Book I Excerpt: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
I have set up a large worktable under a cantilevered umbrella in that small corner tucked between my barn and the studio, bordered by a hedgerow of privet to hide the mess from neighbors and approaching visitors, where I can smash crockery that I have been accumulating all winter. Smashing dishes is truly therapeutic when demons descend and memories attack. Could that be why I have so extensive a collection? There are enough packed jars and other receptacles to fill a decently sized library. I’m talking about large rooms with wall to wall, floor to ceiling shelves. The sheer volume of tesserae-filled jars is bizarre, frightening. If I live to be three hundred and seventy years old, I think, I will never use up all this stuff. But I continue collecting and smashing anyway. Why do I do this? Why is everything I do always couched in groups, series, multiples, and masses?
We make our way over to the huge superstructure that is the earsplittingly noisy and frightening elevated train system, the 177th Street Elevated, climb the high, deep, concrete and steel stairs to the elevated platform, and wait for our train. I shrink in terror from the platform edge, and cringe when I hear the loud, raucous train approaching. Once aboard, we sway from side to side as we race across the borough of the Bronx, and glide finally downward into the stifling black tunnel that is New York City at its best. Manhattan, Downtown; we live Uptown, in the Bronx. We swerve and rock and bump our way across the Bronx until we enter the underground system somewhere approaching Manhattan where we now bounce and roll some more until with damp and shaken marrow, we arrive at our destination. I sit on the highly varnished woven wicker seats, my legs dangling, feet barely above the floor, picking the perpetually regenerating scabs on my knees, and wish myself anywhere but here. My natural clumsy tomboy self dreads the tutu-ed humiliation that awaits me in ballet class; my soul dreads the discordant errors that seem impossible to avoid when my banana bunch hands refuse to find the proper mellifluous sequence of piano keys. To my ears, I butcher Prelude, Concerto, and Symphony alike with equal opportunity destruction, and yet my mother glistens and glows with pride when I can be cajoled and sometimes bullied to play the piano for company or in concert. There is an endlessly present pressure for me to excel, to compete with the extraordinariness that surrounds me.
My mother is, in our family circle, known as a mensch, a balabusta, a prodigious woman of many talents, amazing energy. Today, she takes her educator persona and her sad-faced offspring on an expedition of higher learning. In the early 1940s, as war still rages in the European theater where my father is stationed, my mother dresses me in what I recall as my Saturday trip-to-the-city uniform. A red felt roller hat covers my once curly now suddenly stick straight permed and overdressed, for a five-year-old child, hair, matches my red chinchilla coat purchased at Russeks of 39th Street on sale; my hand-tailored by Mom coral, orchid and teal plaid, copied from something she has seen at Saks Fifth Avenue, taffeta and velvet dress, crisp white knee socks that refuse to cling to my narrow calves, and my treasured black patent leather shoes, in whose surfaces I can clearly see my reflection.
I am easily reconstructed but it takes some time for Mom to put herself together into that perfect bandbox state of being, and she is nothing if not efficient. I always watch her ministrations to face and fashion with awe. To this day I have never been able to duplicate or come close to that elegant Vogue look, no matter how I try. She is the quintessential stylish lady of the world, as presented by the most highly revered woman’s fashion magazines, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, which she voraciously devours. Beneath her perfectly fitted two-piece suit, basis for the entire svelte look, is—what is called in these days—a garment; a rigid elastic and rubber concoction of underwear that smoothes and constrains flesh that is not on board with the agenda of the day. Gone is the bra-less mini-skirted free and easy flapper of a few short years ago, pre-Great Depression, pre-war. No longer is her lovely face framed by that helmet of wild curls, every hair of her blond pompadoured upsweep is in place. She sports another of her many matched suites of bejeweled costume necklace, earrings. The ever present color-coordinated patterned silk scarf twirls softly around her neck and drapes across her collar and over her shoulder, secured as usual by a pin from the suite. My Mom is not only beautiful, stunning, she is perfect. She is a movie star. This is, I know, the gold standard. I feel shabby and worthless next to her. And although I adore her, I would rather be anywhere else than with her on this despised and very familiar voyage.
We leave as early as possible in the morning, after a suitably nourishing breakfast of pancakes fashioned into cartoon images, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Dumbo, bunnies, cats and dogs, to please me, or French toast cut with cookie cutters, drenched in jelly and syrup, creativity in everything she touches, an elaborate gesture of her love, in continuing family tradition of food as love, a reminder that to be creative is a way of, an intricate part of, the meaning of life.
I lope along picking at my recalcitrant socks which aspire to locate under my arches deep in my shiny shoes trying to keep up with her, skipping and hopping, roller hat bouncing, straining the elastic that is tucked under my chin. She always has our itinerary planned right down to the last detail, and every moment is carefully articulated and scheduled. I know this because she explains it all to me when we are spending intimate mother-daughter time together sewing, styling hair and painting nails, cooking and baking. Saturday is the only time she has to accomplish her ambitious goals, because she needs Sunday to grade the increasingly regenerating piles of papers for her English classes. Although I loathe all this organizing, I fall automatically into her habit, and it persists throughout my own life.
Every morning she travels cross Bronx by crowded noxious bus, hanging onto leather straps to keep from falling against her fellow commuters although there is little chance of that given the sardine like packing together of passengers. She struggles gamely to reach the East Bronx school where she teaches. She is a dedicated teacher, who loves her work, but who suffers through an ongoing love/hate relationship with the complicated policies, relationships and political atmosphere of the New York City school system until the day she retires. She is as poor a politician as my father is genius. He is the one with the practiced poker face, the attorney’s silver tongue, I have heard.
But at this time, my father has still not returned from his stint in the European theater during the horrific sequel to the war to end all wars. We girls are on our own. And Mom, the quintessential educator, will not be stopped from doing her thing. Her only child, that would be me, will have access to the best and most extensive of cultural education, access to every possible opportunity that an educated cultural life can provide. I am not convinced of this, of the reason or value of it, and I resist gamely. In my mind, I am roller skating up and down the macadam pathways of our apartment house development, avoiding the heavy chained fence that protects the forbidden green lawn; I am pushing doll carriages with my friend Ruthie, playing the proud mama, tending to my carefully appointed baby dolls, practicing for a later day; and other Saturday occupations of childhood that are left there in the real world, left behind tantalizing, just out of my reach.
What do I understand of first generation American thinking and goals, educate your children, give them every opportunity to succeed? Provide them with everything that you do not have, and want with all your heart and soul and are powerless to obtain for you? My mother has the education, I will acquire that plus all of the embellishment, fulfill all of her dreams. In her perfect world, I will obtain the security she prizes by becoming a teacher, just like her, in addition to those dreams. She has it all planned. My head spins; I am assailed by a moment of pure terror.
When I am small and still have those fat golden sausage curls, she tells me longingly it seems that I am the next Shirley Temple. Later, there is a new chant. You look just like Margaret O’Brien, she qvells, pulling at my skirt, patting my hair, you’re going to be such a star. There is a strange sense of yearning in her voice. Part of our itinerary as far back as I can remember is the compulsory attendance at every child star movie that graces the silver screen. It gets so that the sight of America’s little darlings and the sounds of their perky tinkling voices sends chills through me, embryonic feelings of inadequacy do battle in my chest and stomach. Envy and despair follow.
The more my parents praise me, the more they expect from me, the more I shrink into myself, until there is nothing left but an unheard cry for help.
You look just like a movie star, she says once more as though repetition will make it so as we march rapidly down Fifth Avenue. I struggle to keep up. I twist to look in the carefully designed and elaborately appointed Sacks window or Bests or some other, as we pass at a rapid clip, trying to keep up with Mom’s determined sprint. The windows fly by. It is like looking at a landscape through a train window. What I see in disjointed spots of reflection separated by a succession of window frames is a plain faced, freckled, knobby-kneed straight-haired, despite Mom’s frenzied attempts to the contrary, child, with big sad eyes, a rather desperate look, staring back at me.
At Christmas time she takes me on a grand tour of department store windows, the entire gamut fifty ninth street to fourteenth covering Fifth Avenue across to Second and I gaze with wonder at animated mannequins in splendid dazzling holiday attire involved with cherubs, elves, Santas and reindeer pulled sleds filled with toys and gaily wrapped sparkling packages and masses of darling animals; trains careening over intricate tracks and plethora of stars and moons in deep navy skies, everything covered with glitter and magic. On some frigid Saturday mornings she brings me to ice skate at Rockefeller Center in that small enclave deep down in this city canyon surrounded by immense office buildings, guarded over by the annual sixty or so foot glowing Christmas tree. I stumble gamely on bending ankles to make the obligatory rounds, a frigid smile pasted on my face, wiping my forever slowly dripping nose with clumsy mittened fingers and I am rewarded afterward for my efforts with a steaming cup of hot chocolate.
On Thanksgiving Day 1945 we charge through the massive roiling throngs to attend the Macy’s Day Parade which has been cancelled for the war years and has finally returned and I delight at the giant inflated balloons, Mickey Mouse, Harold the Clown, Felix the Cat, and my favorite, the entire family, mama, papa and baby; for moments I can even see beyond the crowds, become accustomed to the smell of damp overcoats and the rapidly intensifying lack of sensation in frozen limbs and nose.
On our other customary itinerary, once we arrive downtown, we begin the ritual dance. Her menu for the activities of the day reads like a Gilbert and Sullivan operatic anthology program. My focused and creative mother is the very model of a modern major general; she’s got a little list, and they’ll none of them be missed. It is the period of my life when I am being prepared for the cultural life; the day consists of long stunning tedious sessions listening to the Young People’s Concerts, at Carnegie Hall, on 57th Street.
We lunch, my especially best part of the day at the Hamburger Train on 57th Street or Schraft’s, on 5th Avenue and 46th Street or my real favorite, the Automat where I get to put nickels into a slot and spin a glass cage around to access my choice, and share a table with strangers. Schraft’s milk served in long thick glassware bulbous at the top (the direct opposite of my grandmother’s jelly jars to which I have grown accustomed) always seems to be lukish warm and thickish, with little floating bits of cream, which makes my stomach rebel. And the place itself is dark and crowded and filled with some other sort of unfamiliar people whose noses appear pinched tightly by invisible clothespins. Mom always cranes her neck this way and that, looking, looking, what is she looking for? The answer is celebrities, who frequent this place. Mom is enchanted by celebrity. At the Hamburger Train, I am excited as our lunch arrives at our place at the counter on a tiny railroad car following the tracks that edge the perimeter of the countertop. The day continues with my piano lessons, piano theory and creative composing in Julliard and in the Carnegie Hall building. Then my ballet and interpretative dance lessons at Dalcroze School of Music. I hold my breath as the brass accordion gate of the elevator closes us in followed by the slamming steel door and the clanking swaying of the stifling confining box. I feel my stomach plummet to my feet as the sudden motion leaves part of me behind, for a horrible moment, and my ears pop.
Friday afternoons after school I am brought to art classes at the MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) for drawing and painting lessons. On alternate weeks when the Saturday morning concerts are not scheduled, I am ensconced in classes at the Art Students’ League, also on 57th Street taught and surrounded by renowned artists of the day, Adoph Gottlieb, Hans Hofman, George Grosz, Franz Kline, Morris Lewis, figure drawing and water color. I will be educated in the varied tenets of the arts, damn it, if it is the last thing my mother does. With a helpless stoicism, I follow gamely along. I like this a bit better than the music stuff, or the marathon shopping tours that fill the Saturdays that are without lessons and concerts.
Mom is focused. She is always on a mission. Shopping trips, concerts and lessons, music and art; my mother marches along to a pounding determined rhythm that only she herself hears, pulling me along hopping and skipping frantically in her wake. Actually, the art thing is good; it touches something deep inside me.
But the music of those Saturday morning Young Peoples’ Concerts at Carnegie Hall plays inside my head, also, and make no mistake, I am beguiled by, drawn to the music. The wolf stalks Peter, bombom bomp, bombom bomp, da, da, da, da, da, da DAH! I am enchanted by Peter and the Wolf. Flutes delicately evoke dawn in the forest, and eyes closed, I am right there, lured into The Hall of the Mountain King. We the audience of kids, willing and unwilling, arrive at the huge ornate concert hall en masse, captive of our parents’ dreams and plans, of enforced culturization; small children, restless disinterested; but our attention is seized in a moment and we catch our collective breath as a huge screen descends slowly from the curtained valance across the stage and the music begins, swiftly illustrated by a cartoon. It is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and it captivates me, enchants me, becomes a part of me; accompanies me for the rest of time. There it is again, I always cry out with joy; they have the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, today.
The music still sounds in my ears, that relentless marching cadence as the clever brooms carry their pails of water from the sorcerer’s flooded lair. Again and again, faster and faster; I am mesmerized, there is something about the imagery, the frantic stick figure brooms with their bouncing flailing and hellishly splashing water pails, the race against time set to the strong compelling music of Tchaikovsky that becomes a part of me; This is a significant lesson for me to learn; it is the lure of the visual that reaches me. A tiny invisible creature bursts into being within me, smiling and wielding a baton, or is it a long paint brush? Follow me, it says, and skips and floats above me beckoning
I become aware of a subtle implicit promise, a reinforcement of that notion tickling my senses and hopes that there surely is some higher albeit momentarily unseen power to whom one may look for strength in what I am beginning to see as an overwhelmingly overbearing world.
Soon it becomes evident that I am never really alone. The call of my muse is as insistent as the relentless march of those maniacal ramrod brooms. The more the ideas come, the faster and more feverishly I work…the more and longer I work, the more the ideas come. Ultimately, my art becomes more real to me than my world. My world itself is always repugnant enough to send me rushing back to my work, until the work itself becomes the reality.
Years later, my babies arrive, it seems, as if planned and delivered by the sorcerer’s apprentices, rapidly, one after the other; a series of stepping stones. There is nothing I won’t do for them; my love for them overwhelms me. I look at them, one at a time or all in tandem, and an indescribable surge of emotion rises up from my soles until it reaches my throat where it sticks, choking me. Yet, I resist all pressure to follow with my mother’s program. I offer my children, instead, the peace of mind and free will to seek their own goals, joys, and satisfactions. Maybe they feel deprived, who knows? But my mother is not deterred. That generation later, my mom takes my own children to see the classic Disney production, Fantasia, which contains the same Sorcerer’s Apprentice imagery in one part of it. She happily applies her program seamlessly to the next generation, taking up the gap that I have created in my attempts to free my own children from what, in my own mind, I see as enforced tedium. With typical tunnel vision and selective blindness, I fail to see how it has all influenced me.
Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset; swiftly go the years…I made a choice to avoid competition out of fear of failure. There were paths to take, and I chose the easy one, fell into the welcoming arms of a fantasy which had been programmed into my head and mind since as far back as I am able to remember…
Life continues, things change; my need becomes desperate as I struggle alone to fulfill my responsibilities. And struggle it is. Finally, a mother of six then seven, absent support or aid, I earn the money needed to cover their daily needs with my art, producing paintings like those relentless, focused brooms, one after the other, again and again. The canvases lean one upon the other in my bedroom turned studio, like a construction of playing cards, or dominoes.
I develop methods of mass production to satisfy my quota and keep the coffers filled, keep my babies safe and sound. I practice intense mental exercises to promote inventive thinking so that I will always have new ideas, in order to keep the mercurial market interested, the paintings moving and selling, my bank account solvent, and the larder stocked. I work like this for so many years, so intensely, that my method becomes a part of me and of my art itself. The medium becomes the message. While I agonize over lost time, lost direction, my lost art career trapped in the ongoing battle for survival I produce my work prodigiously, and develop many individual and combined media and methods, and accumulate a mammoth collection of works; experiments, and leftovers that have not sold; new ideas never implemented. There is an entire other world out there, a world of art operating on a different plane of existence, as I bather babies, find and lose love, seek security, drown in the loss of days and years, sink further and further into depression, lose more and more of the tiny remaining fragments of myself. I am drowning in art, stuff, forever moving here and there. Perpetual motion; inevitably I actually morph into a Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
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