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the
                        green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long
                        way . . . and his dream must have seemed so close that he
                        could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was
                        already behind him . . . .
Fitzgerald closes the book with the words that grace his own epitaph in a quiet little churchyard in Rockville, Maryland:
            “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

To Every Thing There Is A Season

          On this, the second warm day in a row in the second week of April, we are assured that spring, at long last, has arrived. I’ve removed the tree tape from the red maple sapling and have treated the buck rub wounds with pruning spray in hopes that the deer will find some other place to scratch their backs. The forsythia, oaks, maples, and black cherries are in bud, though the ash and honeysuckle linger in their winter husks awhile longer. Crocuses, daffodils, and bluebells are in bloom, and a breath of spring is felt on the warm, gentle breeze.
            My thoughts turn now to treating the lawn once again. In years gone by I’d work the length of the yard—front, sides, and back—row after row of raking, cutting, seeding, and fertilizing, but now I have the luxury of hiring a landscaper to manage those chores. It is a blessing, surely. Yet I notice once again the shifting contours of the back lawn, a phenomenon that would astound me every year as the grip of winter yielded to the softening spring. Amid the yard that I had come to know so intimately—an outcrop of rock to the right of the hemlock, a bit of thatch here, some moss there, bare patches where I’d cut back the pachysandra, a deep green swath of grass over the septic fields—I’d see some subtle changes in the topography of the yard. It was as if the rocks underground were shifting in silent seismic undulations so that the landscape formed a new and different terrain. Where once had been a little rise, the lawn lay level now; where once a gentle rolling slope, a little knoll appeared; and there, where the rain would puddle in a furrow beside the silver maple, it rolled down the hill toward my neighbor’s yard.
            What are we to make of such reshaping of the earth, such shifting of the landscape every year? Perhaps it's a metaphor of all that changes in Nature from season to season, all that shifts silently, subtly, but certainly from year to year. The trees are imperceptibly taller each spring, some sturdier, some feebler, others more mottled with lichens or blight. Perennial plants nudge their way through the soil reaching toward the sun, bloom for the season, then fade and die. Annuals flourish in kaleidoscopic glory until, exhausted, they spend themselves or succumb to the cool nights of an approaching autumn. The lawns too have their cycles, from the lush greens of a wet spring to the dry and brittle browns of the midsummer heat or the hibernation of late fall and winter. Often we celebrate the joys that the season has to offer, but perhaps more often we take them for granted, hardly noticing the changes as they come to pass.
            It is like that, I think, with us too, in the subtle silent shifting of our own lives from year to year. Oh sure, we live intensely all the seasons, knowing full well “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” But we barely notice the seasons of our lives passing, hardly notice most of the changes until they have come to pass. How could it be that we are ten years out of college now? Or twenty? Or forty? When did our little boys grow to be such fine young men? How is it that my wife and I approach our 42nd wedding anniversary this year? When, along the way, did my beard become more gray than brown, and my joints begin to ache? It all happened so quickly, it seems. "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans," John Lennon told us. Perhaps we were too busy living our lives to listen. And so, in the fullness of time, we grow a little older and a little wiser. Unlike the trees, we tend to stoop a little more as the years proceed. But like the lawn, trees, and flowers that keep growing anew each spring, we too greet the next season as it comes, changing subtly as need be, but reaching—always reaching—toward the promise of the sun.