Daniel Hudon – Between Thailand and India

Daniel Hudon
Between Thailand and India

I’m in limbo. Floating.

For all the temples, the Buddhist idols, the conversations with monks, the meditation, my first real lesson in Buddhism comes about by accident. After an hour in flight to New Delhi, the captain returns us to Bangkok due to mechanical problems. He tells us they will work on the plane overnight and we’ll fly out in the morning. I’ve left Thailand, not arrived in India and haven’t officially returned to Thailand because back at the airport I have to surrender my passport to get the hotel voucher. I exist in some meta-state, somewhere between Thailand and India, between past and future.

In the hotel room, I spend a few minutes reading the bedside book, The Teachings of the Buddha. Its simplicity is compelling. ‘Monks, a thought is like the stream of a river, without any staying power; as soon as it is produced it breaks up and disappears.’

I run a hot water bath because it’s the first time I’ve seen the combination of hot water and a tub since leaving Canada three and a half months ago. I throw in some bubble soap, watch the water foam up, and get in. The stress and excitement of long-term travel begins to settle as I soak in the tub. I scoop out handfuls of bubbles, blow and flick them. It is quiet. I listen to my breathing, my heart. The tap drips into the water. Bubbles burst with a constant fizz. Eons pass.

The warm water has opened my pores and I feel like I’m breathing through them.

I inhale and exhale like a fish, hearing nothing but air. Afterwards, I am drawn back to The Teachings of the Buddha. ‘Monks, a thought is like the stream of a river…’

I have no thoughts. I have forgotten about India and Thailand. And time. I am nowhere.

I am here. That is all.           AQ

bart plantenga – Boatspotting

bart plantenga
Boatspotting

Photos left and right, bart plantenga, centre photo, Nina Ascoly, IJ Triptych, photographs, 1996

I’m a boatspotter. I sit and eat or write or drink and stare out the window. Not an ordinary window with an ordinary view but a triptych of glass 3 meters high and 4 meters across. Outside this abandoned makeshift office facility (converted by squatters in the late ’80s into ateliers and living quarters) along the Westerdoksdijk, is a spectacular view of the Shell Research complex across the water in North Amsterdam. At night its intricate mosaic of lit cubicles and network of lights, pipes and stacks resembles the inside of my old transistor radio which served to escort me through childhood nightmares induced by Roger Corman’s drive-in renditions of Edgar Allen Poe stories.

Early mornings I beg (as if yearning can influence fate) for the sun to come out from behind the research centre and chase the damp chill from my room. I wait. I wipe condensation (evidence that my body is still warm and breathing) from my window to prepare my view for the watching that will sustain me. I wait for the window to fill up with a life I don’t have. The squadron of swans with the sinister aspect of aim sights on old rifles, crane their necks searching for floating sustenance under my floor.

There is nothing to do but wait (Ik heb een kamer. I have a room, I read in my Dutch lesson book.) in this industrial sector abandoned by industry and left to colonists of this post-colonial calm, venturesome settlers, nest hunters, and urban pioneers living in converted quarters, ensconced in surreptitious abodes. The former workshops and smithies of artisans have been converted into big windowed living interiors. A massive granary-silo (A grey Gothic imposition against the low sky) 200 meters down the coast has housed Amsterdam’s largest squatter community for years. (Mijn kamer is aan de achterkant van het gebouw. My room is in the back of the building.)

A rusty “floating” parking garage flanks the left of my studio which juts out into the fat busy river IJ, poised precariously upon its posts. I live on water, ON the water, am 25% water, 45% beer (which is 98% water) 25% urine, and 5% trace metals. Docks for cargo and pleasure ships flank my right, with the central train station in sight. The walk to the most enchanted section of Amsterdam, that horseshoe ring of canals in the heart, is about 10 minutes. I do not ask myself or anyone why it is that the more ancient districts of any city are its more humane.

The IJ (for the sake of non-Dutch speakers, somewhere between eye and aye) is a dramatic river which connects the North Sea with the harbour of Amsterdam and the old Zuider Zee, now a chain of interconnected lakes: IJ-Meer, Markermeer, and IJsselmeer. (Het IJ loopt langs mijn raam. The inlet called the IJ runs along my window. I improvise.) I live not far from where fresh water turns to salt. Brackish is the marine term for that no-mans-land where the two co-mingle. There is some understood boundary defined by laws of chemistry which keeps them mostly sequestered, keeps one from infiltrating too far into the other. This is where I do my boatspotting in this land of wet (although martinis, gin and Dutch humour tend to be dry).

What, might you ask, is boatspotting? Well, in a polite, best-light approach, it’s a form of meditation. Or a method for transferring the terrors of modern living in an alien context to a more amiable locale; or making some sense of one’s surroundings; or decorating the passage of time with lyricism. Like one might paint a dreary room, boatspotting renovates the dinginess of our less tangible interiors. Obsessive-compulsive behaviour rendered poetic. Procrastination in the guise of documentation.

(De schepen varen voorbij, en er is altijd wat te zien. I discovered that ships drift by my window all day long, and there is always something to see). Huge rusty barges loaded to the brink of sinking with mounds of sand (how can something so heavy float?) pushed by tugs; massive, elaborate tankers with personal automobiles on rooftops and potted plants and lace curtains in cabin windows — VERTROUWEN — their length limited only by the tensile strength of available materials; LASH ships, modern freighters designed to carry nearly any cargo in steel lighters or barges, each lighter 18 by 9 meters and capable of handling 500+ tons of cargo (this is what I read that I have written that I have read); elegant ancient sailboats (how do the crews know which rope does what?); windjammers — CINDERELLA — of luxurious lacquered wood; old modest motorboats gurgling along; eclipse-inducing luxury liners (its inhabitants staring with opera glasses into my humble abode and I staring back at them—what a strange way to encounter strangers, this détente of observer observing the observer); menacing cargo boats — GRAVELAND, AMBULANT, NOBODY — gloomy and unadorned; police boats skittering across the surface like water spiders; trawlers, their prows padded with thick braids of hemp; sleek pleasure boats — STARLIGHT, ROYAL PRINCESS — with well-tanned faces aimed at small instants of sunshine; fishermen in rowboats outfitted with small sputtering eggbeater motors (as I write this the regular fisherman is right outside my window, 50 meters off, standing in his old boat, casting his line).

All these vessels have names emblazoned on their bows. Romantic names, superstitious ones, exotic, mythological ones — ORION, BLOOM — hearkening to other worlds, names of lovers lost, or of mothers dearly departed? I can only speculate. And that I do as I sit at my big slab of desk doing whatever it is I do. Listening to the cheap radio that shorts out whenever it feels like it. I tap the volume knob to bring back Clifford Brown which seems to ride atop the IJ’s various currents. I notate with utter enthusiasm the names of all the ships as they pass. I interrupt the most holy — ESTRELLA — thought in my writing to notate one in my notepad. Interrupt card games, dinner and John — GRAAFSTROOM — Coltrane on the radio to shout out the name of another — ANIMA — vessel as if shouting out — BORNEO — its name will aid in unveiling its secret — SIRIUS, HIRUNDO, DIADEMA, CONDOR, MEERVAL, SATURNUS, FURY, SPECULANT, ISALA, ROPE OF SAND, ALEMARIA, TOLERANCE, KOOLE ZAANDAM, CONFIANCE, SAILOR BOY, LOMBARDIJE, MUTABEL, CALENDULA 10, ORCA CLUTE, LENTE-WIND, BRANDARIS –

Like mantras that transfer us to realms beyond our own — ANWI-Ja — the mere notation and pronunciation of these names transports me, as someone else, to somewhere more appropriate for my internal demands. Because a soul is like other internal organs—if not properly fed it will begin to feed on — SALA KAHLE — itself and eventually find its way into the marrow, devouring even that and then we collapse — SFINX, PRINSENGRACHT, AQUA VITA — like a damp shopping bag from a store that has gone out of business — ERIC-B, LUMARA, TABERNA, REMBRANDT, AFRA, CUBA, MINERVA, MONIQUE, RHEIN KONINGEN, NOISELY, EARLY BIRD, GALAXIE, TOUCQUET, JULES VERNE, PARTIZAN, KAMELEON, OREADE, ORION — The pace of these vessels, their peculiar syntax, the way they float by — RECINA COELI, FLEVO — has an effect on my own movements. I am drawn into their tempo. Lulled into the languor of their — CONTENTO — sway. I sit, watch, contemplate, inhale the head off my beer, take a deep — NEVADA — breath. The ships’ ancient progress regulating us the way a pacemaker regulates a heartbeat. The very idea of flotation — ALCHIMIST LAUSANNE — and cadence has always implied the technology of a device. In my case, bobbing along on the serendipitous rhythms created by the river of — BLUE SEA — words.

One way to neutralize the invasiveness of the passersby, the tourists with their recording devices, their passive voyeurisms, disposable cameras, and their eyes like dim specks of corrosive dust floating in air, is to wave back at them. I had never waved at passersby before in my life. But now I wave back at the tourists’ dark faceless heads in the well-lite tour boats — PRINCESS CHRISTINA, MEERKWAARDIG — some wave back. And then I just stare. Stare at their stares. What happens next?

Now I understand why prostitutes in the Red Light District get incensed when tourists try to take their picture. They are snatching an image from its glorious heart, making off with an implement that will enhance their own prurience and esteem; leaving behind nothing but the empty crumpled film box and a flatulent spectral haze along the cobbled streets.

The Dutch really are a seafaring people. They are at ease on the water. They gulp down raw herring, have robust cheeks, are drawn to the sea. Heads stern in the breeze. Fishermen under umbrellas in a downpour continue to fish on a Sunday morning. And my grandfather was a sailor….

The MANTA, a sailing vessel, passed into the fog (grimy as if it has been coloured in with a discarded eyebrow pencil) just beyond the parking garage like a lodge pole pine floating into the mouth of a sawmill. Sending out fibrillating wavelets glimmering across the calm surface of the IJ.

It is night (Ik zit graag op mijn kamer. I love to sit in my room.) and I place my head on my pillow with all the care with which a priest places the host upon the tongue of a cunnilinguist. Or the way Afghani’s build their tea houses with decks spanning the gurgling creek to fulfil the same function as the Zen garden — inner peace and contemplation.

——————————————————-

Since I wrote this in the late ’90s, everything in that area has changed dramatically. De Silo, an old grain silo converted to an art squat where people lived and worked from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, was also the HQ of pirate station Radio Patapoe. The transformation into a mix of upscale and social housing was completed in 2002. The banks of the IJ between the Silo & Central Station have become unrecognizable: from peaceful derelict land to the bustle of upscale and touristic overdevelopment. Meanwhile, desolate Noord has emerged as a booming hotspot for art, pleasure and innovative architecture. In the year and a half I lived on the IJ, I collected the names of nearly a thousand ships.

Bryan R. Monte – Paper, in memory of Dawn Clements, 1958-2018

Bryan R. Monte
Paper
in memory of Dawn Clements, 1958-2018
© 2019 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

In August 2013, my partner and I were holidaying in London. Looking through a gallery guide, we saw a listing for the Saatchi Paper exhibition. We had originally planned to go to another gallery, but for some reason, probably related to time and/or distance, we decided instead to walk to the Duke of York’s HQ, just a few blocks from our hotel near Sloane Square, to see Paper.

Not expecting much from such a simple, unassuming title, some of the art didn’t disappoint. One piece was a ‘sculpture’ of brown, butcher block paper wrapped around a wooden frame with a hole torn straight through the wrapping. Others included furniture wrapped or tree trunks capped in newspaper. ‘How sublime!’ I thought sarcastically. However, in one large hall, I believe it was the first one, were panoramic drawings of modern home or flat interiors, which immediately impressed me. They reminded me of the establishing and/or travelling shots used in film, where everything is in deep focus as the camera follows the actors from one room to the next. I looked for the title of the works and also for the artist, whose work I had never seen before. One of the drawings, which started with a staircase on the right and which drew the eye upwards and to the left to reveal rooms with their exterior walls removed to show their contents, was entitled Travels With Myra Hudson, 2004, by Dawn Clements. Dawn Clements. I believe there was another room of interior drawings, one which wrapped from one wall around a corner to the next. ‘Could this be the same Dawn Clements, with whom I attended film and semiotics classes at Brown?’ I thought. The artist’s bio, with birthplace and date in another gallery, confirmed it was indeed Dawn.

Dawn and I met in Professor Michael Silverman’s Berlin Alexanderplatz film class in September 1984. She immediately caught my attention due to her unique attire. Unlike the other students standard uniform of jeans and flannel shirts that made the first week gathering on the Green look like the most recent Levis commercial, Dawn usually wore a plain blue skirt, white blouse, dark tights and flat black shoes. I also remember her straight blonde hair and big eyes, which seemed to take in everything. She usually sat quietly in the middle or back of the room during the weekly viewing and discussion of one or two episodes from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s then-recent, but now legendary, 13-part, television series. The series was named after Alfred Döblin’s novel, which we read as we watched each instalment and compared it to Fassbinder’s film in terms of narratives or discourses and their containments, suppressions and/or erasures.

Dawn and I became friends and I remember talking with her before and after class. She was especially excited (as was Professor Silverman) when I decided to republish my class paper on the gay discourse in the fourth issue of my gay magazine, No Apologies that next spring. I also delivered a paper with video excerpts from the TV series for the Modern Language Association conference in Chicago in December 1985.

During this time I didn’t know Dawn as an artist, but rather as a film enthusiast, who later became Professor Silverman’s intro to film teaching assistant. Sometimes Dawn would roll part of that day’s film before or after class and we’d gasp at the long, establishing, tracking shots or how Technicolor made the wine in the dinner glasses a deep, glowing, cranberry-juice red. Dawn wrote me in 2014 that: ‘those teachers, those films and those readings…helped shape me into a person who “reads” the world.’

We also talked about the joys and tribulations of our past, romantic relationships and both of us quoted Eartha Kitt as we joked we ‘want(ed) a man with a big, big, big, big … yacht’ (from ‘Where is My Man’ by Bruce Vilanch with Fred Zarr and Jacques Morali from the album I Love Men, 1984). She was one of my three friends at Brown, and the only one with whom I maintained contact immediately after graduation.

I drove up to see her at the University of Albany in early September 1986, her first week of classes as a grad student and my first week as a high school writing teacher in rural Massachusetts in my new, five-speed, manual-transmission Subaru, which unfortunately, I was still learning how to shift properly. Her landlady let me in with a wink, not realizing I was gay and I would be sleeping on the floor — alone.

Appropriately enough we went to see the Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School that weekend at the student union. Since I wasn’t so confident driving my new car, we drove around in Dawn’s late ’50s or early ’60s ‘boat’, which made people swerve out of her way if she floated just to the right or to the left in her lane. We had a good weekend, but then we both became immersed in our new worlds: Dawn at SUNY Albany’s Graduate Art Program and me, teaching writing. We exchanged letters a few times. I sent Dawn a Christmas (1986) card with a deer amorously locking its horns with a coat rack. Unfortunately, I was too poor, disorganized and a bad typist to make photocopies or carbon copies of what I sent her. I can only guess at what I wrote from Dawn’s response. Her letter, dated January 14, 1987, was handwritten in black biro on thin, yellow, translucent, unlined paper with one word in almost every other line partially obscured by a woolley, black cloud.

A line from Dawn Clements’ letter to Bryan Monte, 17 January 1987

In my letter I had probably described my Thanksgiving weekend with my family in Cleveland, which distressed me so much I literally dislocated my right arm in my sleep. I was seen by an casualty doctor, who put my arm back into its socket and then into a sling. Unfortunately, as a result, my mother had to ride with me back to Massachusetts to help with the stick shift. In addition, just after Christmas, I broke up with my partner of two-and-a-half years.

Dawn shared news of her family holiday get together. She reported that one of her parents had just had a health scare. For the first time, she realized her parents weren’t ‘indestructible’. To underline this thought, she copied out an eight-line passage from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which her parents had given her for Christmas, in which Proust recounts his first realization of his parents’ mortality.

She then mentioned one brother about to fly down to Australia for a job and another brother, who had announced he would be married four days later because he wanted his Australia-bound brother to be his best man. With an artist’s eye, Dawn then describes, in almost the same style as her later interior drawings, the ’60s-style, split-level, suburban home ‘with original furnishings’, where the ceremony took place. She mentions the ‘sunken living room’, with ‘a glassed-in fireplace … (where) ‘a … blue-flame “log” blazed.’ flanked by ‘two sofas next to each other’ and an extremely long ‘coffee table’.

Then Dawn mentions the Albany sights she’d discovered after my visit: ‘a U-haul truck suspended above a skyscraper’ and 21st US President’s Chester A. Arthur’s monumental gravesite statue. I must have also asked in my letter if she had met any interesting and unusual people. She had and wrote they were ‘kind, supportive and extremely talented’. She ended her letter asking about me and suggesting we meet ‘in Boston sometime.’

We never met in Boston. Unfortunately, I lost touch with Dawn due to a very bad winter, which ended with two blizzards in April that made roads impassable for days followed by a two-week heat wave the next month during which I lay on the floor of my attic apartment next to a fan and a pitcher filled with ice water. In addition, I had not met any friendly people in Massachusetts with whom I could share and develop my writing. By June, I had decided to return to California.

I did not come in contact again with Dawn, or her work for 26 years. During this time I moved back to San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, worked for an insurance company by day, and taught English and creative writing by night. Then I emigrated to the Netherlands, where I taught English, communication and computers at private schools and at a university, got a Masters in education, and taught English language and culture at a Dutch polytechnic. I also met my current partner. (Dawn told me later that she, at about the same time, had come across the copies of No Apologies I had given her at Brown).

When Winfred and I returned to the Netherlands, I tried to find Dawn’s e-mail or telephone number to get in touch. Unfortunately, her e-mail address wasn’t quite the same as her name. Fortunately, by late January or early February 2014, I had found her via LinkedIn. Dawn was happy to resume contact and she wrote that she thought it was ‘an honour’ that Saatchi had placed her work at the beginning of the exhibition. I wrote Dawn about my David Sedaris interview, which I would publish in my new magazine, Amsterdam Quarterly the next month. Dawn wrote back the same day about her recent exhibition at the ‘Bell Gallery at Brown alongside (work by) alumni Paul Ramirez Jonas and Kelly Tribe.’ In e-mails later that month, we got caught up on 26 years in two or three pages.

Dawn wrote about her graduation from SUNY Albany and teaching art from community colleges to Skidmore from the late ‘80s to the early ‘90s. Then came her ‘Cinderella moment’ when Flash Art wrote about her NYC Drawing Center show ‘and I was invited to show my work in the Venice Biennale in 1993.’ She wrote that her first years in NYC were hard. She ‘painted murals and dressed mannequins … drew the first pencil sketches for the Victoria’s Secret’s angels wings!!’, and made ‘backdrops and scenery’. However, even with shows and fellowships in the US, the UK, Belgium and Italy, she confessed, ‘I need to teach to pay my rent’.

She continued in this missive to comment on the ‘great sets, great clothes, great color’ in North by Northwest which I happened to be watching as I wrote her my email response. She also talked about her love of Sirk’s use of colour, excess, and camera work in Written on the Wind in which:

‘… Robert Stack … flies Lauren Bacall from New York to Miami Beach to try to impress her … opens a door to … (a) hotel suite, … walks her into the bedroom, … with a ‘closet FULL of clothes …,’ and a dresser drawer ‘filled with silk underwear. Such wild and extreme melodrama.’

Dawn and I could always connect through film and I could see how its language, especially the travelling and establishing shots where everything is equally in focus and its use of melodramatic storytelling, had greatly influenced her own drawings.

We emailed and skyped each other in the months leading up to my visit to New York later in early July 2014. Dawn collected me the afternoon of 6 July as we’d agreed and we drove to her studio, which was in a long, former warehouse on a street, which ended at the East River. Her studio was large a rectangular space, longer than it was wide. I remember there were books, canvases, drawing supplies and an upright piano. I also remember the studio had a window, which looked out onto a canal. Just as Dawn mentioned this to me, a tugboat outside suddenly blew its steam whistle, which made me jump out of my chair. There were also two long drawings tacked up on opposite walls. One was actually two pieces according to my journal: ‘a ropey charcoal studio set and on the other wall, a curly-haired movie star, who I couldn’t identify and which I forgot to ask about.’ (The next morning, Dawn informed me this ‘movie star’ was Sylvia Sidney, who was part of a new watercolour work).

We sat down and had white wine and matzo crackers as we talked about our lives, teaching, writing and art. I gave her a tote bag from the Royal Academy of Art and some postcards, which Winfred and I had purchased a few weeks before.

Dawn gave me some maple sugar candies and a copy of Fence magazine from 2010. She said ‘it was only magazine that had her work in it that she could give me.’ I filled her in on the first part of my holiday in England. This included classes at the Birmingham Quaker Centre and a few days in Cumbria to visit friends with whom we walked around and photographed each other at Castlerigg Stone Circle and had lunch on Lake Windermere.

After getting caught up in her studio, we drove around scouting places for the AQ 2014 Yearbook reading that January. We visited Pete’s Candy Store, the Perogi Gallery and a few Dumbo bookstores. (The event was held at the Anne Frank Center). Then we had a roast chicken and sausage dinner at the Vinegar Hill House restaurant. Afterwards, Dawn drove me back to my hotel near Penn Station, where miraculously, we found a parking space, so she came up to my room for a few minutes. There I asked her opinion on two different background colours for the AQ 2014 Yearbook (sand v camel) and I gave her a copy of the AQ 2013 Yearbook along with a William Morris birded wallpaper blank book so she’d start keeping a journal.

From that time, Dawn and I emailed and skyped with each other, on and off every other month or so when either of us had time in our busy schedules On 5 Oct 2014, Dawn sent me a PDF of a clear glass vase holding long, greenish flowers It was part of her ‘Chrysanthemums’, 2014, watercolour that would later be part of the installation she was drawing for her Bates College show in January 2015, when she would also start teaching at Brown. Her busy autumn schedule would include helping move her mother, ‘little visiting artists jobs … that (will) help me pay the rent,’ and graduate student critiques work ‘at the Maryland Institute College of Art.’ Dawn was so busy she even apologized that her 16 January 2015 Bates opening would prevent her from attending AQ’s 2014 Yearbook reading just two days before.

Buried under work, Dawn apologized repeatedly for not answering my e-mails for weeks or sometimes even months. However, this hard work did finally deliver some results. On 20 March 2015, she wrote she’d gotten a ‘full-time position at RISD’, happy it would give her financial and health benefits. She decided to commute up to Providence from Brooklyn to teach there. I had written Dawn about trying to get together in NY in May or June, but she said she couldn’t. She had an opening in Hudson, NY around 1 June and a possible two month residency. I wrote her back congratulating her on her RISD job and told her about my recent memoir about Thom Gunn in AQ12. In July 2015, I told her to ‘take care of herself,’ reassuring her that ‘We’ll get together when things settle down for you.’

Due to her hectic schedule, however, I didn’t hear from Dawn again until March 2016. She apologized for not corresponding for a while, but indicated she had ‘been … consumed and exhausted by her very extensive schedule….’ She sent an e-mail from a train on her way to work at the Yale where she worked as a ‘critic’ in the MFA programme. She mentioned studio visits, conversations, critiques and ‘admissions interviews.’ She admitted it was a bit much — RISD plus Yale and even Cranbook Academy near Detroit — but said she ‘enjoyed engaging in mature conversations with young artists.’ She ended her email apologizing again for her late reply and hoped I was well.

I thanked Dawn and advised her to take time every now and then to ‘pause, breathe and enjoy. Draw something on a scrap of paper as you did on that train ride in Europe that lead to your first big project. Just as then, the pieces will put themselves together later.’

Just two months later, however, Dawn’s life took an unexpected and unfortunate turn. On 29 April 2016, she wrote she had cancer. She also mentioned how ‘kind and helpful’ her mother had been caring for her in hospital. She described Bellevue as an ‘enormous factory of a hospital,’. She wrote ‘the medical show’ had ‘more colour than Amherst, Massachusetts’. Perhaps Dawn was putting a brave face on things by looking outward, because in the next paragraph she wrote ‘there’s more in store.’ In addition, she thanked me for the Morris bird blank book I’d given her in July 2014 and reported:

…. it has been helpful to write,…. I thought of … what you told me to do in this book, and now, at long last, … I will start to write….

I responded the next day with my regrets about her diagnosis. I told Dawn to ‘get plenty of rest, take your medication, don’t move around too much … (and) Keep in touch where you’re feeling up to it.’ To try to take her mind off her illness, I mentioned Winfred and I had just recently bought a miniature dachshund pup called Rex, who was ‘two hands big’ when we brought him home, and was now ‘an armload and still growing’.

On 11 June 2016, I emailed Dawn asking how she was. I also mentioned it was so unusually warm in June, that, for the first time, I’d had to run a portable air conditioning unit in my flat. She wrote back the next day saying that she was ill, had just had her first round of chemo and couldn’t write much. I was sorry to hear that she had been in hospital and hoped she would soon complete her treatments. I attached three, small photos of Rex she could view on her phone with my message.

I sent Dawn another e-mail in August, but I don’t have record of having been in touch with her again until 18 November when, according to my journal, I saw her green light on my Skype panel, for the first time in months, so I decided to call her. Dawn answered right away. I asked if she was in her Brooklyn studio, since it was already dark outside the window. She told me that she was in Rome at the American Academy on a two-month fellowship. I asked her how she was doing. She told me the cancer had returned. I couldn’t say anything except, ‘I’m sorry, I’m very sorry.’ Dawn told me she was expecting another call in the next five minutes, so we kept it short. Dawn returned my skype call on the 21st. I wrote in my journal that Dawn looked a little bit better this time. She didn’t have a hat on (so I could see she still had her beautiful, blonde hair) and the dark circles around her eyes were almost gone. We talked a little about my annual AQ yearbook print production schedule, and she told me more about her health.

I asked Dawn if she’d been enjoying her stay in Rome, including the sights and the food. I mentioned the cool, ancient, underground villas with their wall murals and she said she’d been near there and that Italian food was wonderful. I asked if she was working on anything new, but she didn’t give anything away. She said her mother was coming for Thanksgiving and that they were going to see the Vatican together. I told her to make sure that one of them was in a wheelchair, so then they wouldn’t have to wait in long lines to see things. I asked if she’d like an ARC of the AQ 2016 Yearbook, and she said yes. I sent her a copy and a box of German chocolates wrapped in Dutch Sinterklaas paper.

On 20 December Dawn wrote she found ‘a happy surprise’ in her AAR mailbox. She thought the chocolates were delicious and ate the whole box in one evening. She asked about my health and said she was starting her second round of a new drug which had sometimes given her ‘heart attack symptoms.’ when walking, so she had to ‘stop and wait and go VERY slowly.’ Despite her health, however, she said her stay had been ‘very productive.’

I responded that I was very happy the box of chocolates had helped her stay up all night and create. ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,’ (William Blake) I reminded her. I also told her about the time my legs suddenly stopped working once on the Leidseplein (and I’d neglected to wear my leg braces per my doctor’s instructions). It took me a quarter hour to slowly, walk crab-like, the last 25 metres into a Central Station-bound tram.

We skyped a few days later and I told her about my pillbox, which I drybrushed in Photoshop to illustrate my poem ‘The Rattle’ that would appear in AQ18 that spring. She directed her camera down quickly to show several opened foil medicine holders on a burlap background on a table, which she was drawing and which would later become part of ‘Three Tables in Rome’ (the table farthest to the right), watercolour, 2017.

The next time we corresponded was on 15 February. Dawn wrote that her reply would ‘be brief’ because she would be going to teach at RISD for a few days and that was worried about her ‘stamina’ and hoped her time at RISD would ‘be healing.’ She added that RISD had given her twice as many TA’s and that her health was ‘mixed, but hopeful’, since she was trying to get treatment with a new drug. She also mentioned she had joined a support group. Dawn thanked me for sending her photos of Rex in various outfits and poses: ‘GQ Rex’, wearing a new hand-knitted winter jacket; ‘après-ski Rex’ wearing the jacket on a leash in the snow; ‘GQ Rex’ reclining on a leather sofa displaying his family jewels; and ‘Cheshire Cat Rex’ with a ball, with large, white teeth painted on it, in his mouth.

On 1 April, I sent a bouquet of mixed flowers to the opening of her Tables and Pills and Things show at the Pierogi Gallery on Suffolk Street in Manhattan. She wrote me back on 3 April thanking me for the flowers with photos of them in a vase in her flat. On 23 June, I sent Dawn a postcard of Gerrit Rietveld’s, Harrenstein Bedroom, 1926, while waiting for the monthly AQ writers’ group to begin. I wrote that I’d recently attended the press showing of the Edward Krasinki retrospective at the Amsterdam Stedelijk. I wrote that the show had just been at the Tate Liverpool and ‘they could have kept it there. This guy’s signature move is to put blue electric tape on the wall at 1.6 meters’… (and sometimes through other’s artwork) ‘to break it into two planes — a sort of minimalist constructivism.’ Stealing a line from Bill Sherwood’s film Part Glances, I continued: ‘There’s more art in one square inch of your panoramic interiors than in this entire show!’

Dawn contacted me later that month. She was at Yaddo in a room with a large window that looked out onto a dense wood. She asked me if she should continue to apply to programmes, and if she should mention her illness. I advised her to keep applying, to not mention her illness, to take her drugs with her and to arrange transport to nearby hospitals for treatments, if necessary. She reported ‘no real progression of her disease’ which was good news.

In later emails we joked about and discussed what she could draw at Yaddo. I suggested a reflection of the window in front of her with a scene from Rear Window on the TV or PC, or from the window, have a view of the iconic, criminals’ lair in North by Northwest, or draw a picture of the project she working on and have its reflection and that of the room behind it in the big window with or without herself at the table.

Dawn listed three drawings she might attempt. The first in ‘black ink’ … ‘of objects on a table with the woods in the background.’ The second in colour, she’d ‘do at night.’ to take advantage of the big window’s mirror effect. She’d ‘split the image between (the) directly observed table top and the mirror image of the table top.’ The last would be in a ‘limited black palette and vermillion Sumi inks.’ with ‘surface graphics of the objects. No shadows.’

In late September, I travelled to the Communal Studies Association conference in Zoar, Ohio, where I would read a paper. Just before I left, however, I sent Dawn a Sophia Loren biography, which included photos of Loren as a young woman with friends and handwritten correspondence in Italian. On 15 October 2017, she thanked me for the book ‘chock-full of information!!!!’ and said she was ‘inspired by my energy and spirit.’ She referred to her Yaddo experience as ‘tremendously productive.’ Unfortunately, she wrote her cancer therapy ‘wasn’t working’ … and that she was ‘quite depressed, but pressing on all the same.’ She added she was ‘crazy busy now with teaching,’ but was looking forward to ‘mid-December’ when she would have a two-month holiday to work on her art. She ended her letter with ‘you inspire me’ and her love. Around the beginning of December, I posted Dawn an ARC of the AQ 2017 Yearbook.

I wrote Dawn again just after Christmas. I mentioned switching on the holidays lights to chase away the winter blues, and that I could call her whenever she wanted to talk. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear from Dawn again until 11 February 2018 when she emailed her health ‘had taken a serious turn from the worse.’ She had just begun a new drug trial and was on painkillers, so it was sometimes difficult for her to ‘do anything.’ Despite her situation, however, she expressed concern for me and hoped I was ‘feeling better than … last December.’ Six weeks later on 24 March she wrote with good news after I had telephoned and left a message. Her ‘cancer makers were down,’ and she was off ‘the pain killers.’

On 22 June, I wrote her with my US itinerary for October/November, so we could try to meet. I mentioned the Wayne Thiebaud cakes postcard I’d sent her from his European retrospective at the Museum Voorlinden in The Hague with a link to my review in AQ22. Dawn emailed a week later saying it was ‘pretty awful’ that Thiebaud and some of his paintings (there were three or four empty spaces on the walls) didn’t make it for his show’s opening. She had recently sent out a group email stating how she was doing because she didn’t have time to write everyone separately. In her next missive, she confided ‘between you and me, I am losing some hope.’ The trial drug had stopped working and then ‘the rate of growth was dramatic.’

She also wrote that she had gone to Angels in America on Broadway. ‘It may seem strange to attend … in the midst of all this bad health news, but it was great and I’m glad I went … with a very good friend, Judy.’ Dawn reported that after she left the theatre, she ‘sobbed. … glad to express … my extreme sadness.’ She then wrote that she ‘had started of book of drawings’ and wanted to do ‘at least a page per day.’ She ended her email with news that she’d been invited to MacDowell from Sept. 5 to Oct. 15, and hoped she would ‘be well enough to go.’

I told Dawn I would have a lot to share with her when I saw her in New York. I would have just visited my paternal grandmother’s father’s village in Banco, Trentino, Italy the month previously. In the meantime, I would try to post another box of inspirational chocolates to her at MacDowell.

There were a few mails in between, mostly with regard to making an appointment to meet in Manhattan. On 9 August, Dawn let me know she had received the chocolates.

On 25 October 2018, Judy brought Dawn to meet with me in an Italian café in Koreatown near Herald Square. During our meeting, Dawn told me that her doctor had begun to discuss hospice care and said he hadn’t given her longer than the end of the next month to live. From my experience with at least a two dozen people with AIDS (including two partners), I knew what to talk about at a last meeting — the weather, college, hobbies or music, a pleasant mix of the present and the past, but not the future, and certainly nothing about drugs or treatments.

I had also brought two gag gifts — faux Delfts blauw teabag and spoon caddies in the shape of a teapot and a wooden shoe respectively. These made Dawn giggle and laugh as she carefully extracted them from their protective cardboard and blue-and-white wrapping paper. I hoped it made her forget, at least for a few moments, the gravity of her situation. I showed her the earliest pre-production copy of the Amsterdam Quarterly 2018 Yearbook. She said she especially liked Peter E. Murphy’s ‘Open’ photo on the back cover, which showed a valve with the word ‘OPEN’ stamped on it, rusted shut. I told her I would send her an ARC as soon as they were ready.

I also showed Dawn my photo book of my paternal Italian-America grandmother’s family’s village, including the church font where my great-grandfather, one great-uncle and one great aunt were baptised, and the location of their flat, with its view of apple orchards and the Dolomites. When I returned from the toilet, I noticed Dawn taking photos with her phone of the pre-production copy. She said she had done that so she’d ‘have something to read later.’ Dawn also noticed a picture of Rex on my phone, sitting on a dark blue pillow and she asked for a copy, which I emailed to her that evening.

Saying goodbye to Dawn for the last time was not only emotionally, but physically draining. As I rolled to the Herald Square taxi stand with her, I suddenly discovered the last three fingers of my right hand wouldn’t work, so I had to work hard to propel myself with just my thumb and index finger on that hand. I said a last goodbye to Dawn and gave her a hug.

Whilst on the road in the US, I sent her a postcard of the 1954 Kalamazoo Gal, sitting on the hood of a blue and white Chevrolet Bel Air, with news of my readings, which I hoped would make her laugh. As promised, on 4 December, I posted the AQ 2018 Yearbook ARC with a box of chocolates. The next day, however, I received the news Dawn had passed.

There’s a saying in Dutch, Wie schrijft, blijft — S/he who writes, remains (forever). I hope that also applies to artists, and that Dawn knew what an indelible mark she had left in my heart, in the art world, and on paper. AQ

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 through 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 they 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 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