On My Mind: the writings of Sarah Bracey White
"Winning and Losing," published by the Scarsdale Inquirer, 2007.
Winning and Losing
One of my duties as Director of Cultural Affairs for the Town of Greenburgh is administering a poetry contest that is now in its 37nd year. Each year, between 100 and 350 poets compete for cash awards in four age-related categories. Preliminary judges read every poem, then select the best ones which are forwarded to the final judge. Past final judges have been such national luminaries as Rita Dove, Billy Collins, Dana Goia, and Kevin Pilkington. At an awards program each spring, winners receive cash awards and framed certificates. The top ten percent of finalists receive certificates, and their poems are included in the contest anthology. Because poets get so few opportunities to bask in the spotlight, I invite the twelve winners and 20 to 30 finalists to read their winning poems during the awards ceremony. This on-stage opportunity is repeated months later at a book party when the contest anthology is released. While all of this is appreciated by the winners and finalists, it is the losers who pose my dilemma. Each year, I ask myself if their unhappiness is balanced by the winners’ joy? Many adults express disappointment at not winning – sometimes in formal verse – but they seem to take their loss in stride and enter again the following year. It is the parents of some young losers who cause my greatest distress.
After receiving their invitation to the awards program, some parents call to ask, “Is my child a winner? Otherwise, we won’t come to the ceremony.” I’ve also had parents insist that I announce the winners before the program so that all winners will attend. If I did that, who would provide the appreciative audience for the winning poets’ moment in the spotlight? The 12 other winners and their families?
At one ceremony, an irate mother told me that her child was very upset about not winning. “I’m sorry everyone can’t be a winner,” I said, “but in a contest, that’s impossible.” She insisted that something needed to be done for the losers, like allowing them to read their poems to the audience. “Having 125 more poets read to the audience would take far too long, and demean the value of winning,” I told her.
Fortunately, several parents of other children who had not won rallied to my defense as that mother berated me for my “heartless behavior toward children.” These parents spoke of their own children’s disappointment, but expressed how much their child had enjoyed participating in the contest, and came to understand that they cannot win every time they try to do something.
Last year, before presenting awards, I invited every poet to stand, and be acknowledged for their creative efforts. I also told them that some winners and finalists had entered the contest many times before winning. I then encouraged all entrants to continue writing poetry and entering contests because the effort to draft a winning poem made each of them a better poet.
That still didn’t satisfy some parents. One child’s mom wrote a letter to my boss, Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, complaining that the contest was unfair to children’s development of self-esteem. She said if we didn’t change the rules so that it was not a competitive contest, she wouldn’t let her child enter again. Doesn’t she realize that it is parents’ difficult task to teach their children to be a gracious losers when the occasion arrives? Otherwise, how will their child survive in a world where everyone must sooner or later face loss?
Each spring as I stand before the audience of hopeful poets, their families and friends, I remember when I too sat in that audience, anxiously waiting to hear my name among the winners. I was certain one of my poems would win. Alas, my name was not among those singled out for honor. I now realize that choosing the winning poems is a subjective act that is totally dependent upon the interests and whims of the judges. Getting the losers to understand that the process of drafting a poem is its own best reward is a hard job. Sometimes, I consider canceling the ceremony and simply mailing the awards. Then, a call or note arrives from a winner, finalist or parent, commending the program and its positive impact. Time has taught me that children must have opportunities to learn how to win, and how to lose – without giving up. Greenburgh’s poetry contest provides both opportunities.
In the beginning, I hadn't really wanted one. I believed all the scientific reports about microwaves rearranging molecules in foods, and causing sterility. Finally, I decided to get one; after all, I was past the childbearing age and since all my friends had microwaves, if they died, I didn't want to be the only one left behind to tend their pets and house plants.
After a visit to the local library where I read Consumer Reports' evaluations about this popular kitchen appliance, I went shopping and found the perfect one, for $140, and brought it home.
I carefully read the instruction book that came with it. "Great for cooking rice" (a staple in my house) the guide says. I'm hopeful. If it cooks rice, it'll be a boon to my pot washing requirements since I usually forget to turn down the flame before it burns the bottom layer of rice.
I soon learned that rice takes just as long to cook in the microwave and doesn't taste as good. Or, is it that I miss the ritual of preparing rice the old fashion way? Anyway, I scrap that idea. I do find the microwave great for heating up leftovers. Hmmm. Maybe a microwave cook-book will broaden my microwaving horizon.
At the bookstore, I find a whole shelf of microwave cookbooks. Richard Deacon's Microwave Cookery has a chart for every vegetable I eat (and some I'll never eat) so I purchase a copy. Within a few weeks, I grow to love my microwave and regret not having purchased one years ago. Soon, I progress from heating up leftovers to cooking vegetables, potatoes, bacon, sausage. I pre-cook everything I broil or bake. I also freeze everything, assured that my microwave can thaw anything in less than 15 minutes. I take pride in my ability to make gourmet meals in 30 minutes. I use my microwave daily: boil water for my tea, take the chill out of cold fruit, warm plates before serving. . . bring my nightly brownie treat to perfect consistency with 15 seconds in the zapper. (I quickly discover that too many minutes in the microwave will reduce my brownie to an soupy, brown blob.)
Three years pass and I buy my second supply of microwave-safe casserole dishes. Then, it happens. Amidst a raging snowstorm, my microwave stops working! I had gone grocery shopping the day before, in anticipation of the weatherman's dire predictions, and frozen everything I bought. Roads are impassible, but I'm willing to go out to buy a new microwave -- at any price. I call my favorite appliance store. It's closed, as are all others I call. I'm distraught.
"Let's just have leftovers and go buy one tomorrow," my husband says, trying to console me. I open the refrigerator and peer inside. Leftovers? What leftovers? Enough broccoli for one person. . . one wrinkled potato. . . I muster my inner resources. Hey, I still know how to rattle those pots and pans and the freezer is well stocked.
From the freezer, I remove the swordfish steak I'd anticipated having for dinner, and a lemon. Both are rock hard. Thank God I separated the fish into two parts before I froze it. I light my gas oven -- is 375 degrees too high? -- put the rock inside and close the door. Should I put the mustard and lemon juice on while it's still frozen or wait until it starts to thaw? I lay the frozen lemon on the shelf alongside the swordfish, then put rice to cook on top of the stove. That familiar act calms me.
"Come read the comics while things cook, " my husband calls out. Before I go into the living room, I punch a few combinations on the microwave's control pad, press start and wait. Nothing happens. Its digital clock runs just fine, however. It is six o'clock.
Twenty minutes later, the rice is almost done, but the swordfish is still hard in the middle. I pry its center open and squeeze lemon juice onto its surface.
"How long until we eat?" my husband asks.
I walk into the living room and glare at him. "I'm not rushing you," he says defensively, "I just want to know how soon I should set the table."
"Seven?" he repeats after me. "That long?"
"Thought you weren't rushing me?" I say and return to the kitchen where I stare at my microwave, longing for its familiar hum. My stomach growls. I'm hungry too. I'd forgotten how long it takes to cook things the conventional way -- especially frozen things. I dunk a package of frozen green beans in a pot and cover it with an inch of water and a lid. I dump the broccoli in a similar pat and turn a low flame under it.
"What's that smell?" my husband asks a short while later. I run into the kitchen and snatch the smoking pot of broccoli from the stove. Its charred remains give the house an unpleasant odor. The swordfish is done but the string beans are still hard.
"I didn't put enough water in the pot when I warmed up the broccoli," I say to my husband who now stands at the kitchen door.
"Oh," is all he says and begins to remove dinner dishes from the cabinet.
"You haven't lost your touch. Everything's delicious," my husband says later, as he wolfs down the meal. "I was starved."
"Three times as long to cook it, and you eat it in one-third the time," I say. He shrugs. Later, I eat my evening brownie frozen. It's not bad, just chewy. Sleet blows against the window panes. I wonder if stores will open and the roads will be passable the next day. I settle in to read the Times and search for microwave ads. I find none.
Next morning, things are just as bad. The ground outside is snow covered and the local radio station reports school closings everywhere. We are stranded at home. I head into the kitchen hoping that by some miracle my nightmare is over. It continues: my microwave is truly dead. I begin making breakfast. I pull a stainless steel pot from the cabinet, fill it with water, and adjust a flame under it.
A year ago when I broke my stove-top carafe, I didn't replace it since it was easier to boil a cup of water directly in the microwave. Today, I'm sorry I didn't. I take a bagel for my husband and my preservative-free morning muffin from zip lock bags in the freezer. A serrated edge knife slices then both and I place the parts on the shelf of the toaster. Think ahead, I warn myself, and take two chicken breasts from the freezer. They'll thaw in plenty of time for dinner.
Throughout the day, every time I pass the microwave, I punch another combination of buttons, hoping that it will, miraculously, bring the machine to life again. Though the buttons make noisy contact, the machine doesn't respond further. I ignore my husband's laughter in the distance.
My stepdaughter calls and when I relate my predicament, she offers to give me her microwave, which she doesn't use. However, she can't bring it over until the next day. How will I survive that long? I wonder.
The next morning, roads are passable and I consider going out to buy a microwave, but I don't want to snub my stepdaughter's offer. In anticipation of her arrival, I do not remove anything from the freezer. Near dinner time, I grow anxious. She finally arrives and presents me with my replacement microwave. I thank her, though I am disappointed: her microwave is smaller than my old one and has a rotating carousel that is too small to accommodate the new microwave-safe dishes I just bought. I sigh and put them on a top shelf in the kitchen cabinet. Maybe I'll use them for conventional cooking in the oven. Hey, who am I kidding? I'll never cook "conventionally" again. I plunk a slab of salmon filet on a plate, douse it with lemon juice and ginger, than place the plate on the turntable. When I press the start button, an electric hum fills my kitchen. I smile as I peer through the glass window and watch the plate rotate. The turn-table is an unexpected boon. A nice improvement. One I would never have considered. Maybe this mechanical failure has a bright side to it.
"Dinner will be ready in a half hour," I announce, as I wrap three potatoes in waxed paper, ready for their turn in the microwave while the salmon gets a final browning under the broiler. Ah, the joy of modern inventions. Maybe I'll buy a spare microwave and store it in the garage so I'll never be microwave-less again.
An anxious message on my answering machine for "Professor White" tossed me into the sea of nostalgia this morning. It has been years since anyone addressed me by that title. I first heard it while in college when Dr. J. Welfred Holmes, my revered Shakespeare instructor, used it to invite my participation in class. "Well, Professor White," he often asked in a deep, sonorous voice, "what do you have to say about the subject at hand."
And I always had a lot to say. By the time I entered Dr. Holmes' class during my junior year at Morgan State College, I had found my element: mine was not the gift of memorizing formulae, dates and events, but of interpretation. Though I had entered college with aspirations to become a French translator at the U.N., that year, I decided to major in English, since it seemed to be the area where I excelled. I could go on and on about obvious and hidden meanings in Shakespeare's sonnets and plays. I could draw historical parallels, and tie the influence of the times to various authors' works. I loved research and read with pleasure. I wrote creative papers on the lives and work of great figures like Shakespeare, Poe, Blake, Browning, Cather and Lowell. In reality, I loved the lives of great men and women and was secretly appeased to find that they too had not had easy lives. Their creativity drove them to do what their hearts decreed, even though it was not always what others wanted. In childhood, Superman had been my hero. Like him, I had been thrust down in an alien land and forced to make my way there, while I longed for home. Now, I had new heroes.
Years later, when I was in my mid-30's, I embarked on an intensive research project to discover the paternal side of my family. My parents had separated when I was very young and I grew up fatherless. Among the gems my research brought me was the fact that both my father and grandfather had elicited the same honorific that I had been given."Professor White," was a family title.
When I returned the woman's message on my machine, she laughed when I said it had been years since anyone called me "Professor White."
"Anyone who has persevered and achieved, I give due respect to," she said. "And you've certainly done that." Her statement flooded me with satisfaction and inquiry. How could this woman with whom I had only shared a brief telephone interview feel this way about me? Funny how we live our lives beneath a lampshade. Emitting light but never realizing how far it reaches.
After I hung up the phone, I looked up the word "professor" in my Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. These are two of the many meanings it gave: "A person who professes something, especially one who openly declares his sentiments; a teacher, especially a college teacher of the highest rank."
I had always thought the title "professor" was reserved for faculty luminaries like Dr. Holmes, not for lowly undergraduates. I had assumed that Dr. Holmes called me "Professor" because I was the only student in his class who carried a briefcase - albeit tapestry covered. Now, I realize that he called me "professor" as a tribute to the potential he saw in me. His nurturing has followed me through the years. Though I have worked hard to avoid becoming a teacher like both my parents and paternal grandparents, I cannot escape my destiny. I have a master's degree but no teaching credentials; however, I have been tapped to teach at Morgan State University, Mercy College, and Westchester Community College. I have taught classes for the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Hudson Valley Writers Centers, and the National Writers Union. I am regularly sought out to lecture and give talks at schools, churches, colleges, and for community groups where I openly express my sentiments about the gift of life and the responsibilities it carries. I have truly become a professor.
The Evolution of My Name
When I was born, my mother's oldest, childless sister insisted that I be named Sarah Jane, after their long-dead mother. Mama agreed to Sarah but chose Marie for my middle name. I grew up hating that name -- only elderly ladies were named Sarah. I longed for a popular name like Linda or Brenda, ones that echoed in my classroom. I vowed that as soon as I got to be 18 and had $50 for court costs, I would legally change my name. However, when I reached 18, I'd grown comfortable with Sarah and could think of no name I wanted as a replacement. So, Sarah Marie White I stayed, until the late 70's, when I wrote several short stories, self-published a collection of poems and began scribbling at the pages of novel.
There I was - the granddaughter of a woman who could neither read nor write- determined to make my name recognizable in the print world. I decided to pay tribute to the grandmother I never knew by using her last name as my middle name. Thus, Sarah Bracey, the illiterate, would have her name listed as the author of books. To my surprise, thereafter, when I introduced myself to strangers using my new literary name, they invariably repeated it, "Sarah Bracey White, what a nice name. Memorable." I'd struck gold. Every writer needs a memorable name and I had one that carried historical significance.
In middle age, when the man I loved asked me to marry him, I once again pondered the subject of names. I considered adding his last name to mine - thus becoming Sarah Bracey White Gironda - but thought it made me sound like a law firm, instead of a person. I was loathe to part with any of the names I already had, and so informed my fiancee.
"I'll change my name to yours," Bob said. "It'll be easier to make reservations with White than Gironda. Everybody can spell and pronounce White."
Touched by his gesture, I still nixed that idea. Why should he change his identity for the comfort of reservation clerks? His business partners also discouraged that change by citing the disruption and expense involved in changing their logo, legal papers, business forms, etc. Bob agreed to keep his name and I kept mine. He did ask that I sign the name given on my birth certificate to our marriage license. "I want to be married to the real you," he said. As far as I was concerned, the real me is Sarah Bracey White.
"I don't use my husband's name" was my quick response to anyone who called me Mrs. Gironda during our early years of marriage. To me, Mrs. Gironda was my mother-in-law; her first name was also Sarah. A year ago, my mother-in-law died and many of the condolence cards from her distant friends came addressed to Mr. & Mrs. Robert Gironda. In my grieving, I accepted the mantle of Mrs. Gironda and have finally grown comfortable answering to strangers who address me as such. Yes, I'm still Sarah Bracey White, but on occassion, I'm also Mrs. Gironda. And on occassion, we get mail addressed to Bob and Sarah White or Mr. & Mrs. Sarah Bracey White. We open all of it.
While I haven't yet produced a best-seller, my name has earned a degree of recognition in the community where I live, in print and on the internet. Recently, I went on line and typed my name for a keyword search. I was surprised to find it produced several results. In addition to the one I expected - my web site, Onmymind.org - it listed a Bermuda Newspaper review of a book of memoirs that included one I wrote, and an excerpt from a New York Times interview with me that was picked up and included in a Cristopher Brothers newsletter. My name and I have carried the past into the future. I think my grandmother would be proud. Now to get it on that best-seller...
"I'm not getting good vibes about this operation," my widowed, 76 year old mother-in-law said. " She repeated those words often in the weeks preceding surgery to replace the calcified valve in her heart that had left her chronically short of breath and unable to venture far from her den sofa where she dozed or watched TV 24 hours a day.
Her instincts proved right. Shortly after surgery, she suffered two strokes and sank into a deep coma. Three weeks later, she died. After the funeral, the executor of her estate closed her Long Island house and lowered the thermostat to 60 degrees. I brought home a well-tended broad-leafed philodendron and an old hatbox labeled photographs and mementos.
I put the philodendron on a table near a window and spent the following days sifting through the contents of that hatbox. Slowly, it revealed a family history that neither my husband nor I had ever suspected.
Even though Bob had known Sarah-Lee for over sixteen years, he really knew very little about her. Married, with a family of his own, when his father called to say he'd just married a widow-friend, Bob's exposure to Sarah-Lee had always been limited to holidays and brief family visits. She had always been reserved and standoffish during those visits, but since his father was happy with the marriage, Bob had accepted it too. His father had mentioned that his new wife's only living relatives were an elderly aunt in Florida and a cousin who lived in Japan - neither of whom she talked to. It seems that her mother had come from a well-to-do, old-line New York family, but had been ostracized when she divorced Sarah-Lee's father. Thus, at an early age, Sarah-Lee had lost all contact with blood relatives.
When I asked Bob why he cared so much about this woman with whom he seemed to have such a distant relationship, his answer was, "I feel responsible for her. She took good care of my father before his death and now she's sickly, with no one to care for her. It's the least I can do."
So, in addition to three grown stepchildren, this marriage presented a step-mother-in-law, who, I was certain, would not like me. How could she? By Bob's account, we were truly as different as night and day: she was a reserved, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant from a well-to-do, blue-blooded family. I was an ebullient, black woman who had grown up poor, in the Jim Crow south. The fact that she had married a first-generation Italian-American meant nothing to me. In my book, he was white, just like she was. Were we destined to dance the hobbled two-step of a forced relationship?
"She doesn't have to be nice to me," I told Bob, during our ride out to East Quogue where she lived. "But she'd better be respectful or you'll be driving out to Long Island alone."
Our first visit went surprisingly well. Sarah-Lee was taller than I, about 5'9", with a well-proportioned nose and mouth. Silver curls floated above her large, square face and the twinkle in her hazel eyes belied the stern line of her mouth. Her formal, matronly air reminded me of England's queen Mother. I extended my hand to greet her, but she had smiled warmly and embraced me. Sarah-Lee's southern-like display of good manners struck a common thread in me and as the visit proceeded, all formality fell away. Perhaps it was that we shared the same first name, or that I too was a strong, independent career woman coming late to the altar of marriage. Perhaps it was because she too had once been the second-wife. Who knows? I never questioned my good fortune, just counted my blessings.
During that visit, I recognized the loneliness behind Sarah-Lee's reserved demeanor. Widowed twice, childless and with no family ties, she had the right to be lonely. I too had erected barriers to shield me from the pain of being alone, and to keep others from feeling sorry for me. Bob had torn down those barriers by gently applying small doses of love; so, I decided to do the same with Sarah-Lee. I had to make the effort. Though we were different, we were alike; maybe one day, I too would be old and alone, dependent upon the good will of strangers.
That fall, Sarah Lee hired a driver to bring her from East Quogue to Valhalla where she was a part of our small wedding celebration. The next time we visited her, Sarah-Lee and I exchanged confidences during the drive to lunch. "I was so afraid you wouldn't like me," she had said. Shocked to hear her express my own fears, I told her of my early anxieties and we laughed at ourselves. That day, we became friends.
Sarah-Lee's house always reminded me of a well-kept museum where year-round, the temperature hovered near an artificially induced 70 degrees. Her never-opened windows were covered by sheer white pinch-pleated curtains and Venetian blinds which heavily filtered the outside light. Yet, the few green plants she kept had flourished under those artificial conditions.
A large, engraved silver tea kettle on a service stand and several hammered silver bowls glistened on the glass coffee table. Other silver -- bowls, covered jars and trays, pitchers and -- engraved with names and dates from the 1800s nestled on her polished mahogany dining table, sideboard and in curio cabinet. I often wondered about their early owners, but feared my questions might seem nosy. Once, I admired a beautiful china tea set atop a table in a corner of the dining room.
"It's an Imari pattern," she had said. "That set and the teakettle in the living room belonged to my great grandmother. By family tradition, my mother -- the eldest daughter -- inherited it. She left it to me. Since I have no children, I guess I'll leave it to my cousin, she already has everything else."
That soft addendum was the only time I ever heard a tinge of jealousy in Sarah-Lee's voice. What was she jealous of? Though we never talked about her financial situation, it was apparent that Sarah-Lee had few financial worries. She purchased a new Lincoln every few years and sprinkled comments about stock dividends. We even crossed paths with her Paine Weber financial advisor, as we arrived early for a visit. So was it family involvement she longed for?
I too craved family involvement and had reveled in Bob's family. In the early years of our marriage, we often invited Sarah-Lee to come visit us. She always declined, saying she couldn't climb the flight of stairs leading to our co-op apartment. So, Bob and I often drove out to East Quogue for day-visits. No matter what her health status, Sarah-Lee always insisted on preparing hors d'oeuvres and wine for our chats before we went out to one of her many favorite restaurant . "I'm not much of a cook," she confided, though she once made dinner at home for us.
Most of our conversations with Sarah-Lee centered around impersonal things: stock market dips and rises, the New York Times crossword puzzles, her work with the local civic association. . . the renovations of Grand Central Station which that her father had bought bonds to build.
During the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Sarah-Lee hung onto the televised proceedings like a periscope into the world. She could have been a juror on the case, so closely did she follow the evidence and cast of characters in the spectacle. She thought Judge Ito was unprofessional, that Marsha didn't get enough respect, that Mark Furman was dishonest . . . that O.J. was guilty. She animatedly expressed these opinions to me during our daily conversations. Since I too thought O.J. was guilty, I served as a silent audience for her to share the vicarious thrill she seemed to derive from the nation-stopping event.
We'd never had any discussions about race before the trial. The colors of our skin seemed irrelevant to the love and respect we developed for each other. As Sarah-Lee talked about O.J.'s courtroom behavior, I listened for nuances that would betray how she really felt about black people in general. She never generalized. Her every comment was about some specific behavior or statement. It was as if she were a college textbook and I was a rookie freshman: though I heard the words, I could draw no conclusions. So, I let the subject of race drift away.
Sometimes, Sarah-Lee would talk about her years working in Manhattan when she enjoyed the bustle of the city and its people. Never did she talk about her life before she married Ralph. Whenever she talked about Ralph, tears filled her eyes and emotion choked off her words. "He was the joy of my life," she said, "We just didn't have enough time." Then, she'd take a deep breath and steer the conversation back to us or Bob's children.
Sarah Lee loved to give gifts. During her annual winter visits to Florida, she always mailed us a souvenir of her trip: brass bowls, fanciful serving platters, a bracelet, a belt . . . Without fanfare, she once handed me a diamond encrusted watch. "I have several." With no fanfare, she called one day to tell me, "In my will, I'm leaving you a 2.75 carat diamond I inherited from my aunt and the diamond wedding band i wear all the time." I was stunned! None of my own relatives had ever bequeathed me any mementos.
The next year, two weeks before my fiftieth birthday, Federal Express delivered a small, gift-wrapped package. Inside was a ring with a center pearl flanked by two, one-carat diamonds. The diamonds were so big I called my husband to ask whether they were real. He had laughed. "Of course they are!" he said. "She'd never give you anything artificial. I think she loves you better than she loves me." And I agreed with him. While Sarah-Lee had great respect for Bob, she was reserved with him, as if she had to keep up appearances with him. With me, she was chatty and comfortable, and occasionally let her guard down to reveal some small lapse in behavior in her younger days. Sometimes, she let escape a little brag about her business savvy when she was a working woman and twisted the balls of some piggish employer until he paid her fairly. We often laughed and gossiped like school girls. Near the end, she often called me in tears over some small frustration she was enduring with medical personnel.
I remembered all these things as I examined the contents of Sarah-Lee's box of memoirs. As the days passed, I noticed that the leaves on the philodendron began to wilt. I moved it away from the window thinking that perhaps the direct rays of the sun were too much for it to endure. After all, Sarah-Lee had given it only artificial light,
Also in the box were a tarnished, sterling infant's dish and porridge bowl with Sarah-Lee's name engraved on it; studio portraits of Sarah-Lee from infancy through young adult-hood; yellowed New York Times obituary notices and decades of records related to her family's 24-grave plot at Woodlawn Cemetery.
The philodendrum continued to wane. I placed it under a grow-lamp which did not seem to help.
At the bottom of the box, is an inscribed prayer book, a pristine bible and a bevy of photographs and formal portraits. Each one is dated and identified in Sarah-Lee's flourishing script. Some of the photographs capture Sarah-Lee and Ralph enjoying life. A large, rolled, panoramic photo is labeled "Silver Carn, 1897." Sarah Lee had mentioned that when she was very young, she had spent her summers at Little Silver, a community, near Red Bank, New Jersey. She never said that her family had an estate there. In the picture taken in front of a fancy Victorian estate, a large, multi-generational family poses. Each person, young and old, sits astride a two-wheeled bicycle. I recognize some of the faces from the portraits in the box. They must be the relatives who disowned her mother.
While preparing a party celebrating her 75th birthday, I had asked Sarah-Lee where she had been born. "Canada," she said. "My father was working there at the time. My nanny had a heck of a time bringing me back across the border into the US because I had no official birth certificate."
"You had a nanny?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yes, for about four years," she had said before changing the subject.
So my mother-in-law had a nanny. That helped to explain her standoffish nature. It also explained the way she always referred to her own mother as "Brooksie," not mother; as if her mother was just another adult in her life.
As I used the contents of that hat box to piece together Sarah-Lee's family tree, I caught a glimpse of the gnarled roots that entwined her heart. Cut off from both her divorced father and his family - as well as her mother's family - and widowed twice, she was no stranger to loss. She had pulled herself up by her own emotional bootstraps and focused on survival. She could not talk about the past, for fear its pain would reach out and engulf her.
As I explored Sarah-Lee's roots, the philodendron continued to languish. Food, water, more sunlight, less sunlight, full days under a growing lamp ... nothing helped. Finally, I decided that the only answer was to repot it. I found a thick maze of roots wrapped around the bottom of the plastic pot. As I unwound them, and pruned the long coils of leaves that had been trained around the upper rim, I felt as if I were untangling the threads of my mother-in-law's existence. All the things I had learned about her since sorting through that old hat box seemed to be explained by this plant. She was a woman bound by the roots of her past; unable to escape the pain of that past, she became a sideline spectator. No direct sun for her - only the vitality of those still warm from its rays.
I shook away the old soil and carefully placed the roots in new soil, in a clay pot. I also trimmed the long tendrils and plopped them in water to root anew. I placed them near a window, but not in direct sunlight. I chastened myself for not asking Sarah-Lee all the questions that had through my head. Since no one keeps vigil at the door to a worthless mine, she probably assumed that no one was interested in her past except her. She was wrong. My love for her made her past important to me, whatever it was.
As a final tribute to Sarah Lee, I had formal death notices printed: With deep regret, the family of Sarah- Lee Gironda announces her death on October 31st 1998. As I addressed the cards to the far-flung names in her thick, red address book, I realized that I'd done the one thing she probably thought no one would ever do: I'd remembered her - her and her roots.
The Power of Possibility
Possibility is what you do not know and sometimes cannot even imagine. My entire life is a testament to the power of possibility. My humble beginning in South Carolina destined me for a life quite different than the one I live today; and yet, it is as if I have been heading here all my life.
When I was still a child, I thought I was crazy to envision a future different from the present lived by all the adults I saw around me. But where did I want to go and how could I get there? I found the doorway to that alternate future in books. Reading fiction allowed me to immerse myself in dreams and dreams became the format for testing possibility. What if this happened, or what if that happened? What if I do this? I didn't dwell on the past; instead, I turned away from the past and moved ahead into the mist. Though I could not see the sun, I knew that it shined beyond my view and I only had to keep moving in order to reach its rays.
When I graduated from high school, I wrote in my yearbook, I'm going to college and then I will reach for the stars. That may seem like a naive statement from a teenager, but it speaks to the heart of possibility: Willingness to embrace the unknown. The stars I spoke of were invisible to me. I didn't know whether they were dangerous or desirable . . . but I was willing to reach for them.
I then set about cultivating the skills I had learned, and developing the creativity that bubbled inside me. Since childhood, two traits -- curiosity and a strong sense of responsibility for my fellow man -- have driven my life. My mother gave me a solid piece of advice which I have tried to follow:since you love to talk, make sure you have something worthwhile to say so people will want to listen to you. Thus, I have embraced life, tried to absorb its essence and sought to incorporate its being into my life.
When I look back at my life, I see nothing but mountains all the way to the horizon. Each one of those mountains was a possibility that prepared me for the future I could not see. I have learned that whenever I balk at opening a door, life is offering me a possibility, a new lesson. I avoid the doors, because new lessons are always hard. Yet, once I step into the classroom, I feel exhilarated, alive, like a plant being fed the ultimate nutrients. I sometimes wonder why I need to keep growing; then, I encounter a new situation for which my latest training has prepared me.
When I was 17, I could not have imagined the possibilities that my life now includes: a master's degree; self-employment; financial security; having a faithful, adoring white, husband and white friends; living in New York; having other people write news articles and books about my life; social and professional prominence; being a role model and teacher; having technological skills; being physically active and fit. . . Yet, all these things are the ordinary coins of my realm. Once again I face the new horizon and wonder what waits in the mist. When survival is no longer a struggle, what becomes the new raison d'etre?
My new web site makes me a player in the new global technology. How will who I am and what I bring to the game play out on this stage of new possibilities?
Adjusting to Husband's Retirement
(Originally Published in the Journal News, August 30, 2001)
Last December my husband announced his plans to retire from work in the Consulting Engineering field while still young enough to enjoy life. His co-workers' reactions ranged from disbelief, to envy. "But you're only 62, what will you do all day?" they asked. I had heard Bob's to do list often: "Play more tennis, take daytime piano lessons at the Music Conservatory when I'm not so tired that I can't enjoy them, play my piano more often, take Yoga lessons, spend more time at the health club developing my body, learn French... and try to stay out of Sarah's hair." He always said the last part with a certain smile that promised he would make efforts not to intrude on my life since he knew I loved my work and had vowed to work until I fell in the grave.
Forty-four years old when I entered the state of matrimony, "togetherness" issues had peppered our early years. Now ten years later, I worried that Bob's constant presence at home would infringe on the space I had carved out for myself. An unabashed workaholic, from my home office, I wrote, served on several boards, and ran a broad range of arts programs for the Town of Greenburgh. I prided myself on my achievements during the day while he was out of my hair. In fact, I probably worked 40 hours for my 20 hour a week paid consulting job. I enjoyed every minute of it, but was afraid that if Bob saw how much work I really did, he would question my sanity.
"Give him six months and he'll be eager for part-time consulting work," my girlfriends said when I voiced my concerns to them. At first, I struggled with Bob's daily presence in the house, the background noises of phone calls, CD's, the TV, and the piano...his questions about my plans for the day, and his loud refrigerator forays in search of lunch.
Now, it has been eight months since Bob retired. To my surprise, in this tenth year of marriage, we have rediscovered why we fell in love: we enjoy being together. At first, I resisted his invitations to join him when his Yoga teacher came, or to go with him to a movie matinee or off-peak visit to the hot tub or pool at Club Fit. Finally, I gave in to desire. Now we often exercise together at Club Fit, then have lunch on their outdoor deck. I still work a lot, but not as much as I used to, and Bob has fulfilled most of the things on his to do list. In addition, he does the grocery shopping and most of the laundry. I leave the housework for our cleaning lady.
Sometimes, I'll join Bob on a routine trip to the drug store or cleaners or we'll watch House and Garden TV. I'm a whole lot happier, but I do feel a nagging sense of guilt about not undertaking as many new projects and saying no to people who ask me to do things with them and for them. My friends say that in six months or so, that guilt will pass. I hope so. In the meantime, I've embraced my husband's retirement, as much as he has. Can mine be far behind?
"A Sure Thing"
"Coffee? Soda? Juice?" hawks a young blond, dressed as if she just materialized from Aladdin's lamp. No one looks her way. Food and drink hold no interest for the people in this windowless room in Trump's Taj Mahal on the boardwalk of Atlantic City.
I marvel at the hundreds of men and women in the room. Nothing distracts them from their self-assigned stations. I glance at my watch. Is it really 10:30 on a Wednesday morning? Why aren't all these people at work? Suddenly, I realize that they are at work, in one of America's most consumer-oriented shopping malls. This Las Vegas-of-the-east sells the most popular of all commodities - money. And everybody here hopes to take home more than they brought with them.
My husband, a design consultant, has come to Atlantic City to do a building survey for the owner of a nearby hotel/condominium. "Bring your wife," the owner had urged. "Make it a mini-vacation." Having last visited Atlantic City when I was a child, I agreed, thinking it would be nice to get a look-see at the new gambling capital at the ocean's edge.
The dazzling Jacuzzi in our hotel suite almost entices me to skip my planned excursion along the boardwalk while my husband performs his survey. But I’m anxious to see the ocean, and the much advertised casinos. I don a jacket, place two rolls of quarters in my pocket and exit the hotel. The sun shines brightly, but a brisk March wind stings my face and swirls bits of trash about.
The boardwalk seems to stretch for miles in both directions. I walk fast, alternating glances at the surf rippling against the shore and waves cresting in the distance with glimpses inside souvenir shops with “closed” signs on their doors. Were it a few degrees warmer, I might be inclined to venture closer to the water’s edge, but the idea of cold, wet sand in my shoes keeps my feet on the boardwalk. A young couple riding in a two-wheeled carriage pulled by a livery driver wearing a top hat snuggle under a fringed, red-plaid blanket. They smile and wave as they pass me. I wave back.
Newspaper vending machines scattered along the boardwalk identify where most of these Atlantic City visitors slept last night - and where they'll probably return tonight - The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, The Jersey Statesman. . . the Trentonian. The vending machines are all empty. Do gamblers try to keep an eye on the home front while they seek to improve their finances?
Suddenly, an undulating, oversized, desert sheik's tent rises up from the boardwalk - Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal. I push through one of the revolving glass doors and step into a room awash in rich shades of purple, magenta and fuscia. Golden chandeliers hang from vaulted ceilings and the carpet is deep magenta. Nothing in the triple-football-field-sized room is reminiscent of the desert. Wide aisles are banked with back-to-back shiny slot machines - each emblazoned with a colorful name like Double Jackpot, Mountain of Money or Midas Touch. They seem like alluring sirens, beckoning sailors lost at sea. But which one is the one, the one ripe for a windfall hit? I browse, eying machines and players alike. Finally, I step up to one labeled Double Diamond, and take my position. Slowly, I feed an entire roll of quarters into it. No identical icons line up in its windows. I wonder whether I should try another machine.
I am disoriented by all the noise in the room. The ding of quarters registering in metal slots, or spilling from narrow, mouth-like openings into shallow trays, echos, forms the verses of the casino's dirge. The chorus is the electronic warble of spinning drums that whirl fruit icons before the eye-level display windows. The warble from the machine next to me stops and triple bunches of cherries line up in the window. The grey-haired grandmother standing there whoops as a signal atop the machine suddenly beams a flashing light around the casino. Momentarily, people stop playing and look toward her; then, they quickly turn back to their machines - with renewed vigor. I lean over and ask the winner," How much did you win?"
"I don't know," she answers breathlessly, pausing as if sizing up whether my inquiry is an opening for some kind of scam. "It'll give me more to play with," she says. "That was my last quarter."
I put my hand into my jacket pocket and fondle my last roll of quarters. Twenty dollars hadn't seemed like a lot of money to spend on a day's excursion; but after losing ten dollars, I rethink the wisdom of continuing to feed the slot machines. If I were that woman, I'd take my winnings and leave immediately. But these gamblers seem prepared to leave behind every quarter they’ve brought with them. Are they addicted to the act of feeding these ever-hungry machines? Don’t they know the odds are against them ever winning? Can’t they stop themselves?
I feel out-of-place with the rest of the people in the room. Most of them look as if they cashed social security checks to finance their day's excursion. If they came here for fun, why doesn’t anyone seem to be having any? Did they gamble when they were young and waste their fortunes? Or, are they just poor folks, who worked hard, amassed little, and are now lured to the casino by dreams of a lucky strike, like the California gold miners? The room's persistent din, bright lights adn the depressing apapearance of the hard-core slot machine players propel me into the casino's inner core. Here, dark suited dealers supervise felt-covered gaming tables where dice roll, and droning voices announce the winning combinations. I have no idea how to play any of the games, so I wander from table to table and watch the aaction. In this room, the gamblers, mostly middle-aged men, seem like soldiers on a mission -- one they've trained for and intend to accomplish. The players seem to stake claim to a spot and stay there, playing again and again. Time and again, the house wins. A young woman wins at "21" and her excitement draws me over to the table. I watch another round, than lay down a stack of quaraters. I do this several times. Each time, the dealer rakes in my money along with everyone else's. Disappointed, I call it quits -- I've given the house 25 dollars and gotten nothing in return except a headache. I leave the Taj Mahal and return to our suite where the jacuzzsi awaits me. unlike games of chance, the Jacuzzi is a sure thing. It will demand nothing of me, but is guaranteed to bring me pleasure.
Retracing my steps in a frantic search to find a favorite earring I'd lost, I returned to a small hospital thrift shop in Mt. Kisco where I had purchased several old picture frames to gild. My hopes for reuniting the silver hoops my husband had given me were squashed by a cheerful, pink-smocked retiree behind the counter. "But, look around," she said, "Maybe you'll find another treasure."
After browsing through the jewelry case, I began to survey the shop. My interest was immediately arrested by a murky oil painting of a peaceful, rocky glade at the base of a tall mountain where snow lingered halfway up in pockets. I'd seen the painting during previous visits, but bypassed it because it was so dark and dreary looking. However, this time I stood on tiptoes, took the painting down from its high shelf and carefully examined it.
The painting was large - about 17 X 24 inches- and done on canvas board. Up close, I could see that the artist had skillfully used a palette knife to apply globs of paint that, at a distance, formed pine trees and rocks. The painting had great depth and drew my eyes from a small, rocky glade in the foreground, straight up the mountainside to a corner of blue sky. The sky and dingy gray clouds exuded a hopefulness that belied the dreariness of the overall painting. It seemed to speak to me. Whoever the artist was, he was no amateur painstakingly layering every leaf, bark and blade of grass. I turned the painting over and saw these words:
"OLGIN STIT. (MENGUSOVSKA DOLINA PRI PROPRADSKOM PLESE) Artist, Turzak, 1977."
What language was this? What did those words mean? Who was Turzak? A local artist? An immigrant who had painted a scene he remembered? I was intrigued - as much by the mystery of the artist as I was by the painting itself.. "I see you found another treasure," the woman at the counter said smiling as I laid 11 dollars on the counter. "I like the painting," I said, "it's an original. But the frame is hideous!" She held the painting at arm's length. "It is a nice painting," she agreed. "A new frame will make it look like a million dollars."
When I arrived home, I removed the painting from its ugly frame, set it on the floor in front of a bookshelf and stared at it. The more I looked at it, the more I loved it. Like some beautiful child clothed in dirty, ragged garments, it seemed to beg for the spotlight. I decided to have it professionally framed, then hung in a place of honor. I was shocked when I exhibited my treasure to my husband; he said he didn't much like it. I didn't care. I loved it enough for both of us. He agreed to take the inscription to work with him and see if anyone there could translate it.
The whole Labor Day weekend lay before me. Libraries were closed and I was too anxious to wait so I decided to use the web to search for information about the artist who had painted my picture.
I signed onto the Web, typed in the name Turzak, then pressed send. Lo and behold, 25 hits came up for a Charles Turzak! This couldn't be the artist whose picture I had bought for $10 plus tax? Could it? I highlighted the first document titled Charles Turzak, Biography and pressed send again. In moments, my screen filed with a woodcut self portrait of "Charles Turzak, Who's Who 20th Century American Artist (1899-1986)," and page after page (22 in all) about his life as a printmaker, painter, illustrator, watercolorist, cartoonist, designer, author, lecturer, and teacher.
The first line of his biography revealed that he was the son of immigrant Czechoslovakian parents (maybe the language was Czech). I sent an e-mail query describing my new acquisition and asking if Charles Turzak could possibly be its creator to the Turzak Studio Galleries address at the bottom of the page. Then, I followed the tentacles of the Web and viewed the myriad links for Charles Turzak. I found that his home was a designated Chicago Landmark and that he had been friends with Frank Lloyd Wright. The history department's syllabus for SUNY Buffalo featured a 1935 Turzak linocut on its cover. I viewed some of Turzak's etchings, engravings and woodcuts that were for sale at various gallery web sites, none contained his signature for comparison. Maybe mine wasn't a Turzak - maybe someone had simply copied Turzak's work.
Then, I called a poet/artist I knew who frequently traveled to Czech. She immediately put her Czech husband on the phone and he translated for me: Olga's Mountain Peak, Dolina Valley by Lake Propradskom. A quick perusal of an atlas revealed that Proprad was a city in Czechoslovakia. Two days passed before I received the awaited response to my query: "I would be most happy to help you identify your painting but must see what you have. Is it possible for you to provide me with a photo of the painting? Unfortunately record books were kept of the woodcut, but not on any other artwork." The letter included a phone number and a Florida address. It was signed Joan Turzak Van Hees, daughter of Charles Turzak. I was overwhelmed, but tried not to get too excited. I took a quick trip to Kinko's where I made two partial prints (its size 17" X 24" made it too large for a full print on the color copier). Then I saw another aspect of the power of this new technology. The colors in the print were true blue, white, and green. It was awesome. As if someone had turned up the light inside the painting! The painting needed cleaning! But if it had been made in 1977, why was it so dirty after just 22 years? Other than being dull, it was in perfect condition.
When I arrived back home, my answering machine blinded with a voice message from Turzak's daughter. She was as excited as I was about my find. I called her back and we talked for quite a while. She seemed almost certain that her father had painted my picture. "There are no other Turzak painters," she said. And she was sure the painting had been done in 1929 or 30.
"My father traveled to Europe in 1929 and visited his parents' birthplace in Czechoslovakia," she said. "Proprad is 20 miles away from where his parents were born. He brought back a sketch-book full of scenes which he later painted to show my mother, his fiancee at that time. By 1977, he wasn't doing other kinds of work."
After I hung up, I dashed off a note thanking Turzak's daughter for her assistance, and sent the prints via snail-mail. Almost a week later, the reply came. "Without question, it is one of my Dad's. It was probably done in 1929 ù the # 7 and 7 at the lower edge must have stood for the 7th day of July. He left for Europe in June of 1929 and returned in October. Your painting is a beauty! What a find! I believe the title he gave that painting is River View. . . Enclosed is the only record or list of paintings exhibited that mentions River View."
The photocopy of a May 3-5, 1933 exhibition by Charles Turzak at the Allerton Gallery in Chicago lists two oils: Czechoslovakian Landscape and River View. I am more inclined to believe that the painting I have is Czechoslovakian Landscape, but who am I to argue with the painter's daughter?
Whatever its title, it is an original oil by Charles Turzak! According to his daughter, at auction, his watercolors go for between $1,800 and $2,800 dollars. Oils are even more expensive. Yours would probably go for about $3,400 at auction. She offered me the name of an appraiser familiar with Turzak's works who will appraise it for me for insurance purposes.
A day or so ago, I found an item by Charles Turzak listed on a site selling antiques. They were offering a 1933 copy of his Abraham Lincoln Biography in Woodcut. Several photos of the book appeared. The last one carried Turzak's signature - a perfect match for the one on my painting. No, I'm not interested in selling my painting. Not yet. I've left it with The Framing Gallery to be cleaned and framed. I'm paying a lot more for this than I paid for the painting, but it will be a joy to see it in its original glory. I bet it will look like a million dollars.