The story of my life

This is Part 4 in a series of letters written by my grandparents to each other in 1945.

In this letter, my grandfather starts to tell the story of his life and then abruptly stops. I suppose he was waiting for my grandmother to tell him to go on, but she never did. In any case, I like this tiny snapshot of his early life. Which apparently involved canaries.

26 July 1945

My dearest darling Frida,

I am writing this from my office and as you can see I have an entirely new type of typewriter. This is a type I used to use a long time ago, when I was an enlisted man and worked in Hawaii. This is a signal corps typewriter that has no small letters and is primarily used for telegrams.

You can see how busy I am by the fact that almost right after I got to the office, I sat down to write to you. There is almost nothing to do no matter what I try to keep myself busy.

I’ll tell you what I’ll do; I don’t know if I’ve ever done it before but if I haven’t, I think you might be interested in knowing it. I have decided that since you don’t know very much about me, I will write you a little bit of the story of my life in every letter to you.

I might start off by saying that actually I have not lived—only since I met you. But I did exist and that might interest you. (By the way, I am most interested in your life in all its phases)

I was born in New York City on 16 July 1916. Of my early years I remember only those things that remain vividly in my mind. I remember when I was about three that my cousin and his people came for a visit and he and I started to go for a walk all by ourselves. We wandered off several blocks from my house to a park close by. I remember that it was hot and I took off my shirt and laid it down on the grass where it would dry and I could pick it up when I came back. The next thing I can remember was that a policeman had me and my cousin and we were on our way to the police station. I know that I had been lost before and so I didn’t mind it but my cousin was frightened and he cried. Sure enough it wasn’t long before my father showed up and took us home.

The next thing I remember was moving to New Jersey and to a little town where my father had a bakery business. I was now 5 and ½ years old. We had 16 horses, the same number of cats, and a dog, and of course, a canary. We have never been without a canary in my house as long as I can remember. It’s not because I wanted one but because my father did. Right now we have a parrot at home that’s 20 years old.

I’m going to stop here because I don’t know if you’re interested or not. In fact, like a woman, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think I’ll write the story of my life until you say that you’re interested. Enough to say that I am now living.

Oh my darling, how I wish I could be talking to you now and every day instead of having to write to you. But in the absence of that, I guess I’ll have to write. There will come a day when writing to you will be done away with and all I’ll have to do is say what I want to say.

All my love forever

Mani

Love under a bushel

This is Part 3 in a series of letters written by my grandparents to each other in 1945.

I’m going to back up a bit and start at the beginning, or at least where the letters begin. This one immediately introduces us to the secret love between my grandparents. My grandfather calls himself Milton in this letter, which was his real name. Mani seems to be a nickname that they only used sometimes. He also includes a letter sent by “Aunt Freda,” who I presume was my grandmother’s English aunt (she had English relatives, which is partly why her English was so good), and who somewhat explains the circumstances of my grandmother at this time, though not entirely. Who is this husband she refers to in the P.S.? Also, why did she call my grandmother “Freda” when as far as I knew her name was always spelled Frida?  I wish I knew.

5 February 1945

My dearest darling,

Before I write another word, I must explain the excuse I have for writing to you. You will find enclosed a letter sent to you some time ago which you gave me in order to have the address. So, I am taking this as my reason for writing.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have any reason for not writing you except that putting down on paper those thoughts I have about you is quite a difficult thing. Even when I am with you and have the opportunity to speak, I don’t say very much more than “I love you.”

Unfortunately, the circumstances are such that I can’t say more than that and even that should be said in a whisper. If it were possible I should like nothing better than the right to say “I LOVE YOU” in big red letters and as loud as I can from the rooftops of all the houses in Paris.

I’d like to dream with you of our future life together—when we shall no longer be separated and have to hide our love under a bushel. This deception is not to my liking and I am quite sure it is not to yours.

I reaffirm my pledge—give me the word and I shall start the proceedings to be free.

I SHALL LOVE YOU FOREVER, even beyond death.

Milton

******************************************************************* 

66 Chapel Lane. Sands,
High Wycombe, Bucks

 7 Dec 1944

Dearest Freda,

We are very glad to have your letter dated the 14th Nov. addressed to us here, and to know that, anyway, you are safe and well. Yes, we have heard the news about you from Rita and saw a photograph you sent them, but cannot quite recognize the naughty playful young person we had at Hawkwood Mount.

It is very fortunate to hear you are working there and, in that respect, you should be as well off as you would be here in London. Yes, Freda, we can appreciate how miserable and lonely you must feel and you must not give way to depression because having got so far, probably its only a short time now to the end we have all struggled for, so keep a stout heart Freda and you know anything that can be done for you will not go without effort.

Do you think it wise to be the same place where you were before Freda, as it must, as you say, remind you every time you go in under the miserable conditions of better times. However, you should try and have some young person to live with you if you have not already done so and that would brighten up things.

Aunty Freda says you should write us a letter setting out all your troubles as to have you have been left with no parents no husband and nothing in the world to live for and describe what you have been through and she will go with it to the Home Office and endeavor to bring you over as she did Aunty Sonia and others during the first war.

Don’t forget this letter from you will been seen at the Home Office so you should write it very carefully.

You can judge from our address here Freda it has not exactly been easy for those in London either and, as a matter of fact, we have been home and had to come away several times during the last few years.

Thank goodness, however, everyone is o.k. and little the worse for the ordeal and you would hardly think there was a war on now in London or anywhere else.

Don’t worry Freda – you need not be afraid to unburden yourself to us and if it helps you to feel better you can write us all your troubles and you will be sure we can understand and sympathise with you and help you in any way possible.

The parcel you asked for is being sent on to you and no doubt you will have it in due course as you did the previous one.

Well Freda remember what is said to you here and perhaps Aunty Freda may be able to do something for you, as she is still regarded as the magician among our people here.

We both send you our love and good wishes and God bless you Freda.

Aunty Freda and Uncle Jack

 P.S. Send us your full name and how long you have been married. Is your husband Jewish? Aunty Freda sent you a long letter. Did you receive it?

24 April 1945

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Note: This is Part 2 in a series of letters written by my grandparents to each other in 1945.

Here is a picture of my grandparents in Paris, spring of 1946, together at last. My grandmother, at this time, was probably pregnant with my uncle who was born that fall. I’m not sure when they got married exactly – that too was a mystery in the family . Due to the fact that they were married to other people (I know! More on this later!) things were a bit, shall we say, complicated. The letters below were written a year before this picture was taken, both on the same day, but clearly neither had heard from each other in some time.

24th April 1945

Saturday 24 H

Mani my darling –

It is very late but I don’t want to go to bed before having a little talk with you.

You tell me in your letter that you love me more and think of me all day long. I believe you because I feel so lonely too and miss you too – I made arrangements to spend my week end with Micheline and tonight she tells me that she is not free so I don’t know how to enjoy myself but I am sure that the next on will be lovely.

I had a terrible week worked very hard and felt so depressed physically and mentally. I wish things to be settle ones for all I can’t keep on living cutted [sic] in two. I am not exaggerating but I am going crazy and feel so bad.

Things are going to be very hard but I’ll be strong enough. I know you are here and thinking of me.

I am going to find out the hour of the arrival of your train and wait for you if possible. I hope that we’ll spend the weekend in the country. The weather is so beautiful and it is a shame to stay in Paris.

Do you think that you are going to have your transfer? I have only a very little hope. Don’t let yourself go for that and do your best where you are even if you don’t like your job think of me and make good work.

The war will soon be over and things are going to be straightened.

I have a. little reproach to make you – why are your letters so short? Everything that concerns you is interesting for me. It seems to me that you don’t know what to write me. Well you can say the same thing to me but I don’t write well enough English to tell you all my life – but, you, have not the smallest excuse

Denise and I (yes, Denise too) saw KUR. He was worse than the last time I saw him. He learnt through friends of his neighborhood that his father is dead. You can imagine the shock he had, he does not believe it and sent a cable home. I feel so sorry for him. The worse of the story is that he lets himself go. Let’s hope too that it is a mistake.

Yesterday I saw Sergeant York – the beginning is bad and too long but altogether it makes a supportable film. Do you go regularly to the movies? Have you seen a lot of Germans now? I suppose you are in Germany, how do they look? People told me that they are underneath anything we could imagine. Now it is their turn to enjoy themselves – no family, no house, no freedom. We know what it is and live in fear will teach them.

I am sleeping already. It is lucky the week is finished so I can have some rest.

So goodnight, Mani darling. I kiss you and I think of you.

Frida

P.S. Could you bring me some lemon powder so I can drink something fresh in those hot days. Thanks, Frida

 ****************************************************************

Somewhere in Germany

24 April 1945

My dearest darling,

Another day has passed and there still isn’t any word from you. I don’t know whether to start worrying or whether it’s just the normal delay in the mail that’s holding up my mail from you. Please, please, let some mail from you reach me soon.

Now that I have this typewriter before me, I have many things I can tell you. First, soon I hope to have a bicycle for you. One of the boys is going to get one here for me. All I hope is that it is in time for when I go to visit you.

Secondly, I am working on a typewriter that was broken and left here by the Germans. I should be able to put it together soon and that, too, I promise you.

Today, I was listening to the radio and heard two songs that reminded me of you. The first was “And the Angels Sing” played by Ziggy Elman who arranged it in America and when he first played it, it was called Freilich in Swing.

Then I heard the newest popular song: “More and More”

More and more this heart of mine confesses

More and more I’m counting your caresses

Warmed by the breath of your sighs,

Cooled by the blue of your eyes.

More and more I find it more than thrilling

To share this dream that needed fulfilling

More and more I’m less and less unwilling

To give up wanting

More and more of you.

Fourthly, you remember that I told you I was going to get you a telephone? Well, I have one for you. You may use it whenever you wish. It may be a little strange to use but I can fix that for you.

Fifthly, last but the most important, I won’t ever forget that I love you. Darling, whatever happens, you must come to me and with me so that I can give you all those things I’ve promised you.

This letter may seem a little disjointed but that’s because I haven’t heard from you for such a long time and I’m just walking around in a daze. Please write, if you already haven’t. Let me know how you are, what you are doing with yourself and everything else about you. I love you so much, I’m surprised at myself that I could be in such a position. I never thought it could happen to me.

My heart, my soul, my everything is yours –

Mani

Je suis suel se soir

Sans ton amour

[I am … this evening without your love]

For the dance itself

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My grandparents, my father’s parents, met in Paris in 1944. That much we know. But the rest of the story is a complicated mystery because they were both married to other people at the time and their love was a devastatingly romantic secret for a while. According to my aunt, she learned about her mother’s first husband when they were on a train in Paris. This was a trip they took before my aunt left for college. My grandmother wanted to show her where she had grown up, etc. and when my aunt happened to mention the name of a character in a book she was reading, my grandmother repeated the name and then said, That was my first husband’s name. That story pretty much sums up my grandmother.

They died in 1988, when I was 18, and they died just six weeks apart. Remarkably, one thing that survived is the letters they wrote to each other during that year when they met, fell in love, and tried to figure out what to do. At the time, my grandfather was an American soldier stationed all over Europe (he stayed after the war, as well) and spent most of his letters writing about his astonishment at finding actual love, a love that he didn’t believe was possible. It is no accident that he died six weeks after she did.

My grandfather didn’t know French, though my grandmother’s English was surprisingly good, but they also spoke to each other in Yiddish, a language they had both grown up speaking at home.

I am going to figure out how to write more about them because their story is a fascinating one to tell, but right now I’m going to start with this letter, written by my grandmother, Frida, who was just 23 at the time. A few years earlier, her parents had been taken away by the S.S. but somehow she had escaped and had hidden in the country with a friend for much of the war. Then she returned to Paris. I wish I knew more.

16 Sept 1945

Many, my darling,

It is already 3 days that I did not receive a word from you. You spoiled me and now I feel upset when I don’t have 3 or 2 letters a day. It is not a reproach because I know that you are better than I am and write me every day.

Since I last wrote I had 5 letters from you – You are better than I and I don’t deserve you.

Darling, why did you apply for school in London as you knew that you would not accept to go away for 2 months? I am sure that you are interested in Motion Picture Photography and refused to go because you would not see me for two months. I know how hard it is for you and for me, but you must not forget that you would have learned a lot and the more we learn actually the better it will be for our future. We won’t have to work hard to make a living, a few hours a day in an interesting job to earn enough to support ourselves and the rest of the day we can go out, see interesting things, shows, assist to good conferences, travel, but this can only be done if we know enough to have a good job that brings you in a couple of hours, what a hard one would do in 8 hours. I don’t know if you understand what I mean because my English is getting worse every day – I don’t study it enough.

I was surprised to find Marion, Charlie and Karen’s photographs in one of your letters, They seem very nice. Marion does not like to fat when I compare her body to mine – you can tell that I am twice as big as her and you still think that I am pretty!!! I’ll have the snaps of myself ready by the time you’ll come to Paris, one is quite good.

I am expecting you on the 21st. I think that you will need a porteau to bring all you have for me – if it is too heavy leave a part of it at the bus stop and we can go and fetch it together. I still think that you are crazy and spoiling me – however I am so impatient to see you and kiss you for all the time we did not see each other.

Yes, Dear, it is a year we know each other – I cannot forget the impression I had when I first saw you; with your helmet and glasses you looked so hard and proud – and now you are my Mani darling – the one I love.

Darling, don’t be jealous if I dance with others; I don’t do it for the dancer but for the dance itself; the fellow I was with loves dancing not like the other men who do it to be sociable.

I have not yet any reply as far as the perfume shop is concerned. It is impossible to have a leave from the O.S.E. if I go away it is definitely and, except for the friends I have here, I won’t miss it. It is, the direction and institution, the most rotten thing I have ever seen and wish to leave it as soon as possible.

I also had a dream about my parents. Somebody came and told me that Daddy died a few days before the camp was liberated and also explained me how he suffered. It was terrible and I was thinking that I would have prefer to hear that he died a few days after his deportation than to learn that he suffered 3 years and died so near the end of his liberation. I dream more often of my parents these last few months than I did before. Oh Darling, if you could bring me back, at least one of them, I would go crazy of joy.

Darling, I still have a lot to tell you but must go away in a few minutes. I kiss you with all my heart. Today in a week we’ll be together and I will be able to kiss you how much I want.

All my love darling –

Frida

Writer-parent

Five years ago, in the summer of 2011, when my girls were 7 and 10 years old, I answered these questions about being a writer-parent. It was for a blog that now seems to be defunct. We no longer have hamsters, but much of this still applies.

How do you balance your time between parenting and writing?

I like to think I do this simultaneously. As someone who for years managed to read The New Yorker while pushing a stroller, I find that I am actually good at this sort of thing. There is nothing separate about the two really at home as my “office” is in my bedroom and gets a whole lot of traffic. While I was writing that sentence, in fact, I was interrupted a number of times by my older daughter asking if I thought it would be easier if she put her sleeping bag into her backpack first before the other stuff, or on second thought, maybe the sleeping bag shouldn’t even go in the backpack at all? Or maybe she could try it both ways? And thus my thoughts went here and then there and then back to here again. And I can often manage this. On the other hand, sometimes I have to say, Can you just wait a few minutes until I finish this? Oh yes, yes, my daughters will say. And then, What are you writing anyway? Do you have to get it done today? Are you going to be working on it later too? One time it occurred to me to tell them that I actually like writing, which I was afraid they didn’t actually pick up on, seeing me as they sometimes do pacing around or saying, Man, I just hate this. But I think the most important thing comes down to the kind of parent you are and I confess to being sort of a relaxed parent in that I am thrilled to have my children go off on their own and then come back and tell me what they’ve done. Eventually they will write these things down.

What is the best piece of advice about being a parent and a writer?

Despite what you think, you will always find time to write. You will write while your child lies asleep across your lap for hours. You will write while your child plays for a few blissful minutes with your old Fisher Price barn. You will probably end up writing whenever your child is napping, which you think you could never do, exhausted as you are, but the ability to write and write with no interruptions at all will lure you from sleep. Also, later on, if your children want to find something to watch on Netflix while you are writing, let them. (This, by the way, is how my children discovered the Jonas Brothers all on their own.) You will also find that if you don’t write, that if your time is better spent dancing with your kids on your bed, well, that’s just fine.

I think the very best piece of advice that applies to being both a parent and a writer is: pay attention. Both occupations make you very watchful, which is actually something that comes naturally to me, but there is that second step of paying attention, which is a little more challenging. I tend to notice the light a lot more now.

How has your writing changed since becoming a parent?

I’d like to say that I can only write in short blocks of time now due to being a parent, but the truth is I always wrote like that. I find though that now the late late night has become my preferred time to write, not because I am a night owl particularly, but because I can count on the fact that someone won’t be walking up to me when I am so clearly in the middle of something and asking if I would like to pet her hamster. (I’ll admit that I have actually said no to this on occasion, but then felt bad and gave in. Turns out hamsters are always worth petting.) Sometimes I will pretend to write while my younger daughter sits on my lap just so that I can listen to her make the binder clips and staple remover talk to each other. Are you listening to me? she will demand. No, I’m just writing, I will say.

Tell us something we don’t know about you and being a writer-slash-parent.

I tend not to like to write about my children all that much. When I was growing up, my mother always stole stories from me, so I feel like I need to let my children have their own. And I expect they will sometime. To be honest, I am always encouraging them to draw and write comics, something that I have wanted to do my whole life, but I completely lack the artistic skills for it.

My younger daughter has asked me a couple times what I want to be when I grow up. I always answer: a writer.

 

I could just read instead

“The differences between a personal essay and a confessional essay can be tricky to spot.  The personal essay — the more exalted form of the two — can be as dense and layered as a short story; it fancies itself a prism and uses the personal to shed light on the communal. . . .The telltale signs of the confessional essay include a warm, pseudo-confiding tone and a penchant for lists and adverbs like ‘humiliatingly’ and ‘embarrassingly.’” This was part of a N.Y. Times review by Sloane Crosley (who happens to be a pretty good personal essayist, in my opinion) about a book of confessional essays, one whose author I no longer recall. Crosley goes on to say that one is not a higher art than the other, etc. etc. but I think what she means is that one totally is, but she’s going to try to be fair in her review. If she didn’t really mean that, well, I mean it.

A few nights later I woke up at 2a.m. and thought about how I didn’t feel like sleeping anymore. I decided I could just read instead. This started out extremely well, but ended extremely badly, when at around 5a.m. I decided that I actually should try sleeping but couldn’t. And then it was morning and I had to go to work. But between 2 and 5a.m. I came across this great personal essay in The New Yorker by Emily Raboteau, who I had never read before, but immediately became smitten with. Her writing falls into the personal but not confessional category. Joan Didion is probably the best example of that kind of writing, in that she is both there and not there, and Raboteau kept that same kind of distance from her readers, maybe even a mildly amused disregard for them, and a kind of delightful wickedness at times that reminded me of Shirley Jackson, whose fiction and nonfiction is some of my favorite writing ever.

I’m not quite sure if my writing is confessional, I confess, but I do know that I generally don’t like reading that kind of writing and that sometimes when I read confessional essays it makes me never want to write again. This is how I’ve been feeling lately. You know: what’s the point? But then I read some wonderful personal essay and I realize that I am just ending up in the wrong places sometimes.

This is not really an explanation of anything; perhaps it’s only a reminder to myself to stop being discouraged. And to write the things I most want to read, which is “so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it” (I know I’ve mentioned that Seymour Glass quote from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters a dozen times already, but it is so worth remembering).

Reading good writing always encourages me. It always makes me feel like, All right, things are getting done! And sometimes it even makes me think, Good, that was written, so now I don’t have to write about it. Because, you know, it’s always nice to pass the work off to someone who does it better. But sometimes I have to do the work too, even if my natural impulse is to shrink from it, is to think that there’s no real reason to keep writing (I mean, there isn’t really, except the compulsion, which has been lifelong).

All of this is to say that I am at the start of something. And hopefully, eventually, I will get to the end of it. And perhaps shed light on the communal, etc. etc. I’ll let you know.

I’d rather laugh with the sinners

It was six months since I had spent basically half a day at the ophthalmologist only to find out that all those tests I took were merely establishing a baseline for what my optic nerves looked like. Now, it was time to compare, and this meant hours of horrible tests again (one of which involved a woman photographing my optic nerves, which means you are doing the exact opposite of what your instincts tell you to do when a blazingly bright light is repeatedly flashing in your eyes). But before this, it meant having my eyes dilated as much as they possibly could be, and they ended up nearly black and much like a cartoon character’s eyes. I was told I needed to wait around 10 minutes (it was much longer) before they’d come get me for the next round of tests.

I was led into the darkened waiting room, which is somewhere within the maze of examining rooms. It was completely full of other people staring into space or at the television that was blasting out at us. Every now and then someone’s name would be called and then another person would stagger into the room to wait. The lights were dim, but not totally dark, and I found that without my glasses and my book held pretty close to my face I could read (a book of John Cheever stories, as it happened). Oh, this is fine, I thought at first, but then noticed that over time my vision got slowly blurrier and blurrier. This fascinated me, but then kind of panicked me. It was like I was getting older before my own eyes, as though time had sped up and soon I would look in the mirror and see that my face had deeply wrinkled to match my much older, much weaker eyes. This is what happens, I thought, terrified, just not so quickly. And for the first time I wondered, What would happen if I couldn’t read?

From the time I first started figuring out how to put words together (which I am told was when I was three and a half) nothing has ever made as much sense to me as reading. And when I started to write a few years after that, it was mostly so that I would have more to read. If I really think about it, I’m probably better at reading than I am at anything else, though it’s such a personal and pretty much hidden skill. So what would happen, if, as I saw in that waiting room, my eyes began to fail me and no special glasses or operation could help?

My uncle, who was once a terrible reader, is now a prolific listener of (to?) audio books. He can’t get enough of them. And it thrills him that something that was once so impossible for him to do (apparently he read so slowly that it frustrated him too much to continue) is now part of his daily life. He listens on the subway, on his bike rides, everywhere he can. And, he calls this reading, which I have to say it really is. So there is no reason I couldn’t simply start listening to books, right?  I think about how you end up asking yourself, at some point or another, If I had to choose, would I rather lose my sight or my hearing? And I always pick sight because I think I would die without being able to listen to music (which I recall becoming important to me around three and a half as well), but what about all the things I’d miss seeing? And what about reading? And then I just get sad.

Eventually my name was called and I got to have the flashing light tests, etc. When it was all over, they told me to wait in the regular waiting room, though I couldn’t figure out why. I had already paid the copay. I just wanted to go home. And as I sat there, feeling exhausted and battered, I suddenly noticed that on the radio (was there a radio on all this time?) Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” had just come on. Hadn’t I heard this song enough in my life? In fact, wasn’t this one time too many to be hearing this song, a song I had heard, on and off, for the past 39 years of my life? I stood up. There was a man at the desk (born in 1947 I could not help but overhearing) happily discussing his copay with the receptionist like he had all the time in the world. I did not. I put my sunglasses on on top of my glasses (which naturally made me feel like this guy) and headed out into the most blinding sun I had ever seen.