Saturday, June 27, 2009

What We Wear in this Life

What We Wear in this Life
I arrived in LA for my mom's 78th birthday a few days ago. It was going to be her first birthday in 55 years without my dad. The first 30 minutes in the house are so odd and very difficult - looking for my dad asleep on the couch, his simple hospital bed in the corner of the dining room, his soft blue eyes opening and saying, "hi sweetheart," as if I hadn't lived outside of LA 25 years ago.

My mom had bought herself fuschia and purple dahlias and put them around the house. She told me she let herself open presents that had arrived early on the day they arrived, instead of waiting until her birthday. "Why not enjoy the presents for as long as possible?"

We take ourselves out to a new French bistro and pretend we’re on the Left Bank, surrounded by handsome waiters joking with each other in French. I tell the waiter it’s my mom’s birthday and she is serenaded in a combination by French and Portuguese.

I wake up the next morning and head to a yoga class with the slight buzz of the wine, the food and the chocolate mousse from the night before. Somewhere in my third downward dog, I remember the real reason for my coming to LA, or the second real reason, since there is usually not just one reason for being in a particular place.

After breakfast and a drop in from my mother's next door neighbor, my mom and I head upstairs to the guest room. It's small room that was briefly my brother Mark's and then my dad's caretaker's, but which, since my dad's death, had been turned into a guest room.

One wall is covered in sliding doors.

My mom sits down on the daybed with a yellow legal pad. I slide open the far right door. His clothes hung waiting, but not for him. I stand in front of the clothes and sigh. My mom says she doesn’t really feel anything since he'd stopped wearing most of them long ago.

We sort through his sweaters first. I choose two for myself, a red wool V-neck and a brown cashmere pullover. I count them out and my mom writes it down, wanting to record what we are giving away. Next are his shirts, and I remember something I always loved about my dad - the way he kept his shirts clean and pressed despite a full and hard day of work. The subtle stripes and tight plaids, the creases that held despite his not wearing them for a number of years. I put aside a small paisley print one in red, brown and green, my mom's favorite. I'm glad I'm the only one his shirts will fit, my brothers too tall, my husband too broad, my nephews too cool. We move onto his short sleeves shirts, the ones he wore most of the time first at the store and then at his watchmaker's station. He liked the open feeling of the short sleeve and also didn't wear a tie or jacket) at work; one of the perks of working for himself.

A rhythm begins - clothes off the hangers and onto the bed. Counted and then moved to another part of the room.We get to his pants. Khakis, wool gabardines, various slacks. Even a pair of cruise ship whites which make my mom and I giggle. All in a perfect folds over steel and plastic hangers, but obviously not worn in a very long time, which I can tell from the line of dust that rested along each crease.

But in the middle of the neat order, a pair of jeans bulk. I push the pants on either side away. His jeans, a pair of Levis, with the belt still in the loops. Somehow the pants seem warm, and the denim very soft, but not worn out. The belt left in the loops was out of place, nothing my father would have done. He would have pulled the belt out and hung it up with the others on the hanger designed for that purpose. The weight of the belt, a black Pierre Cardin one, offers a form that is no longer here, no longer form-able. I run my hands down the jeans and cry.When my father arrived alone in Toronto, after a train, a boat and then another train took him away from the Nazis, he owned one pair of clothing, summer clothing.

In the end, this is the list, a list of my dad's clothing:

  • 5 sweaters, 2 sweater vests
  • 8 pair of shoes, one pair of slippers
  • 3 pairs of pajamas
  • 12 short sleeved shirts
  • 10 long sleeved shorts
  • 22 pair of pants, one pair of Levi jeans
  • 15 ties and 8 belts, two pairs of suspenders
  • 3 sweatshirts and 3 zip up jackets
  • 10 sports jackets and 5 suits, including the suit he wore to my wedding

I chose a tie for my husband, with my dad's knot still in it.

The clothes are all out. I proceed to pull down an old slide projector. Endless travel bags. Shoe polish kits. Old perfume and faded yarmulkes. Empty watch repair envelopes, the ones I used to carefully log into my dad's record book when I was old enough to be trusted with the task.Two hours later, the closet is empty. I tell my mom I’ll take care of the rest, not wanting her to have to watch the clothes get placed into black garbage bags.

I fold the clothes and put them inside the bags, six in all. Before I close up the bags, I put my head close to the opening and take in one last deep breath. I carry the bags down and place them neatly in a corner of the garage, which will be picked up some time next week.

We wear clothes for many reasons: to keep us warm or cool, to communicate to the world a story of who we are. I'm happy that as I slip my arms into the few pieces traveling home with me, I will feel the memory of his arms having entered in and out of these same clothes many times. I will wear my dad's story in the form of a red v-neck sweater, a brown cashmere pull over and a paisley raw silk shirt, as another way of keeping his story going.

But I have to wonder, wow long will it take for the form of his life that is in every piece of clothing, to take the shape of another? If I was walking down the street in Los Angeles, or in Longmont, would I recognize a shirt, a sweater, his softly worn Levis on someone else's body? Will I look for them? For him in them? How far will his clothes travel? And what will I feel toward that person lucky enough to wear my dad’s clothes - kinship?

I hope I will and to that I add: Amen.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

This is the first Father's Day I don't have my dad to call up and wish a happy day to. I wrote it when baseball season started, but it didn't seem the right time to send it out. So I send this out to the summer solstice ether, amid the chirping of the june bugs, and hope you heard the crack of the ball on Todd Helton's bat tonight, Dad. I love you eternally.

Keep Your Eye on the Ball
Dedicated to Leonard Trank
October 22, 1911 – October 19, 2008

April 3, 2009

I just realized baseball season starts this week. This is usually a time of excitement for me. I love the game, have loved it since I was a little kid. But this year will be different. And so different, that I don't know if I'll be able to partake in my favorite sport. What makes it different this year? Not A-Rod, Manny, the overblown egos and new Yankee Stadium. What makes it different this year is my dad. For the first time since the 1930s, when he first came to this country, he won't be watching baseball. My father died on October 19, 2008, three days short of 97 years old, and it has taken me these many months to muster the strength to write these words.

I grew up with baseball. The Los Angeles Dodgers were our team, during the great years of the 1960s with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and all the rest. Yes, as a Jewish family living in a very non-Jewish Southern California town, we were forever bolstered when Sandy refused to play on Yom Kippur, despite the not so hidden transistor radios peeking out my brothers' and other boys shirt collars during High Holy day services.

My dad taught me how to throw a ball and helped me develop an arm that made me a great centerfielder, even for a girl. He taught me how to hold a bat and swing at the bat evenly - "keep your eye on the ball" was his constant mantra and when I put his simple words into action, I hit it long and hard. I played softball on two winning teams, the Blue Powder Puffs and the Red Devils. I met my dearest and oldest friend playing against her in the Pony League.

Our family listened to games in the car, went to games with our season tickets, gobbled down Dodger Dogs, and covered the ground under our feet with peanut shells, but mostly, I remember sitting on the couch and watching the game with him. My dad was always a quiet watcher, but I was just the opposite. It became a sort of joke between us and he used to line up pillows between our seats to protect his legs from my arms that would need to hit something either in celebration or misery.

No matter what was going on in our lives -- boyfriends, school plays or whatever, my dad and I always had baseball. He shared this love of the game with my brothers who have remained avid fans of the game as well, but it was different for me, as the only daughter. He opened up a world to me with every game we watched. He didn’t go on about statistics or how to keep a score card. Instead he taught me what he loved about the game - the focus, the patience, the discipline of keeping your eye on the ball no matter what position you play. But most of all, I loved to see his face react to that essential sound, the sound of the bat hitting the ball, followed by our close and shared waiting.

I left California in 1977 and went to college in the Midwest. Homesick, I watched the 1977 World Series by myself in the dorm entertainment room and cringed at the Dodgers humiliation by the Yankees. The only person I could call who understood was my dad. He just said, “There’s always next year.” That spring, I played on the co-ed IM team and one particularly muddy Saturday, I went running to catch a hard hit center field ball. My shoe stuck in the mud and my foot kept going. When I got back to the dorm room after a trip to the ER with my foot in a soft cast and a badly sprained ankle, I called my dad. After making sure I was all right, he asked one other question. “Did I catch the ball?” I could hear him smile when I told him, yes.

When I moved to NYC in 1987 and was living alone in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I screamed out the window when the Dodgers beat the Oakland A's with the famous Kirk Gibson cobbled-kneed home run. As soon as the ball went out of the yard, my phone rang. It was my dad. "You pee in your pants?" I didn't need to answer. He heard my yawp all the way across the country and let me know he was there with me.

I've switched teams since then and am now a Colorado Rockies fan. We live in Colorado, I love Coors Field and the scrappiness and heart the team plays with. In 2007, the miracle year, I watched every game with my kids and was thrilled they knew all the players names, and now love the game as much as I do.

For the past few years, as my dad's health declined, one of the harbingers of spring has been knowing he was here to watch another season and I prayed he would make it until another World Series. For a long time, he’d taken to watching the Los Angeles, nee Anaheim, Angels, a team he always liked for reasons still mysterious to my brothers and me.

This past October, my second oldest brother and I sat in the hospital room and watch the Series while my dad lay sleeping. His respirator had been removed earlier that day. My oldest brother, my sister-in-law and my mom had gone out to eat, but my brother Mark and I stayed with Dad. The game was on and we knew there would be no more World Series to share with him. The Red Sox and the Florida Marlins played, the sound turned down low. I don't remember much about the game other than the movement of the players, the ball's arc and the sound turned down low. I don't even remember who won.

I love baseball because of the hopeful and eternal optimism of the game. The contained embrace of a baseball diamond and the sound, the sound of the bat hitting the ball and then the shared waiting. I love the game because my dad taught me how to love it, what to love about it and why it was worth loving.

I can't say I'll be able to watch baseball this year without a lot of tears. I've already started crying and it's a long season. But as I watch each game, I'll feel that hopeful suspension of that seamed ball moving through air and how it makes me feel. Alive with hope and possibility. Alive with the love of what can happen, if you just keep your eye on the ball.

Happy Father's Day.