A Plea

mothersday

It’s almost Mother’s Day.  I will put on a smile and endure. But every year I shed many, many tears because my mother isn’t here to say, “I don’t want any presents. Just give me a kiss. I don’t have to dust it.” It’s doubly rough because the anniversary of her death was just a week ago. It hurts to see people shopping for cards and gifts knowing that my gift will be flowers on a grave.

For several years, my mother-in-law, the wonderful Thelma McRae Riley, helped fill the gap. The family had marvelous brunches. I filled her apartment with lilacs from my yard. Except for one year when it was blazing hot, they always bloom right on schedule for Mother’s Day. Now she’s gone, too. The bouquets rest on her grave.

I don’t want to detract from the joy of others, but I would say this to the merchandizers who send emails and flyers: Please consider that a good many of the people receiving your messages will cry, not buy. Think of us just a little, please.

Guess Who’s Coming to Tea?

One option for the veterans’ writing group was: “You are organizing a dinner party for published writers. Which three would you invite? What would you most like to learn from them?”

Here’s my contribution:

apMy first invitation would of course go to my mother. I want to know how Ann Petry feels about the response to her writing as of 2016. And I’d ask what she’d want me to do to further her legacy – or would she? On specific works, who was the model for the Super in The Street and the Weasel in Country Place? What did she intend for the “Miss Muriel II” and “III,” stories about “Aunt Sophronia,” a/k/a Anna Louise James? Plus is there any way I could get enough information to complete the story of her father’s family? I’m pretty sure she won’t answer any of these questions, but perhaps with encouragement from her fellow writers, she might be forthcoming.

janeMy second guest would be Jane Austen. My questions are endless. Is she surprised that Pride and Prejudice remains more popular than the more subtle and sophisticated Emma? How did she feel about her family’s tangential connection to the slave trade? to British war efforts, including two against their former colony in the Western Hemisphere? What message or messages does she want her readers to take from her works? Did she have a favorite among her novels? Which one?

Mother didn’t share my enthusiasm for Miss Austen, saying that her
novels were too talky. So I’d leave the final choice of guest to Ann Petry. Based on her list of favorite authors, we have an enormous pool from which to choose: men or women, American or British, a West Indian poet (Derek Walcott). For geographic reasons, I’d urge Eudora Welty. Mother and I are New England born and bred; Miss Austen is of course English through and through. Adding a southern touch would offer balance. I’d also let Mother frame the questions for Ms. Welty. One I’m fairly certain would involve their views on writing characters based on themselves. They would no doubt bond over a refusal to talk about their art, something that I’m sure Miss Austen would understand.

eudora

The menu will consist of afternoon tea, and I’d discourage Mother from helping in the preparation. We’ll have a large pot of Lapsang Souchong tea. The tiered serving platter will have cucumber and watercress sandwiches on one level with crackers and the sharpest Vermont cheddar on another. For the dessert layer, it’s a tossup whether I’ll buy cookies – something lemony and bright – or make a lemon tart. I’ll buy scones with crème fraîche and lemon curd from Tea Roses Tea Room.

On another date, I’d have a second meeting with different writers and a full dinner menu.

Next Project

onebk

NOT Liberty and Justice for All” will explore some of the legal themes underlying Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Check out the Facebook page rather than the library website.

Like many legal procedurals, it’s got mystery, conflict, and great stories. Plus I might try to read a sentence in Latin – or not.

It will not include any reference to Go Set a Watchman

Hope to see you Monday May 9 at 7 p.m. at Russell Library.

Back to work!

What I’m Reading Now

oscar

Blog did not appear Friday because my ISP Netplex crashed at about 10:30 a.m. and didn’t return until almost midnight. It’s been three days, and no one has bothered to explain what happened or to offer a rebate on the twelve-plus hours of down time. Bad business practice.

The next book on my “American voice” reading list was Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The story of what Diaz calls “ghetto nerd” Oscar de León, a/k/a Oscar Wao is told from the viewpoint of Yunior, who spends his life chasing women.

Reading Oscar Wao was like riding a rollercoaster that makes unscheduled stops only to start without warning and hurtle off the tracks, flinging the riders out into an ill-defined and unfamiliar space. The footnotes add gravitas as they include graphic descriptions of Dominican Republic strong man Trujillo’s depredations, most especially a curse he’s sworn on Oscar’s family.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I interrupted reading a few pages in once I realized that Oscar Wao is not really an American novel. Though it starts in Paterson, New Jersey and returns there periodically with excursions into NYC’s Spanish Harlem, its heart and soul and greatest characters lie in Santo Domingo and environs. Its American “voice” veers from English to Spanish to Spanglish, sometimes in one sentence. I expected to find this technique annoying but came to appreciate the rhythm and poetry of the sounds even when I couldn’t understand the words. When necessary Babelfish supplied mostly comprehensible translations.

Like many other works on Bowie’s list, Oscar Wao observes the effects of transcending and transgressing physical and emotional limits with acute commentary on the struggle to become “other.” In this case that other is as American/English as Oscar Wilde.

 

Tribute to Ann Petry


mom

My mother died on April 28 nineteen years ago. I still miss her as much as I did that first day. Here’s a brief tribute to her, from material that didn’t make it into At Home Inside.

Public appearances

Mother disliked lecturing and loathed “pressing the flesh.” She showed her displeasure by paraphrasing an anecdote from Arnold Toynbee. In response to an invitation to lecture, he is said to have responded, “If I just talk my fee is $1,000, but if I have to have tea with the ladies it’s $1,500.” She never told the people making the request about the premium for social interaction, but she adjusted her fees accordingly. More often than not she just declined the invitation.

When the mayor of the city of Philadelphia issued a proclamation in her honor, a reception followed in the rotunda of the public library. Mother was terrified. She asked for and received a chair, and got one for me, too. Then she grabbed my left hand and continued to grip it as people filed by to congratulate her. She pressed so hard the back of my hand began to hurt and my fingers went numb. I finally told her I had to go to the bathroom, but she wouldn’t let me leave until I found a substitute protector. So I rounded up my friend Eric, who was tall and athletic, to take my place. They began to chat and by the end of the conversation, he had joined the Ann Petry fan club. They corresponded for years afterward.

Causes

Mother was generous with her time and her money. She remained a member of the NAACP until her death, I think partly because her good friend Judge Constance Baker Motley had been so active in pursuing the cause of integration in Brown vs. Board of Education and other cases.

Her other great cause was Planned Parenthood. She had been an advocate for a woman’s right to choose because she knew that banning abortions would condemn poor women to death while rich women would hop a plane to the nearest friendly state or country. Her support was personal: She had watched her father try to help frightened young women who arrived at his pharmacy nearly dead from botched abortions. Her motto was, “Never again.”

Professor William Dawson

At Home Inside mentions her great admiration for the composer, conductor, and arranger William Dawson, who had retired from the faculty at Tuskegee for some years before they met. Mother wrote extensively in her journal after their conversation.

He said that he knows every part, has sung every part of the music he conducts, has committed it to memory, needs no score in order to conduct, has a blueprint he carries in his mind[.] … [He] always wanted to go to Africa, when he was a boy [of] 14 he worked on a farm (Tuskegee’s farm?) with an African boy – the boy taught him a song, and Dawson all those years later could still sing it – sang it or rather hummed it sitting on the sofa in our living room. [W]hen the boy learned to speak English Dawson asked him what the words meant. he said it was a war song, and the African war song resembled, was related to, one of the American Negro spirituals.

The Art of Tea

Making and consuming and reading about tea occupied a great deal of my mother’s time and thought. I did include some information but feel the need to round out this aspect of her life. I gave her products from Crabtree & Evelyn because she loved the tissue paper that accompanied their gifts, and at one point I gave her some of C&E tea. She thanked me, writing,

I don’t think I’ve told you how very much I’ve enjoyed the Crabtree & Evelyn Darjeeling that you gave me – ah, it’s a pleasure to drink it. Like Samuel Johnson I am ‘a hardened and shameless teadrinker … who with tea amused the evening, with tea solaced the midnight, and with tea welcomed the morning.’ Well, I don’t go in for all that evening and midnight tea drinking, but I do welcome the morning with it.

And she amused the afternoon with it, too. She approved of a comment in an NYTimes review of The Consolations of Tea, quoting a Japanese master of the tea ceremony that “tea has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.”

Family Matters

One of the few anecdotes about the Lanes that Mother omitted from her short stories concerned her father who fought an Irishman and bit off the man’s ear. The circumstances remained vague but punctuated a discussion of how the Lanes despised the Irish, while the James family had an affinity for them because an Irish family had helped Sam James escape slavery in Virginia. The neighborhood where he bought his house in Hartford was mostly Irish, and when I read Mother’s notes I came to understand why we ate hot-cross buns every Lent and Irish soda bread on St. Patrick’s Day.

My mother was so talented in so many respects that I assumed she could do just about anything. I was eleven when I learned otherwise. Or at least I learned that she lacked the confidence in her abilities. We had an old Home brand sewing machine that had most likely been converted from treadle to electric. The motor sat on the outside, and the whole business had a minimum number of moving parts. One day I discovered that the thread on the reverse side of the fabric was no longer tight. I cadged one of Daddy’s screwdrivers and felt around until I found a small bolt that was loose. After I tightened it, the machine worked perfectly. Mother came in to tell me the machine wasn’t working. I showed her the seam I’d just finished. She stood and looked at me for a long minute. The expression on her face said, “Is this my child?” as if she could not believe someone carrying her genes had the capacity to accomplish such a thing. She asked, “Well, how in the world did you ever do that?” I explained and assured her that she could have done the same thing. She walked away, shaking her head, muttering, “Never in a million years, never in a million years.”

‘Collecting’

Mother waged a lifelong and mostly losing battle against clutter, but she maintained a sense of humor about it. She sent me the following (probably from the New Yorker) because we’d had a similar experience. “Father, ‘obviously a knowledgeable scavenger,’ and son pass a Dumpster full of building materials. ‘… the man’s interest fixed on four large red-plastic paint-bucket lids. Just as he was reaching for the found treasures, the boy cried out: ‘Pa! Resist! Resist!’ They left the scene without the lids.” Mother added, “I had to send you this because it reminds me of you saying, ‘Mother! Don’t!’ at Vassar. Very difficult for a ‘knowledgeable scavenger’ to walk past good stuff that’s being thrown away without acquiring some of same.” I don’t remember that episode, but I do remember a similar incident when she came to visit me in Philadelphia and stood longingly in front of a chair that someone had abandoned on the street. I finally dissuaded her from taking it by pointing out that she wouldn’t be able to carry it on the train and that I wasn’t about to ship it to Connecticut.

What I’m Watching Now

carmen

In the midst of reading, I took a break to watch a couple of movies. Netflix has weird ideas about what I might find appealing. But it suggested Carmen Jones. I hope it’s not because I watched What Happened Miss Simone? and Lee Daniel’s The Butler. Carmen Jones epitomizes dated brilliance. Here is Bizet’s music from Carmen with Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics in “Negro speak.” Gershwin had license with Porgy and Bess in the 1920s. It doesn’t work with the candy-apple colors and lighting of musical comedy in the 1940s setting.

The performances captivate, and the film offered star turns for an ensemble of black actors who had no chance in Hollywood. Harry Belafonte looks so young, and his voice just encompasses all that is painful and gorgeous and inspired. Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones (with the voice of Marilyn Horne) matches him and multiplies the passion and beauty. I was surprised to see Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Carmen de Lavallade, and Max Roach – all supporting a terrific effort.

Despite all this talent and glamour, it’s not worth the hours. Netflix needs to check its algorithm.

What I’m Reading Now

dying

Bowie made an obvious choice with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It’s macabre, funny, and tragic, in other words true southern gothic by the best of the best. I found it over the top. Reading it felt like eating too much of a too rich, too sweet cake. The body rebels, but the taste buds scream, “More, more!” Dying tells the story of the members of the Bundren family, who begin construction of the “matriarch” Addie’s coffin well before she dies. Each person contributes to the harrowing misadventure as they travel over miles and days with her unembalmed corpse so they can honor her wish to be buried in her hometown. The shift in viewpoint can be confusing, but it’s worth the effort. The best comes from Vardaman (love those names) who recreates his mother as a fish and mystifies his sister and brothers with his imagination.

Having just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I marveled at how much all southern writers owe the Bard of Oxford. The Bundrens and the Ewells are cut from the same moth-eaten patched up cloth. Faulkner writes better horror, too. I had to stop reading when they were about to drop the coffin with the ripening body into the flooded river.

Faulkner pulls off a masterstroke. A perceptive reader can foresee the patriarch Anse Bundren’s outcome – but  Darl’s  serves up the unexpected shock that Mother achieved with The Street. (Based on her library, she read everything Faulkner wrote.)

Since I was reading this novel to find the American “voice,” I asked what it contributed. This voice is pure American – actually pure American South, and in this case a south devoid of anyone of African descent except for a few slurs. It epitomizes all that is negative about humanity. There is no uplift here.

Please Vote

vote

It’s primary day in Connecticut on Tuesday. Usually primaries are ho-hum affairs, and the turnout hovers around twenty percent. I’m hoping that the hot contests on both sides will improve that number — but not counting on it. Please make yourself part of this process.

I always vote because of family members who couldn’t. Until 1920 my grandmother and my great aunts had to watch from the sidelines. Reports are that Anna Louise James was one of the first women to register in Old Saybrook.

Once the law allowed, they were never denied the opportunity to participate. That wasn’t true for my grandfather, Walter Elijah Petry. He was born a slave in Louisiana. As a young man, he was able to serve on juries and so forth. By the time he moved to New Iberia in 1900, the state had disenfranchised black men.  I remember my dad saying with great bitterness that even though he owned property and paid taxes, my grandfather wasn’t allowed to vote.

At that moment I decided I will vote at every opportunity, and I will think of Grandfather Walter when I do.

Please vote.

What I’m Reading Now

kafka

In the midst of the challenge to find the American voice, I picked up Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage. A perfect David Bowie favorite, I thought. The chameleon of Britain would of course appreciate essays by the man who became a brilliant NYTimes’ book critic and hid his African heritage from the world. I wonder if Bowie knew or suspected?

This brief (160 pages) volume contains multitudes: flavors of the South, of European immigrants, the frenetic scene of NYC after World War II.

Since he mentioned his military service, I wondered, did he serve in the white or the black Army? He was white in the Army but black in the U. S. census in 1930 and 1940.

Early on, Broyard writes a long passage on the reasons for going into analysis: “I was aware of something like static in my head, a sense that part of me was resisting, or proceeding under protest. There was a dissonant hum or crackle, a whispering in my molecules. … it was as if my brain had something stuck in its teeth.” My response: You were passing. Don’t you think that “something stuck” might be your African blood?

Self-loathing may be at work when he writes, “… jazz was just folk art. It might be terrific folk art, but it was still only local and temporary.” Is he kidding?! He compared jazz to the drumming and chant- ing of a man in New Guinea trying to sway his fellow villagers.

Some of the best insights arise in the years before he began to pass.

Though I was a good student, I knew I could never be as smart as those Jewish boys who were strangled by their smartness. They were bred to it—their minds had the quickness of racehorses. They had another advantage too: While I was essentially cheerful, filled with a distracting sociability, there was a brooding sadness in the most brilliant of the Jewish boys that turned them inward and made them thoughtful. I saw them as Martians, creatures from a more advanced planet. Next to them I would always be a southerner, a barbarian.

And later: “Just as Negroes knew about jazz, Jews were expected to know how to write reviews.”

I thought of my father when I read those passages. George Petry also revered Jewish people (while hating pretty much every other group) because of their respect for education.

Both men felt doubly inferior in the eyes of New York society because they were southern and black. Of course by the time Broyard wrote Kafka, he had stopped being black — at least to everyone besides himself.

This tension crept in more often than he realized at the time. He talked with Delmore Schwartz and Dwight Macdonald about “the primitive,” which to them included Picasso, D.H. Lawrence, and Hemingway.

I was a bit uneasy because my piece [“The Hipster”] was about jazz and the attitudes surrounding it, and I didn’t want to be typecast as an aficionado of the primitive. I wanted to be a literary man, like them. I felt too primitive myself to be talking about the primitive.

But he’s not too primitive to spend hours in Spanish Harlem. He can “pass” there without fear of exposure.

Kafka serves up the occasional pretentious dish: “I used the word stridulation, and as Dr. Schachtel was not familiar with it, I treated him to a dissertation on galvanic sounds.”

stridulation = a shrill grating or creaking sound, chirp

galvanic = as if produced by an electric shock

As if to balance the condescension, he offers this from a friend, “I can’t tell this particular story—I can only edit it.”

What ever his disabilities, Broyard could write.

Bravery

posit

The world can send messages in many forms. I first watched the veterans — a woman and two men — at Las Positas College read their stories a couple of weeks ago, thanks to my friend Harvey Goldstein, whose blog had come to the attention of Professor Jim Ott.

The first time I saw the video, I was devastated. These were young people describing assault, death, privation. One said people who haven’t been there can’t understand. After hearing their accounts, I can sympathize even if I can’t empathize.

The second viewing, with the veterans’ writing group, caused me to reflect on how eloquent they were both on paper and in person. In different ways, each demonstrated how writing about their experiences had brought them back from dark and ugly places. They vindicated me, too, with the message that the more one excavates with writing, the more detail comes to the surface — bringing yet more detail. For these veterans, this process brought relief.

Please watch these amazing writers.