Archive | March, 2013

A side: The Whitlams and me

23 Mar

The Whitlams’ “No Aphrodisiac like Loneliness” from their album “The Eternal Nightcap” is my Barthes-like “punctum” for our Australian life. Hearing the song takes me back immediately to a specific time and place that encapsulates my fondest memories of Canberra. It’s Australia Day (January 26), 1997, and we’re listening to Triple J’s Hottest 100 in our rented house in Narrabundah. This was the house with the grouchy sisters as landladies, but with the great garden in the back, filled with raspberry bushes and a fig tree. We had five chooks, including Clementine, my little spotted Staffordshire hen who had perfect little white eggs. They laid eggs all over the garden, and we would find little clutches of them weeks later behind some bush. The neighbor behind us had put up a mirror to distract the currawongs from bothering his garden; one of them was so fascinated by his reflection he would talk to it all day. George made his best pond in that backyard, and we had frogs that came from spawn captured on the Naas River up in Namadgi (we didn’t know we really weren’t supposed to do that! But the frogs thrived in our yard). The fig tree got fruit bats at night, and flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos landed in the yard and started squawking at about 5 in the morning. We had magpies that would come to the back door to be fed, and a couple of them would sometimes lean up against the hot brick wall of the house in the summer, in a heat-induced stupor. The Narrabundah house is also the one where we actually had a full-grown kangaroo come into the carport one day; when I opened the door and saw him, he lazily hopped away down the street.

On that Australia Day, I had been sober for about two years, and still went back to Woden Valley Hospital’s detox unit for Living Sober nights. Max was 14 1/2, going to Narrabundah College and the International Baccalaureate program which he hated us having him do at the time, because he had to get up so early. He was really into Triple J then–he turned us on to The Whitlams–and after we listened to the Hottest 100, we tuned into our favorites, Roy & HG, for the most characteristically Aussie humor imaginable. I still miss those guys, whose repartee is nearly impossible to explain to a non-Australian. (And were they reporting on The Ashes Test that day? I can’t remember.)
And this song! So irreverent, but so romantic, too. Perfectly Australian in its poetic flippancy and sexy undertones.
The weather is hot, there’s a bit of a buzz in the air, because there will be fireworks–Aussies love their fireworks. A visit to Fyshwick Markets would have happened the day before, for good German deli products and a conversation with Tony the fruiterer, who would be yelling out “Up the Roos!” to support his Melbourne AFL team.
Very happy, very content, and with The Whitlams playing.

A side: Eva

10 Mar


This picture was sent to me by Eva’s oldest friend Melitta. That’s Eva and Melitta together with their mothers and Eva’s brother George at Unterach am Attersee in the Salzkammergut region of Austria, ca. 1935.  Talk about a world that’s gone!! When Viennese Jews thought of themselves first and foremost as Austrians who happened to be Jewish. They’re wearing dirndls, for heavens’ sakes! All gone, all gone.

Since I have spent the last two weeks talking about my friend Eva on Facebook and elsewhere, I thought it was time to write out the whole story somewhere, and although I have yet to really master this blog, this seems the best place for such an extended biographical vignette. So here it goes:
I have to go back to Portland, Oregon, 1973, when I worked at my first professional job as a librarian at Portland State University. I had left Denver in emotional tumult–having extricated myself from an abusive relationship and pining for another one who had just gotten divorced and was afraid to commit (that would be George), I was fairly open to whatever came my way. In stepped Larry, who met me in the PSU cafeteria while holding a meeting there with other members of the Young Socialist Alliance. I was at another table, but for some reason, he decided to come and try and recruit me to visit one of their meetings. He became the most persistent suitor I ever had. I was curious about his politics, and he liked to go to nice restaurants. So we became a couple for a few months that year. I never officially joined the YSA, but I did participate in their demonstrations and rallies, and I even sold The Guardian on the streets of Portland. At the time, Larry was driving a  semi truck to Seattle delivering the mail–remember the Socialist commitment to being the working class, even though not of the working class? I was very skeptical of all that rhetoric in the party, and the ENDLESS meetings seemed silly to me (I’ve never been one for meetings), but I shared their views on lots of stuff. I did think it was ridiculous for Larry–good intellectual son of a medical researcher–to be driving a truck, and I told him I thought he should go back to college. But I’m getting ahead of myself: I think one of the things that attracted Larry to me was that I was 1) into art and art history; and 2) I had a love and passion for all things Viennese. He kept telling me about his mother–who was an artist and who had had to escape the Nazis in Vienna when she was a little girl, but who was still very attached to Vienna.
Right after I moved in to Larry’s Socialist household–our phones were tapped, and we found out later that the printer where we had our posters made up reported us all the time to the FBI–I learned that I had been awarded a Fulbright to study in Germany starting in September of that year. So we parted ways: Larry did indeed go back to New York and college, and became a big-time OSHA consultant and gave up his Socialist outlook, becoming very rich instead. Before I left, he gave me one of his mother’s nice batiks, which I still have hanging on my bedroom wall, and have had hanging in most of my many houses since then.
I only met Eva once during that time–when I flew back from my Fulbright year (in the middle of the year, which I wasn’t supposed to do, but I had to go and see George–remember George?–in Utah). It was the time in 1974 of the first oil crisis, and I couldn’t get in to the city from the airport. So I called Larry, who was thrilled to hear from me. He was living at home, on Henry Hudson Parkway, and he offered me a place to stay that night. Years later, Eva would not remember that meeting at all. I then flew on to Utah, George & I got hitched, and I only heard from Larry one more time, when we ended up in graduate school in Philadelphia, and he phoned us. I wasn’t interested at that stage in striking up friendships with old boyfriends. So no word for many, many years.

Then, some time in the 1990s, when we were in Australia and Max was about 14, Larry sent me an email, saying that he and his wife were visiting Australia and could we meet?  I was still a bit skeptical, but we did go to dinner with him and his wife Ruth.  He wanted me to know that he considered me responsible for getting him back to college and on to his quite prosperous career, which was, of course, a nice thing to hear, even if I didn’t really remember having done that.

A few years later, George & I decided we had had enough of Australia and our dysfunctional jobs–and Max was now back in the States at college–so we returned to Los Angeles.  I was going to write my book at the Huntington Library, and George was going to find work. We got in touch with Larry again, who was now living in Thousand Oaks being a big-time private consultant on workplace safety issues. He quite kindly hired George to do research work for him.  We  also finally met Eva properly. She and her husband Fred had moved out to California from New York because both of their boys lived out here by then. First they lived in Ojai, then, when Fred died in 1994, Eva moved to a big ranch-style house in Thousand Oaks. So she was this tiny thing–she was certainly under 5 ‘ tall–in this big house, quite elegantly furnished with her own artworks and others she had acquired, and with a cactus garden in the back.  We saw each other a few times before Larry and Ruth moved to Sedona, Arizona–much to Eva’s dismay, since she had left Ojai to be closer to both boys (Jeffrey, her other son, lived out near there as well).

By 2004, George had found a job, and I was writing away on my book. I was in Seattle at a CAA conference when George called me with the horrific, life-changing news that Larry and Ruth had been murdered in their home in Sedona.  Absolutely incomprehensible, devastating, and beyond belief.  This kind of thing simply did not happen to people we knew!  I remember being so distraught that I went to an AA meeting just to be around people–and there was someone at this meeting in Seattle who actually worked for a law firm who had hired Larry! She already knew more about the tragedy than I did.  As soon as I got home, I got hold of Eva, and vowed to be with her as much as I could.  I read her eulogy for Larry at the synagogue in Santa Barbara, and sent a reminiscence of him and our time together.  She was unbelievably stoic, admitting at one point that she was a very controlled person, and that was the only way she knew how to be.  This holding everything in would come back to haunt her, leading to a serious intestinal illness 6 years later. Even the doctors were convinced that the illness was largely the result of the intense emotional stress that Larry’s death had caused her.  (Their murderers, by the way, were caught quickly, because like all intelligent criminals, they were driving around Sedona in Larry’s car.)

From that time, we became good friends.  She called nearly every day, and invited us out for elegant lunches a few times a year. She loved to cook, but always wanted to make the food days ahead of time and then freeze it (George & I had a running joke about this practice!).  She liked to bring together new people and have them talk.  She could be very opinionated and at times intrusive, but I did like her stories, and her humor, and her politics were very liberal. She was the classic assimilated New York Jew, intellectual, proud of being Jewish, but not that observant religiously.  Unlike many of those Jews who had to flee Vienna or Germany and who never wanted to go back, Eva remained extraordinarily connected to Vienna and visited regularly.  She continued to make her batiks and watercolors–and sand cast sculptures, which she liked a lot more than other people did–and she actually sold her work in shops in Ojai.  She loved bargains and haggling over prices for cars and jewelry and clothes, and could never understand why we never got the same kind of deals she did (I loathe bargaining). She never wore slacks, and her shoes were often not appropriate for walking through the museums and gardens where we would meet when she had company and wanted me to give them tours.  Her German was impeccable–and she had moved to New York when she was 9!  She continued to have a circle of old friends who she talked to on the phone nearly every day, either in Vienna or New York.  She seemed never to sleep, and could never get it through her head that I wasn’t up at 5 a.m., so she would regularly phone at 7, and was always surprised that I hadn’t been up already for hours.  She more or less insisted that we come to Jeff’s house for Thanksgivings–a real multicultural mix, with Jeff’s Laotian wife Kor; his half-Thai daughter from a previous marriage; that daughter’s fiance who was half black, half Japanese; and Kor’s friends Paul, a French-Algerian Jew who kept kosher, and his Chinese wife Lily.  She loved having so many interesting people around her.

In December, she started complaining about not feeling so great, but I really did think it was something minor. The last conversation I had with her in late January, she was in a bit of a panic because her eyes were a little wobbly. I was concerned enough that she started repeating herself so often that I told George I thought I should call Jeff and tell him I was worried about her. But I didn’t, and we went away for a short vacation.  The minute we got back, Jeff–who never called us–rang and said that Eva was with them because she had started to become incoherent, and they were having her go to the doctor’s for tests, and to find out what was wrong.  From that moment, it was all downhill–weeks of confusion on the part of the doctors about what might be the matter, and then the inevitable drama in the hospital until finally, she had a massive stroke, and two days later, after turning off the breathing machines, she passed away on February 21–when I was, again, away giving a lecture.  In typical Eva fashion–she could be vain–we discovered only at the funeral that she hadn’t told the truth about her age: we all thought she was 84, but she was actually 85.

In hindsight, I think several factors may have played into this saddening end. First was the fact that the 9th anniversary of Larry’s death was coming up–which was more stressful for her than she ever let on.  Then she was getting quite a bit of pressure from all of us to think about moving from her enormous house and into some kind of community or assisted living situation. This appeal was partly precipitated by the fact that her good neighbors, a Romanian couple who she had depended on for lots of household help, had moved, leaving her more vulnerable than she realized she was.  Being fiercely independent, she just could not countenance losing her independence–in effect, she would rather die than live in a nursing home, as she saw it.

And so she was buried in Santa Barbara, next to her husband and son and daughter in law.  AT the small funeral, I read the following eulogy:


9 years ago I stood at Eva’s side at the synagogue in Santa Barbara as she tried to read her eulogy to Larry and Ruth–because it was through Larry that we got to know each other.  Larry and I were a couple for a little while back in our Socialist days in Portland, OR, more than 40 years ago now. I met Eva once at that time, but later, when we met again out here, she didn’t remember that meeting.  It was the 70s, and Larry & I were very, very young. But Larry always knew that we would like each other: we shared a love of art and a deep connection to Vienna. When Larry & I parted ways, he gave me one of Eva’s batiks, which I have schlepped all over the world and have hung in the many houses where I’ve lived–it’s the same design as the batik she has had hanging in her living room. 

Some time in the 90s, when we were living in Australia, Larry & Ruth visited and we re-established contact. When we moved back to California in 2003, Larry was very kind to George & me, and through him, we met Eva again.  When that horrible event happened 9 years ago, I promised myself that I would look out for Eva, that I would be her friend, which is how I came to be at her side for that service, and why I’m up here now.

Over these last 9 years, we have talked a lot on the phone (almost every day), and visited as often as we could. She introduced me to all of her friends, and I gave them all tours of art museums around Los Angeles. I even visited her friend Hans in Vienna.  I loved her energy, her incredible fortitude, her opinions and firm convictions about politics and culture, her love of her art-making, her glee in finding bargains and offering advice on interior decoration,  and her extraordinary commitment to living an elegant and interesting life. We talked a lot about Vienna. I was especially charmed by the fact that she still had, after having had to flee Vienna as a little girl, a Viennese approach to life–that was her spiritual home. I found it extraordinary that she still spoke perfect Viennese German despite living in New York for most of her life.  She was for me a living conduit to a bygone era, to a world that I have studied but was not a part of.  I regret that I didn’t write down all of her stories, but I am going to try to write down those I remember about her family and her ancestors.

George & I were so moved that Eva embraced us so completely, that she allowed us to be part of her family and her friends.  We came to Jeff’s house for Thanksgivings with all of you, her multicultural family and friends, and we were invited to Hanukkah  festivities. She even made a special artwork as a gift for my son’s wedding. She loved to have those little lunches, where she made the  food several days before, so she wouldn’t be rushed on the day–and again, the food was so often what one would eat in Vienna in the 1930s.  And always elegant, as if presiding over an intellectual salon.

And so, meine beliebte Freundin, in memory of our shared love of all things Viennese, I wanted to bid farewell with an appropriate poem.  NO German poet can match Rilke, and although he wasn’t Viennese, he was born in Prague when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire–and as it happens, Eva’s ancestors were indeed Bohemian. So Rilke it is–an early poem called “The Grown Up”:

Rainer Maria Rilke, 19.7.1907, Paris


The Grown-Up

All this stood upon her and was the world
and stood upon her with all its fear and grace
as trees stand, growing straight up, imageless
yet wholly image, like the Ark of God,
and solemn, as if imposed upon a race.

And she endured it all: bore up under
the swift-as-flight, the fleeting, the far-gone,
the inconceivably vast, the still-to-learn,
serenely as a woman carrying water
moves with a full jug. Till in the midst of play,
transfiguring and preparing for the future,
the first white veil descended, gliding softly

over her opened face, almost opaque there,
never to be lifted off again, and somehow
giving to all her questions just one answer:
In you, who were a child once-in you.

In dir, du Kindgewesene, in dir.

Die Erwachsene

Das alles stand auf ihr und war die Welt
und stand auf ihr mit allem, Angst und Gnade,
wie Bäume stehen, wachsend und gerade,
ganz Bild und bildlos wie die Bundeslade
und feierlich, wie auf ein Volk gestellt.

Und sie ertrug es; trug bis obenhin
das Fliegende, Entfliehende, Entfernte,
das Ungeheuere, noch Unerlernte
gelassen wie die Wasserträgerin
den vollen Krug. Bis mitten unterm Spiel,
verwandelnd und auf andres vorbereitend,
der erste weiße Schleier, leise gleitend,
über das aufgetane Antlitz fiel

fast undurchsichtig und sich nie mehr hebend
und irgendwie auf alle Fragen ihr
nur eine Antwort vage wiedergebend:
In dir, du Kindgewesene, in dir.
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Rainer Maria Rilke