For years, they arrived regularly, two or three batches every month or so that always included one for me, one for Ken, and occasionally one for our kids. Mike Watoma’s postcards, each a work of art, were a mainstay of our mailbox and of many others’ mailboxes too.
About a week ago, Mike, who was housebound in a Topeka apartment because of multiple health issues, died rather suddenly. His death didn’t just leave a hole in our mailboxes but in our hearts.
A bunch of us got to know Mike many years ago through the Kansas Area Watershed Council gatherings, which he attended with aplomb. He taught us how to make handmade drums out of wood and deer hide. He took many KAW Council photos and made gorgeous large-size portfolios, each page an dazzle of images in various shapes with such style and pizzazz that it was hard to look away. He loved the old ones and especially the young ones among us, paying special attention to our kids and encouraging their gifts and propensities.
A born artist, he was always creating, painting voraciously from a young age, making art that blew people’s minds, and keeping at it no matter what. As his health declined, perched on the top floor of his apartment building, he dedicated himself to weaving together community through his art and Facebook, where he was sure to post friendly responses and sources for everything from how to do cemetery stone rubbings to how much he loved the film “The Octopus Teacher.”
But he must have spent hours making and mailing out art. His watercolor paintings (made with watercolor pens, pen and ink and more) were miniature wonders. He had a huge supply of big and small postcard-sized watercolor paper for this art, and his mailing list was far more vast than I imagined. Since he died, I’ve heard from dozens of people on the receiving end of birthday, Christmas, tomatoes are ripe, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Halloween, crows are cool, and special occasion cards. Just this month, he wrote me, “Happy Birthday, Young Lady” as well as a Hanukkah card with a not-so-secret confession that this particular painting was one of his favorites (but shhh, don’t tell anyone).
His cheer, creativity, and big-hearted compassion covered our refrigerators and found its way into our drawers and onto our shelves around and beyond Kansas. I can’t think of a better way to share art than what Mike did, giving so many of us so many small and steady flying and postmarked treasures. Long may his flag wave in our memories and may we display his generosity, imagination, and love in our homes.
It’s not lost on me that it’s the Day of the Dead, when we remember and honor our departed beloveds (between Oct. 31-Nov. 2 this year). The veil is thinner during this time between worlds, dimensions, states of being, the spirit world and the world we seemingly inhabit. I’m thinking loud and often about a very recent departed dear one, Phil Brater, a phenomenal man who saved my life when I was a traumatized teen.
I was 15 when I met Phil, one of the leaders of the Temple Shaari Emeth youth group in Manalapan, New Jersey. The rabbi of our congregation, when I met with him at the urging of my father (freaked out that when he said he was suicidal, I said I was too) hooked me up with the youth group to give me more stability. It gave me much more: a sense of belonging, plus equal doses of sanity and humor, but most of all, it gave me Phil.
There’s an old Yiddish saying that we can survive anything if it’s part of a story, but to have a story really help us bring together the shards of our brokenness, we need someone to listen to it and help us see it in new lights and bigger perspectives. Phil was my witness, my confidant, my ad hoc therapist, and my spiritual advisor all in one.
In short order, Phil told me to come 30 minutes early each week to youth group so we could talk, and talk we did, usually sitting in a hallway, our backs leaning against the white-painted cinder block walls between kids’ classrooms. I would tell Phil of my parents’ long and damaging divorce, the price and pain of my rupture from most of my family, and what it was like living with a father who kicked or screamed at me most days. I shared what seemed like an endless well of sadness, insecurity, shame, and how I couldn’t see a way out of this.
Mostly he listened. Sometimes he held my hand or strategized with me about how to get through the next year, month, day. Always he told me that no child should have to go through what I was going through, caught in a maze of a mess so thick we could not see what to do to change things without exposing me to potentially more danger. But because of Phil, I had a way out I couldn’t see at time although I was desperate each week to sink to the ground in the dim hallway with him and start talking.
Having someone who truly verified each week that I wasn’t crazy, that things were indeed bad, and that I was strong, smart, and creative enough to survive this — even if believing that was a vast trick of suspended belief — helped me get strong, smart, and creative enough. He also praised whatever scrap of poetry I brought him and told me to keep writing no matter what, telling me that poetry was one of my best ways through all this.
Phil came by his genius for help and healing naturally, it seemed, and through his vocation as a guidance counselor at an all-girls’ school in New York City where most of the girls were navigating poverty, violence, and mental illness in themselves and their families. So he knew how to work with people like me and many others who were struggling, even in our middle-class suburban youth group. But mostly, he was innately gifted and inherently intelligent when it came to being wildly present with people in pain.
When I say “wildly,” I mean it. Phil (as well as his brother-in-law, who co-led the youth group) had a wicked sense of humor, and nothing was too disgusting or out of the pale for our youth group to fall out of our chairs laughing about. Phil also had a no-holds-barred high-pitched laugh and absolutely no self-consciousness about being himself. Through his fierce love of his wife and daughters, he also showed me what it meant to be a mensch and good family man.
Although we stayed in touch since that time through letters or phone calls, and occasionally a visit, I got to see him and actually co-present with him at the old temple in 2014. Fittingly, I was giving a reading from my novel, The Divorce Girl, a semi-autobiographical novel (the plot and some of the incidents were from my life but all the characters, including the main one — who was taller and smarter than me — were fictional). When I thanked Phil for all he did for me, then people started asking him questions as well as me, and soon he was standing next to me.
“How did you help her become a writer?” one person asked. Phil said, “You know, you just find out what someone is interested in and encourage them.” This was completely true, but the bigger story is that he showed me the power of telling our stories aloud and on the page.
Phil is the one who first shone the flashlight of good listening enough for me to see not just my way out but how writing and listening could be a way for others to find their own path. I credit him with helping me become a teacher and facilitator, and much of what I know of the power of such an encounter informed my development of Transformative Language Arts, a field that encourages people to make community and change through what we say and write.
When I hugged Phil goodbye seven years ago, I told him I would try to visit again. Although I very much wanted to, being so far away, then the distance magnified by the pandemic kept me of seeing him alive again. Another old temple pal let me know that he died October 27. I’m sad that he’s gone, and I especially wish his wonderful family all comforts and peace possible.
Phil’s life on this side of the veil is over, but my full circle time with him is so embedded in my heart that he will never be dead to me. And in case he can hear or read this (my idea of the afterlife would surely include a lot of reading), thank you, Phil, for getting me through the hardest three years of my life. Love in action like yours never dies.
Twenty years ago it happened. Ten years ago I wrote this post. So much of it is still true, and there’s so much more to sayabout the heartbreaking state of polarity, divisiveness, and home-grown hatred in our country. About the pandemic-catalyzed resilience and mutual aid as well as abuse, addiction, anxiety, poverty, and despair. About all those gone, recently or a long time going. Also about the changes that make us better and better able to face our collective American history, especially the worst of who we’ve been and can be. About perseverance, innovation, and the love that abides. Especially about the love that abidesand the importance of memory. Here is my little love note for part of where I grew up, in the shadows of the towers that went up when I was growing up.
“Those god-awful towers,” my father said in disgust. He wasn’t alone: we all thought they were wicked ugly, too big, and besides, they would and did block the light from our neck of the woods, three blocks away, never mind that we were underground. Down the steps to the Fulton-Nassau Street station was a small arcade of stores, including our own, the Subway Stamp Shop, which my dad and grandpa ran.
I grew up spending many Saturdays and holidays there, emerging frequently for walks around the block, heading with Grandpa to Chock’full’o’nuts on the corner (where I would dip my chocolate donut in his coffee), forays to get ice creams of a slice of pizza, and trips to the bathroom, which entailed going to the building next door, getting the key, riding the elevator up eight floors, and walking down a long hall.
Below ground was a kind of kid paradise. There was a candy stand, complete with stacked rows of Chuckles and M & Ms. Need I say more? There was also a jewelry shop full of silver and glass, a shoe-shine place with an ancient Black man who always smiled at me and told me how beautiful I was, a barber shop where they spent more time reading the paper and complaining than cutting hair, and a fabled diner where I sat on a high stool inhaling grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate malts. Faced with the choice of spending the day helping my mom with housework in first our Brooklyn triplex and later our New Jersey Levitt house or coming to the store, it was no contest.
The towers started being built when I was an impressionable kid of six and were finished when I was nearly 12. To say everyone around us hated them was an understatement. It wasn’t just the shadow they cast but what they symbolized to my dad and other small business owners who tended to despise the ruling class, particularly those on the rung just above them who worked white-collar jobs in the towers and had impressive college degrees.
“College-educated idiots,” my dad called them and everyone else to whom the term the applied which, in his mind included millions. It didn’t help that between my three siblings and me, we amassed seven college degrees, the first generation in our family to not go from high school to largely a life of full-time work. My dad started college but was derailed from where it might lead him by becoming a father very quickly (to me) while having to balance multiple jobs in between his schemes — often successful, for a time — to make money, which included selling plus-sized polyester clothes at the Englishtown Auction, working as an antique auctioneer, some kind of tax shelter deal that didn’t work out too well, and occasionally buying out stamp and coin supply shops.
When the plane hit the towers, I reacted like most of us, shocked, but consoling myself with the only thing my mind could imagine: it was an accident. When the second plane hit, and then I heard from some construction workers on New Hampshire street in downtown Lawrence that the first tower “went down like a pancake,” I walked quickly to my car, shut the door, turned up the news and cried. I also raced home to make phone calls (this was before everyone carried a cell phone), first to find out if my brother, who worked seven blocks away was okay, then to call my dad.
My brother couldn’t be reached for a little while, but we soon heard he was fine — he walked the other direction from the towers to catch the ferry home. He was shaken but intact after feeling his whole building shake, windows breaking and then everyone oddly calm and organized in getting themselves outside and home.
My father, who had since moved the business to Pennsylvania, was incredulous. The towers we always hated were suddenly a broken object we loved. They no longer symbolized class warfare but instead a unity that enveloped us. Just as the signs around the world read, “We are all New Yorkers,” those of of us with downtown NY roots were now all Twin Tower people. “The whole world’s gone crazy. This is going to lead to big wars, a mess financially, the whole world falling apart,” my father said. Then he added his rhetorical response to the world: “What you gonna do?”
Yet most of what it led to wouldn’t include my dad. He was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, ironically enough, on September 11, 2002. I found out late at night when, coming from from a 9/11 service that I read a poem at, Ken told me my sister called and said I should call her back immediately. After calling her, I spoke to my dad, who said, “What you gonna do?” He died four months later.
Now it’s ten years since the attack. Most years since then, I’ve returned to the store, or at least tried to. The entrance to this part of the subway is usually closed (due to the damage and then the construction from 9/11), but still, I always get my picture taken in front of it. In fact, the first thing I do when going to the city is usually the pilgrimage to the site of the store. Posing with the entryway is like posing with part of the family. In the last few years, the stores in the neighborhood changed drastically. Gone are the small locally-owned clothes from India or sporting goods stores, little delis and pizzarias. Suddenly, there are all chain stores around, and I say suddenly, I mean mostly in the last year. The world where I grew up is layers beneath the one I see.
Yet several years ago, the entrance to the subway arcade was open. I ran down the stairs to find every store out of business and locked up, and the entrance to the subway gated and locked too. Standing there, on the cement floor in the middle of these ghost stores, I felt strangely at home. All of this world may be gone, but in my mind, I hear words like “Angola” and “pre-folded hinges” and “stamp tongs” and see myself at age seven, drawing abstract snakes at the big table of stamps under glass in a tiny store. My grandfather is chain-smoking, my father is arguing with his mother on the phone, and the store is crowded with a Hassidic man looking over stamps beside a Sikh in his turban and an ex-showgirl in her pancake makeup and heels. We were all subway dwellers, so far underground and away from how the future would rise and fall.
Kansas roses struggle once summer gets its heat on, but I have found a land where everything is coming up roses: the Pacific Northwest. We were there for Aunt Wilma’s memorial and the family reunion around that gathering, which also included a very special rose garden made from something and by someone Wilma loved very much.
But first, the number of roses in the western Oregon and Washington was dizzying and surely in infinite multiples to rose meccas here. Walking around our friends Carl and Sara’s Vancouver, WA neighborhood, I was dazzled by bundles of blossoms, some tumbling over themselves in excitement and others just standing big and bold in skies that get cool and mildly breezy most evenings. We went to the Oregon Garden, a botanical wonderland of winding gardens mazing together and apart, including a beautiful rose garden. We waltzed to live music in the Portland Peninsula rose garden. Everywhere, there was something to stop me in my tracks and made me bend over carefully, checking to make sure there’s not a bee in the center of the rose before I inhaled it.
But the highlight of the rose tour bloomed in an Auburn, WA backyard, where our cousin’s son Justin, in honor of Wilma, who is his grandmother, created a magical memorial. He finished the Sir Justin’s Rose Garden at the Chase Place just in time to invite all of us to enjoy the three concentric circles of the roses Wilma chose, tended, and loved. The roses were part of a garden she organized volunteers to care for at the retirement facility where she and her late husband Ron lived. The garden was also in the pathway of an oncoming bulldozer that was to way for more housing, so Justin, 21 years old and balancing his college studies, jumped in. With help from his family, he transported a whole lot of big, mature, and sometimes very heavy rose bushes.
The garden circles around a brand-new gazebo Justin and his dad Jim built, finding and rehabilitating some old wood from here and there and finishing it all just in the nick of time for us to step into, shoes off because the polyurethane was still drying, and slide across. All in all, it’s a gorgeous tribute made of wood and flowers, sweat and memory, to his grandparents.
Some of the rose bushes were way taller than me and almost all were thriving like nobody’s business (only one was sluggish but it looks like it’s likely to snap to greater life in the future). Justin created a detailed chart of what’s where and did many hours of research to figure out what each rose was. But whatever each was called, what grabbed me most was the scent, some smelling exactly like rose essential oil and others vastly richer and more intoxicating. I made it my business to smell a flower from each of the 70 bushes.
All those roses took me back to my own grandfather, my dad’s dad who loved growing roses in the tiny backyard of his rental house in Brooklyn. I remember leaning into each flower as a kid, renewed by what I seeing and smelling. While I’m a lover of many flowers, I do have some I especially adore, especially a wildly fragrant rose (or lilac or lily-of-the-valley or iris or hyacinth), which brings me backwards and forward in time at once.
We wandered the rose garden in that twilight time for a long stretch, marveling at them as a rainbowy hot air balloon sailed over. I imagined Wilma walking this garden, so delighted to see her babies — human and otherwise — flourishing, and as nightfall came, we walked the paths between the roses, scattering some of Wilma and Ron’s ashes into the roots of each rose bush.
So that’s what went down with all these roses rising up, reminding me how much a flower can tell the story of a legacy of love and care.
All my life, I heard the old folk song “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” as “Go Tell Aunt Rhoda,” and since I had an Aunt Rhoda, this seemed very fortuitous indeed. Sitting on my porch so many years after encountering that old song, I’m trying to absorb the reality that it’s not the old grey goose that’s dead but my beloved Aunt Rhoda.
Ebullient. Joyful. Enthusiastic. All of that, plus a great laugh and spectacular soprano voice with a propensity for belting out musical numbers — that’s my Aunt Rhoda. My mother’s oldest sister, she and her family were an intimate part of our family’s lives, often living relatively close by whether we were in Brooklyn or central New Jersey. That’s no surprise given how close my mom and her sister were, and it was all to my siblings’ and my benefit to get to see Rhoda and Uncle Jerry as well as our cousins Renee and Michael constantly.
While we kids all played games, like pretending to be the Monkees or the Beatles, my mom and Rhoda downed coffee and talked for hours. Yet when one of us would poke our head in, Rhoda would call us, “What’s wrong, Sweetheart?” more as a song than a response (as my sister Lauren reminded us at the burial service that Rhoda often sang what she had to say). When Jerry was in the room, the rapid-fire wit and humor would overflow, and we’d be alternately cracking up and trying to singing along.
At family dinners or holidays, it was downright expected that at some point, Rhoda and Renee (who also has an amazingly beautiful voice) would harmonize on a Rogers and Hammerstein musical number or the like. Since she was rushed to the hospital last week, I’ve watched a little video at least six times of them singing “There’s a Place For Us” from West Side Story.
But her joie de vivre and grace wasn’t just when she sang. My last conversation with her, me on speaker phone with her and Renee (parked outside a Wal-Mart), took place earlier this month. Rhoda was ecstatic that, after 15 months, they were going into a store where she could power down the aisles after she spent the pandemic extremely isolated due to age, health issues, and the downright risk of living in an area (New Jersey) where the virus really took hold. I was calling to invite them to my mother’s 80th birthday celebration next November, and Rhoda was beside herself with joy about our whole family being together again and about celebrating her fiercely beloved sister.
All of her love was fierce, full, and unconditional. Renee, who lived with her and helped take care of her in so many ways for so many years, told us at the burial service that her mom was her biggest defender and most enthusiastic fan. Although Rhoda would famously roll her eyes at times, her love was never in doubt.
Now, after a short and unexpected illness, she’s gone, and in the last week, our family went from 0 to 100 on the Rhoda front, a panorama of worry, prayer, wishes, “tell her I love her” messages, goodbyes, and for most of us, a whole lot of travel. Back home after a whirlwind trip to New Jersey involving layovers in Detroit and Minneapolis, rental cars, trains and trams, and lot of walking, I’m now back to where I started: trying to grapple with the loss of my sweetheart Aunt Rhoda.
Wherever she is, I hope there’s singing involved as well as peace. Wherever we who love her are, I pray for the same, with love and gratitude for all.