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Saturday, December 10, 2016

A dream

please note: this is now a space for my writing. older posts on frugality remain for those interested.



A dream from a few weeks ago:

I was sitting with my grandparents Emma and Leo. We were cuddled together watching a video. The video was one that was recently sent to me by Evan, the son of my mother's late first cousin Herbert.  Herbert's parents had made a movie of their doted-on son--then named Heinz--in Vienna 1937. I hardly know Evan, but we saw him in Seattle last spring and he promised to make a copy of the video for me.

The video shows mostly Herbert at age 3--in the park, on the city streets. Near the end are a few glimpses of his older cousin, my beautiful mother at age 7. There are even a few glimpses of Leo, easy to spot with his round, completely bald head.

My grandparents and I were waiting for the parts with my mother. We were joined by a blog-friend, whom I've met. I said to her,  "Wait; I want to show you my mother."

My grandfather turned to me and spoke for quite a while. It was all in German. I was trying to figure out if I could understand any of it.

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It has occurred to me that my grandfather never really knew English very well. The only thing I remember his saying to me is "I just want to live long enough to see you get married." That didn't happen. I was so happy to see my grandparents in the dream.

Friday, December 9, 2016

My Mother's Chauffeur

Note: This is a personal space for writing now. Older posts on frugality remain; frugality  is a timeless practice.


I know so little about life in Vienna, the city my mother's family left in 1938. On election night, I felt an increasing sense of panic and fear. I said to my family: Perhaps this is 1% of what my grandparents felt in the years before they left Vienna, while in Belgrade, and even when they arrived at Ellis Island.

Although my mother's photos were all lost during her move to Florida, her cousin's widow gave me some photos. I have a thumb-sized photo of Herbert and his parents getting ready to board their ship for America. And then I remember an exhibit of anonymous newspaper photos that we saw in Amsterdam: the one that haunts me was of an upper-middle class young Jewish couple, she in a fur coat, he in a suit, being turned away by immigration officials in Cuba in the late 30s. The look of horror on their faces. They knew what they were in for.

Sadly, I only have fragments. The people who did remember have been gone for many years. My mother mostly says she remembers nothing. Many years ago she said "We had a chauffeur to take me to school." When I expressed amazement, she airily replied, "Oh, everyone did."

This comment has given my husband the impression that my mother's family was extremely wealthy. That is not the case. They were middle-class in a time when middle-class families had household help, as my husband's family in the midwest also did.

A few months ago, a thought popped into my head. Why a chauffeur? My grandparents lived right across from the Freud Museum at Bergasse 19. Surely in that densely populated residential area, there were schools within walking distance.

Then the next thought: Was my mother driven to school so she would not have to walk? Then a worse thought: Did my mother have to wear a yellow star?

I have not had the courage to ask my mother these questions. She is 86 and seems to be fading. Perhaps I will ask. I do want to know.

From Viennacitytours (!)


By the turn of the century, Jews were adding to the prosperity of Vienna in all areas of cultural and economic life. Such prominent names as Oscar Straus and Sigmund Freud were recognized as making large contributions in the fields of music and science. In fact, three out of four Austrian citizens awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine were Jewish. More than half of Austria's physicians and dentists were Jewish, as well as more than sixty percent of lawyers and the majority of university professors. Many were also leaders within the Social Democratic Party.

Because of an atmosphere of religious, economic, and cultural freedoms, the Jewish population of Vienna grew exponentially. While there were only 6,200 Jews residing in Vienna in 1860, in 1870 there were 40,200. By 1900, this had increased to 147,000, and in 1938 the population peaked at 185,000. 

WWII
While anti-Semitism had been steadily increasing as the Jewish population had continued to prosper in the first three decades of the 20th century, violent displays were always policed. Nonetheless, Vienna's prominent mayor, Karl Leuger, was elected five times. Together with Georg Schonerer, another prominent anti-Semite, Leuger was was noted by Hitler as being one of his biggest mentors.
Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. Jewish apartments and businesses were pillaged, prominent Jews were forced to scrub the city's sidewalks and were chased through the streets. Any residents who tried to aid their Jewish neighbors were likewise arrested and deported to concentration camps. In May 1938, Nazi Germany put the Nuremberg Racial Laws into practice. Jews were subsequently stripped of most of their civil liberties, excluded from most professions as well as the city's universities, and were obliged to wear a yellow Star of David badges at all times. Jews fled Austria, with over 30,000 settling in the United States.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Notes from the Cottage: My Mother's Memories

Note: In case you haven't seen my other headings, this blog is no longer devoted to my frugal adventures (though I am still frugal), but serves simply as a site for my musings and memories, meant for my family.

Comments are neither expected nor solicited, but I am grateful for the many kind ones I have received.

My mother's memories

My mother's usual response to questions about her past: "I don't remember." She gets rather agitated. There seem to be a lot of painful things she doesn't want to bring to the surface.  Every now and again, she says something about her childhood and youth.

I mentioned that I had looked up the ship manifest for her family's journey from Belgrade to the US in 1938.  I did this because her cousin Herbert (now dead one year, a loss to his family and many others) told me a few years ago that his family sailed from Trieste on the Normandie. He was only 4, so he must have known this from his parents. My mother, who emigrated when she was 8, said she knew she had come on the Queen Mary but didn't know from what port. The manifest (via Ellis Island records, fascinating) listed the port (Cherbourg).  When I told her this, she said, "I knew it was France. I remember seeing the Eiffel Tower, but knew we didn't sail from Paris."  So my information brought out a tiny memory.

As we were driving back from a concert at Tanglewood, where her uncle had been principal clarinetist, we passed the cottage of a principal string player. She said, "Musicians aren't normal. They are high-strung. They think they are better than you." Then she mentioned the musician whose house we passed.

She went on, "He is a snob, but a good bridge player. My uncle was a good bridge player. They had big bridge parties. Koussevitzky would come. My aunt would cook and serve. I did the dishes. Maybe that's why I hate doing dishes."

To Tom: "Bert didn't know how to listen to classical music. It was very hard for him."

Interestingly, Bert (my father) was obsessed with Victor Polatschek and talked about him constantly, even though he died shortly before my mother went to college, where my parents met.

To us: "When I was a kid, I went from concert to concert [and, of course, my mother and her parents lived in an apartment with her aunt and uncle, so music must have been emanating from his practice room]. Everyone was playing music. All i wanted to do was go out and play."

Interesting too: perhaps this explains why I grew up in a house almost completely devoid of music. We didn't even have a radio on, except when we went on long car trips. I have been trying to compensate for my lack of exposure to music for most of my life.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

King Lear and the Cottage: Nothing

I asked my mother recently if I could take some of the furniture from the cottage. Nothing is good or fine, but it is for me imbued with memories and feelings. This is something discussed both by Marcel Proust in his magnum opus and by Marie Kondo in her decluttering masterpiece. These two writers are definitely a pair of incongruous bedfellows. But there they are in the same sentence.

I asked my mother what she wanted from the house.
Answer: "Nothing."

"And your brother doesn't want anything either."

Here we are back in King Lear. After asking his daughters to perform and say which one loves him most, Lear is treated to extravagant declarations of absolute love by the two bad daughters. By the time Cordelia's turn comes, the connection between words and meaning has been so violated that she replies 

"Nothing."

"Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again."

"Nothing."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Learning from King Lear: The Cottage

As a lifelong lover of books, I often--no, always--find something to provide not just intellectual satisfaction but emotional comfort. There is truly nothing new under the sun.

As I was teaching King Lear last semester, I was struck by how much in that play--which deals with old age, loss of power, and the love of children for difficult parents--resonates with my own life. I say to my students, whose faces show disbelief, that they won't really GET the play until they have aging parents or ARE the aging parent themselves. It is true.

As I get closer to retirement, I identify with Lear, who gives away his power and property only to discover that two of his children do not love him, and, in fact, "desire his death." The good child, Cordelia, has been banished. Also banished is his serving man Kent, who returns in disguise to serve his master. When Lear asks Kent what he sees in him, Kent replies "authority." That is precisely what I have as a teacher that might be lost in retirement. 

Now, facing my mother's decision to sell the cottage, I find myself learning from the daughters,  TRYING to act like the good daughter, but sometimes veering to the cruel daughters, whose thoughts are matched with actions of shocking cruelty. They, after all, have the power. Still, even though my fleeting thoughts will never be matched with action, it's often hard to work on one's thoughts.

Like my mother, King Lear is miserable in his old age and occasionally flies into fits of anger and tears. Like King Lear, my mother has made her decision to sell the cottage to "prevent future strife" between her children. She says she will "feel better" when the house is gone. This is the opposite of what Lear does, but the root is the same: to try to keep control over things when one doesn't have that much control in other aspects of life. 

I am trying to prepare myself for the sale. I feel tremendous grief in anticipation. Tom says that is understandable: selling the house will be like a death for me. 

When Lear is reunited with Cordelia late in the play, he tells her "I know you do not love me." He says that she has cause not to love him, though her sisters do not.

She replies (in perhaps the most moving lines in all of literature, at least as I know it) "No cause, no cause."

Needless to say, I don't expect my mother to say anything like what Lear says, nor have I been banished and disinherited like Cordelia. The situation is different. People are more important than things. Love, even when it doesn't "work," is the answer. (A famous essay on Lear is by Stanley Cavell: "The Avoidance of Love.")

But--in my anticipation--I expect my mother to ask me if I am angry with her for her decision. She might not. Or she might say something else.

But I am nonetheless practicing: "No cause, no cause." 

PS: The wonderful Ian McKellen Lear is no longer available free on "Great Performances." But if you have Amazon Prime, you can watch it for free.

Friday, May 13, 2016

A Cottage of the Mind

It occurs to me that like most beloved places, the cottage in Stockbridge is as much a place of the mind as a place in reality. Why does it occupy such a  place in my mind?

It is not simply, I don't think, that it is a beautiful place, though it is. In the Berkshires, on a lake, with a community beach. It is that my beloved relatives lived there: my Aunt Fritzi, my grandparents Emma and Leo. They represented Vienna to me. They lived the life I felt happiest in: very cultured, as people from that time and place tended to be. They loved music and art. My grandmother often sent me cards that she wrote while in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. 

My own life in suburbia on Long Island was--even when I was a child--a place that I did not find beautiful. (It wasn't--and isn't.)  My parents did not listen to music. When I was old enough to take the train to New York City, I got a student membership to the Museum of Modern Art and spent many hours wandering through the collections. I wanted to be an artist then.

It strikes me that the cottage--as a place of the mind--is connected to my love of reading. I was--as a girl--always lost in a book. My best friend for many years (till her family moved and I received a returned letter stamped "Address Unknown") loved reading too: we would read together and swap books. I am the only reader in my family. It is not that my parents weren't intelligent: both were college educated. My father had a PhD in the days when that degree was rare. But they did not read. So I always felt somewhat alien in my family and in the town where I grew up.

Perhaps I read to draw a world closed around me. 

A pastoral world. An enclosed world of art and imagination.

Is it any wonder that when I was in college I wrote my thesis on pastoral poetry?

Or that when I went to graduate school, I ended up doing my thesis on The Faerie Queene and some plays by Shakespeare-- that represented, explored, or WERE enclosed spaces of art and imagination?

So I am somewhat comforted by the thought that--even when the cottage is no longer accessible to me or to my children as a real place that we can visit--I can recreate it by thinking about it, and perhaps by writing about it.

My Proust-loving husband reminds me of a famous quotation by his favorite author.

The only true paradise is a paradise we have lost.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tom's Gift to Me: Reading Proust

Tom's birthday was Monday. I am uncertain what gifts I have brought to his life, but he has brought me many. I began to be smitten when the person who introduced us remarked "He spent the summer in the woods reading Proust. In French."

And so it began. Tom rescued me from my loneliness. I am a moody person: he continues to put up with that and to soothe me through my many insecurities.

He still reads Proust all the time. After you've read it once, you can dip in anywhere, at any time. You only know that when you're finished though.

I probably would not have had the discipline to read all of Proust on my own. I am an extremely fast reader of prose, probably why I ended up studying poetry, which forces one to slow down. Proust requires verrrry slow reading. Even a slow reader can advance through a two page sentence, get lost, and have to start over again.

I finally read all the volumes two or so years ago. It took me fourteen months. While the madeleine episode is the most famous (it occurs in the first volume, thereby, perhaps, relieving many of the need to labor though the rest) the true great moment of the book is in the last few pages of the last volume, "Time Regained."

There, he says that Gilberte, now grown up, is "like one of those star-shaped crossroads in a forest as in our lives, from the most diverse quarters? Numerous for me were the roads which led to Mlle. de Saint-Loup and which radiated around her."

Then, a few pages later, the end of that paragraph: "But the truth, even more, is that life is perpetually weaving fresh threads which link one individual and one event to another, and that these threads are crossed and recrossed, doubled and redoubled to thicken the web, so that between any slightest point of our past and all the others a rich network of memories gives us an almost infinite variety of communicating paths to choose from." (These are from pages 502-504 in Modern Library translation).

Of course, I don't--or really can't--aspire to anything like Proust's grand cathedral. And I am not writing about my own memories, really. I would like to create a bit of a record for my children (who may not even be interested) of people who died before they were born. I have a few letters, the guestbook, a few photographs, a few documents. Too few.  But I am trying to get a sense of the web. For me, it always centered on the cottage in Stockbridge.

It is interesting that I started writing these little musings right before a realtor came to my mother with a "rich doctor" who wanted to buy the cottage.

Happy Birthday Tom. Thanks for the gift.