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Maids, Mothers, Partners & Wives

 Detroit Photography Company 

Public Domain

Maids, Mothers, Partners & Wives

 

 

During the last two years the wealthiest 14 Americans saw their wealth increase by $157 billion. This is truly unbelievable. This $157 billion INCREASE in wealth among 14 individuals is more wealth that is owned, collectively, by 130 million Americans. This country does not survive morally, economically or politically when so few have so much, and so many have so little."

-Senator Bernie Sanders

 

 

When I was a child, I never did my own laundry and my doctor mother never did our laundry, never mind my stepfather. No, we had maids to do the laundry. Once or twice I descended in the elevator to the basement of our well-appointed Manhattan apartment building to "help" do the laundry.  It was hot down there and the smell of sweat mingled with bleach was overwhelming. I was the only kid and it was weird, though at the time I felt more fascinated than weird. The maids were chattering to each other as they worked and they were laughing. Some were Black and some were white, some were Russian and some were from the Caribbean; it made no difference, they were maids. Yes, perhaps, in retrospect I understand that the white maids were more privileged, by virtue of being white, and their children probably had a better education and more opportunity than the children of the Black maids, but none of this made any difference to me because I was only in the basement as a voyeur, to be entertained. "I helped Lucille do the laundry," I told my mother. Which was not true, of course. I suppose I folded a towel or two, but mostly I just stood and gaped. These people were so different from anything I had experienced in my day to day life. They seemed happy, somehow. Or connected. Yes, in retrospect, that was the energy: shared labor, a feeling of connectedness, one I envied, and still do today, though even that observation feels condescending. If there was grievance, I would not have decoded a grievance; I did not have the education, as yet, or the tools.

 

In other words, most of my life I have owned thoroughbred horses, metaphorically speaking, but now I am riding on a donkey. (I thank Orhan Pamuk, another privileged writer, albeit Turkish, for  that image.) Not only am I maid-less these days, I don't have a washer and dryer in my new gorgeous apartment.  I take my laundry to one of three local laundromats where I mingle with what my class-caste-conscious European parents would call the hoi polloi. And let me tell you, Dear Reader, it is illuminating and humbling.  

 

Fortunately, I'm a curious journalist and I have an open, friendly face, I have been told, so people tell me stories, ask me questions about this and that, and complain. I am empathetic, but always at an emotional distance. Even today, as I write, I set myself apart and above. If someone at the laundromat talks to me, I am interested, but also wary. I think to myself, if only one or two of my rich friends could see this, then they would understand what the politicians mean when they refer to "The Great Divide."

 

***

 

My encounter this week was typical: I was shoving my clothes into a machine when a white  woman with blonde frizzy hair started to talk to me. She hadn't realized that $10 is charged to the credit card even though the machine costs $4.75.  Eventually, the excess money is refunded, but not right away. "I now have zero balance in my bank account," she said. "I'm wiped out."

 

Was she asking for money? Was this a scam? Was she a professional grifter? Had she targeted me? No way to know and not important to this story. It was my own hesitation, more than her demanding presence that upset me. I shook my head, commiserated, and finished loading up the machine. By the time I had decided to retrieve some of my stashed meter quarters from my car to give to her, she was gone.

 

Then. as I was stuffing my bag with dry laundry, I saw her again. She was steps away doing the same, and my goodness did she have a load of laundry.

 

"I'm going to get my kids to fold this when I get home. I've had enough of this place," she said, in the same exasperated voice she'd had when she first approached me.

 

Nothing in the past half hour or so had alleviated her distress.

 

"How many kids do you have?" I asked, patiently.

 

"Three. And my mother has dementia, she's in Florida, and I have to get down there to take care of her.  I'm fifty-eight and I feel like I'm seventy. What about you?"

 

"One kid, no mom any more, just me and my husband, small load. He's usually with me to help but is working today."

 

I didn't mention my age. She looked older than her years, older than me.

 

We started to laugh about my husband usually being with me. It was also the contrast between us, the serendipity of our meeting that amused and drew us together into an instant pod: mothers, wives, children. The domestic work that has to get done, the domestic work that in poor families is still relegated to the over-worked, exhausted, overwhelmed trying-to make-ends-meet women in this town, and everywhere.

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Juneteenth In New Paltz, New York

Photo of Hasbrouck House on Huguenot Street, New Paltz NY, © copyright by Carol Bergman 2021. The two windows on either side of the chimney vented the cellar where the enslaved worked and slept. The door to the upstairs was padlocked from the inside every night by the slave-owners.

 

Juneteenth in New Paltz, NY

 

 

When we know and accept the unvarnished truth — in all of its complexity, conflict and context — it can change how we view things, including ourselves.

 

    -Kevin Young, the NY Times, June 18, 2021. Mr. Young is the Andrew W. Mellon director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

The choice of slavery was deliberate, and that reality is hard to square with a desire to present a pristine and heroic origin story about the settlement of Texas…Origin stories matter, for individuals, groups of people, and for nations. They inform our sense of self; telling us what kind of people we believe we are, what kind of nation we believe we live in.

 

      -Harvard Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, from her book, "On Juneteenth"

 

 

 

Soon after I arrived in New Paltz, NY, in the spring of 2018, I heard about a great upheaval on the SUNY (State University of New York) campus just down the road from where we had rented an apartment. Why were the Black students so upset about the names on their dormitory complexes? What was going on?

 

I decided to find out. After all, I was now a citizen of this town, albeit a citizen journalist with research and interviewing skills. It didn't take long to discover that the town so many have called "charming," "idyllic" and "liberal," is a monument to the Dutch, English and French Huguenot slave-owning settlers. The 17th and 18th century stone houses they built are extant, the slave dwellings unmarked by any accurate signage. And the dormitories were named after French Huguenot families; their descendants still live in the town. After a whole year of testimony, these dormitories were renamed, and I wrote an article for The Poughkeepsie Journal.

 

Then the pandemic hit and the process of re-constituting the narrative history of New Paltz slowed. Nonetheless, various re-interpretation projects proceeded at Historic Huguenot Street, in the Village by the Historic Preservation Commission, and with the tenacious work of Town Historian, Susan Stessin-Cohn, who had, among other finds, unearthed a Poor House under the Ulster County Fair Grounds; she commissioned a statue to memorialize it.

 

But questions remain about the slaves in New Paltz, their owners, and the emancipated slaves—where they went, how they fared. Why did so many end their lives in the Poor House? Where are their descendants today? Is there any evidence of Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, segregated schools, indentured servitude, rape, or lynching? Why is this idyllic, liberal town so white? How do we approach the lacunas and myths in local history today? How do we shift and amplify the narrative? What is our responsibility as citizens and neighbors?  How do we move forward?

 

These are some of the questions I am pondering as I plan a series of restorative justice workshops—to begin in the Fall—at  the Unison Arts Center in New Paltz. I'll be speaking there tomorrow night as they launch their "Prejudice Project." Dear Reader, I hope  if you are local, you will join me:  

 

https://www.unisonarts.org/prejudice-project

 

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy-Three

Coda

 

I had read online about an observation that women were remaining pregnant longer during the pandemic. The theory was that we were holding our babies inside because of anxiety about safe delivery and the hazardous and uncertain state of the world.  

 

- Lucy Jones, in The American Scholar

 

I lost a good friend this year and when he was gone and our writing connection was mentioned twice during the memorial, a trip to the city just for the memorial, I began thinking about endings and decided that this blog book/or book blog (I never could decide) was coming to an end also. I tried to write an ending, but then I decided there was more to say and it was a false ending like the false ending in a movie that tries to intensify the suspense and keeps us engaged and watching until the final credits. But then, if we were fortunate and willing, we were vaccinated, and with new guidelines from the CDC, we began to enjoy an unanticipated freedom.

 

The weeks were fuller and passed more quickly as we started to visit with one another and participated in activities that had been on hiatus. I made dates with friends for lunch and coffee and we sat face to face and talked, words spilling out of unmasked mouths like a rush of fresh spring water. We had been living in a desert and we were parched. So all this was changing, shifting, bringing us back to ourselves, our colleagues, our families, our friends. And for those who had lost loved ones, a slower respectful mournful hesitant reopening, each at their own pace, each in their own time.

 

Until the pandemic began in March of 2020, writing and the writing life had been the subject of this Authors Guild hosted blog; I began it in 2008. It's a good discipline for a writer, much like a weekly column in a newspaper, and I have always enjoyed it. Like other published work, it has led me to people and places I would not have experienced otherwise. Then the pandemic descended, and like many artists, I felt compelled to witness and then document my observations and experience. I created a dedicated blog called Virus Without Borders, and Chloe Annetts, my talented daughter, offered to design the site. It was up and running for a few weeks when it got badly hacked. The text appeared in Turkish, or Russian, and everyone's email addresses on Mail Chimp was more than likely stolen. It would have been too expensive and time consuming to fix, so I sent out a notice to my subscribers suggesting they change their passwords quickly, and started using the Authors Guild site for Virus Without Borders. The IT back-up staff at the Guild are efficient and competent. Whenever anything goes wrong, they take care of it right away. The blog has been running smoothly, and will continue, but it won't be Virus Without Borders after today.

 

My city writers group meets this week, still virtually, and I have asked them to read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast for our warm-up discussion. I have an old Penguin copy published  posthumously in 1964 from notebooks and an original manuscript by his fourth wife, Mary, and criticized in later years for what she edited out. One of Hemingway's sons, Sean, published another version in 2009. But the original is still a very good book, especially for writers. I read from it this morning, its pages brown and brittle. I must have bought it when I lived in London; it has traveled far, and often. I could not part with this copy when I moved back to the United States.

 

Hemingway's sentences are inspiring. He used a device called parataxis, the atomization of action: and then and then and then. I was also reminded that he stopped writing when he knew where he was going to begin the next day. That is a valuable practice, one that resonates as I write this Coda which also invites renewal, change, a turning of the page, another path forward into my work. Dear Reader, it's time for me to move on: a short story idea and a series of restorative justice workshops both require my full attention.

 

A few final words: Our interconnectedness this past difficult year has been sustaining and life affirming for me and I hope that it continues, that we will never forget the reality of our interdependence—local , national and global. Please stay in touch on FB, Twitter, or this Authors Guild site, and rest assured that I will always reply to comments on my posts, personal emails, texts and phone messages.

 

All very best, as ever,

Carol

 

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy-Two

Two German-speaking Viennese women. My mother is on the left, our cousin, Fritzi Burger, the Olympic ice skating champion, on the right. The Kindle edition of "Searching for Fritzi" is available on Amazon.

 

Studying German in a Plague Year

 

 

History exists in a constant state of revision as we learn more about the present and the world that preceded it.

 

                             -Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker

 

 

I was listening to a NY Times Daily podcast by a Berlin based reporter who spoke perfect English, but I also was understanding all the background German before it was translated. I know that we've all changed immeasurably during this past year, but I could not account for this epiphany, if that is what it was. I took a deep breath. It was hard to believe what was happening. What was happening?

 

There was a time when my brain and my heart would have shut down at the sound of German, or a German accent. I wrote about this sensory/cognitive dissonance in my 1999 memoir, Searching for Fritzi. As I was working on that book, I took a German language course at NYU because I truly wanted to "get over" this block, especially when encountering a young German or a young Austrian.

 

On the first day of class, when everyone stated why they wanted to learn German, I was mesmerized by everyone's stability and common sense. One person was an opera singer, another a business woman traveling frequently to Germany, another had a German boyfriend. My blood pressure was rising as I anticipated what I could say: "Most of my family were murdered in the Holocaust and I have a block…" My voice trailed away. The class and the professor went quiet. No euphemisms such as "perished" in that sentence; I'd long before abandoned any softening words. Then, at the break—it was summer, I remember—the professor, aus Salzburg, came up to me as I was munching on a peach and perusing a bulletin board. I was in a fugue state, very distressed, not really concentrating on the notices. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, ever so gently, "Are you okay?" and I answered, "No, absolutely not, but I will try to stay." And that's what I did: I stayed. When the draft of my memoir was finished, I sent it to this wonderful woman and we met for lunch. But I haven't studied German since.

 

Then came Covid, a surfeit of time, classes online, apps, more French, my second language since High School, amplified when I was living in London and traveling to France. I had never thought about German, or wanted to think about German and when I traveled to Germany I often wanted to leave as soon as I got there.

 

And then, suddenly, years later, in the midst of a plague year—is there a connection I wonder—I decide to study German, my parents' Mother Tongue. They spoke it all the time to each other, but never to their children, not unusual in an immigrant or refugee family.  

 

I remember my erudite lawyer stepfather trying to convince me that Goethe, Heine, and Kafka should be read in the original. He had these books on his shelf if I ever wanted to study German and borrow them, he said. I never paid attention though I did read those classics in translation.

 

So, it's time, perhaps even past time, to take advantage of this gift: German is in my ear, it belongs to me and my heritage as much as the genocide.

 

A couple of terms ago, I had a young German in my NYU class. He traveled back to Germany to be with his family during the pandemic, but we've kept in touch. I can't wait to tell him my good news, to greet him in German, and perhaps generate a sentence or two.

 

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