SAMPLES

Baseball

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I can still name all the players on the New York Mets back in 1986, the year they won the World Series-- Sid Fernandez, Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Dwight Gooden, Mookie Wilson…. It was the same year we moved back to New York; the year my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. It was also the year before I stopped watching baseball altogether.

Growing up, we spent almost every Saturday afternoon in the back of my grandfather’s drug store in Sunnyside, Queens. The radio was always tuned to elevator music or a ballgame, while my sister and I kept busy with coloring books and cookies from the Italian bakery next door. My mother helped count and sort pills, placing them in orange plastic containers for customers to pick up. Sometimes my sister and I got to help out too, stacking cigarette cartons on the shelves behind the counter—Marlboros, Salems, Newports, Lucky Strikes; sweeping the front of the store; or straightening up (and stealing from) the candy section by the cash register.

If I was bored, I’d write stories and show them to my grandfather during slow hours. Invariably, he would take out a pen from the pocket of his pharmacist’s shirt to correct my spelling and show me how I could say the same thing using much simpler language. My grandfather himself was a man of few words who never spoke about his own life-- about the 16 gunpoint robberies he’d survived; about the framed photo of his older son Michael that never moved from the top of his dresser; or about his monthly visits to a place called Creedmoor where his younger son Peter had lived since he was 13.

I only knew my grandfather in the quiet, tender moments we shared together, separate from any tragic past or uncertain future. In the evenings, I’d sit on his lap in a well-worn armchair while he watched t.v. and smoked his pipe and cigars, letting me take a drag or two as well. It was in these moments that I fell in love with many things: the smell of tobacco on a man’s shirt, the stubble from his chin on my forehead and cheek, and the focused yet unpredictable action of baseball as it unfolded into nine succinct chapters.

It was a story told between the lines--the secret nods and hand gestures shared between pitcher and catcher; the slight curve on the ball that determined the outcome of a play; the subtle intuition of the batter about whether to bunt or swing full out; the solo decision of a player to run or to stay on base. It was the wordless intimacy among teammates and their own trust in themselves that felt safe, and the comfort of my grandfather’s presence that made that safety real.

While we sat there watching the game, my grandfather and I had our own type of morse-code language that was just our own. He would squeeze my hand silently, asking:
“Do you love me?” (four squeezes)
I would answer: “Yes I do” (3 squeezes back)
“How much?” he’d ask (2 squeezes).
And then, with all the strength I could muster, I would squeeze.

After my grandfather died, I never talked about him to anyone, letting parts of me disappear along with him. But now, 30 years later, as spring training approaches, I can’t help but remember the sacred ritual that we shared. I feel the lure of the game once again, with its delicate narrative and the unspoken rule I also learned from my grandfather: that less is often more. Mostly, I long for that irreplaceable experience of loving someone with all your heart, that feeling of sliding into home.

My Father's Daughter

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Over a thousand people came to my father’s funeral in Jordan when he died, even though he hadn’t lived there for many years. As a young man, he’d been exiled from his country for his radical political beliefs and activity. Landing in Egypt where he planned to begin his studies, he experienced nothing short of a miracle, when the government officials who still pursued him happened to arrest and hang a different man by the same name. Countless stories like this still circulate among the people who knew him, depicting a man of profound passion and faith, one whose life had been blessed by many second chances.

I got to know my father as an adult only a few years before he passed away, and because of this, I felt like an intruder among his other eight children. During one of our more intimate conversations, I sat on his hospital bed in Germany, telling him of my wish to move away from New York City, but the worries that kept me from doing so. His response was simple: “Follow your heart,” my father said. “Everything else will fall into place.” These words, though seemingly quixotic, offered me something I didn’t know I’d been looking for among the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” I’d come to live by: They gave me permission.

That year, my family would move to a remote part of New England, where rivers and mountains replaced the urban landscape we’d called home for so long. We knew no one there and had no jobs lined up; just a quaint yellow house with raspberry bushes on a cul de sac, and the hope for happiness that this idyllic life seemed to offer. I decided that in this setting I would no longer need the anxiety medication that had kept me comfortably numb for the better part of a decade. Slowly, the thin layer of ice that had held my emotions just beneath the surface began to splinter, and the lingering loneliness and frustration started to seep up through the cracks. It soon would feel unbearable, as each day held an invisible chisel to my soul, determined to shatter me to pieces. The question was, who would be there to pick them up?

My father would have given the same advice to any one of his other children, who, unlike me, had been graced by his guidance their whole lives, taught to honor their own instincts and desires. Before I could reap the benefits, I’d first have to experience the growing pains of cultivating this self-awareness. I’d have to raise myself, so to speak, into a woman who lived honestly and bravely; who wasn’t afraid of getting cut by the shards; who could one day count herself among her father’s daughters.

Frau Bauer

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Frau Bauer wore wigs--the kind you’d expect an old German woman to wear in the late 1970s—short, layered, and indecisively blond. These wigs went perfectly with the thick panty hose and costume jewelry she wore every day of the week inside her one-bedroom apartment in Queens. For all the hours my sister and I spent there while our mother went to school, we rarely saw Frau Bauer’s real, sparse head of hair. On those occasions, the lifeless wigs lay draped over styrofoam heads on top of a bureau, eerie and out of place.

Frau Bauer’s apartment always smelled of ham and the Raid spray she used to combat her hopeless infestation of roaches. Turning on the light in the kitchen, we’d see dozens of them scatter from the cat food dish across the linoleum floor, or dart over counter tops and into drawers. Once in a while, we’d find the pinnacle of horrors: a large pot in the sink that Frau Bauer had filled with water the night before, now brimming with hundreds of roaches lying motionless on their backs. This was the same pot she used to sometimes boil pigeons she found dead on the street, a special meal for her well-fed cats Nicky and Albert.

While my sister and I colored or read, Frau Bauer would sit at the table nearby, a rectangular magnifying glass pressed up to one eye as she pored over the latest TVGuide. Once in a while, a bag of Brach’s soft caramels, the kind sold in bulk at the A&P, appeared out of nowhere with their brightly-colored foil wrappers. Frau Bauer would dole out their sweetness in fractions ceremoniously cut with a knife. She’d do the same with almost everything we ate, as if toast spread with liverwurst tasted best in tiny squares. For all we knew, it did.

The TV was in the bedroom, where my sister and I would often retreat onto a large featherbed to watch our favorite shows like “Little House of the Prairie,” “Good TImes,” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” On nights when there was nothing much to watch, the cuckoo clocks in the hallway sounded extra loud, cruelly marking the minutes with their robotic chirps and chimes, before we finally heard our mother’s knock.

I know very little about Frau Bauer’s life before we met her, except that she’d grown up between two wars; that she was a widow for nearly half her life; and that she spoke very little English for having lived here for so long. Maybe the question isn’t who Frau Bauer was, but rather who we were to her. A family of three who seemed to fall from the sky one day and land two flights above her, who happened to speak the language of her youth, and have all the the time in the world to keep her company.

Hönig

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The night before I fly back home to New York, I look into the living room and see you alone on the sofa in your white tee shirt and pajama pants. You are carefully wrapping something with newspaper and tape, but I can’t tell exactly what it is. It’s late, and the rest of the household is in bed. I say goodnight and hug you, knowing I’ll have only one more chance to do this before I walk through airport security tomorrow and have to wait a very long time to see you again. You are my younger brother, born a good fifteen years after me, who until now, I’ve barely known.

Rakaan. Your name means Noble, what I called my first son in English, and the meaning suits you both perfectly. But the sound of it in Arabic is much more beautiful, rolls off my tongue, like the honey you collect on the weekends with your in-laws. Bee farming-- the perfect occupation for someone willing to be stung for the sake of sweetness, which I suspect is exactly who you are.

What did I see in those light-brown eyes of yours the other day when you came into the kitchen? What did I recognize in you that made me cry so unexpectedly? Was it my own reflection? Maybe throughout your life, you too have felt things as intensely as I have-- endured the same heartache of betrayal from friends; borne the loneliness of misplacement wherever you went; felt the unbearable highs and lows of living too boldly, loving too much?

You hugged me, searching for the words to soothe your floundering sister. “Everything is coming together the way it should,” you murmured. “Baba is watching over us now. He is here…” You must have said this in German, or maybe there were no words spoken at all, just the quiet knowingness of a grief and consolation shared by two siblings.

When I get home the next night, I unwrap the small gift you have placed in my suitcase. A full jar of honey, so pure that you can still see the tiny traces of life that went into its color, the same amber hue claimed by your eyes. I know that it will be long gone before I get to see you again. But I will savor its sweetness with the slow deliberation of one who has tasted for the first time what it’s like to come home.

Julia

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My mother was only five years old when my grandmother left. Although both parents were still alive, all three children were placed in an orphanage for years until my grandfather remarried and could provide a suitable home for them again. It was the 1940s, and this was how things were done in Jewish, middle-class families who were simply doing their best. Photos of my mother’s mother were removed from albums, her belongings discarded, and, to my knowledge, no one ever spoke of her again.

Then in 2005, my older sister discovered a box in a stranger's attic in Rockport, Long Island where she’d gone to look for clues about our grandmother. In it were a handful of black-and-white photos, along with an ink drawing signed J.S., her initials before she was married. For the first time, we were able to see our grandmother as she was. A slight, young woman with wistful eyes and a melancholy smile. She was an artist, a daughter, a mother, and a wife, who for whatever reasons, could not sustain the life that had befallen her.

Even though it was my first time seeing it, there was something uncannily familiar about my grandmother’s image, as if I were staring at my own altered reflection. I wept for an entire week, recognizing the inexplicable tears I’d shed as a child on countless nights. I now understood the origins of that previously untraceable grief. I’d grown up with only the bare facts of my grandmother’s story, hearing it from the little girl who had lost her mother so long ago. Now, my grandmother had returned to share her own version, and I began to understand the turmoil behind her heart-wrenching decision to say goodbye.

A few summers ago, I sat alone in a kayak at dusk on a vast, still Minnesota lake. It was a time in my life when every choice I needed to make felt like an impossible puzzle to solve, including the choice to start over. My grandmother appeared before me in a boat. “Do not leave without your peace,” she said to me. Then I knew that this was not the first time she’d visited me. In fact she’d always been there throughout my life, silently watching every milestone, each celebration and loss, and offering wisdom at just the right moments. Some nights, as I am falling asleep, I hear her name, like a whisper inside my head, and I know that she is there. And always will be.

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