Monthly Archives: December 2014

Eleni and Jon


“None of these stories will stitch up into a seamless blanket to cover this family’s tracks. In this story, all the fissures show, they bulge scarlike, they come apart at the seams or they were never sewn up in the first place.” – Eleni Sikelianos, The Book of Jon

Sometimes running off without the baby saves the baby.


She keeps waking up

with the same revelation,

like it’s new, every morning:

taggedat birth. Father


held this latest baby in

its blanket, traced

radiating circles alternating

beige and blue

and red


onto its forehead with

his pointer finger.

the finger hairy at

the knuckles bending only

slightly, its tiny

Mediterranean curls.



Adored by women. and his wife.

the whole

of possibility still ahead.


but this baby,

small and last in line,

all mapped out now, circles

in beige and blue

and red.


It’s on the second anniversary of the death of my father that I am reading The Book of Jon, a memoir of Eleni Sikelianos. Rather it is something of a memoir of her father. Recollection is not fully available to her. It is as if also retold and relocated from others on his map. And conjured, too. The intersection of Eleni the daughter and Jon the father, but more the father, as is so often true in the world, in their world, in human history. I cannot say it too many times, but I can say it again differently: Our common human history – our is we is all of us everywhere – so often privileges the father over the daughter, as if there were actually no intersection.

Eleni Sikelianos is mining. Where she seeks any shade of gemstones, assuming, perhaps, they will be few and far between and buried in pain or numbness or a portion of love that had escaped, she sometimes finds only asbestos. Waste. And worse. None of us knows if waste can be an acceptable answer. If there is any use for it. If it is acceptable.

                   Acceptable: a common reference yet a low aspiration.

There are fathers who shine on the surface, no matter what’s beneath, but hers is not that kind. Hers, this man Jon, has spent some years, and certainly his later years, as a homeless drug addict who stoops to whatever lows his survival might require. Scraping the bottom. I’ve heard it called being a bottom-feeder. Or a lowlife. He’s not hiding anything, though, not trying to cover up any of it, the downward spiral. It’s there in his black teeth. If there’s a way to respect an overt lowlife, it is for the former rather than the latter aspect. It’s what you see is what you get. Talent, a legacy of brilliance, thrown to the dogs. At least he wasn’t pretending the entire time. From here, where I reside, it seems better when the world can see it. No one’s pulling the wool over your eyes. Pretending you’re the only one who thinks so. Who has reason to think so. From the end of the line, it’s easy to observe what is happening all up and down in front of you. Excluded from the fray. The benefit of exclusion, though perhaps not so with only partial exclusion.

So when Sekelianos writes, “None of these stories will stitch up into a seamless blanket to cover this family’s tracks. In this story, all the fissures show, they bulge scarlike, they come apart at the seams or they were never sewn up in the first place,” I might say – might ask – a different thing. Because what if they do? Stitch up. Cover. What if the stories of your family aren’t told truly? What if the details are correct but the intent is disguised? What if they do stitch up seamlessly and are used to cover the tracks? What it they’re cut from a small, veiny slice of rancid underbelly but are sewn cleanly into a blanket which covers the family’s tracks completely? If the fissures don’t show, if you can’t smell the rot through the bleach and none of the blanket comes discernibly apart at the seams?

Only now after reclimbing the same alps many times over years, plummeting down and starting over each time, to someday, I hope, look down, look back and see what was really there – the Highland view of the family – have I come to place the most true significance on intent. If we look at the people who are the outcomes, at the people formed of the materials mined from the cave of the nuclear family, intent has more weight than real-time action. A hierarchy of applied intent in the family mythology appears like this on the screen in my mind:


hurtful lack of intent

intent lacking awareness

unintentional intent nevertheless perceived and continued by its owner

selective intent

hierarchically targeted intent

precisely targeted intent

applied and magnified harmful intent

That is why, of course, sometimes running off without the baby saves the baby.


Dear readers,
Here’s a holiday offering. A story of magic, of identity, of family, of tradition. It’s a bit long, as it involves a journey of sorts. To a town of fools. After awhile, you’ll be laughing with me. Grab a cup of tea or coffee. Come, read…

On The Way From Chelm

Before she left us, Grandma gave me an old, red book of tales, told me all the old stories, and, without my conscious consent, made me – Bella, the youngest granddaughter – their guardian.

When she was alive, she was more of a keeper than a teller of tales. A quiet grandmother, full of humor. I was only ten when she died, aware neither that she had held the name of keeper nor that she had passed it on to me. I was already known as a storyteller by then, and the stories I was most often asked to tell were the stories of Chelm, the Jewish old-country town known as the town of fools.

I had learned my ten year’s worth of stories. I had eaten my ten year’s worth of poppyseed and sponge cake, of farmer’s cheese blintzes, of kasha, of dill pickles, of cholent and kugel. I had absorbed my ten year’s worth of Yiddish sprinkled into English, the only full language I spoke. I had sung my ten year’s worth of songs, and their rhythm broke free of the music, embedding itself in the stories that were now mine, stories which flew from me with laughter whenever we gathered as a family to celebrate, whenever I had an audience. I had no idea that an entire, vanishing culture and language had been planted in me, a grain of being which, if protected somehow deep inside me – an Ashkenazic child – could inch forward, unseen, to an unnamed future.

I didn’t understand that every day in my house, interacting with parents, one of whom had been raised by that grandmother, would nourish the grain with small drops of Continue reading Holiday