The Centrifugal Eye
August 2008 - Internal-eyes - Strongin
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INTERNAL-eyes: a memoir essay
  by
Lynn Strongin


                                                  Hidden Child #9
Excerpts of a Dreamlike Memoir in Shafts of LightFestina Lente

                                                                      —for Katy & Anne



ONE


        In 1951, I became a hidden child, child of a vanished world — akin to hidden boys and girls in Europe, during wartime — self-contained, brooding over the egg of mysticism. I convinced myself that tomorrow the light would shine for me. I was hidden, given a number: in a ward of post-polio children, those with spina bifida, and a few with birth defects. I was hidden child #B9: Ward B, bed # 9.

        Was there anyone who sought me? How to now translate myself out of this darkness, in which only the eerie, silver cylinder of the iron lung shone, “March of Dimes” stamped on it. Metal Monster. We were hidden like shame, stains on sheets or coats, in dark corners, in anonymous wards.

        In ‘51, quiet as an egg, as a pearl in oil, I lay in my hospital cot confiding the atrocities and indignities I endured to my first cousin, Nyrene (now gone), and to the lovely, strange, quiet and compelling Annike, my cubicle-mate.

        Summer, that year; a stagnant time: screen porches with grids often ripped, so hardly kept out flies. I saw nothing of grandmother while in the hospital. She lived in her darkened cottage of the soul and mind on Park Avenue. (She did take sister Chel in.) Saw nothing of Aunt Flossie.

        Stricken, I struck a light: my mysticism did not begin after polio, but long before: In my room with iron bedstead, a rat appeared. I fell to my four-year-old knees and prayed. Nobody worried because nobody knew. “The light” was deferred, but enveloped me again seven years later, my enchanted eleventh summer when I ran, flew, swam, a waterbird — dived in a body that would soon leave me, given me by a God, by she who decided to fashion me and then bade me to an unconscious calling.

        A few years earlier, Mother Marcelle regularly shampooed Chel and me — rinsing her hair with olive oil, mine with lemon, to bring out the luster in a brunette, the highlights in a blond. Tonight, smelling the olive oil Sweetheart is heating for supper, I recall that scent, float in a time warp to our bathroom half a century ago.

        Social activities were suspended during my adolescence. I did, however, learn to light up at age twelve — me, the kid with coke-bottle-green eyes, taught by another girl a year or two older than I. It was while on a stretcher (ours were side-by-side) in a hospital hall, waiting.

        Festina lente — “hasten slowly” — I mistype as Festina Lenten. Was my life not like Lent? Are not all of ours? The working person was an anomaly to me. There was no male in the home. Someone going out to work was anathema. Going out to a lesson, to perform, to take a lecture — these were other things. Like bathing. Strange, the zinc tub, the smell of char, the memory of war returns, invisible but piercing battle lines.

        And if mother, instead of love-making, spent her evenings on a hassock or rickety stepladder reaching for hexagonal boxes, rustling tissue paper with hats, it was not only that hats became her for whom the years had not been kind — a child with polio, a divorcee in the forties — but also because she had worn well. At art and motherhood (to an extent), she had excelled. Is a “good mother” a misnomer?


        I rode no cockhorse to Banbury cross. The clay-pit light was blue down south, the bird-wakening signaled by light rather than song. Up north, in our wartime kitchen, the only light I ever remember was also blue — the blue light, harsh like the stumbling buzz of a hacksaw, moved over Chel’s back and mine as we were bathed in the kitchen sink. Hidden first by soap, we then emerged. In similar fashion, I emerged after infantile paralysis. I read up on it in a dictionary:


“Polio (also called poliomyelitis) is a contagious, historically devastating disease that was virtually eliminated from the Western hemisphere in the second half of the 20th century. Although polio has plagued humans since ancient times, its most extensive outbreak occurred in the first half of the 1900s before the vaccination, created by Jonas Salk, became widely available in 1955.”



        In 1951, lying on my back, I read about the first trail-blazing cures for this historical, incurable disease. Historical. Incurable. A word-child, I turned the words over my tongue; looking out above the East River in New York’s Cornell Medical Center, high above trees, lofted above tugboats on the river, I sailed — although it was a solemn voyage and the waters alternately wool, silk, taffeta, and liquid iron.

        For me, all homecomings mirror this homecoming.

        Sweetheart always sees the justifying view of things. All her margins are justified. She has all the answers. I have few. “I am sweating the onions,” she says, and I look up and smile at a language I hardly understand.

        Neither was I conversant with paralysis, with seeing the world horizontally rather than vertically, and when I sat up, with seeing the world from the eye-level of a five-year-old. Coming home was just for the weekend, initially, but it was like being reborn. The new skin was that of the outer world, but virgin skin softer to the spiritual touch, the physical, than was the straitjacket of pad and gown which I’d worn for half a year at age twelve.

        Homecoming was Gertie, our black nanny, in the kitchen boiling a fowl, and her asking “Would you like a backrub, child?”

        I explored corners of the West 73rd street brownstone with its round, castle bedroom, as though I had just stepped through the looking-glass. Black and white linoleum imparted a resinous, rain-like smell to things. The furniture I touched like I might an old dog, but it responded with velvet seat-cushions indenting only a bit at the pressure of my finger. The lamplight was soft, golden, diffuse. Unlike the ward’s blue-white light which had infiltrated my waking and sleeping.

        I copy this next paragraph in the country of my adoption; after my body changed, so did my country— but many years later:


“Polio quietly preyed on thousands of young Canadians. The disease caused paralysis, deformed limbs and in the most severe cases, death by asphyxiation. In Canada, polio was so feared that as recently as the 1950s, it closed schools, emptied streets and banned children under 16 from entering churches and theatres. In 1955 it looked as though a miraculous polio vaccine signaled an end to new cases of the crippling disease. But a recent medical condition known as post-polio syndrome has survivors reliving the sequel to this once-forgotten nightmare.”



        A Christ-haunted childhood the South bequeathed me — polio-haunted childhood, the North. Signs posting “No visitors, Isolation” hid my child self. Being parent to Chel, parent to Sweetheart — keeping good care of them — further veiled that child behind a mask of pain only now beginning to be ripped open at age seventy.



TWO



        And at the start of it all, quiet as matches in water, like snow folding over the three of us, stands mother, long-suffering, but able to make magic, to see the white unicorn (the same way her eyes later opened at the moment of death to see the white peacock). Mother stands at a battered sink, pouring the precious half cupful of lemon for my blond hair, olive oil for Chel.

        What boxcar might I have ridden in with cattle? What camp been delegated to? Treblinka, Bergen-Belson, like Anne Frank to die in Auschwitz. I did not die. I lived. Or rather, I died and came back to life. Rolling in an old wooden wheelchair into the castle bedroom that winter evening in 1951, I did not ask, where is my lemon juice, where is Chel’s olive oil? I was transferred to the sagging cot alongside Chel’s in the round room — a bed so different from the coarse-linen sheets of the State Hospital — she asked “What was it like?”

        A word child— for the first time, words eluded me.

        Hidden child, come into the light. I am bed #9. Consider the nine months in the womb; consider circular hideaways from the mechanical devices which replaced miraculously functioning legs. It’s amazing how many pulleys, wheels, levers, buttons, hoists, sticks are needed to supplant them.

        Mother Marcelle saw to it that I never thought of myself as “crippled.” I was arrow-straight, symmetrical, alive. My sugar cube was sunlight; I asked to be wheeled to the hospital roof in Manhattan for a few moments each day by my nurse. My ballast was bravery — I was cocky, brazen, the girl with coke-bottle-green eyes, and put into a woman’s ward due to overflow problems despite the massive summer exodus from the cities. I said to the nurse, “I’m a child. I don’t belong here. Please get me out, and in with kids.”

        “When will you come out of hiding?” asked a friend years ago. “You are a jewel looking for a place to shine.”

        My Australian friend bathes in Dead Sea salts to wash off a love that betrayed her. What would I do if Sweetheart, who people say is like a nun, did that? I would hide my harp under my duffel coat and flee into north winds.

        I write a story which I want to be classical, a story of ones: one action, one chief character, one emotion, one setting. Few folks alive remember me when I could walk. I hardly remember myself. But we are hard-wired to rise; I wake and am set to run. There is an old grainy black-and-white film of me in 1947 in which I move. Trance-y, I feel, looking at it, the diamond particles of dust dancing in the cone of light. It is a projection from the platform of time past.

        Stories of one are lovely. But mine are multi-leveled — you can move on Escher-type elevators up and down in them, past florists where snow circles pines, past grain elevators on prairies stored with golden grains.

        A child may be hidden, but is a structure nonetheless: like a house, the psyche has many windows, yet is an anomaly, like the white unicorn or albino peacock — feathers exploding within, it’s a home with windows but no door.



THREE



        Sweetheart, at fourteen, a Jillaroo, “showed” in the doorway of her parents’ elegant home— a party in progress. She’d returned from the stable, riding boots covered in merde. That young, marriageable brunette. She slipped round the back door. Eyes? The windows to the soul. She eyed the guests and felt outcast, strange.

        I want to make a hole in the rain today and dart out and visit my daughter’s friend who has phase-four lung cancer. I want to be the little window of her soul. The eyes, the eyes!

        Sweetheart now comes in and circles me with long pipestem arms. There’s a crash down the hall — “Oooh! I must re-balance the load.”

        Life is theatrical, but our only theater was Monday night movies. And in these “olden days” when I was a child, a milkman came with milk in thin glass bottles at five a.m. So much happened in the olden days; I skimmed the cream off the milk with imagination. Nevermind that Chel and all the world went out — I brought the world in. Don’t you see that’s what’s shining under tables and over chairs, a wrap like florist’s cellophane over everything? Our father, whose practice was all bedside manner — he did not prescribe — said, “You use everything you have, Indigo.”

        Mother brought me two inches of ivory to paint upon: these were “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Call of the Wild,” but everything was suspended for Alphonse Daudet's Le Petit Chose. You could say my mother was a Frenchwoman in a Jewish girl’s skin. With the charm of a Southern Belle. Where could she crouch to hide?

        My mother had an incomparable beauty. Rosenblum skin. Golden rose — not as English as Sweetheart’s who says, “cut it out” when folk compliment her. (Or did so in her youth, her earlier childhood with me when she arrived and told her parents over the first phone call, “I’m here, mummy and daddy, but I have funny tummy.” Everything turned our guts inside-out in the hospital. Porridge looked like something someone could not keep down. Castor oil was heavy as liquid petroleum.)

        Lord, let the light shine on us.

        “The upholsterer,” Sweetheart comes to me with the report, “has been by. She said the small wing chair needed new arm caps and that ‘Big Wing’ has a soppy seat.” The language suits the nursery perfectly.

        Sweetheart received a parcel! It was a plastic bag from “Rowing-Leggs,” her financial advisor. We hang it, over gales of laughter, on the lamp screw. “They must consider themselves generous, just think,” I say.

        Sweetheart ducks out into the storm. I envy her the elation, the absolute high of leveling against laser-sharp weather. Ancient Gary Oaks blow, tossed about like Don Quixote’s and God’s feathers. But God herself, where is she? O hidden child, your back aches from crouching. Hidden Mama, come out of hiding.

        I turn the Oxford cream-and-vellum pages of a book. “Darling,” I say, “did you read that today a deer (in rutting season) burst into a New England schoolroom while they were doing a vocabulary drill? He ended up in the nurse’s office. What are bandages, to his unnamed sounds?”

        “I’ll be,” she says, then rises. “Drat-it, another spill on the floor.”

        Whereas Sweetheart’s humor is social, mine seems more a Jewish, familial humor — given somewhat to derision, or laughter thru tears. Call them “loving swings.” But now, as all my world turns: flatten, lenten, linen and iron, I wish the messiah would come. Smells of pumpkin soup cooking in the kitchen . . . a child coming home, for whom all homecomings are that homecoming.

        Cream-colored hatboxes and shoeboxes (old, tea-colored) are silent — contain ancient love letters. I could open a forty-year love letter from my old soldier; I cannot, whatever I do, try on a hat, look in the mirror.

        Even if all my life is Lenten, visionary experience began early — long before the first vision, one eye milked over and required cataract surgery — so young, no doubt due to trauma. Long, long ago I began praying “Lord, today make the light for me shine.” And it wasn’t the light refracted from a mirror, in which a rat scuttled across the room, and a girlchild fell to her knees wishing she’d been a boy and prayed till her knees ached. Nor was it the tiny mirror affixed to the iron lung in which the patient captures the world, tries on a hat.

        All my hiding was simply the getting ready to come out and glisten. I was child #9, smooth as pearl and as slowly sinking, though I rose again with each dawn.



CODA



        Pachebel’s Canon plays. Sweetheart stands in the doorway.

        Grandmother met her once and said, “She’s soft-spoken, not at all like modern girls.” Mother said, “She has a lovely voice, she’d make a fine telephone operator.” She also asked, “Are you living alone? I hope you don’t just meet to eat.

        Before I revise this, I turn down the light. One burner working up north here, winds howling. Sweetheart’s father said she looked like an Inuit child when she was born. “Hair standing all around her face.” He used the politically-incorrect term, “Eskimo child.”

        Sweetheart contemplates her long, tapered fingers. I contemplate her abuse suffered at the hands of a blacksmith, when she was age twelve. Neither of us speak about it. She reminds me of an obedient nun. Hidden child emerges, always slips back inside. My dark swan, I throw salt upon the soup. Dark Salt. Dark tears.

        Once, during a time I was very sick, when a Catholic woman worked for me, she taught me two things: “the best way to go thru each day is with your hand in His hand. We are nothing compared to Him.” I then transposed this to “the way to go thru each day is with your hand in the hand of the spirit guiding you.” We are such small players on the field of God, tiny hockey pucks in hands; we cannot be safe, but we can be armed. We are part of a larger light.

        Christianity was transposed into mysticism by a small Italian girl fascinated by the side curls of the Jewish boys and men — asked, if they have straight hair, do their mothers make them wear curlers? Am I a magpie? Not a girl off to First Communion?

        Any dark day was one to be escorted up the straight flight of thirty stairs to the attic to rummage. Here, we found old trunks, hatboxes, dolls with eyes sprung out who no longer said Mama. (A friend has just written to ask if the doctor’s children went without attention. Disorder breaks the heart, and no, I never felt neglected, but I did feel cordoned.)

        We met with a handshake when Chel and I visited the practitioner up one floor from our father’s. While my heart was being listened to, I imagined our father’s rooms in the precise layout of his third cousin Eliot’s, whom we visited. In this way, too, we remained hidden children. At the end of a checkup, Eliot would pick up the phone and say, “Ed, the girls are here.” It was a rare treat to shake father’s hand, after which we’d return with Mother Marcelle to our West End apartment.

        Was Father clinical? He hospitalized his own mother for senile psychosis when she imagined she was back in Russia fleeing the oppressors who were after her children. They, too, were hidden. This is like those Chinese boxes, or Russian eggs: one opens a larger one to find smaller and smaller folded inside. Or like the Babushka doll that has another within. It’s called nesting. A nesting fever for hiding swept Europe in wartime. It’s that perpetual wartime which I’ll habit and inhabit and re-habit until the end, no doubt.

        Occasionally, and with dread, we were scheduled in the hospital for a conference. This meant a head doctor, Dr Deevers at Haverstraw, led a team of young doctors to clinically review our cases. Totally “exposed” to them, I remained hidden, realizing they saw the event without understanding what happened. I did nothing, quietly quilting over my heart despite my nudity, endured with silent tears, once in a while tasting salt on my tongue.

        Saint Paul said to never let the sun go down on your anger, but I didn’t know him then. I knew only that a white light waited for me at day’s end. I’d seen Bibles and Catholic Missals thumb-indexed with gilt-edged pages. For me, they were sullied by guilt.

        My book, Rembrandt’s Smock, arrived in my adoptive country with its import scan at 8:03 this morning. It had its departure scan in Seattle and in Louisville, after starting out somewhere in Tennessee. Adverse weather conditions caused a few delays, kept it hidden.

        What did we uncover with greatest delight in the attic on rainy days? A shawl under a shawl on the mannequin / tailor’s dummy. The first shawl was purple, the one beneath took us back to Mother Russia and Romania, blood-red.

        Blood-red — the vials by my bedside during the acute phase of my illness, when the angel of death pressed on my lean body like a lover. Images of refugee camps in Europe flashed thru my mind from Warner Pathe newsreels seen only six years earlier. These were no brief moments for soul-searchers; I had time to dream of being a weaver in a fly-by-night place in Holland. If you are willing (I told my angel), I will fit you in alongside me. We lived in the same heart, although that heart skipped beats, frequently.

        There are greater traumas than I had: parents are shot in front of children.

        Mother sublimated her sexual passion, doubtless, to the attention of her children. And rummaging among her hatboxes, endlessly trying on capes and jackets transposed that longing, to some extent. She also lit the magic lantern for “us chidden.” For me, after the hospital, where we were like children in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, it shone like a welcome-home beam.

        Again, who sought to find me? How to translate myself out of this darkness? I wake with such sadness I cannot swallow, choke on dawn, then make it into day. “What should we do with our brilliant child?” my father said he and mother thought then. He told me, when he paid his last visit in his eighties, failing to cancer (a fact he knew but did not share). They must hide me, like children in asylums.

        Afraid of being a freak, Mother called others freaks. “People will talk about the Weirdo in #3," she told me, while visiting Sweetheart and me in our small, Canadian, railroad apartment during our thirties and forties. We lived at Jacob’s Age on Cook street, with its proper-sounding British name, frayed area carpets, its British ex-pats as lodgers. I was still the hidden child in #9.

        But now I’m gathering bits of tinfoil to make them gold — in appearance, at least. Hidden child, the covers have been pulled off. Step forth! Today my life is both festive and Lenten. Child, take infinity and make a robe out of it to clothe your shoulders and straight backbone. Shine!




djbryant-nightowl.gif
"Night Owl" - D.J. Bryant 2008




Read more about Lynn Strongin on her Poems page.



“The leaves of memory seemed to make
A mournful rustling in the dark.”


            ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow





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