Friday, September 12, 2014


When Justin was in school he and I often found ourselves on Lake Street between Route 2 and Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington. There, just as you turn left onto Mass Ave, is the Arlington Bakery, advertising Italian and Greek pastries.

Above the name on the sign is an intriguing Greek word: ZAXEROPLASTEION. Justin and I wondered idly on many occasions how to pronounce it, and what it meant. In the absence of any information on the subject, he blithely pronounced it phonetically: ZAX-ER-O-PLAS-TI-ON, the A’s as in “cat.”

Then a day came when for once we weren’t in a huge rush to get home. The other issue had always been that having turned onto Mass Ave we were a bit too far up to stop at the bakery. This time, surrendering to curiosity, I turned up a side street and doubled back.

We bought some things that looked good, and weren’t disappointed. I would have looked for an exotic concoction that I hadn’t seen before; Justin probably opted for the kind of regrettable pastry that kids favor. I’ve patronized that bakery from time to time since, usually when driving west on Mass Ave and thus on its side of the street.

The proprietor explained that the word on the sign means “sugar store” and is pronounced ZA-CHER-O-PLAS-TI-O(N), A as in “father,” CH as in “Bach,” E as in “feta.”  O(N) is the final nasal vowel that also occurs in Portuguese, as in “Sao Paulo.”  I can’t reliably produce that sound in Portuguese or in Greek.

I have since tried to do justice to the Greek word and pronounce it as nearly correctly as I can.  Justin has no patience with that and shamelessly sticks with  ZAX-ER-O-PLAS-TI-ON.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

HIPPOPOTAMUS (with apologies to Eugene Ionesco)

The Christmas when Justin was nine, Paula pulled in with a large wrapped package under her arm, intimating that I might not be pleased with what she was about to bestow on my son. I'm not sure why she thought so, except that our condominium wasn't large and the object in question clearly was.

It proved to be a gray plush hippopotamus, four and a half feet long, a couple of feet high, and correspondingly bulky. She made it, of course. Paula makes many clever and intricate things.

Justin loved it. He established it in his room and lived with it day and night, using it as a pillow in childhood and beyond. He also vented his frustrations on it, wrestling with it and punching it. He had a lot of frustrations. A strong, energetic, active kid, he was in some sense, as he put it, under house arrest because his interactions with the neighborhood kids often brought grief on all of us. His father had stopped seeing him on weekends when I remarried. His stepfather yelled at him a lot; Justin was a kid who could get yelled at, but Laurie overdid it. My health wasn't reliable, which was hard on everybody. That's a lot for a nine-year-old to deal with.

Paula's sturdy and meticulous stitching held up remarkably well; but the hippopotamus could hardly have taken that kind of punishment indefinitely. Seams leaked, and then burst. Bits of hippopotamus stuffing appeared, and more bits, and bigger pieces, and once a small sofa pillow that Paula had shoved in when the batting was running low. By Justin's early twenties, the hippopotamus was tattered and its stuffing scanty.

Justin brought this pathetic rag to Paula's attention and begged her to save it. Undaunted -- Paula raised three boys of her own -- she took it in hand. The head was held together with a lot of seams but had lost at least one eye and a bunch of stuffing and clung to the body by a few threads (I think it still had both projecting fangs). The body was no better. The only thing for it was to construct a second hippopotamus out of a sheet and line the original hide with it. In two or three places where the damage to the fabric was beyond help or hope, she stitched brightly-colored cotton patches over the holes.

The resurrection of the hippopotamus was complete by Christmas. Again, Justin was delighted with it; it was, he said, the best present he had ever received. He carried it home proudly on Christmas night, by way of a date with a young woman he had long been interested in. The young woman didn't work out, but it was reported that she thought the hippopotamus rather cool.

Paula doesn't remember what prompted her to select the hippopotamus pattern out of the offerings at the fabric store. Once in possession, she made half a dozen hippopotamuses (hippopotami?) for her grandchildren and two for her husband's nieces. At the baby shower anticipating Aurora's appearance, Paula arrived carrying a round-ish package a couple of feet long. Somebody said, "It's a little hippopotamus" -- Justin's having become modestly famous. Paula smiled enigmatically: "Open it and see." Sure enough, it was a purple plush hippopotamus about half the size of Justin's.

For Xavier's second birthday Paula produced a similar object, in bright red. Amanda commented, "I feel like I should have a hippopotamus, too." I had thought of that and suggested yellow; Amanda put in for orange. Paula mentioned having orange fabric that would just do among her bales of fabric, boxes of sewing notions, big cutting table, and, at one point, seven sewing machines. Amanda may get her orange hippopotamus yet.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


Justin was five when we read The Hobbit.  During most of one rainy weekend, I sat in my chair in the corner and read while he tore around the living room jumping off the furniture, working off the energy that he couldn't release outside.

I kept saying, "Look, Justin, we don't have to read this." I would fold up the book with the idea of letting him play freely -- but the next thing I knew he was back with this big, heavy book in his five-year-old hands:  "Wread it, Mummy."  So I read, until the jumping around reached a level that couldn't be compatible with listening -- could it?

Finally I said, "Justin, what did I just read?"  He responded with a capable precis of the last paragraph, concluding on a rising inflection with the phrase -- an important one in context -- "those excellent PONIES!"

All right.  He really can run around like a Tasmanian devil and listen at the same time.  I kept reading, ignoring the wild rumpus at my feet, until we finished the book.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


I turned twenty-two that summer; Laurie was twenty-six.  Our lives were in chaos.  A bright spot for both of us was making our way to a back room up many stairs at M.Steinert's on Tremont Street -- Laurie worked there and had access at all hours -- where he would take his place at the piano that Sviatoslav Richter and John Browning asked for when they came to town, and play for me whatever he was working on at the time. One of these pieces was Prokofiev's Toccata, Opus 11, one of Vladimir Horowitz's encores and a barn burner by any standard. When Laurie was first looking at the music and thinking about learning it, someone he worked with said with a smirk, "You can't play that."  Having, as he gleefully put it in later life, "no brains," he ground his teeth and settled down to learning the Toccata, just to prove that he could.

It begins with repeated sixteenth-notes on D, establishing a driving rhythm that, except for one short lyrical section, continues throughout the piece.  It's percussive, chromatic, dissonant, exciting, and great fun to watch.  Laurie said the Toccata is in sonata allegro form, like the first movement of a symphony.  I'll take his word for it.  Laurie was big on structure; I've never been able to hear these things, or figure them out.  What I'm aware of structurally in the Toccata is the ingenious way the themes develop and fit together.

Toward the end of the development section, it must be, starting from the top and bottom of the keyboard respectively, the performer's hands work their way towards each other in contrary motion.  The pattern in the left hand looks to me like thinly disguised parallel fifths; the right hand plays chromatic chords bristling with accidentals.  At that point -- measure 77, in the middle of page  27 -- to be sure of positioning his hands correctly, Laurie would hesitate ever so slightly.  Any interruption in the relentless sixteenth-note pulse is conspicuous; but I always liked the effect of that slight hesitation, which gives the listener a split-nanosecond to wonder what on earth is coming next.

Before the coda, the momentum relaxes -- think of the train slowing down at the beginning of The Music Man -- into repeated D's that echo the introduction.  Then, at the original tempo, chromatic chords begin climbing the keyboard, louder and faster as they go, until the main theme explodes in frantic octaves at the top, twice as fast as anything that's happened yet.  With a dive into one of Prokofiev's signature glissandos, the piece finishes fortissimo on a double open octave on D.

Laurie and I stayed in touch for the twenty-odd years between the spring and summer of the back room at Steinert's and our marriage in 1986 but weren't always aware of each other's day-to-day issues.  I didn't know that the Toccata had become part of his repertoire.  I was delighted when he announced his intention of dusting it off and playing it at a concert at our church.  Hearing it in slow motion over many weeks, I came to appreciate the interplay of the different themes, even though I still didn't grasp the overall structure.

Discussing the concert with the choir director, Laurie told her what he was going to play and asked if she knew the piece. "Oh, yes," she said.  Either she was thinking of a different work, or that was one of these absent-minded remarks people make. When she heard the Toccata at the concert, she was grafityingly surprised and impressed.  At her request he repeated it a few years later.  I think that was the concert that he left saying,
"Well, that's about as well as I can play."

     As Laurie got older and less sure of himself, his playing took on a heavy-handed do-or-die quality.  Usually this is a mistake -- sometimes a fatal one.  With the Toccata, it works. Laurie once played me a recording by a young pianist who rippled through the piece, making it sound almost easy.  That struck me as wrong.  I missed the fire and drama of Laurie's rather desperate rendition.  He began his relationship with the Toccata trying to prove something, and struggled for four decades with this powerful and rather angry piece that one biographer has characterized as "nasty."

I have kept three or four pieces of Laurie's piano music, including his 11 x 17 enlargement of the Toccata.  For most people who knew Laurie, his signature piece would be the Gershwin Songbook (which I have also kept), the second Prelude, or Rhapsody in Blue.  When I remember Laurie at the keyboard, I think of the Toccata.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


The pig was before my time, but I remember the chickens. My sister and I sometimes helped my feed them grain and collect eggs. As far as I know, no one in the family developed any emotional connection to them, as owners of such things sometimes do. We watched with interest as Dad beheaded one or more of them, holding the body at arms length until it stopped flapping and spraying blood around. (I once asked a doctor what method of execution would be fastest and least painful, and he said probably the guillotine would have been as humane as anything. On the basis of watching the chickens meet their end I have wondered idly if guillotined French aristocrats flailed around comparably; but there are things one doesn't have to know. I'm glad, anyway, that the chickens and the aristocrats didn't suffer, except in anticipation -- the aristocrats, of course; Barbara Kingsolver says poultry on the threshold of eternity have no idea what's coming.)

We loosened the feathers with boiling water and pulled them out with tweezers. Dad sat at the kitchen table to clean the birds with a pail at his feet to receive intestines and other inedibles, and explained the internal organs to us as they came out. He kept the liver, gizzard, and heart, which he enjoyed in the fricassee that marked the chicken's final appearance on the table.

On one of these occasions I picked up a chicken head from beside the chopping block and examined it closely: reddish feathers, yellow beak, wide-open beady little yellow-ringed black eyes. I thought it was neat. I asked my mother if I could keep it. She said I could not. She maintained that it would become ugly and stinky very soon. I didn't believe her. I often disbelieved things I hadn't experienced personally. At least, I had to be able to visualize it as a direct result of what I had witnessed. I had seen Mother's dire prognostications fail to materialize. When no one was looking, I carried off the chicken head and put it in the mailbox for safekeeping. I knew, of course, that it couldn't stay there. I intended to retrieve it at my leisure and hide it in my room.

As children will, I got sidetracked and forgot about the chicken head in the mailbox. Mother found it when she went to mail a letter. She was not pleased. Of course, there was no possible question as to who was responsible. Even aside from my earlier expression of interest in the object, bizarre occurrences were routinely, and usually correctly, ascribed to me.

Mother read me the riot act. The mailman, she declared, would be within his rights in declining to deliver mail to people who kept chicken heads in their mailbox. I don't remember particularly regretting the chicken head, beyond feeling rather foolish for forgetting about it and incurring a scolding.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Early in their marriage, my parents kept a pig under the barn. I never made its acquaintance, but I knew the space under the barn as "the pig-hole," and I must have been told in terms I believed that Little Girls Don't Go Into The Pig-Hole. To this day, I can hardly bring myself to venture under the barn (not that there's any reason to). I wish I could say the same for the colony of woodchucks presently in residence there.

To return to 1941 and the errant pig -- I don't know how it got out, but get out it did one fine day, and proceeded downstreet toward the more densely populated part of Otter River. Mother saw it leave and set out after it, armed with a bucket of potatoes that was supposed to lure it back to its home.

It showed no interest in the potatoes, opting instead to root up a lawn in the neighborhood. The lady of the house issued forth and belabored the pig with a broom. The pig paid no more attention to the broom than to the potatoes. The resulting turmoil eventually caught the eye of some guys in a passing truck, who stopped, captured the pig, loaded it into the truck, and delivered it, presumably, to its pig-hole.

Mother, at her earliest convenience, put her foot down on Dad's pig-keeping. The pig became ham and bacon, leaving only a memory and a hole under the barn where little girls weren't allowed. 

Friday, February 7, 2014


It comes into view from the eastbound lane of Route 2 near the top of the hill in Harvard, just as you pass the closed rest area on the other side of the road. When it first impinged on my consciousness, looming up from the top of a wooded hillside, my reaction was: What is that? At first glance it looked a little like a white pine, but twice as tall as any of its neighbors; and no white pine, or any Massachusetts tree, ever grew like that. The top foot or so was about right, a symmetrical cone of green needled branches much wider than it was high; but from there to the line where the other trees hid its base, it grew straight down, all the branches the same length. There was something vaguely tropical about the shape. Whatever this thing was, I had never seen the like of it, either in the Northeast or in California.

I wondered about it every Sunday as my husband and I plied eastward on Route 2 (it wasn't visible from the other direction, except in the rear view mirror on the way past the rest area), wondering how it had managed to grow so high without coming to my attention before. Then one Sunday, two things were different: first, for once, we weren't on a schedule and thus had time for side trips; and second, most of the tree's lower branches were missing, apparently preparatory to cutting it down. If we were going to investigate this odd specimen, it would have to be now.

We turned off at the next exit, Routes 110 and 111 in the Harvard direction, and turned right onto a road that obligingly led back along the highway, exactly the way we wanted to go. A few twists and turns later, we came to what was obviously the tree we had seen from the highway, boxed in by a chain link fence a dozen feet each way on which was posted an unfriendly notice of the don't-even-think-about-coming-in-here kind.

The bark on the branchless trunk looked approximately normal for a white pine, but wrong somehow -- too light in color, or a different shade of brown. Apparently diseased or deformed, it was subtly horrible, like something in a nightmare. I turned my nearsighted attention to the branches piled on the ground outside the fence. They had proper dark green white-pine needles, two or three inches long and attached to the branches in bundles of five; but, like the trunk, they were not quite right somehow.

I must have scrutinized this thing, trunk, branches and needles, for all of a minute before I realized that I was looking at a tree made of plastic. I explained this to my husband, who didn't see well and was willfully ignorant of things botanical. He,a ham radio operator and electronics aficionado, then recognized the structure as an antenna -- probably, he suggested, a cell phone tower -- made up to look like a tree.

I have lived all my life in a world of technological wonders and plastic fakery. I knew from the first that this thing wasn't any kind of white pine. It wasn't even meant to look enough like one to fool anybody. The intent was to camouflage the antenna, not to disguise it. But never having encountered such a thing, I had no mental category other than "tree" to put it in. That it took me as long as it did to figure out what I was seeing confirms that we see what we already know about and can easily misinterpret the unfamiliar.