Everyone’s life has a soundtrack, the music that plays in the background of the events of one’s life. When I discovered that iTunes carried so many of the songs that comprise my soundtrack, I decided to write my story in sync with that music. When I listen to these songs, they take me back to the places I inhabited and the person I was in those days, remind me of my friends and family, and mark out the rhythm of my life while I was listening to that music.
I am sixty-eight, and I’ve often thought of writing down my story for my kids. They’ve heard little snippets here and there, but I don’t want them to feel that they’ve missed out. I wish I had asked my own parents more about their lives, their motivations, their joys, their dreams, and their sorrows before they each passed on.
Prologue: Human Warmth
The wooden sign over the glass window of the storefront said, “Human Warmth,” which seemed to be a good omen. It was a few steps down from the sidewalk, across a small paved rectangular space. The front door opened into a room whose only furniture I remember was a padded wicker rocking chair, another good omen – a place to rock and nurse the baby who was coming soon. A counter partition in the back on the right divided the front room from a much smaller one, and then a curtained doorway on the left led into the minimalist living quarters: a bedroom with a low platform bed, divided from the small kitchen by a claw foot tub. and a bathroom whose toilet was flushed by pulling an overhead chain. The back door from the kitchen led out into what passes for a yard in a city apartment, a tiny space of flagstones and weeds.
The place had been advertised as a sublet, and the man who was subletting – whose name I think was Allen – was kind and friendly; the price was affordable, and we could move in soon. We did, several days later, and found that in the interim Allen’s kindness had extended to a bowery bum, whom he had taken in, bathed, and fed. Although the man was gone, the unmistakable reek of urine, concentrated in the very pillows of the rocking chair I had already claimed for myself, apprised us of where the man had been sitting before his bath. This should have given us pause, but we were in our twenties and full of idealism and energy. My husband Carlos, know to most of his friends as “Charlie,” got a job in a macrobiotic restaurant around the corner. At home, we baked bread. Carlos had scrounged up an old Fred Braun sign and had made it into one of our own, simply stating: BREAD.
We lived in New York City, in the East Village. The people in our neighborhood, and those passing through who came in to buy our bread, didn’t mind the drying diapers strung on a clothesline behind the partition. They didn’t know that we had to keep the oven pilot light on all the time to keep the roaches out of the oven. (Side benefit: We could make perfect yogurt on the back of that stove.) They didn’t know about the mouse our cat had chased around the tub while I was taking a bath, which she eventually deposited in one of the drawers of clothes kept under our bed. They only knew that we baked bread, bread that was good, inexpensive, and often still warm from the oven. The Hell’s Angels living down the street particularly liked the cinnamon raisin. We enjoyed chatting with the people who stopped in for bread, and we appreciated the ease of having everything we needed within a few blocks’ walk; we had no car. We did not intend, however, to live there for very long nor to bring up our precious baby boy in the noisy, dirty, crime-ridden city. We dreamed of moving to the country and starting fresh in a clean and peaceful environment. We searched ads for cheap homesteading properties in Alaska and worked on paring down our possessions to fit into one large trunk.
We had to move sooner than we’d expected, though, and not to the country. Two authority figures confronted us within a short time of each other. One was an inspector from the health department who told us we were selling bread illegally, with no license. He definitely minded the diapers, the roaches, and the mice, so our home business came to an end. The second visitor was the actual landlord, who’d known nothing about the sublet, which was in any case forbidden by the lease, because he’d not received any rent from Allen for several months – all the time we’d been living there. Apparently Allen’s notion of “human warmth” did not preclude his breaking a rental contract, lying to us, and taking our $300 a month.
We moved on, and so will my story eventually, but before it does, I will go back, back to the beginning, where I was shaped into the person who walked into that storefront in the first place.
I am a first-generation American. My father’s family came here from Russia when he was two years old, in 1904 or 1905. I never knew his parents – they died long before I was born – and didn’t know his older sister and brother well enough to ask about their lives before they emigrated. My father did not want to talk about his life before, what little he might have remembered of it; he was an American citizen, and that was what mattered to him.
My mother’s family came from Austria; she was born in 1907 and was about thirteen when they came here, so that would’ve been around 1920. I know a little more about my mother’s family history. Her father was Rumanian, her mother Polish, and apparently they were distant cousins. Her father had been in the Austrian army during the first World War. At some point they had lived in a small town in Austria, which they escaped when the Cossacks burned it down. In Vienna they had owned a hardware store.
When they arrived at Ellis Island, my uncles had had their heads shaved, and some of the family members had had their names changed. The admitting authorities had apparently found some of the Yiddish names unpronounceable, so they renamed my mother “Rose” and her sister “Jeanette.” My mother, at 13, was placed in a kindergarten class because she could not speak English and made her way up to sixth grade by the end of the year. Though she graduated from college and earned her teaching degree, she was not allowed to teach kindergarten until the very faint trace of her “foreign” accent that remained was erased through speech lessons.
When I was growing up, the United States was often referred to in our social studies classes as a “melting pot,” a nation of immigrants from all over the world who had come here to build new lives in an atmosphere of freedom, who generally retained and shared their cultural heritage in terms of food, worship, celebrations, but who also participated in the larger American culture as American citizens. Growing up in New York City, I experienced this first-hand. My parents had started out on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but had eventually ended up in Brooklyn. When my ex-husband and I first moved to the Lower East Side, my parents couldn’t believe it…..they had struggled to make enough money to move on and here we were, choosing to live there. We liked it. There was still a blend of cultures, so different foods, clothes, music were all available. Similarly, later in the East Village, we were part of an eclectic community. When we moved to the Midwest, I couldn’t believe how bland everything seemed. I missed the ethnic and cultural diversity we had become accustomed to.
In the past few years the question of immigration has become such a hot button for so many people. In thinking it out for myself, I had to rely once again on that concept of the “melting pot.” What does that mean, exactly, and how does that apply to the United States, in the past, present, and future? The closest analogy I could find was the process of making beef stew. Of course, in a stew, most of the things don’t exactly melt, but bear with me and see if the analogy makes sense to you.
To make beef stew, you must first have a pot, a fairly sturdy pot that can withstand sitting on the stove for quite a while without burning the stuff inside. There has to be a structure, a framework, within which to cook different things to make the stew. Similarly, in our country, we have a structure: the Constitution of the United States, the guiding principles of the people who drew up that Constitution, and the government that derived from it. We are still a relatively young country and our whole existence has been a story of immigrants and a desire for freedom. (I am not going to get into the wrongs we’ve done here, because those are part of another story). Without the specific American culture, however, there would have been nothing cohesive to bring all those immigrants from different places and different times into a unified whole. There had to a be a strong pot that could itself withstand the heat of change, while allowing the ingredients inside it to change enough to contribute to the recipe.
So, we’ve got a pot on a stove, and into it we put different ingredients: carrots, potatoes, celery, beef, onions, garlic, and whatever else is available…..plus oil and salt and spices and water. That’s the nice thing about a stew; you can put lots of different things into it, they each add their own specific taste and texture, but when you’re done, you have a finished dish, not exactly all “melted,” but all parts of a unified whole.
Similarly, each group of immigrants to the US brought their own cultures, their own specific tastes and textures, but as they assimilated into American society, they became part of the stew, not losing their cultures but adding them to the overall American culture so that it was enriched and flavored. There were common values that held us all together and the result was a country unlike any other.
Unfortunately, what has happened in my lifetime – I am 68, so I’ve lived through a lot of changes – is that we’ve allowed the pot itself to be damaged; we’ve allowed – nay, even encouraged – the corrosion of the structure of our country, the Constitutional pot, so that there is no longer a solid framework in which people can assimilate, and assimilation is crucial for the survival of a nation. Remember, assimilation in the US has not in the past meant giving up one’s culture; it has always meant declaring America to have the first claim on one’s political allegiance and it also meant that most American citizens held to the same values, the Judeo-Christian values of the founders of our country.
Furthermore, every good cook knows that there are some ingredients that just don’t go together. There are vegetables and spices that are fine in themselves but that will just not go with the stew you have made. There are also poisonous plants that you would never want to introduce into your stew…..they would make it toxic for anyone who ate it, eliminating the benefits of all the good stuff you had already put in there.
There are some people who just do not belong in our pot. They do not hold to the values that we as Americans have traditionally espoused. They just don’t fit, and neither they, nor we, would be comfortable with attempting to mix these values together. Sadly, there are also those who come here intent on only damaging and ultimately destroying the pot itself, those who embed themselves in American society only in order to bring it down. These misfits and destroyers are not always immigrants but are often those who have been born here but who don’t appreciate what we have; they want America to change to fit their political or religious ideologies.
It is so easy to make blanket statements about immigration, but that gets us nowhere. As a country that has always sought to help the downtrodden and the exiles, we need to find a way to do this without endangering our own American culture. There are people who have come illegally to this country who have assimilated as much as they could, who have jobs, kids in school; these people should be given a means to become legal citizens and not have to live in fear of being discovered and deported. There are others who are here and who express hatred for Americans and everything we stand for; these people need to be somewhere else. I don’t claim to know how to do any of this. It just seems to me to be common sense that if you hate America and seek to undermine her, you should be encouraged to leave. If you love America and seek to make a life here, to be part of a country of immigrants, a melting pot, then a means should be made for you to legally stay.
Becoming an American citizen was not easy for my parents, but citizenship was something they treasured and honored all their lives. They added their own flavor to the melting pot that is America, and their children and grandchildren have continued to be active citizens in what is still the most unique country in the world. Let’s not lose sight of who we are.
My hair wasn’t the only thing I whined about when I was young; at home in the safety of my family, I whined about everything. In public, on the other hand, I rarely spoke and was painfully shy. I was the baby of four children, with thirteen years between my older sister and myself. My sister was beautiful and, having married at eighteen, had a family and just seemed to have it all together. My two older brothers were handsome and fun-loving and had lots of friends. Although intelligent and possessing a sense of humor, I was small, skinny, flat-chested and afraid to speak out in front of my peers in class. During the summers, I ran free and was a different person, but at school, from the Monday after Labor Day until the last Friday of June, I was pretty much a nonentity.
Oh, I had friends, but they were very similar to me. When we lined up in size places, as we did back then in elementary school, we were all in the first quarter of the line. In high school my social groups expanded somewhat, since I was involved in so many activities of the 60’s: civil rights marches, peace protests, folk music. I could talk with my friends, but in the classroom, I still had difficulty speaking up. One of my teachers referred to me as Cordelia in King Lear, because, when I did answer a question, my voice was so soft and low that I was hard to hear.
I carried this shyness with me into college and attracted other girls who were also relatively shy. My lunch partners were Mamie, Idelisse, and Monica, and we had great fun with each other, chattering about everything and anything, until lunch was over and I went back to my classes.
I did have another friend in college, though, who was instrumental in helping me to change myself. It is a sad testimony to old age that I can’t remember her name, though I remember her boyfriend’s name (he thought he was the reincarnation of Thomas Wolfe, but I didn’t think he wrote that well…). She was so totally different from me that it was amazing she became my friend at all. She lived on her own, not with her family like the rest of us. I think she was legally emancipated. She was friendly and caring, outspoken and sure of herself. We were both taking a seminar class for Psychology majors with Professor Austin Wood, one of the best teachers I have ever had. We read novels and short stories, wrote papers examining the characters’ personalities and motivations using our psychological glasses, and then shared our thoughts in class discussions. The class was small and informal, with twelve students. One day I had an unpleasant surprise. Professor Wood had written on my paper “see Elliott,” and had apparently written on Elliott’s paper “see Emily.” Of course I knew who Elliott was; in a class that size we all knew each other, or so I thought. What embarrassment and chagrin I felt when Elliott looked up and said, “Who’s Emily?” I realized that I had effaced myself so completely that I didn’t even exist for some of my classmates.
My friend and my professor together came up with a plan and presented it to me. Professor Wood would ask the other students to help me be comfortable speaking in class. He would propose that they wait a few minutes before answering a question, or first look at me to see if I had an answer, to give me the time to get what was in my mind out of my mouth. My part was to be willing to let them help me and to force myself to speak, despite my fears.
I did it. I took the hand that was offered to me, held on to it, and took the first steps toward building my self-confidence. People who have known me as an adult cannot believe I was ever quiet and shy because I tend now to be loud and outspoken. I don’t know whether they would agree with all that comes out of my mouth these days, but I doubt if my friend and my professor would regret their decision to help me, because, in that class, I found my voice.
I enjoyed reading the post “The Hardest of Christian Dispensations” on the blog Tantoverde, which discussed judging others. Although I could have shared my own experiences of being judged and found wanting, I commented instead on one of the things we did in our family to encourage our children to love and respect people; we practiced the Christian virtue of hospitality. I believe that hospitality is a gift that can be nurtured. In my childhood and earlier adulthood, I did not have this gift. I witnessed it in action with my first mother-in-law, Mamita Edith, who would welcome any one we showed up with at her house, with no prior notice, and feed us all. Her motto was: “Donde comen tres, comen cuatro,” literally, “Where three can eat, four can eat.” Pots of rice and beans were extended to make food for all.
While I admired this philosophy, I did not, in the early years of my second marriage, have the aplomb to carry it out myself. I remember the first time we invited a pastor and his wife to dinner. I was so nervous that, when I leaned in to take the chicken out of the oven, I singed the hair off my forearm; the smell of scorched hair added nothing good to our meal.
Somehow, though, as our four younger children were growing up, our family started reaching out to other people with food. First it was bread. I had learned to bake bread with my ex-husband, when we had a bread baking business first on the Lower East Side and then in Woodstock, NY. I scaled down some of the recipes so that I made six loaves at a time instead of twelve, and my children eagerly got involved in the baking process. One loaf disappeared as soon as it had cooled enough to eat, and we kept another one or two, but the rest we gave away. We evaluated the loaves together, giving away the best looking ones and choosing on whom we would bestow them. Sometimes we would take bread with us when visiting a friend, or pick someone from the list of our bread fans; occasionally we realized that a person totally unexpected needed a loaf of freshly homemade bread. I remember only three times in about 30 years when the offer of fresh bread was refused.
Our son Matt was attending community college when he heard of a church just beginning, comprised mostly of young singles and led by a young pastor whose messages were good. We went as a family to check it out – my husband and I the only people of our age there, and our three young girls some of the few children. We ended up becoming part of that church community and found that we could invite young people from church over to our home for dinner on a moment’s notice and they would gladly come, eat a lot, and take home leftovers. It warmed my Jewish mother’s heart and was so casual that it never made me nervous.
At some point we decided as a family to institute a monthly Saturday evening open house. We made a big batch of bread and a big pot of soup, usually black bean, minestrone, or chili, and sometimes had dessert or salad. Then we put the word out, and people started coming, perhaps bringing more food, perhaps not, but all welcome. The most fun part was that often people would show up whom at least some of didn’t know….some of these people became very much a part of our family. My son Matt and daughter Cathy were both in college at the time. When they came home for a weekend visit while we were having an open house, they remarked with some irritation that they’d been greeted at the door by people they didn’t know, welcomed into their own home which was crammed full of people, and asked how they knew our family! Matt also said that he was getting really tired of that ever-present minestrone soup….
We have had many other opportunities to open our home to welcome guests wherever we live. Each opportunity enriched our lives and taught our children to minister to other people, to share what we had, and to learn from and respect our differences. One Thanksgiving we invited some Chinese international students and friends who had triplets, among others. The Chinese students had not known it was a meal and had eaten before they came. Our friends were worried about their kids eating too much, so they’d fed them first. We’d never had so many leftovers from a Thanksgiving meal before, but the meal became not the focus of the visit but the excuse to bring us all together to enjoy each others’ company
When we moved to the South, we thought we would find that Southern hospitality would take the form of ours, and that we would be invited to eat and to fellowship frequently. That was not the case, and we realized that, if we wanted to experience the kind of hospitality and fellowship we’d left behind, we would have to initiate it. We started inviting people to drop in and got a pleased yet surprised response. The idea of the open house seemed strange to people, yet they enjoyed it once they participated. Picture this: tables laden with fresh loaves of bread and butter; a huge pot of soup on the stove; desserts, salads, and snacks set wherever there was room; water, juice, coffee and tea up high where the little ones couldn’t reach. Rooms full of people, sitting, standing, conversing, eating, in a shifting kaleidoscope of relationships. Children everywhere, playing with each other, with adults, being held, being fed. Age no barrier to interactions, as children might get involved in a conversation with adults, and adults would get into playing games with the kids. People of all ages, colors, backgrounds, beliefs coming together in a shared experience of food for the body, the soul, the mind, and the heart. That is the community that hospitality fosters, where cold judgment stays outside and warm fellowship reigns.