If I knew
I was very young the first time I died.
Our little suburban Westchester, NY house sat on a hill that was great for sledding. Bundled up in leggings with hundreds of tiny mother-of-pearl buttons that took a hook and great patience to get in and out of (Mother: "Either stay out or stay in. I can't get you out of your leggings every ten minutes...") with mittens attached through the sleeves of the jacket with a string so they wouldn't get lost and a warm woolen hat that itched where it tied under your chin.
You got on your sled in front of Mrs. Goldberg's house at the top of the hill. Mrs. Goldberg was famous on our block because she once bought two diamond watches on sale at Macy's ("Such a good buy, who could pass it up?") and because her son, Buddy Goldberg, my friend and childhood sexual explorer had such beautiful curly hair. When I ran into him years later in Manhattan, he was bald.
We'd get on our sleds way up there at the top of the hill, past the rather ordinary two-story houses where husbands took commuter trains into Manhattan every morning and wives cooked complicated meals using the Settlement Cookbook with its pictures of little chefs dressed in white. You'd hear the crunch of icy snow under the runners of the Flexible Flyer, then turn left at the bottom of the block and left at the bottom of the next block, downhill all the way, the cold crackling in your nose. And only one steep block to pull the sled up hill in order to start again. Odd how going down hill on a sled can be like flying up hill in onešs heart.
Behind the bottom of the hill lay the many acres of the Wartburg Orphanage. Hot summer mornings or cold snowy days, the kids at the orphanage woke me up at 6:30 in the morning playing a fine out-of-tune version of The Star Spangled Banner on their trumpets (with drums) as they raised the flag to start their day.
I never got to know any of those kids, but twice a year their families came streaming from New York and other places. On their way to the Asylum they walked past the high steps in front of my best friend Petie Stuve's house. On visitor days we sold them little plants that Petie's father cloned from his garden. The Stuves celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. Being corrupted Jews we celebrated Christmas on Christmas day. One memorable night at Petie's house, I saw Santa Claus from their living room window, I saw him way up in the sky with his sled and reindeer and everything. It was a memorable sight!
When we were young, our folks would let us spend New Year's Eve together in bed. At midnight an alarm clock would wake us up, and she and I would drink cocoa and eat cookies that our folks had packed in a basket for us. Petie and I went through our first menstruation together, and we constantly compared notes on pubic and underarm hair with Enid and Doris and Jane.
We were growing up, growing up --- and the world would soon be fabulous. However, her parents decided Hitler was the most wonderful thing that had happened and took her back to Germany, I was lonely and wrote sad poems. "Goodbye, Petie," I wrote: "Goodbye to Mad Magazine, the World Picture Encyclopedia and winter afternoons spent playing Parcheesi." It was a tiny death that led to a rebirth of creativity.
Behind the pond at the Wartburg Orphanage were huge granite boulders spiked with mica and rose quartz, relics of the glaciers that shaped the ridges and hollows of this land. There were the soft trees of the East Coast --- chestnut and elm --- and pines rounded like women whispering to each other. I loved to lie under the trees and watch the play of leaf on leaf, branches softly moving past each other, a kiss of color and sound. One day, I lay on the ground, I left my body, left it cradled in the softness of the old leaves under me. The movement of the leaves and trees transported me to a place of peace where time had stopped. It felt as though I had been lying there forever, one with trees, and the sound of the leaves rubbing against each other. When I came back into my body, I ran home. "Mom," I cried, "guess what just happened to me? I was lying under the trees and all of a sudden I was here and not here. It felt like I was a part of everything!"
My mother, an ultimate Jewish worrier, felt my forehead, gave me Rhinitis (a catch-all medicine for all minor ailments), and put me to bed. It was twenty years before I even approximated that ecstasy again. Not until I took LSD at age forty-five did I remember, appreciate, what had happened to me that miracle moment.
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Twice a week my mother baked. The house filled with the sweet odor of cakes cooling on the metal kitchen table. "What's for dessert, Mom?" we yelled as we slammed the screen door ("I wish I had a record," mother would yell, "Don't slam the screen door.")
On Sunday nights, maid's night out, we would eat in the kitchen listening to Eddie Cantor. My favorite song of his was, "If they must have a war on some foreign shore, let them keep it over there!" I was a full blown ten-year-old pacifist by then. I'd organized a Peace Club that studied the causes of war. Next to the dining room was the downstairs bathroom where I threw up when they made me eat fish. I was a problem eater.
We had live-in maids, who were followers of Father Divine and lit candles in front of his photo. They had food and a warm, pretty room but practically no salary. Years later I heard there was a motto going around the south, "A white woman in every kitchen." But at that time men with doctorates were going door to door selling needles and thread and any job was better than none.
The whole house woke up weekends when Dad came home. There'd be car lights on the steep little driveway and we'd yell,"Daddy," and mom would straighten out her apron. He'd climb up the cellar steps, thump, thump like my heart, up to the General Electric refrigerator with its motor on the top. When we got that refrigerator it was the end to the iceman with his horse and buggy who used to give us ice chips to suck on in the summer. There was also a man who came down our street around dusk every day and lit the gas lamps. I pressed my nose against the living room window to watch him.
Daddy would bring surprises, a special book of poetry for me, or a watch. Once he came home from Cape Cod with a net full of lobsters and clams. The next day he'd be off to the golf club.
My father must have been impressed with my writing because when I was eleven, he took me to meet Robert Frost. Frost has white hair and a benign smile."Your poetry is excellent, child," he said, "but why do you always write about such sad things ---poverty and war. Try to write something happy." It was a long time before I figured out why he told me that.
It didn't matter how good I was, my father still kept leaving. It didn't matter how many beautiful poems I wrote for him to admire. It didn't matter that I wanted to touch him and smell him and be comforted by him. My father left and left and left. Until he left for good. That's a Big Death, right? It was a Big Death for me when he died. I cried for too many years.
I didn't know then that we can't hold on or about attachment or anything that Buddha might have said. Buddha said we are not to hold on, have attachments. After thirty years of conscious spiritual practice, I am still attached to people, birds, ants, flowers, books and --- godhelpme! --- computers. I read to my father as often as I could. I'm on the air on a local radio station, and sometimes when I'm reading to my audience I am back to our old living room with its stone fireplace and the handmade Italian furniture and the painting of the girl in the red shawl with light and wonder in her eyes which is hanging over my fireplace now as I write this.
An hour or so ago I was in the grocery store wistfully thinking how I used to eat extra thick sliced bacon. My mom brought me up to believe that bacon and eggs were more nutritious than cereal. I tore the white bread up and put it into into the soft boiled eggs, the eggs that were waiting like liquid sun and healing clouds for me to eat them, and I called the little pieces of bread "fishies." At seventy-five, I don't even recognize the old woman I see in the mirror, but I still eat eggs with fishies in them.
The grocery store in Santa Cruz where I go now has a wooden floor like the stores when mother did her shopping. But in Mom's store, the food was hidden away in some mysterious place behind the grocery man. I always imagined it as a sort of Ali Baba's cave, a cornucopia of ever-renewing foods. The grocer stood behind a little wooden counter, brass cash register with a big brass handle to one side. "I want Kellog's Cornflakes," she'd say, and off hešd go. He'd return in a few minutes, put the cornflakes on the counter, make a melodious ring on the cash register and looking down at her (she was only five feet tall) ask, "What else, Mrs.Gips?"
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When I was in first grade, they made me the chief character of the Junior High School Christmas play, a leprechaun wandering from one scene to another and tying them altogether. I knew immediately that I was a real leprechaun --- and it felt right to be small and wear green and even be Irish. It was great to feel everybody's eyes on me, almost as exciting as Arlene Avrutine's mother picking us up in her bright blue Rolls Royce with jump-seats when it rained or snowed too much for us to walk the mile home.
And then there were those days when I would be on the way home from rehearsals and the Irish boys would throw burrs in my hair and stones and call me "kike. " "What's a kike, mom?" I bawled as I ran in the screen door, slamming it no doubt. When I went to Prague many years later and saw a synagogue with the blood on the walls left from a massacre of Jews in the 16th century, I bawled for the little girl who had had no idea of what anti-Semitism was but lived in it anyway. There are so many deaths and rebirths, I can't possibly get them all in.
The time when I was eight or so and Mom and Dad had to take me out of the box at the Met because I was crying so much for joy at the music of Tristan and Isolde. Or when I was thirteen years old and got caught on a log at the bottom of the pond at camp and saw my life flash before my eyes. Or the Girl Scouts kicking me out because I chewed gum when I held the flag. Or the Girl Scout jacket with always an apple and a band aid and other important items where I'd opened the pocket linings, things that could save me if I ran away from home. I did run away from home for a half hour once when my Dad got angry at me. It was comforting to have that stashed apple, but it was more comforting to have him hold me and kiss me when I got back home...
Death isn't a place, though. It's a state of mind. Children, like adults, die all the time. They, like adults, get reborn through love.
If any of us are graced, we die some final death before we die. As the Grateful Dead sang, "If I knew the way, I would take you Home." Same here.