Thursday, April 30, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

For a change of pace, I'm pleased to share the work of author and poet, Esther Altshul Helfgott today.

Spouse as Home

I didn't know he
was my shul
my language
my mother tongue
and prayer
the zeyde I lost,
and bubbes
I never had.
Or that he was my homeland.
And exile.
My nakedness.

I didn’t know
when I met him
twenty-five years ago
that I had needed
a place to
Or that knowing
turned less
into more
And more

where shall
when he’s


From Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems (Yakima, WA: Cave Moon Press, 2013; e-version: Two Sylvias Press, 2013)
Also appears in   Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer's Disease. Holly Hughes, ed.  (Kent State University Press) 2009; forthcoming in West Coast Women's Jewish Poetry Anthology


I Sat Upon His Grave
I watched the letters of his name
upon the stone.
I cried until they came alive—
the letters of his name.
The grass was warm beneath me.
My face was hot
from the sun.
I rose to say goodbye
and touch his name.
The cemetery
The ground swelled.
His arms reached out to me—
and I was home.

From Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems (Yakima, WA: Cave Moon Press, 2013; e-version: Two Sylvias Press, 2013)

I buy a new pen—
you slip
from the nib—
I write
us home

from Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s (Cave Moon Press, 2014; Two Sylvias Press, 2014, e version)

Esther Altshul Helfgott is a non-fiction writer and poet with a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington. She’s the founder of the 25-year-old It’s About Time Writer’s Reading Series, the longest running non-university-supported reading series in Seattle. (About Time meets the 2nd Thurs of every month at the Ballard library). Esther is the author of Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s (Yakima, WA.: Cave Moon Press, 2014) and Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems (Yakima, WA: Cave Moon Press, 2013) and other works. She has a bunch of kids and grandkids who keep her hopping—and a big German Shepherd named Emma.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Finding Home: Caracas, Venezuela

In July 1977 the boyfriend and I landed in a world so alien to me I felt numb. I'd been to Mexico City. I'd experienced the density, rhythm, and flavor of a huge Latin American city. Still, Caracas in the late seventies was running on oil boom fever. You could feel it in the air, smell it on the winds blowing through the city, see it in the construction cranes dotting the skyline. The city is in a valley and at the time maintained rigid laws limiting the growth on the surrounding mountainsides. With nowhere to go, the city built skyward.

We stayed in the boyfriend's family home, and I landed a job right away at the British Embassy school - with a name like Arleen Feeney, I managed to exaggerate my Irish-ness. Before returning to his studies in Santa Cruz, the boyfriend arranged for me to live with his sister and brother-in-law in one of the many new residential developments at the limits of the city. The commute was dreadful. I took shared cabs, small vans crammed with ten to twelve commuters. You had to shout your stop over the heads and voices of the other passengers. I'd spend the hour plus commute rehearsing what I'd have to say and worrying I'd forget when to shout it.
As dreadful as the commute was, the family life was worse. I felt I was under constant surveillance and scrutiny. In all fairness to the boyfriend's family, I imagine they felt they needed to take care of me. But I wasn't used to being taken care of and wasn't liking it much at all. I remember once getting a deep cleansing facial - a gift from one of my wealthy students at her favorite spa - and the boyfriend's mother insinuated the ensuing redness and rash was caused by the unshaven chin of someone other than her beloved son. What do they say about living up to others' expectations? I suppose I figured if they'd already condemned me for something I hadn't done, maybe I should consider doing it.

Salvation came from the same lovely student who gifted me my first spa visit. She was recently married and owned a vacant downtown condo. She insisted I'd be doing her a favor by living there. I'd never known such luxury. The servants' quarters seemed as large as any of my prior apartments. There was an ornate iron balcony overlooking a large park, the view and peace marred only by construction cranes and noise. The condo was fully furnished, complete with linens, kitchenware, and a stocked liquor cabinet.

When I told the boyfriend's family I would be living alone downtown, they were horrified. And then, they quickly washed their hands of any assumed responsibility for my physical or moral well-being. I was ecstatic. I certainly hadn't found home, but I loved teaching and filled weekdays with embassy classes and weekends with outings. The other teachers were largely older British and Australian ex-pats who knew how to have a good time. I took lessons. I'll never forget slurping oysters and lime in a narrow canoe as fast as the local fisherman could catch and shuck them. Where was that? Who was I with? Did it happen with the colors and fragrances I am now sensing as I write these words? Memory has a veiled dreamlike quality. I had no camera. This was before computers or cell phones. Memory consists of what I still hold or took the time to describe in a notebook. Connection with the boyfriend was limited to the occasional letter.

Six months later I returned to Santa Cruz to find that the boyfriend had left me behind in much the same ways I had abandoned him. Maybe the tiny studio with the bright blue swimming pool was where he took his flings when I was in his homeland. But who was I to point fingers? After all, I had indeed lived up to expectations thrust upon me. Returning to campus was another challenge. I heard too many whispered stories of the boyfriend's adventures in my absence and felt too much remorse about my own.

We tried to make a go of it, even renting a different apartment. I lasted about a month with him. I didn't find home in Caracas, in Santa Cruz, or with the boyfriend. I was so busy looking for a sense of belonging elsewhere, instead of within myself, my first love ended without finding home.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

The Finding Home blog series began on March 5. When I invited other writers to share their stories on the subject of home, I had no idea of the depth and breadth of works I would receive. Today, I am pleased to offer a story of trials and triumphs from author, Mindy Halleck. Enjoy!

A Sense of Home

My childhood homes were many, chaos filled and transitory. My mother’s wanderlust disrupted life whenever we found a place to call home. I attended too many schools to remember, learned to disconnect from friends with ease, finally making no friends, because within that ‘ease’ was heartbreak every time I had to say goodbye. Those goodbyes generally occurred every year. That was the timeline: one year. Then mom got itchy feet, sold everything she owned, and move on to a new life, believing the grass is always greener somewhere else. It never was.

These days I jokingly call her the merchant of chaos, but that appellation is a thin veil masking the pain, abandonment and shattered reality of what should have been a refuge. Because of her, the concept of ‘home’ was alien to me; what is home? What and who should be in it?

I recall vividly, when I was ten years old, returning from school one day to a garage sale on the front lawn, all our furniture being sold, my bedroom set included. I loved that bedroom set with a French provincial white four poster bed and matching vanity. It was mine. How could she sell it?

That day, my bedroom furniture went off with an old woman. The red tail lights of her truck at the corner of Stanton Street, blinked, then turned onto 35th and disappeared. A deep root of resentment set in my bones that day. I knew with the fading of those tail lights we would soon move, leave our house, school, friends and start over, again. 

Over the next three years my parent’s fights grew to legendary proportions; arrests, house fires, crashed cars, broken bones, or them disappearing for days on end, leaving me to tend my three younger brothers. I learned home was not a safe place, not a place where I could get attached to anything, or trust those whom I should have been able to trust the most. And though they loved us, my brothers and me, we were forgotten in their war. Dad slipped into alcoholism and mom, her bizarre gypsy ways, including, but not limited to giving things away with no regard for what was paid for those things or what they meant to the holder. Twice we ended up in a house with no furniture. Dad would buy new, she’d get mad and sell it all again. Dad finally disappeared with the last furniture sale.

I left ‘home’ at thirteen, then moved back because I had nowhere to go. At sixteen I left again, for good. I couch-surfed, lived in a car, a church basement and was blessed by a cousin who took me in.

It took forty years of roaming humanity’s desert to finally find a safe place to call home. Now, I have one with gardens, water view and a loving husband who swears (after our last move) we will never move again–music to my ears. We lived in our last house over a decade and we will stay in this one till we’re too old to go up the stairs, then it’s a condo, we’ve decided. I thrive in the normalcy of his steadfast plans. I’ve learned home is more than a house that can be sold, left and abandoned, it’s who is in that house that makes it a sanctuary. Home is no longer an alien concept to me. Home is my unwavering husband, no matter where we live.

My wander-lusting ‘merchant of chaos’ mother resents my normalcy and mocks me with her teen-angst voice whenever we argue. We argue a lot. Thankfully I’ve come to understand she is not a well person. She is an eternally rebellious and trapped teenager who wants to leave home, and I am the parent. To her any belongings, children, husbands or homes are shackles and must be banished, escaped and left behind.

For example, last year after we moved her into a fairly posh retirement residence, they had a Halloween dance at a neighboring rec-center. After not speaking to me for a week because I left her in a ‘home’, she called and asked if I’d drive her to the party. When I arrived she descended the stairs slowly so I could take in the full view of her costume; a black and white striped prison uniform with a chain belt.

She got into my car without a word, sat smiling and looking forward, her point made.

I shook my head, started the engine and said, “Do we need to stop somewhere to pick up a ball and chain?”

Now, that one year mark has hit. She’s serving her sentence in the ‘home’ but is planning an escape. She has one friend left who can drive (during the day) and they think they’re going on a road trip, you know to where that grass is greener, and apparently where men have hair and teeth. They are in their eighties and need naps about every two hours. I don’t think they’ll get far, I think that hair and teeth will be fake, and I know the grass won’t be greener.

We have told her if she tries to leave this safe haven we will never help her find one again. She knows we mean it this time. And though she has these little rebellions, I don’t think she will actually leave the retirement center where they feed, medicate, entertain and allow her the freedom to come and go with no strings. I think she’s finally grown up enough to recognize the need for a home. 

Our mother, regardless of antics loves us deeply in her own dysfunctional way, and in that love is our sense of humor, humility, and yes, finally a sense of familial home.
Mindy Halleck is a Pacific Northwest author who in 2014, after many years as a non-fiction author released her debut novel, Return To Sender–a literary thriller set on the Oregon Coast in the 1950’s. The novel is based on one of her short stories, The Sound of Rain, which received Honorary Mention in a Writer’s Digest Literary Contest. Halleck also blogs at Literary Liaisons and is an active member of the Pacific Northwest writing community. In addition to being a writer, Halleck is a happily married, globe-trotting beachcomber and three-time cancer survivor.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Finding Home: The Boardwalk

I arrived by Greyhound in late summer. The Venezuelan boyfriend had been accepted at University of California Santa Cruz. He received a plane ticket and instructions from his government, and he wasn't happy about doing anything to risk his free ride. Still, I snuck in and out of his summer dorm for the weeks it took for to find an apartment and a job. The campus stood high in the rolling hills above town and food options were limited. The boyfriend had a college meal plan. I lived off vending machine peanuts, raisins, and orange soda.

With a sense of relief, I signed a rental agreement on our first apartment two blocks from the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk with its gigantic roller coaster and endless stream of summer tourists. My first job in California was selling hotdogs and beer (though not yet 21) at a Boardwalk kiosk.
The apartment building was a converted tourist motel, and the apartment consisted of two connecting motel rooms with two doors opening from an outdoor walkway. One motel room held a large kitchen and bathroom. The other was the living room/bedroom. The boyfriend built a room-divider bookcase to create a private bedroom. He cut and sanded and varnished each of those boards on the walkway in front of our two front doors. It took days, which is why what happened when we moved out was so infuriating and heartbreaking.

Even though I loved the early morning beach, the winter beach, the beach when the tourists were gone, Santa Cruz never felt like home. I ran the beach and worked the Boardwalk until the end of the tourist season while the boyfriend spent every moment studying or playing chess at a local coffee shop.

Like Carolyn in Biking Uphill, I never felt I belonged to any of the diverse groups populating the small community: the townies, the students, the tourists, the surfers, the hippies, the vets. Unable to afford to return to school until I established state residency, I tried becoming a townie. After working a season on the Boardwalk, I found an office job at a local department store. I was twenty years old working with lifers twice my age. When I finally re-started my Bachelor's degree, I felt old, unable to fit in to the college scene there anymore than I had at the two universities I'd attended in Seattle. After less than a year at UCSC, I decided to leave.

By then we owned a small car, and we decided to move. We rented a new apartment, a tiny studio in a rather fancy development with a swimming pool. It was for the boyfriend as I would be in Venezuela for at least six months. He planned to come with me for a brief family visit before returning alone to his studies and the new apartment.

As I remember it, I did most of the moving. I made a series of trips back and forth across town, the small car packed tight with boxes of accumulated housewares, clothing, and books. The boyfriend had carefully dismantled the bookcase and stacked the boards in the middle of the room, but I simply couldn't get them into the car. I still had keys and the month had not ended, but when I returned to collect the final load a day or two later with a borrowed car, the boards were gone.

"Thought you were out," the landlord said. "Sold them boards to the roofers. They were happy to have 'em."

I suppose that was the beginning of the end, the souring of my first love, but I didn't know it yet. The boyfriend and I were heartbroken and furious, but not with each other. Not then. Not yet. 

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