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2008

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The Empty Nestrance

Lenore Weiss

Now that my kids are young adults and have left home, several friends who've known me quite well have asked why I haven’t written more about my days as a political activist.  I always resisted the suggestion.  Those years seemed to have blurred into one big meeting. But the question kept being asked, and I began to reconsider.

When I was well into my teens, I learned about my family's radical history. I think my family believed that it was best to shield me from the dangers of political activism. But given the times, it was a difficult thing to do.

I had become an activist during my freshman year of college. Of course, I was already inclined toward progressive ideas.  My parents had been involved around the Communist Party during the Depression under the auspices of the Hungarian-American social clubs. This was typical for those years; my father had become involved in organizing the Painter's Union in New York City. My mother’s cousin's family had been involved in the Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies. 

As a child, I can remember my father working all the time. But on Sunday my mother allowed me to accompany him by subway to the beach where I walked back and forth along the shore scavenging with him for loose change. Sometimes he’d pick violets for my mother in the early spring at Orchard Beach located in the northeast part of the Bronx.   

My father, Martin Weiss, made orthopedic shoes and arches in his shop not far from Bellevue Hospital. He had been a radical in his youth. Throughout his life he remained a progressive thinker who believed in social justice. As a young man in Hungary, he’d also studied to be a rabbi, but had tossed aside the yarmulke soon after he’d arrived in this country prior to his 13th birthday. Sometimes I heard him talk with his friend, Willie about Kabbala, and how people were not supposed to begin studying the more mystical Jewish tradition until after age 40 when they had the maturity to understand its full import.   

Sometimes during the spring, he would ride on the subway until the last stop of what was then the IRT, Pelham Bay Station, where there were actual trees and a green field filled with yellow dandelions, bursts of sunshine that I collected in my sweaty palm with a smell that tickled my nose and made me sneeze, while we waited for the bus to take us to Orchard Beach where he walked back and forth along the shoreline, breathing in the salt air and clearing his head after a week’s worth of work. We’d find a particular place located at the end of the beach tucked alongside one of the picnic areas where the Hungarians who knew each other from the local social club, gathered to practice hand balancing. My father always serving as the “bottom man,” lifting people over his head in shoulder stands, or balancing a woman on one foot while she held the other pointed in the air.

Mostly, I remember him teaching me to do “birdies” as I approached him on the beach in a rhythm of 1-2-3-Jump! He’d coach me to, “Stand up straight. Whatever you do, always stand up straight.” Then he’d grab me by the hips and quickly shift me over his head like a bucket on a Ferris wheel until I could see rows of beach umbrellas stretched along the sand.

My father had the soul of a poet and introduced me to the work of Sándor Petöfi, who played a central role through his poetry in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.  Petőfi had read Nemzeti dal (The National Song) to a gathering crowd on March 15 in Vörösmarty Square in Budapest where people chanted the refrain as they began to march around the city, seizing printing presses, liberating political prisoners, and declaring the end of Austrian rule.
                                      
On the God of the Hungarians \ We vow, \ We vow, that we will be slaves \ No longer!

My memories as a young girl are of him always working, always working, six days a week, and then later, when he worked for five days a week like most people, he became sick and fell far away from us.    

It was 1965. Bob Dylan had been singing about "The Times They are Changing.” I heard the message. After I finished high school, I attended the City College of New York. For several years I'd been learning about the Freedom Rides in the south. Now the United States was involved in Vietnam, and young men were being drafted to fight in the war. Every day there was a newspaper account about another atrocity committed by the United States.  At the same time, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, one of the chief military architects of the War, continued to defend our country's involvement.  I wanted to take my place within my generation. Too young to have been actively involved in the civil rights movement, I was drawn into the vortex of the anti-war movement.  I attended teach-ins at City College. Staking out a microfiche reader at the campus library, I researched the history of the war to get a better understanding of our country’s involvement.

During the summer of 1967 following my freshman at the City College of New York, I spent a summer at World Fellowship, a retreat center outside of Conway, New Hampshire, run at the time by Willard and Ola Uphaus.

The Uphauses were Methodists and active members of the progressive clergy that spoke out regularly against the War in Vietnam, helping to sponsor many fundraisers and petition drives. Willard, probably then in his early 70s, a frail man with locks of silvery hair and wearing orthopedic black shoes to help correct a hip problem that caused him to limp, had spent a year in jail for refusing in 1959 to give Senator McCarthy and his HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee) the guest list to World Fellowship, which was seen as a hot bed of radicalism.  

While I worked during the summer as a breakfast cook and housekeeper, leaders of the civil rights and peace movement came up to give presentations in the evening about their work.  I rose at 6 a.m. to put up water to boil on a massive cast iron stove for the daily pot of oatmeal, and arranged bowls of brown sugar for each table. I also turned up the heat on the griddle for the morning’s pancakes or eggs.   

I received a political education there. I can remember Carl and Anne Braden of the Southern Organizing Committee for Social Justice, members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and speakers from the Pacifist movement that had led a walk across the country against the war. On my days off, I swam in the icy mountain water or climbed Mount Chocorua in my zorries. Once I took a rowboat and crossed the swimming pond and visited a house that was on the other side, picked blueberries on an island in the middle of the water, and encouraged a few other staff members to camp with me there, waking up to the sound of the whippoorwill in the early morning.

 After I the summer, I felt I was ready to take the next step and I joined a political club on campus where I continued to work as an activist, primarily as a writer.  I had always jotted in a notebook, a habit I’d acquired early in school. Putting my habit into practice, I wrote, edited and typed newsletters, running them off on a Getstetner mimeograph machine and using whatever paper we had available. I’d also organized in the spring of 1967 an all-women’s draft protest and sit-in at Whitehall Street, the main induction center in Manhattan. After we were released, my parents came to get me.  They were concerned with my safety; I don’t recall either of them being outwardly angry, but my mother tried to dissuade me from pursuing any further activity with the group.

The W.E.B Du Bois Clubs, named after William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, a scholar and Pan-Africanist,  seemed to be the only campus organization with a solid explanation about the War in Vietnam in terms that I could understand. The group talked about the conflict’s roots in imperialism dating back to the French occupation. I began to spend weekends working in their second-floor office near Macy’s 34th Street. Downstairs was a restaurant that for a few dollars served spicy Italian meatball sandwiches, and attracted lunchtime workers from the garment district always followed by endless racks of clothing that they wheeled along Sixth Avenue.  

Involved with the Du Bois Clubs and then with the Communist Party, U.S.A. from ages 16 to 26, I did a brief stint working in a punch-press factory near O’Hare Airport in Chicago, primarily to get bona fide working class credentials but not before first trying to get hired on with Playboy Magazine. Feeling some conflict of interest between my political direction and my career aspirations, I flubbed the Playboy opportunity by refusing to fill out the required paper work. Returning to New York City in 1971, I worked as a reporter on the Daily World and later, I moved to the West Coast to become a reporter on the People’s World.   

I left the Party around 1976 to pursue a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. It had been a wrenching decision. After years of membership and structuring my life around my political commitments, I needed to experience a life that wasn't defined by demonstrations, petitions, meetings and picket lines.  Basically, I hungered to learn more about what I loved doing—writing—beyond the safety net of a meeting agenda.

I'm not quite sure why until now I've never wanted to tell my story. It certainly had consumed those formative years of my life. But I felt others had already documented the sixties. My choices didn't seem unusual. Back in those days, we all belonged to organizations and tussled for ideological superiority until we discovered the necessity of coalition politics and the art of compromise. My membership in the CPUSA seemed to be a result of my family background, the times in which I grew up, and who I was.

I've come to understand that my membership in the Communist Party for me was less about any notoriety associated with being a "card-carrying member," and more about what it meant growing up with hope. Many of my generation had been galvanized by the belief that we could change the world, and to a certain extent, we did. Everyone was excited by revolutionary ideas.  There was constant discussion about books, poetry, exchanges over dinner, attending lectures and applying what we heard to what we were doing the next day.

But I think that unlike many others of my generation, my path to activist politics began with a curiosity about language. Language offered me an alternative to what I felt was the drab concrete world in which I found myself.  

 

We lived in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, which since 2005 has become distinguished as the new home to New York City’s Fulton Fish Market, providing restaurants with availability to year-round seafood and produce. But back when I was growing up in the fifties, for me the important landmarks were Nate’s Candy Store, the Garrison Avenue Bakery along Southern Boulevard, and the vacant lot that adjoined our apartment building. Nate’s was located at the corner of Bryant and Spofford avenues, a half block from where I lived, and where I bought my supply of penny candy and bubblegum. I mostly went to the Garrison Avenue Bakery with my mother. Entering the bakery was like visiting a holy shrine, the smell of powdered sugar filling my nostrils with deep longing. All I could do was weakly point my finger at a glossy black and white cookie, pungent with the taste of anise, praying that my mother would buy a cookie together with her half-pound of rye bread, sliced without seeds.

But it was in the Bryant Avenue vacant lot where I learned about growing things, even if the lessons were about weeds.  I remember the startling blue of chicory beneath which I had buried my parakeet; I loved purple clover fuzzy with honey bees, yellow dandelions whose slippery hollow stems resisted picking. On weekends, I’d amuse myself by straining sandstone rocks into rusted tin cans that were part of the lot’s ready detritus. Later, I’d bury my treasure in a pile of rocks, retrieved only when I wanted to impress the older kids, hoping to be invited to play their games.  

If I wasn’t playing in the lot, I held court upstairs in our one-bedroom apartment, on cold days sifting through the contents of our toy box which was stored in the foyer, just beneath the dumb-waiter, a door that that been used at some point as a garbage disposal, but now primarily served as a highway for cockroaches, allowing them to make excursions throughout the building. We rarely opened the dumb waiter. Anyway, it had probably been painted shut. The toy box, on the other hand, easily exposed its gifts, which included a stuffed squirrel that my father had given my mother during their courtship days, and as such, was an artifact of their love. Then there was a mismatched collection of building blocks and a plastic bag that included a lump of clay, too hard to shape into anything, but nonetheless, still interesting.  Next to the toy box was the hallway closet (my parent’s closet) that included a box of comic books and a wine-colored velvet bathrobe. On days when I was sick, my mother allowed me to use it as a cover.  I enjoyed its softness and being close to her smell.

My two sisters and I shared the bedroom.  My parents slept in the living room on a pull-out couch. Our television was located in their combination living room/ bedroom, so on Saturday morning I was permitted after 9 o’clock to turn it on, as long as the volume was “low.”  I huddled close to the T.V., or once my parents got up, in the upholstered chair looking out the window to the fire escape where during the spring I grew morning glories in wooden cheese boxes with seeds ordered from the New York City school system. On the weekend, my sisters usually stayed in bed much longer than I. We were each five years apart, and I was the youngest.

My sister, Nancy, sometimes got up with me in the morning and we would play “spaceship” beneath the kitchen table. Other times, we used my mother’s assortment of household detergents to mix a concoction of brews. I don’t recall Elaine joining us.  She was the eldest, ten years my senior, and seemed distant and aloof.  My sisters mostly ordered me around. But I always listened to them when they didn’t know I was listening and later found out about the paperback, “Peyton Place” that had somehow been smuggled into our apartment with its explicit sex scenes, or news about the twins, Bobby and Brian, who lived in our building on the ground floor, and who were always having tussles with the police.  

Like any kid, I created my own amusements. I'd listen to my mother talk with her friends at the kitchen table as they ate slices of her home-baked cake downed with cups of freshly brewed coffee. They discussed everything—which supermarkets were having the best sales on food that week, shared tidbits about their children, husbands, and gossip about the next-door neighbors who were always fighting. I couldn't understand how they knew when to speak or move on from one topic to the next. I concluded that there must be unwritten rules that were not available to kids. Instead, I followed their conversations as best as I could, and listened to each person who made a different sort of music. My mother's voice was filled with laughter.  Her friend, Dodo, spoke in a deeper register, punctuated with “You know, Ollie...,” which was her nickname for my mother, Olga. I began to understand that language had meaning and a sound. Some afternoons, I'd simply get sleepy and just move away from the table to rearrange my crayons in their box before finding a blank page in my coloring book.

Beyond these afternoon coffee klatches, I was aware that there were more languages than English. My mother and father spoke Hungarian, and like many immigrant families, they reserved this language for their private communication. They never taught us to speak the language.  

At home, my parents exchanged certain Yiddish expressions that made their way into my own conversation. Growing up in New York City, I also was exposed to Spanish in the streets, subway, and at Orchard Beach where the vendors sold Cerveza Rheingold, (Rheingold beer) and pasteles, (a chicken mixture wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf). Constantly, I heard the admonition, mira, mira (look, look)!

I was delighted when I received my first taste of public recognition in my third grade class at P.S. 48. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Klein, had hung up my poem entitled "Spring" on the bulletin board that I'd illustrated with crayons. I tried not to obviously smile at my work whenever I passed by the clothing closet where my writing was enshrined. I didn't want to appear conceited. But knowing that my work had been selected for the display afforded me great pleasure.

In the sixth grade, the world gave me another nod. My essay for the “Little Mr. Hot Spot” contest sponsored throughout the New York City school system by the Fire Department, won a prize.  I went to City Hall with hundreds of other kids to receive a medal and to shake the hand of then mayor, Robert Wagner. My mother was so nervous that all the photographs she took that day came out as blurred.

Looking back, I can remember being a strange kid, quiet, taciturn, moody, and uncommunicative.  I didn’t want to get pulled into everyone else's centripetal force. I often was accused of being “too serious.” As I grew older, I continued to wonder about the ease of people’s social interaction. I found myself alone for most of the time despite the fact that I had two sisters who were not keen about spending time with “the baby.”  Instead, I cherished my two good friends. 

The first was my next-door neighbor, Maurice, whom I’d dubbed much to his chagrin “Mousey,” and the nickname stuck for years. Maurice and went back and forth between apartments. I can remember once he showed me his rock collection, different samples glued to a board with identifying labels. He also had a real chemistry kit and didn’t need to rely on his mother’s detergents below the kitchen sink to perform science experiments.  He involved me in a boy’s world of categorization, and once gallantly agreed to guard a snowman against vandalism that I had built in the lot under perfect weather conditions when the snow had brilliantly stuck into round balls. Maurice, a gentle boy with soft brown eyes (and therefore my name for him), frequently came to my house to enjoy my mother’s stuffed cabbage. His father, Abie, who worked in Manhattan’s garment district, occasionally brought my mother a flounder from a weekend fishing trip in Long Island Sound. But after my mother showed no uncertain distaste in cleaning fish, newspaper and scales plastered throughout the kitchen, fish from Maurice's family subsequently arrived already cleaned.

My other friend was Norma whom I met on the first day of second grade.

I was nervous, sitting at my desk listening to Mrs. Hershkovitz, who had asked us to fold our papers in half and to write our name at the top. Someone tapped me on my shoulder.  I turned around and saw a girl with a long braid resting on her shoulder.  “Do you have an extra pencil?” she whispered. “I forgot to bring one.”

My pencil case was stuffed.  I zipped open the case, trying not to draw any attention.  None of the pencils were sharpened, except a runty one at the bottom. I exchanged it for the one that I was using, silently making the trade.

“Thanks,” she said, much relieved, and cast her eyes back down to her paper.

During recess she caught up with me.  She was taller by a few inches and had a broad smile, with black eyebrows that danced over her dark brown eyes.  “Thanks for the pencil,” she said.  “My name’s Norma.”

On my way to school, I began to stop at her house. Her mother greeted me at the door and called over her shoulder, “Norma, are you ready yet? Lenore’s here.”  Norma always was in various stages of getting ready, including brushing her teeth, finishing her breakfast, or putting on her coat. “Do you mind waiting,” Norma’s mother would inquire, “or shall I tell Norma that you left?”  I always waited.

Norma could be charming and flirtatious. Everyone at school was attracted to her. I felt buffered by her presence, less vulnerable during those awkward moments when my tongue wouldn’t work. She always knew what to say. Even so, she was not by my side often enough.  On the weekend her godmother, Chappie, took her to a dance class.  When she wasn’t at dance class, her godmother took her shopping on Fifth Avenue.

I admired that she had godparents. It was the first time I had heard of such things. Plus, Norma’s father was a debonair and tall man who greeted me at the door and paged his daughter, sharply articulating the call, “Norma, my dear; Lenore is here to visit you.” Her father was at the time working as a probation officer on the Grand Concourse, and wore a suit and tie, whereas my own father went to work in a flannel plaid shirt and his nails were often broken from machines he used to scour and shape arches into the right shapes for the feet of his customers.

Her family graciously accepted me into their household as another daughter. I learned to eat her favorite dish, which was an American cheese sandwich on raisin toast smeared with mayonnaise. My family invited Norma to join us at Orchard Beach, where we ate egg sandwiches and my father taught her how to do a birdie, holding her up while he told her to “point your toes.” 

Our families did not stand in the way of our friendship. We were growing up in the fifties and Norma was Black and I was white, but that reality didn’t loom large, a passing fact to which others attached enormous significance. 

“What’s so special about us anyway?” I asked.

She laughed. “We’re retards.”

We went through the IGC’s together, short for “Intellectually Gifted Children.” Those were the days when it was not frowned upon to track students into different achievement groups.  We, of course, were aware of being amongst the select, always assigned the best teachers and going on the best field trips, but as part of our own sense of noblesse oblige, we did not flaunt our assumed superiority.  Once we arrived in junior high school, we completed seventh and eighth grades in one year. As someone with a birthday at the end of the year, I was about two years younger than most of my peers.

What we shared was a mutual delight in language. We enjoyed describing our various classmates and how our teacher had once again been duped by their actions. We loved the rhythm of language, particularly Norma, who had a sarcastic streak and an eyebrow that she could arch at will for added emphasis. Somehow we both implicitly understood that information and knowledge was power. When we were old enough, we took the subway to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, spending hours in the Egyptian wing of the museum or viewing the sculptures of Rodin, or the extensive French Expressionist collection with paintings from Gauguin, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Rousseau. Norma was particularly fond of the Museum of the City of New York, with its in-depth look at the Dutch founding fathers. I liked going to the Museum of Modern Art and sitting in the sculpture garden for lunch. We walked up and down Fifth Avenue, went ice-skating at Wollman Memorial Park, and grabbed a counter seat at Chock full O'Nuts for a cup of hot chocolate or a slice of their raisin bread with cream cheese.

All that came to an end once we began to attend different high schools. I was accepted into the Bronx High School of Science on the other side of the Bronx from where we lived.  Norma was going to attend the neighborhood school, Monroe High. 

The friend of my heart was no more. We went in different directions until our paths crossed again many years later.

But I still had my writing.  At the Bronx High School of science, my creative writing teacher, Mr. Luria, arrived to class clutching a magnifying glass, passing it around the room together with a collection of branches and random leaves. He'd make a habit of taking a morning walk at the Bronx Botanical Gardens and regale us with the wonderful things he'd seen along the path.  "It's important to know how to see," he'd tell us.  He also told us that real writers keep notebooks. I began to do the same.

My mother, a woman with old-world values who herself had not finished high school, wanted me to become a teacher so I could according to her; “spend the weekend with your children and husband.”  It was the farthest thing from my mind. I was young, brash, and had sung my own song in the vacant lot: “I’m the wild and the free, can’t you see.”  

I envisioned a life for myself that was far from conventional. I watched as my older sisters left the house and began to move out like so many Jews of our generation, out of the city to the surrounding suburbs. I didn’t see how anyone could still claim New York City credentials and live beyond the reaches of the subway system which had been my teacher, the place where I applied the admonition of Mr. Luria, to see, watching gesture, listening to conversation, observing people standing in silence, and also protecting myself from the reaches of random hands, gravitating toward either my purse or my ass. I was disappointed that my mother was unable to see who I was, but drifted anyway toward my goal of being a writer.  

Most of all, I wanted a life that was involved with art. I made lists of whom I considered the great artists—W.H.Auden, Berthold Brecht, Pablo Casals, Paul Eluard, Nazim Hikmet, Frida Kahlo, Pablo Neruda, Jose Marti, Pablo Picasso, Paul Robeson, Muriel Rukeyser, Ben Shahn, Diego Siquieros, William Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman noting that all of them in some way were or had been deeply involved with the events of their day.  I felt that to keep trust with myself, it was important to acknowledge the world.

After I graduated from college, I pleaded with my mother to allow me move away from home.  Finally relenting because we had family in the mid-west, I moved to Chicago. For nine months I worked in a punch-press family on swing shift. The African-American and Latina workers wondered what a college student was doing inserting metal slugs into plastic parts.  For me, it was my first learning experience away from home, renting an apartment, buying groceries, and figuring out how to entertain myself at night. I made a few friends from amongst my co-workers.

I remember Eola who was originally from New Orleans.  Her favorite saying to describe a difficult situation was, “like powder on a powder puff, just ready to blow off.”  Johnny, partly Native American with Calla Lily nostrils and reddish hair, invited me to her apartment for chicken dinner. Maria thought I could speak Spanish, but after one Saturday of spending several hours with me, kindly shook her head and said bastante (enough).  I moved back to New York City after I received news that my father was dying from cancer. The only thing I knew to do was to stay busy. On the strength of my experience at the punch-press factory and my writing ability, I was invited to join the staff of the Daily World, formerly the Daily Worker, a newspaper that my father had read as a young man.

Editorial offices were located at 205 West 19th Street near Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. A tiny elevator took me up to their editorial offices where I was given my own desk and an electric typewriter.  I felt like I’d arrived.  To sit at a massive oak desk surrounded by metal file draws with a stack of paper was more than I could have dreamed. I really didn’t know what was expected of me.  My mentor was Si Gerson, a kindly man who dressed in plaid flannel shirts, and a member of the Party’s Central Committee. In his younger days, Si had been involved in electoral politics spending time with the pols in Albany, New York.  He also was a committed husband who did the dishes every night and told me once that his wife “reminds me of all women.”

Si handed me over to Ben Levine for polishing.  Ben was the paper’s copy editor who with a constantly running nose and handkerchief, taught me about how to use language economically. His red marks stormed across my every page until I learned the basics of good journalistic construction—be to the point, present accurate information with a strong lead, and tell people why a story mattered.

Once I had been properly groomed to handle a real assignment, I was asked to follow the activities of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) whose offices were located not too far from the Daily World’s. The VVAW was in the forefront of the peace movement, speaking with authority to the American public about what the war was really about. At first they were highly skeptical of a naïve young girl from some left-wing newspaper who knew nothing about Vietnam. But I was persistent. I sent them clippings of my published stories. Gradually, I established trust. My real experience came once Si asked me to write about Vietnam veterans inside the Veterans hospitals.  I traveled to the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, one of the borough’s oldest neighborhoods named after King’s Bridge which first connected Manhattan to the Bronx. I’m not sure how I actually got access to the ward, except that I can remember it being much easier than I thought—I made a phone call.  

I went to the paraplegic ward to meet a number of Vietnam veterans who were recovering. Sitting in a wheelchair, Robert’s torso was swathed in blankets. An Afro-American man who was in his early twenties, Robert told me how he had first supported the war, but had lost his legs in a bombing. He and the other veterans were in the Veteran’s Hospital recovering from their trauma and dealing with how they were going to lead a normal life.  Robert and the other veterans I spoke with that day who moved toward me on shining aluminum gurneys were beyond ever being normal.  Robert said he didn’t know how he would ever make love to a woman again. He told me that many veterans on the floor felt suicidal. I wasn’t brave enough to ask if that also included him. I took his photograph, but he insisted that it only be a head shot.

I also went to Montreal, Canada and visited a community of draft dodgers who had left the United States to avoid a fate similar to Robert’s. Given the nature of my newspaper assignments, I came to understand the human cost of war beyond front-page headlines and the 10 o’clock news. War destroys lives. It was that simple.

My interest continued to be writing. I was glad to find out about the Party’s Cultural Commission, which included Anton Refregier, an artist known for his WPA murals in San Francisco’s Rincon Post Office and Coit Tower.  Other members were Joseph North who contributed to the cultural page of the Daily World. I didn’t get to know either of them well. By the time I’d met Anton, he had already completed his major work and was withdrawing into retirement. Nor was it easy for me to talk to Joe North.  A conversation required listening to him expound endlessly about himself and his achievements. But I did develop a lasting friendship with poet Walter Lowenfels.

What I remember about Walter was his vast generosity, and commitment to the word. He wrote a book entitled, The Revolution is to be Human, a slogan that guided my life and work. He believed change comes from young people and nurtured those friendships throughout his lifetime by encouraging new writers of the era like Clarence Major, Marge Piercy, and Ishmael Reed. Walter also confronted the New York Times Book Review section, and wrote an editorial which was called “The White Poetry Mafia,” accusing the establishment of failing to review and publish a burgeoning group of new Black writers.

He had come from a wealthy family of butter manufacturers, but gave up the soft life to throw in his lot with the literary expatriates in Europe including Michael Fraenkel, Henry Miller and Anais Nin. Throughout his lifetime he was a member of the American Communist Party, able to reconcile his discomfort with bureaucracy with a greater commitment to change.

I’d first met Walter during a Communist Party convention in New York City. During those years I’d attended so many meetings, I can’t remember the particulars, except to see a large hall with bridge tables covered in white tablecloths. It was toward the end of the summer, hopelessly hot and without air conditioning. I was getting tired of speeches. I was a newly recruited youth who had heard about Walter Lowenfels, and had been warned about his unconventionality.

Walter was also circling the back of the hall. "Are you Lenore?" he asked, extending his hand.

Walter was involved in editing the Cultural Commission’s publication, “Dialog Magazine,” a mash-up of the “New Masses,” which itself was modeled upon “The Masses,” published between 1911 and 1917. Walter had gotten wind of fresh blood around the Cultural Commission, and always eager to befriend a young person, invited me within his circle. This was more toward the latter years of his life. (He died in 1976.) Walter was beginning to embark on a series of anthologies, excited by the success of The Writing on the Wall: 108 American Poems of Protest published in 1969 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Walter published my first poem which ended with the line, “this bioluminescence still swimming in the dark.” I was excited by the relationship between science and language. So was Walter. He wrote about it a lot in a great many of his books. From “Every Poem Is A Love Poem” included in The Portable Walter edited by Robert Gover, International Publishers, 1968:

“I am trying to break through this language to get to
                  fireboxes
                  Cooper-Bessemer compressors
                  magnetic films
without the copperbelt lining that keeps my hope
                  from exploding out of this typewriter,
                  desk, window, through the pines, down the
                  Little Egg Harbor River, across the
                  Continental Shelf...”

Or from The Poetry of My Politics, Volume 2 of My Many Lives self-published in 1968:

“My campaign against nostalgia has its base in language, i.e., to use the language of today for today’s emotions: the clean, new, scientific word, woven into the fabric of the poem so quietly the reader doesn’t sense anything but the contemporary pulse modulation. That’s the test of language – that it is alive with today’s electronics – not Ben Franklin’s kite key.”

Between 1966 and 1971 while I attended the City College of New York, on occasional Saturdays I’d take the railroad from Grand Central Station in New York City and visit Walter and his wife Lillian in their Peekskill, New York cottage. Once I’d arrived at the station, I’d call. In a few minutes he’d pick me up in a light blue car, almost shaking his hand loose from his wrist waving to me through the window. Then we’d drive back to the cottage where he parked between several trees, and flung open the front door. Our afternoon had begun.

For hours Walter held court in a kitchen alcove talking about different poets, anthologies he was putting together, the birds outside his window, fruit and cheese, all with equal knowledge. He was a hummingbird sampling everything within his field of energy. “Do you know this writer?” he asked. “Do you know this music?” he inquired. I sadly shook my head and accepted whatever he pushed across the table for me to examine, only able to turn a few pages before he leaped to the next subject.

Walter vibrated with palpable energy, hovering in that conversion place between matter and energy, a black beret angled over a nest of wispy grey threads that resisted encampment. He’d always serve me something to drink, lemonade or coffee, whatever was available in the kitchen, a small and narrow space which seemed to have been imported from a trailer with coffee grounds spread everywhere.

His wife, Lillian, daughter of a Yiddish scholar and humorist, occasionally summoned Walter from their bedroom, or emerged herself sitting in a wheelchair. By the time I’d met Lillian, she had suffered several strokes and seemed to be held together by pillows and white cord. Her face was frozen in a permanent grimace. She always stayed for just a short time. Walter solicitously escorted her back to their bedroom. “Lillian, be careful how you move. You’ll hurt yourself.”

Lillian translated Spanish poetry and had co-edited as well as financed some of Walter’s anthologies. When he returned to the kitchen he’d point to several photographs on the piano mantle of a dark-haired siren and say, “She was so beautiful before she got sick,” as if to ask me to see beyond the woman whose body was occupied by pain.
Walter was creative, had vast stores of energy, and knew many things.  Like most Party members, he keenly believed in peace and justice and nurtured a hope for the future. He was brave.  He was a risk-taker. He also had three daughters, and I loved that he loved women.

Feminism came naturally to me, and the Whitehall demonstration had placed me on record as interested in women’s political action. At the time, I was also babysitting for a woman I’d met at World Fellowship to free her up two days a week as a local coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During this time, I was approached by Clara Colón, a member of the Party’s Women’s Commission, about collaborating with her on a pamphlet. 

Clara, in her fifties, was teaching a course on “Women’s Oppression and Women’s Liberation” at the Center for Marxist Education in New York. During the McCarthy years she had been an activist in the South, harassed by state witch-hunt committees and federal agents. Clara asked if I could come to her apartment for our first meeting.  I agreed.

She lived in Brooklyn. I took the subway there, and rang the doorbell. A slightly built woman with nurse-cap white hair and piercing blue eyes answered the door. Dressed in brown and green woven fabric, she immediately welcomed me inside. Clara introduced me to her husband, Jesus Colón, who’d written the book “A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches,” and he promised to give me a copy before I left. Jesus drifted toward the kitchen as Clara and I became acquainted.  She set about polishing an apple with a cloth napkin until it shone and I took a hearty bite.  Clara showed me her record collection which included a great variety of music, including Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Doors, her way of letting me know that she was in touch with young people. We began to discuss the manuscript which she later entitled, “Enter Fighting: Today’s Woman,” published by New Outlook Publishers in March 1970.

From what I could gather, Clara wanted my help in ensuring that she was being sensitive to the concerns of younger women like myself.  We agreed that subsidized child care was a top priority. I could see how my babysitting was allowing my World Fellowship friend to work. Clara felt that the feminist movement had failed to place a demand for subsidized federal childcare at the top of their priority list. She opened my eyes to how backward the United States government was in not guaranteeing family leave, health care, and child care, which in many countries was already available, and that was more than 30 years ago.  At the end of her pamphlet she presented a program for U.S. Women’s Freedom including a call for “universal, free, unsegregated child care centers for all children from 6 months to 12 years, under union and / or community control to be funded by a federal appropriation.” I visited her apartment a number of times, and we exchanged mail. She told me in no uncertain terms, her blue eyes becoming steely, how she was disappointed with Party leaders for not placing women’s issues at the forefront of the struggle.  But she was determined to do so.

I implicitly trusted my comrades.  But then something happened. It was during the summer of my sophomore year that I’d agreed to stay the night at the Manhattan brownstone where we were having an art show, selling paintings and prints by movement artists, including Pele de Lappe, Anton Refregier and Emmy Lou Packard to raise money for the peace movement. I think it was in the West 50s, a once genteel brownstone where everything was in need of repair: chipped tile, leaky plumbing, and plaster that flaked from the walls. We wanted to safeguard the paintings for the next day’s sale. I slept upstairs and downstairs from me a male comrade made his bed on a couch covered with Indian madras spreads. I didn’t know him well. Matt was from Brooklyn. Everyone had left for the evening. It was after midnight. The brownstone was quiet. I heard him slowly come upstairs.

“Lenore?” 

I recoiled inside my scratchy blankets that smelled of tobacco. “What?” I had just started to fall asleep.

“There you are,” he said and continued to walk toward me. “It’s dark.”

Well, of course, it was dark. He moved toward the bed and sank on top of me. The mattress buckled. I was 17 and a virgin. Several of the guys in the W.E.B. DuBois Clubs already had tried to induct me into the rites of sex. Although I felt burdened by my virginity, I really couldn’t understand why I should have sex with a boy if I didn’t like him. 

Matt smelled of beer. “Get off.” 

“This will only take a moment.”

“Get off.” 

He was large and strong and laughed. I was stunned. Nothing had prepared me for this moment. He quickly undid his belt, unzipped his pants, and shoved his dick into me. He pumped furiously. I looked into his eyes, which were gripped by an intensity I couldn’t understand; I watched his belly jiggle and saw his eyes roll up inside his head.  I floated outside my body.  

“Things like this happen every day.”  He got up and stuffed his dick back inside his pants, a sausage in a casing. “It’s over,” he said. “That’s it. Thanks.”

Thanks? I’d given him nothing. I didn’t have the words to understand or describe what had happened until years later when rape became a thing that women discussed. It happened so fast.  For the rest of the evening, I stayed awake in that bed upstairs. The next morning I took the subway home.

After that event, I gravitated toward a boy who had worked with me in putting together several publications for the Du Bois Clubs. Marc Beallor also had showed me how to use his Nikromat camera. He reminded me of my old friend, “Mousey.” Marc was kind and he made me feel safe. I needed to feel safe, mostly confused by boys and not knowing how to handle their attentions. But I genuinely liked Marc who lived in Brooklyn. We enjoyed going to movies and concerts. He introduced me to his family. Once I graduated from college, I left Marc, but returned from Chicago to be at his side again, and married him in the hospital so my father could attend.

My father was dying. He was really dying.

He was being moved from Long Island Jewish Hospital to a hospice facility in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium, not far from where I Marc and I were living. He was slipping away from us after a five-year battle with cancer that had begun with the removal of a kidney. The day before he died he tried to push me out of his room, warning me that there were strange people taking pictures of him, and if I didn’t leave immediately, they would get me, too.   

Negative for a Fellini Film

They transferred you from a hospital
with six floors
to the terminal cancer ward
with one corridor
a door at each end.

You lingered for three months
at one exit
flashing your blinker
to tease the highway patrol.
They wouldn’t give a sick man
a ticket.

When I visited the ward
I couldn’t bring roses
or a paperback.
I could hardly bring myself.

Your intravenous
was a jungle vine
from a Tarzan movie
snapping beneath your weight.
Where were you off to?

I felt my eyes reverse
in their sockets
To hide what we knew.
You grabbed my arm
and slapped me.

“The doctors are taking pictures
from a room inside a room.
When the reel is finished
I’ll be through.
Get out,” you gasped
from your lagoon of crocodiles.
“They’ll get you too.”

 

My father’s death in 1970 left a huge vacuum, a hole that was so deep I couldn’t look into it without feeling sick. For months, I was numb. One day I realized that my father still lived inside of me. Slowly, I moved through the grieving process toward acceptance.  On the other hand, I felt that Marc and my friends didn’t know how to approach me because of their youthfulness. Most of them knew nothing about death.  My sisters were involved with raising young families and couldn’t clearly see what I was going through. The people I worked with on the Daily World seemed to be only interested in the next headline. I couldn’t understand how the people in whom I had placed so much trust seemed so cool toward me.  I wanted someone to reach out.

Two years later my mother died, also from cancer which was diagnosed while my father was in the hospital. I fell apart. Marc and I divorced. I wasn’t sure if I’d married him because I loved him, or because I needed an emotional crutch. Following my mother’s death, I left for California.  Remaining in New York City no longer seemed possible. For me the Big Apple had been about my parent’s death, divorce, and the violent loss of my virginity. I was ready to make a new beginning in Berkeley, California, which was where the Daily World’s sister publication, the People’s World was based. The PW needed another staff member. I was ready to leave, and embarked on a two-month camping trip to get there stopping in Atlanta to visit a friend from World Fellowship, Olga Kahn, who was stretching her newly-graduated wings.

I had no idea what lie ahead, only that I was glad to pull up my roots and wrap them around myself for safekeeping. I traveled with a friend from New England who was a printer and had been tangentially involved with members of the IRA (Irish Republican Army). We followed a southerly route across the United States going through New Jersey, Cape Hatteras, the Smokey Mountains, Utah and Colorado.  I’d never realized how soil and rock could change colors and how the sunset could stretch like a drumskin.

I arrived in the East Bay where the skyline was not dominated by skyscrapers, but by pastel-colored one-family homes. It looked more like a playground than a city with bougainvillea, purple flowers that gathered at the entrances to people’s homes, and red bristle brush shrubs, plants that I’d never seen. I’d arrived in the summer of 1973 a few years before Proposition 13 would radically change the way taxes were allocated throughout California, undermining schools and services, and much after the Free Speech Movement had made headlines. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta had organized the farm workers union. Ronald Reagan was Governor, and Angela Davis was to be shortly acquitted from charges of being a conspirator in the attempt to free George Jackson from a courtroom in Marin County. I lived in Oakland near Lake Merritt and began to meet a new group of people. But I learned that certain members of the PW staff were “suspicious” of me.  Over the years, ideological rifts had played out between the east and west coast party organizations. Depending on who was doing the looking, the west coast was viewed by an assortment of Central Committee members as “too liberal” whereas the east coast “too rigid.”  PW staff members weren’t exactly sure where I stood. In-fighting did not interest me, nor did the egos of some comrades who had a great appetite for gossip. Over time, I recognized that I needed to make a decision about leaving the Party that had provided me with structure during a tumultuous time of my life. Mostly, I wanted a chance to concentrate on my writing.

After I did leave, it took years to develop a legitimate resumé. Building new friendships took time. Generally, I didn’t inform people that I had been a member of some “dangerous” organization targeted by both the FBI and the McCarthy Committee because I didn’t wish to be stereotyped along the path to discovering who I was.

Now after a lifetime of marriage and raising children, I finally understand life as a series of transitions. It’s not as scary anymore. My empty nest without children has become a new transition, another portal to a new phase of my life.   I watch my children as they move into their own adulthood, and find I have certain wisdom to offer.

I’m glad that they don’t have to go through their lives without any parents, as I did.