Renzo Besozzi – My Lisanza

Renzo Besozzi (translated by Bryan R. Monte)
My Lisanza. Summer memories of an octogenarian.
A reading by the old ‘doc’ from Lisanza

There are no certain rules to define whether a village, like Lisanza, should have a masculine or feminine name, but I shall decline it in the feminine: Lisanza is small, and beautiful, and my homeland. I’m not the only one: our dear dialect poet Giovanni Bonfini used to say ‘Lisanza mia’. Lisanza preserves my summer memories, memories of a Lisanza that is no more; only in my heart.

The sounds. Not the far roar of the road, but the chirping of the birds, the cockcrow, the mooing of cows waiting to be milked, the crickets, the croaking of frogs, the vociferous calls of the children in the square, the sweet toll of the bells crowning summer evenings, when the sun is engulfed by its own embers.

The cobbled square. The boys, armed with long poles try to intercept the improvised flight of bats. The men sit on the steps to observe complacently and to tell the events of the day. The old women drag their chairs under the hallway of the backyard to watch the spectacle of the rowdy youth. Clouds of midges clustered in columns sway up and down. Myriads of sparrows intertwine the sky, myriads of midges cluster in columns, sway up and down, and then line up later on the strands of light.

The shore of the lake. The fishermen sitting on the ground, armed with shuttles, patch the long nets spread out on the grass, the house of the tencia (for the dyeing of nets), the women kneeling on their ‘stretchers’ while plunging the clothes into the water of the lake, the sheets stretched out on the grass by the shore to bleach, the boats lined up, the cows left to graze the sharp grass on the marshy shoreline banks. The wailing, under your barefoot step, of the grassy ground wet by the slow reflux of light waves.

Fishing. The children, armed with cane and bait boxes, spent the entire morning trying to ‘hunchback’ fish into their ‘tanes’, or to more easily lure a ‘perch-trout’ (the boccalone). Myriads of bleak shamans, from the forest of green algae, bite the bright hooks. The older children organized themselves into groups for bag fishing, much more productive, and they share the spoils. At home, mothers are tired of cleaning small fish every day, but they let them do it, so they have some free time by their children.

The lake. Always calm and smooth, in the sunny and silent noons you can hear the voices of the children fishing on the other shore, you do not see them, but feel them as if you were next to them. Clear and clean water, who does not have the well in the yard, draws from the lake with the bucket (in the corona, or where the water is deeper). The magnificent sunsets paint the waters red and violet. The slow slipping of the boat, the water slapping against the keel, while the oars rub across the surface.

The castle. It was already considered a ruin during the Maria Theresa of Austria census of 1722. The steep, cobblestone road that winds its way up the strange, low, near-lake chine, from the other moraine hills. The square, roofless tower, the oval wall enclosing the plateau where the church was, the enclosure of the old cemetery, with the headstones on the walls, according to the dictates of Napoleon’s edict of Saint Claude.

The icehouse. Beautiful and practical hexagonal construction near the lake, which the cooperative of fishermen fills with ice and snow pressed in winter and that throughout the year serves to store the fish waiting to be delivered to the merchants.

The slingshot. Toy and weapon of all boys, built with a small piece of wood and strips of rubber cut out of old bicycle tyres. Hunting for poor paserotti, poor sparrows or swallows or the few lamps on light poles. Sometimes also used in bloody battles between groups of boys. Fortunately, the shots are not very precise. We were no better than the youth of today.

One day a year, a great party for us children, comes to ‘Crociera’ Street (where today there is a traffic light) a hellish and noisy threshing machine and all those who have cultivated wheat or other cereal bring the bundles to be shelled, and they bring back their sacks with the fruit of their labour and the straw bales, magically spat out and tied with the wire, which will be used for the litter of the animals in the stalls.

The hay. Guys, let’s go to make hay. Yesterday, the great ones mowed the grass of the fields and this morning they have turned it over to dry completely. We bring the cows to the cart, the double yoke to the rudder, tridents and rakes, and we children on the empty wagon. We keep the cows still while the big ones load the hay; now and then we move the cart, and the mound grows … up to two or three metres. And then back on the wagon, we climb over the scented hay and so we return home, hot and happy.

Dear, old Lisanza, which I revive in my heart, the land of my father ‘in whom I trust, a kind and pious mother, who covers both my kinsman’, as Petrarch says! AQ

Rosanne Trost – Too Late For Answers

Rosanne Trost
Too Late For Answers

I grew up in an Irish Catholic family. My mother’s maiden name was Murphy. Dad’s mother had the same maiden name. My sister and I used to joke that our parents were cousins.

March 17th was always a big day in our home. Dad had one Kelly green plaid tie, which he wore every St. Patrick’s Day. My sister and I always donned some sort of green attire for school. For several years we would receive half-dead three leaf clovers from Dad’s distant relatives in County Mayo. The box also contained St. Patrick medals.

To celebrate the holiday, my mother always made corned beef and cabbage, and during dinner we listened to Irish music on the radio. Dad would choke up when he heard the sad song, “Danny Boy.” He reminisced about his parents who had emigrated from Ireland to Denver. Back then, I was embarrassed by his tears, but now I think how tender. I can still see his expression as he talked about his family.

Dad was the youngest of five children, and was baptized Philip. Joey, the sister next to him in age, was nine years his senior. His parents were older when he arrived, and both of them died within a year of each other when dad was just a teen. Joey and her new husband took over his care, and moved from Denver to St. Louis. Years later, my dad and Mary Murphy were married. I was their first-born.

As a young child, I was Joey’s favourite niece, and she shared with me how very devoted she was to my dad. I can still see her, cigarette in her mouth, praising dad, “He has been a good brother, and you know he is a loving father. Your dad was happy-go-lucky and he always made us laugh.”

My dad was the last of his siblings to die. It’s been over 40 years. For his funeral Mass, he was “laid out” wearing the green tie. In his hands was the rosary that his sister, the nun, had made for him. When I looked at his tie, memories flooded in from my childhood.

Our family has continued the St. Patrick’s Day traditions. I still see him struggling with the green tie, and my mother straightening it.

Last summer, all the memories of dad took a bit of a detour. Through a second cousin, we learned that my dad was Jewish and had been adopted. He never learned of the adoption.

Aunt Joey had sworn her family to secrecy, saying, “If you tell Philip or his family that he was adopted, I will come back from the grave to haunt you.” Apparently, family members believed her. No one shared the information…until last summer when our second cousin, the only surviving relative, could no longer keep the secret.

As of now, we have had no luck locating records surrounding my dad’s birth.

My sister, brother and I did have DNA tests, each of the results reflected that we are half Jewish.

So many questions, and few, if any, answers. AQ

bart plantenga – Happy Birthday Mother, Who Was Disappeared…

bart plantenga
Happy Birthday Mother, Who Was Disappeared by Forces Beyond Her Control

             in memory of Christina Plantenga 14 May 1925 – 22 August 2018
 
The decline of my mother, Christina, 93 on 14 May, had been a slow, long descent since I was a teen. But when does a life suddenly become less a tragic testimony to survival and more of a burden — you are not sitting around waiting or hoping your mother dies. But then again, there is the tick of a clock, and discussions arise about what dignity is, what the purpose of mere longevity is … how heavy is an urn filled with ashes anyway?

In my youngest youth, she was beautiful and loving. When I post a picture of her on Facebook, people usually react something like: “Wow, she’s beautiful.” What they mean is the photo, taken in 1949. I could feel her heart back then was full of noble intent.

Regarding dementia: I wonder, do you forget you forget and thus actually remember diving through a heavy fog with the high beams on and ultimately coming out on the other side without a dent or scratch?

As I turned 13 or so, seven years after we’d emigrated from Amsterdam to New Jersey, her inability to navigate her way though reality became more evident. Things, jokes, music began to bug her — or not reach her or were simply details of life that could not explain what she had experienced. Being from a generation when women in general did not feel it their place, her talent as an artist was never really pursued as expression, as therapy, as a way to make sense of the senseless things she had witnessed in Amsterdam during WWII. It just was not perceived as useful in any way.

Her loving was misplaced, replaced instead by a kind of obsession with the formalities of mothering, the rituals, the cleaning, the forbidding — the mechanics, the maintenance of order. This increased over time and even while me and my brother were growing up, neighbourhood kids would mock and tease my mom and call her “Crazy Tina”.

She wasn’t “crazy” (then), just very other, different, an awkwardness with English that was both charming and, among the neighbour kids, tagged here as weird. I never tried to analyse it until about 10 years ago, when I realized her life had probably been more adversely affected by WWII than we had ever thought. She was a teen in Amsterdam and had had her best years confiscated by circumstance, and any hopes she had for using her artistic inclination toward something more satisfying in life somehow became secondary to survival and recovery. [She did do the suburban thing — hobby painting in her down time as a mother, but they were mostly idyllic nature scenes with no faces on the leaves, no ghostly human-like figures in the background]. I don’t like to use any kind of excuse when it comes to behaviour, but there is a difference between excuse and cause and now after she’s told me so many of her WWII stories and now that I’ve processed them, I realize people were simply expected to bite their lips and go on with life after 1945. There was no civilian equivalent of shell shock, no PTSD.

This is from her journals I asked her to write down. She obediently obliged and, with the onset of dementia, she obliged again and again, rewriting them with slight variations a total of four times. I mean, when had I and ANYone ever really listened to ANYthing she had to say:

Hunger Winter: A terrible cold and nasty winter entire Europe 1943-44: Ice snow no food. No nothing. No heat. Everything was gone. People did go trough [sic] the garbage cans — you were really lucky to find one piece of food or some wood you could burn to warm your hands. I was the kind of person who was very fast cold so at night we left our socks on at least it did help.

My shoese got bad and no shoese in stores. The Krauts took all the shoese out the stores. I did not have a descend pair so going to work barefeet or on socks. It was really very strange to walk Overtoom on the stone sidewalk with no shoese on, cold and unpleasant. The socks where very quick gone on the stonen sidewalks.

Found a pair of sandals from cork material in garbage cans but they were quick gone but better than nothing and my dad did make soles under it and that is what I did wear to work better than nothing for quite some time. Also later on when winter came my ankles were open wounds and hurted. Mom put bandage on it but it was hopeless. Later on dad found old ice skating boots from mom on the attic and he made them to low shoese and put some extra stuf on the soles. They where nice and did holds up quite a long time. 2 years!

Hans Puts’ father did give us bread again. Also we tryed now fryed sugar beets and small tulip bulbs — the aftertaste was terrible but realy filling food. At night in bed you did hear your stomach ronking from hunger. next morning we had cabage soup. It was warm and tasted good. we did get 2 potatos for family also 2 at work. We cooked them up with straw heating and tasted good at work. It was heaven.

Foppe Plantenga, Plantenga Family, New Jersey, 1961, photograph

She became a housewife in 1953, a mother in 1954 and was displaced to a foreign land — the US — where she was never to feel totally at home again. Her inability to deal with these changes went unnoticed — and there were many and probably often more despairing and desperate than parents let on to their kids — as we became not unlike a migrant family, albeit my father was a white collar worker, a metallurgical engineer, a migrant who wore a tie.

She managed to explain it when she was maybe 80-something as: ‘I was a city girl who lived in the suburbs. There was no one to talk to; you never saw neighbours. They ignored you.’ Something like that.

We moved a LOT, so everywhere we landed we had to start over, to prove we weren’t weird as immigrants. Even though my mother had a wicked [embarrassing] accent and a different approach to mothering than my friends’ moms, I stupidly longed for the approach of the other moms, who were seldom around, who let you fix whatever you wanted for dinner.

Her unhingedness or her engagement, her passion with forethought could be quite entertaining, gonzo, uninhibited, unlike other moms. She tried decorum, but it was not her thing. We even joined a church to see if this would help us fit in. I saw no purpose to Bible lessons and my father hated wasting Sunday mornings sitting in a pew. Decorum was just not her thing; she spoke her mind regardless of what that might do for my or her reputation.

All that, plus what I learned from my mother’s [war] stories about privation, angst, traumatic stress, seeing her Jewish friends disappear forever, never knowing for certain, seeing people killed, executed, bombs going off, having almost nothing to eat, probably had a profound effect on her brain.

The last time she came to visit she was curious and we walked into the Legmeerplein, the square where she’d grown up in, and we sat on a bench and suddenly she told the most vivid, cinematic stories about gangs of pro-ally v pro-NSB [the Nazi-supporters], how some NSBers betrayed neighbours to the Nazis for a few guilders or extra food coupons, how one night the Nazis bombed a sand barge on the Schinkel and the house and square were covered in sand. How suddenly someone would no longer be around and you didn’t really talk about it….

She is now suffering advanced dementia and that is mostly bad. Although, I wonder if she also forget all of those haunting WWII memories and so, ironically, is finally left at peace. I sense not, however, since I gather the formative years are forever etched into the walls’s of one’s brain like graffiti scratched onto a bathroom wall, while short-term memories are nothing more than a dandelion’s fluffy plumes whisked away by a brisk wind. That was confirmed by her caretaker in her current nursing facility in Upstate NY, where I would sometimes bring or send her articles about Resistance heroes or pictures of Amsterdam during and after the war… The caretaker begged me kindly to not send her any more memories of those times because she was driving everyone in the house crazy with non-stop memories and insisting others had no idea what the war was like for people like her…. AQ

Pat Seman – Paska

Pat Seman
Paska

Easter. The biggest festival of the year in Ukraine.

It begins with Willow Sunday and the ceremony of the blessing of the willow, a practice that stems back to pagan times when the willow with its healing properties was a holy tree and one of the first in Spring to show signs of life. People believed that by tapping each other with a freshly blooming willow branch they could draw upon its energy and strength.

There was no sign of tapping at church that morning, simply an enormous crowd of people, everyone clutching pussy willow twigs and pressing forward into an already packed church. Once inside, standing squeezed like a sardine and peering over a sea of shoulders, I could see nothing of the ceremony. But the singing was sublime. One voice emerged in what felt like the crescendo of the service, strong and deep with an ever greater sense of urgency, till at its peak it melted into a sea of harmony, one with the rich and sonorous tones of the choir. Then abruptly, the service over, the crowd turned and I was carried with them as inch by inch we shuffled and stumbled our way out into the pouring rain.

Holy Week or Willow week as it’s called in Ukraine is a period of cleansing both spiritual and physical in preparation for Easter. In my street the women were out sweeping the pavement in front of their houses, scrubbing doorsteps, cleaning and polishing the windows till they shone. In courtyards and gardens, carpets were hung out to air. Caught up in the general fever of spring-cleaning I cleaned my flat from top to bottom. After such a long winter it was good to open wide the doors and windows and feel the first balmy breath of Spring entering. At school my students and colleagues, their figures trim from weeks of dieting and fasting, were all talking about their trips to the ‘bazaar’- an enormous market on the edge of town – and the new clothes they’d bought to wear on Easter Sunday.

The girls in my groups told me that they were making ‘pisanki’, the beautiful traditional painted eggs for which Ukraine is famous. Decorated with stylised symbols from Nature they were said to contain powerful magic, a protection against evil and natural catastrophe. Once they were painted by women only. They would gather together in secret when the children had gone to bed, singing and telling stories as with wax and plant dyes and a special stylus they created the delicate patterns of the pisanki. For centuries the tradition was handed down from mother to daughter only to be banned under the Soviet regime. It was the Ukrainians in the Diaspora that ensured its survival. I know my grandmother took this skill with her to Canada.

Now the girls have lessons at school in dyeing and decorating pisanki. In the weeks before Easter you see these decorated eggs everywhere. They come in many colours – orange and red, yellow, green and deep blue. Often the patterns are geometrical or with spiral motifs, but there are also motifs of birds, flowers and animals. One, which I saw amongst a cluster of colourful pisanki in the local market, was encircled with a chain of young women dancing.

Pisanki represent the gift of life.

At Easter they’re placed in a wicker basket of food, which is taken to the midnight mass to be blessed. In my cousin Masha’s basket: pisanki, ham, sausage, horseradish, butter, cheese and rye bread, all covered by a white embroidered cloth. And a ‘paska’, or Easter bread, a round, sweet loaf, decorated again with motifs of plants and flowers formed from dough to celebrate nature’s rebirth.

The paska must be made with great care. When preparing the dough and during the kneading you must keep your thoughts pure and the whole household quiet to ensure the bread bakes properly. This means that no-one, not even friends and neighbours are allowed to come in during its baking lest they make a sudden noise or cast the evil eye, causing the paska to come out flat.

We arrived at the cathedral about an hour before midnight. Masha gave me a candle from her basket, then we both put on our scarves and joined a throng of women jostling to get in through the door. Inside they parted to leave a clear passage down to the altar, placing their baskets on either side of it ready for the priest’s blessing. We stood on the cold stone floor amongst the crowd of worshippers listening as the deep voices of the priests and choir intoned the solemn liturgy. The sequin-sewn white scarves of the congregation glimmered and glittered in the soft candle light, while over their heads, in the shadows near the altar hung a life-size figure of Christ on the Cross surrounded by a mass of deep red carnations.

A stirring, a murmur of expectation. Heads turned as some men entered carrying banners. Masha, checking her watch, muttered that it was now gone midnight. Still we stood waiting patiently as the priest continued his incantation. Then all at once the chandeliers went on in a blaze of electric light. Red neon letters spelling CHRISTOS VOSKRES flashed above the altar and a procession of nine priests, resplendent in white and gold followed by the choir, led us out of the cathedral with the bells wildly pealing. Out into the cold midnight air as the Easter flame was passed through the crowd from one candle to the other, then in a rambling procession we circled the cathedral three times, singing and stopping every so often to roar out a reply to the priest’s call ‘Christ is risen’, ‘He is indeed risen!’

At 6 in the morning I ate with Masha and her family as they broke their fast. All the food from the basket, which had been blessed by the priest at the cathedral, and more, was spread out on the table. We each had a hard-boiled egg dyed red which we had to hold firmly while tapping everyone else’s trying to crack them. Masha’s husband, Vasili, was the one who came out victorious; the last with his egg intact, his face creased into a big smile. As I walked back home through the early morning mist, the streets were still full of people carrying home their baskets and flickering candles. The aim is to bring the flame safely home and with it to trace a figure of the Cross on the lintel of your house. Mine had gone out in a gust of wind within minutes of leaving the cathedral.

Later in the day the mist turned to bright sunshine and the unpaved road to Vasyliv, my family’s village, was shiny with puddles and mud. Fields stretched on either side of me, empty and grey. But in the village the freshly dug earth in the gardens was a rich, dark brown covered here and there in a haze of fresh green. I arrived to the clanging of bells, drove past a group of boys taking it in turns to pull on the rope in the small bell tower by the church gate.

Masha with her parents and Vasili, their son, Pavel and Masha’s brother were all waiting for me, bunched together on two beds around a small table which was crammed to overflowing with dishes: hard boiled eggs, salads, fish fried in batter, meatballs, salami, cold pork, cheese and a sweet, creamy macaroni-like pudding. Vasili told us that he was going easy on the vodka as he was saving himself for the next day, the first Monday of Easter or ‘Wet Monday’, when he and his friends would hit the streets to douse the women passing by with water. Yet another old custom rooted in pre-Christian rites of purification and rebirth, and one which, according to Masha, is practised with an unbridled enthusiasm. ‘Never mind’, she said, ‘on Tuesday, it’ll be the women’s turn’.

Masha then told me that when she was young, on Easter morning, she and the other village girls would dance and sing in front of the church, round and round in a circle in imitation of the movement of the earth round the sun, to encourage the Spring to waken and bring them good luck and a plentiful harvest.
 
 
An integral part of the of Easter ritual which follows Easter Sunday is the honouring of the dead, when families gather at the graves of their loved ones and ancestors bringing food for them. Often they stay and eat together next to the grave, so that the dead too may take part in the celebration, the joy of Easter; the idea being that the ghosts of the dead are always with us, that the border between life and death is as permeable as a cloud.

Driving out of Chernivitsi towards Vasyliv the next Saturday I saw heaps of plastic purple and pink wreaths for sale at the side of the road and people walking along the verge with these large wreaths slung over their shoulders or on the handle bars of their bikes. In the countryside I stopped at a cemetery just outside a village where so many wreaths had been laid or propped against headstones you could hardly see the graves. Between them wooden tables and benches had been set out as for a party. The sky was sullen with dark clouds threatening rain, the cemetery empty, except for a man and a woman and two children who were sitting at a table next to their ancestor’s grave, quietly eating and drinking. Out of respect I kept my distance, but as soon as they spotted me they sent over the young boy with an Easter bread and a pisanka. The bread was ornamented with a cross made of dough, the four arms curved at their tips as if about to spin into motion – an ancient symbol of the sun and the wheel of life.

In Vasyliv the cemetery lies at the centre of the village, a large field full of stone crosses, many of them ancient, some all but toppling over in the long grass. There were no wreaths and no tables and benches laid out when I arrived. All was quiet. A football match was going on in the neighbouring field. Every so often there’d be shouts from the small tribune alongside the dirt path skirting the graves.

I trudged through the mud and wet grass in search of Masha and her family. She’d promised to take me to our great-grand-parents’ graves and say some prayers for them on my behalf. She was at the edge of the cemetery with Vasili, their son, Pavel and Vasili’s mother. They were gathered round Vasili’s father’s grave. His mother was in tears. Vasili came to me and solemnly handed me an Easter bread, an orange and some chocolates in memory of his father.

The spot where my great grandparents lie buried is marked by two stone crosses. They stand side by side, leaning slightly towards one another, not far from a border of tall, sheltering acacia trees. My great grandmother Vasylina’s cross stands on the left, and on the right, that of my great grandfather Vasil. Their surfaces are so worn that it’s impossible to trace an inscription. The arms of each cross are decorated with flower patterns, and at the centre of Vasil’s is another pagan symbol of the sun: a circle, from which branch out four short arms like rays. Clearly engraved within the circle is a wreath of flowers, symbol of Mother Earth.

Masha and I stood silently at the graves of our great-grandparents. It started to rain. We returned to her parents’ house where her father and his family were waiting for me to join them in yet another feast.

When I left, Masha gave me one red carnation. It had been blessed in a service of remembrance of the village dead, my Ukrainian ancestors. It hangs now, dry and drained of colour, at home above my desk.

Bryan R. Monte – Harry and Me: The Honeymoon

Bryan R. Monte
Harry and Me: The Honeymoon

I met Harry Britt on election night November 1982 at San Francisco City Hall. I had just taken part in a victory party crawl with members and officers of the Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club. One of our stops had been to Democratic Party headquarters to congratulate Phil Burton on keeping his US congressional district seat. Burton had also been one of the first, major heterosexual politicians to appear with the Milk Club contingent earlier that summer in what was then called the annual Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade.

In the age just before personal computers, I watched as the vote was updated on chalkboards in the City Hall basement. Sister Boom Boom, who had run unsuccessfully for a SF City and County Supervisor’s seat, nevertheless attempted to enter City Hall triumphantly on the shoulders of her supporters. (Sister Boom Boom was from a gay male order of nuns called The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who wore full, traditional black habits with white wimpels, but also extensive makeup such as white face paint, very long fake eyelashes and dark eye shadow). Unfortunately, Boom Boom’s veil got caught in the metal work above the door, so they had to wait a few moments to untangle her before her supporters performed some sort of street theatre accompanied by music from a boombox. Boom Boom’s campaign had included various colourful, attention getting stunts such as a poster of her riding a broom above the city hall dome whilst skywriting in pink smoke “Surrender Dianne” referring to both Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco and the Wicked Witch of the West’s warning to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She also rode in the lesbian & gay parade in a car with another slogan ‘Am I Supe Yet?’ echoing a popular, national soup TV advertisement slogan.

This was in stark contrast to a very calm Harry Britt who wore a Harris tweed jacket, a buttoned-down shirt, a tie, and dark trousers, and who watched quietly, leaning against a wall, at the updated race results. We’d been looking at each across the room at the Women’s Building at the Harvey Milk Gay Democrat Club’s monthly meetings since last spring, but this time Harry was just a few feet away and, for the first time, I  felt a distinct physical attraction to him. I found Harry attractive because was tall (6’ 4”), had a broad chest, a slight Southern accent and a full head of brown, curly hair. From time to time, some news crew would switch on their camera lights and film as they asked Harry questions about how various races were developing.

Harvey Milk Gay Democratic Club Contingent, 1982 Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade, Rink Foto, photograph, 1982. L. to r. with flags: Bryan Monte and Paul Melbostad; in car: Harry Britt and Phil Burton, driver, Bob Ross; under banner in jacket, John Bardis; far right, Ron Huberman.

In between interviews, Harry asked me what I did. I told him I was a Berkeley student. He asked if I was a polysci major. I told him I studied English and semiotic textual analysis. When he mentioned he had studied hermeneutics, he really got my interest. After most of the Democratic Party candidates’ winning results had come in, Harry and I rode with Russell Fields to the Elephant Walk, a gay bar at Castro and 18th Streets. There we met Tim Wolfred, who had won a seat on San Francisco’s Community College Board two years earlier, and Bill Kraus, Harry’s political advisor. We had to leave a half hour later, however, because the bar was closing. As we stood on the sidewalk, I told Harry I wanted to see him again. Without hesitating, Harry gave me his card. He told me to call on Friday, because he was leaving on a three-day trip to LA the next morning.

I called him on Friday and left a message with Harry’s secretary. Then I went for a walk. When I returned, I discovered Harry had called, but left a different number than the one at city hall. I rang it and this time Dana van Gorder, Harry’s aide, answered. He told me Harry had just gone to the store and would be back in about five minutes. Ten minutes later, I rang again.

‘Hi. I’m staying at a friend’s apartment for a few days. What are you doing this weekend?’

‘Nothing much,’ I said. Then after a brief conversation, he gave me the address of the flat for a date the next evening.

I took the bus over to Arguelo and California Streets, near the Presidio. When Harry opened the door, I was floored. To my surprise he’d slicked back his hair so his beautiful curls had been tamed into evenly-combed rows. What have you done to your hair? I thought. He looked more like a middle-aged, Sunday school teacher than the attractive, intellectual politician I’d just met.

After spending an hour or so talking, (Harry was probably screening me before we went out), we drove to a gay restaurant called the Fickle Fox at Cunningham Alley and Valencia Street, just a few blocks from where I lived.

The restaurant had a baffle just behind its front door, so people passing on the street couldn’t see in. Inside, the dimly-lit restaurant seemed to be a remnant from the 1950s with its red-flocked wallpaper, a miniature statue of Michelangelo’s David and porpoise fountain. It looked like the gay restaurant time had forgot. It was quiet, though, which helped calm my first-date nerves.

The waiters wore traditional white shirt and black trousers. They gave us gold tassled menus and asked if we wanted something to drink. When I asked for a soda, the waiter raised an eyebrow as if I might not be old enough for a place with a liquor licence. Harry said the sirloin was good, so that’s what I ordered. I hadn’t eaten sirloin since I had returned to college at Berkeley, more than a year and half ago. Money was always tight for me then. My most extravagant restaurant forays were limited to once a month lunches at La Fuenta’s on Telegraph Avenue and Channing Way where I ordered chicken and cheese flautas with a bean soup or salad and water for $4 on the rare days I’d forgot to make my lunch. It had been a long day and in addition to being nervous, I was tired, hungry, and afraid I might faint. However, I didn’t ask for coffee to stay awake or alcohol to relax because I wasn’t used to stimulants or intoxicants. (There had never been any coffee or alcohol in my family home). I knew that drinking alcohol to soothe my nerves would make me fall asleep. On the other hand, coffee would keep me awake all night. This complicated things either way because I had to get up the next morning at 6 a.m. for my weekend guard job at a senior citizens’ tower block in Oakland.

Harry observed me looking around uncomfortably and told me that even though the restaurant’s décor was dated, the food was good. He told me used to have lunch at the restaurant when he’d worked nearby first, as a mail carrier and later, in an office. Harry was right, and I enjoyed the dinner. Afterwards we drove down to Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge and enjoyed the view, until a lit cigarette, dropped from the fort above, fell onto the ground a few feet from us. Harry thought it would be best to leave before a brick came down on one of our heads.

During the next two and half weeks, Harry and I saw each other regularly at least at the weekend and sometimes once or twice during the week, usually after a Board of Supervisors meeting. The more I got to know him, the more I was attracted to him. Physically, he was the exact opposite of who I was. He was tall, broad and looked like he could take on anyone whereas I was so thin, friends joked that if I turned sideways, I disappeared. I frequently put on a coat and a hat before I went outside. Harry hardly ever wore more than his Harris tweed jacket. He didn’t seem to feel the cold fog as I did. He also bragged about winning at playing ‘King of the Hill’ on the dirt hill behind his Duke University fraternity house because he was: “bigger and stronger than anyone else.” Harry gave me a sense of security on the street. Alone and a skinny 5’ 8”, I bobbed and weaved to avoid the panhandlers and drug dealers between the 16th and Mission Bart station and my apartment at 20th and Guerrero. However, when Henry walked the same route with me, people gave us a wide berth and left us alone.

Once I even flinched when Harry went to put his arm around me on the #14 Mission Street bus on our way downtown. Instead of sitting in the front of the bus near the bus driver as I did, Harry sat in the last row right in the middle so everyone could see him. ‘What are you worried about?’ he protested. ‘Nobody is going to bother you—not with me.’

In addition to his physical strength and size, Harry wasn’t affected by bouts of illnesses or weakness as I was. These had begun the summer before my senior year in high school when I got scarlet fever. That fever left me weak and since then I had been afflicted by periodic, mysterious illnesses that would cause pain and then disappear after a month or two before the doctors could make a diagnosis. (This continued for the next 25 years until I was diagnosed at nearly 50 with MS). Due to my vacillating health, I worked and finished reading assignments and papers as soon as I got them because I never knew when I would be too tired or ill to study or to go to class. The week I met Harry, though, I was walking on air. I got a 90 on an English midterm and spoke with confidence in my literary criticism class. The next weekend, Harry and I went out to various gay bars, but ended up at Amelia’s, a lesbian bar, because the patrons left us alone so we could dance together.

Despite our physical and health-related differences, however, there many things we had in common. Harry was also a bibliophile and an intellectual. One of the things that won my heart was his city hall office bookshelves stacked to the ceiling with his own book collection, not just legal books. Another was that Harry had studied at Heidelberg University in Germany. I had worked in Hanover in 1978 for six months as a Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints service missionary, so we could compare notes on what we thought of Germany’s social, economic and transport systems.

However, even though I was happy to be dating Harry, I kept it a secret for as long as I could for three reasons. First, I wasn’t sure if our relationship and our attraction to each other would last (What’s Harry doing with a guy like me?). Second, I feared someone might intentionally try to break us up. Third, I was afraid of gossip and unwanted interest.

My secrecy, however, led to an embarrassing situation for my roommate, Rob, as he ran into Harry in the hall one night in his underwear on the way to the toilet. ‘You dog!’ he said the next morning after Harry had left. ‘Spill.’ I did share when and where we’d met and how long we had been going out, but not much more. Rob was a good roommate and he didn’t press me for more.

A few weeks later Harry and I spent Thanksgiving at Yosemite National Park as part of a Milk Club leaders’ campout. We stayed in a cabin heated by glowing-red coils behind metal screens powered by the nearby hydroelectric plant. It was the first holiday I celebrated in San Francisco with friends. It felt good as I got to know Harry better.

Then Harry left for a fundraising tour Back East. It is this tour that provides the first personal documents of our relationship, where I have words he wrote to accompany my memories. For about two weeks, Harry travelled from Montreal down the East Coast via Boston, Albany, New York City, Hoboken and Philadelphia (at least from what the cards and the postmarks record). Harry sent cards with series of teddybears dressed in various gay drag—leather, construction worker, hustler—probably purchased from a gay store in San Francisco or Montreal.

Harry’s written messages in these cards and their frequency (seven cards and one letter in two weeks) demonstrated his continued interest whilst on the road. From Boston, the second stop on his eight-city circuit, Harry sent a card with Sister Boom Boom being mounted by a giant stuffed panda bear on a wooden bench in Buena Vista Park. Inside Harry wrote that the trip was ‘barely tolerable’ only because ‘he would see me again at the end of it.’ He also wrote that he ‘really need(ed) to hold me.’ Hold is written three times over so it looks fuzzy. On his way to New York City, Harry regretted he didn’t have a photograph of me to show to people who seemed ‘happy I have a Bryan in my life.’

One day after Harry had been on the road for about two weeks, I lost my patience waiting for him to return. I telephoned Van Gorder, at city hall and asked him where Harry was. He told me he could not only pinpoint Harry on a map, but he could also give me a number where I could reach him at that moment. I dialled the number and got some guy with a Jersey accent, who quickly gave his name and the name of a restaurant. I asked for Harry and he put the phone down, during which I heard banging pots and pans, sizzling meat, and a swinging kitchen door. A minute later, Harry picked up the phone. ‘How did you find me?’ he asked. ‘I’m very smart, remember,’ I said. We talked for no more than five minutes, but it meant more to me than all the cards that he’d sent. He told me he’d be home in a just a few days. I hoped that was true.

The last written communication I had from Harry from the East Coast was a letter on Supervisor Harry Britt stationery headed “Wednesday night” in an envelope postmarked 9 Dec Philadelphia. He wrote that when I called I had reached him: ‘in a crowded clam house, … like Spengers in Berkeley’. He added: ‘knowing you cared enough to call was a big deal.’ He also reassured me that: ‘After Philadelphia, it’s Baltimore, Washington and home.’

Another reason Harry might have been feeling low and wanting to get home was because Mayor Dianne Feinstein had just vetoed his first domestic partnership legislation, which had been adopted and passed by the Board of Supervisors by an 8 to 3 vote the month before. With such a majority, Feinstein didn’t need to act on the bill for it to become law. However, she did, choosing to veto it. Harry telephoned from the University of Pennsylvania to tell me about the veto and the protest rally planned for the City Hall steps that evening. Harry said Feinstein had been pressured by Roman Catholic Archbishop John R. Quinn who was quoted in The New York Times on 10 December as saying that ‘domestic partnership…is injurious to our legal, cultural, moral and societal heritage.’ After talking to Harry, I went jogging and saw two protest notice signs taped to the walls of the Bank of America at Castro and Market and the Hibernia Bank at Castro and 18th. The one at B of A read: ‘Feinstein Betrayal / Protest Rally 5 O’Clock Tonight, City Hall.’ People were also passing out leaflets at the Castro Muni Metro Station that were printed so quickly that Feinstein’s name was misspelt as ‘Fenistein.’

That evening, 400 protestors gathered on City Hall’s Polk St. steps. Randy Stallings from the Alice B. Tolkas Democratic Club and Paul Boneberg from the Stonewall Democratic Club (the Milk Club’s two rivals) addressed the crowd. According to my journal, Boneberg said that Feinstein had finally shown her true colours and demonstrated she couldn’t be trusted by the gay community. I also recorded that he said he’d been in a relationship with his domestic partner longer than Feinstein had been with her current husband. Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver said that Harry’s ordinance was not tearing at the seams of the social fabric, but rather reflected the reality of a society in which single parents were the heads of households. Boom Boom denied wanting to tear the social fabric by adding humorously: ‘we are (just) letting out the seams of the social fabric, so society can grow a little.’

After the rally, one of the sister’s cornered me saying she’d heard Harry was a real dud in bed. I looked up at the bearded man in a full black nun habit and white face makeup and said: ‘That’s not been my experience.’

Whilst I was anxiously waiting for Harry to come home, I wrote the poem: ‘To Harry in Hope of your Speedy Return’ with its nightmarish, anti-ascension ending.

I do not know which city you have travelled to tonight
nor which hotel room bed holds you between its sheets
like a business letter slid into an envelope

But cards sent to mark your departure
sit like phantom songsters in my mailbox
and whisper at my neck and ears like cologne

against the dirty tread of faces and voices on the subway
that smudge the (memory) slight weight(lessness) of
your arm against my shoulder.

The postmarks read: Montreal Boston
                                          Albany    NYC
                             Philadelphia    NJ
a map of the places you no longer are
your handwriting as if at sea
or on a commuter train
the h’s falling back on themselves
the t’s crossed lower and lower.

And I sleep in a tangle of sheets
running through a landscape of too much sun and sky
the ground disappearing beneath my feet
as I become weightless
not sprouting wings or fins
to swim through these deep skies
but floating higher and higher past the clouds
suffocating in the thinning air.

(Thom Gunn, my poetry instructor at Berkeley from the year before, commented a few years later that this poem reminded him of Ezra Pound’s ‘The River Boat Man Wife’s Letter.’)

After returning to San Francisco in the second week of December, Harry and I had another two and half weeks together before he left for Texas to see his mother who was having health problems. Since I had moved to San Francisco, I had always wanted to spend Christmas and New Year’s with a partner (instead of alone as I had my first two years in San Francisco), but I also understood why Harry had to go. (This would be his second of three absences during our first four months together. The third was a journey to Australia as the headliner of the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras in mid-February 1983.)

Harry tried to make up for his Christmas absence by buying me three gifts—two practical and one extravagant. The practical ones were a purple and pink, thick terry-cloth robe from Joseph’s near Polk Street and a white comforter decorated with yellow, red and blue tulips, (which I still have), to keep me warm in my then cold flat. Either from earthquake settling or poor construction, none of my flat’s windows closed completely, so wood wedges and/or rags were pushed into the open corners to keep out the draft. In addition, my flat didn’t have heating.

The extravagant gift was a large box of Godiva chocolates. My roommate wasn’t as impressed with the gifts. ‘He’s treating you like a like a hausfrau’, Rob snapped. Then he went back East for the holidays so I was home alone.

I tried to keep myself busy with more guard or temporary office work (I worked Christmas and New Year’s and kept the television and radio off as Steve Abbott had told me, the year before, to avoid hearing Christmas music). I comforted myself by saying the extra workdays were a good way to take care of my precarious financial situation and to stay out of trouble.

So I stayed home and read ahead in my course syllabi and interviewed Steve Abbott and Steve Benson for material for my Berkeley honour’s thesis. I attended Christmas Anonymous at John Norton’s house in Pacific Heights and saw Steve there but had just missed Harold Norse, who had left early wanting to be home before dark.

Sometime after New Year’s, I finally got to see Harry’s place in the Nob Hill District on Sutter or Pine. Before he took me there, however, he told me that until recently he’d shared a house with some men on 16th Street between Market and Castro. He said he had liked that place, but for some reason, the household had disbanded and Harry had had to move. Through a friend he’d got his present flat, which was just temporary. His friend was going to renovate the caretaker’s quarters in the building’s basement for him.

Harry opened the door to a small, three-room studio apartment, with a living room/bedroom straight ahead and a bath and a kitchen on the right and left respectively. Harry’s flat also had extension cords running from the living room to the kitchen to provide power for a refrigerator, a Dutch oven and a hot plate on the kitchen counter. The kitchen had a large, gas stove that took up a lot of space. There was also a wobbly, wooden bookshelf blocking most of the kitchen window. The shelves held a motley collection of cast iron skillets, pans, pots, and silverware, community award plaques and trophies, and books including James Joyce’s Steven Hero and Maurice Eliade’s Shamanism.

Most men would have run once they discovered Harry’s living situation, since happiness, in even then in high-priced San Francisco, required three “R’s”—romance, rings and real estate. However, Harry’s “bohemian” apartment didn’t put me off. I was in love with him and also lived simply and economically. I drank out of recycled jam jars and bought second-hand clothes and housewares. Occasionally I adopted furniture—night tables, chairs, etc.—abandoned on the street—for my own flat. So the things Harry owned didn’t matter to me; what he was doing with his life did. I also knew that City Supervisors then made around 10K a year and were expected to have second jobs as the source of their real income. Harry, however, devoted most of his time to his constituents. I found that admirable.

I slept over that first night and found his flat warm and comfortable. Within a month, we had exchanged keys. We also made sure we coordinated when and where we were going to sleep together. In the era before cell phones, one evening we ended up sleeping at the other’s flat the entire night—alone.

Usually Henry or I would arrive at the other’s flat late at night, startling the other awake, but then receiving a warm welcome nonetheless. At my flat, Harry usually let himself in after a late night political meeting. At Harry’s, I usually arrived at 2.30 a.m. after spending the evening typing my honour’s thesis at Harry’s office on an IBM Correcting Selectric II typewriter (the closest thing there was to a PC in those days). I’d find Harry asleep with the television on. One of the things I looked forward to, no matter where we were together, was going to bed and putting my head on Harry’s barrel chest after which I almost immediately fell asleep and wouldn’t wake until he got up the next morning.

###

After living in my shared flat for about four months, Rob announced one day that he was moving in with his boyfriend in Oakland. I was flabbergasted. Having lived four different places in one year, I was not about to move to a fifth. I decided to remain in my present flat as long as the landlord promised not to raise the rent. Then, I began to interview flatmates via a listing at Community Rentals on Castro Street through whom I had found my shared flat. The first guy came to his interview with a tall can of beer wrapped in a paper sack. The second, who was younger than me, wore very tight jeans. Less than a few minutes into his interview, he let me know that if he was ever short on the rent, I could take out the difference in sex! The next interviewees must not have been much better. That weekend I decided to keep the apartment and, for a time, not look for a roommate. I was worn out from nearly two years of working two or three jobs while attending university with little time for breaks or holidays. I was tired of choosing between buying groceries or textbooks or about paying tuition or rent. I decided to drop out of Berkeley for a quarter and work full-time to build up my savings and keep my flat.

When Harry and I got together that weekend, I told him my plan. He didn’t say anything then, but the next time we talked on the phone, he said he didn’t want me to drop out. ‘I’ll move in,’ Harry said. ‘You shouldn’t drop out, because sometimes it’s very hard to go back.’ I didn’t agree with Harry right away. I wasn’t sure it would be good for us to rush into living together. I mentioned this to my gay friends who knew about our relationship.

‘Six months!’ Rob said. ‘That’s the equivalent of six years in straight relationships.’ Other gay friends, who knew Harry and me, echoed this sentiment. So I told Harry I would like him to move in.

Harry and I spent five evenings the last week of April moving his belongings out of his apartment and from his building’s basement, where more of his things were stored, into my flat. Whilst he was moving one box, a copy of St. Anselm’s Proslogion split out onto the dusty cement floor along with past issues of the Gay Atheist Newsletter. I was not disturbed by this philosophical contradiction, but rather thought it was the stuff of T. S. Eliot’s negative capability and another indication of Harry’s voracious reading habit.

Harry Britt and Bryan R. Monte, Guerrero St. flat, June 1982, Mary M. Monte, photograph, 1982.

The first few months, having Harry as a roommate gave me the social, economic and emotional stability I had never known before in San Francisco. It was comforting to have Harry as a roommate because we agreed on bill paying and apartment cleaning. Rent and utilities were split down the middle and we bought and prepared most of our own meals separately because we were hardly ever home together for dinner. If we thought something needed cleaning—the toilet, bath, kitchen—and we had the time, then we cleaned it. There were no long, drawn out discussions, no weekly rotas of what needed to be done and when. In addition, sometimes when we went to the supermarket, we bought things for each other—ground beef and lettuce for me, popcorn and oil for Harry—if we saw the other needed it. Finally, neither Harry nor I used non-prescription or recreational drugs. Many of my past roommates had been addicted to marijuana or other substances, one of the reasons they had moved to San Francisco. Harry and I didn’t use any and we rarely had a guest who did. (The one exception to this, our first months together, was when I came home after unknowingly eating two, mushroom-laced brownies at a Channel Magazine reading at Newspace, which I described in detail in my Steve Abbott memoir. Harry, to his credit, lay down next to me on the bed and kept me calm through the night as non-existent green, gold and purple comets shot across the bedroom ceiling).

In early May, I went to the UC Berkeley administration to see how many more quarters I had to go before graduating. I was finishing up two incompletes in a William Carlos Williams course and in a Latin language class due to an operation the previous year. I learned I still needed to complete a freshman science requirement.

‘What about the physical anthropology course I took at Bryn Mawr while at Haverford, where I measured cranial capacities of humanoid skulls and sketched strata in rock beds?’ I asked. The woman at the administration counter told me that might qualify, but I would need to get the course description from the college and it would need to clearly indicate that my year of anthropology had included a full semester of physical anthropology. I called Bryn Mawr the next day to request the courses’ curricula. A week or two later I received them and I went to Berkeley to deliver them personally. I met with another administration clerk who said she needed to check with her boss. I waited in the office for about twenty minutes. Then, the next thing I knew the door opened and the woman happily announced: ‘You’re graduating in June. Congratulations! Go down to the ASUC and get measured for your gown.’ I couldn’t believe her words. I was in shock all the way down the hill to the student centre and during my fitting.

Harry Britt and Bryan R. Monte, UC Berkeley, June 1982, Mary M. Monte, photograph, 1982.

A month later my mother flew in from Ohio to watch with Harry as I walked across the ASUC auditorium stage. As I received my diploma, I turned to the audience and called out both their names to thank them, causing the audience to laugh. My mother took a photo of that moment and also of Harry and I standing down the road from the Berkeley Campanile and in our flat’s living room. It was my happiest time in San Francisco.
AQ

Jerilyn Friedmann Burgess – Life Lessons

Life Lessons
by Jerilyn Friedmann Burgess

While spring cleaning this year, I came across a small canvas bag emblazoned with the words “Chirag Premium Rose Long Kernel Basmati Rice. Product of Pakistan.”

Perhaps others could discard this humble item, but I cannot. It is a memento of the sweet students I taught eight years ago, refugees from Bhutan, at a time when I was a stranger in a strange land of my own.

In early 2009, my husband found the perfect job in Houston, Texas. After a few years in Washington, D.C., I simply wanted to go home to Ohio, but that wasn’t meant to be.

Houston is a fine place for people who call it “home,” but for me, the “everything-is-bigger-in-Texas” mentality made me feel small, insignificant, alone. Everyone seemed to own a gun, and weapons scared me. The Texas drawl was annoying for this fast-talking Yankee. Texas politics were ultra-conservative to my liberal bent. The beef-centric cuisine did not appeal to this part-time vegan. This city was not for me, to say the very least.

While in D.C., I taught English as a Second Language, or ESL, to the spouses of wealthy expats. Many of my students had a little English background and were quite easy to teach. When our sessions were done, they presented me with expensive jewelry. I was uncomfortable accepting such items—I was just doing my job!—but a refusal would have offended the students. I learned to simply say “Thank you.”

Soon after arriving in Houston, I received my first assignment, a six-week class to be held in the old party room of a rundown, Houston apartment complex. I was going to work with Bhutanese refugees. It wasn’t exactly the luxurious suburban homes of D.C. expats, but it got me out of my house.

A case manager briefed me on my new students, explaining how they became homeless in this world, a sad old tale about hatred against one’s neighbor. On a less profound note, she added that their apartment furnishings were only second-hand card tables, folding chairs, mattresses, and pillows. Even pretty containers and bags from grocery goods became prized possessions.

Refugees brought to the United States have six months to get a job. They must learn English. They are provided housing, food, and the other essentials of life but are expected to be self-supporting quickly. And I wanted to help.

On my first day of class, lessons plans in hand, I waited for my students. Into that old party room they came, raven-haired women wearing the brightly-coloured saris and the red bindi of their Hindu culture. The men dressed as casually as any other Texan, clad in t-shirts and jeans. About a third were young married women, another third, their husbands, and the rest were elderly. The young students were definitely motivated to learn English not only to fulfil the language requirement but to help them converse with doctors, store clerks, and their children’s teachers.

Usually ESL teachers employ an immersive approach, not allowing anything but the target language in the classroom. This assumes that students are already literate in their own tongues, but I immediately discovered that half of the Bhutanese students couldn’t even use a pen.

Fortunately, an intense young man, Tashi, was able to assist me. He had taught beginning English to his compatriots in their Nepali refugee camps, and they trusted him. Tashi helped me demonstrate how to pick up pens and make letters and numbers. He also translated for the pre-literate students, but most of the time I came up with communication techniques. A smile is the same in every language, so I smiled at lot, even though it felt forced. I mimed verbs such as “walk” and “eat,” and the photos in our textbook illustrated many concepts. I repeated myself constantly until the students could replicate those basic sounds of English.

After a couple weeks, laughter and hesitant conversation filled that old party room, and my own smiles were no longer artificial but heartfelt. Through “my refugees,” I found purpose in Houston. I felt at home.

But it certainly wasn’t all happy. I soon learned that teaching English involves more than articulating phonemes. I learned to ignore textbook pages with photos of hamburgers, televisions, Christmas presents, or Hollywood actors—these topics were irrelevant to students whose culture was not at all Western. I sometimes jumped ahead to chapters explaining how to call for immediate medical, police, or fire response. I empathized with mothers who were preoccupied with worries about sick children. I applauded the efforts of the shy elderly students who could finally say “Nice to meet you” after four weeks.

On our last day of class, one of those young women starting crying. “You teach us no more,” she said sadly. The language school I worked for didn’t ask me to work another six-week session, tersely stating that these good people needed to find jobs immediately, fluent or not. That angered me, so before I left them, I connected the students with a local Hindu charity that I found.

And then it was time for me to walk away from the refugees who made me feel at home in Houston. As I was about to say a final farewell, Tashi and a couple young women approached my desk, the entire classroom breaking out in big smiles. He handed me a plastic grocery bag. “Our gift to you,” he said proudly. To thank you.” Inside was the canvas rice bag, folded carefully, the most precious gift I have ever received. Given to me with gratitude and love, I will always cherish it. AQ

Jerilyn Friedmann Burgess, The Present, photograph, 2017

Pat Seman – Rushnyk

Rushnyk
by Pat Seman

Maria Vasileyevna. Tall and firmly built, she wears a bright yellow, floral headscarf. Immediately I see my father in her, the shape of her mouth, her eyes.

She’s waiting for me in the small council office of the Ukrainian village where I’ve come in search of my family, and already I’ve learned that half the village bears my grandmother’s surname. Maria, as teacher at the village school and local historian, is a fund of knowledge when it comes to the genealogy and blood ties of this close-knit community. She’s here to help me trace my family.

“I’m a Semenyuk too, on my mother’s side. We’re all one big family here.” Blood is strong,” she tells me, “it pulls you back to the earth it was fed on. The earth of this village is a magnet. It has brought you back to us. Welcome to Vasyliv.”

She sits down with us, puts on her glasses and studies the photograph I’ve brought with me, then takes out a notebook and begins to write.

The next day she phones to tell me she’s found my family.

 
In the spring of the next year, 2010, I was back in Ukraine, working as an English teacher at a language institute in the main provincial town, Chernivitsi. I wanted to stay longer this time, explore the country, go for long unhurried walks through the lanes and tracks of Vasyliv and, above all, I wanted to get to know my family. At weekends I’d take the local bus to the village. Long afternoons spent with cousins and second cousins, their children and grandchildren, often taken from house to house and at each house another meal spread before me. Eating and drinking and talking until the early hours of the evening. Whenever I could tear myself away from my family’s infinite hospitality I’d visit Maria, who by now had become a firm friend.

 
Maria lives in a small two-roomed house. There’s a courtyard with a fenced off section for her animals—two baby goats, some chickens and a big gobbling turkey. In the middle of the courtyard stands a well and further back, near the entrance to her garden is a wooden hut, which serves as the outside toilet. When I arrive she always has food waiting for me—blinis, borsch, fresh boiled eggs with crunchy spring onions, a dish of chicken or succulent kid. I sit at the table in the corner of her room with its two beds against the walls and picture of the Virgin Mary hanging above the wood stove.

“Eat, eat! I promise you’ve never tasted anything as good as this before. Everything’s my own produce, fresh from the land. Here, take some more bread. Everyone must eat. That’s the way it’s always been. You can’t work on an empty stomach.”

 
Maria is a history teacher at the local village school. Every morning she’s up at dawn to tend her garden, her cherry and apricot trees, vines and flowers. By 8 o’clock she’s at school ready to begin her first lesson. From my own experience, teaching English to school children in Chernivtsi, I imagine her sitting at her desk on a raised wooden dais in front of the blackboard as the children, neatly dressed, file in quietly, hang up their jackets in a wardrobe at the back of the classroom, take their places at old-fashioned wooden desks lined up in straight rows. A classroom with white lacy curtains at the windows, pot plants on the windowsills, pictures and maps hanging on the white walls. The room clean and tidy, everything in its place. It has a typically Ukrainian atmosphere of domesticity; warm and comfortable.

But Maria tells me proudly that in her school instead of blackboards they now have white boards and that the old coal stove central heating system has been replaced by electric convection heating.

“It’s so warm in winter now that the temperature may even reach 24 degrees and the children can sit and study without having to wear their jackets! We have a special computer room and in each classroom there’s an overhead projector that can be connected to a laptop.”

She comes home in the afternoon to more work, hard, manual work this time on her land. Everything she does herself; follows the tractor as it ploughs the earth, pulling out weeds and stones; plants the potatoes, corn and vegetables; weeds and harvests them.

“In everything I do, I find something special. I give it my best.”

 
One afternoon as I’m walking along the path to Maria’s house I pass a bridal procession making its way towards the church. My attention’s caught by two children who go before the bride and her family, one carrying a large decorated loaf and an icon, the other a long, white, embroidered towel. When I tell this to Maria, “Ah, the rushnyk!” and she disappears into the next room, returns with her own beautifully embroidered example.

“Here. This is my rushnyk. A rushnyk symbolises life’s journey, so it must be long and beautiful. It’s with us at all our most important moments—birth, marriage, death. See the red thread running through it? Red is for life itself, fertility, joy. The bride you saw today will take her rushnyk into the church with her. She and the groom will stand on it during the ceremony. And here”, she lays out on the bed a long-sleeved, embroidered white blouse. “A blouse, woven and embroidered by my great-grandmother.” With her hand she traces the paired motifs that rise in dense formation up each sleeve; a red rose for life and fertility, a black rose for the earth, repeated time and time again. Each pair, she explains, represents an ancestor, going back as far as the seamstress could remember.

She brings out a dress made for her by her mother; a long, white woven dress with crocheted hem and cuffs, the top and sleeves all closely sewn with tiny beads in a pattern of large red roses against green leaves. She insists I try it on, kneels at my feet to roll up my jeans, adjust the hem, squeezes my feet into a pair of her daughter’s tight, pointed shoes, then wraps a long black apron skirt around my waist, bright with tiny beads that glimmer and shine in a pattern of flowers as varied and rich as those in her garden. The dress feels heavy, almost regal in its weight and flow and, tottering out to have my picture taken amongst Maria’s tulips and sweet-smelling narcissus, I wish I’d inherited just some of that poise and elegance that I’ve seen in so many young Ukrainian women, immaculate in their high heels and tight skirts, strolling along the streets of Chernivtsi.

 
Out through her garden and onto a wide sweep of land that curves gently down to the river, I follow Maria as she strides over the tilled earth, down along a track between plots furred with tiny green shoots.

“There, those are potatoes and over there corn, here beetroot and cabbage. The earth is dry. We need more rain and soon, if they’re to grow.”

She points back towards the ridge we’ve just come from, with its scattering of low-roofed, wooden houses. “That’s where your great-grandfather’s house was once, there where they’re now building a big brick house. Your grandmother worked on this land, in summer she and all her family were out in the fields together hoeing from dawn to dusk. Hemp used to be grown here, great stretches of it. It had to be picked, soaked in the river, then laid out to dry. Your grandmother would have spent the long winter evenings spinning and weaving it into carpets and blankets for her trousseau. And she would have embroidered – bedcovers, pillows, and a pair of white trousers and white shirt for her future bridegroom to be worn at their wedding, and of course, her rushnyk.”

 
Maria and I are sitting by the river cracking sunflower seeds. She’s laid out a blanket for us just clear of the sheltering trees. Nearby some goats and a tethered cow graze on the grass verge. A stork sails by, skimming the opposite shore, which is steep and wooded, its green reflection wavering in the water’s steady flow.

We talk about the recent elections. Yanukovitch, with his connections to Russia, has come to power. Maria tells me that one of his first acts has been to deny that the terrible famine of the 1930’s, in which at least 7 million people starved to death, was an act of genocide committed by the Soviet Union upon the Ukrainian people.

“The Soviet Union stripped the Ukraine of all its harvest leaving our people to starve. They even skimmed off our rich, black Ukrainian earth, took it away by the trainload.” She tells me that this part of Ukraine, Bukovina, escaped this catastrophe; it didn’t become part of the Soviet Union until 1940. But in 1944 collectivisation was introduced into the village. Any peasant who protested against the confiscation of his land was deported to Siberia. The grain too was confiscated, even the seed grain. Soviet agents were sent into the villages to search from house to house for hidden stores of food. Many people died.

“There on the other side of the river,” she points to the steep, wooded bank, “the situation wasn’t so bad, they had rain. The people of Vasyliv would go there with whatever they had and barter it for bread. Just downstream from here there’s a spot where the river runs shallow, that’s where they would cross over. There was a woman; she was pregnant. She was coming back weak with hunger, exhausted, clutching a bag of flour. She’d just exchanged it for her embroidered, beaded blouse. She didn’t make it, couldn’t keep her footing. The swift current swept her away. “These are our stories, our history, written down in every school text book in Ukraine. I am a history teacher. What am I to tell my pupils now? That what they’ve read, what I’ve told them, given them as their history, is not true?”

 
Vasyliv was once an important town in the rich and flourishing principality of Kiev Rus. Situated on the River Dniester, it was part of the crucial trade route that linked the Baltic to the Black Sea and Constantinople. With amber from the Baltic shores and rich brocades, wine, oil and perfume from the Black Sea and beyond, ships sailed into harbour and traded for the local produce –honey, wax, fur, grain and pottery. It had numerous churches, monasteries and a castle, the residence of Prince Vasili, grandson of the Grand Prince of Kiev, Yaroslav the Wise. But its prosperity was short-lived. In 1241 an invading horde of Mongols burnt it to the ground.

I know all this because Maria has taken me along the river, shown me the site of the ancient harbour, the trading post and the large ploughed field nearby where once stood the Prince’s castle. She’s given me a tour of the village museum of which she is curator, with wave of her teacher’s rod, guiding me through the carefully executed plans, diagrams, archaeological drawings and finds that tell the story of Vasyliv’s long history, reaching back 7,000 years. And together we’ve been to the site of the White Stone Church on a rise at the edge of the village with its remains of 12 stone sarcophagi, where princes and boyars once lay; where during the excavation in and around the site, skulls were found.

 
“So many skulls, here and in other parts of the village. Piled high they were. When the experts examined them they proved to have exactly the same proportions as the skulls of our present day villagers.” Hearing this I wonder, if my skull were put to the test, would I too turn out to be a direct descendant of these citizens of Ancient Rus. Could my connection to this place and its people really go back so far?

 
Whenever I can, I go back to Ukraine, to my family and Vasyliv. The last time I was there, as always, I sought out Maria. I found her at the bottom of her field of vegetables down by the river, which was swollen and seething after several bouts of heavy summer rain. She was hanging onto a tree branch, leaning over the fast flowing water, trying to catch a long branch floating by, her face shining with sweat from the effort. She told me that her daughter had gone to find work in Poland. She’s a qualified teacher, but there’s no work in Ukraine for young people and no motivation to study, since a degree is no guarantee of a good job; it’s only money and the right connections that count. The crisis in Ukraine was making the situation even more acute and forcing many of them to seek a better future abroad.

“Ah,” says Maria, “there are so many places to see, so many countries I’ve read about, talked about to my students. If I only had the money, could leave this country, travel, I’d go to Germany, England, Canada, Brazil, India, Greece … a trip round the world! Maybe I’d live abroad for some time, Canada or Sweden, probably for five years, and then I’d come home. For me there’ s no better place to live, my roots are here, here in this earth of Vasyliv. I plant the seeds in its rich earth, they absorb its goodness, grow into the food I eat: the potatoes, the carrots, the cabbage, the beetroot, the sweet corn.

Wherever I am in the world
I won’t forget Vasyliv.
When I think of it, my heart misses a beat.
My Vasyliv, my Vasyliv.

We walked back up the hill in the late afternoon light following the track through Maria’s long field of vegetables, the corn hip-high, potatoes, carrots, beetroot, beans laid out in neat rows, every inch of soil used. On into her garden, which was a tangle and explosion of green. There were roses and lilies of all colours, tall yellow irises, peonies ready to burst their buds, flowering beds of strawberries.

It was time to leave. Maria disappeared into the house, came back with a large jar of preserved cherries and a bowl of eggs, each one individually wrapped in newspaper.

A last hug.

“Come back soon. Don’t forget us!

As if I ever could. AQ

Maryah Converse – Friends with Goats

Friends with Goats
by Maryah Converse

It was 2004, not long after the United States began occupying Iraq. In the neighboring Arab kingdom of Jordan, sid Muna was the headmistress of the girls’ school in the northern village where I would soon be teaching English. About mid-way through my Peace Corps training, she came down to our training center in Madaba, Jordan, to meet me. She was tall and statuesque, in a long, loose olive green duster coat called a jelbaab. We had a list of questions Peace Corps staff had given us to ask each other.

“Tell me about your family.” Sid Muna had a husband and five children, a small family for Jordan. My parents had four children? Allah kareem—Generous God, that was a large family for an American!

How big was sid Muna’s village? A couple thousand, she thought. That would make my new community twice the size of the closest town to my rural Pennsylvania childhood home.

What did people in sid Muna’s village do for a living? Mostly farmers and shepherds and some military families. That was also not so different from my Amish and dairy farming neighbors growing up, where a few years in the military was a common way to pay for college.

I don’t know how it was for the other trainees, but as we went from one question to the next, sid Muna’s answers seemed perfectly calibrated to put me at ease. I knew her people, hand grown up with sprawling extended farm families. Back home, they raised cows and farmed corn. In my new community, they raised goats and grew olives, but I felt reassured that I would find commonalities there, touchpoints for mutual understanding.

***

Two weeks later, I visited for the first time the village where I would spend the next two years teaching, improving my Arabic, and integrating into the community. I spent two nights at sid Muna’s home, next door to the little house where I would soon live.

I was sitting in sid Muna’s dimly lit living room after dinner that first night, tiny glasses of hot, sweet black tea with sprigs of fresh mint set out before us on her worn Persian rug. A cold rain lashed the windows. Her second daughter Samira brought out plates of apples, oranges and little cucumbers. Her husband, eldest son Alaa, and eldest daughter Safaa were chatting with me in a mélange of English and Arabic, while the youngest son Hashem did homework in the corner.

I had only just realized that I hadn’t met all of sid Muna’s children when a dark mop of hair on a wind-burned face popped around the corner, tall, with thin cheeks and bright dark eyes, asking his mother for something.

“Maryah!” exclaimed Alaa, a big grin on his broad face and an elder brother’s glint in his eye. “Look!” he said, pointing at the head peering around the corner. “The enemy! The enemy! It’s your enemy Osama, ya Maryah!”

Poor Osama flushed red and his head snapped back out of sight. For months, although I would sometimes see him at dinner, he would avoid eye contact, eat faster than anyone I have ever seen, and head immediately back outside. We never spoke.

***

“Every time we pass a herd of goats, you turn your head to look!” said sid Muna.

Since I had moved to her village, the headmistress would occasionally take me with her to the Jerash Directorate of Education, just to remind them that she had a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching in her school, the only one in the governorate. At least, I assumed that was her reason.

On this particular day, returning from the Directorate, we were driving through our little village around the time of ‘aSr, the mid-afternoon call to prayer. This is also when the shepherds returned with their herds, lines of goats and waddling fat-tailed sheep trotting single-file down the road, but not following their shepherd. The shepherd sauntered casually at the back, clucking and tsking at his flock, who responding by going left or right, stopping or moving faster.

Like sid Muna, everyone was amused by my fascination with goats, but it was what finally allowed me to have a relationship with her second son, Osama.
 
The first time I saw someone herd goats like that was on my first visit to the home of Umm Tareq. She was a close friend of sid Muna, who introduced us not only because Umm Tareq was an English teacher like me—a professional resource—but because she was also the best candidate in the village to continue my Arabic language lessons. I had a little money from Peace Corps to pay her to be my tutor, but she was even more important to me as a cultural interpreter … and a dear friend.

***

The first time I visited Umm Tareq in her own home, four houses down from mine, she made me thick, sweet Turkish coffee, and we talked about how we would schedule our Arabic lessons. “I’m not going to teach you that Standard Arabic they speak on TV,” she warned me. “And I won’t teach you what sid Muna and your neighbours up the hill think you should learn, either. I’m going to teach you the real Arabic, like the Bedouin speak. With ‘ch’ instead of ‘k’ and all the rest.”

“Good!” I would sound like a hick on my periodic trips into the city, but I would sound like all the other shepherds and farmers and car mechanics in our little village.

I knew first-hand the value of a local speech pattern. I knew how my mother’s misplaced New England ‘r’s stood out in Pennsylvania Dutch country where I grew up. I knew, from giving up my studies of High German in Bern to immerse myself in Swiss dialect, that sounding like my neighbors could help me integrate into the community faster than anything else. That’s what I wanted in Arabic—to be able to simulate belonging right down to the shape of the last vowel on my tongue.

Once that was settled, she called for her daughter to make us a pot of strong, sweet black tea. Umm Tareq started telling me about her father’s British friends, who were frequently in their home as she was growing up. She had learned English from them, then gotten her university degree in English, and I believe she could easily have gotten a scholarship to go to England or America for graduate work. I think her family would have supported that.

Then Umm Tareq fell in love with an older Bedouin man with a coveted stable government job. Against her father’s advice, she chose to pursue a childhood dream. Just as I had longed as a child to be Sacagawea or Laura Wilder, so she had longed to be Bedouin. It was a dream she never claimed to regret, though it led her into poverty, and aged her well beyond her years.

We talked for a couple hours that first day, until Umm Tareq yelled for one of her daughters to clear the tea and little glasses away. To me, she said, “I want you to meet my husband. He’s out with the goats, but should be coming back soon. Let’s walk out to meet him.”

Umm Tareq and I walked the rest of the way down the big hill at the end of town, and up the next big rise, where the first goats of a herd had just begun to appear in a single-file line from beyond the crest. Last of all came Abu Tareq, a short, leanly muscular man in a long white robe, the pale ochre dust irrevocably ground in. He wore a faded red- and white-checked kufiyah wrapped fully around his head, neck and the lower half of his face, protection against both sun and dust. He pulled the tail of it down beneath his chin to greet us.

Introducing us, Umm Tareg said, “My husband Abu Tareg was the postmaster here for many years. Now he’s retired.”

Abu Tareg spoke rapidly in Arabic, looking earnestly back and forth between his wife and me. I thought I heard a name I recognised. She laughed, a long, uninhibited outdoor sound that revealed a deep sunburst of joyful lines radiating from the corners of her eyes, creasing her temples and half her cheeks, lighting up her round face. It was impossible not to smile back, even though I didn’t know the joke yet.

Turning to me, Umm Tareg said, “He wants you to know that he is like President Jimmy Carter. At the end of his term, the president was coming out of a fancy hotel, and a reporter asked him, ‘Mr. President, what will you do next?’ And Mr. Carter said, ‘I was a peanut farmer before, I’ll be a peanut farmer again.’ That’s Abu Tareg. He was a shepherd before, and he is a shepherd again. Never retired, always a busy, working man.”

Abu Tareg nodded emphatically at me, rapping blunt fingertips against his chest. “Jimmy Carter.”

I grinned and nodded enthusiastically, understanding that he was deliberately building a bridge between America and Jordan with his considered anecdote. It was the work that I had come to do, too.

Following his flock, Abu Tareg hurried back ahead of his wife and me. We had the perfect vantage point to see how the goats seemed already to know where to go, half peeling off into Abu Tareg’s pens, the others continuing on to the pens where his young nephews were waiting to feed their father’s flock. In two years in the village, I would never lose my fascination with the flocks peeling off in seamless formation and filing home in the waning afternoon light.

***

Goats were something Abu Tareq had promised his wife years before in their marriage contract. One day, he said, he would buy her goats and they would raise them together. Over the two years I lived in their village, I was able to watch Umm and Abu Tareq negotiate goat husbandry together. He had experience from his childhood, but she had never owned animals.

At first, there were no baby goats, but after the first kids were born and sold, I would follow Umm Tareq down to the pen after the goats had come home. Milking the nannies was a two-person job. Abu Tareq held them by their ears, and Umm Tareq squatted behind, milking between the hind legs into a big bucket that, in the beginning, sometimes she couldn’t protect from being kicked over.

As I grew ever closer to their family, I would come to recognise that, while Abu Tareq framed his continuing work as an endeavour of the heart, noble and post-presidential, it was also a necessity. Goats didn’t just bring milk, but a greater variety of dairy products than we have words for in English. Alongside the occasional slaughtered goat, this was often the only protein he and Umm Tareq could provide for their six children. Other times, small excesses in production could bring in a paltry income from the neighbours, too.

***

I didn’t visit sid Muna as often as Umm Tareq, though the headmistress was my closest neighbor and we often traveled to or from school together. I would occasionally join her family for tea or dinner, especially when she was hosting extended family or other guests she thought I should meet. Sometimes, too, sid Muna would summon me to her house to help her roll grape leaves, stuff cabbage, help with the olive harvest, or paint the wrought iron fencing around her porch together.

From time to time in honour of some special occasion, Osama and his father would slaughter one of their goats. I would usually be sitting on the porch, drinking tea and visiting with out-of-town family members or other guests, while the animal’s throat was cut and it was strung up by its hind legs from the back side of the little shed where the goats sheltered at night. Osama and his father would slice open the centre of the torso, remove the organs, carefully peel off the skin in a single piece, quarter and carve the carcass, all just beyond my line of sight.

Osama always made a point of parading past me with the severed head cradled in his hands before him, its eyes rolled up and tongue lolling, neck still bloody around the edges.

I always winced and looked away.

He would find some flimsy excuse to walk past me with the head again, and again, until his mother scolded him to “stop fooling around and get back to work.”

These were the only interactions Osama and I had. Thanks to his elder brother’s laughing introduction that first night, Osama mostly avoided me.

***

One cool, crisp April day after school, passing sid Muna’s goat pen, I saw fuzzy new kids staggering around on their knobby little legs. I jogged home, dropped my bags, and came right back with my camera. I squatted patiently at the wire fence, waiting for the resting newborn goat babies to stagger onto their hooves for another try.

When he came home from school, that’s where Osama found me: hunkered down beside the goat pen with my camera. He grinned from ear to ear, looking me straight in the eye with obvious pleasure and pride. Everyone loved my camera, the only one in the village, and Osama loved goats. It was the perfect combination. He vaulted nimbly over the wire fence into the pen, crowded with bare, gnarled olive branches.

He picked up the kids, cradling first one, then both in his big palms. Their little heads and pointed shoulders leaned against Osama’s ribs, their spindly little legs dangling down from either side of his long fingers and bony wrists. He posed this way and that with them. Putting one back on its belly, he set the other on its little hooves and urged it with little pats on its rear to take wobbly, mincing little steps towards me. I snapped away with my camera.

As we went along, Osama chattered on and on about the life of goats. I didn’t understand most of it, but I grinned and nodded. This was more than he had said in all the time I had known him. I learned that, though his parents wanted him to go to engineering school, he wanted more than anything to be a shepherd when he grew up—with any luck, a farmer as successful as his Uncle Mohammad, whose opinion was valued across three governorates.

After we had taken photos for a while, the shepherds began to return with their long lines of sheep and goats along the hilltop road at my back. When his own family’s goats peeled off towards their shed, Osama didn’t open the little holding pen, with its fencing of piled up, denuded olive branches pruned during the last harvest.

“Come on, ya Maryah! We’ll take more pictures.” Osama leapt nimbly out of the pen. With a shepherd’s clicks and sharp syllables, he led the family’s goats away, and with a sweep of his arm, he led me, too.

I followed Osama and his goats towards my little neighboring house, over the disintegrating dip in the low wall around my landlord’s orchard, and into my own backyard. In the deepening emerald grass of April, under drooping trees dripping with long, lacy strands of short-lived little white flowers, Osama stalked, chased and grabbed this goat and that for a portrait.

They were unenthusiastic models, more interested in the grass than the camera. Osama wrapped his lanky arm around their necks in a wrestling hold, or straddled their skinny ribcages with his long legs and held up their heads with two hands around their long ears.

As the other kids came home from school, they wanted to have their own pictures taken. That was fine with Osama, who had lost his interest in my camera and was just wrestling playfully with his beloved goats.

After that, I found myself receiving Osama’s gracious, grinning help whenever I had to lug a new propane tank for my cookstove from the delivery truck down to my house, and even occasionally the bashful request for help with his English homework.

His older brother’s teasing was finally forgotten. “Osama the enemy” was gone, and Osama my little brother took his place. AQ

Darya Danesh – A Letter to Round One

A Letter to Round One
by Darya Danesh

I was terrified.
I was so afraid of what you were going to do to me.
I didn’t know what to expect.

E said you were the worst thing in the world. That you burned in his veins. That you turned him blue.

Mom was scared, but she didn’t dare tell me. I could see it in her eyes; I could feel it in the way she held me, trembling. I could tell she was holding back her tears, trying to be strong for me. In our days of silence, I could almost hear her asking God or whatever it is she believes in: Why is this happening?

What had we done to deserve the horror of this meeting?

Round One.

It was September 1st when they told us we’d be meeting you soon.

The nurses knew you well.
They knew what harm you might cause me. They knew that maybe you would sink into me and do nothing. That your presence could very well just be a Band-Aid on a terminal problem. They knew that the minute our chemistries mixed together — the moment you and I became one — that I would never be the same.

In the days leading up to our meeting, I fought hard not to be afraid. I kept on my biggest smiles and reassured everyone that I was fine. I belly laughed and hobbled around like it was just another normal day in a normal life.

It wasn’t a normal day or a normal life, was it?

It was 9 p.m. when a panic set in.
F asked if I was a spiritual person, if I believed in anything. He said this was the time his patients would normally reconnect with their devotion, their Gods. This was the time they would ask for guidance and for the strength to survive.

I’d never believed in God.
But in that moment believed in the power of you, and in the power of the Universe. I still do. I believed that — along with my unwavering positivity — you and the Universe would work together to get me through this.

I took my mom’s and F’s advice and took a small tablet to calm me down, help me sleep. Just a few more hours until our dreadful meeting, I thought.

The plan was for us to meet at 3 a.m., and to be together — without pause — for an uninterrupted seven days.
For seven days, you would hang atop the cold, metal pole and be pumped through me. You’d be on your homicidal mission, killing anything and everything in your way.
For seven days, we would be confined to those three silent halls, always smelling of alcohol.
For those seven days, we would hang out with family in that cold, uncomfortable room with the windows that looked out onto the university campus where I so longed to be.

The nurses woke me just minutes before the moment of induction. They asked for my name and date of birth; quietly so as not to wake E who was sound asleep in the opposite corner of the room.

It was 9 a.m. when your friend joined us for a few hours. Mom sat next to my bed but we refused talk about you. We acknowledged your presence, wondered how long your friend would stay, and carried on as if things were normal.

But things were still. not. normal.

Weak.
Cold.
Each day more awful than the last.

You made me sick.
You had me shivering and feeling brain-dead.

Some days, you had me throwing up more than I care to remember.
The first time I was sick, I rang for help. I held it in as long as I could but my body couldn’t fight the feeling.
When G finally walked in, I’d already made a mess of the floor.
I felt horrible.
Like a burden.

I won’t ever forget the feeling of knowing our week was up.
Freedom.

My hair was still long and H had finally arrived. We headed downstairs with the tiniest sense of relief in our hearts.
Finally together.

Day fourteen the alopecia kicked in.
It took a fever and the chunks of hair falling out of my dreaded locks for me to accept that you would do to me what you’d done to many before me. It finally started to kick in that I was not immune to your nightmarish side effects.

With my legs trembling and hope filling my heart, I left the hospital twenty one days after our first meeting.
Three days until we’d meet again.

You were the first, Cytarabine.

But you weren’t the worst.
No, definitely not.

Bryan R. Monte – Don’t Leave Europe: My Memoir of Harold Norse

Don’t Leave Europe: My Memoir of Harold Norse, 1981 to 1991.
by Bryan R. Monte
Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

It was hard to miss Harold Norse at Café Flore in San Francisco during the 1980s and early ’90s when I lived there. He was a short, old man with a round, slightly wrinkled face, who wore a black, leather jacket, blue jeans, biker boots, and a black toupee that never fit quite right but which, nonetheless, I never saw him without. Norse could be found most days around lunchtime at one of the café’s tables usually alone but sometimes locked in discussion with one or two writers. There he would sit into the early afternoon, reading a book, writing and looking at the people and the traffic passing on Market Street, until he headed for home, down 16th Street towards the Mission. Flore was where Norse held his “office hours” as he called them since he received so few people at his carriage house on Albion Street. Steve Abbott introduced me to Norse at Flore sometime around 1981. Unfortunately, I didn’t record this first meeting in my journal.

From what I can recollect, however, Norse didn’t seem very impressed. He gave me a quick, critical and perhaps dismissive once over with his dark, sharp eyes. At first glance, he appeared to me to be the sort of abrasive curmudgeon who didn’t suffer fools. I also had the impression that Norse was afraid I might be one of those empty-headed, pretty-boy, literary gay tourists/groupies who wasted his time wanting to know what it was like to be one of San Francisco’s Beat Generation.

The next time I think I saw Norse was when Abbott took me to one of John Norton’s Christmas Anonymous parties in Pacific Heights. He was sitting by himself in the living room looking out at the skyline until Abbott and I came over to sit and talk with him. I remember it took a while to get to know Harold—to be given access to his circle, to show him I wasn’t just another pretty face, and to gain his confidence enough for him to allow me to publish in No Apologies in 1984 and 1985 excerpts from his memoirs about his life in New York with Chester Kallman and W.H. Auden that would later become part of his book-length Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, A Fifty Year Literary and Erotic Odyssey, published by William Murrow in 1989.

My proximity, contact and confidence increased when I moved to 20th and Guerrero in the Mission in November 1982, joined the Small Press Traffic Bookstore’s gay men’s writing group the next spring, started collecting work for the first issue of No Apologies that summer, began working at the SPT that autumn and then at the Walt Whitman Bookshop on Market Street in early 1984 where I edited the second issue of No Apologies.

The first journal entry I have about Norse is from 3 February 1984:

“Ran into Harold Norse at Café Flore by accident on my lunch hour from Walt Whitman. Harold dove right in and told me how nervous he was about Robert Peters publishing a new collection of his poetry which would only be available to libraries. He felt honoured for posterity sake, but sad that people wouldn’t be able to buy his new book in bookstores. Harold was sitting with a friend named Floyd. Both them had to be 30 years older than me, but they solicited my opinion on various questions concerning publishing as if I were an equal. That’s what I like about Harold. No pedestal & no worship required.”

By then I had become much more welcome in Norse’s circle and I sent a letter on the 29th, to the Advocate in praise of Norse’s:

“…groundbreaking memoir of W.H. Auden…because it tackles many of the barely discussed problems of gay writers…(including) working with a literary past which has been deliberately distorted or sanitised…discussing the exploitation of younger gay writers by older ones and vice versa (Auden later “stole” Norse’s boyfriend, Kallman) and the reluctance of powerful gay writers such as Auden and Forster to come out of the closet to create a better world for gay people.”

I added that: “in the 1940’s—(gay) men lived as eccentrics or in constant fear of being discovered and posed the question couldn’t:

“Auden’s regular rhyme schemes and meters in an era of broken forms be seen as a way to buy into some form of respectability while describing his awareness of the apparent dissolution of the modern world?”

In a letter to Phil Willkie dated 10 March 1984, I wrote:

“Just back from Harold Norse’s house where I talked with him at his invitation about my poetry. He’s really amazed that my work hasn’t gained more notoriety in S.F.  He went over “Intimations of Frank O’Hara” with me, pointing out what he thought were weak lines that could be altered or removed. On the whole, he really likes the way I zero in on people and the scenes around them. I told him I like to concentrate on one person, just one person in my poems—sort of do portraits. I also left him with some more recent work to look at—“Words Sentences and Paragraphs” and a couple new poems, which were in process and with which I am not emotionally attached so they can be dissected by him without any emotional ambivalence or resistance on my part.”

In this letter, I also tried to convince Willkie to do an interview together with Norse for both my magazine, No Apologies and Willkie’s James White Review. Another letter to Wilkie dated 19 March states that:

“I spent most of the day Saturday, 3/17/84, with Harold Norse going over two or three poems, Harold reminiscing about William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, e. e. cummings, Hart Crane, etc. Harold also showed me some of his early poems (written between 18-24) literally hundreds of them all publishable. He showed me one entitled “High School” which as an imitation of Auden and which had strong evidence of his homosexuality before he (Norse) was even consciously aware of it.

I told Harold that you were interested in having him read maybe in the fall and the terms (I read your letter to him). He said he will be reading in St. Louis and Detroit in the fall, so I’m sure you could snag him for a couple of days in Minneapolis. (He seemed very excited about your offer).”

I continued the letter by writing that:

“Harold did an incredible amount of opening up to me—telling me about his life as a child in the slums of N.Y.C. His mother fighting with his father over a bottle of milk that his father tried to guzzle down in derision—his mother yelling — “it’s for the kid—it’s for the kid!,” meeting Tennessee Williams & Auden for the first time, living overseas in Spain, Italy and Greece for 15 years. He’s led a very adventurous life.”

In April 1984, Rink took a series of individual and group photos at Café Floré of Norse and I with Jacob Lowlander (Jim Holmes), Phil Wilkie, and Steve Abbott for The Advocate. This was for an issue headlined “New Writing and Erotica” in The Advocate’s 1 May 1984 issue.  Headshots of Wilkie and I were included with Robert Fero’s to represent the more traditional writers at the top of the left hand page and those of Boyd MacDonald, John Preston and Phil Andros, to represent the erotic writers, atop the right-hand page.

Gay Writers at Café Flore, San Francisco, April 1984. Left to right: Jim Holmes, Harold Norse, Phil Willkie, Bryan Monte & Steve Abbott. Photo copyright © 1984 by Rink Foto. All rights reserved.

Gay writers at Café Flore, San Francisco, April 1984. Left to right: Jim Holmes, Harold Norse, Phil Willkie, Bryan Monte & Steve Abbott. Photo copyright © 1984 by Rink Foto. All rights reserved.

It was during this period that Norse began to telephone me and he began to emphasise the importance of what I was doing with No Apologies. As I got to know Norse better, we also began to share some of the non-literary parts of our lives. During one phone conversation I told him about the gold and orange clouds that would sometimes roll across my white ceiling as I lay in bed breathing deeply. I had thought this was just a hallucination after a hard day’s work, but Norse seemed to think it was some sort of psychic gift. He told me not to be ashamed of gifts and to use them. He told me he was impressed with my magazine and my poems. He especially liked my poem “The Cyclist” about a man’s struggle to cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito against the wind. I thanked him for his comment by dedicating the poem to him and read it a month later at the No Apologies benefit.

It was this belief in my psychic ability which coloured the description of a telephone call from Norse, the important points of which (including his anticipation of his journey to read at the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam) I recorded in my journal of 16 May 1984:

“I was think(ing) about Harold Norse, Robert Goldstein and the magazine (No Apologies) tonight as I sat at the kitchen table finishing my dinner. It must have been ESP because a few moments later, Harold called on the phone and asked if I’d gotten his message (the part about how happy he was at the No Apologies #2 benefit reading and how outstanding and unique he feels the magazine is). The other half is that he’s going to Europe to give readings later this year to celebrate/promote the translation of Beat Hotel into Italian.”

Harold took a great deal of time to tell me how important he thinks No Apologies is, in fact he thinks that #2 is even better than #1. He said that the magazine will make literary history as the first collection of good, gay writing and that it could be the proper vehicle for a career in writing or editing if I should choose those paths. He did stress most of all that I must continue with the magazine no matter what to destroy what we both call the conspiracy of silence about the lives of gay writers and explicitly gay works by the straight, dominant literary establishment. We also talked about how Ginsberg and Kerouac have still to win the approval of the straight dominant literary mafia. Harold’s encouragement was most gratifying to me. He also said that my writing is just as good as if not superior to the group of writers I hang out with and he mentioned a paper on gay writing he was doing implying that he would mention me in it. I feel great! Harold wants to see me on Saturday, so I’d better get some new poems ready.

As Harold began to know me better, he began to tell me about the gay writers and editors who came through town. Once, he mentioned that Donald Allen, a very distant man and Frank O’Hara’s publisher, was in town. Allen came by the Whitman to talk to the owner, Charles Gilman. I can’t remember the occasion, whether it was for a reading, or just to chat with Gilman up on his podium office at the back of bookshop behind the type of twilled, thick burgundy rope used at cinema or theatre premiers to keep out the riff-raff, but Norse mentioned somewhat later that I must have made a good impression on Allen because Norse commented: “You melted the iceberg.” (Allen corresponded with me at least twice over the next year once in a short note on Grey Fox stationary dated 17 May 1984 and the other sent to Brown University on 19 February 1985. The first note praised No Apologies’ first issue and asked the magazine published short fiction…?” The second came with a review copy of “Richard Hall’s new book of stories” (Letters from a Great Uncle). Allen again asked if I’d be “interested in publishing any of Hall’s shorter stories?”)

In May 1984, Norse was the star reader at No Apologies’ second benefit reading held at Newspace, the art gallery and performance space across from New College at Valencia and 19th and next door to the Valencia Rose, the LGBT comedy cabaret and café. Norse agreed to read, but he demanded top billing. Further conditions were that he would only read if he had a microphone and if someone was at the door to stop people from walking in during his reading.

No Apologies #2 Reading, Newspace, San Francisco, May 1984. Harold Norse, front, Steve Abbott, left front. Photo copyright © 1984 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

No Apologies #2 Reading, Newspace, San Francisco, May 1984. Harold Norse, front, Steve Abbott, left front. Photo copyright © 1984 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

As Norse had predicted, just as he got up to read, a disheveled, disoriented, grey-haired man in his 60s started jiggling the front doorknob. I went outside and made several attempts to reason with the man and steer him away from the door. Several times, however, he turned back towards the door and I had to take his hand and walk him down the street a few storefronts further. By the time he finally decided to leave, I returned to Newspace just in time to hear the applause of those inside. I realised I had missed all of Norse’s part of the reading, but I rationalised with myself that this was just one of those sacrifices hosts made to take good care of their guests. Fortunately, Norse’s reading was not interrupted and no one missed me. I went back inside, thanked Norse for his contribution and introduced the next reader as if nothing had happened.

Over time, I was able to gain more credibility with Norse as a writer and as a publisher. We had a short period of intensive correspondence between September 1984 and April 1985. During this time I published a six-page excerpt, part 1, of Norse’s Honeymoon memoir in No Apologies #3 (autumn 1984) and a much-longer, 16-page excerpt, part 2, in No Apologies #4 (spring 1985).

In a typed postcard dated 16 September 1984, Norse wrote that he “loved yr letter…a breath of fresh air…like Marco Polo discovering Cathay.” This must have been in response to my letter about my removal to and my new surroundings in Providence, Rhode Island where I attended Brown University’s Graduate Writing Program for the next two years. I had literally moved from one end of the county to another, substituting California’s sunny, warm clime for an already cold, New England autumn. (I remember calling my landlord in September to ask why the heat wasn’t on and he just laughed). I also tried to fill in Norse on my first impressions of Brown’s campus, its students and the locals. Harold envied my ability to travel and to start a new life in a new place. A few lines later he wrote: …I wish I were there…but I’m not. I’m here (San Francisco)…not in Berlin, or Lugano or Amsterdam.” The reason was because of “a bad heart.” Due to this, Norse wondered if he would still be able to make it to his “European reading tour” later that year. He mentioned further: “people were organising a big benefit reading for me because of the frightful huge costs of the treatment.”

Always the self-promoter, Norse also wrote short notes at the top and bottom of the typed postcard. He mentioned that the current Poetry Flash had “his mug on the cover and a long retrospective review of his Mysterie of Margrite.” At the bottom he wrote that the current Advocate had his Tennessee Williams memoir. Harold’s roommate, Robert Goldstein also sent me a letter around the same time. He wrote that Norse had misplaced the card I had sent him that motivated his comments above. He also said he’d enjoyed reading at the No Apologies #3 benefit in San Francisco and had enclosed a poem, “H2O,” for my consideration.

In December 1984, one of the writers, who had also read at Dutch poetry festival with Norse, complained to me when I saw him on the East Coast. He said that Norse had demanded a two-page introduction before he would read. After editing Norse’s two-part memoir about his relationship with Chester Kallman, how W.H. Auden stole him away and Norse’s knowledge of other notables in New York in the early 1940s, however, I didn’t feel such an introduction for a well-known, 70+-year-old, Beat poet was unwarranted.

Goldstein wrote me again around the first of the year. In his letter he said that Norse was “ungoing chelation therapy…He feels hopeful about his condition so his condition has improved.” Whether real or otherwise, Norse was always preoccupied about some ongoing ailment whether it was his heart or something else.

The next letter was from Norse. It included a handwritten note dated 15 January 1985 and a clipping from the 8 January 1985 Advocate that included a photo of him standing next to Jim Holmes, James Broughton, Steve Abbott and Dennis Cooper at the One World Poetry Foundation in Amsterdam as part of a “Poetry Gone Gay” evening reading. He assured me that he would have the manuscript of his memoir for No Apologies #4 ready “very soon.” Norse also asked that this time his memoir appear in the front of the magazine and not at the back as last time (when Kevin Killian guest edited the magazine whilst I was getting settled in at Brown). He then wrote that Beat Hotel “was now being read by the youth of Germany, Italy, Holland, Hungary, Finland, Greece” and that he “was among the handful of 5 or 6 contemporary Americans they admire.” He added that he felt his reading in Amsterdam had been “a triumph” and that “I will consent to an interview for N(o) A(pologies).”

Norse’s next missive was a half-page, typewritten note dated 23 January 1985. He wrote that he was still working on the second part of his memoir for me. He also mentioned that he was reviewing “(Kallman’s) stepmother’s book, Auden in Love, for the Advocate.” Norse reassured me that what he was putting in his memoirs for me was “a first-time publication,” and that it “completely confutes Farnan (Mrs. Kallman) whose book distorts and sentimentalizes without making any mention of me.” Norse continued that his health was still “touch and go,” and that he was “spending his last money on the only treatment that can help, but there’s no guarantee.”

Then, Norse sent me a full-page typewritten letter dated 30 January 1985. He continued to discuss the difference between his memoirs based upon “the letters of C(hester) K (allman)” which was “a first for biographers and scholars” and Auden in Love’s “romantic twaddle.” He also mentioned meeting Armisted Maupin at a party at Steve Abbott’s and how “delighted” he was to find that Maupin was a “rabid fan.” Maupin, according to Norse said that “it was red-letter day for his diary” and that he extended an invitation to Norse “to come visit.”

The second half of his letter was concerned with corrections and notes that should be added to the second part of his memoir that I was about to publish. He also mentioned that all of his surviving correspondence with William Carlos Williams was about to be published in HELIX and gave instructions to mention the Lily Library and a copyright note in a first page footnote of his memoir.

The last letter I have in my possession from Norse is a two-page, typewritten missive dated 10 February 1985. This letter is concerned primarily with two additional copy corrections. It begins, however, with the sad news that Norse was mugged just outside his apartment on the first of the month as he was carrying his groceries home. Norse wrote that the man used a “choke-hold, pulled me to the ground, and tightened his arms around my larynx. Luckily he let go before I passed out.” He wrote that due to the hold “he still can’t talk”… and he had made an appointment with “a throat specialist.”

I had suggested to Norse in a previous letter that he leave out the last letter in his memoir, which commented on a letter by Kallman, because it made Norse “look bad.” Norse disagreed. He said that his letter in the memoir illustrated “the growing separation between us (Norse and Kallman) that dates from this period—Wystan begins to drive a wedge between us—” and that Norse was trying to “establish the roots of a future rift.” He added the World’s Fair description was “essential for on-the-spot interest in the contemporary scene of New York—slice of life—in contrast to Chester’s Disneyland in Calif.”

In the second last paragraph of the letter, Norse mentioned Judith Malina’s Diaries (Grove Press, 1984), which mentioned “me, Chester, Frank O’Hara, Ashbery, Nin, W.C. Williams, Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, all of us from 1947-57 literary NY.”

This second page also includes two handwritten notes: one at the bottom of the page and one in the left hand margin. The former mentions that Goldstein offered his services for distribution (of No Apologies) and the latter a list of where and to whom he wanted review copies of No Apologies #4 sent.

After this letter, I received another from Norse in gold, handwritten script. Norse thanked me for publishing his memoir and told me again I should continue with my magazine and my writing. Unfortunately, this letter was stolen by a Silicon Valley roommate in 1988. After I discovered this, I deposited all my literary correspondence into a safe deposit box.

Thus ended my formal correspondence with Norse. When I returned to San Francisco in 1987, my contact with Harold was almost exclusively via the telephone with some occasional journal entries. On 16 October 1989, I mention of a visit to Harold’s carriage house. I noted that:

“…nothing had changed…Harold met me at the door and said I looked the same thing. I told him he looked the same also (I lied. He also had on his black toupe with some grey hairs to make it look more natural, but it still looks awful on him). We talked about Brown and his noisy neighbours and roommates who kept him from his writing. I told Harold about some big readings I’d organised at Brown and showed him a photo of myself standing with Olga Broumas and Dennis Cooper and picture of my ex-, Jim Guglielmino, sitting next to a Christmas tree. I also showed him pictures of Hans van K. from the Netherlands and that I would like to move there. Harold talked about going to read there in 1984 with Steve Abbott and Dennis Cooper at the One World Poetry Festival. He said while in the Netherlands, a man had offered him a loft space for as long as he wanted so he could to write. Harold said he wrote continuously for six days. Then he ran out of money and had had to come back to the States.

“Harold spent a great deal of time rummaging around in his cabinet to make some tea, but all he came up with were a bunch of mouldy mixes, so I took him out for tea at a Mexican café on 16th Street between Valencia and Guerrero.

We talked a little bit more. He told me he was going to read that night at Fort Mason with Allen Ginsberg as part of National Poetry Week. I told him I had heard Ginsberg read at Brown and that Ginsburg had read spectacularly (whilst accompanying himself on a zither). Then Harold began to go on about how Ginsberg couldn’t read well anymore. I assured him Ginsberg was in top shape and that he had read Howl in its entirety and an excerpt from his then unpublished, White Shroud. Harold then apologised and said (that) if Ginsberg had read Howl, he must in been in top form that night.”

A flyer in my files for the month of November 1989 from A Different Light Bookstore lists a reading for Norse on Sunday, 19 November at 3 PM. I also have a signed copy of his book, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel which reads: “For Bryan Monte */With warm feelings & strong feelings that you will be recognised for your gift as a poet. * Best, Harold Norse, SF 19.XI.1989” repeated the same warm feelings (and the exact words) he used in when he signed my copy of Beat Hotel in March 1984. I don’t remember attending this reading, however, nor is it mentioned in my journal.

My next mention of Harold is on 2 December 1989 when I telephoned him to try to arrange an on-air interview with him during my Lavender News & Interviews segment on Fruit Punch on KPFA-FM. On the phone, however, Harold “complained of having a cold, so he decided to stay in today and rest up for his book signing tomorrow at City Lights. I asked him if he heard my announcement on Fruit Punch last week and he said imperiously: “It was announced.” I said: “Of course. Remember, I told you I would do it?”

In June 1991 I met Norse for the last time at the annual gay pride parade near a monument in the Civic Center close to Market Street. It had always been my dream to live in a Queen Anne Victorian house, to spend Christmas together and to go to the gay parade with my lover as we called partners back then. Unfortunately, none of these things ever happened in San Francisco. Watching the parade go by, I was alone and depressed and found myself being cruised by a shirtless, muscleman who’d had both nipples pierced with rings big enough for the nose of the county fair’s prize bull. Just as I was considering something I would probably later regret, I saw Norse. We talked for a while and then caught the MUNI, an hour or two ahead of the crowds, up to the Castro and spent time together at Café Flore for the last time.

While we sat and listened to the music, Norse told me his health was failing compared to when I’d known him in the ‘80s. He also told me that the two biggest regrets he’d had were first coming back to the US from Europe and then moving from Monte Rio on the Russian River in Sonoma County down to the City. He told me that if I ever got to Europe, to stay there, to write and to edit, and never come back.

I remembered this advice as the insurance company I worked for went through its fourth reorganisation in three years and I hadn’t been able to find another job in California after an 18-month search. I remembered this advice once I found my first job in the Netherlands in 1993 and I was living in two, un-insulated attic rooms. I remembered his advice when in 1996 my friends back in San Francisco wrote or phoned: “Come back. No one’s dying of AIDS anymore,” due to combination therapy I reported about on the radio in 1990, or in 1998 when they contacted me again and said: “There’s plenty of jobs,” just before the Dotcom Bubble burst.

I did come back on holiday almost annually around Christmas. However, every time I visited, I overheard the same, desperate, worried conversations in supermarkets, gyms and churches—not about AIDS or losing jobs—but about the skyrocketing rents and real estate taxes in the City. I thought of his advice as I sat down at my second-hand dining table in my one-bedroom, Ikea-furnished flat in the Netherlands in a poor, predominantly Turkish and Moroccan neighbourhood, which my Dutch friends referred to as an achterbuurt (Eng.: slum), and corrected my students papers. As a free-lance and later tenured college English teacher with single-payer healthcare and a roof over my head as long as I lived, I could no longer believe that San Francisco, despite its natural beauty and its vibrant gay and literary communities, was the best place for me to live.

I remembered Norse’s advice and I did my best to hang on and make the best of my new life in Europe for as long as I could. After work or at the weekend I tried to retain some energy to attend readings in Amsterdam’s and Utrecht’s many bookstores and art and cultural institutions whilst continuing to write mostly poetry, sometimes in pencil in the margins of my students papers and exams. Unfortunately, I couldn’t write much my first 17 years in Europe, but ironically due to my disability, since 2011 I have finally had the opportunity to write and edit as Norse had always encouraged me to do. AQ