Memories of Things Imagined

This last week, my mother’s side of the family gathered for its annual holiday party. Her brothers – my uncles – bestrode my narrow childhood world like colossi. They were demigods with huge laughs and gargantuan appetites, bone-crushing handshakes and stories of adventures that stood my hair on end. Hercules and Hermes combined, they were the offspring of mischief and might. I only saw them once in a great while, and always orbited them in awe and delight. How different they were from my father’s only sibling, a sister who lived in Europe. She would arrive for visits exuding fascinating perfumes. She had an exotic accent, at once foreign and familiar. Her children, my cousins, had unusual clothing and curious footwear. My father’s sister always seemed to me the height of sophistication. My mother’s brothers were paragons of vigor, large and lively dogs, cunning, laughing, and a little dangerous.

My mother had a picture of them when they were young, standing on a dock by a lake. They are looking into the camera and laughing. I looked at the picture so many times that it became familiar – the feel of the dock, the sound of their laughter. I could imagine it as a memory of my own, as if I was there when the picture was taken. Of course it could not be my memory because I was not yet born at the time it was taken. But memories accrete to such objects, just as edged and faceted crystals grow on a string floating in sugar water.

There is a part of me that still thinks of my mother’s brothers as a towering grove, and believes that I might yet scurry around the oak trunks that were their legs, eluding the pursuit of my siblings. But at the party I can see that time has begun to put its mark on them. Their faces are more lined, bodies more rigid, and handclasps less fierce. I am their size now. It seems as if some of their vigor has been drained out of them and into me, inflating me, deflating them. I am astounded to find myself a grown up. More shocking yet: middle aged.

The next generation tumbles about the gathering, ranks of cousins, cousins once removed, and second cousins wrestling and twirling, and generally engaged in the very serious business of play. The second-oldest of the Uncles present stands up to make a toast. He’s the most boisterous of them, all tumultuous embrace and booming voice. But he has a way of focussing attention that is remarkable. He goes from loud and jocular to grave and attentive instantaneously. When you are speaking to him and he does this, you feel as if he has stopped the whole raging carnival of the world to listen to the specific thing you have to say at that instant.

He stands at the holiday party, drink in hand , subito piano, and miraculously all the kids arrest their games in mid-careen and lie on their bellies, heads balanced on their palms and listen to him. The moms scramble behind him, cameras in hand, to capture the improbable moment. The kids listen to the toast, and for them it’s a story, the story of a little house in which all these grandpas and grandmas grew up. I imagine that all of those kids can picture this house that they’ve never seen, and that they’ll remember what they’ve pictured. The image of that little house may reappear to them in dreams, or bubble up years from now, a snapshot memory. And they’ll remember that this was an important place, but they will not be able to identify it, because it is a place that they have never seen except in their imaginations. It is the artifact of an instant, the moment that their great-uncle spun out the thread of a story and they gathered in the other end. In that instant an image formed and hung between them like a pendant.

Dancing at Twilight

Last week I spent a day swinging through the age groups. I started off in the morning teaching swing dance to three classes of fourth graders at PS 94 in the Bronx. In the evening, I walked over to the Jewish Home for the Aged and participated in “Roseland” night where volunteers dance with the elderly residents. Then I went out swing dancing at Swing 46. When the day started, I thought, “Well this is a natural for an essay.” A nice upbeat story about joy and communication in dance through all the ages of life, right?

But as I sit to write, I find myself haunted by the smell of the home for the aged, the plastic odor of catheter bags, the waxy fragrance of the old bodies, the pinched aroma of the institutional food. Life doesn’t always fit the requirements of a chipper blog post.

The night has turned cool and rainy as I walk to the home for the aged. As I enter, the fresh moist air is overcome by the cloistered institutional smells, the darkness yielding to the shuddering and brittle fluorescent light. I am filled with revulsion and a strong urge to turn around and leave. My spirit appears to be flowing through the bottom of my head and out my right foot.

I meet up with the other volunteers, and am dispatched to pick up the residents that need help getting down to the auditorium. I bridle at the idea of going up to their rooms to harry them out, but this is the system, so off I go with another volunteer. The other volunteer seems inured to this place. She is relentlessly cheerful, sticking her face right into the face of the elderly as she speaks to them. She’s bright and interested, and happily follows along on vague conversations that ramble off topic. I don’t want to follow down those long, meandering, dimly lit hallways of speech because I think I know where they will lead: that cramped inner chamber where the lonesome speakers sit, slumped and in pain, steeped in sadness. What will there be to do then but sit with them and know that they are dying piece by piece, in pain and bored? I am amazed that the other volunteer is able to take positive, optimistic action so casually.

We locate a woman who wants to go to the dance, and walk with her, making slow but deliberate progress back to the auditorium, where the crowd is gathering. There must be about 25 residents seated around the dance floor, most in wheelchairs. There are some residents who still have their mobility and can dance upright. One of these is an erect and gaunt woman, her body mass reduced to bones and ropy muscles that are surprisingly strong. She is 95, her hair going sparse, her teeth mostly missing and she wears a flowered housedress. She loves dancing. “She’ll never say no”, one of the men sitting by her side says. I lead her onto the dance floor and dance with her, holding each of her hands in mine. Her body pivots easily, her arms strong despite their wasted look. We lean away from each other, and then pull toward each other, and her face floats up to mine. Her eyes are milky with cataract and lit with amusement. She smells like my grandmother did, of warm milk and the plastic capsules of medication. “Boo!” she says. We push apart and here comes her face again and she says “Meow!” Apart, together “Ruff! Ruff!”. It’s like dancing with a child.

There is a black man who wants to dance to the funk music. Actually it’s hard to tell what he wants, but the funk comes on, and one of the volunteers is over there talking to him. Did she just happen to be near him when the music came on, or did she decide that black man = funk music? I don’t know. She’s got her face down next to his, asking him if he’d like to dance. I can’t tell whether he really understands the question, nor can I read the response well, but the consensus is yes he’d like to dance, so we help him up out of the wheel chair, and his body is heavy and slack. His balance is poor so I hold him under the armpit while the other volunteer holds his hand and dances. The three of us dance together, she facing him, bright and smiling, me at his side, my arm under his armpit, supporting his weight. I can feel the way he dances, the loose sinking motions like a t’ai chi artist dropping his weight into the ground. And it also feels like maybe he’s in the pocket there, he’s got the loose groove going, he’s sinking his weight just a little behind the beat. He’s really dancing with what mobility he has left. And I feel happy for him, and I smell urine, and I wonder if I got any on my pants.

The wheel chair bound residents are parked in a circle facing the dance floor. I go up to them and ask “Would you like to go for a spin?”, and I am surprised how many answer “Yes!” definitely. They look slyly pleased. Off we wheel, making looping patterns around the floor, and dodging the upright dancers. On one Latin number, we form a wheelchair conga line.

Since I am behind my dance partners, I can’t make eye contact. This is frustrating to me, since I’m used to dancing face to face, reading my partner’s expressions and adjusting the dance accordingly. Standing behind the wheelchair, it’s hard to tell whether my passenger/partners are enjoying themselves – it’s more an article of faith. With some, I can tell. There’s one woman that likes to carry a maraca and play it as we go, so I know that she’s into it. Another sits in her chair, her body flaccid, her feet and lower legs swollen and edemous. But as I push her she shimmies, her hips wiggling in the chair, her fingers snapping, her dark eyes flashing. I compliment her on her shimmying and she looks up at me with her raven bright eyes and says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. I am pierced by her indomitability. I pray that I will be able to flirt from a wheelchair as gallantly.

There are others of the wheelchair bound that do not want to be wheeled around. One of these is a woman who sits slumped to the side of her chair, her face slack, and her eyes pained. I ask her several times if she would like me to take her around, holding my ear up to her lips so that her answer can drop in. But she never wants to glide around the floor, and whenever I pass her by, I am scorched by her sadness. I can’t help but look her way and feel my heart curl.

Maybe that’s my problem here at the home for the aged. I have little immunity to their sadness. I’m always sensitive to sadness – prone to it myself. I fall for women with sad eyes. In my neurotic romantic mythology, I think that somehow I’ll make those sad-eyed women happy again. When I’m at the home for the aged, I know that many of the residents are suffering from a sadness that I will never be able to lift, and I feel crushed by it. I shrink from the infection of their sadness, fearing it fatal.

I spent a lot of time over the summer trying to learn to be present. Intimacy, I think, is being able to be present just as you are, and see and touch another person exactly as they are. It’s easy enough to witness someone in the glory of joy and beauty. It takes much more strength to be present for someone in sadness and deterioration. Sometimes I despair of ever achieving that measure of strength.

Uncle Monster

I have long maintained that an uncle’s job is to be a cross between a large dog and a jungle gym. After last Thanksgiving I have decided to add shooting gallery duck to that list.

It was getting to the end of the meal when my nieces and nephews sent up their messenger. My brothers and I were lounging at the table, our distended bellies challenging the tensile strength of our belts. My sisters darted about like hummingbirds, zooming in to clear off the plates and shoot us meaningful looks that we pretend to be too obtuse to interpret. The kids had all been exiled to the basement. The occasional yelp floated up the stairs, but no full throated howls, which meant that the casualty level in the basement was still acceptable.

I have 10 nieces and nephews ranging in age from 1 to 11. When the whole family gathers, they often play together in a tumbling pack. Despite the age difference, the kids all seem to like it. The older ones like it because they get a host of minions to do their bidding, little hands to construct pyramids, and serve as lackeys. The younger ones like it because the older ones always construct games of enormous detail and drama. Adults can’t sustain the detail and scope of imaginative play that an older child can. The only problem is that the younger kids tend to have a limited attention span, and right in the middle of the heroic assault on the ogre’s castle they might decide that they are not stalwart foot soldiers, but instead happy little puppies. This is not a problem that General Eisenhower ever had to face.

Sometimes the fascination of their games eludes me completely. For a while, there was a craze among my nieces and nephews for the game “Dog Show”. In this game, each of the kids picks a dog name and a breed of dog to embody. They all participate in the Dog Show with its attendant promenades and display of tricks. As an Uncle, my job is to attend the promenade and to issue commands like “Sit” “Lie Down” and “Roll Over”. I have not yet issued the command “Run over and bite Uncle Mike on the ass”, though I have been tempted.

There is something surreal about seeing the kids earnestly acting like dogs, something that could hardly be explained to a non-participant, and that is why the family has carefully videotaped it. This way we can be sure to show it at a time that will be particularly embarrassing for the niece or nephew. Maybe the first time they bring home a special someone….

Since I grew up in a large family I am familiar with games involving a cast of thousands. My older sister excelled at organizing all the kids into pageants with grand mythological themes and dance numbers. She was a cross between D.W Griffith and Busby Berkley, I think. Several Christmases she staged dance presentations for the entertainment of my Grandparents who, to their great credit, never once fell out of their chairs laughing. She had a real flamboyance, and I’m sure that if she had the wherewithal she would have had us dressed in satin knickers for the Minuet number. And I’m certain that I would have worn them, and not even questioned at all. When you are young, you assume that everything that happens in your family is the way things happen in all families. “Of course”, you think “Christmas is the holiday where we put on satin knickers and dance the Minuet for Grandma and Grandpa.” It is only when friends come over and get that slack jawed look of disbelief that you begin to realize that perhaps your family is a little different than the others.

Being in the middle ranks of kids, I was not at first aware of the subtle ranks of hierarchy that my sister had built into her games. There was a game we used to play to the musical accompaniment of a recording of Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite”. In this piece, there is a movement that musically describes the descent of a mule train into the canyon. I remember pacing around the living room on all fours, matching my mule gait to the rhythm of the music. Years later, I recalled that game to my sister. “Do you remember how we would all play mule to the “Grand Canyon Suite’. “Oh, ” she replied, “Not all of us were mules.” My sister had made an ass of me.

From the nature of the sounds drifting up from the basement this Thanksgiving, it sounded like the eldest cousin was calling the tune tonight. He is a rambunctious boy, and his chosen games drift in the direction of Lord of the Flies. They usually end with one of the younger cousins crying, and another cousin explaining earnestly that it was an accident. “I didn’t mean to step on his head…”

As we sat at the table, one of the middle cousins appeared, a Hermes ascended from the underworld, who said with conspicuous nonchalance “Uncle Tom, we have something to show you.” I went to the top of the stairs and peered down. Below, the lights were off, and there was a good deal of rustling and giggling going on in the gloaming. Clearly, the surprise in store for me was not going to be a pleasant one. I felt like the crewman on Star Trek, the one you’ve never seen before who gets beamed down to the planet with the landing party. “Spock – You and Bones and Sulu go wait over there in the well protected area. Crewman PhaserBait go check out the really dark cave with the fumes and tentacles.”

But being an Uncle means knowing when you are going to have to accept a Lilliputian beating in the name of holiday fun, so I submitted to my fate, and donned the mantle of the Uncle Victim. I descended. The basement is a cavernous cement room strewn with various piles of furniture, exercise implements, and play apparatus. The cousins had been organized into two battalions. One group was protected by a fortification of furniture and leisure tools. The other group hid in the back room, waiting to attack me from the rear once I had engaged the defenders of Fort Sofa. They had turned the lights off, and had a few flashlights that they shined in my eyes me, attempting to blind me, while they flung various dolls and balls at me.

Earlier that day, we had made a rule of “Soft Objects Only” after one of the younger and fiercer of my nephews had begun belaboring the kneecaps of his uncles with a large wooden puzzle. So now, under the hail of missiles, I felt relatively safe from crippling. Nonetheless, a hard flung beanie baby to the crotch is no laughing matter. My older brother is content to act as Uncle Target, but I decided that I would not play Wooly Mammoth to their Neanderthals. I decided to try to capture the flashlights and become Uncle Monster.

I don’t know why kids like playing Monster so much, but I do know that it is a perennial favorite. You’ll be sitting in a chair, a smiling and delightful Uncle, and one of the kids will come over and say “You be a monster”. It is no use telling them that this is precisely what your girlfriends ask you not to be. You are dragooned into dragonhood.

The successful monster is hopelessly inefficient. The successful monster shambles along, making lots of noise and considerably less footspeed then the shrieking victims. The successful monster is extremely unobservant, and will blindly rattle the furniture very close to his intended victims, unable to find them even though they are in plain sight and screaming. Both Frankenstein and the Mummy are very successful monsters.

The point of the game as I see it, is to always be on the verge of capturing the victims, but never to actually get them. The successful monster is always just behind his prey, just about to strike. The older kids can sustain this tension for quite a while, but the younger kids invariably lose it. For them, there is a moment in which the game leaps over into reality. Suddenly you are not the Uncle playing monster, you actually have become the Monster. The victim stands stock still and in a quiet and distinct voice says “You’re not a monster anymore, okay?”

Downstairs, roaring and shambling about, assailed by the slings and beanie babies of outrageous fortune, I finally managed to seize both flashlights. I turned them off, and quietly moved off to another part of the darkened room. I began giving out my Stalking Lion snarl, a kind of low growl in the nose. It’s a pretty effective monster noise, but they’re mostly familiar with it, and it only quieted them a bit. So I switched over to a new one, the Velociraptor Hiss. It’s a two parter, with a semi snore inhale, and a hiss on the exhale. That seemed to get their respect. There was silence punctuated only by my dreadful reptilian exhalations. Then the quiet voice of one of my nieces, overly polite. “Uncle Tom, would you turn on the flashlight, please.”

Victory! I turned back on the flashlight magnanimously, savoring the moment of my success. Uncle Monster triumphant! The Lilliputians put to rout!

I was returned to my proper station by a well flung nerf football to the back of the head.

On Letting Go

 

The doorman at the building has a list of guests for my friend’s party. He scans the list, looking for my name and I look it over, too. My eye trips over the name of my ex-girlfriend, and my stomach drops to somewhere below my navel.

 

I have known that I would run into her eventually, have felt the tingle of premonition as I walked past her neighborhood. I am half longing for and half dreading our meeting. I feel totally unprepared for it.

 

For the next several hours of the party I’m on edge, drinking beer in a workmanlike fashion, building up the anesthetic buffer of mild drunkenness. Each time the door opens I look over to see if she has come in, my muscles tensing. I know that I will feel her presence like a blow. The anticipation of discomfort is worse than discomfort itself.

 

I miss the actual moment of her entry. I turn toward the door, and she has materialized there in a zone of absolute clarity. It is as if the air around her allows for some sort of super-acuity of focus – all of her features stand out in crisp delineation and the rest of the room blurs softly. I am assailed by the details of her. The fit of her pants, the shape of her rib cage, the profile of her body. She stands like a bow being put under tension, a curve straining forward, rib cage sitting atop the hips thrust forward, her thighs curving back.

 

I abandon the conversation that I am in, and go to her. We hug, and she wants to know how I am and how my trip was. I return the appropriate banal responses automatically – I’m fine, my trip was good – but I feel like I’m reciting my lines from inside a washing machine. One with a really clear glass door.

 

I look into her dark eyes, the irises almost black, merging imperceptibly into the pupils. They dance a little as we speak, but it is not a dance of welcome. Her eyes perform the wary footwork of a fencer, and she holds her smiling features composed before herself, like a shield.

 

Although we parted months ago, both willingly, I have still not really managed to let go. It is the same with all of my exes. There is a part of me that refuses to believe that I have lost access to them. In my mind, all of my former girlfriends have gone off to the Land of the Lotus Eaters. There they remain, warmed and softened in the golden light of re-creative memory, their arms open and beckoning to me. They are always waiting for me there.

 

It is disconcerting to meet them in their real lives. They have moved on, following the meanderings of their own lives, changing, evolving. They are married, with children, happy, divorced, lonely, successful, beleaguered. I am very close with some of them, and I’m happy to accompany them through the passages of their lives. But I feel the tension between my relationship with them as they are, the selves that have evolved and that I know are real, and my relationship to them as they are in the Land of the Lotus Eaters and that my heart refuses to believe might be illusion.

 

Back again in my apartment, I am awash in the flotsam of my history. I open my desk drawers and see the things I don’t really want to keep, but that I could never bring myself to discard – small electronic items, old floppy disks, correspondences, business cards. It’s not the objects themselves that I hold onto so fixedly, but the intentions and fantasies that have become married to them. I can’t bring myself to toss the broken headphones because they are wed to Tom the Composer. Discarding business cards feels like discarding the person that gave me the card, and worse, discarding the person that I intended to become when I collected the card.

 

I don’t want to jettison all those Toms-that-might-have-been, but it takes so much effort to keep them all in suspended animation. I feel the dreadful weight of the accumulated fantasies in those desk drawers. A small kind of panic seizes me as I think, “Sooner or later I’m going to have to deal with all this…” and quickly close the drawer.

 

How much simpler it seems to flee to a place with an empty desk!

 

Of course I know that wherever I go, the desk drawers will inevitably fill up with new items of the same ilk as the old. The hordes of Toms-that-might-have-been will attach themselves to new objects, and call for nourishment. They drain me, those parasites. Holding on to the past takes effort, as does holding on to any weight.

 

It is time, I think, to begin the practice of letting go. So I open the drawers and begin deciding whether each item is something I need right now.

 

I pick up a stack of business cards in my drawer. I look at each card, remembering the person that gave me that card, and the person that I was when I received it. I let the cards fall into the wastebasket by my desk. When the basket is full, I carry it to the garbage chute in the hall. I tilt the basket up, and the cards tumble down the chute. They make the soft sound of fluttering wings as they fall away from me.