|HISTORY OF THE BOOK|
I start with a blank page, words formed randomly, across formidable space, pulling back this child who was me. Did I know before I wrote what would appear?
Cavernous, overwhelming emptiness, loss, a mother, a lie of omission … trying to bring together what was vaporous?
How do I know what I put down on paper is true? I travel back to Los Angeles down streets I travelled in memory. Yes, my mother Esther said it didn’t happen like this. What did she know within the mind tangled of a small childhood, how it was stored, recorded and brought out one grain at a time?
Five people, five different stories. Same incident. Memory bends, turns, reforms in its own order of interior importance.
First a poem, a hieroglyph, then the filling in of images, story, all one at a time, to reform and pull back the dead.
In 1989, I took my name back, the French one, the one my birth mother gave me along with my love of Paris. Did I go there with her? Not in real time, not what could be counted on the clock. Hariette Jeanne, the French way, like Shawn, with a soft J, and in that moment I reclaimed my past, the one forgotten or pressed down where grief could not let it out.
In 1989, when taking back my original name, the writing of the memoir came forward. I wanted my original face to find my birth mother, all memories of her sealed away with my father’s mourning and mine, without all the words at the age of 2 ? to reform her. The poem, FOR MY MOTHER WHO DIED WITHOUT WARNING became the centerpiece for my book of poems, “13,” which came out in 1990, the truth of the journey. I call it the hieroglyph of the memoir. Symbols, key words, phrases, I was a detective on the search for that part of me that was silent for so long. Each small story completed brought me that much closer to unlocking the memories that stay hidden, unavailable, then given voice.
As a poet, it was hard to fathom all the words it would take to write a book. Slowly it was honed and fashioned, fleshed out as that small child who was me, spoke onto the page. Until it was there, the memory was locked away, safe, unfettered, unharmed.
My mother, Esther, kept photo albums, all in order, chronological and titled, pinned in with Dennison corners on black felt pages of the photograph album.
I grew up with these images. They filled in part of the vacuum while memory receded.
As I wrote, I pulled their faces out as a reminder of that earlier time when testimony was blurred or altogether obscured. They informed me and helped the voice to come forward.
The documented experience long hidden was factual and true.
I returned to Los Angeles as I got further into the story just to see, yes … the tree with the soft bark like papyrus Grandma Goldenberg taught me to hug was on Cochran Avenue. The La Brea Tar Pits, although now held in by mesh wire fence, were still where Grandma and I visited them. Orbach’s was now part of the Page Museum.
These are all images a child remembers and pulls forth to hold to her as gospel. My own safe haven, warm and holding me now appeared on the page. A topographic map in the recesses of my brain. Yes, that child lived. Yes, she is in there to guide me.
The house where my mother Alice died remains. As the small child came out and was able to breathe on the page, so was I able to reclaim her as the two of us now walked through my life and became one.
My heart sister, Pat, said to me the other day, “You write about dead people.”
It’s not all about that. It’s the memory of their lives on the page, keeping them alive to help me. They are part of who I am, who I have become. Not separated and separate, like an antique flower-painted vase in a glass case, the one painted by my maternal grandmother, but out in the open, woven into wholeness, as threads were pulled together, called back home.
Queen Stinky emerges and joins me, strong, reliant, resilient. She helps me down the path of the book. The will to survive, first revealed when I was four, carried me through death, loss, childhood, torture, rejection, betrayal, and then, rejoining, like the refraction of stained glass at Beth Olum Mausoleum. The pieces of the puzzle came together, the mosaic of my life, transformed. “Can we create a whole from decomposed matter…” artifacts. The scavenger hunt, the ultimate prize, the memoir.
Thanks to all of you living and dead who helped me to this place. I share with you not a shrine of death, but a celebration of life: L’Chaim.