Rosa was going with our friends from the NGO to translate Spanish-Queche Maya..did I want to ride to Penemache to visit?
Once there, I was distracted by the line of traditionally clad, barefoot women waiting in the sharp Winter sun. The light was desperately harsh, even the shadows glared. I had given up on photos, when I saw this gorgeous old woman crossing back into a room.
I had no way to ask if I could take her portrait.
Rosa was too busy.
Then, I heard her cough -raw from 80 years of dust and cooking on open fires…I showed her, with gestures, that I wanted to give her percussion like we do for cystic fibrosis. With my cupped hands I patted her back listening for the most productive areas and asked someone bring water for her. She was breathing a little smoother when I stood up. We smiled, I bowed and put the camera on my shoulder. I pantomimed the request … She agreed.
I look at her face all the time reflecting on the kindness it shows.
Wondering how she survived the thirty year armed conflict fomented by my country and kept this grace and good humor.
She began moving with unique fluidity but ….concentrating.
“What are you doing?”
“What is that?”
“It’s a kind of martial art.”
“Looks like a dance. How did you learn it?”
“We meet Wednesdays and Saturdays on 17th and 6th.”
I went to the next session and studied with Joshua Whiting for the next couple of years. Before he discovered a Wu style class in a Chinatown park, the master had been a professional dancer on Broadway. He would enter the studio in his unremarkable street clothes and change into Chinese white pajamas. And, when he assumed his place In front, he appeared positively ageless and ultra venerable. The master told us 20 somethings that he was more than 60.
To remember 108 Forms I assigned my own names to sequences and developed a dance notation. Joshua told me that only one other student did that a couple of years before and he became very famous for walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers : Philippe Petit.
The indoor class met at the Nadine Ravine Studio for Dance, so, once in a while some ballet types would try a post barre stretch with us. The pink Divas were dabblers but two black leotarded jazz dancers were already regulars along with Joshua’s girlfriend, Lev, an Orthodox Jew and two of his fightin’ Brooklyn buddies. Outdoors, we met under the Brooklyn Bridge. The classes always seemed sweltering no matter where they were.
Beginning was almost like performance, there was this moment when we started counting breaths that felt as if the curtain was about to come up. We sweated the details and exercised as one and after years the sequence breathed in my bones. On a secluded overlook in Mexico I stepped thru it perfectly. After that, the 1980’s dawned and I lost the practice.
With an incomplete set of notes, I practice on my back porch. I may never remember it all but, with the help of assortment of Digital Masters, I am reclaiming bits of this sense memory, this art.
It was right there
I just had to pick up the letter
– signed “M.”
“M’s” hand had trembled …
I absorbed his world
Then, let it be.
The only losses this child was trained to fixate on were fat and inches. In that category, loss seemed elusive, distant and always required more discipline and endurance than I had. By now, at almost seventy, I have lost the weight, the way, my youth and several fortunes.
But, my first and most serious loss was announced in a rather benign telegram.
PHILIP KILLED IN CAR CRASH
I had no image for this event until my sainted mother reported -after her visit to the mortuary – that my father had been “decapitated. ” She said this so flat out and plainly that I had to ask what the word meant. Her explanation included how she could see the stitches peeking over his tie. So this image branded the horrible event.
In the Chicago hotel, she smoked and breathed whiskey for comfort as I sat there obsessing on the dreadful vision she had provided – so gratuitously. I did not have the mind to wonder about the permanence of death as I was waiting for the “seriously slurring” part of the evening. Finally, my sister signaled we could cross the street to Granny’s.
It was Granny, who really needed the whiskey but it was not her way. She paced her bedroom mumbling about how none of this would have happened if he had not taken up with the shicksah. She circled a subtile Nain. Grandfather’s eyes followed her from the Baroque Gold frame and she continued her bitter monologue.
This was my first view of despair. somehow, I could see but not feel her depth of emotion. I was frankly numb except for a vague dread of what would happen when she saw my mother. Most certainly, they would not embrace graveside.
There was red anger and black misgivings on both sides of Astor street. That night seemed impermanent and cold as the wind gusting through the open transoms to vent the radiators. The starched sheets rustled all ice and brittle and my sister whimpered on the bathroom floor as she had all during the kidnappings and long divorce. It seemed more home than any place had in a long while.
Breakfast with the maids in the kitchen was hyper normal. They were from Norway, so, were always solemn and orderly. We chewed our old person flavored bran in the usual silence.
They told us that the family would receive guests all day and the funeral would follow on the next morning. There were no plans for anything beyond these mysterious rituals. And, we were expected to be present for all of this while my mother was excluded. This was the endless familiar tension.
It was most pleasant without her around. I could slather butter my popovers and eat all the Frangipanni mints I wanted. And not be pestered by her cosmetic concerns. So what if I would need to wear a dresses like tents or came down with diabetes? Back at Granny’s I was free.. Grief or no this was stern comfort I did not know that I missed it until this dark reunion.
I wondered if I could just stay.
You know, not go back to L.A.?
During the reception, my sister sat listlessly on the other brocaded chair in front of the fire place. I maintained my focus on a hoard of canapés, when, Uncle Sam glided to my side. I was the youngest and female so, it was not like any of the very grey men to engage me beyond a greeting. But, somehow, Uncle Sam stood next to me, said “condolences” and fervently pressed a twenty dollar bill into my hand.
“Huh?” I thought and thanked him.
Having given me this gift, he slithered away into the Minion. My mind went wild: Did my sister also get a surprising handshake? Would I have to share it? What was that about?
I would find out soon enough.
My ol’ Daddy would whistle through his teeth and air drum the beat of “Big Noise from Winnetka” when Bob Crosby and the Bobcats ticked it out of the HiFi. We lived in the village of the same name then and would howl “my” song on the way to Granny’s in Chicago. Wacker Drive would spin butterscotch headlights passed us while we belted this anthem — positively presaging the Rolling Stones on Main Street. Years later Bette Midler would make the definitive version keeping the core lyrics…
“I am the one they call the bi-I-I-I-g noise!
I am a living work of art!
I just flew in from Winnetka, daddy-o!
I’m gonna blow this joint apart!..
I got my high heels I don’t need no wheels”
One January night, maybe whistling, skidding head on altered this reality. By way of exchange, California freeways would wave below my VW. Open top singing along with the tinny radio that crackled about the very Duece Coups that roared into the Valley dodging between Santa Ana winds and flaming sunsets.
Harmonious Beach Boys … They were so much more like the flannel covered dudes that I dated than the suited Stones and The Mod Beatles. Our local stars probably never bored out their engines or put “competition clutches” in there cars. But, they sang about the beach where my sister slung hamburgers.
Decades later, my little town blues,” the mountains of freeways would melt away. Liza Minnelli and Luciano Pavarotti would preform the best “New York, New York.” This was, after all, a love song that everybody knew and sang about their unabashed crush – the city of Disco nites and Wall Street days..pizza and champagne.
Eventually, Mp3s were invented and all the songs including these of glided onto the Ipad that I took to Guatemala. Music, life and language have all changed for me … Now, I dance with the Mayans and sing about the Rey del Quiche.