Category Archives: memory

Limitless Compassion for All Beings

What did you expect?” he murmured.  “Time passes.” 

“That’s how it goes,” Ursula said, “but not so much.”

-Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I tucked a napkin into the dog-eared copy of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and stared at the ice crystals splayed across the tiny airplane window. The clouds swirled beneath like the surface of oceans, broken only by the islands of the Rockies and the fecund and unpredictable bodies of the Cascadian volcanoes, thrust upwards out of the Pacific sky like whales or mermaids.  We were on our way home to Seattle after three days in Philadelphia, where we had traveled to bury my grandfather.

My grandfather Morris with his great grandson, my son Callum.

My grandfather Morris with his great grandson, my son Callum.

At his funeral, it was recalled that he was the only child in his family born in America, that he spoke Yiddish growing up, that his father Zuffa died just before the Great Depression and Morris began to care for his elderly mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, when he was still a young man.

Morris's father Zuffa, his mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, and his siblings. Taken just before the family emigrated to the United States, where Morris was born.

Morris’s father Zuffa, his mother Ita-Molie, known as Betty, and his siblings. Taken just before the family emigrated to the United States, where Morris was born.

His older sister Esther died at the age of 20 and Morris lost one of his lungs to illness while he was a teenager. He and his mother moved from one flat to the next across the neighborhoods of 1930s Philadelphia, her continually convinced they were being cheated on heat and rent. He once showed up for a job at a soup factory once with a few hundred other men, only to be told that the promised wage had been lowered.  When the men grumbled, armed Pinkerton agents appeared on the rooftops.  He watched Jackie Robinson play baseball, an experience he later recounted to a rapt audience of second graders in my husband’s classroom.  He fell in love with a beautiful and kind woman named Frances and with her raised two children. He survived a heart attack in his forties and more heart problems later.Frances Saller Fox

Morris with his daughter, my aunt Ellen and his son, my father Howard in the yard of their home on Baldwin Street, Philadelphia.

Morris with his daughter, my aunt Ellen and his son, my father Howard in the yard of their home on Baldwin Street, Philadelphia.

He road tripped across the entire country with Fran and explored Alaska while visiting his son Howard. He picked his grandson up from soccer and read books to his grandchildren and built things out of blocks and played dressup with us with unabated joy. He contributed to our educations, inquired about our pursuits and adventures with love and without judgement, and gave money to Doctors without Borders and the the Nature Conservancy and the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was a proud progressive and he played on the floor with his four great grandchildren right up until the end of his life. He would have been 98 this July.

Morris's great grandchildren: Emily, Audrey, Callum and Charlotte.

Morris’s great grandchildren playing after his funeral.  Emily, Audrey, Callum and Charlotte.

He lived at home until a week ago Tuesday, when he broke some ribs and was taken to the hospital. I was watching the Stanton Moore trio play at Jazz Alley with my husband and son when my dad called to let me know Grandpop had fallen.

After I spoke to my father, I returned to the dark booth to sit with my husband and son. The band played “A Waltz for All Souls.”

In a few days they had begun to stabilize my grandfather’s pain, but they worried about pneumonia since he had only one lung. I heard that he had eaten some hummus and challah, and took this for a good sign, as they are some of his favorite foods. My son and I made art and chose photos to cheer him up in the hospital, and I went off to work a Friday night shift at the pub.  On my dinner break, I read an email that suggested he might be improving. A few hours later I dragged a sodden bag of compost out to the dumpster in the alley and called my father.  It was then that I learned that my grandfather was gone.  He had died on the 23rd of January, his wife’s birthday.

I walked into the edge of the construction site next door to the pub, knelt in the giant clods of upturned mud next to an excavator, and cried without restraint.  It was almost midnight, and there was a sliver of moon.

In the morning, we told our son his great grandfather had died, explaining that Gpop’s body stopped working because it was old, and that he would be buried next to his wife, my Nana, a woman he loved very much. Several days later, sitting in the funeral procession, Callum asked “where is Gpop?” I reminded him that Gpop had died, and his body was in the wooden box we had seen at the funeral home. “But where is the box?” he asked from his carseat. “Its in a special car up front,” I told him. “Grandpop gets to lead the way to the cemetery.” Callum was quiet for a minute, then asked thoughtfully: “But how will he drive the car if he is in the box?”

buddies.

buddies.

It was bitterly cold at the cemetery, and the headstones leaned against each other for support, some fallen off their bases, Hebrew characters etched in granite against the wind. We stood in the snow and the mud and the syllables of Kaddish were spoken into the winter air. After the service, my parents and siblings and my son and my husband and I wandered deeper into the cemetery, picking our way through the snow.  My chest felt bruised from the inside, and the air was sharp and painful against the skin of my face. We rested our hands on Nana Fran’s headstone, remembering her sweetness, and stood in front of Morris’s mother’s grave, and his sister’s, his brother’s and his father’s. We reflected that Morris mourned where we stood that day at five different points in his life, twice as a young child.

A flock of wild geese banked overhead and flew over the cemetery, and I turned to watch them beating their wings against the grey January sky, their cries eddying across the field of graves.  I recalled Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”

IMG_7596

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Later my brother and father would send pictures from my grandfather’s apartment: his baseball cap, hanging on his desk chair. His Sunday copy of the Milwaukee Sentinel, opened to “The Week Ahead.” His copy of my recently published book, sitting on his nightstand.  His robe, folded on a chair. Staring through my tears at these artifacts of his final days at home, I remembered the wild geese over the graveyard, and it seemed to me that there is nothing more precious than this unbroken chain of ordinary moments, family and solitude and breakfast and love all tangled up together in a narrative without beginning or end.

I miss my Grandpop because he was my friend, because he was kind and good and dear, because my world has always held him and now he is absent. I miss him in the way grandchildren miss their grandparents. When I allow myself to consider that my father has lost his father, and his mother, that my mother has lost two fathers and will someday loose her mother, that I must someday say goodbye to my own parents, my husband to his, that our son must someday say goodbye to me, and his father, it begins to feel like a I am falling into a canyon of grief, a canyon so deep the bottom will not reveal itself for some time.

And then I remember that a force cut that canyon. Like a river over a thousand years, or a perenially gusting wind, love and living have carved out the space in which we grieve. Gratitude and grief make each other possible.

On the airplane, I set aside One Hundred Years of Solitude and pulled up Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying on my phone, a minor miracle of technology and spiritual transmission.

“when we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us,” Rinpoche wrote, “we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.”

Fox, Morris Born 1917. Passed away Friday, January 23, 2015 at the age of 97. Beloved husband of the late Frances (nee Saller) Fox. Loved father of Ellen Lang and Howard (Theresa Trebon) Fox. Beloved grandfather of Erika (Michael) Shanik, Mark (Melissa) Lang, Sarah (Ryan Reilly) Fox, Izaak (Danielle) Fox and Emma Fox. Cherished great-grandfather of Emily Shanik, Audrey Shanik, Callum Reilly and Charlotte Lang. Preceded in death by his siblings Nathan, Frank, Benny and Esther Fox. Funeral services will be held on Thursday, January 29 in Philadelphia, PA. Memorial donations made to Doctors Without Borders or Jewish Home and Care Center appreciated.

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gone to the printers

I think this might be like arriving at base camp at the foot of Everest

I know its an awful lot like being 37 weeks pregnant.

maybe you dreamed of it

surely you worked for it

but as the time nears

you realize, increasingly

that you have absolutely no idea

what you’ve gotten yourself into

 

and the dark clouds form and disperse

as you reckon the size of the leap

you have made

peering at the place you think you’re going to land

readying the things you think you’ll need

asking for mentors, safety nets

realizing that when you need financial security more than ever you are sloughing it off

to pit yourself against the challenge

of doing this thing

and doing it well

aprons and layers falling

revealing the dream vulnerable to the raw air:

 

I,

Writer

terrified, quaking, tired and certain

there is no perfect draft, there is no truly ready time

the story is past due

 

and gone to the printers.

finally finished, and only just begun.

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West.  November 2014

 

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bigger than a blog post, smaller than a breadbox

I haven’t been doing much creative writing lately,

because this:

Fox_sketch-1

 

is coming out in the fall and contrary to what I’d somehow fooled myself into thinking,

my work is only just begun.

More to come lovelies, I promise. all sorts of things are moving and shaking.. a website, a video, events, travel. opportunities for folks to support getting the stories in my book out into the world. For now… disjointed waitress poetry will make an attempt to return, because learning how to market a book gives me a headache, and I need to write creatively again.

 

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foreclosed upon

photo(6)

The neighbors have been
foreclosed upon
which is to say their house was paid off years ago
and then Gloria took out a second mortgage to help a family member in trouble
and then she died of pneumonia
and her survivors fell behind
while the bank crept ahead
and there was drug addiction and fighting
and now they are throwing in the towel
and scattering
and so the possessions they will not take
are being dumped
daily
in piles around the run down
brown house
built a few decades after our Great Depression grey one.

This morning I sat on our bed
staring at the piles through the cedar boughs
people made trips from the house,
dragging items across the grass.

Each of these houses had a matriarch;
Gloria across the lot,
Annie in this house,
they raised their kids in these houses
sent them off to various wars,
some foreign,
others domestic.
and both women went about the business of dying
in these houses.
I know little about them otherwise,
except that Annie was white and Gloria was black,
and the names of some of their children.

I call up their thirty-two year old selves,
and make them sit beside me on the bed
in the dresses they would have worn in 1939, and 1969, respectively
and I sit here in my jeans and sip coffee in the middle,
and we stare out the window together
contemplating the mortality of
All Things

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ask questions. people will tell you their stories if you promise
to listen
roll “history” around in your mouth
and see how it sounds when you say it out loud

test it out for righteousness
and the metallic taste of propaganda
coated in sugar

understand that the difference between those hours and these is not a flat timeline

the past inhabits the present
and the present inhabits the future

and you feel your familiar ghosts crowding in;
unknown ancestors
dreams of your former self
storied poets
anonymous nannies
and private photographers
college dreams
and immigrant fantasies,

Americana writ thickly across the land

and you in the midst of it
becoming a part of the past

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mending a pair of pants we bought because we could afford them

This morning, while my son watched children’s television in the other room,
I sat by the open window on the bed and mended a pair of corduroy work pants
sipping my coffee and letting spring wash over my skin through the screen.
As I worked to knit the button hole back together,
I noticed how few stitches had been used to assemble the belt loops,
how there were loose threads
and poor workmanship here and there
and then I pricked my finger with the needle.
while swearing and applying pressure,
i glanced at the label,
and realized that the fabric I held in my hands
had been been held by a woman, or man, or child,
in China

i read “made in china” a hundred times a day
but i don’t realize much.
i think:
“ugh.”
then: “we can’t afford to buy things made fairly,
and “after all, i do try to buy second hand, so that helps, right?”

and there’s not much realizing after that, just an unspooling narrative of rationalization

like so much tangled thread
sure we bought the pants because we could afford them
and we could afford them because that person in China
made a few dimes
for these seams
and went home to a crowded room in a toxic city
hundreds of miles from their families
who they might see once a year.

I think about who made these pants,
and think about my seamstress great grandmother
an immigrant Eastern European woman
who fled the land of pogroms with (most of) her children
to Philadelphia
just a few years
after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
where, after her husband’s death from tuberculosis,
she made a living sewing theater curtains and
beaded bags
for wealthy women

and holding my mending by the window i think that these are not trivial connections
but literal ones
we can feel
as we bleed tiny drops of blood
into the same fabric

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for Jack Heil.

photo(4)

it would seem that there are not too many threads
between you and I

your exit came nineteen years before my arrival
and I have only a few snapshots
in the stark black and white
of the postwar years
when you married my grandmother
and held my mother on your lap
in a white tank top
with a St. Christopher medal around your neck
and a bottle of Imperial in her tiny hands

and I have only a few stories
of how you traveled for work
and how the six kids would pile in the car
to drive old highway 99 to the airport
and see you off
back in the day when you walked across the tarmac
and up the stairs
if you needed to take a plane

of how you were at a convention in Florida for work
with my Grandmother
and there was a sitter for the kids back home
and the last night you sat with her on the beach
and watched the waves
and the next day, she took one flight
and you took another
and you did not come home

of how your death tore a hole in your family
and how your widow stitched it together as best as she knew how
and your children healed in their own ways
and they grew with the scars.

Some scars never heal,
some are open even now,
fifty years later.
Your grandchildren have seen them.
We grew up bathed in the echoes
of what seemed to us a distant tragedy
and so you are part of our lives
and now we are trying to fathom
which part
that is.

so I have a few photos
and a few stories
and tonight, it occurs to me that I have something else
I am your granddaughter
I am one-fourth you.
I do not know which parts of me come from you
but it cannot be denied
that we are connected in ways
that are timeless and unknowable

and I have your headstone
and I visit it sometimes
with cedar boughs or incense
sometimes I bring you coffee
and your great-grandson,
and I wonder what you would tell me
if you could
speak
now

“maybe death
isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light
wrapping itself around us–”

― Mary Oliver

In memory of all those lost on Northwest Orient Flight 705

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