It’s Still Tolling

. . . any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
John Donne 1624

Back in December, 2014, the day after the Newtown Massacre, I wrote about my own experience with a shooter in the building and the trauma I experienced from the anticlimactic event (“It Tolls For Thee,”). At the end of the piece, I lamented, “”This is not going away.  The people of Newtown, the people of Connecticut, the people of the East Coast, and by tomorrow, the people of the entire country will live in the shadow of this day forever. Question is, how can we protect the other Newtowns to come?  It’s already too late to begin, but better late than never. . . ”

Since then, there have been 201 more shootings in this country. When do we say E N O U G H??

Evangelicals, anti- or pseudo-intellectuals on left and right, special interest groups of all kinds, and untold millions of influencers put pressure on our legislators to ban books and art, outlaw drag shows, curb women’s rights, thwart equality for LGBTQ, legislate the teaching of science and history as myth and fairy tale. They succeed. All across America, poor Atlas is having a really hard time keeping the world balanced on his back as it threatens to topple over.

What feels like the final blow, what seems to be the thing that could push Atlas and his precious cargo right into the abyss forever is the problem of guns in our midst. All the marching for lives that matter, all the canceling of professorial opinion, all the revisionist rhetoric on both sides have ignored a REAL problem we ALL face. The one thing that should bind us together: finding a way to end the oppressive hold guns have on all our lives.

Every day parents send their children to school with no guarantee they’ll return. Every day children are forced to rehearse for the possibility that they will be targeted by an angry someone with no better outlet for their anger than kids in a school. Every day we throw up our hands and say, “What can we do?” And we blame the lawmakers and the NRA and the gun-toter machismo that seems to have a stranglehold on our collective sanity.

We can point fingers all we want. We all know who is really to blame. We are. We throw up our hands and sigh, we write thoughts and prayers and Imsosad on social media, we shake our heads and tzikkash, and we even send money to the coalitions of survivors’ parents who are out there trying to make it stop. But we don’t do enough.

We need to follow the example the French and Israelis have set this month. They shut down their countries to make their wishes known, and they are succeeding. Why? Because a country without services is a country at a standstill. A country at a standstill needs to appease those who are shutting it down in order to get it back up and running.

We need to shut this country down. To show our government — from the top down — that we really are at a point where we just can’t take it anymore. If every service provider said simply, I am not going to work until the government finds a way to rein in the violence, to control these weapons of mass destruction, to make our children safe not just from the bullets themselves but also from the anxiety of expecting to be hit and the trauma of the aftermath.

If we could the people could set aside our differences for just a few days and figure out a way to get the whole country on board to stop the trains, block the runways, brake the buses, close the schools, refuse to open clinics for well visits, how long do you think it would take before legislation would be in place to protect our kids?

I know. Dream on. I have to. The nightmare wants to consume me.

I have a grandchild who lives overseas. Whenever I go to visit him, people shake their heads and say, “Aren’t you scared for your kids there?” The State Department issues warnings about the country where he lives, suggesting that it’s not safe to go there. Yet the only people who carry guns there are the military, who stand guard at schools, airports, bus stations, et al., to ensure that no reign of terror succeeds in taking hold. No child is forced to spend valuable educational time practicing ways to avoid being shot by a maniacal interloper.

Every year I beg my kid to come back, to be near enough so my hugs don’t have to rely on Zoom for most of the year. The answer is always the same. “Not until I can feel safe sending them to school. . . . “

Can’t we make that happen?

From Motherless to Motherer

Rachel Louise Snyder’s Women We’ve Buried, Women We’ve Burned

One of my favorite workshops to teach is something I call “Acting for Writers.” It’s a class that investigates how to put ourselves in closer touch with our sense and emotional memory, the way actors do. After all, I explain, actors and writers are artists of the same cloth, who share clear objectives: to tell stories, to entertain, inform, enlighten, even sometimes warn an audience or to unburden themselves of secrets too heavy to hold onto.  In doing so, they seek to be authentic, honest, and believable.

Rachel Louise Snyder could teach my class simply by sharing her work.  What distinguishes that work is the way emotion emerges without being manipulative, the way observations and revelations illustrate how deeply a skilled writer can cut into the very center of human existence and bring it to life on the page.  I never fail to believe Rachel Louise Snyder. I never distrust her.  She is among the most reliable narrators I know. I take in her confidences, and I resolve to keep them in a safe place where they can continue to enlighten me.

So it is with Women We Buried, Women We Burned, Snyder’s soon-to-be-published memoir.  The story of Snyder’s life, beginning with childhood trauma – her mother’s death, her father’s embrace of evangelical fundamentalism – that led to hard-driving self-destructiveness, and then to total self-transformation might seem calculated and farfetched from a less ingenuous writer.  But Snyder’s writing is so stark, so clear, so unfettered by hyperbole of any kind that the saga resonates with irresistible urgency.

Snyder’s narrative journey begins when her mother dies. She hears her mother call out, “I can’t breathe,” and she recognizes even at the tender age of 9 that her mother desperately wants to live but has lost the battle with her disease. Rachel’s father, confused and helpless at the death of his young wife and the responsibility of raising two children nearing their teen years, tells Rachel that her Jewish mother has happily surrendered to death and resides now with Jesus in Heaven. He has almost immediately devolved to a religious self he never was before, and from that moment his young daughter intuits that she cannot trust her father to be the man her mother married, the father she used to know. 

Without warning, Rachel’s father submits himself to unforgiving religion, which he imposes on his family and enforces through the use of corporal punishment.  He loves by force of will and shows affection by exerting dominance. He marries a woman he easily controls, and Rachel’s only defense is willful defiance of everything he stands for. After she is expelled from the Christian school he has forced her into, he turns her out of the family home and refuses to let her back in. 

Endowed of remarkable resilience and empowered by ever-improving survival skills, Rachel wanders through her adolescence and experiences sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll until she finds herself in college, where she gets by, thanks to her superior intelligence and a little help from her friends.  To her surprise, she discovers a love of learning, fascination with history, and, most importantly, commonality with other women – battered and buried women, who have survived or who have been defeated. Then she binds herself to an abiding faith that she can make a difference. 

Ultimately, Rachel Louise Snyder’s story is one of evolving maternalism. The motherless child becomes mother of herself. The self-motherer becomes mother to her stepmother, to her remarkable daughter Jazz, and to the women whose stories without her might never be told.  Her story is a guide for us all.  She models the liberating power of self-acceptance and exemplifies the need for self-love.

I believe her. Every word.

Elegy

It’s an odd thing to be a sister whose little brother has died.

The sister is not the wife who tended to him for 42 years, who devoted her existence to making sure he lived longer than anyone could have predicted.  The sister is not responsible for orchestrating his diabetes care, his two kidney transplants, his quintuple by-pass, or for guarding his limbs with her life so that he would die with most of himself intact.

The sister is not the adopted son, the boy-now-man who needed a father and found in the brother a gently adamant hand that guided him through the tumult of adolescence and into an altruistic career.

Nor is the sister the granddaughter he took in at her birth, whom he nurtured, fed, coddled, and adored while his wife, her grandmother, worked to support them all when he had been forced into early retirement.  The granddaughter who ran to her Poppi whenever her feelings were hurt or her path confused her.

Or the 9-year-old niece who came to visit and stayed till she graduated from college, married a surgeon, attended law school, and settled in the heartland.

The sister is peripheral.  She has no rights to the mourning.  She knows that the wife, the son, the granddaughter, and the niece own the wailing rights.  And who is this sister to suffer from his loss?

After all, all this sister is is the grown-up child into whose hands her grandmother placed this brother when he arrived home from the hospital on his fourth day of life.  She is the person who hardly remembers life before there was this brother, whom she didn’t always like but never failed to love.

It was she who caught him when he fell off the neighbor’s garage roof pretending to be Davy Crockett on the trail of Big Bad Mike Fink. She is the one who ran to get Daddy when little brother climbed a telephone pole in the aftermath of a hurricane and tried to use his new tool kit to fix a live electric wire.  It was she who walked him to school on his first day of Kindergarten, when his hearing was still returning from near-deafness. She stood guard over him while he played with gusto, alone and jubilant, on the playground. When the principal called them in, and he didn’t hear, the principal grabbed his ear to pull him inside.  It was the sister who pushed the woman’s hand away.  “Don’t you dare touch my little brother,” she screamed.  “He didn’t hear you.”

No. She didn’t always like him.  At times she hated him. He could be a tyrant, barging in on her bathroom time, teasing her about her appearance, robbing her of time alone when she wanted to write. Then there was her abject jealousy. He was more popular.  He had a broader grin.  He was cute and funny.  Which she was not.  And he got sick.  A lot. Which meant people took care of him.  That’s why she crawled into bed with him and licked his breakfast fork when he had the Asian flu. It was her turn, and though she nearly died for her trouble, she was never sorry.  For once the brother tended to her and brought her soup and news from the schoolyard.  He found her shivering and brought a cover from his own bed. 

She coaxed him to read, to write, to expound his wisdom.  In his last year in high school, he spent a week with her in her New York apartment working on an essay and a speech he was to give in a competition.  He won the contest and got an A on the paper, and she was not the least bit surprised.  She always knew he was smarter than he thought he was.

The sister’s life did not depend on his, but then she always thought he’d be somewhere she could reach him. He could be a great comfort . . . and he could be a painful cyst. Either way, he was there. She always knew he might precede her into the void. She just never believed it.

So odd to be the sister whose little brother has died. 

Rejecting the Father

Few people knew of my family as well as the denizens of Saranac Lake, our hometown in upstate NY.  We were eminently recognizable, especially to our fellow congregants of the First United Methodist Church.

There was no missing us.  Every Sunday, with the consistency of a Swiss train, we arrived for services.  Unlike that Swiss train, we were never on time. We were wont to arrive ten to fifteen minutes after the minister made his welcoming address.  The choir would be putting away hymnals, the congregation rifling through prayer books looking for the Apostles Creed, and we would make a grand entrance.  All nine of us. 

Each week, the same usher, an elderly man with a large red mole that sat like a laser pointer on the top of his bald head, would lead us to the nearest empty pew, and each week, Dad would ignore the designated bench and lead the way to one closer to the altar.  That way we could parade by the entire congregation.  Dad would step deliberately, serenely, looking neither to the right nor to the left, fixing his gaze on the cross and squinting his eyes in pious prayer.  His children would follow him like biblical offspring – Carla, David, Helen, Alfred, Elizabeth, and John – the issue of his begetting – and we always made a scene. I scolding the young ones in harsh whispers, the youngest ones squealing and climbing onto the back of the pew, the middle whining about someone picking on her, and others cowering close to mom, who had brought up the rear. 

I was perversely proud to be part of the disruption.   These people were my posse.  An exclusive club to which only a Swett could belong.  Long after I knew it to be untrue, I believed that to be a Swett was to be superior in every way. We were imbued with God’s favoritism.

Until I was eleven, which is when I learned that things were not as they appeared.

I was in  7th grade when against the advice of my English teacher, I read Exodus, which made me dizzy.  I began to piece together the German, Italian, and Serbian fragments I’d been hearing all my life,  the hushed despair as telegrams arrived, the silent brooding.  Reports of my grandmother’s mysterious trip to Vienna when I was a toddler. I knew they were Jews. But it never occurred to me . . . . 

 “God is love,”  my dad insisted. And I believed. But how does a loving God . . . ?

My mother was a deeply good person.  She never denied Jesus, and she never rejected Christianity. When I was little, she told me about the adored sister she lost to meningitis and the beloved brother who died of anaphylaxis. She agreed with Daddy when he explained that God took innocents to be with Him as a reward for their goodness, that they were happily in Heaven reaping their rewards. 

But this new information was unjustifiable.  God is love, but God permits genocide? 

I read the book in a single Friday night then spent Saturday processing the revelation.  I cornered my mother as she stood at the stove frying our weekend breakfast pancakes.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“About Hitler.  About the camps.  About Europe. . . .”

“What’s to tell?  I lived.  Not interesting. “

The next day, when my Sunday morning alarm rang, I pulled the covers over my head and burrowed more deeply into my pillow.  Dad knocked on my door, and the sound was muffled, but I heard and did not respond.

“Come on, Carla. It’s getting late.”

“Go away,” I called through the door.  “I’m not going.”

“My father laughed. “Of course you are.”

“Nope.  I’m done with church.”

“Stop being ridiculous.”

I got up and opened my door.  Dad had already descended to the landing of the grand stairway that was right outside my bedroom.  I stood at the doorway and watched him for a moment. He was waiting for me, examining the snow on the roof outside the small window.

I shuddered and addressed him in a near-whisper.

“I am not going, Daddy.”

He got very quiet.  I knew what was coming.  I had experienced it a few times, and I often watched my younger brother endure it.

 The belt. 

Dad pivoted, climbed the half-flight of stairs, and went to his bedroom.  I ducked back into my room, back under my covers.  I was a big girl.  He would leave me alone if I held my ground.

But he didn’t. 

Dad entered my room and dragged me out of bed, out of the room.  I tried to escape by bolting downstairs toward the front door, but I tripped on the third step and fell onto the landing.  Dad was already there and stood over me, staring, the belt poised.

I could not take my eyes off his knuckles. 

Suspended above his head, poised to strike, the knuckles were ominous. Bulging, red, striated by the bleeding cracks wrought by repetitive frostbite. His oversized, gnarled hands, scarred by physical labor, yellowed from cigarettes trembled under the strain, misleading in their appearance.  I knew those hands as the ones that soothed my night fears when he rubbed my head as he chanted the Canterbury Tales in sing-song middle-high English.  I braced myself and looked at his face.  He seemed about to cry. I sighed. He was not the kind of man who would beat a child for disagreeing with him.

I whispered desperately, “I won’t do it. I can’t.”

“Silly girl. Just get ready.  God will forgive you.  God is love.”

“No, he’s not,” I screamed at him.  “If God were love, mommy’s family would still be in Vienna. They’d still be Jewish. They’d still be  –”

Now, Dad’s face reddened and glistened with anger. His temple throbbed.  His April blue eyes darkened to a sinister gray.  I was sure the thrust was coming, so I jumped back,  thinking to break away. He caught me, and we struggled, locking one another in a desperate kind of wrestle hold.  If either of us let go, we would likely both fall down the steep stairs, undoubtedly to our deaths.   I held my breath and silently submitted.

He relaxed.

He calmly grabbed my shoulders and righted us both on the landing.  His face calmed.  The light returned to his eyes.

I heard my mother call us from the kitchen,  “Breakfast is getting cold.”

New London Daddy

Every summer until I was four, my mother’s older sister Herma and her Serbian artist husband Borislav invited the whole family to share their bungalow on a beach along the Long Island Sound in New London, CT.

My memory of the house – undoubtedly flawed by time and distance — is of a single-story expanse with multiple windows standing upright, tall in every room. Their diaphanous, draped white curtains fluttered and danced in the omnipresent breezes.  No matter how hot the air might be elsewhere, the briny, vanilla-scented cool of the beach enveloped us when we entered that house.

My father, usually staid, reticent, and subdued, transformed the minute we arrived. As he got out of our car, he shed his grumpy silence and turned giddy.  He seemed to me one of those sea creatures we used to order from the bubble gum cards.  Add water, we were told, and the creatures would animate.  Salt sea air was enough for Daddy. He would bound into the house, ebulliently embrace the assembled relatives, and rush to any corner that afforded him enough privacy to change into his swim trunks.

We children – the first three of eleven cousins-to-be – were always his first invitees. “I’m off to the water,” he’d announce. “Who’s with me?”

Cousin Peter, eight years older than I, remained aloof. He thought himself too mature to be so childishly exuberant. Johnny, eight months my junior, could only go where his mother took him. He adored my dad his Uncle Alfred, but he would stay behind.

I could not wait.  I would strip down to my crisp white drawers, ask my mother to secure my towhead mop into tight braids, and follow him into the gently undulating water. He walked slowly, watching my every move, coaching me to tiptoe carefully over rocks and shells, beckoning me to stop and marvel at the crabs and jellyfish that tickled my shins and scraped my toes.  Once, a crab mistook part of my foot for a tasty morsel and chomped down hard.  I screamed, more afraid than injured, and my father laughed.  “Too bad for that little guy. You’re way too big a prey for him.” 

In the afternoon, Dad would take a blanket down to the edge of the Sound, wrap himself up, put a hat on his head, and coo, “Nothing like the lullaby of the ocean to sing me to sleep,”

Then he would nap for what seemed like hours, while Peter, dressed in his cowboy chaps and holster, would point his toy pistol and chase Johnny and me all about the beach.  Our mothers would watch us, laughing and applauding, as though we were brilliant actors in a spellbinding film.

Nowhere else, at no other time were we all as insouciant as we were then. Uncle Borislav would join us on our beach blanket when he took a break from his easel, and if there were no Yankee game on the radio, Johnny’s father my Italian Uncle Fernando would be there as well. Borislav would do magic tricks, and Fred would tell silly jokes. No one ridiculed my father, cocooned nearby. We were, in those moments, entirely happy.

The best parts of any New London weekend were the early mornings. Daddy would wake me before dawn to walk with him and watch the tide come in.  We would stroll along the waterline, giggling at the horseshoe crabs scuttling away, peering strenuously into the darkness for a glimpse of a ship or a dolphin.  Wading in, we’d let the deepening water lap at our legs. 

Later , when the tide was lowest, he would invite me to a grand adventure.

“Come on,” he’d chortle. “Let’s walk to China.”

“I don’t want to go to China,” I’d laugh. “I wanna see Paris?”

“Sure!  But you have to hold my hand.  It’s a very long walk.”

As we walked further into the Sound, the water level remained unchanged for what seemed like miles. Further still, where I became buoyant, he’d hold me while I half swam among the sailboats lazing in the summer sunshine.

“Maybe we won’t get all the way to Paris today,” Daddy would sigh at last.  “Let’s come back tomorrow.”

Dad’s ordinarily worked tirelessly, as he had a lot to prove. To his in-laws, he sought to prove he was worthy of my smart, well-educated, cultured mother. To his children, he needed to prove that he was impervious. Most, of all, to himself, he had to prove he was worthy of redemption.

Work and prayer were his salvation. He had devoured Calvinism as a boy and was convinced that any outward show of happiness might bar his way to Heaven. Only by the water did he allow himself spontaneous expression of pure pleasure.  

At the beach I savored his fleeting laughter. I milked his joy and made it mine.