Notes From A Temporary Curmudgeon – Day 4

4. Mary Poppins Returns 

My daughter and I love Mary Poppins, and we share a high regard for Emily Blunt and Lin-Manual Miranda. How could we resist trekking to the theater the day the new film opened in Bangkok?

How could we know that the best part of the film was that which followed the previews but preceded the feature. The part where we stood at attention to show our abject admiration for the King of Thailand, to watch a short documentary covering his life story and listened respectfully to the rousing national anthem? After that, the experience was generally tedious and vacuous. A complete disappointment.

 Nothing was fresh except Blunt’s performance. Miranda’s expression never changed from beginning to end of the film, and his songs and scenes were sappy, over-acted, void of either humor or interest. Fortunately for us, some of the cartoons transfixed my grandson for a little while, and he was happy to eat popcorn and sit quietly. But before long, we had to pull out his little iPad so that he could return to the thrall (for the 90th or so time) of the endlessly repetitive episodes of Paw Patrol we had previously downloaded. I was relieved to have the Paw Patrol distraction myself. Rob Marshall’s film is a kettle of tasteless, rubbery squid. Not exactly delicious fare for a diehard vegan.

I know I’m not “normal.” I’m back to where I am with Mrs. Maisel. Everyone else loves the achievement. I feel like that lone little boy at the storybook parade shouting, “But the emperor is naked . . . .” At least with Mary Poppins, I am not alone. My daughter shared the displeasure.

This was especially upsetting for me. I am an inveterate Poppins fan. I began reading the books to myself before I was 5, and I read them to my many siblings in the intervening years before I grew up and shared them with my own progeny. I saw the trailer for Mary Poppins Returns, and I could not wait to see the whole movie – it looked like it might have something in common with the original P.L. Travers’ stories on which it was based.

Alas, I was wrong. This so-called adaptation bore almost no resemblance to the material co-writers David Magee and Rob Marshall theoretically translated for the screen.

Magee and Marshall eliminated everything Travers wrote. Except the title character, who is, I should add, played superbly by Emily Blunt. Were that she had had a script worthy of her talent.

To be fair, they did insert Blunt’s Poppins into momentary glimpses of the various sequels P.L.Travers actually wrote. For the most part, however, the writers have created an entirely new set of characters that they have stuffed into a story that is no more than a very distant cousin of the fantastical tales Travers told about her mesmerizing British nanny.

I have read that the writers at Disney found the original material too dark. Ironic that.

There must be a Disney trope that demands that, in order to be significant, a film for children must begin with youngsters dealing with the tragic and sudden loss of their mothers. This seems to constitute a leit-motif for young audiences. I’m confused. What’s darker than the premise that three children under 11 have had to grow up all too quickly in the wake of their mother’s horrific, untimely death?

The “too-dark” material of the P.L. Travers books features no dead mothers. In Travers’ Mary Poppins Comes Back or Mary Poppins Opens The Door, all the Banks family members are very much alive. Including the parents who first endure and then engage Mary Poppins over and over again. Jane has not grown up to defy her class station and take up the sword of socialism as is her Emily Mortimer film shade, and Michael Banks is not the widower portrayed by Ben Whishaw.

Both siblings remain children through every one of the Poppins books. Two of five very realistic children, in fact. Their fantasies are not always sweetness and light, but they are always wildly creative. The children wander in and out of conundrums and dilemmas they encounter in their dream worlds, but they never fail to come home to their ever-loving if somewhat misguided parents. Two of them.

Conversations with sea slugs and other unlikely animal heroes, who figure adorably and prominently in the books, are apparently too disturbing for a children’s film. By contrast, the threat of homelessness is clearly unthreatening enough an adventure for modern children. The original Travers material never once suggests, as the film insists, that the house the family lives in is in jeopardy. Mary Poppins’ role as savior is to liberate the children from the ignominy of unmannerly behavior. She protects them from the failure to be imaginative. She struggles against their individual and collective loss of innocence. She never has to fight thwart the bank manager’s evil intentions.

Obviously, Travers wrote far too darkly for a children’s musical.

On the other hand, a dance sequence populated by multitudinous men cavorting with a single female becomes, in the world of Disney, no more than a tasteful romp. Dozens of dirty chimney sweeps in step with one young Poppins and a leering Miranda felt creepy to me. Not one female dancer in the crowd. I guess kids must accept that women can never be cast as chimney sweeps (we certainly can’t ask women to play males), especially not in the 1950s version of the 1890s that’s been put on this screen. It just wouldn’t be right.

An aside here . . . did the Script supervisor not notice that the skyline shots were far too modern for the theoretical setting?

In both Mary Poppins Comes Back and Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Travers takes the children to places where they are forced to learn about their responsibilities to self and country, to parents and each other. Many of the characters are loony. But there is no person or situation nearly as sinister as any of those Marshall interjects into his version.

In the book, for example, Mrs. Turvy, played in the film by Meryl Streep, is madly contrary. She has to be. She is happily married to Mr. Topsy. The concept of a husband-wife partnership in comic turmoil must have been a controversial concept for Marshall and his merry men. Mr. Topsy has been eliminated from the film. The magical couple that spends most of their episode laughing at the absurdity of it all have been replaced by the innocuous cardboard figure allotted to Ms. Streep. Turvy without Topsy floats obnoxiously in a tone-deaf, flat-bottomed skiff of a song. Oh well, at least there’s a happy message — Meryl Streep can still do accents.

My favorite of the Travers sequels was Mary Poppins Comes Back. Poppins returns just when Jane and Michael appear to be turning into impossible children. They won’t bathe properly, won’t sit at the table long enough to finish eating, won’t speak respectfully to their parents. The Banks family has expanded to include twins Jon and Barbara, who are just about to age out of infancy and become toddlers.

Another aside here: Unfortunately, Marshall wrote Jon and Barbara out of the equation entirely, along with Annabel, the youngest child, who appears somewhat later. I understand compressing the three characters into one. Composite characters are a great way to avoid clutter. But did they have to dump three children and add a Georgie? Would a spirited little girl child have been less viable an idea than this vapidly incorrigible Georgie Disney has invented here?

Anyway, in Mary Poppins Comes Back, the twins’ moment of maturity is a poignant one. Their friend the local starling, who lives on the Banks’ second story ledge, has been coming daily to converse at length with the twins, who have always been fluent in starling. Then one day he arrives and asks, as he does every day, for a bit of biscuit. Neither twin responds. Neither twin is pleased to see him. Neither twin has anything to say. Poppins explains to the frustrated starling that human children lose their ability to talk to animals when they are no longer infants, no longer connected to their primitive past.

Yup that’s just the kind of scary reality that could keep your preschoolers up at night. Good thing this film has protected us by providing the un-terrifying mediocrity of a meaningless script peopled by vacuous characters performing derivative musical numbers.

Thank goodness my grandkids are safe. 

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Notes From the Temporary Curmudgeon – Day 3

3. Being a mouthy, Western woman in Asia.

Every time I return to Asia – and I have been going periodically for the past seven years – I realize how entirely out of place I am there.

To begin with, I hate the climate and the air pollution over there. As soon as I step out of the airport in Taiwan or in Bangkok, I am reminded of Tom Hanks emerging from the airplane that has taken him to Thailand in Volunteers (HBO Pictures, 1985). “Oooh. Jeezuz H. Christ,” he moans, shielding his eyes from the glare above him. “We must be a mile from the sun.”

Bangkok p0llution this week

The air is hot and steamy, and the smog drifting in from China sits squarely overhead.Pollution index hovers characteristically in winter between red (horrible) and purple (get out).

 

“China is the single largest source of PM2.5 pollution, not motor vehicles or power plants. . . .”

I’m a New Yorker. My feet are my transportation of choice. I cannot walk in Asia.

Pedestrian travel is high risk. In the first place, sidewalks are rare. In Taoyuan, Taiwan, where my family lives, a beautiful, broad sidewalk will disappear at the end of a block, dumping the walker, trike rider, stroller pusher, or other intrepid walker into the narrow street. The oncoming drivers, especially those on motor bikes, hardly see anything that might impede them. They rarely notice anyone, least of all women on foot. They bear no obligation to observe caution and avoid colliding with the living beings clogging up their streets.

In Bangkok, sidewalks are equally intermittent and rare.

Those that do exist are too crowded for easy navigation. Street food vendors, priests and their sacred altars, resting Maylaysian workers, and full-sized trees in gigantic planters in the center of the walkway impede foot traffic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In both countries, the law has little or no bearing on drivers’ behaviors. In Taiwan, motorbikes swarm through red lights without so much as slowing down. In Bangkok, drivers customarily bend or break all traffic laws. Crossing a street there is no less dangerous than crossing the Grand Canyon on a tight rope.

In Asia, my northern European structure makes me feel like an abominable snowman publically, embarrassingly melting. I’m too big, too loud, too profane, too averse to obsequies. My feet are gigantic, and I galumpf into rooms where my dainty, demurely quiet Asian counterparts stare at the anomaly that is me. I. Me.

I try to hide my frustrations when I am unable to make myself understood, but my resting face insists on looking angry, and my voice insists on blaring above a whisper. I am incapable of delicacy.

Worst of all, I am a quintessential New Yorker. I voice my pleasure as well as my displeasure in every situation. I yell at drivers who try to kill me. That is not the custom in Asia. There, it is considered impolitic, uncouth to complain even in situations where there are legitimate reasons for complaint. I read recently that in the Buddhist community, complaining or scolding disrupts the karma of the person being addressed. I don’t want to hurt anyone, so I try to remember to bury my discomfort.

Which often whips up a perfect storm. If I hold back, I am frustrated. If I let go, I am embarrassed. Either way, I’m guilt-ridden.

I’ll never be compatible with that world.

Notes from the Temporary Curmudgeon – Day 2

2.The Great Let-Down – The Amazing Mrs. Maisel!!  

Even to those of us who subscribe to the various entertainment portals, there is a distinct limit on what is available for consumption overseas. Netflix is quite generous, offering a wide range of choices, but I had watched all I cared to see on the interminable flights over. Which I thought was okay as I could not wait to binge on The Amazing Mrs. Maisel. But ten minutes into the first episode, I was already fed up with this season’s offering.

Sorry, my many friends and family who love this show. I’m no longer with you!

The show seems to have diminished to a series of one-liners delivered by hollow caricatures posing as characters, every one of which is a solipsist with no genuine concern for anyone else. The writers resort to easy, improbable resolutions for every dilemma, and they vacillate between including awareness of the title character’s children and forgetting they exist. No kidding – I was screaming for a Script Supervisor watching the second episode, when the baby was left in the car for hours, and no one even remembered she was there till nearly the next day.

Clearly, the writers have not studied Chekov’s rules for writers of scenes and short stories. There are dozens of interludes, characters, props that exist with no tie to anything essential. And there are far too many props, characters, and interludes that portend surprise and fail to deliver. The Jewish characters are played by fakers, who have no clue what it means to be Jewish, and the script relies on Clichés and stereotypes to tell their ridiculous tales.

Which brings my rant to something more widespread than simply a problem in an Amazon original series.

When will Hollywood get it that it’s okay for Jews to play Jews?

Yellow facing has ended. Asians are hired to play screen versions of themselves. Hollywood and the outlying broadcast gods make at least a modicum of effort to cast Native Americans (including native South and Central Americans) in native roles, to allow South Asians to play Indian and Pakistani characters, etc. Yet gentiles still play Jews pretending to be Jewish. Pretending. Not acting.

This is all part of a long-standing tradition with Jewish characters in film and television. Jews are rarely played as deeply nuanced, real-life people. Instead, they persist as cardboard cutouts. Cartoons. Intensely, grotesquely broad-stroked, either ultra-religious, ultra evil, or ultra ridiculous. In this series, we are totally, ridiculously evil and pseudo-religious.

We all laughed back in 1960 when Otto Preminger cast Sal Mineo as Dov Landau, whom Leon Uris wrote as a scrawny, malnourished concentration camp inmate, who barely survived by learning the art of counterfeiting. Preminger didn’t trust the author’s character and changed him to a swarthy, hale and hearty explosives expert. Okay, it was the ‘60s. And Preminger was making a statement.

A box-office statement enhanced by his casting the gorgeously gentile Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan. At the time few knew that, as Adam Sandler would attest, Newman was half-a-Jew.

Jews were used to being played by Italians and WASPS. Gregory Peck was terrific in Gentleman’s Agreement, but he sure wasn’t believably Jewish. It was okay. We all understand that films were, as they still are, driven by their potential ticket sales. In the 1960s the Jewish actors with the mojo to put bums in seats were scarce at most.

The actors were there in Hollywood. Working undercover. Because once upon a time in the West being Jewish – like being gay or Lena Horn black, etc. – out in the open, was to concede to a career of being consigned to playing Native Americans and Asians and all those “lesser” ethnicities who couldn’t get SAG cards.

Today there are many Jewish people out there in the entertainment world. They are out in the open. And as popular as any of the goyim. Which renders ridiculous that British gentile Clair Foy should be cast as Brooklyn-bred, defiantly Jewish Ruth Bader Ginsberg (On the Basis of Sex). The days when one would cast Sir Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi are thankfully behind us. Clair Foy was a remarkable Queen of England, but as a Jewish intellectual, she’s a silly cartoon.

I guess I’d be less insulted if I thought Rachel Brosnahan, Tony Shalhoub, and Marin Hinkle deserved all the accolades they’re getting. All three are wonderful actors – I am a particular fan of Tony Shalhoub. But they have all swerved way out of their lanes. Their accents are as flat as their affect. None of them made me laugh, despite being in constant one-liner delivery mode. They all persist in imitating characters for whom they lack empathy. There are so many terrific Jewish actors out there. Why was none of them cast?

It would have be so nice to have our people look like real people for a change.

Notes From a Temporary (we hope) Curmudgeon – Day 1

From the week before Christmas till the penultimate week of January, I was in Asia. For some of the time, I was in Taoyuan, Taiwan then moved for the last two weeks to Bangkok, Thailand. I was immersed in the world of the two-year-old grandson, who was my constant companion.

That meant that, for the most part, I was absorbed intellectually and emotionally by the mercurial disposition of the little boy. But when he descended into the quiet of sleep, I found brief opportunities for critical thought, just before the curtain of fatigue closed over my brain. The internet was unstable, but I was able to search intermittently for both news of home and moments of entertainment. Thus, in the narrow alleyways of my own mind as it intersected with the limited scope of the available worldwide web, I found enough material to support a series of rants.

I was unusually cranky. It was hot in Asia. I am no fan of high temperatures. The hot weather exacerbated the extreme anxiety wrought of my distanced observation of the travesty that has become my beloved country.

From over there, it was difficult to assess the degree to which my homeland’s future was tenuous, but it wasn’t hard to picture the Orange Imposter standing on the steps of the Capitol Building grinning while Washington burned. A hideous manifestation of

Theater of the Absurd — an ersatz president strutting and fretting his too long hour upon the stage, pizzicato-ing across the instrument of our American government, threatening to pop the strings and break the neck. My reaction to things was probably more negative than it might have been had I stayed home.

I declaim my rants. I realize I am a victim of my own White Privilege, preyed upon by my sensitivity to an unstable internet connection and an Asian climate.

I acknowledge here that I am an outlier. My opinions and reactions reflect (nearly) none of my confederates’, my cohorts’, my co-anyones’. I react on my own, according to my own lens.

Thus beginneth the venting of my steam. . . Over the next few days, one rant a day. . .

1. The journey across the world.

I usually fly Taiwan’s own EVA Air. The service is terrific, the bathrooms are immaculate, the 777s offer sufficient leg room for my aching knee. Best of all, the company offers slippers that make it easy to shed shoes and still wander the ample aisle space and ward off PAD (peripheral Arterial disease). Unfortunately, I was traveling at exactly the same time as the myriad Asian kids leaving their American schools to spend the holidays at home, and EVA was booked solid.

I resorted to Qatar.

The flight over was miserable. Puddles in the bathrooms threatened dropped clothing, and in the absence of complimentary slippers, stocking feet. The

Airbus E350 has aisles too narrow for easy navigation. The endless sitting made my inner thighs ache. Seats are configured such that I was unable to sit up straight, and the strain on my back worsened as each of the 13 hours it took to get to the first stop (Doha) dragged on. No inflight entertainment soothed the soul either. Every film on the agenda was an action or horror film. I’m too old for those. Instead, I watched the Netflix shows I had downloaded, which meant that I used up the shows I was saving for later.

Truth is, I was already predisposed to be disgruntled. Unlike most airlines, Qatar’s policy is to charge a customer $350 when s/he makes a reservation and changes within 24 hours. The website promised a 72-hour grace period, but it turned out that was only for tickets purchased online.The website was inaccessible on the evening I wanted to book. The price they advertised was expiring that night so I phoned Qatar Air and booked with the company. It turned out that I had chosen the incorrect date and had to cancel. only two hours after booking. Hence, I was obliged to forfeit the $350.

I hope I will never have to fly Qatar again. (NB: There is an addendum to this entry at the end of the book of rants.)

 

A Note from the Writing Teacher. . .

To my students, who are struggling with personal essays. . .

So, for me, the pleasure in writing comes from the careful choreography of words and phrases, the shaping of a dance that is the process of making a story. No piece is ever entirely free of ways to make it better, but through thoughtful revision, any writing can be rendered fit to perform.

I’ve been writing the same story for over two years. There have been many versions, some comprising around 3,000 words, one over 10,000. I struggle. How do I tell this story most effectively? How many substories– digressions — do I allow into the narrative? That’s the challenge. That’s the dance.

Is this dance a tango, a foxtrot? Could it be a three-act ballet?

Here’s the story. It’s about my mother. Specifically about my mother and her relationship to her cello. When she and her family were forced to leave Europe and leave behind everything and everyone they loved, she was told she could take only one thing with her. She chose, of all things, her cello. Imagine fleeing across Europe, being stopped at every border by guards who would kill you with little provocation, dragging a cumbersome cello. That cello must have symbolized the whole world she was abandoning. More than that. It contained her sister’s soul – her near-twin sister, her closest ally and dearest companion, who had died a few years earlier. That cello conveyed the music her own mother had lost the ability to sing.

I knew that instrument. I was an only child for nearly four years, and every night she would play as I lay awake wrestling my own fears trying to sleep. I had absorbed from her a sense of foreboding, a fear of dangers I could only intuit. Dangers I suspected she escaped but didn’t know how to name. She could not speak them. But in the dulcet voice of the cello, all her losses, all her pain, seemed to grow tolerable. I could hear her face relax, her smile broaden. All those memories of love and sorrow seemed to have found a place in her heart where she could love them without malice.

My father broke the cello. He didn’t mean to, but he ruined it. How does he fit into this tale? If I tell the whole tale, it becomes sadder.

Shall I write about the flight from Europe and the way the cello facilitated her adjustment to America? Do I write about the way the cello soothed our collective lives? Or do I write about my parents’ marriage and how the death of the cello killed it? That’s all contained within the scope of this project. Each iteration has more or less of every aspect. And then some.

Like the way I tried to emulate and heal that woman. How I wanted her to love me as much as she loved that cello. How much of that should I keep in . . . or edit out?

I wrestle with this the way you wrestle with perfecting your personal essays. You want to tell a story. But you are not sure which story will it be. How do you narrow it down?

A journal helps. You can make notes, write passages, tinker with time and place. Which story can you tell most openly, holding the least of your emotion back? Into which one do you feel most comfortable immersing yourself? Follow that one. . . even if it leads you into steps you never expected to learn. In the end, choose the story that chooses you. It will. At some point, while you’re searching for the right words, hoping for the best inspiration, it will tap you on the shoulder and ask you for your hand.

And that’s when the dance will begin in earnest.

 

A Cousin is a Cousin for A’ That. . . .

Cousins!

“Someone had best pinch me,” Lesley said dreamily. “Never mind. I’ll pinch myself. This is all so unreal.”

I nodded. It’s the kind of statement I might otherwise have thought hyperbolic. Silly even. But at that moment I found it utterly appropriate.

Lesley is my second cousin. We had just met for the very first time at the home of our mutual (also second) cousin Nancy, in Columbus, Ohio. Until only recently, none of us was aware of the others’ existence. Nancy and I were lucky. We knew what had been lost. We had expected to find family members waiting to be discovered. Lesley, on the other hand, had no idea. Having grown up without an extended family, she had no inkling there were relatives of any kind anywhere. Pinching was definitely prescribed.

The preparations for our meeting actually began two years ago. Out of the blue, I heard from Nancy, a shadow from a part of my past I only vaguely remembered. We had a shared history, but it was fleeting, and I had to squint through my memory to recall her.

A month apart in age, Nancy and I played together as small children. We share great-grandparents by way of our mothers, the first cousins. Nancy’s grandfather Joseph was second and my grandmother Rudolfine the last of the ten children born to Chane and Hermann Zwilling between 1883 and 1899. In our early youth, our mothers were in close touch, but over time, distances grew between them, and Nancy and I grew up far apart from one another. Now, as age would have it, our heritage demanded that we reconnect and explore our common roots.

Chane and Hermann Zwilling were a storybook couple.

Chane & Hermann Zwilling, circa 1907

They were born, met and married in Ukraine during the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century. Unique among their peers, they lived happily ever after. Following the birth of their first child, they moved to Warsaw and from there to Vienna, all the while managing to escape or survive multiple tragedies, the tropes of Jewish History. Each of their ten children slipped past disease and hunger, infection and violence, through infancy into adulthood. All were gifted musicians, artists, thinkers, and their weekly reunions were effervescent celebrations of being alive.

Luckiest of all was that by the time of the Anschluss Österreichs, Chane and Hermann Zwilling had long since begun whiling away eternity in Vienna’s Zentral Friedhof, its largest cemetery. They never had reason to suspect the marauding madness of Nazism.

Their offspring, however, were endangered. All but Nancy’s grandfather, that is.

Joseph had left Vienna in 1910. His adamant support of Socialism and his refusal to serve as a soldier in the Hapsburg army led to a quarrel with Hermann. “The Hapsburgs do nothing but breed like rabbits,” he exclaimed, and with that, he entered self-imposed exile. In New York City.

By 1928, the rest of the tribe had begun gathering the resources needed to get out. Out of Vienna, out of Austria, out of Europe if possible.

My own grandparents actively began their process in 1929 when they moved to Zagreb, then Yugoslavia. Anti-Semitism was still more subtle there, and a Jewish man could earn a decent wage, save and prepare to get his large extended family to safety.

In 1939, a year after the Anschluß, Nancy’s grandfather and grandmother met my grandmother and her family at the docks in New York. It was Joseph who secured the Harlem apartment that was my mother’s first American home. Together, our grandparents continued to work toward helping the rest of the Zwillings to flee as well.

They scattered. Sisters Milka, Ella, and Cilli escaped to Palestine; from there, two traveled to Australia and the other to Canada. Brother Heinrich found a circuitous route to Sao Paolo, Brazil, and Adolph took his family to Genoa, Italy.

There would be no more family reunions.

Oldest brother Max and two more brothers Ferdinand and Franz were stranded in Vienna. Franz, who had embraced Catholicism to marry his Slovenian sweetheart Elsa years before, realized conversion was not enough to save them. By 1939, all three brothers knew their prospects were slim. But at least they knew that the children were safe.

By 1940, thanks to my grandfather’s insistence and some financial assistance, the cousins were safely out of Austria.

Max and his wife Paula had two teenage daughters, and Franz and Elsa had one son. All three were among the 100,000 youngsters who wound up in the UK through the Kindertransport, an organized rescue effort facilitated by the British government. The girls enrolled in a nurses training program in the west of England, and Franz’s son Herman went to a pig farm outside of London.

Franz and his wife had reason to hope they would be safe. However, Max and Paula were artists and intellectuals with few prospects for escape. Ferdinand, a bookbinder and a musician by trade, a small homosexual man with a seriously deformed back, was doomed.

Ferdinand’s passport was confiscated immediately after the Nazis took over. They refused to allow him to travel until February 1941, when they deported him to Mali Trostinec, a death camp outside Minsk. There is no date of death listed on Ferdinand’s transportation records. In all likelihood, as soon as the train reached the Mali Trostinec station, Ferdinand was summarily shot.

In May of the following year, Max and Paula were also sent to Mali Trostinec. Max was gassed on the first of June, and Paula followed him twenty-six days later.

Franz and Elsa seemed to have scored a better outcome. In 1940, they were granted permission to depart, and they arranged to reunite with their son. Despite the obvious dangers of the raging war, they set sail for England.

Once in London, the couple settled into a hotel to await their son’s arrival the next day. Overnight, the heater malfunctioned. When Elsa awoke coughing and choking, she found Franz dead beside her. He had been gassed. Carbon monoxide.

After the war, through the 1950s and into the 60s, the surviving Zwilling siblings reached out and let one another know where they had gone. By 1963, my grandmother had managed to visit Adolph in Genoa and Ella in Canada. Letters traveled back and forth for years between New York and Australia. She never knew what had happened to Franz or the precise fate of Max, Paula, and Ferdinand. She found comfort in knowing most of her nephews and nieces had escaped.

Except for one who died flying for the RAF, the next generation of Zwilling progeny were safe. They, too, all members of the same close-knit family that gathered so frequently to make music together, sought one another out. Max’s daughters immigrated to the US, and the younger of the two was married in my grandmother’s backyard in Bayside, Queens. But not all were able to reconnect.

The cousins in Brazil and Europe remained out of reach. As far as my mother knew, Franz’s wife Elsa and his son Herman had vanished. It was Nancy who discovered that the information was incorrect.

Nancy is an only child, whose mother was an only child. Since Joe and his wife had left all their effects to Nancy’s mother, it was Nancy who ultimately inherited the task of sorting through all her family papers and memorabilia. A child psychologist who has written two impressive books on the acquisition of language and numbers, Nancy is a brilliant researcher with a highly disciplined, organized mind and methodology. The first thing she did when she began the mission was to catalog her parents’ miscellany.

In the dizzying piles of paper and photographs, she found letters to her father from a Harry Willing. Who was this Harry Willing? And how did he know her father?

In 2015, when Nancy contacted me, she had just begun the massive task of clarifying the family history.

“Come to Columbus and help me with this thing,” she invited me. “I’ll share the cost of the travel because I could really use some assistance.”

I was intrigued.

“Really,” Nancy insisted in her most erudite academic voice. “I’ve hired a genealogist, a genealogical detective,” Nancy explained. “He’s searching in the ruins for all of them.”

Among the detective’s impressive discoveries was that this Harry Willing was the name Franz’s son Herman Zwilling took when he was confirmed into the Church of England. The letters to Nancy’s father began to make sense. Among them were photos of Franz and Elsa before Franz’s death and photos of Elsa and Harry thereafter. There were also photos of Harry’s family – he had a daughter Lesley and a son Martin. Both still live in London.

“Let’s see if we can make contact,” Nancy enthused, and she immediately wrote to the addresses her sleuth had given her. She was not able to find Martin, but Lesley was well within reach and thrilled to be contacted.

Last May, Nancy and her husband visited Lesley and hers in the UK. There is no way to capture the emotional impact that reunion had on all of us. For Lesley, it was most profound.

“I thought my father was alone in the world,” she told Nancy at that first meeting. “I never dreamed I had any kind of family but the one I’ve made.”

Lesley and I began corresponding. “I feel like I have to meet you,” she said soon after her day with Nancy. “I need more time with Nancy, and I need to see you.”

She was hesitant at first to venture over to the US. Though she and her husband are inveterate travelers, Lesley had never gone off on her own.

Luckily for all of us, however, Lesley was driven by her curiosity.

We converged on Nancy’s home and spent three days talking incessantly. We were awake each night well past our bedtimes, and for Lesley that meant staying up past a bedtime that was five hours earlier than Nancy’s and mine. We shared pictures, stories, observations. We crowed about our children, grandchildren, Lesley’s one great-grandchild. We compared medical histories, and we examined the emotional vacuums of our parents’ collective memories.

We are all nearly the same age, and we all grew up with parents who didn’t know how to convey the emotional depths to which their losses had taken them. They were unable to talk about where they’d been, what they’d suffered. I first unearthed the basic truths about the family’s ordeals when I was eleven and had read a novel set in and after the Holocaust. Animating the stories became my passion. Even so, there were things no one disclosed. As my mother’s older sister was wont to say, “There are things we just don’t talk about.”

For Nancy, the discovery came a bit later. She began to ferret out information when she was in college and later turned to a more methodical approach to learning about them. She could not ask her parents. She could only intuit how their lives fit into those she read about in the literature.

For Lesley, the past was a void. She told us she always felt there was something huge missing from her life, but she had no idea what it might be.

Franz Zwilling, ca. 1935

What she did know was that Franz’s death left a hole in her soul. Had he lived, she surmised, her life would have been far different from the one she knew. Harry and his wife were not warm, nurturing people, and Lesley was left on her own much of the time. There was among them little physical contact at all, no expressions of affection. As a shield, she held fast to the image of the distinguished, beautiful man depicted in the single photograph she had of her grandparents, and, “Somehow I knew that if he were alive, he would have loved me the way I deserved to be loved.”

 

 

 

 

When the weekend was over, Lesley, Nancy and I had bonded like sisters. Cousins. It felt as though we had begun to heal the great gash that persists in our family narrative. Someday perhaps we’ll have this encounter with the other second cousins scattered about the world, and we’ll close the circle.

In the meantime, our Ohio weekend was transformative.

“You’ve filled my heart,” Leslie sobbed as we tearfully hugged goodbye at the airport. “There was always a piece of myself I knew was not there. But I had no idea where to look for it. You’ve given it back. I feel complete.”

The Zwilling Tribe,1900. When their youngest child (on Chane’s lap) was born in 1899, she was named Rudolfine. “But, declared old Hermann, “we shall call her Fini. She is the last of my issue. With this one I am fini.” Behind the three,(l-r) are Ella, Joseph, Max, Milka. to Hermann’s right is Ferdinand; at Chane’s right is Cillia, and to her left is Franz. Seated in the front are Adolph and Heinrich.

Judgment Day

The Face of Heroism

I met my neighbor on the bus the other day. We began our conversation, as we are wont to do, by exchanging details about our various children and grandchildren before falling into the usual lamentations.

“Can you believe what. . . “

“No, I feel like I’m living in a cave reeking of batshit.”

“Right? Nothing makes any sense anymore. . . How can so much doubt remain when three women. . . .“

We nodded, shook our heads, tzikached profusely. Kavanaugh, his accusers, the tradition of blaming women. We shared mutual condolences.

Then I made the mistake of saying, “All this, and Bill Cosby gets only THREE years for drugging and raping –“

She jumped in.

“Well, it was only one woman. Three years seems reasonably punitive for an old man. Especially because we can only prove it happened once.”

What?

“Further,” she went on. “A young woman has the right to say no. You accept a dinner invitation from a Bill Cosby, you know what he wants. What are you doing going out with him at all?”

I realized talking to this woman, whose intelligence and empathy I generally trust, why we older women continue to be part of the disconnect in America. The rules have changed, and instead of embracing the new world order, our judgment remains crippled by old standards.

When my neighbor and I were young, the so-called Sexual Revolution was just getting underway. We got caught up in it, and as we did, we endured the disapproval and shame of the society that had not yet embraced its precepts. We were called sluts, easy women, weaklings without morals. Women were not supposed to explore options, to experiment with sex, to enjoy it. Their imperative was to comply with the wishes of the patriarchy.

We knew that if we spoke out about our experiences with assault, molestation, denigration – and believe me, I know NO one who has had those experiences – we would only besmirch our own good names. I was keenly aware that when I turned down s casting director’s demand for a blowjob, when I eschewed the opportunity to gratify an employer, I was ruining my chances to move forward professionally or personally. I would become the subject of gossip. I would be ostracized not only by the would-be usurper himself but by everyone he either supervised or collaborated with.

I was lucky in that way. I never felt like I had nowhere to go when things didn’t work out for me where I was. There was no driving compunction to give in to male impulses. There was always a refuge. My mother joked about the swinging door on the family home, and my grandmother kept the apartment in her basement stocked, furnished and ready for any time I might opt to leave where I was in order return and begin yet again.

I began many times. We did in those days. Marriage removed us from the fray. It gave us a comfortable hiding place, an awning to protect us from the inevitable detritus that would drop out of that man’s world. Marriage was admirable. No more shame. No more idiotic comments about single women from other women.

In my single days, a self-righteous matriarch told me my hips looked like they were spreading. That, she said, was a true sign I was sleeping around. “Easy virtue, spreading hips,” she sneered. In marriage, we could watch our hips spread with childbearing and be proud of our sexual activity.

We took it all in. In our hearts, however, we rejected the notion that the traditions must continue. We raised our daughters to push back, to stand up to the men who were holding them down. In the process, we taught our daughters to hate that we were not able to do that for ourselves. We forgot to teach our daughters what it was like to be entirely ruled by the parameters of the ruling penises, what it felt like to be unable to open a bank account, have a credit card, rent a car, buy a house without a man’s name attached to ours.

No matter how they judged us. We taught them to refuse to comply.

Now many of us look at them and feel a pang of regret. Maybe they are right about us. If they are successful in fighting back, why were we paralyzed? If they can achieve some kind of retribution, why did we succumb? What is wrong with us?

Nothing. We got our restraint from our own mothers, women who had survived the Great Depression, escaped the horrors of two world wars, fought for the right to work outside the home. Many of them were born before or shortly after the 19th Amendment allowed them to vote. We honored their achievement and initiated the Women’s Movement. We applauded our more brazen sisters who publically burned their bras. We hitchhiked through Europe singing protest songs and making the case for an ERA. And then we raised our daughters to say, “NO.”

But our self-doubt, our self-chastisement can lead to a lapse in judgment so that we say stupid things like, “There was only one. . . .”

Too many of my peers are willing to look the other way as Kavanaugh steamrolls toward confirmation. More shockingly, I learned this week that my 27 Freshman Comp students at a city university, 25 of whom are female, do not know who Anita Hill is. They are nearly as complacent as my cohorts in age about the fact that Rachel Mitchell, a hardline Republican, a friend of criminal Sherrif Arpaio, is conducting Dr. Ford’s hearings. Have our misgivings encouraged our daughters to teach our granddaughters to remain silent? I hope not.

We live in dangerous times. The patriarchy recognizes that women must be silenced. Again. That they are in danger of coming unhinged if we are not checked. It’s dangerous to defend Bill Cosby or to question Dr. Christine Ford Blasey’s veracity. Every time one of us does that, they are victorious.

We don’t have to let them win.

There are plenty of liberated women and men to take the legislature from the ruling, oligarchic party. There are enough enlightened women and their male allies to upend the system. Women need not be dismissed, abused, assaulted, denigrated. We have sat by and allowed the maltreatment to go on long enough. Women in my generation owe it to our country to take a firm stand against the fetid tide.

It’s time for us to remind our daughters what we are made of.