Objects of my Affections

Objects, Memory and Meaning

Flight

Flight

A robin slammed
into my window last night
with a sound like a shot.
The room shook
as she flew full throttle
into a mirage of clear blue freedom,
only to meet a blow equal to her power.
I ran to find her on her back,
wildly thrashing, her tail
a flashing gray fan
against red bricks,
her legs bent awry,
before she stilled.
My heart broke a little,
caught again
between love and helplessness.

I thought of my mother
watching me soar into first marriage,
knowing  the danger.
At the wedding, her face betrayed
her fear it was a funeral.
Nonetheless, unasked she’d cooked for days,
platters of her flaky piroshki,
thin buckwheat blini
with sour cream and caviar.

At times our loved ones fly,
fueled by fervor
and innocence, towards a phantom.
Do we hold our hearts open?
Do we stand at our stoves for them?
Can we love ourselves, give thanks,
when we stand again on wobbly legs,
shake our wings, head for
another piece of sky?
Do we pray for the robin
who collided too soon, too hard,
who lay cold and alone,
carried off by a predator in the night?

– Anna Belle Kaufman

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Detail from Florilgeum by John Marshall, c. 1650

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Bring Back My B…

Bring Back My Bunny to Me

In September, 1980, on a day of one hundred degree heat and Santa Ana winds, a fire raced up one side of Laurel Canyon, crested the ridge and blazed down the other. I was driving up Fairfax, smelled smoke, and by the time I neared Sunset Blvd., saw flames high in the hills of Hollywood, right where my house stood. The fireman let me through and my panic subsided a bit when I saw our house still standing, my husband upon the roof with the hose; but they’d said to prepare to evacuate immediately. The flames were across the street.
My most cherished possessions at the time were two: my books –  the research library for my work as a costume and set designer that filled a wall in my studio, mostly out of print volumes, indispensable but far too difficult to transport quickly to my car. And a beloved piece of art, too large and heavy for me to lift off the wall. It didn’t occur to me to pack clothing. So I grabbed some important documents, jewelry, a few photos, and glanced around the house. On a chair in the bedroom sat an old stuffed toy from my early childhood that I’d discovered  a couple of years earlier in my parent’s garage when they’d cleared out to move. There was something charming, I’d thought, about its faded fur – no longer mint green – and worn down face, but I wasn’t aware of much of an attachment. Yet, when I thought my house was about to burn down, it was that rabbit I grabbed and threw in the car.
About to turn thirty, wrapped up in my career and where it was heading next, I wasn’t paying much attention to the past. Although the bunny had an emotional tug, I certainly didn’t make the connection between choosing the rabbit and the events of the summer trip to the Soviet Union from which we’d recently returned. Nor to Bella, my grandmother.
My husband and I had vacationed in Leningrad, visiting with his son and daughter in law, who worked for the consulate there. It was the cold war and we’d been followed everywhere by KGB spooks, had to be careful about our conversations in their flat. But even the oppressiveness of the Soviet regime, the streets draped with propaganda banners, and the squares filled with ugly statues of Lenin could not destroy the romance of the city for me. Walking past the  pastel baroque and neoclassical  buildings on the banks of the Neva, I imagined myself following the footsteps of the desolate Onegin, his cape blowing in the wind, and hummed the arias from the opera, my favorite. I had always been a Russophile, steeped in stories, sounds and food by my father’s mother when I was tiny. When I grew I’d searched out Russian books, films and music, learned to sing Russian songs phonetically. In High School in the sixties, my best friend and I had been the only youngsters in matinees filled with old émigrés, sobbing our way through the great (Ballad of a Soldier) and not so great (Young Pioneer orphan finds her mother after the war) of Soviet Cinema.
In Leningrad, after days spent in the Hermitage and sight seeing, we stepped off the tourist track for the collective  farmer’s market where babushkas hawked piles of plums, melons, cucumbers and cabbages, found glowing golden heaps of frilly mushrooms that we brought home to sauté for dinner. That night I startled awake from a nightmare so intense I had no idea where I was. In the darkness, my eyes found a stripe of moonlight that rippled over the diamond shaped inlays of the parquet floor to rest on some suitcases, and I remembered I was in the Soviet Union in an unfamiliar high ceilinged room, a consulate with eavesdropping wires in the walls. As I sat up in bed I had no memory of the events or the scene of the dream, only the feeling of overwhelming loss, the certainty that the center and safety of my world was irrevocably gone  – a child who has  lost her mother. I heaved with sobs, uncontrollable, unstoppable, while my husband, now awake as well, looked bewildered. I had never before experienced such feelings of grief; it seemed as if the parquet floor had splintered, cracked open down to the center of the earth and my heart had fallen into the black chasm. The feeling  clung to me as I wailed, unshakable, and I finally understood that I was grieving for her, my grandma Bella, long gone, but today returned to me through the music of the language, the mounds of mushrooms that smelled of the damp earth and birch forests of her stories  My beloved Bella. Returned to me, then lost again, forever.

    My mother’s love was a complex cocktail – a brew of adoration and anxiety, love and fear. The person whose job it was to make me feel safe, to lend me her nervous system in those first months of life before an infant develops her own, was in need of borrowing one herself.  Bella, however, was completely present and calm. She was the safe port from the whitecaps of my mother’s worried sea. And, as I was the only baby in the family at the time, she was all mine for  those critical first three years until my father was drafted in the Korean war and we had to leave Los Angeles. My grandmother’s graceful attunement – how our relationship formed my brain – is the only explanation for the neural pathways that I drew upon to be the steady, calm mother my son so desperately needed during the many medical crises he endured.
I loved spending the night with Grandma and happily stayed for a few weeks while my parents left L.A. to find and move into a home near the Air Force base where my father was stationed. Many of my memories of her must date from that time. Bella’s prodigious bosom was an object of fascination as well as a comforting retreat. I loved to watch her dress first thing in the morning. I remember the thin slices of light slanting through the venetian blinds of the darkened bedroom, the brightness softening the edges of her form and highlighting the metal eyelets as she opened her bisque-pink corset for the morning ritual: the hefting of those enormous soft pillows, the long  laces pulling and narrowing. Did Grandpa pull her laces closed?  He must have, but he is absent from the memory. Bella and I would cook and go grocery shopping  together, taking the red car trolley – long defunct. Being with her was all a joy, she even let me daringly walk along the top edge of a low, shiny white tile wall on the way home.
All her cooking was dependably delicious, but my favorites were sweet and sour cabbage borscht and special sour cream cookies she made just for me. There was always homemade jam, which she and Grandpa ate from a spoon with their afternoon tea, Russian style, rather than spreading it on toast. Also, rather than dissolving a lump of sugar in the teacup, they would hold  it between their teeth and sip their tea through it.
Grandma Bella let me feed her guppies, little silver sequins shimmering in a big  globe that rested on a wrought iron stand next to the davenport, a word I haven’t heard since. And she let me feed her soup that we had put on the stove not long before, understanding that a small child couldn’t wait an interminable hour or more until it was edible. I would feed my stuffed rabbit a bite and then give her a bite and she slurped it right up. Her acting was so convincing that for years – once I was old enough to realize it was an act – I  believed that she had actually swallowed those hard yellow peas and dry chips of barley out of love for me.
Bella’s physical comedy and gifts of mimicry were renowned in the family; she’d kept her children amused  with imitations of the neighbors gaits and walks (her own precursor to the  Monte Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks). Grandma also had the  gift of psychic intuition. She always knew when her favorite brother, A. J., was in trouble, no matter how far away he might be and would wake in the night in alarm.  Her daughter, my aunt Frada  had  uncanny intuition as well. I realized I’d inherited that gene when I was fifteen and traveling overseas with my father. Waking from a dream that felt unlike any other, I was certain that my mother, back in California, was in trouble. Terribly upset, I insisted that we try to contact her immediately, which we were unable to do.  In my dream, Mom had been injured by broken glass and we found out two days later, when we finally heard from her, that I had been correct.

It was Bella’s brother, A.J., with whom she had traveled to the United States from Russia in 1903. They worked and saved to bring over their siblings and eventually their parents. Unlike my grandma Anna, also from Russia, Bella did not grow up speaking Yiddish. Her English was not clogged with the gutturals of the classic Jewish mother accent. To me, her Russian tinted syllables seemed dipped in smooth dark chocolate. She was from Samara, on the eastern edge of the tzar-dom, where she watched the camel caravans heading toward China. Her father worked for the trans-Siberian Railroad as an accountant or bookkeeper. She knew only one other Jewish family, who fortunately had a daughter of her age. They lived at another station and the girls took turns visiting each other via the railroad. Bella Holtzman was the third of eleven children. She was eight years old when her parents took her out of school to help raise seven younger siblings. When the tzar rescinded permission for Jews to live beyond the pale, her father lost his job and she was sent to Cracow to learn millinery so that she could support her family and, later, work  in  America’s sweatshops to provide their steamer tickets. In spite of her lack of formal education, she was an auto didact and believed, as did Grandpa, that you were not an educated person if you hadn’t read all of Russian literature; they loved to discuss Dostoevesky and Turgenev, Checkhov and Tolstoy.Image
Of course she sewed beautifully, no patterns needed. She made all my nightgowns which I loved so that I continued to wear them even when they were thin with age and too short as I grew. I remember a summer nightie, yoked with ruffled cap sleeves, made of soft puckered seersucker scattered with tiny pastel ponies and fastened with buttons that were clear glass bowls. I loved sifting through her button box as she sewed and embroidered. Bella made the costume for my first Halloween, in 1952: a lace and satin princess dress. She also dressed my best doll in white lace and powder blue velveteen, rolling her black hair low at the nape of her neck  in the style of the  fin-de-siecle when Bella was a beautiful young girl. Image
I loved Bella’s stories about Baba Yaga and other Russian folk tales, but my favorite were her descriptions of her childhood. I could have listened endlessly to how she picked  flowers, berries and made jam and searched for mushrooms in the forest. What could be more compelling for a nature deprived city child who loved to eat: beautiful countryside, food and a treasure hunt!
Safe on her lap, I snuggled into her soft bosom as she sang  to me – Russian songs and popular songs of her youth, like “Lil Liza Jane”. One of her favorites was “My Bonnie lies Over the Ocean ” with the chorus of “Bring back my bonnie to me”. In Bella’s Russian accent, the words “bonnie” and “bunny” were  indistinguishable. I was certain she was singing about my green stuffed bunny and was filled with such sorrow and heartache at the thought of my beloved so far, so unreachable all the way across the sea, that I could barely stand it. Many years later, when I had learned how to read and found the song in a book, I was astonished to discover it was about a girl, not a rabbit. But perhaps for a two year old the spirit of the song was more eloquently expressed through the loss of a stuffed animal rather than a sweetheart.
My sense of safety with Bella was so absolute that I even let her shampoo my hair, which I usually hated. With my mother, it was an ordeal that required coaxing and an elaborate ritual with a dry folded washcloth to prevent even a single stray rivulet from dripping  into my eyes. Bella, however, sat me in her huge, claw-footed tub and poured water over my head and down my face. I even let her crack an egg on my head, the slimy gel running down my neck, before the final rinse. She said it would make my hair shiny. I can still hear the sound of that shell cracking, but am no longer so sure she actually broke it against my skull, as I believed as a child.
When we returned to Los Angeles, I was five. I remember waking in the morning in a strange house – my aunt’s – where we stayed while my parents found a new home for us. I had contracted an eye infection and I could not open my eyes. They were glued shut. It was terrifying. Where was my mother then? I don’t know. But I heard and felt Grandma Bella right there, lying in the bed next to me, holding me, soothing me and gently cleaning the crusts off of my eyelids with warm water and a cloth until I was able to open them, no longer fearful.
Grandma Bella had a stroke when she was eighty. She was able to walk, but unable to speak.  It was painful to watch my family members address her as if she was an infant or an idiot, as if her lack of speech meant lack of cognition. I was eleven but I knew that her mind was intact. I was learning to sing folk songs on the guitar and I remember sitting on her bed singing “The Ash Grove” for her, holding her hand and feeling the  frail squeeze that told me it pleased her.  The idea of rehabilitation from a stroke, the plasticity of the brain, was not common knowledge then and she was bedridden. Soon Grandpa was unable to care for her and she died a year later in a bleak beige nursing  home that smelled of overcooked cabbage and urine. Her roommate had severe dementia and was tied to the bed, yowling.  I couldn’t bear to visit – it broke my heart and I was helpless. I knew that she suffered, surrounded by dementia and unable to speak up for herself. I felt agonies of guilt for years for not visiting her more often.
Since my mother died in 1989, my aunt Frada has been my nearest and dearest relative. Although we have lived far apart, we have always been kindred spirits. Ninety-four now, Frada’s mind and body are crumbling and I speak with her on the phone often. Her daughter is relieved to have me to help with emotional support while she is busy with the practical care, and my aunt often expresses her appreciation for our relationship. I dread losing her. A few days ago it dawned on me that although I wasn’t able to help Bella when she was dying, I was now helping her daughter. As if some kind of circle was complete: Grandma had cared for me so that I could care for her child when she was not there to do so.

***
Our house did not burn in the Laurel Canyon fire. A plane zoomed in and dumped cascades of water on the hillside, quenching the flames as they were about to leap across the street. I unpacked the car, put things away and knew I would never throw out my old toy.                                                                                                                             It’s been more than thirty years since then, since the trip to the Soviet Union, fifty since I lost my Grandmother. Once again I’ve rescued the old green rabbit from a box in the garage. My bonnie is back, in the bedroom on a chair that once was Bella’s.
The other night, my unconscious delivered a dream: I must squeeze through an impossibly narrow, dark, damp passage of rock which opens into a dim cave. In the center partly buried, beats a giant heart, deep maroon, with indigo veins worming down the slick sides. It reaches all the way to the rounded, crepuscular ceiling of the cavern far above me.  I realize it  is my heart, pumping away! Should I be worried that there is something wrong with my heart? I wonder what I am doing here. Then I see Bella  She is in her rocker, crocheting, swaying gently back and forth, one of her soft lacy handmade shawls spread around her shoulders. And she is smiling broadly at me. Apparently, she is not just an inscription in the pathways of my brain. She is right here, right next to my heart, keeping an eye on things, taking care of me, as always.
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 Danny Boy

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 Danny Boy

I dreamed my dead friend, Dan,
came back. All six feet of him,
dressed as usual, minus shoes.

I offered him some brown size twelves
my uncle left behind.
But he shook his head,

gave me a hug, so strong, so real,
I felt the buttons on his shirt,
the wale of his beige cords.

In stocking feet, we walked the streets
slowly, picking our way
across asphalt knobs and sharp stones.

Dan, you’re dead, a ghost, I said.
and placed my palm against his cheek
to feel slight stubble there.

What have you been doing
all this time? Your wife’s
remarried, your children are grown.

He grinned, It’s classified.
Put a finger to his lips, then gently
blessed my head.

I’ve been watching all of you,
as you watch TV, finding
things to make me smile or laugh.

When I awoke, I understood:
the dead, no longer in our shoes,
take our lives lightly.

Softly as moths,  
they slip among us,
drawn by our joy,
suffusing us with their love.            

                                               – Anna Belle Kaufman

SILVER DREAMS

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Zack’s golden sun beams against my black silk gown, against my heart.  Surrounded by TV cameras, lights and flash bulbs on this hot D.C. summer night, I wear it as proudly as a medal – a badge of courage for a small boy.
Not so long ago, on another June evening, the light was dim, the gown was  hospital issue, and I was in bed, my heart pounding from medication, not excitement. I stared out the window,    at the slit of mauve sky between the tall towers of Cedars- Sinai, watching the smoggy West Hollywood dusk darken,  listening to the beeping of monitors and the  rattling  of carts and gurneys in the hall. During the summer of  1982, I never felt the sun. I spent it in the florescent twilight of Cedars, flat on my back, trying  to keep my baby from being  born. My hands were  so shaky from the drugs that prevented labor that I could not hold a pencil to draw.  But, until then, not a month of my life  had gone by in which I was not drawing or painting  or making something  of clay or plaster or metal.
As a child, my favorite activity was always art. But it wasn’t until sixth grade ,when my teacher said  “Have you ever thought of going to art school” that I discovered there was such a school and a way to become an artist as a life choice. I chose it, relieved to be able to name what I was.
In art school, I  studied sculpture , in grad school, theater design, and for the ten years before my pregnancy, I worked as a designer of costumes and sets. But, while in the midst of  making drawings for a production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex  at the Hollywood Bowl, the fates ended my career. I spent two months in the hospital to stop the premature  labor,  and then gave birth to a fragile  baby boy nine weeks too soon. He needed needed major open chest surgery the  night he was born, and spent his first two months in the hospital. For the next  couple of years I was engulfed by Zack’s medical problems. There  were frequent trips back to E.R,  problems keeping his food down  and a diagnosis of “failure to thrive”, weeks in critical condition in the intensive care unit, more surgeries, transfusions, gastro tube, tracheostomy, infections. I was far too busy to make it out to my studio except to finger paint with my Zack and make one drawing about his birth — an annunciation in which the angel appeared as a headless, winged oxygen tank.
Finally, by age two, Zack  was plump and happy and talking in spite of the trach tube.  I was so relieved to see my son living a normal life, delighted by his development, and charmed by his joie de vivre that I never thought about making art nor notice that I missed it.
During the daytime I enjoyed my boy. I remember him laughing  as he ran across the living room, dark eyes  dancing, brown bangs flying, naked except for a necklace: a sterling silver tracheotomy tube, tied on with  white cotton ribbons, like a girl’s choker.  In order to talk, he had to cover the hole with his plump little chin, inducing him to drop his head and gaze up coyly. “Mister Bear eat bambooooo!” he repeated, waving his stuffed panda bear. His high sweet voice had a slight whistle, a reediness not unwelcome in a home where his father was a woodwind player. Zack loved painting  and music  and, with his dad’s baton, conducted the overture from his favorite recording of the musical of Peter Pan, keeping perfect time.
At night, after the toy trains and their wooden tracks were put away, stories read and lullabies sung, I would drop into  sleep, alone with my unconscious. The art dreams began with visits to art galleries. There, I found vitrines filled with small mysterious objects of cast glass, culled from no particular time or culture: translucent, pale aquamarine and rose sensuous shapes that I longed to hold in my palm. Another night, a vitrine grew great gray feathered wings that extended from each side. It’s glass shelves were filled with strange magical medical paraphernalia, objects a wizard might use to cure any ailment my son could ever have. Soon, the dream sculpture grew too large to be contained in a glass case. I remember an elaborate mantel piece of carved and painted wood — baroque tramp art as executed by Louise Nevelson –  that covered a wall up to the ceiling. Over time, the art dreams increased in frequency, urgency and complexity until I was watching  nightly screenings, technicolor extravaganzas of set design. Whole buildings would appear: Mexican folk art churches roofed in cobalt, white stucco niches filled with fantastic carved and brightly painted creatures.  Then I would walk through entire detailed and intricate towns, as lacy, colorful and whimsical as the inlaid mosaic towers of Simon Rodia or Gaudi. When I awoke, I was amazed. My God, that was beautiful! For an instant, I was impressed with myself,  with the creativity of my sleeping brain. But then frustration: I didn’t have the wherewithal to produce even a small section of what I had seen. Why couldn’t there be a photograph or video? The dreams reminded me that I was an artist, but their complexity was in inverse proportion to my ability to recreate them.
Walking  into Zack’s room at dawn to greet him, the oneiric edifices  crumbled, leaving  only faint afterimages  glowing on the screen of my mind, soon forgotten with the smell  of his soft hair and the feel of warm little hands wrapped around my neck.
Then one night my dreams offered up an object small and simple:  a silver concho belt made of etched  hammered circles. I awoke inspired. Here was something I could actually remember, draw and might be able to make!  I had studied silver smithing  but had no tools  I discovered a metal workshop that met on Saturday mornings. Zack’s trach had been removed— although the stoma [hole] remained — and he loved having  sitters over to play with  him.. Soon a sheet of  sterling gleamed before me on the workbench as I sawed and hammered the silver domes for the conchos. I unearthed old etching materials, brought the silver disks home to finish in my studio. My jeans were  tattered from spattered acid, but I had a silver belt to wear.  And, at last, I was making things again.
The designs etched on the concho disks were not traditional Indian patterns. They sprang  right from my unconscious, as had the belt, from doodles rather than dreams. Popping  up on the pad by the phone was a  primitive four-legged animal that took in hearts (via it’s mouth or, more magically, from it’s back) and excreted a stream of little circles   I realized the creature was a symbol for my son. My life with Zack in those days seemed to be spent pouring in love and cleaning up poop, endless streams of it. Zack’s frequent, mysterious diarrhea baffled the gastroenterologist, necessitated diapers. Too often, we would be ready to walk out the door, Zack just dressed in clean clothes when I would hear his alarmed call, “Mom!”, turn to see him frozen in place, face stricken, brown liquid trickling down his legs below his shorts.  Image
Nonetheless, Zack was accepted at and began preschool, taking along  an engineer’s red  bandana to protect the opening in his neck when he played in the sandbox in his striped overalls.  As  I stood back  to watch on the first day, I couldn’t hold in the  tears as Zack played joyously alongside  normal children, children who had healthy beginnings. Years of worrying about his survival and development were finally at an end. And now I had two and a half uninterrupted hours to work in my studio each morning. Jewelry was small enough that I could get quite a bit done in that amount of  time, and the silver soon held its own as reduced sculpture — small bits of meaning, not simply decoration. I felt myself return to normalcy, saw a window opening into my future: my son would be robust, I would be a working professional artist once again. I would be able to leave my marriage, escape my husband’s drinking which had worsened after Zack was born. After all, except for the diarrhea, frequent ear infections and Zack’s small stature, my exuberant son seemed to be thriving.
Before he began his second year of preschool, in  August of 1986, Zack had surgery to close the trach site. There was something abnormal in the blood tests, but his pediatrician told us not to worry as she ordered more testing, “He is a sick kid who has gotten better. He can’t have it.”  But at three A.M. I awoke and put together the symptoms and the transfusions and knew, days before the results were in.  My boy had AIDS. It was just before his fourth birthday Our doctors had no treatments of any kind to offer. Nothing. Absolutely  nothing.
While I grasped at straws to keep my son alive, researching fruitlessly, silver smithing took on new meaning. Metal seemed a firm, if  temporary, handhold out of unbearable maternal powerlessness. My Saturday class was sacrosanct throughout Zack’s deterioration, the only respite. While I was there, I concentrated on the work in front of me. Sawing, sanding and soldering almost drove away the  ache in my chest for three whole hours. The control I lacked over AIDS, I could exert over metal; I could conceive and bring a piece to fruition in a day. As my boy’s life was slowly extinguished, small sculptures were born and completed: pendants and brooches in the shape of torn or broken hearts tenuously stitched together. ImageI made a bracelet for myself that Zack  knew was about him, stamped with old typewriter keys in soft wax:: Z… .My  sunshine…. you are my sunshine.
By the time Zack was four and  a half, I had experimented with unusual ways of creating waxes for casting. When I poured  melted wax directly into hollow forms scooped out in clay, I realized that the process would enable Zack to make jewelry with me. He had inherited my artistic genes. Obsessed by trains, he drew train tracks at age two and a half. By four, he loved to paint and draw trains and cats and his stuffed panda, Bumby. He even drew a special train “For my Momma” with pink hearts drifting out of the smokestack.
Seated in my studio, Zack and I rolled and flattened a ball of clay with a rolling pin, just like play dough. Then I showed him how to use a pencil to incise in the clay. As he bent over the gray slab to draw a train, his brown bangs shone with gold in the sunlight streaming  through the windows, hid his brown eyes, but not the dark crescents beneath them. I gave him a serrated tool to poke a little frame around his image, then we rolled snakes of clay to build a dike, poured the melted wax  inside, let it cool and washed the clay off the positive wax  “pattern” which would be cast in metal.
Since the  AIDS diagnosis, I had frantically investigated alternative treatments, diet and nutrition hoping to keep him alive until a medicine was found. But I was fighting a losing battle – there wasn’t much to offer a child. Even acupuncture needles would have added to his trauma; energy healing was all I could provide. Now Zack and I had a new ritual: after dropping off our wax  patterns for casting, or picking up our metal in Glendale, we drove to the nearby Healing Light Center for  the energy work which relaxed Zack  and made him feel temporarily better. Last, if he was able,  we headed to Griffith park to ride the trains.
On  Saturdays, in the metal studio, the sterling heart-shaped brooches and pendants I created became  attenuated and fragile.  At home in my studio, Zack drew in the clay, despite the pain meds that made him groggy, while I finished , oxidized and polished his pieces. We made bronze train belt buckles for his dad and silver train pendants for me and friends. The  raised bumpy edge around the medallions had a bead-like quality that inspired me to buy antique silver and glass trade beads from which I hung Zack’s trains, the cats for his aunt and his grandmother, and a big shining sun for me. Image
It pleased Zack to see me wearing what he created. But for him, this silver jewelry was neither more nor less special than the brooch he made in school of macaroni and gold paint on cardboard, a safety pin glued to the back. But, for me, I was trying to save bits of my boy in sterling , a material that would not crumble, fade or shrivel. These talismans would harbor my child, his sun face smiling against my breast long after he was gone. As a mother, I could not stop his illness, nor save him; as an artist I tried to save our love, to freeze our time together in the hardness of metal.
Zack’s last drawing, done a day or two before he died  in my arms at home, was an image of a train cracked into shards,  as shattered  as his body. After Zack’s death we were invited to participate in a film and then a gala benefit in Washington D.C. for the newly formed Pediatric Aids Foundation. I wanted to wear a special  Zack necklace for this black tie event. I made a mold  and duplicated his smiling sun — a rectangle of about an inch by three inches –  and had it electroplated in the deep yellow of 24 karat.
On the night of the event, Zack’s golden sun shines on my breast. I never could have imagined, on that morning  I awoke with an image of a simple silver belt,  what a gift a dream  would offer: not only a return to an artist’s life, but a place to express, hold and transform  grief. If it  were  not for that dream, I would not own this object that brings solace at a time when I would gladly give up being an artist forever to have my boy back.
On that night of  the  gala, I can’t imagine that someday I’ll become an art psychotherapist, that I will help others find their own generative processes to transform  pain and loss, to make their own containers for grief. That night, all I think of  is my son.
As I walk up the steps into the celebrity-filled party, surrounded by press, flash bulbs and television cameras, a woman reporter says to me: “What a lovely and unusual necklace you have!”  I reply, “Thank you. My son Zack, who died of AIDS at age five, created this.”  The  brief exchange carries enormous charge for me. It means that my boy has not disappeared without a trace. His presence on the planet has been noticed, his death noted. Perhaps our necklace will be mentioned on the late news and, for an instant, someone will think about a little boy who shone like a sun in his short time here.

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copyright   Anna Belle Kaufman, 2011

Plugged In

     She prefers the feminine pronoun when thinking about herself, even though she’s well aware that an earplug is an object without gender in English. Because the label on her cardboard package was printed in only one language, she has no way of knowing  if  French or Spanish, for instance, might have designated her a male, lending a phallic interpretation to her appearance,   True, her pale pinkish beige tubular body, flat on one end and rounded on the other, can be categorized as lingam-like, but it is the exact scale and shape of a female nipple – the same width, and her soft, giving foam squishes down to any length. She believes she could easily serve as a faux nipple if an occasion arose for a provocative costume, either as is beneath a tee- shirt, or painted a rosier pink.
Her task in life might seem difficult to some, she thinks. Forced to squeeze into a tiny cramped space and serve as the only barrier between all of the outside and a single delicate eardrum, soaking up the noise of barking dogs, rumbling trucks, yelling children, lawnmowers, and lumber mill quality snoring,  all to protect the sleep of the  woman who liberated her from the plastic cage hanging in the harsh fluorescence of Rite Aid and moved her into a charming  round pewter box on the night stand.
But she loves her work. She lives for night, for naps. For those hours in which she, securely nestled inside the downy shell of ear, with the thrum of blood pulsing  around her, feels as if she herself is alive. Inserted into that narrow chamber, so close to the brain, it is as if she is plugged in to the  midst of the gray matter itself and the blazing world created by those trillions of flickering neurons. She can see and hear and feel and taste, in her weightless, compressed little shrimp-like body, the magnificence of human dreams.
She enters worlds she never could have imagined, having been born a squirt of gel forced into a mold in a dreary gray factory then tumbled among millions of other bullets of bland beige exactly the same as herself. But at night, while her flat end rests against the cool pillowcase, her round edge is warm and alive to brilliant colors, myriad textures and patterns. Cats with coruscating green eyes and gold spotted fur, purple birds wearing elaborate earrings, pink and green flowered silks blowing in soft breezes, black rain- wet streets shimmering with rippling reflections of yellow and red. She travels at synaptic speed from moonlit interiors to sunlit glades, from dining rooms laden with food to art galleries filled with glowing glass, into whole towns, cities, down roads. She doesn’t understand much about the situations in which she finds herself, or know who the people are or what they mean, even though she sees some of them repeatedly; she recognizes the faces,
can feel the emotional reaction they engender. Some visions are stronger and more visceral than others, clearly more importance although she doesn’t know why.  Occasionally there is even music, beautiful, moving, nothing like the exterior thumping bass hard rapping that she’s barely able to smother even when she tries her hardest.
At first, she tried to describe her dream travels to the other objects on the night stand. She explained that it is possible to connect to a vibrant infinite universe beyond the one they shared. She told them that, paradoxically by burrowing down and going deep inside, she traveled beyond her body, into and across a vast, limitless and ever-changing  reality, one of thrilling beauty, even though she had experienced grief and anger and fear there at times. But the earplug quickly learned that the lamp and clock, which never budge from their spots, or even  the pencil and spiral notebook who find themselves in different positions and sometimes leave the bedroom entirely, have no idea what she’s talking about, stare at her blankly and don’t believe her.  They can not conceive of a universe beyond  the white walls of the bedroom or the house. They are not even able  to differentiate the view they see out the bedroom window from a flat painting on the wall, nature from artifice. They think she is some kind of kook. The lamp, with it’s heavy, dense glass  base rooted by gravity said to her with condescension,
“I realize you believe that what you tell us you see is real. But it is metaphysical rubbish. I know there is no other reality outside of the one that I can see and feel on this night stand in this bedroom. For I am an object born of science, of the great Thomas Edison, not some lightweight sponge.”
Only the other earplug, her identical twin, knows the truth, but is too coated with earwax to say a word in her defense.
One evening, a bit early for bedtime, the earplug finds her self being taken from her pewter box,  tossed into a pocket, then taken out and mashed into her human’s ear  while loud guitars and drums wail from a stage far away. Her whole body vibrates, washed over by a tidal wave of sound that penetrates each miniscule air filled pocket, louder than anything she has yet tried to squelch. She can’t. With great effort she is only able to lower the noise a few decibels before she is taken out, in the cool fresh air of the outdoors, and dropped back inside the pocket in which she traveled. And there she finds herself (her twin has disappeared): in the dark, cradled in ribs of soft corduroy, stuck to a tattered linty shred of Kleenex, next to a yellow paper ticket stub, a paperclip, and a crumpled ball of silver gum wrapper smelling  of peppermint.  She doesn’t speak to them of what she knows, of what she has seen. She is a little sad, resigned, but also filled with gratitude. She believes that her life has been a blessed one. She hopes that one day she may be discovered and allowed to plug in once again. It is a kind of faith, really, her continued belief in an experience of an alternative reality, her longing for a place more varied, numinous and mysterious than anything she could have imagined. And in the meantime, each tiny cell of her foam remembers, in it’s blind, sensate way, the miraculous universe to which it was once connected.

copyright 2011 Anna Belle Kaufman

August Bar Mitzvah

by Anna Belle Kaufman

He’d be thirty years this month,
the boy I lost so long ago.
His visage frozen at five,
smiling at me over his shoulder,
gripping the handlebars of his red trike
from behind a rectangle of glass.

Years have muted the pain
the way a brush dipped in water
melts the gash of colorstroke
and sweeps it across the paper
ever paler as it fans farther out.

For the  children who do not stop growing
that first climb to the summit of the jungle gym,
the elation of the slide down,
becomes a graduation,
an engagement,
a fellowship,
a marriage,
a baby.

And each rite of passage, heard or witnessed,
shocks the calm waters of my old grief
like the paint-engorged brush
drops color into the clear rinse
which blooms with sudden
swirls of crimson or,
today, the cerulean blue
of the striped tallit he’d never wear.

Fritz Lang’s Magnifying Visor

Fritz Lang’s Magnifying Visor

By Anna Belle Kaufman

My father, Jacob Lincoln Kaufman, opened his dental practice in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1930s. During that time, and in the years to come, many European artists, writers and film makers fleeing the Nazis settled in LA and worked in Hollywood. One brought another and then another to my dad’s office and soon he had quite a collection of patients from Austria, Germany, Hungary and environs. Some of the more well known were the actor Peter Lorre and Lorre’s wife “Cilly” (Celia) and Fritz Lang, the director, and his wife, the actress Lilly Latte, as well as the actor Pepe Schildkraut. They all adored their dentist and friend whom they called “Kaufie.”

My dad had a great ear and a gift for mimicry and at dinner he would regale us with the language he’d heard in his chair that day, speaking with a perfect Berlinese, Viennese or Hungarian accent. One evening he recounted, in the appropriate dialect, that Mrs Hochfeldt, an elderly German patient, said that she believed in reincarnation and that she had been an Egyptian princess in her past life. Pop told us he replied that he must have been a dentist in his, because his feet still hurt.

Pop was a great joke teller as well as a mimic, and often left his patients laughing. They usually brought him gifts, mostly things to eat. As a child, my favorite were the candies from another émigré, the fine chocolatier Tibor Metzner, who would bring Pop’s favorite “Lehar” (after the Viennese composer Franz Lehar), a filling of minced hazelnut praline and bittersweet chocolate inside a coat of the darkest chocolate we’d ever tasted. Tibor once named a new candy after me, but decided he didn’t think it was good enough to add to his glass case of sweets in their ruffled black dresses, to my great disappointment.

One of Dad’s most beloved patients was Fritz Lang, the great director of Metropolis and the masterpiece M, with Peter Lorre. Lang began his career making German Expressionist art films but went on to marry that aesthetic to popular entertainment, making a name for himself as a great in Film Noir. Fritz said that Goebbels, the Reich’s propaganda minister called him to his office to tell him that the Testament of Dr. Mabuse was being banned, but to also offer him the post of head of the German film studio. Fritz, whose mother was born Jewish, although she had converted to Catholicism and raised him as a Catholic, quickly fled Germany. (Leni Reifienstahl took the post). The monocle wearing Lang had a reputation for being autocratic, overbearing and severe, extremely mean to his actors. But he was a pussycat around my dad, sweet as Tibor’s candy. I don’t know whether it was because he loved him or because one’s dentist has the power to inflict pain. Probably both.

My father must have mentioned my activities to his patients while they were captive in his chair, for when I was in my twenties and starting to work as a costume and set designer, Fritz brought in a rare old book by Ram Gopal, a famous Indian dancer, that had beautiful costume drawings. It was inscribed by the author to Fritz and Fritz inscribed it to me. At the time, Fritz was losing his eyesight, long unable to make films, but was still quite a dashing and imposing man. He died shortly thereafter, in 1976.

In the 1950s and sixties Pop’s evening routine was the same. He arrived home for dinner at 6:00 sharp (no “Madmen” style cocktail hour, he rarely drank), after which he’d nap on the couch, asking me to remove his shiny black oxfords or loosen the laces for him. Then he would get up, put on his blue striped twill apron and go into a small closet he had fitted with a workbench and a stereo speaker. There he would work late into the night carving waxes for crowns and bridges while listening to classical music on the radio. Pop would cast the wax into gold in his office, and then bring it home again. He wore a magnifying visor so that he could smooth and polish the metal to perfection.

Lilly Latte, Fritz’s widow, gave my father this magnifier after Fritz died and Dad used it for many years. The visor is quite old, perhaps bakelite plastic , made by Zeiss, manufacturers of the finest optics in the world. It says “Carl Zeiss, Germany” on the front, but I don’t know whether Fritz brought it with him from Europe or bought it after the war. When I was making jewelry and silver smithing, in the late 1980s, my father gave it to me.

I used it for years as well. Then one day I dropped something on it and the band that goes around the head broke. Although unwearable, I could could never bear to throw it away, packing it along on several moves. I am determined that – one of these days – I will rivet a strip of leather on the band and rescue it. How can I discard something that belonged to the great Fritz Lang, handed down to my father, also long gone. Did Fritz examine film strips while wearing it? Read scripts as he was losing his eyesight? It is an object redolent with history and the memory of two men with talents, one world famous, the other beloved but unknown.

When I looked through the visor, something small was made large, seemingly brought closer. Now, even in its broken state, it brings something faraway close as well: I see Kaufie and Fritz laughing together as they so often did, arms on each other’s shoulders, sharing a box of Viennese chocolates.

March 2012

Cold Solace, by Anna Belle Kaufman

This poem originally appeared in The Sun Magazine, September 2010.

When my mother died,
one of her honey cakes remained in the freezer.
I couldn’t bear to see it vanish,
so it waited, pardoned,
in its ice cave behind the metal trays
for two more years.

On my forty-first birthday
I chipped it out,
a rectangular resurrection,
hefted the dead weight in my palm.

Before it thawed,
I sawed, with serrated knife,
the thinnest of slices —
Jewish Eucharist.

The amber squares
with their translucent panes of walnuts
tasted — even toasted — of freezer,
of frost,
a raisined delicacy delivered up
from a deli in the underworld.

I yearned to recall life, not death —
the still body in her pink nightgown on the bed,
how I lay in the shallow cradle of the scattered sheets
after they took it away,
inhaling her scent one last time.

I close my eyes, savor a wafer of
sacred cake on my tongue and
try to taste my mother, to discern
the message she baked in these loaves
when she was too ill to eat them:

I love you.
It will end.
Leave something of sweetness
and substance
in the mouth of the world.

Honey cake recipe. This one not my mother’s, but that of the mother of Rachel Hershfield, published in her blog, “Home Sweet and Savory.” (http://www.homesweetandsavory.com.)

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