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tearing the rag off the bush again
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WITCHES AND GHOSTS

I spent my childhood expecting my father, Abe Surovell, to die.  He was 50 and I was 16 when his third coronary finally decimated the remnants of his tattered heart.  June 4th is the anniversary of his death.  A subtle end-of-May depression, a general sadness is a yearly occurrence, one which nonetheless cunningly catches me by surprise.  Last May, for the first time ever, I remembered that it was impending and tried to pre-empt it by “spending time” with Abe.  I did this by examining the contents of disintegrating cartons brimming over with photographs taken of, and not by, Abe.  In the 1940’s and fifties, when a camera lens made everyone seem movie-star handsome or fashion model glamorous, Abe was no exception. Not especially athletic, he was nonetheless capable of strenuously rowing a boat.  He even wore his goofy Navy uniform well.  Leaning up against a tree on the Brooklyn College campus, sketching, his mien was intent and studious.  All were scenes from a life that existed before I did. I was tempted to concentrate on them, yet I couldn’t linger there. A need to confront the Abe I knew, the unhappy, tense, semi-invalid father impelled me to spend most of my hours observing Abe’s life as a husband,  father of four and beret-wearing artiste. In those images of Abe that hung on walls or were mounted over desks, he seldom smiled for the camera. Abe always wore the identical expression--one compounded of grief, hopelessness, trauma and disappointment.

Columbia Records, Abe’s employer, provided Abe not only with records (more than 5,000 when he died) but with a labyrinthian network of artist friends, mysterious cool people totally unlike the wholesome menschy couples who were my parents’ constant companions. A “Look” lensman whose name I never knew re-paid a favor by gifting Abe with a rare military photographer’s camera, a Leica MP-17.  When not at work, Abe was rarely seen without a sketchbook, a rapidograph pen, and one of these Leicas slung around his neck.  Yet the inveterate shutterbug rarely posed for others.  So, that May evening, when I attempted to stave off the impending sense of loss,  I sat at one of his old drafting tables, using his ancient magnifying glass, playing detective. No matter how sublime the setting (New Hampshire’s White Mountains) nor festive the occasion (Pete Seeger’s annual concert/picnic), nor beloved the companion (his most-cherished treasure--his only daughter) Abe was unhappy.  As I forced myself to keep looking, growing more miserable with each photo I removed from each cardboard box, the identities of the ghosts who haunted him were gradually revealed to me. I should have known their names since adulthood, but the nature of ghosts is to be cagey.   It was as if Abe had taken their photos and the negatives, lying in his darkroom for so many decades in a vat of printing solution, had finally developed.

They were the faces of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, at whose grand jury Abe was called to testify.  He took the Fifth, and was formally blacklisted by the government.  My mother Ada told me that after the Rosenbergs were executed, “All progressive people worried that the same thing would happen to them...that the government would arrest them on real or trumped-up charges, and that we would all have our children taken away from us.  In the ‘50’s, it wasn’t just the Hollywood Ten who were the victims of witch hunts.  There were many suicides, broken marriages, ruptured lives, lives on life support.”   

Abe's troubled visage was, on the most obvious level, related to his poor health, with everything that was attached to this--all its deprivations and connotations. He was a gentle, sweet-natured, “feminine” man, brimming over with anima and with no desire to suppress it.  He loved women as men do, in an aesthetic, emotional, passionate, sexual sense, but he also felt closer to them than he did to other men.  Abe has always wanted a daughter, so he waited nine years until I was born.  Most of his friends at work were women, some of them high-powered executives, and almost all the neighborhood ladies who took the bus accompanied him to the bus stop every day.  They confided their secrets and troubles to him, these Heads of Public Relations and nurses aides alike.  He had a sensitive, emotional nature, uninhibited and affectionate, almost gooey.  Women fascinated him.  I thought it was feminist when he mused, “Why is it that men get educated and women get co-educated?”, and chauvinistic when he called women, “Tomatoes.”  He was obsessed with the “hookers” he saw near his office every day, describing their glittery hot pants when Ada was out of earshot.  Just what were his sexual fantasies?  When I was 11, he accused me of having stolen his copy of The Marquis de Sade.  Oblivious as to who that might be and innocent of the charges, I insisted, “I never read ‘Don Quixote’!”

After his second heart attack (he was 46, I was 12), he was under doctor’s orders never to run, climb stairs (no less the White Mountains of New Hampshire), eat salty foods, or work past 3 p.m.  Surrounded by the concerned but humiliating gazes and reprimands of a family of nurses and scolds, his certified-invalid life was filled with nightmarish emasculating incidents, each new day arriving with ingenious humiliations. And if his own inner voice wasn’t sufficiently mocking, there were his sadistic bosses, Bob Cato and John Berg, Art Directors for Columbia Records, who never stopped enjoying the fun of playing headgames with the weak-hearted cardiac patient who was told that his mortality depended on avoiding all stress.

Surely, he was filled with rage, and he needed a target.  But he had a weird passive-aggressive streak that still confounds me.

When I was 15, I transferred from my rigid, academically-oriented public high school to an artsy alternative one.  I didn’t know any of my classmates. Frustrated and lonely, I came home and ate leftovers in the frig.  I had never before used food as an emotional crutch. One night, as our family was out walking, Abe hissed contemptuously in my ear, “You look like you’ve gained a lot of weight.  Your thighs are rubbing together when you walk!”

I was as stunned as if a bomb had fallen, and my own heart broke a little. Did he feel that I was his ultimate artistic creation, his beautiful daughter, and so I had to maintain a physical standard I had never known existed? I punished Abe for this for years afterwards: for his criticizing me when I was so vulnerable, for his sexism, for his concern with my gaining not just a few pounds, but any weight whatsoever. Mostly, I was furious that he did not love me unconditionally, and for this, I got my revenge.

 In the new high school, I wrote a story that my creative writing teacher wanted to send to publishers.  It was a murder fantasy in experimental prose. When Abe read it, he threw down the papers and yelled, “No daughter of mine will ever write about violence!”

 ‘Fuck you,’ I thought amidst this second bomb's emotional rubble.  ‘Why would you even think you’re entitled to an opinion about what I write about?

 Every time we drove past the local White Castle in our white Dodge Dart station wagon, Abe would ask, “Does anyone want to stop off and get some hambaburgs?”  He liked to play with words.  He also said, "strumberry.”  “Yes, Daddy, please stop!” We’d keep begging, he kept driving.

 My mother, Ada was a housewife and political leader with Women's Strike for Peace.  She also clerked part-time job at a bookstore. I was often the only person at home with Abe, so  I asked about emergency protocols.  How could it be that his only medical regimen was to take blood pressure medicine, to have nitroglycerine tablets on hand for emergencies and to follow a salt-free diet--the only options available to cardiac patients in the 60’s, before heart transplants, open-heart and bypass surgeries, even before cholesterol-lowering drugs had been invented? Why did he never see a cardiologist, or, for that matter, New York City’s ultimate top-notch cardiologist?  A child of immigrants, he maintained a shtetl mentality--loyalty to his family doctor, a shleppy general practitioner named Rudolph whom Abe saw weekly, and whose wisdom Abe often questioned.

 “He was sitting there eating a plate of fried chicken, and he wiped off his fingers and offered me a piece!” Abe told this story, as he told all his stories, repeatedly, always with the same exact words, vocal inflections and equal amount of incredulity.  “Me, salty, greasy fried chicken!”

 ‘So, if he’s such a  bad doctor, why do you keep seeing him?’ I wondered every time.  

I was also puzzled by his Columbia Records boss Bob Cato’s habit of screaming into his intercom, “Abe Surovell, you S.O.B., get your ass in here this minute or else!” Abe reported to friends, neighbors that on cue, he’d run into Cato’s office, his damaged heart pounding with terror.  Cato, enjoying the game that just kept giving, would look up innocently and  ask him, “ Surovell?!  What are you doing here?”

 ‘If he knows Cato keeps doing the same thing, and he’s just gonna pretend that he didn’t yell at Abe, then why does Abe keep letting it bother him?  And why tell people about it?  It makes him, not Cato, look like a sucker.’ I’d always think, but never say.

 A few weeks after Abe died, a cardiac fitness gym he had approached about joining phoned the house, asking to speak with him about completing his paperwork.

“No, he’s not here, he died on June 4th, “ I told them, and I could hear through the depths of  their silence, the question we were both pondering, ‘Were we just a few weeks too late?’

 A gifted visual artist, trained in sketching, painting, wordworking, lithography, drawing, design and “mechanicals”, who also handwove rugs, painted on rocks, made chess sets and taught ceramics classes, Abe worked in and managed the art department of Columbia Records, where he completed the artwork on an album cover or two each day and was  the official “designer for special projects.”.  He unfailingly brought home three to five “demo” albums, the majority of which were classical, which he then played non-stop.  His love of classical music was so intense that he often went to the symphony with a sketch pad and drew the musicians on the stage or in the orchestra pit.  I attended all of Leonard Bernstein’s famous series, The Concerts for Young People.  Emil Gilels, Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz , Dinu Lipatti, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Rudolph Serkin were, like Bernstein, all Columbia Records artists. My brother Karl worshipped the label’s classical genius Sviatoslav Richter. When I was 4 1/2, years old, I made the weighty pronouncement to Abe that “Henry Purcell was the greatest classical composer of all-time, and ‘Come Ye Sons of Art’ is his masterpiece.”  He repeated that story for years, too.

 Working at a record company, specifically at the “ultimate record company”, was among the hippest gigs a dad could have.  Mitch Miller, Columbia Records house bandleader and Head of A&R threw lavish entertainment and gift-filled Christmas parties for the younger children of employees. During my scheduled visits, Abe took me around to every department, showing me off  to his co-workers.  But Abe’s hipness cred didn’t really affect me until I was a teenager, with a standing invite to visit Black Rock. Al Kooper, pulling down triple-duty as a recording artist, producer and A&R exec hung out in the hallways, always ready to “rap” if Abe was still lunching with John or Jemison Hammond.  Arriving home and drinking his nightly glass of Scotch, Abe regaled us: “We just signed this kid Bob, we think he’s gonna be huge.” Laura Nyro’s tantrums over the “weak” scent of her pink perfumed LP insert for “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession” forced a miserable Abe to repeatedly send it back to the factory.  He waxed euphoric about the Magritte apple on Jeff Beck’s  “Beck-Ola” and was bemused by the R. Crumb cartoon on Janis Joplin’s “Cheap Thrills.” We counted the hours until we could hang Milton Glaser’s poster insert for Bob Dylan’s “Greatest Hits, 1967” on our bedroom walls. Abe constantly brought me demos, too, from lesser-known folkie Carolyn Hester to psychedelic pioneers Moby Grape.  We heard every Dylan album before deejays and music critics, and my brother Frederick and I play-acted the lyrics, “William Zanzinger killed Hattie Carroll, with a cane that he twirled ‘round his diamond-ring finger.”

 Bob Dylan alone would have assured Columbia’s status as the most outstanding label in the history of the music business, but along with him and his idol, Johnny Cash, and besides Beck, Grape, Joplin and Nyro in rock/pop in the 1960’s and 70’s there were: The Byrds; The Chambers Brothers; Leonard Cohen: Donovan;  Tim Hardin;  Taj Mahal; Santana;  Simon and Garfunkel,  Sly and the Family Stone and Super Session (Bloomfield/ Kooper/Stills). Still, if I wanted a band on a different label, like The Rolling Stones, Abe and I would trade our booty for records on London, Atlantic, RCA at the now-defunct Sam Goody’s Record Store.  I was relieved that Abe got these perks.  While his job may have been prestigious, he was still an exploited artist, and in our family, money was always tight, a fact all of us were conscious of.  I once heard him say that he had made $30,000 a year.

To supplement this income, Abe was almost always doing extra freelance projects.  One was “The Fred Astaire Dance Book.”  He labored nights in the basement, positioning little feet in patterns on manuscript pages, and as Mr. Astaire was a martinet, Abe was stressed-out.  He created the advertising campaign for Revlon’s “Eterna-27”.  He calibrated instruments, there in the dark basement with his thick glasses and his weak mole-like light jade eyes.  He smoked Camels while he worked, three packs a day, until...

 I was in the third grade when Abe had his first heart attack, a massive coronary that sent him to the hospital for a month.

 I loved my daddy and he worshipped me, he was always painting, sketching photographing me.  When I was born he famously gave a toast saying, “My cup runnneth over.”

I was the only child in the family who was artistic like Abe, and the thrill was mutual when he brought me pastels, colored pencil sets, pads of drawing paper, and showed me how to mix acrylic paints, use watercolors, care for paintbrushes.

 He spent almost a month in a shitty little medical facility, where no one told me exactly what had happened and afterwards, no one ever reassured me that it wouldn’t happen again.

 I was eight years old.  The official deathwatch had begun.

Before I was born, Abe, working as a Naval Cartographer in Washington, D.C. was asked to sign a loyalty oath.  He refused to do so.  In 1950, he was called to testify before the Rosenberg grand jury.  He answered basic questions about his job and family but otherwise took the Fifth.  In the late 1950’s, the Surovell family: father Abe, mother Ada, oldest brother Frederick, nine years my senior; identical twins Leon and Karl, three years Fred’s junior, me, age 3, and a decrepit mutt with Post-Traumatic Stress disorder hurriedly moved from Washington, D.C. to a joyless garden apartment with washed-out wallpaper in Queens, New York, our flight so rushed it verged on frenzy.  A year later, we moved again.  Abe, fired by the Navy for his political activities, copped  a low-paying gig as an art supplies salesman. Our new, permanent four-bedroom home was a tidy brick structure with an attic, a basement, a front lawn and a backyard so overflowing with so many species of plants, flowers, and trees that it may have been a transplanted classic English garden. This new address was located only several blocks away, yet we found ourselves nonetheless transported to an alien universe.  Suddenly, us Surovells were the token white residents of a golden ghetto, an all-Black lower middle-class neighborhood otherwise populated by Jamaican nurses; Haitian lab technicians; South Carolinian cafeteria aides; former world-wide welterweight champion Johnny Saxton: future Black Panther/Cuban exile Assata Shakur; three group homes for disturbed and unwanted children, and a foster kid or three doing hard time with welted buttocks behind the tightly-locked doors of every private home.  A few blocks down, the real estate got funkier, with wilder, shabbily-dressed children crammed into four-family homes called “Dara Gardens” which  we dubbed “the projects”, while a short detour westward, real estate turned upscale. My first boyfriend’s foster father, a postal worker, “played the numbers”, won, and paid cold cash for the stacked split-level they lived in until their retirement.

 Sometimes middle-aged men wearing fedoras rang our bells and asked my mother questions.  I sensed that they weren’t salesmen--they never tried to sell her any products.

 “Be careful what you say on the phone, they’re listening, “Abe warned me, as soon as I was old enough to talk,  “THEY are always on the other line.”  I was in my 20’s,  trying to score weed over the phone, paranoid about getting busted by THEM, the F.B.I. agents perpetually listening to all my conversations. A lover of mine in his 50’s, one of the scores of "father-figures" I futilely searched for for decades, laughed at me.

 “Hariette, believe me, nobody cares about your family.  No one is listening to you.  No one is following you.  No one is monitoring everything you do,” he insisted.  I still wasn’t convinced.  A high school friend had requested his FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, and voila: all the notations by the fedora-men: “On April 7th, 1966, the Surovell family was seen going into the home of the Shneyers at 7 p.m. where they...” with the rest of the report blacked-out.

 So were they or weren’t they still following us?

Family friends like Oscar Vago, a gentle Hungarian engineer who emigrated to escape the Nazis, had the nervous tics of a Tourette’s victim, understood to be the result of his spending six months in jail, accused of working for someone accused of working for the Soviets.  We spent summer vacations in Conway, New Hampshire, at a summer resort called “World Fellowship.”  If one followed a wooden sign saying. “Welcome!  All races, colors and creeds!” up a dirt road, there would be a collection of tents in the campgrounds and a dozen wooden cottages. All were inhabited by “progressive” people.  I never found it relaxing there, what with the nightly political films, lectures and slide-shows. The property contained acres of woods and a huge pond.  There were nature walks and nearby, Mt. Chocorua, which all of us except Abe climbed constantly, but I really resented the obsessed-with-Marxism vibe of the place.  It was run by a former Methodist minister, Dr. Willard Uphaus, and his stern missionary wife, Ola.  I later learned that Willard had done serious jail time for refusing to give the names of his vacationers to the governor of New Hampshire in the 1950’s.

 Willard Uphaus was a beatific, gentle, white-haired man, patient with everyone, whereas Ola was always angry and irritated, yelling at people for not doing their “chores.”.  They served odd foods, like a ham and peanut casserole, and vacationers were expected to clean away and wash their own dishes. Still, I was mortified when, as we were leaving after a 2-week stay, all our camping gear packed up on the roof of our Dodge Dart station wagon, Abe leaned out the car window and said to Willard, “My angina.  It’s so painful, I can hardly stand it.”  Willard didn’t reply or meet his eyes.

 Why was Abe telling this to a virtual stranger, and not to us?  And why to Willard, to whom everyone was always trying to talk?  And    why at that moment?  It made me feel that Abe was desperate for someone to really hear him, as if we hadn’t, as if our entire lives weren’t devoted to this very angina.  My own heart rolled out of my chest, and like a child’s rubber ball, wobbled all the way down the hill to the “Creeds” sign.

My family never ate in restaurants, ordered in a pizza, went to the movies or watched television.  We didn’t drink Welch’s Grape Juice, because Bob Welch was a member of the John Birch Society.  Because of the Strontium-90 residue from nuclear testing, we drank powdered milk for a decade.  We boycotted lettuce and grapes, and when the Vietnam War began, we demonstrated, leafletted, picketed.  With so many family friends still living in Washington, D.C., we attended every demonstration held there and and stayed as houseguests for the rest of the weekend...everyone, that is, except for Abe, home with the dog and his dog-eared copy of “120 Days of Sodom.”

Surrounding our home in the golden ghetto was a middle-class Jewish neighborhood, the residents of these homes supplying my classmates and all of my teachers. They were religious families who celebrated holidays, went to Hebrew School, got bar and bat mitzvah’ed and regularly attended synagogue.  Many kids weren't allowed to visit me.

Ada arranged for me to obtain a special dispensation not to say the Pledge of Allegiance, because I was an atheist and couldn’t in good conscience say the words, “under God.”   Deciding that she didn’t want me participating in the school’s monthly Shelter Drills, she then arranged a second dispensation for me to stay home on practice days.  I had attended enough to know the drill’s drill: after the warning siren we should crouch down under our desks, covering our heads with our arms.  It was the Cold War, and not only was my daddy always about to die, but real bombs were always about to reign down from the skies. Ada may have “struck” for peace and no nukes, but the message from school and the media was that a missile attack from the Russians was imminent, World War III.  It would happen when we most expected it, when we least expected it. Planes from Idyllwild Airport passed too-loudly overheard, and I cringed...could this be The One? And if so, where were all those fall-out shelters people were supposedly building and stocking with canned goods, candles and gallons of water?

My three older brothers teased me.  The twins did it in tandem, double-trouble.  They could be comical.  Karl would say, “Eh, eh, eh, I am zee lobster man!” and pinch me with his “claws.”  They could be cruel.  They would tag-team and tickle me, under my feet, in my armpits.

 “Make them stop!  Make them stop!”  I begged my mother.

 “She loves it,” Ada would say drily.

 I escaped by sinking into the backyard hammock, strategically located near the honeysuckle, bluebells and the lily-of-the-valley to read, write and draw.  I spent most of my childhood in that backyard, that English garden Abe tended, with the roses, hollyhocks, forsythia and the heady, heavenly lilac bushes.

Ada never considered the possibility that foisting her political, ideological beliefs on my life would make me feel different, freakish, weird.  She had her political principles, case closed. It was as if there was always a buzzing in her head, drowning out all the other noise.  Instead of relinquishing or compromising, she kept upping the ante.  And the more vulnerable I felt, the more upset I became, and the more I cried, the more severely Ada chastised me for being “too sensitive” as if this were a character flaw.  For most of my life, her mantra has been: “Hariette, you’re too sensitive, too sensitive, too sensitive.”  

Politics was her raison d’etre, but Ada also loved literature much the way Abe loved classical music.  As a child, losing herself in tales of Siberian Husky sled-dogs in Alaska and stranded Alpine mountaineers saved by St. Bernards, she harbored dreams of becoming an author.  I always felt depressed by the sight of her endlessly scrubbing, dusting, mopping, ironing, and when I got older, I helped with a lot of housework.  Ada schooled me well in what a friend once termed "the domestic sciences." There was a pile of books on the radiator in the kitchen, all chosen by Ada: “The Cool World”, by Warren Miller, “The Ugly American, “  by William Lederer, “The Complete Writings of Sean O’Casey”, “The Light in the Forest” by Conrad Richter, "Jews Without Money" by Michael Gold and Henry Roth's "Call it Sleep."  Graham Greene, James Joyce, and Salinger graced the livingroom shelves.   On the coffee table, was the photo album, "The Family of Man."  My favorite photo/proverb was from the Russians: "Eat bread and salt and speak the truth."

One night, Ada was finessing a salt-free dinner when a dish-towel caught on fire.  Everyone seated at the dinner table froze. Ada instantly became frantic, repeatedly and ineptly swatting the towel, as if the entire house and all its inhabitants was in danger of burning down.

 When the flame was extinguished, moments later, she left the room, exclaiming bitterly,

 “Not a one of you got up to help me!  Not a damned one of you.”

 We all felt so ashamed of ourselves.

 I recently met a young French woman whose parents are divorced.  Her father is a Parisian engineer and her mother a Salt Lake City born and bred Mormon.

 “Wow!”  I exclaimed when she told me this.  “Your parents have such different backgrounds!”

 “Isn’t that the case for everyone’s parents?” she coolly replied.

 “Well, no.”  Not only were they uncanny similarities in the backgrounds of my parents and both sets of grand-parents, but I could see the genetic seeds of social consciousness and artistry on both sides.

 The Jews who fled Russian pogroms didn’t emigrate carrying  finely-wrought, bulging photo albums inscribed with ornate family crests when they arrived at Ellis Island in the early 1900’s.  Nor were there genealogical associations tracking each ancestor throughout the centuries. Even the name “Surovell” was written down incorrectly by an impatient worker who mis-spelled  “Jhuravel”--a Russian word meaning “crane”.  When I meet Russian people and tell them that I am actually a “jhuravel”, they all say: “Is very beautiful bird.  Very big bird.  All Russian pipples loves zis bird.”

 Harry,  Abe’s father (I am his namesake) was orphaned at 16.  The victim of a pogrom?  No one knew.  Nor did anyone in the family know how or why he came here, or even how he met and married his mentally-ill wife, Florence.  But since they were cousins, surely it was through family connections. Florence neither cooked nor cleaned, but she sang so sweetly that a traveling operetta company, passing through her little village in the Ukraine gave her a starring role.  Chosen to play the part of a maiden at a well who bursts into song, she would repeat this performance at those rare moments in her Brooklyn tenement whenever she turned on the water in the sink to wash dishes.

 Since Florence was incapable of taking care of her children, other than giving birth to and nursing them, (her twin sister was hospitalized for life, a schizophrenic, in New York’s state mental institution, Creedmor.)  Harry did the day-to-day  housework,  care taking and nurturing.  A milliner who journeyed to Fifth Avenue to inspect the chic’est, costliest ladies hats in the most upscale millinery stores. Harry then re-created them from memory and sold them in his brother-in-law’s (Florence’s brother’s) shop.  He designed and sewed his daughters Julia and Beatrice’s coats and dresses.  When sons Sam and Abe both decided to study art, Harry took the subway to Times Square, hunting through litter for “girlie magazines” so that the boys could learn anatomy.  Another one of Florence’s brothers owned property, and he had given Florence and Harry the  four-unit building in which they lived.  During the Depression, the family was comfortable, and Harry was too kind-hearted to evict his non-paying tenants. The Surovells may have been Yiddish-speaking, shtetl-bred, idiosyncratic Jews, but they were atheists.  Neither Abe nor his older brother Sam were bar mitzvah’ed.  

 Ada spent an impoverished childhood filled with tragic immigrant Jewish hard-luck stories.  Her mother’s father worked in a leather factory until he fell into a giant vat of tanning solution.  He wasn’t exactly given workmen’s compensation for the kidney disease he developed as a result, and for the rest of his remaining short life, his skin itched incessantly. Every night, all night long, he would cry out and complain and call for his favorite daughter, my maternal grandmother, Rose, to come and scratch his back for him.  Being a teenager, she didn’t want to be bothered, or maybe his illness was too emotionally-fraught for her, so she pretended not to hear him.  She later confessed to Ada how ashamed she was about this deliberate “cruelty”.  I understood exactly how she felt.  After Abe’s second heart attack, he was forbidden from climbing flights of stairs. My bedroom was now located on the upper level of the house.  As I read and wrote poetry there after coming home from high school, Abe would call to me from the bottom of the stairs, his tone increasingly desperate and pleading. Sometimes, I pretended not to hear him... either because I was acting-out teenage anger and being passive-aggressive, or else because I was really angry at him for those things he had said and done or  for something he had not said and not done.  Maybe I was sick of his neediness and ashamed of his weakness, and angry because his first massive major heart attack had turned a happy household into a house of death, with everyone always on red alert, hyper-vigilant, tense and humorless, fearing he would die, yet knowing it was inevitable.

 At the time of the Russian Revolution, Rose came to New York City with four of her eight siblings. Dismayed by the prospect of working in a sweatshop, she emigrated to Galveston, Texas,  where a “lantzmun” ran a small dry goods store. Oblivious to the social mores to which Jews had to be particularly attentive, Rose befriended a young black girl, an aspiring customer.  She not only allowed her to shop there, but ate lunch with her on a local park bench.  The storeowners feared reparations by local racists and anti-Semites alike, and so Rose was dispatched to live with a distant relative in Minneapolis.

 Ada’s father David also landed in Texas, sponsored by a Rothschild who believed that Russian Jewish men should help settle the West.  David was the beneficiary of a homestead in Wyoming, but, much like his own difficult personality, the land was rocky,  barren  and unyielding.  He could scarcely grow weeds.  Eventually, he abandoned the dusty soil and enrolled in the University of Minnesota, planning to study scientific agrarianism.  He met Rose at a meeting of Labor Zionists, a popular organization among Jewish socialists.  Shortly after they were married, David was drafted.  He never got his college degree nor pursued his desire to grow farmland.  World War  I ended before he could be shipped overseas, but by then, Rose was pregnant with their eldest child, Meriom.  David owned a share of a general store with his brother, which he sold to buy a fish store.  Like a character in a Sholem Alecheim story, he was cheated out of his share of the money, and ended up doing manual labor in a hat factory.  Then Ada was born, and lastly, two boys. They settled in West Orange, New Jersey, where the family was impoverished and the neighborhood anti-Semitic.  Rose, who had grown up constantly hearing about pogroms, lived in terror, convinced that their  German-American next-door neighbors, the Krauths, were going to come and kill the entire family.  Ada’s house was small but comfortable.  During the Depression, the bank repossessed it, and so they were forced to move to claustrophobic quarters next door.  David worked as an insurance agent, selling nickel-a-week funeral-service policies to disenfranchised Black people in Newark, who would otherwise be buried in unmarked graves.  Rose always managed to feed her brood, but Ada grew up without any amenities,  like a public library.  Her parents were profoundly ill-suited.  Rose was a pragmatist, forced to deal with the realities of feeding and clothing children; David was dreamy, often arrogant, deeming himself a superior intellectual.  Rose was loving and warm, although not physically demonstrative with her children; David was cold, harsh, embittered and critical.  The couple rarely spoke, except to fight over finances.  They never embraced or kissed in front of their children.  The emotional atmosphere was hostile and stressful, and Ada escaped by taking long walks with her best friend Doris in her woodsy, undeveloped neighborhood.  She suspected that the myriad health problems that beset Rose began with an incompetent hospital abortion.  She died of breast cancer at 66.

 Rose had been prescient about “everyone getting killed”, but not in New Jersey--her mother and those siblings who stayed in Russia were exterminated by the Nazis, ending up in Auschwitz. Ada’s uncle Leibl’s two sons had been partisans, fighting to their death in the forests.

 Abe was the coddled baby of the Surovell family, and what a baby--breast-fed until he was six.  Yes, six.  His mother’s mental illness or a peasant’s method of birth-control?  Each day, he was sent off to school with a bagel, which he hurled into the gutter, screaming, “I want titzelas!”  Who wouldn’t, who doesn’t?  But how could anyone who was nursed till first grade have the inner resources, the psychological skills to cope with the tough kids in the Flatbush streets and the Irish anti-Semite schoolteachers who ran the Brooklyn public schools in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, and who were given an imprimatur to chastise all the Christ-killers in their classes?  Somehow, Abe toughened up, grew to manhood, studied art at Brooklyn College, and then was drafted into the Navy, where he served as Chief Petty Officer in Hawaii.  After his service was completed, the Navy hired him on as a Naval cartographer, and so Abe moved to Washington, D.C.  Two of his siblings were also living there: Julia, who aspired to be a journalist and had married Sidney Katz, a  heavy-duty, handsomely-paid union official and Sam, who had married a Florence (did he kill his mother?  They may all have been atheists, but they were nonetheless superstitious Jews) and formed “Federal Graphics”, a successful commercial art agency.  Only sister Beatrice (nicknamed Beattie), who danced with the Pearl Lang Troupe and modeled for feminist painter Isabel Bishop, who specialized in portraits of working-class women, often situated in New York's Union Square (Bishop was a member of the "Fourteenth Street School") stayed in New York City.

 Ada had taken a civil service exam after high school and began working as clerk/typist with the Naval Department in Washington, D.C.  One day she found a leaflet for a union meeting in the ladies room.  She met Abe there, at the creation of the Federal Workers Union at the Hydrographic Building.  Their first love-at-first-sight date was a free classical music concert--they listened drifting in rowboats on the Potomac.

 “I don’t think I went on more than five dates with your mother before I decided to marry her!” Abe often reminisced. This story, I liked hearing repeatedly.

 In Washington, D.C., Sam and Julia became consumed with extreme, radical left-wing politics.  Soon, Abe and Ada were converted.  When the official Communist Party USA was dissolved in the late ‘40’s, the Surovells and the Katzes went to meetings of the Communist Political Association.  Among their many left-wing friends were Morton Sobell and Max Elitcher, key players in the Rosenbergs trial.  Until she re-joined the Communist Party in the 70’s, and for the rest of her life, including in 1992, when she defected to Angela Davis’ Committees of Correspondence, (breaking ties with people who had been her friends for half a century) ideology informed every decision Ada made...and sentence she spoke, the majority of which included the phrases "the capitalist system" and/or "multi-national corporations."

 None of Ada’s siblings moved out of New Jersey.  They were essentially apolitical, living safe, prosperous, color-less lives. Ada’s youngest brother was a multi-millionaire accountant. His ritzy home was filled with glass chandeliers and plastic-covered furniture, his garage packed with newest-model Cadillacs.  When my cousins were teenagers, their private den was a mini-arcade, replete with jukebox and pinball machines.  I once went to pick up my uncle from a high-stakes poker game he was playing with his best friend, a Cuban accountant smoking Cuban cigars.  They were drinking hundred-year old Scotch, and I sensed that call-girls had recently graced the premises.  Just a vibe, or did I smell perfume beneath the smoke?

 Who wouldn’t prefer to identify with Abe’s side of the family, those charismatic eccentrics, those colorful artists, none of whom lived to be 70?  Julia was the first to go (breast cancer), then Sam (stroke) and finally Beattie (breast cancer).

 Ada once told me, “When I met Abe’s family, I was intimidated by them. They were all so glamorous, they were like movie stars.”

Abe and Sam were always uncomfortable together.  Rivalries, disappointments, perceived deceits were imprinted on  their facial terrain, in their terse body language--their relationship a bottle of fine wine turned to vinegar.

Yet even as an adult with a family of his own, Abe worshipped his big sister Julia.  She was the mother of my cousin, comedian Jonathan Katz, (“Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist”) with whom I hung out, along with his trustfunder gang from Goddard College, for most of my 20’s.  Dark as a gypsy, Julia had sallow oily skin, inky-black hair  and a nose like an anteater’s.  Ada remembers her as a charismatic, charming person, “who could get people to do whatever she wanted.”  As for her son, Ada says he was “conceived so that his older sister Phyllis would have a sibling.  He never suffered from too much attention.  If she remembered to, Julia stuck a bottle in his mouth.”

The Katzes moved to Manhattan when Sidney, an atheist, was appointed Executive Director of New York City’s most prestigious Jewish temple, The Park Avenue Synagogue.  Julia, an equally emphatic atheist, became head of the woman’s auxiliary. No longer politically-active, they settled into a cavernous Upper East Side apartment, with a uniformed maid they summoned by ringing a bell.  Julia’s didn’t become pregnant until her late 30’s, considered a late age for women in the 1940’s.  When the new mother beheld her infant daughter, Phyllis, with a delicate beauty Julia herself had always yearned to possess, she vowed, “If I could give her the moon, I would.”  Julia told Ada that she intended for Phyllis to have "a perfect life"-- the opposite of her own jerky, improvised childhood, with her disturbed mother, an aunt committed to a mental institution. To tempt Phyllis’ finicky palate, Julia tinkered with all her meals,. Two blueberries, a banana slice, a raisin, whatever, provided a funny face on a pancake.  Then there were her famous “clown eggs.” Julia believed that Phyllis could be anything, do anything, handle anything, and she told her this so often, and she pressured her so relentlessly to become the popular high school girl she herself had never been that Phyllis had a full-fledged nervous breakdown at age 14.  Her one request to her doctors at her prestigious private Manhattan mental hospital was, “Keep my mother away from me!”

As a child, Phyllis had such virulent sibling rivalry with Jonathan that when she ordered her mother to “Hit him really long and hard!”  Julia retrieved what was known to all the relatives as “the hitting stick” and thwacked the couch repeatedly with the door partly closed.  Was Phyllis fooled by the charade?

 When he got married, Jonathan developed total amnesia about his neglected/abused childhood, deifying his mother, naming his daughter after her.

 Phyllis married a good-looking, easy-going guy who made millions in the garment business.  They furnished their own Park Avenue apartment with exotic antiques, sumptuous sofas and plush armchairs covered with canary-yellow silk and cerise satin.  After a vicious divorce, Phyllis recuperated in a fishing village in Puerto Rico.  Within months, she had married a local fisherman. They lived in a shack with no electricity or running water.

 Sister Beattie had given up her dancing/artist model career.  She married a crude, macho Merchant Marine named Haskell and became a psychiatric social worker.  Her professional reputation was impeccable, despite her being as ill-tempered and cranky as our family dog.  A strict Freudian who believed in penis envy, she let Haskell bully her about basically everything.  She didn’t care much for children.  Once, she volunteered to take me to see the movie “Mary Poppins.”  This fun-filled fantasy day ended up with Beattie smacking me  hard across my face.  Their rent-controlled West 16th Street apartment was decorated with folksy art, sculpture and three needle-points inscribed, “My heart belongs to Daddy.”  Haskell took long nightly walks, abetted with a walking stick.  Once, his brother picked a bouquet of flowers. "What are you, a fucking pansy yourself?" Haskell shouted, shredding the flowers to bits with the stick.  Beattie was seldom seen out of her favorite armchair, as she was always wearing a triple-martini, double Valium, phenobarbitolized haze like a shroud.  As teenagers, Jonathan and I regularly inspected her medicine cabinets, helping ourselves to uppers, downers, tranqs, sleeping pills, painkillers: Dexedrine, Nembutal, Seconal, Black Beauties, whatever the controlled substance, she had it, an entire pharmacy in her bathroom.  We depleted entire bottles without ever getting caught, as she was so out-of-it and her supply was so vast.

Beattie and Haskell owned a summer home in Sharon, Connecticut, where we often visited, even though Haskell made no attempt to hide the fact that he hated us with a passion. In fact, Beattie left all four Surovell children money in her will, and after she died, Haskell changed it, circumventing the funds to a research foundation in Copenhagen.  According to Ada, “They always wanted to be WASPs, so they lived among all these people with names like Muffy and Puffy and Buffy.”

Cocktail time in Waspville began at 4 p.m., and soon afterwards, Haskell would bring out huge, fat-marbled-steaks (for the adults only), making a presentation of the raw meat like a Benihana chef before he threw it on the grill.

 “I shall never forgive Julia for stealing my pink lace panties,” Beattie would say on cue in her Shirley Temple voice.  “Anything I had,  she wanted, because she knew that Daddy loved me the best.  Did I ever tell you about how she used to swoop under me and lick my ice cream cone?  Every, every single time we had ice cream, Julia took some of mine. Bad, bad, Julia!”

 In junior high school, I started hanging out in my golden ghetto neighborhood again, with my “soul sisters” and my “soul brothers.”  We danced the “Rescue Me" dance to the Fontella Bass song, the 45 playing on a little plastic record player in the school playground.  Weed and Boone’s Farm Apple Wine were the refreshments served in a clubhouse we put together--a mattress on the floor, on which we fooled around, illuminated by candles in an empty room we discovered in Dara Gardens.

 Many people describe their high schools as mini-hells, in which they earned lifelong psychic scars and inferiority complexes along with their diplomas. My alternative school was clique-less, jock-less, cheerleader-less.  We had no sports teams, no tacky school-sponsored proms. My paternal grandfather, David ( the only grandparent I sort of knew, he died when I was six) might have envied the “aggie (agricultural) students”, who cultivated organic creations in plots of land in the back of the school ("Where have all those flowers gone?").  In film courses where we analyzed Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini, Hitchcock and Polanski, we became spellbound film freaks, cutting science and social studies classes in tandem to get educated in Manhattan's art houses. There was the Elgin, with its famous seat made out of a barber-shop chair, where "El Topo" ran for a year; Warhol flicks premiered at the Bleecker Street.  When I was a junior, three of us feminist 15 year olds helped organize the NYC High School Women’s Coalition (more on this to come.)  When school let out, and the sun blasted like a blue-hot furnace, I matriculated at the ultimate Red Diaper summer camp, the transcendental Camp Thoreau in Walkill, New York.  Paul Robeson’s grand-children, Susie and David, were counselors, as was Barbara Scales (her father served a jail term) and Mike and Robbie Meeropol (their identities as the Rosenberg’s sons still a secret).  Walter Sondheim, Stephen’s brother, was the groundskeeper/Mr. Fixit. Among these thirty red-diaper kids and the twenty Black kids sponsored by a union, I found my tribe. Activities at Camp Thoreau were optional (field trip: Newport Folk Festival), but everyone tried to learn at least basic guitar chords, because we sang folk songs, protest songs, peace songs, love songs, all these themes mixing along with our voices.  Despite my lifetime immersion in music, this joyous world was new to me, these gorgeous, passionate, emotional, textured poems set to melodies by Eric Andersen; Ramblin’ Jack Elliot; Woody Guthrie; Leadbelly; Gordon Lightfoot; Joni Mitchell; Odetta; Phil Ochs; Tom Paxton; Tom Rush; Buffy Sainte-Marie; Mimi and Richard Farina, Ian and Sylvia.   Songs I knew by Dylan, Donovan, Leonard Cohen took on new meaning and context, like cryptic camouflage.



After breakfast, gathered for a "town meeting", we signed up for each day's activities and events.  Afterwards: the first sing-a-long of the day conjured up nostalgic memories of “Sing along with Mitch!".  Everyone from the youngest camper to Walter Sondheim joined in. The most popular counselors were accomplished musicians, who strummed Gibsons and Les Pauls, and always carried pics in their shirt pockets, stuck in their hair, wedged into the waists of their bluejeans.  Campers blew into kazoos, harmonicas, and jugs, mini-Jim Kweskins.  We sang throughout the day, scrambling onto boulders, perched in haylofts, hiking through hickory forests, playing jacks--a Camp Thoreau obsession--on our bunk beds.  At night, we built crackling campfires. Our voices were sleigh-bells and wind-chimes in the cool night air, and we sang until the mellowing embers made gentle clicking sounds. Mosquitoes buzzed along with us, fireflies flickered on and off like flashlights. The night sky, streaky with magenta and burnt-sienna (shades from my colored pencil boxes) segued into sapphire and, sometimes, shooting stars graced us: cosmic messengers.

There were no World Fellowship-ian slide presentations, and I never once heard the phrase “dialectical materialism.” But as I harmonized to Eric Andersen’s “Take off your thirsty boots and stay for a while, your feet are hot and weary from a dusty mile” I finally exhaled, and knew peace.

Back home, Abe gave all my new camp friends stacks of record albums.

Then one June night, I was hanging out with a high school girlfriend, smoking joints in the park.  When I got home, my New Jersey uncle’s latest Cadillac was parked in the driveway.  Why would he be there on a weeknight, unplanned?  My heart quavered.

 Abe was dead.

 I stayed in my room and cried until I finally had to will myself to stop.

After the funeral, Aunt Beattie  knocked on my bedroom door. I let her in.  She sat down, and appraised my glass menagerie.

“My, you’ve got a lot of pretty things,” she said.  “But I bet you would give them all away to have your dad back.”
 
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