Anxiety is my greatest curse –
the worry I have offended someone,
forgotten an obligation,
missed a deadline, or slipped up
in one of seemingly endless ways
causes me panic and misery.
I pledge not to live in error,
perceiving myself powerless,
frustration blossoming to anger –
an ugly bloom, like a boil or a sore –
followed by regret,
ricocheting thoughts accuse
and attack me without relief.
Now in her eighties,
Erika sits in a chair in a circle of chairs
to tell us her story for Yom HaShoah.
“During the Second World War,
the British took in ten thousand children
from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.
I was one of them, sixteen years old in 1938.
“I was scared, lonely, unhappy.
When the blitzkrieg started,
the bombs fell indiscriminately all over London.
Then I felt better;
I had wanted to be like everyone else,
and now I was.
“I never dreamed my parents were murdered.
I didn’t learn until after the war.
I was completely unprepared.
The way I felt – it’s more than anger,
it’s the deepest despair.
I lost my faith in God.
I’d made a bargain—
I’ll get through all this,
and You’ll reunite my family.
“The bargain was one-sided.
When I found out,
it was Yom Kippur, 1945.
I went to a non-kosher restaurant.
The meal I ate stuck in my throat,
but I wanted to make my point.
“After Chamberlain and Munich,
I remember my father saying,
‘It’s a good thing there’s no war.
If there’s a war, they’ll kill the Jews.’
My parents might have known
they were saying goodbye for good
at the dock in Hamburg in 1938.
“I was the youngest
and they considered me useless.
All my efforts were for them.
I wanted to show them what I’d accomplished.
In some ways I’ve never gotten over it.
I think of what they did for me.”
Erika’s daughter Kim says,
“My mother was P.T.A. President
and led the Girl Scout troop.
She never talked about herself,
but I knew she was different.
When a friend said,
‘Your mom has an accent,’
I replied, ‘She does?’
my voice rising in a question,
knowing and not knowing.”
Money’s a sore subject for Lydia.
“I’ve been poor all my life,
And I guess I always will be.”
Acting, writing, selling advertising—
She’s tried them all and done them well.
She has beauty, charisma, and charm,
Yet finds herself in her early sixties
A part-time yoga instructor laid off
From her other job at a social diary
Website, unable to land other work,
Wrangling with Unemployment officials
To try to get thirty dollars a day.
The frustrations dealt her
Demand reserves of steely patience.
There is always one form lacking,
A new regulation called up to thwart her.
Her family lives far away. A roommate
helps pay the rent. Fifteen years ago,
She could have bought her apartment
At an insider price. All she lacked was
A down payment. Yet, she had saved
In reserve the precious family jewels,
Gypsy’s pearls, given to her
Twenty-five years before by her mother-in-law.
How Lydia loved those pearls,
Large and lustrous, with a pink glow.
As if it were today, she could picture
Gypsy’s queenly air as she had fastened the clasp
Around Lydia’s neck and, stepping back,
Exclaimed how well they became her.
An actress herself, Lydia thought she’d divined
An undertone of regret in Gypsy’s praise,
Which made her value the gift all the more.
Years passed. Lydia divorced, and Gypsy died.
The pearls were mostly locked up.
At last the time had come to cash them in.
She took the necklace to Christie’s for an estimate.
As she untied the velvet wrappings for the appraiser,
She trembled, imagining lofty numbers
And felt close to buying her apartment.
It made her happy to think of it as hers—
The large, shabby, comfortable rooms
Where she’d lived so long and raised her son,
And all five kitties had room to roam,
Home to her primitive art, her shelves of books,
With high ceilings and wooden floors,
Closets and moldings, the views down Broadway.
Maybe one day, she wouldn’t need a roommate.
These thoughts swirled in her brain while the appraiser
Peered at the pearls through a magnifying glass.
He picked them up and rolled them in his palm.
He seemed puzzled. “Well?” she asked.
“Don’t you know? They’re paste.”
“No!” she cried. Yet, she had to believe it.
Bitter to think how she’d been fooled!
All this time she’d treasured a fake.
Now she couldn’t buy the apartment.
Fast forward fifteen years. The apartment’s
Increased in value manifold. She’s glad
of her right to remain at a stabilized rent,
But her chance to make a fortune is gone.
“In the apartment we shared,
Camille had her phone, and I had mine.
After she died, her parents called her number
sometimes fifty times a day just to hear
her voice on the answering machine.
I know why they did it;
I don’t blame them.
But it was a small apartment,
and there was nowhere for me to go.
“On September 10, Camille had sat
around the table with me and Joshua.
She said she hated her job
and did it only to please her parents.
We got her to call them
and tell them the truth.
The next morning, I almost
said to her, ‘Don’t go to work.’
How many times since then
have I wished I did!
“A couple of weeks later,
I bombed the LSATs.
I got into just one law school, in L.A.
It was a way out, and I took it.
A fresh start, I thought.
No one I knew in California
could understand what I was going through.
All the time I wanted to tell Camille about it.
She was my best friend.
“I went to class, I kept exercising.
I looked all right,
but inside I was crumbling.
I almost had to flunk out
before I could admit to myself
I needed to take time off.
“My parents didn’t want me to.
They said, ‘You’ll never go back,’
but they were wrong.
Now I’m about to graduate,
not at the top of my class,
but at least I didn’t fail.
“In the years after Camille died,
everything fell apart—
with my parents, my brothers,
I’ll never get over it,
but in a strange way,
she’s become a part of me.
Sometimes that’s what
keeps me going.
I think of her every day.”
Some of my happiest hours
have been my pink-and-gold dawns
beachcombing for shells on Sanibel.
Looking down, I tread lightly,
trying not to crush a single shell
searching among the spoils of nature
for the delicate, defectless ones
I never tire of finding –
on sands soft as flour
deliciously cold and ridged
to my bare feet.
My husband said,
“You think they are valuable,
but they are worth nothing.
I like finding them, too.
Then I put them in a closet
and never look at them.”
Yet he loves them
as a family heritage,
his grandparents’ beloved activity
shared with their descendants,
which he’s passed on,
unexamined, like the Unconscious,
influencing his idea of himself,
knowing and naming Nature.
As for me, I never tire of looking,
I feast my eyes
and see them change
in my perception.
Collected and sorted
in the drawers of my cabinet,
a thousand miles
from the sea of their birth,
they seem more beautiful
to me than works of art,
the animals that made them.
To my mind
the greatest treasures
the Europeans found
in the New World
were not gold, silver,
copper, or precious stones,
wonderful as they are,
but the native foods
they married to their own cuisines.
Riches of my beloved
Hemisphere, I celebrate you;
you are native to me, too.
I have grown and thrived on you.
You have satisfied my hunger,
given me energy and health,
awakened in me
longings for your melded flavors.
I crave, and I eat,
and you satiate me.
At the basis of the diet,
the “three sisters” –
corn, beans, squash –
dried or ground into meal,
roasted or boiled,
made into soups or stews:
the seeds, kernels, and beans
spill out of the cornucopia,
millions and millions adding up.
yams and potatoes,
varieties of peppers
for spice and fire,
who doesn’t go a day
without one of them,
but loves above all
the divine dark
brown bitter nibs
of theobroma cacao –
drink of the gods.
One snowy January
after the museum,
I stopped at Fauchon’s
on Madison Avenue.
A boy and his father
sat next to me at the bar.
We ordered two hot chocolates;
in the thermos was not
enough for one cup,
which the bartender
split between us.
“It’s not prepared here.
Each morning we get
three full thermoses
a lady makes for us
from her special recipe.
We’re at the end of it now;
I’ll let you have what’s left.”
He handed me and the boy
large delicate cups
of thin white bone china
each a third full of a liquid
so thick and luxurious
it was the essence of chocolate.
The wonderful aroma
crept up our nostrils;
we each spooned a drop
on our tongues,
tasting in silence,
while the bartender waited
with the boy’s father.
Speechless, we tasted again;
it was as if we were dissolved
in this substance we ingested;
it had to be savored drop by drop;
if we tried to gulp it down
we would choke on it,
but just a small amount,
and we were rejuvenated.
We eyed ourselves
in the opposite mirror.
The boy looked at me
and spoke for us both
“I feel so chocolate-y,”
he announced definitively.
younger brother Leon
put it like this:
“I was laying in bed
and a purple flame
came out of the sky
and set the whole room
the flame knocked
the dust off the strings
of an old guitar
resting in the corner
that a lady had traded me
for some dope.
“My whole body was shaking;
I reached over
and grabbed it:
I could hear Jimi’s voice
in my ear;
he was saying,
‘Come on, baby brother,
Ever since then
I been playing
like a man possessed.”
Leon looks like Jimi
if Jimi had lived to be 56;
he has Jimi’s manner
and dresses like Jimi
and plays a Fender Stratocaster
plugged into stacks
of Marshall amps,
but when he plays
he is definitely not Jimi
and never will be.
“Sometimes I say,
Have I lost my mind?
How could I dare play
guitar after Jimi?
Plus, I always
considered it a sacrilege.
“After our mother died
when we were children,
our dad was gone a lot
and Jimi looked after me.
He was my big brother,
best friend, surrogate dad.
He fed me,
took me to school,
taught me sports,
but he never
taught me guitar.
I fell asleep listening
to him practicing.
I tagged along to
gigs, and later on tour.
I’ll ask him to help me.
I’ll say, ‘What’ll I do now?’
and he’ll say,
‘Reach for it.’
I’m just scraping by.
All I got is a guitar
and six strings.
The other day
a collector wanted to buy
my blue one,
but I had to tell him
it’s in the pawn shop now.
Hey, Jimi did it, too.”
The student leaders at the University of Alabama
organized peer brigades to rid the grounds
of rocks, bottles, soda cans, anything
that could be used as a weapon.
The campus was locked down,
guards posted at every entrance
to keep outsiders away.
No one dared admit to wanting integration.
The effective appeal was to pride.
“What will the country think of us?
We don’t want to be another Mississippi.”
In preliminary talks with student leaders,
James Hood had to be smuggled onto campus
huddled on the floor of the backseat of a car.
On June 11, 1963, personally escorted
by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach,
James Hood and Vivian Malone approached
Foster Auditorium to register for classes.
The governor stood in front and blocked their way.
“Some people enter your life and leave it empty,”
said Hood. “Other people you never forget.”
“Segregation now, segregation forever!”
declaimed Wallace for show.
National Guard General Henry Graham urged him
to step aside, and the two students entered, unhurt
and unhindered. Said Vivian, “I went beyond
that day in my mind to envision the future.
There will come a time in your life
when you must act for others. Everything
you have done until then is preparation.”