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I never thought of Heaven as distant or dull. A kind of open-air,
noncommercial bazaar where I’d encounter some of my relatives
and friend—that sounded pleasant enough. Best of all
would be the chance to see my parents again, especially my mother,
whose loss in 1969 still resonates. Or else Heaven might be interesting
as Mount Olympus, with Zeus’s unruly offspring prowling
about. Zeus and Hera I could do without—too much wrangling.
Their abode, nevertheless, was a substantial place (a real
mountain), not far from humans, and peopled with a range of
quirky, diverse personalities rich in foibles.
As a Protestant among Catholics, and later, a Gentile among
Jews, I learned to fit in. It was easy, since I liked people and was
brought up without prejudices. Although from time to time I was
made aware sharply of cultural differences, they did not elicit the
pained desire for release from physical strictures that appears in
Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “Humchback girl, she thinks of heaven”
(A Street in Bronzeville, 1945). I had little fear of death or
dying, and certainly not of dead bodies or the dead. So when one
of my Catholic friends went down the street to St. Theresa’s
Church to kiss the ring of a recently deceased priest, I accompanied
her and was glad to be included in her mission.
The priest was laid out on a bier before the altar. He had gray
hair, was dressed in black, and simply looked at rest. I copied my
friend’s gestures. I kneeled when she kneeled, crossed myself
when she did, although I did so in the Greek Orthodox manner,
from left to right instead of right to left. I didn’t recognize the
man, though I might have greeted him once on the street. I had
learned to say, “Good morning, Father,” or “Good afternoon, Sister”
to clergy who passed me there, since most of them taught at
the school across from the church.The greeting seemed like a civil
salutation to these local personages.
And so when my late Aunt Jerry, my youngest and closest aunt,
nine years my senior, sole survivor of her family, lay dying of cancer
in her own bed in her cherished East Side Manhattan apartment,
attended by day and night nurses I’d arranged for (I was in
charge of her care), I traveled each day across town to be with her.
I was neither surprised nor alarmed by her reports of visions.
They comforted her. Years before I had experienced the tragedy
of my mother’s premature death at 63. Inconsolable for months, I
discovered her presence beside me one morning in the kitchen, as
I stood at my stove, before its four gas burners that resembled
those I’d grown up with. Like Jerry’s visions of her mother, sisters,
and brothers appearing high on the wall opposite her bed,my
mother’s unmistakably benign presence comforted me. Speaking
to her again was deeply reassuring. After that, I was able to summon
the experience when I needed to.
I wonder whether one day (or night) I’ll have visions like Jerry’s.
Will I see my mother, father, Jerry and her siblings, and my maternal
grandmother still dressed in black, with a white lace jabot
at her neck?
Poem to Aunt Jerry,Two Weeks Before She Died
Midway between Earth and Heaven
Jerry turns to her sisters and brothers.
She expects her mother for dinner,
wearing a black dress, white lace jabot
at her collar. Jerry sees her family
in filaments, in light or shadows
on a wall, or on a sofa, a chair.
She does not see her first husband, who drank,
or her second husband, who lay his head in an oven.
“It’s a lonely life,” she tells me.
Now she has a day nurse and a night nurse.
Her lost family gathers on a wall,
reviving Sundays at Grandma’s.
I visit her daily.
THOMAS PAINE (1737-1809)
In Brooklyn, we all passionately loved the Brooklyn Dodgers,
whom we never disparaged whether they were “Our Bums” in
the cellar (last place, year after year) or Our Bums climbing to
the top.We admired their hopeful striving, their genuine affection
for Brooklyn. As they achieved success, they opened businesses locally
(a bowling alley, a roller-skating rink) that we gladly patronized.
In addition to the Dodgers, I developed crushes regularly on
writers and thinkers I read. It was the idealists who appealed to
me, those who aspired to great goals: peace, a loving world, freedom—
or winning the National League pennant. I loved Percy
Bysshe Shelley, with his beliefs in human perfectibility and in poets
as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. I thought that
poetry could make things happen and wanted my own poetry to
contribute to that goal.
My parents’ glorified, immigrant vision of the United States,my
own unfettered appreciation of its once humane goals and values
were epitomized for me by the pen and person of Thomas Paine.
His love of liberty superseded his dislike of war, so that the series
of pamphlets that took shape as Common Sense (1776-83) vigorously
supported George Washington and his army’s battles. His
thinking was radically advanced, however. It anticipated later concepts
that would span a range from Socialist to Libertarian.
Not only did Paine condemn slavery. His Agrarian Justice (1775-
76), viewed land as the people’s rightful inheritance and means of
survival. He proposed a national fund for them to be paid a sum
as compensation for their loss due to the system of private property.
He also imagined a national sum for life to every living person
from the age of fifty on. His views anticipated social security,
universal free public education, and a guaranteed minimum income.
A Deist, he observed that “Religions were set up to terrify
and enslave mankind” (The Age of Reason, 1793), a belief later
formulated by Karl Marx as “Religion is the opium of the people.”
Neither view ingratiated itself appreciably.
My father would have approved of Agrarian Justice. I recall his
stated belief that everything within the earth—including oil, minerals,
water—should be considered common property, held in
trust by each generation for the next. Nor was he a fan of organized
religion (more of that in another chapter).
Paine’s social and religious precepts were odious to many, especially
the wealthy, and to those who held slaves (as did George
Washington). The pervasive practice infected even northern
colonies like New York. Imagine his ideas presented at a current
board meeting of Exxon Mobil or, for that matter, of most corporations.
Small wonder the following nursery rhyme became popular
at the time of his death:
Poor Tom Paine! There he lies,
Nobody laughs and nobody cries.
Where he has gone and how he fares,
Nobody knows and nobody cares.
I propose my own version:
Dear Tom Paine, there you lie,
I salute you and I cry.
Hope to see you, bye and bye.
Gone to history, heart, and air:
We can find our power there.
Thank you, Thomas.Yes, we care.