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When a Book Still Has Legs

 Last week, I received an email from 91-year-old Joy Rubin in Gorham, Maine:

 

I have just read ["Searching for Fritzi"]  your moving account of your mother's courage in dealing with Fritzi and visiting Vienna. We knew Fritzi Russell from 1974 until her death in 1999. Her only allusion to her life in Vienna was one mention that her father had restricted her activities when she was growing up, insisting that she had to practice skating.   

 

"Searching for Fritzi," was originally published in 1999. It is, therefore, remarkable that I occasionally still receive news of my mother's champion ice-skating cousin, Fritzi Burger, from people who knew her, or knew someone who knew her. Last year an email arrived from a former tennis partner of Fritzi's who had met her in Tokyo at a posh club. The year before that I had an extended correspondence with a scholar in Berlin. The editor of Skateguard, published in Nova Scotia by Ryan Stevens, interviewed me in 2016 and wrote a long piece about the book. And now Joy and her husband, Marvin, have contacted me. They met Fritzi during the last chapter of her life in America. They knew her socially, Joy explained, as well as Fritzi Burger would allow herself to be known. Was I interested in hearing some details about her life in Maine? Although the answer to that question is yes and no—as  I will explain—I  am always polite and attentive when a reader contacts me. An email contact often leads to a telephone conversation.  I listen with rapt attention, I take notes, I ask a question or two. But there isn't anything I've heard in recent years about Frtizi Burger that has changed my mind about her.

 

Fritzi Burger, Olympic silver medallist, was a collaborator during the war, married to a Japanese national close to the Emperor. She spent the war years in Tokyo in relative luxury, never making any effort to help her European family escape the genocide, though she would have been well placed to do so. These discoveries shook my family, especially my mother, who did not want me to write the book before or after I discovered where Fritzi had been during the war. She knew Fritzi was a snob, a woman with guile, and didn't think she was "worth it."  I persevered, I could not stop. The search for Fritzi Burger became a metaphor for my murdered family.

                                                            

I wrote back to Joy Rubin and made a plan to talk on the phone. She hadn't read the addendum which was published in the revised e-book—more revelations about Fritzi during the post-war years in Tokyo—so  I sent it to her in a PDF file. 

 

          "Your book answered a lot of questions about Fritzi," Joy told me. "She never mentioned her Jewish ancestry.We even had her over for Passover one year."

 

My ambivalence softened, curiosity kicked in, as Joy continued: "Fritzi liked her luxuries, she had a vegetable garden, she brought over recipes, entertained lavishly, lots of dinner parties. The bathroom in her Gorham house was all light blue. She served foundue, those pieces of meat you dip in hot oil. She an an odd way of sitting, like a teenage girl, with one leg under the other. Her son, Yoshi, learned English from Armed Forces Radio in Tokyo and he sounded and acted very American. She never reminisced. She lived in the present. She had a grand-daughter."

 

          "I thought she had a grandson," I said.

 

          "No a grand-daughter, Michelle Nishikawa.  She lives in Southern California."

 

          "She is carrying the name of that prominent Japanese family," I said.  "Mikimoto-Nishikawa. Mikimoto Pearls. Close to the Emperor. I wonder if she knows the history. I wonder if she knows about my book."

 

 Needless to say, I Googled Michelle and found her on Linked In and Facebook. I left a message on her work phone. But she has not, as yet, replied. 

 

Will these quests and inquiries ever end, I wonder? Should  they end?  And what have we learned that we can pass on to future generations? Forgiveness, for example. Can there ever be forgiveness?  As a writer, I am not obligated to answer these questions. My only obligation is to find the story and write it, as fully and truthfully as I can.

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Dispatch From the Arctic

With thanks to my Canadian cousin, Sherry, for these toasty mittens. Photo © Carol Bergman 2019

I had a dream when I was twenty-two that someday I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth.

 

--Sir Ernest Shackleton

 

The story of the storm is not over; we are now living in the Arctic. I suppose we had been warned-- not warmed, but warned-- that climate change creates changes in the ozone layer, therefore the polar vortex is rotating at ever faster speeds, or perhaps it is slower speeds. (I do wish that scientists would translate their findings into accessible language and simple sentences.) I have been reading about the polar vortex for several days, trying to comprehend, and now the vortex is in my face. The temperature upon exiting our complex this morning to brave a drive to the local gym was 0 degrees. The car started up okay—with a bit of protest, more like a cough, I'd say. A local friend texted to say she'd arrived at the gym, the roads were okay, the parking lot a bit "slippery." Good news, more or less, if what she means by slippery is what I mean by slippery.  "Warm up your car, leave it running," she suggested. "Walk away, come back in a few minutes, no one will steal it."  So that's what I did.

 

One small problem:  I couldn't get the car door open again. Did everyone hear me when I shouted expletives that ricocheted across the mountains? I think so. A helpful neighbor came out of his apartment. And he was laughing, but very kind. I had a second key, the lock was completely iced-over and with a flick he opened the door and said, "Your first winter. You'll get used to it." Goodness, he didn't even have on a warm coat. His hands were bare.

 

Well, I was lucky to get the car out at all. Several in our lot were still completely iced in. If you have never seen icing on a car, you are in for a treat. It's really quite beautiful.  Yesterday, as the storm abated, several tenants worked on loosening their cars from the vortex knowing full well we'd have trouble again in the morning. Still, we persisted. Implements included ergonomic shovels and hardy scrapers. My husband, Jim, was particularly good at the ice knocking and ice scraping. "The air is so fresh," he said. "Right," I said. "Let's keep moving, shall we, and get back upstairs pronto."

 

And none too soon. Our new wind-breaking, layered, waterproof jackets were frozen solid. 

 

 

 

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Storms

Emergency Preparedness Still LIfe

I have just returned from my second emergency preparedness expedition. I had bought a new flashlight and 8-hour dripless candles and some more water and boiled up eggs and did the laundry the other day. Eileen, at a local family-owned hardware store, took me round the shop personally. We told many stories along the way: city vs. country living. Her husband still commutes. And she was very reassuring. But I had realized that all my electronic devices—yikes—all of them would be shut down if there is an outage unless they were juiced-up, not to mention our electric stove, the water pumps for the two wells on the property and so on. So, this morning, a second expedition. I needed to get more bananas, some humuus, etc. etc. and to gas-up along the way. (Thank you for the reminder about the gas, dear city friend.)   I folded in a quick work-out as the gym  will close early today and probably not reopen until late Monday! Okay, good, done that. Now I'll go for a walk on the River to Ridge Trail to store up some fresh air. I hate being stuck in. Temps are predicted to drop on Sunday night to the single digits and below. No heat if we have a power outage, much less walks! My daughter and son-in-law, who live thirty minutes away in the mountains, wrote to say they'd come down in the truck to rescue us, if necessary. They have a wood stove and two cuddly huge dogs for warmth.

 

All set, right? 

 

Writers are both blessed and cursed with vivid imaginations—we project, we say "what if?" to get our stories going, we obsess about first drafts and the sentences that surface in our over-active brains as we wake in the morning, or, if we are writing nonfiction, about the questions we will ask if we are interviewing someone that day. We try to get our thoughts down and feel relieved when they make sense. Live in the moment? You must be kidding me. I've got the add-on of refugee PTSD panic, escape from a war zone embedded in my psyche, and the necessity—to feel safe—of preparing for all eventualities. I remember the day when my California-born, laconic husband noticed this about me. I had never told him and don't parade it around much even today except in therapy sessions; now here I am writing about it. Why should I be embarrassed?  Why is this characteristic a negative when I am able, thankfully, to use it in my work? Rhetorical questions. I'm writing this blog post. I'm ready for the storm.

 

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Big Stories

Big stories are embedded in our childhood landscapes. This is Mount Tabor.

Big Story # 1: A locker-room acquaintance is grieving for her mother and feeling perplexed that they were not close. She never could understand why the mother-daughter connection was always acrimonious, why her mother was, at times, cruel. What had happened? The search for an answer to this question is the beginning of a very big story that, hopefully, will be integrated into Sally's memoir. Previously unknown details are surfacing as far-away family visits, photographs are scanned and shared, memories untangled.

 

There had been a smallpox outbreak in the city in 1947, mothers sent home, their newborns left in the hospital as they had no immunity and could not be vaccinated.  Bottle feeding was in high fashion after WW II and breast feeding frowned upon.  So the babies were left behind bereft of their mothers and breast-milk immunity if their mothers had been vaccinated. More than 6 million New Yorkers were vaccinated during that epidemic; twelve died. It was the last smallpox outbreak in the city, historic for that reason alone. Eventually all those newborns were released from the hospital but by then the mother-baby bond had been compromised, not for everyone, of course, but in some instances. And this unearthed not-so-small fact is illuminating, the beginning of a big story. Everyone has one buried somewhere,  either within our own families, the communities in which we were raised, or elsewhere. If we want to write, such material is a treasure trove. And it's our mandate, as writers, to reveal, reframe, offer a new perspective, encourage deep thinking, challenge convention and expectation, and enrich the written record.

 

Big Story # 2 today: If a small boy, merely five years old, wanders the mountains at the edge of the desert in Palestine and the desert is behind him, and he can see the olive grove in the distance, and his parents do not worry about him, but forever after in the dislocation of an occupied Palestine and exile in France, and then America, he dreams of mountains, that is the poignant beginning of a book. For many years I have encouraged Rashid to begin writing his big story. He comes from an oral storytelling tradition and it is wonderful to listen to him at the dinner table, or in front of  the wood burning stove on a winter's night, but I also want him to write his stories down, to enrich the written record.

 

Dear Reader,

 

Please do not keep your  big—or—small stories to yourself. Write them in your journal. Write to me. Caveat: Do not post all your stories on FB. Many writers, including yours truly, use FB as "practice." Indeed, captioning is a good discipline. But is it always wise? Be wary of giving away your work for free on the internet.

 

With all best wishes,

CB

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Brining

I noticed that the roads had been brined on my way to Kingston yesterday but hadn't read anything about snow. I had never heard of brining roads before, only turkeys, so was surprised when brining roads came up in conversation past the usual holiday celebrations. "Have you noticed the brining?" someone said to me one day. I didn't know how or what to answer as I am still learning mountain vocabulary. Then, it all clicked in:  those lovely even stripes on the road were brine: a mixture of salt and water. And they presaged snow and ice.

 

I rely on my weather app here in the mountains more than I ever did in the city and usually find it accurate. I check it first thing in the morning.  If the temp is in the 20s, I know our car will have a sheet of ice on it and has to be warmed up and scraped. When a new friend asked if we had a good scraper I didn't know what she was talking about. Until I had to use one. Luckily we had an old one on the floor in the back of the car. Emergency preparedness takes on new meaning here. And we have to be warmly dressed, nothing casual or matter-of-fact in the mountains. Layers, hats, gloves, new water-proof jackets with hoods, new boots, new hiking shoes.

 

Well, it hasn't been that cold yet and we've only had one storm so far. But it's only the first week in January. Like so much else in life, the weather, especially in this era of remarkable and visible climate change, remains unpredictable. And that keeps us alert to the environment in a more profound way, as I have written here often since we arrived in New Paltz last March.

 

New Yorkers are rarely homebound, snow days are few, snow events rare, subways running in most weathers, power outages occasional, vintage black and white photos of trolleys and blizzards charming. The city ticks over, it sucks energy, it buffers its citizens from the weather. But in the country, life slows and has to be managed differently. No oil-boiled constant hot running water or steam heat. Not only are we living in a colder weather system here, the narrative of our day-to-day lives has completely shifted. I find it both refreshing,  cozy and , literally, more sustainable. What else is there to do on a cold winter's night but read, write, play a game of Scrabble or binge on a Netflix series. The days, though shorter, feel longer no matter the season. I work out at a gym early in the morning and take a hiking break from the computer mid-afternoon to catch fresh air and light, or I swim in the morning at the university and then hike in the afternoon. I watch a flock of geese land in the corn field, I study a bear's scat on the trail, I take photos of a full moon in a star-lit sky, I eat a big meal at 4 in the afternoon and go to bed before 11 a.m. I write for two hours in my journal, double the time I spent in the city. I work on my novel into the night. I do not rush anywhere; I linger.

 

It's a trade-off. I miss the cultural richness of urban life, I miss my friends, I miss the pizazz of the city and am grateful when I can be there for work or pleasure, but I have finished two books since I moved and I'm about to start two more projects—one fiction and one nonfiction—before the teaching term begins on January 21. As ever, I look forward to meeting my new students, both urban @ NYU and rural @ SUNY Ulster.

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Snowstorm Scrabble

Note the "DELUXE" board and interesting words. I can't remember who won.

Happy New Year, dear readers. In the interest of optimism, good cheer and a blog post about something other than our troubled world—there I have said it, the world is troubled—I am writing to you today from a snow-dusted, peaceful landscape. I fancy a game of Scrabble on this quiet evening but my husband is in the city working. Alas, I could challenge him or a friend to a virtual game, but I prefer F2F kibitzing and a three-dimensional board. Before our move, I had been playing virtual Scrabble with a high school friend, two games at a time, and had tired of it. I've written here that I didn't like words thrown down without the ballast of a challenge, or the ready acceptance of acronyms and abbreviations, or the constant advertising. And "Words With Friends," which I have also tried, upsets me even more: it's a copyright rip-off. Hasbro and Mattel jointly own the rights to Scrabble. How did the "Words With Friends" app owners get away with this? No writer approves of copyright rip-off. I hereby object. Objection noted, you say? Thank you.

 

The Scrabble I grew up with was much tougher than the virtual game. The rules were strictly enforced by my refugee parents. Scrabble honed and expanded their word usage; the dictionary was open all the time, challenges were constant. My step-father had studied Latin and was a language maven. His shelves were  heavy with Shakespeare, Goethe, the Bible, Galsworthy and law books, all in English, his second beloved language.  He was not as avid a reader as my mother but he was a better, more thoughtful Scrabble player. He took his time, no timer allowed, whereas my mother played quickly and became impatient easily. I think of them often as I sit down to play, a "madeleine" of childhood memory. I was allowed to play with them as soon as I could read. I sat by my stepfather's side and made suggestions. We discussed them all, seriously. He was the parent who most nurtured me as a writer and always wanted to know what I was working on. How fortunate I was. I know that he would be pleased that I cherish these early memories and that I still play Scrabble today.

 

We had our first storm a while back and took out our new Deluxe Scrabble purchased while we were still in the city and rarely cracked. City life is so much busier and demanding. To have more time to read, write, think and play Scrabble is a gift. Yet encoding words in isolation is not necessarily easy for a writer as we are always searching for meaning in context, spinning sentences, connecting words. I am more like my mother when I play—a bit impatient—eager to get onto the next move, to talk, to tell stories. My husband is more like my stepfather,  slow and thoughtful. I can read a chapter of my book, or even two, before he puts down his tiles. He goes for the long words and the points whereas I never care about winning. What would I be winning exactly? Scrabble is not a competitive game for me. Only the words matter. They always do.

 

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