No. 14: I’ll Have What He’s Having

MTV documentary in which I appeared in 1993: The Seven Deadly Sins.

Sin I represented: Anger.

Celebrity with whom I was paired: Ice-T

Number of times Ice-T and I saw one another or spoke: 0

Subject matter of my featured spoken word piece, taped at the Nuyorican Poets Café:  My stepfather.

How my brother, then in high school, knew that the girl in the MTV documentary was me: he recognized the baby photo featured in the art direction of the segment.

What my father said when he called me on the phone soon thereafter, having not spoken to me for 19 years:  “It is I.”

How I interpreted his sudden interest: the lure of what seemed to be at the time a whiff of literary recognition.

Where my father sometimes took me as a child: the Museum of Modern Art.

Notable childhood MoMA experience: purposefully whacking a sculptural piece constructed from twine,  old boots and a tin can, setting off the central alarm system.

How my father reacted: He yelled at the guards and criticized the bullshit art.

How I last pictured my father: tall, imposing,  in a fringed suede jacket, white oxford, jeans, brogues.

What I wore to meet my father in front of the Museum of Modern Art:  purple long-sleeved tee shirt, vintage ankle-length black velvet skirt, black wedge heels.

What I carried: vintage purse.

How my father looked: frail, white-haired, effeminate hands and limbs.

What my father wore: belted trench coat, jeans, running shoes.

What my father carried: plastic Korean market bag.

What my father said when he first saw me: “I see you got all dolled up.”

What happened at the diner where we went for lunch:  The waitress arrived while I was in the ladies room, and when I returned to the table my father had just finished ordering.  “I’ll have a tuna sandwich on toasted wheat with lettuce,” I said, “and a cup of cream of tomato soup.”

“That’s funny,” said the waitress.  “Your father just ordered the exact same thing.”

No. 15: Bring Your Kid To Work Day

In 2000, I move from New York City to Hollywood to seek my fortune as a screenwriter.

Shortly after arriving in town, a successful guy/girl writing team takes me to lunch at Nate & Al’s in Beverly Hills. (They’re writing partners and they’re engaged.  But then they cancel their romance and yet remain writing partners.  Recently they adapted a snarky dating book you once heard of into a big ensemble romantic comedy you’ve already forgotten.)

Over turkey burgers and garlic dill pickles, I tell them about the hopes and dreams I’ve packed into my bag of tricks for the move west.

“You have to figure it’s going to take six years,” says the guy, predicting the time span from turnip truck to career.

Six years? Um, ew.  I dicked around Park Slope for a decade, working up the gumption to own my ambition, get a drivers license, meet my husband, and leave New York City. Now  I really don’t have that kind of time.

Eight years, half-a-dozen spec TV episodes, a gig as a researcher for LAW&ORDER, a humiliating go-nowhere feature rewrite, two failed pilots and a giant pile of spectacular near misses later, I land on the CBS cop drama COLD CASE as a staff writer.

My first week on the show, I’m thrumming with somebody-pinch-me anxiety.  It’s a staff of grown-ups, a curt professional culture, with nary a Nerf hoop or a bong to be seen, like you hear about on comedies.  I’m the freshman on the varsity team in a daunting game of catch-up.

(I don’t know yet that I belong on a meat-and-potatoes cop show like a fart in church.)

I’m also getting calls from my father’s wife.  The third one, whom  I call Nancy.

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago, and he’s been dying for awhile.  I’ve been to Connecticut to see him, and I’ve called him on the phone.  These dramatic scenes are for another episode.

Nancy wants to know if I’m going to make it to the funeral, which she is necessarily planning.  Henry is in hospice care, declining swiftly.  Speaking very gently, she also tells me that Henry has not named me in his estate.  By which she means two things.  I will not be inheriting objects or cash from my father (he didn’t pay for shit when he was fit as a flea so it’s not a shocker), but also, he has not acknowledged me as next of kin.  But friends of Henry’s from all over are going to come to the funeral, and she thinks they will be so interested to meet me and hear what it’s like to write for television.  Nancy hopes I can be there.

I puzzle over my responsibilities and desires, summoning my inner ethicist.  Asking my showrunners for time off in my first few weeks of the job it’s taken me eight years to get?  Circulating among my father’s buddies from Columbia?  “So…do you see lots of celebrities out there in show business?” Doing posthumous PR for a guy who whited-me out of the record books? What kind of degenerate misses her father’s funeral?  Around and around I go.

I get a voicemail from Nancy.  “I have some very sad news to report,” she says.

I explain my decision to Nancy as best as I can.  The woman just lost her husband.  I don’t want to make it worse.  And yet.

I’m not going to the funeral.

“Your father loved you,” she says with a sigh.  “He just had a funny way of showing it.”  Wow. I’ve never heard this expression used as anything other than a punchline.

About two weeks later, the showrunner’s office is crammed with the COLD CASE writing staff.  We stare at a wall-sized dry-erase board, on which each character’s arc for the upcoming season is being plotted.  At the center of the discussion is the lead character Lilly Rush, the Philadelphia homicide detective portrayed skillfully by Kathryn Morris.

This season, turns out, Lilly Rush will reunite with her estranged father, Paul Cooper, who left her as a child to be raised by her alcoholic mother in a gritty neighborhood.  Rush has decided to track him down, but she’s ambivalent.  It’s one step forward and two steps back for Rush and Cooper.  But by the end of the season, they will have arrived someplace.  Not someplace treacly or resolved, but someplace.

And…discuss.

I look around the room at the team of people I have just met.  I want to be good at my job.  Am I going to turn my honors English seminar into a tacky slumber-party confessional?

Fuck yeah.  I spill the Henry Ebel story.  For a rousing conclusion, I tell the one about ordering the same thing at the diner on the day of our 19-year reunion (see the post entitled I’ll Have What He’s Having for this riveting tale).  I feel kind of dirty afterwards.  It’s a writerly version of flashing my tits.

“Where is your Dad now?” somebody asks me gently.

“He died two weeks ago,” I reply.

Looks glance around the small room.  What kind of degenerate misses her father’s funeral? “Why didn’t you say something?” somebody asks me.

“Oh, yeah, well,” I explain.

Months later, I am sitting on a Chinese restaurant set on the Warner Bros lot, huddled in a fake booth with the director, Marcos Siega, Kathryn, and Raymond Barry, who plays Paul Cooper, Rush’s father.  It’s a chilly, rainy night, exactly the weather that would drive one into a Chinese restaurant in real life.

We are rehearsing the scene in which Rush and Cooper meet for their first meal in many years, and wind up ordering the same thing.

Kathryn and Ray aren’t in costume yet.  Bundled in parkas from wardrobe and cupping hot drinks from craft services, they look more like a real estranged father and daughter ordering the same thing than they will after hair and makeup.

In 1938, my grandmother, Anna Ebel, says goodbye to her parents and brother in Berlin.  She never sees them again.

In 1938, my grandfather looks at a receding European coastline the color of porcelain, and never sees it again.

In 1975, my father drifts away and I (almost) never see him again.

When you possess genealogical records that trace your family’s presence in Berlin back to 1866, the image of a long rope, stretching through time, comes to mind.  And here come the Nazis with a big pair of stainless shears.  Snip!

All those frayed ends shooting out.

And the ways in which I have severed this story from myself, so that I am hanging by a thread.  Warily considering the file, bulging with evidence, that contains the cold case of my life.

On a dark and stormy night in a fake Chinese restaurant, I lean in close to hear the lines that Kathryn and Ray quietly deliver to one another as the set bustles around behind us.  I’ve never been in such close proximity to the process of acting before.

You’d think a meat-and-potatoes cop show wouldn’t have an unbearably intimate bone in its body.

But my throat constricts with emotion.

This is as close as I’ve ever come to art imitating life.

No. 16: Stale-Ciabatta-on-the-Sea

I’m driving through foul rush-hour traffic to Santa Monica, my mother and son in the back seat, my mother’s then-boyfriend, Arthur, riding shotgun.

It’s the visual of Los Angeles traffic that threatens to unravel me even more than its frustrated pace.  That apocalyptic view northward up the 405.  A glinting march of cars to the horizon.  Any minute the brown clouds are going to boil, the enormous spacecraft is going to appear, and all those bodies are going to emerge from their Nissans, scurry around the freeway like hopeless ants, and get vaporized.

But it’s all good.  We’re on our way to Tashlikh, being held this year at the Santa Monica beach near lifeguard station 26.

Tashlikh (pronounced TASH-licccccch) is a Jewish tradition that’s practiced at the New Year, Rosh Hashanah.  You “empty your pockets” of the sins of the previous year by symbolically tossing bread into a living body of water, in our case, the Pacific.

Sins, schmins.

For me, Tashlikh is the chance to create the transition into a new year, a new beginning.  To retire any habits of thought or behavior, any unfinished, dogged, weighty psychic business.  The live water is a powerful reminder of the cycle of life, how thoughts and experiences move through us, how we can let go into the flow of life, be carried by the flow of life, trust the motion of life to take us forward.

It’s really quite Buddhist, as most things are if you let them.

The group that’s gathered near the lifeguard station is mostly families with kids. (Subcategories include: Funky-But-Competitive Private School Moms, Matching Lesbian Moms, and Former-Brandeis-Frat Boy-Turned Super Jew-Super Dads.)  Also represented are hot young Jewish singles hoping to spawn within the next five years or so, and politically progressive empty nesters in orthopedic sandals.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, who’s brilliant, personable, inspired and really, really cute in her cuffed jeans and good sunglasses, addresses the group that’s gathered by the lifeguard station.  She speaks stirringly about the transforming power of our greatest heartbreaks and mistakes that Tashlikh offers.

Rabbi Brous suggests that as we approach the ocean with our hunks of bread, we consider three aspects of the ritual.

1)    What loose emotional ends of the past year do we need to tie up?  Is there an apology we owe? Forgiveness we must grant?

2)    What intractable emotional situations do we need to simply let go of?

3)    Do we need to forgive ourselves?

Now’s the time, people.  Kiss your stale ciabatta up to God.

I stand at the edge of the giant ocean, the gentle surf hurrying in, a fresh wind blowing as the sun slants low in the sky.  My ridiculously tan, bare-chested son frolics in his trunks, makes friends, taunts seagulls.  He’s a California kid.

I look out over the ocean and I breathe.

I now forgive myself,” I say to myself, closing my eyes, “for all the ways I’ve let fear and a reptilian anxiety to merely survive run my life.  For all the decisions I’ve made out of fear.  For confusing bluster with honesty.   For trying to “be successful” when I might have been investing in the cultivation of my voice. I forgive myself for blindly continuing the pattern of severing that runs through my family, by severing myself inwardly, creatively. I now let myself create from a new place.  I trust this place will take me somewhere new.  I trust that I can create the things in my life that I want.”

Amen to that.   I open my eyes, drink in the abundant ocean, and chuck the carbs seaward.  Feeling like a person who has lived her whole life with her face to the corner of the room, and who now turns around to observe all that space.

In the car on the way home, Arthur asks me if I have really considered and researched the implications of becoming a dual citizen.

Well, actually, no.  But I’ve pictured myself in a Burberry trench, hurrying home on a rainy street to my fabulous loft apartment in whatever Berlin neighborhood resembles Williamsburg eight years ago.  Does that count?

“It’s my impression,” Arthur continues, “that the United States government doesn’t always take kindly to people who hold dual citizenship.  If you were to get into some sort of situation overseas, you don’t know if the U.S. government might tell you you’re no longer their problem.  It could be a difficult situation.”

Dude!  Way to stomp my mellow!  I just did my annual anti-fear Jewy voodoo!  Now the image of a hash bust at my Berlin house party while I’m just trying to shake my ass to some Turkish hip-hop is seriously threatening my nougaty cloud!

“You mean like how in this country,” I bridle, “when Hurricane Katrina hits, American citizens can count on the U.S. government to help them?”

“I’m not saying I’m a huge fan of the U.S. government,” says Arthur. “I’m just suggesting for your own sake and the sake of everybody else you should really be thoughtful and consider the enormous thing you are about to do, and educate yourself before you commit.”

“I’ll look into it,” I say.

“Hello…1-900-Bad-Things-Seem-To-Keep-Happening-To-Good-Jews-dot-Gov?  Yes, hi!  It’s Kathy here.  Say.  I’m just wondering.  (This is not for me, by the way – it’s for a friend.)  So say I get dual citizenship and then something really, really, really bad happens.  Are you guys like totally gonna dick me over?  And if so, when they make the Lifetime movie about my stay in a German prison, can you help me get my script to Toni Collette?  I mean, my friend.  Sure, I can hold.”

No. 17: Twenty Questions for my Grandmother, Leaving Europe, December 14, 1938, age 25

Holland America pamphlet coverHolland America pamphlet frontispieceHolland America passenger list

No. 1) How do you know what to pack, and how much, and what to leave behind?

No. 2) Is everything packed in labeled boxes, stacked neatly in the bedrooms and along the central hallway, or do you make the beds, prepare a grocery list for weekend entertaining, crack the windows, and otherwise proceed as if you’ll be home soon?

No. 3) Do you call around to your friends in the building?  We’re going away for awhile, and I have these gorgeous bananas I hate to see go to waste, will you pop round and take them off my hands?

No. 4) Do people in your circle know that you’re leaving town, or do you hide your plan?  Do you feel guilty to have landed an 11th-hour visa?  Entitled?

No. 5) What about all your stuff?  You’ve been married two years.  Your wedding presents.  Do you sew cash into coat linings?  Stuff your safe-deposit box with silverware?

No. 6) What about the ardent notes from the boy back in Poland you’ve saved in a shoebox on the top shelf of the coat closet?  Do you toss them into the fireplace?

No. 7) And all of your stockings, your slips, your clip-on earrings, your magazine subscriptions, the sheets you just had monogrammed, the African violets on the sitting room windowsill.  Do you fret about these, or have they already ceased to exist?

No.  8 ) By what route do you travel from Berlin to Rotterdam?  What do you see on the way?  On the train, do you notice other families in transit, respectably dressed for an outing to the public gardens but seeping with alarm, clutching one another’s hands too tightly?

No. 9) As you walk the gangplank to the S.S. Statendam, your 5-month-old son in your arms, is your throat tight?  Does your heart race?  Do you dare not look around?  Or are you already beginning to breathe again?

No. 10) What is the scene like in the ship’s dining room?  Do you scan other families, mothered by young Jewish women like yourself in tweed skirt suits, in mohair dresses, in fur stoles and cloth coats, in dark lipstick, with hairpins loosened, and do you wonder Who will be my friend? Or do you take your meals in your cabin, letting your leek soup grow cold, the idea of company unbearable?

No. 11) Do you lie in your cabin bunk as your husband snores gently beside you, staring at the ceiling, eating square after square of bitter chocolate until the whole bar is gone?

No. 12)  Do you wake in the middle of the night, and see that your baby is awake, too, lying in the hammock-like bassinet that sways from a hook in the ceiling?  Quietly, quietly, do you wrap your camel-hair coat over your nightgown, and slip your feet into your loafers, and close the door quietly behind you, and marvel that your baby seems to know better than to make a peep, and make your way to the deck, and stand against the railing, and look out over the moonlit water as it surrounds you, and look down at the churning wake, piling up behind the ship like lace, and consider jumping?

No. 13) In the morning, does your husband surprise you with a hair appointment and a manicure, scheduled in the ship’s beauty parlor, and do you burst into tears?

No. 14) Do you borrow a Harper’s Bazaar from the ship’s beauty parlor, and do you slowly devour it page by page as you sprawl on your bunk as the baby naps, paying particular attention to the color advertisements since you don’t yet read or speak English? The handy six-bottle carton is for your convenience…to provide the pause that refreshes with ice-cold Coca-Cola in your home.  All the family will welcome this pure refreshment, pure as sunlight.

No. 15) Do you smoke cigarettes?

No. 16) Who is going to meet you when your ship arrives in New York?

No. 17)    Where will you go?

No. 18)    How do you figure out what to do?

No. 19)    On a scale from one-to-ten, how terrified are you?

No. 20)    Do you suddenly remember that you forgot to ask your neighbor to water your African violets?

You are 25 years old.

No. 18: Something Is Right With This Picture

Henry & Kathy at kitchen table

You ever wake up at 4:19 AM and say to yourself: “I can’t believe it’s going to be another two-and-half-months before I can even start expecting to hear back from the Federal Republic of Germany about my application for restored citizenship?”

No?

That’s weird.

You ever look at your 7 ½ year old living his life?

You ever watch him practice the moonwalk, try out a card trick, giggle uncontrollably while making underarm farts, eat a chocolate-covered frozen banana, ask you to explain who invented Halloween?

Do you ever think about the fact that he is the exact same age you were when the big things of your life started to happen?

Right now, right this very second, everything is happening for your child.  He is an open channel of creativity and sensory experiences.  He is a memory sponge.  These are the moments of his life, just like a Kodak commercial.

Oh, will you look at that!

I just happen to have a Kodak snapshot right here!

My father at the dining room table in his apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1975.  I am five-something years old.

Here’s my father, engaged with me, counseling me on something I’m writing.

I have no recollection of this moment whatsoever, of course.  But I was a red-blooded, card-carrying second-grade memory-sponge (and so were you).  It’s in there.

What I do remember is what it felt like to be scared of my father.  The adrenaline rush of knowing that I had to get out of there.  Walking into the bedroom to call my mother.  That’s a dramatic moment for a girl, one she might be driven to re-create just once or twice.  But as we all know, in between the Big Dramas of Life there’s just life.  You drink a chocolate milk.  You sing the pop song at the top of your lungs with the words wrong.  You get new sneakers.

In other words, so then what happened?

What was it like to live that slow fade day after day?

Did I ever ask my mother: “When am I going to see Daddy again?”

Even though he frightened me, did I ever wish I could see him again?

Did I miss him?

Did I wonder if he missed me?

How did I go from the wondering about my father to never mentioning him again?

Did it all happen at once? (Snip!  The Nazis with their stainless shears!)  Or was it a slow fade?  (My grandfather watches Europe recede on a horizon the color of porcelain as the S.S. Statendam churns towards New York City.)

I want to know.  When did I start writing the “I don’t have a father” story?

You ever wake up at 4:19 AM and it’s like:  Oh my God! It’s themes, people, themes!  Severing!  Denial!  Rejection and armor!  They left Germany, he left me, I left myself!  The Holocaust plus Columbia College’s English department circa 1959 multiplied by LSD and divided by divorce equals my personality! Soundtrack Simon & Garfunkel, early Beatles and Erik Satie!  Liev Schrieber as Henry Ebel!

Are you ever like:  Okay, I get it.  Can I go now?

Here’s the pitch I was working on in 1975:

Image_014_2

Smile. You’re on Candid Camera.

No. 20: Crackpots Unlimited

Wanna hear my sexy To-Do list?

1) Have German citizenship restored in what’s left of 2009.

2) Travel to Berlin for satisfying-yet-not-disorienting amount of time.

3) Interview American expats in Berlin in 2010, successful women who’ve balanced career and parenting while living overseas.  Consider joining them.  Write about this with humor, pathos, and a keen eye.  The feature article is for a major magazine.

4) Sail back to New York City on same route that my father and grandparents took on December 14, 1938.  Ideally via Holland-America Cruises.  Write about this with humor, pathos, and a keen eye.  The book is part memoir, part travelogue.  I think I’ll do a somewhat smoky eye for the jacket photo, and a slim-fitting v-neck sweater.  And maybe just the faintest whiff of a wind machine.  Not so you’d notice it.  Just so the hair has volume.

As the ship arrives in New York Harbor, as my personal narrative comes full circle, all the pieces of my life fall into place with a satisfying choonk.  I now know where I am, where I’ve been, who I am, and where I’m going.

That’s the sound the pieces make when they fall into place, by the way.

Choonk.

I call Holland-America Cruises this morning.  I am all a-twitter for the vault of archival material the company is going to have at arm’s length.  How many German-Jews owe their lives to this company? Of course there’s a dedicated archivist.  Of course I can have my simple questions neatly answered, like where exactly my family’s ship docked in New York, since my searches of Ellis Island archives have turned up nil on the Ebels, leading me to believe they didn’t pass through Ellis Island.

The “archivist” for the company is also their special events coordinator.  I can picture her in deep communion with the potential contents of a gift-bag (M&M’s come in all sorts of fashion colors these days) as she absently sends me some links to wacky websites created by amateur shipping enthusiasts.  I poke around and find a You Tube video of the T.S.S. Statendam, the ship on which my grandparents and father sailed from Rotterdam to New York.

It’s a few minutes long, still shots of the ship’s construction and well-appointed interior, but we’re all busy people, so let me cut to the money shot.  The T.S.S. Statendam sailed from 1929-1940, and the final shot of the video shows the ship’s destroyed hull, a carcass spewing smoke.

The S.S. Statendam is gone, another casualty of war.  Holland-America no longer sails direct from Rotterdam to New York.  So I could take a train from Berlin to Rotterdam, make my way down to the port, squint and imagine my family’s debarking, then pop on over to Amsterdam, from which Holland-America does sail.  But is that faking it? Maybe some other outfit sails Rotterdam direct to New York, but I might have to ride on a shipping container filled with sex slaves. Maybe the crazy-hot Rothschild heir with the garbage dinghy wants to give me a lift.  Or…

I sigh deeply in the Harvard chair at which I sit at my desk and contemplate skipping today’s post due to unwieldy emotional issues.

And then I think about the cardboard box.

The one in the upper storage closet, just feet from my desk.

The box was sent to me last year, when my father died, by Bernhard Grunewald.  That is his real name, by the way.  I think the box contains stuff my father wrote.  But I’m not really sure.  Because, you know, I’ve never opened it.

Bernhard Grunewald is a Swedish journalist, as well as Henry Ebel’s biggest fan.  He has published my father’s writings and maintains the Henry Ebel website.

Yes, there is a Henry Ebel website.

Bernard Grunewald contacted me around the time that Henry died.  He was very excited to speak to me in a Bob-Dylan’s-long-lost-daughter kind of way.  It was briefly heartening to think that my father was somebody else’s rock star.  But then it became an unmanageable situation that quickly threatened my Fragile Mental Condition.

I shut down my communication with Bernhard Grunewald and shelve the box.

When I think about my father’s career, one word comes to mind:

TOTAL FUCKING CRACKPOT.

Allow me to present my father’s C.V. in a paragraph.

Henry Ebel graduates from Columbia College in 1959 with top honors, Phi Beta Kappa, the Kellett Fellowship to launch his graduate career at Cambridge University.  He returns to the States, gets a juicy tenure-track position in the English Department at Wesleyan University, and cracks up, severing ties with everybody and everything: career, close friends, daughter.  He lands an associate professorship at CUNY that lasts for awhile, then also implodes.  From 1976-1980 he works with psychohistorian Lloyd DeMause while also covering the New York psychotherapy scene for Behavior Today as an editor.

Psychohistory is a fringe discipline that has struggled for academic recognition.  According to Lloyd DeMause’s website for the Institute for Psychohistory, “Psychohistory, the science of historical motivations, combines the insights of psychotherapy with the research methodology of the social sciences to understand the emotional origin of the social and political behavior of groups and nations, past and present.”  There’s also a graphic of a business card with a drawing of a globe sitting on a tufted, old-school leather divan.  “Putting the world on the couch,” the tagline reads.

Or, as I joked to my brother recently when we were talking about Henry’s career: “Florida is shaped like a penis.”

I’m not a member of the academy, Lord only knows.  And the relationship among politics, culture and behavior seems like something worth thinking about.  But just in general, it seems like a business card with a tagline like “Putting the world on the couch” could earn you the stink-eye at your next academic conference.

Anyway, Henry Ebel falls off of the fringe, too, in the 80’s, parting ways with the psychohistory posse.  He finds himself some adjunct professorships here and there.  He spends the rest of his career based in the world of university development and public relations, first for the University of Hartford, then for George Washington University.

My father’s story terrifies me.  The freefall trajectory.  The plummeting descent.  The thorough unraveling.  The rants and ravings of a madman.  That’s who the little boy from Berlin in the sweater vest and tie grew up to be.

I am afraid of turning out like him.  But I’m an adult, so I’ve already turned out.  Am I…crackpot-esque?  Ish?  You know, what writers do.  Cook up an idea, bury yourself in it, hope somebody gets it.

Maybe my father ran away from Wesleyan when he should have hunkered down, asked a friend for help, shaken his LSD habit and chugged down the tenure track all the way to Department Chair.  Maybe I’ve done the same thing, run off in search of a creative home when I should have kept at it.   Maybe if I’d kept writing poetry, I’d be a bohemian-in-residence by now at a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, with leaves in my hair and a wardrobe of clogs.  Or if I’d dedicated myself more deeply to soap opera scripts, I’d be the head writer of General Hospital by now.  The show’s produced in my Los Angeles neighborhood; I could walk to work.  Maybe I’m nuts to think that I’ll find my way to a career that has upward momentum instead of the fits and starts it’s had.  And, you know, I make easy jokes about jacket photos and wind machines.  Am I deluded and grandiose like my father?  (“It is I,”  he announces to my answering machine, the first time he’s spoken to me in 19 years.)

And what’s the title of the first book by my father that Bernhard Grunewald publishes?

Jews, Germans and Other Disasters.

So I’m writing about how the war shaped my father, and how my father shaped me, and how restoring my political connection to my family’s place of origin might illuminate and even heal my inner workings.  And my crackpot father was writing in his crackpot style about some crackpot version of the same (crackpot?) topic.

Arrrggghhhhhh!!!!  Running screaming from the room!  Kathy-shaped cut-out through the wall with puffs of smoke!!!

Can I indulge in plans for a sparkling tour of the continent without passing through this feared territory?

Can I get to the bottom of anything if I don’t open that box?

I glance over my shoulder at the closet doors with their attractive glass pulls, tucked right under the ceiling.  One of the doors is actually open an inch.

I look away, and I publish this post.

No. 21: Liebe Mutter

Postcard_01Postcard_02

From: my grandfather, Richard Ebel, age 34

To:  his mother, my great-grandmother, Berta Ebel

What: a postcard welcoming her to the United States

When (i.e. postmark date): February 16, 1940, 9:30 PM

Where: from 37 Whitehall Street to the Hoboken Pier, where her ship, the S.S. Volendam, has just arrived from Rotterdam

The stamp: one red cent

The ink: fountain pen

Dear Mom,

First off, greetings from the free country of America!  We’ll be waiting for you at the pier. It takes a few hours, then you’ll be able to greet us. Were you sea sick? Best wishes from all of us,

Richard

It is now 1940.  Europe is in flames.  My 34-year old grandfather left Berlin more than two years prior with his wife and child.  What did my great-grandmother do all that time?  My God, everybody must have been beside themselves.  But here she is.  Berta Ebel travels across the ocean in the middle of a world war to find herself in a new city.  Waiting at the railing.  Scanning the crowds.  She is looking for Henry, her 5-month old grandson, but he’s a toddler now.

This postcard sits in one safe-deposit box or another for 70 years.

When my brother and I put together our presentation for the Federal Republic of Germany, we don’t include it.

What bureaucrat in Cologne considering our application for restored German citizenship needs to see a postcard from a hopeful, relieved son to his mother?  What does such a document prove?

This morning, when my alarm goes off at 4:55 AM, I check my various technologies.

My brother David has texted me.  “Give me a call,” his text says.  “I want to talk to you about a few things.”

Lying in bed in the dark, my stomach drops.  “Shit,” I think.  “He’s read my blog and I’m in trouble.”

I call him around noon.

We talk for the better part of an hour.

We are kind to one another.

I cry.

I’m not ready to turn our conversation into witty banter with the quotes in the right places, even though David says I can.  But here’s what I’ve got for now:

1)    None of us will ever know what really happened.  We’re all making up the story as we go along, as best we can.

2)    Unless you’re an only child, your father is somebody else’s father.  Now you’ve got two stories and they might not match.

3)    Let’s say the father leaves and starts over.  There’s the kid that was left, and there’s the kid he stuck around for.  Both scenarios are a mixed bag.

4)    Sometimes when you make art, it confuses (at best) and hurts (at worst) other people.

This is why an old postcard is helpful.

You can hold it in your hand, you can stare at the postmark.

It proves something.

It is February 1940, and a ship docks at the Hoboken Pier.

On the ship, there is a mother.  She has become an old woman.

On the shore, there is a son.  He has become a father.

It will take a few hours, but he is eager to greet her after her journey.

He will wait there as long as necessary.  He has the idea that she is safe, but he won’t know for sure until she steps into his arms.

As my brother and I wind down our conversation, he walks down the front stairs of his San Francisco apartment.

There is a letter waiting for him, from the Federal Republic of Germany, postmarked Cologne.

“Open it,” I say.

No. 22: Alma Pater

My brother and I receive identical letters from the Consulate General.

I’m excited as I pull the slim envelope from today’s pile of mail.

I use a knife to slit it open.  The moment seems to call for it.  I consider preserving the envelope for posterity, then shake off this maniacal idea.  My application for restored German citizenship under Article 116, paragraph 2 of Germany’s Basic Law owes a great deal to my grandparents’ obsessive document archive.  It’s tempting to consider every scrap of paper a contender for the Antiques Road Show…but I will resist.  Into the recycling the envelope goes.

I’m reminded of another envelope that I considered with trembling hands. I received it in the early spring of my senior year at Midwood High School, in Brooklyn, from Wesleyan University.  I’d applied early decision.

Wesleyan University, where my father started his academic career in the English Department, and where his self-sabotage officially began — at least according to my timeline, concocted as it is from scraps.

I have a passionate, obsessive, desperate desire to gain entrance to Wesleyan University, for which I have neither the grades nor the money.

I picture myself there with every fiber in my being.  In a waking dream, I see myself strolling across the campus, autumn trees aflame around me, sporting a rainbow alpaca sweater-and-wellies get-up like the one Princess Diana wore in one of her first public photographs, as I deftly catch a rogue Frisbee and return it to the lanky dude-bro with whom I’ll soon fall in love and move with to Earth House, a wood-framed off-campus wonderland that smells like bong-water and tofu chili.   A rainbow alpaca sweater and wellies are on my list, as I own neither.

But I should’ve known better.  The envelope is so slim.  When I’m rejected from Wesleyan, I slam my bedroom door, throw myself on my Marimekko duvet cover, and cry and cry as though my heart would break.  It had broken.

It honestly doesn’t occur to me then that I have anthropomorphized a school into a proxy of my absent father.  I have excellent grades in honors English and can analyze the living hell out of a Tom Wolfe essay, but I just don’t have that insight.

Actually, I don’t have that insight into, oh, well, let’s call it last week.

Twenty years and three-thousand miles later, another slim envelope.

Drum roll, please…and slitting, and slitting, and opening, and here’s the letter, unfolding, and reading –

Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany

San Francisco

Mrs. Katherine Ebel

Los Angeles, CA

 

Reference: Naturalization according to art.116 German Basic Law

File No: RK-XX-XXX SE Ebel (please quote in your reply)

 

San Francisco, September 25, 2009

 

Dear Mrs. Ebel:

 

The German Consulate General has forwarded your application for naturalization for you and your son to the Federal Administration Office (Bundesvewaltungsamt) in Cologne/Germany.

 

The proceeding of the application can take up to 12 months and the Federal Administration Office may request further documents.

 

Sincerely yours,

 

Bettina Hobler

Oh.  Okay.  We’re officially in the mix, that’s all.  No more, no less.

Maybe slightly disappointing, actually.  Would’ve liked more of a welcome wagon feeling.  A wink that tells me David and I have it like that.  What with our gorgeously presented dossier, right down to the Nazi passports.

So I need to help myself.  Make it abundantly clear.  Sometimes an application for restored German citizenship is just a cigar.  I have my reasons for what I’m doing, but I’m reasonable about them.

I don’t think that Germany is my father.  If Germany says “no” I will not have a broken heart.  In fact, regardless of what Germany says I can still visit Berlin, I can still sail home, I can do my whole bugaloo.

Germany is not going to “say” anything because Germany is not a person.

You hear that, Germany?  Yeah, that’s right.  I’m talking to you.

Wait – no, no I’m not.  Because you’re not a person.  That’s right.  You are so not a person it’s silly.

Still working out the kinks, people.

No. 23: The Parable of the Queen, the Ant, and the Croissant

After I posted perhaps the third installment of this story, in which our heroine applies to the Federal Republic of Germany for restored citizenship under Article 116, par. 2 of the country’s Basic Law, a close show business associate here in Hollywood whose name and role I will protect under a heavy felt shroud of secrecy due to our close and valued professional relationship and who I will describe merely as Madame Y, sent me an email.

“This is great, Kathy,” Madame Y said.  “This is a book.  You should tell Madame X about this.  I’m excited for you.”

Madame X, based in New York City, is a literary agent and writer whom I admire greatly and identify with on multiple levels.  I wouldn’t say we have a close and valued professional relationship.  But I have a crush on her for sure, and I have wished that she had one too.  You know, on me.  She has read and praised my fiction and expressed interest in helping me develop a career as a novelist.  Of course, I have to write a novel first, but, yeah.

The praise from Madame Y is like a hypodermic of adrenaline to my soul.  I sit bolt upright, Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction stylie, my persistent itch for approval and recognition temporarily scratched.  I don’t think, I don’t consider, I don’t breathe.  I email Madame X.  “This is what I’m doing,” I pant, sending her a link to this blog.  “Do you think it could be a book?”

Hmmm.  Julie & Julia has been in theaters for about three weeks at this point.  Thirty million bucks in its opening weekend, a surge of paperback sales.

D’ya think Madame X Literary Agent might have a client or two who’d like to hitch a ride to the bank on that particular bandwagon?  D’ya think maybe there’s a Seven Sisters graduate bopping around one of the coasts with a – what do you call it, all the kids are doing it these days – oh!  That’s right.  One of those blog thingummies?

“I have no idea if what you’re doing is a book,” Madame X promptly replies.  “I have no idea if it can be sustained.  Keep going, but don’t let it swallow up your entire writing life.  I’m ready and willing when you’ve got that novel.”

I paraphrase.

But fuck me, I’m mortified.

In this moment of cringe, of wishing I could suck my insecure, half-baked email back through the interweb, a parable comes to mind that I have toyed with ever since.  The one about the Queen, the Ant, and the Croissant.  I invented it, but I generously donate it to the public domain.

The Queen is sitting at her breakfast table, engrossed in the Herald Tribune, a flaky croissant on a china plate at her moisturized elbow.  As her hand emerges from behind the paper to lift the croissant, she spots an ant crawling across it.  Absently, she flicks it off and continues with her day.

As I read Madame X’s email, I feel like the ant crawling across her morning croissant.

But the more I think about this parable, the more I realize how it applies throughout my life.

To whit:

Until recently, I was the queen, larger than life, in utter, imperious control.

My state of being, the truth beneath the elaborate personality, was my morning croissant.  Flaky and not notable for its sustenance.

My father was the ant crawling across my croissant.  A minor nuisance to be flicked away, kimono sleeve flapping.

“I know,” a voice from within me pipes up, ant-like.  “I’ll apply for restored German citizenship like Casper Fleming suggested (see the archived post entitled “Jewish Geography” for the riveting anecdote), and then I’ll write about it.  That’d be cool.”  And after flicking this idea off my croissant for the better part of a year, I trade in my unwieldy kimono for a coffee-stained cardigan, push up the sleeves, and, you know.  I start writing.

A funny thing happens on the way to the royal breakfast nook.

I become aware of how much of my life my absent father has gobbled.  How much he has tormented and influenced me, from college applications to career moves to financial habits to love affairs down to what I have and have not allowed myself to write.  And what I think I am and am not “supposed to be doing.”

I thought my father was the ant on the croissant of the queen.  But my father was the queen.  (Not a queen – that’s somebody else’s blog.)  But the dominant force, the dominant voice.  My own spirit was the ant.  And the croissant was the life I had built, on its way right down the gullet of the queen.

Or, here’s another interpretation.

Desire to be a recognized, lauded, wildly remunerated writer: the queen.

State of actual writing life: the croissant.

Connection to authentic voice: the ant.

I’m trying to go Buddhist with this parable, so that eventually, my life will look like this:

Voice, truth, creative flow: queen.

Dog-and-pony show of personality: croissant.

Bottomless need, infantile itch, asking esteemed father-figure proxies for permission and approval: ant.

Feel free to try this one at home.  Look at a situation in your life that torments you, that you want to change.  Maybe all this time you’ve made yourself the ant, when you’re actually the croissant.

No. 24: Dr. Bickle’s Foolproof Dual-Citizenship Diet

If you deal with your father shit, you might lose some weight

If you deal with your father shit, you might lose some weight

“Hey.  C’mere, girl.  Let me ask you something.”  Primo Dimas is not his real name, but he is my first boyfriend’s father.

Primo has served in Vietnam, sustained an injury, and been on disability ever since.  He walks with a limp and a cane, wears an army fatigue jacket, grows marijuana, does shit for his four kids, and philosophizes.  Right now he’s sprawled on top of the cockeyed, sun-baked picnic table in Alex’s scrubby backyard, his cane resting nearby.  He drops in and out of Alex’s life, and on this hazy summer Saturday he’s in, mostly because he needs Alex’s help installing new grow lights for his indoor grow house. 

It’s the early 80’s. 

I’m fifteen years old.

Like my boyfriend, Alex Dimas, and Alex’s sisters and brother, Primo has the Afrocentric affect of a disenfranchised white guy who hangs around the basketball courts of Teaneck, from which the Dimas family has recently moved to the wrong side of tony Tenafly, New Jersey.  Alex is a gifted, street-smart athlete.  The pretty boys of Tenafly don’t know what to make of a thick, blonde white boy who emanates a thug menace but whose open, perpetually grinning expression, prone as it is to acne in a school that early-adopts both rhinoplasty and Tetracyclin, they read as simple.  Alex becomes captain of the football, basketball, and baseball teams within minutes of landing in Tenafly.  He teaches me how to play stickball, hop a fence, and throw a punch, life skills I’m still grateful to have, and which come in handy when we finally flee the suburbs for Brooklyn. 

“So where’s your Pops at?”  Primo wants to know.

“Not around,” I answer.

“He dead?”

“Fort Lee,” I reply.

“So why don’t you go see him?”

“He’s not in my life, Primo,” I say.

“That’s too bad.”

“I guess.”

“You guess?  Shit. You should see him.”

“Thanks, Primo.”

“No. Serious.  You should.”  My boyfriend’s father scans me up and down.  “If you deal with your father shit, you might lose some weight.”

Yes, that’s what he said.  If you deal with your father shit, you might lose some weight.

I mean, really?  Really.  This Section 8-Travis Bickle-Fifth of July motherfucker is going to tell me about my mind body connection?

(Actually, he was right.  But that’s another blog.  One that I already wrote as a 2010 feature article for SELF magazine, and which thoroughly scratched my itch to write about losing weight.)

I first meet Alex Dimas while tanning on the garage roof during another unbearably long and lonely summer as my 7-year-old sister, whom I babysit while our professor mother commutes a couple of hours each day to Brooklyn College, plays somewhere inside the house.  My mother has given me the option of sleep-away camp but I reject it once again.  Summers are for trips to Europe to see my grandmother, other elderly relatives, and my mother’s dear friends from her English high school, chief among them my mother’s best friend, a second mother to me.  But my grandmother, whom I think of as my chief advocate in life, has recently died, which means I’m dying slowly for summer to end.  Until Alex walks past our small, dark, mustard-colored aluminum-sided house on the corner of the last unpaved street in Suburbandom, waves up to me, and, as I suck in my stomach and wave back, my heart starts to pound.

Meanwhile, my home life is morbid and frightening: for years I’ve been the target of my stepfather’s violence, which thrums constantly and explodes when my mother is not around, i.e., regularly.  I spend much of my day in a reverie, scanning the dormers and backyards and chain-link fences and potted tomato gardens of our neighborhood from my garage roof widow’s walk, dreaming of a rescue or an escape, having long given up hope that my mother might engineer one on our behalf. 

And yet, other than my solo forays into the City that begin when I’m 11, first for museums, then thrift stores and, later on, the downtown club scene, I stay close to home.

Looking back on it now, Alex Dimas seems like the last person on the planet for a girl in my position to choose for a first love, or, I should say, if I were my own mother, which in many ways I was at that time, Alex is not who I would have chosen for me.  Alex is the kind of boy about whom I would have put my foot down.  He is poor, he is tough, he is not intellectual and has no social graces, he is not from a good family, and although he claims to aspire to a career in professional baseball, he doesn’t have the inner resources to translate this dream into action.

If I’m looking for rescue at 15, why don’t I hie me hither to a Teen Tour or otherwise present myself to one of the Jewish American Princes of Tenafly’s moneyed East Hill?  I’m an avid reader of both serious literature and paperback trash: surely I might have picked up on the notion of marrying well.  But I’ve never before seen a man get a woman out trouble; I’ve only seen him keep her there.  Maybe I attract Alex Dimas instead of Jared Kaplan because cagey strategies for upward mobility don’t run in my family.  All the European pedigree in the world buys you squat if you don’t know how to handle that fish fork on West End Avenue.

I loved Alex Dimas.

I didn’t want to go to summer camp.

I stayed home when I could have left.

When I look at my grandparents’ Nazi visas, stamped as they are in the year 1938, I marvel.  How could they have stayed so long?  Why didn’t they get out?  The German Jews didn’t think it could happen to them, it’s explained to me.  Yes, yes, I get it…but I don’t.  It makes no sense to me. How?  How? How could they not have seen what was coming?  Maybe they didn’t read the papers, so absorbed they were in their daily lives of work, errands, wallpaper swatches, shopping for a nice piece of fish for dinner.  Kind of like how I have to drag myself to read the “papers” (in their online personae), only because I don’t ever want to make the mistakes my family made, not because reading the papers ever makes me feel anything other than worse, except for Bill Cunningham, who always makes me feel better.

I’m reading Katharine Graham’s autobiography right now, Personal HistoryKatharine Graham’s grandfather was a French Jew.  Katharine Graham’s grandfather left Europe in 1859 and knew just what to do.  What if my family had been more like the Meyers?  What if they’d been ambitious and bold?

I’m sure there are all sorts of macro reasons why the Ebels waited to leave until it was almost too late, and I’ve already imagined some of them (see No. 12: The Number and No. 13: The Other Depression). But for all I know, this emotional penchant started long before the 1930’s.  Maybe my great-grandfather also considered and reconsidered leaving Germany for the States, and his father before him.  I might very well come from a long line of Ebel children who for God’s sake should have gone to summer-camp and found themselves a schmatte-business scion with a terrific head of hair and a wicked top-spin instead of tanning on the roof of a garage all summer.

Staying when you should leave runs in my family.

This is why I like the idea of an EU passport.

I want to know that if there is ever a reason to leave, whether it’s further economic collapse, President Sarah Palin, a cheaper fancy high school for my fabulous son or a late-blooming artistic career in East Berlin, we can.

Please, God.  Let me always know when it’s time to leave. 

And even more than that, let me let my people go.