You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Channel Esther: We Would Build Our Life

August 18, 2014
by Esther Cohen BEFORE Shear_Magic_Exterior_Pic_ps250When I was small I’d walk outside like going to the moon. we didn’t have a picnic table we did not garden or grow any vegetables. Outside was grass, and one old apple tree. Previous owners of our house female grammar school principal with her brother, rumor was they may have been incestuous he was high school history teacher specializing in Reconstruction also a religious Catholic he built a barbecue pit from stones he’d found by the time we moved in weeds filled the pit. We never removed them. WHEN WE MOVED TO MIDDLEFIELD so many years ago, when we were all of us much younger than we are now when I didn’t realize that it was possible, didn’t know really what it meant to love a place so deeply — I’d never been in love with a place before I suppose I was a place virgin. Although I was already 31. I’d grown up in a small factory town, one of those towns that looks as though you’ve passed through it before on your way somewhere else. Nothing important had ever happened there: history, celebrity, devastation, infamy. We had no famous floods or fires, no museums or public institutions. Just a small old post office, a movie theater, an unkempt cemetery along a country road. Hard bitten and appealing, the town is not Mayberry. Andy Griffith would never have lived there.He wouldn’t have belonged. Romantic and sad both, it was a town like so many, where lives are gently lived, and people who dream are quiet about those The downtown itself, passageway for the residents an eternal time warp: restaurant that’s been there forever called HUBIES, selling food that’s mostly fried. Fried chicken fried shrimp fried steak. All come with French fries. Then there’s macaroni and cheese for the one in a million vegetarians. Comfort food before those words were coined. Knick knack emblazoned coffee shop with coffee tasting more brown than coffee. Spin Laundromat, two banks, a few hair salons with names like Shear Magic. Junk store always containing something irresistible: ketchup bottle dancing to The Bee Gees, great old Princess telephones in colors like Kitchen Turquoise and Gotcha Pink. People aren’t smiling exactly but they’re all going about their business. Everybody, even enemies, for the pettiest of reasons out slights or relatives of friendship rebuffs, for reasons of politics or religion, they stop to say hello. Small towns are like that. Even when you’re a child and you’re looking the first time. I loved it then because it was what I knew. A place with small hills along a river that was pretty well hidden from the town itself. I would bike to the river sometimes just to see it, but it was rare that I encountered other bikers, and I don’t remember even once seeing a picnicker sitting there. No hampers no sandwiches and no red checkered cloths. We weren’t an outside kind of town. People mostly kept to themselves. They stayed in. They watched TV, read the local paper, cleaned up some and cooked. A few listened to the radio, or music, or read a book or two. My parents, to the best of my knowledge — and you don’t always know much about your own parents that’s the way they wanted it — my parents went outside when they had to. Not more and not less. My father went to work every morning at 7:45. He was an accountant in a big grey office and he sat in his chair very quietly all day, adding columns by hand. That’s how I pictured him. My mother called herself a housewife. She’d stretch out on the long green coach green the color of a fake Christmas tree. It was a floor model 7 feet long instead of 6 which gave her all the space she wanted — and she’d read library books all day. When she got up to do an errand, she’d walk to the car. They each had one. In my childhood lifetime I never heard either one of them say separately or together I am going for a walk. There were plenty of sentences they didn’t say but that was one of the biggies. They drove. It didn’t matter if they weren’t going very far. Just around the corner to buy some milk at Ayoubs the little Syrian grocery store. They drove. A block away to drop off an occasional something at Seccombe’s, the dry cleaning store. They drove together to the supermarket on Saturday morning and my father drove two blocks away for fresh rolls every Sunday. The walking thing (I’m not talking about exercise, which didn’t exist, even as a vocabulary word. Neither did tennis, or skiing, or water skiing or football or any of the other balls. There was gym for the kids, but that’s all) was a kind of exoticism reserved for unknown others. Both my parents were first generation Americans, from Eastern European stock. I don’t know and still don’t, not really, if Jews walked around in Bacau Roumania or Budapest or Bupst, the small Ukranian village where one of my grandmothers was born. They didn’t go outside much so I didn’t either. Not that all of their life was the same as theirs. But some was. I sat in my room and read. And I did walk to the public library, down the hill three blocks. This path generated apprehension in them both (they preferred to drive me) but for the sake of America maybe, or for me, they held this anxiety in check. I talked to the librarian very often. Mary C. Steele was her name. In all those years she’d never reveal the C to me, but I had hundreds of guesses. Only Cynthia made her slightly smile. My life, as a child, was mysterious and happy. The town, although it was too small for what I envisioned as the life I wanted, had people enough for me to listen. I have always been a listener, happiest in the role of overhearer. The next 25 years were the usual boom and thunder of life. I fell in love as many times as possible. I lived in a few big cities. One was Athens, where I learned Greek dances and drank Ouzo and ate fish for many months on end, while working at the front desk of a two star hotel. Then I moved back to New York, where the idea was I was going to start a real life. I sort of did. The way we do. Nothing is actually more or less real. I can still see those goats on the hill in Greece, and smell the wild thyme on the path to the sea. I married Nick, a Greek man (he was from Rhodes, and he knew very well how to cook, how to paint, and how to make music). Nick is a man with a remarkable nose. After a while, and I can’t pinpoint how long it took, what the day or month was or even the year, after two sons and a realish job as a graphic designer in a big room that called itself, for reasons of odd professionalism, The Studio, after many many attempts at painting a painting that I kept referring to as GREY, I talked Nick and my best friend into buying a house in the country. The idea was we would go there for summers, for holidays, and on some weekends, say Columbus Day or President’s week. Maybe I wanted my small town childhood back. The town would have a library, and a small post office. Maybe a cemetery. There at last, we would build our life. Esther Cohen‘s books include God Is a Tree and Don’t Mind Me and Other Jewish Lies. She is the Jewish Currents arts and public events consultant.