Thunder, Lightning: A Flash Essay by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Lightning, Thunder

On summer nights, my father stood resolutely on the porch to listen for thunder, to observe lightning. When that lightning cracked the sky and lit the world the color of steel, my father’s rules were absolute: No telephone, no television, no shower. During a particularly window-rattling storm, Dad rushed us into the ’65 Malibu, sure that the car, with its rubber tires, was the safest place to sit out an electrical storm. My father belted us three kids together in the backseat, the silver buckle pressing against my belly, the car never moving off the driveway.

This flash essay originally appeared on “The Thread” as part of the “Stitch” series. http://threadliterary.com/flash/

 

No Equivalent: Trastienda by Judy Bolton-Fasman

TRASTIENDA
Spanish, noun.
A storage room in the back of a business

Each person has a trastienda within them: a place my Cuban mother described whereby secrets thrill the day and deepen the night. No one’s trastiendas were more airtight than my father’s.

My mother never knew my father was a spy in Latin America during the 1950s. That secret was almost assuredly in the grave with him until I did some research discovering his life in espionage. That discovery was like an infinite hall of reflections – trastiendas upon trastiendas as far as the eye could see.

If my father dared to confess his trastiendas, he would do so in a letter. Email was in the offing and my father hated to talk on the phone. One summer when I lived in New York City, my father, back in our hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, began to write me letters. One of the letters arrived in a thick and heavily taped envelope, indicating this was beyond the usual old-fashioned tips for getting over boys who had wronged me, and stories of my mother’s epic temper tantrums in which she railed that he was a feeble, old man. I thought about my father’s growing desperation to leave my mother. I wondered if this was the letter in which he would say he had asked her for a divorce.

Or perhaps the letter was connected to his health, as it had begun to deteriorate that summer. I first noticed something was wrong with his handwriting; his tall, stalwart letters once so commanding on the page had become crabbed and crowded. “Get off my back,” he said, waving off anyone who pointed out his symptoms.

The same day I received the letter, my father left a message on my answering machine, ordering me to burn it. This strange, unexpected order frightened me, convincing me that I did not want to know what was in that letter. His voice was firm, but I could hear the underlying panic; the kind he used when he would come home from work, take me aside in a whisper: “What kind of mood is your mother in?”

Within a few hours of receiving my father’s troubling message, I held the letter up to the fluorescent light of my dorm room, flicking a lighter in the other hand. I moved the lighter closer until the blue-rimmed orange flame caught a corner of the envelope. From there, the fire spread quickly. I threw my father’s letter into my dented metal garbage can and watched it curl into ash. Only the raised bald-eagle stamp remained distinct and resolute until the end.

My father’s health continued to decline; as he slowly disappeared he dismissed our concerns until we stopped acknowledging his shaky hands and shuffling walk. He had Parkinson’s disease, a trastienda he tried and failed to keep from us.

After my father died, I went on an extended treasure hunt in my childhood home. I rifled through his closet searching for more of those rare trastiendas. Had he left behind a diary or other letters? Were there pictures to unearth from his time in Latin America? My father was careful not to be a character in his own life. The only fact I learned about my father posthumously was from his best friend who said that he and my father served together in Guatemala.

There is a Jewish saying that posits a dream that goes uninterpreted is like an unopened letter from God. God’s letter, after all, must contain some of the secrets of the universe. But sometimes it’s wise to sit on those divine trastiendas for a while. I never told my family about the letter my father told me to burn, or the fact I burned it. I wonder some days if I should have kept it, tucked it away until after my father’s death and read it to further demystify my father’s presence. But there was something so alluring about singeing that letter as my father had ordered. My father’s legacy was an inheritance of secrets, yet only one was mine to keep.

This essay originally appeared in “Off Assignment” — http://www.offassignment.com/articles/judy-bolton-fasman

The Rigetousness of Khizr Khan by Judy Bolton-Fasman

According to Talmudic legend there are at least 36 righteous people in every generation whose good deeds keep the destruction of the world at bay. These people are called lamed vavniks – an appellation that comes from the two Hebrew letters – lamed and vav – that make up that wonderful Jewish number 36. In other scenarios 36, a multiple of 18, which spells out life in Hebrew, stands for double fortune.

Lamed Vavniks are scattered throughout the Diaspora and there is a group of them in every generation. A point of information: a lamed vavnik is too humble to think of him or herself as one of the anointed 36. He or she is also anonymous. But one can have a fairly good idea about who are the lamed vavniks among us.

It’s not a big leap of faith to suggest that Khizr Khan is such a person. Mr. Khan is the Gold Star parent who, supported by his wife Ghazala, impressed the world with his fervent love for the United States and his reverence for our Constitution. His son, United States Army Captain Humayun Khan, died in 2004 protecting his unit from a car bomb. I will never forget Mr. Khan holding up his personal copy of the Constitution at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and imploring the world, and Donald Trump in particular, to read it.

Mr. Khan, who is an attorney, was in Boston last week to speak to 1500 middle school and high school students attending the Anti-Defamation League’s Annual Youth Congress. Mr. Khan said he was humbled by the opportunity to stand in front of so many young people. “I want them to walk away from this convention with the full realization that they are our future. They are the custodians of the goodness of this country.”

At an event the night before, Mr. Khan spoke to a smaller group of Jewish and Muslim leaders. Soft-spoken yet forthright, Mr. Khan is a spokesman for our national conscience. “I am a witness,” he said, “to personal intimate conversations in which America remains a beacon of hope for the rest of the world regardless of what is taking place inside our country. How can we give up? We are all patriots.”

He pulls no punches when he talks about “tyranny in Washington,” or when he compares the content of the president’s speeches to Nazi rhetoric. “You will be amazed,” said Mr. Khan, “at how fear of immigration, fear of the other was exploited then and is exploited now.”

As I reflect on Mr. Khan’s patriotism I have come to understand that he is an avid student of history who looks towards the future. In his wide-ranging remarks he noted, “I remind myself loudly that this bigotry and hate in my county is nothing new. The most vulnerable community is always attacked. In 1882 it was the Chinese community subject to indignities in the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1942 it was the internment of Japanese Americans and the indignities and crimes committed against them. In 1939 the [German ocean liner] the St. Louis brought my Jewish brothers and sisters ashore from persecution only to be declined entrance to this county, fully knowing the fate of those wonderful men and women. The reason I remind myself is that now it is the Muslim’s time to be subjected to this un-American hate.”

During the course of his remarks it became clear that people want to confide in Mr. Khan. He recalled that a Latina-American who recognized him on the street in Washington, DC, had to share the fact that her 10 year-old son found the strength to confront his bullies after watching Mr. Khan’s speech at the convention last summer. A retired army nurse who served in the Second World War wrote him a 26-page letter encouraging him to continue to speak out so the atrocities she witnessed would never happen again. A hand-delivered envelope that he found in his mailbox turned out to be from a fifth grade class, fearful that their Latina friend would be deported. That last incident was reported in the press. The story caught the attention of Hillary Clinton’s staff and they extended an invitation to the Khans to speak at the convention.

Mr. Khan said that he and his wife were reluctant to step into the spotlight. But for two days – in a small room in their house in Charlottesville, Virginia that they have dedicated to their fallen son who was just 27 when he died – they considered whether or not to accept the invitation to speak in Philadelphia. During that contemplative time they realized they were safeguarding the stories of people who had to be heard.

After Mr. Khan spoke I went up to him and shared the story about the legend of the lamed vavniks. I told him I thought he was one of those 36 people. He bowed slightly and said, “I think you are describing my son.”

Marching For A Mother, Grandmother, Daughter, Son — And Myself

The women marched to send a message, writes Judy Bolton-Fasman: "We will protect our bodies, our minds, our hearts and our souls at any cost." Protesters gathered at Boston Common during a Women's March Saturday Jan. 21, 2017 in Boston. The march was held in solidarity with similar events in Washington and around the nation.  (Dwayne Desaulniers/AP)

At 8 a.m. this past Saturday, women took over car after car of a suburban commuter train, transforming that perfunctory downtown ride into 20 minutes of pure joy and purpose. We were headed to the Boston Common, one of the hundreds of satellite women’s marches taking place in all 50 states and 70 countries. At that moment we didn’t know that our message of love, hope and equality was about to resonate across seven continents. We only knew that we intended to reach out to each other across space and time to hold hands literally and metaphorically.

Saturday was the real inauguration – an inauguration of the people, by the people, for the people. In our expansive ceremony we celebrated life and found hope in the wake of a president’s inaugural speech delivered with bombastic rhetoric and filled with dystopian images. On the train, a thought came to me: What if the majority, albeit a thin majority, of white women in this country had not voted for Trump? An answer in the form of a silver lining: Millions of us would not have reminded each other how beautiful and colorful and lovely our country truly is.

The author, Judy Bolton-Fasman, and her daughter, Anna, at the Jan. 21 Women's March in Boston. (Courtesy of Judy Bolton-Fasman)
Judy Bolton-Fasman, and her daughter, Anna, at the Jan. 21 Women’s March in Boston

A Trump supporter I know asked what was the difference between a protest and a march? I don’t know and frankly, I don’t care. I’m sure I witnessed the two melding together beautifully. We weren’t protesting any one thing; rather we rejoiced in our mesmerizing size, the largesse of our collective spirit. And we celebrated. Celebrated that in this great country of ours, which has always been great, we came together in pink pussy hats to inaugurate a new movement. Although we were men and women participating together, make no mistake that this march was founded, led and dedicated to women.

A reporter asked me what I was marching for. I introduced her to my 22-year-old daughter. I told her about my gay son. I said that my grandmother tried to abort a child and was miserable that she did not succeed. I marched for them, for me, for everyone. I marched wearing a pink hat so that bragging about grabbing any part of a woman’s body is not reduced to fictitious, hideous locker-room banter.

My mother called me the day after the march and asked me what right did I have to take her granddaughter to a dangerous, political event. “This is how it started in Havana,” said my Cuban-born mother. I explained to her that her adult granddaughter made her own decisions on when and where and how she wanted to communicate her values. Now that my mother is wheelchair-bound, her granddaughter and her daughter are her legs. “We marched for you,” I said. My mother grew quiet as I assured her that we, the marching women of Boston and Washington and Atlanta and Paris and Tel Aviv and beyond, were there to send a message: We will protect our bodies, our minds, our hearts and our souls at any cost.

I understand my mother, too – she frequently time travels back to 1956 when dictator Fulgencio Batista closed the University of Havana and his henchmen murdered the president of the student federation. There were so many times in my mother’s memory that Havana looked like an armed camp. But the Women’s March was not a suppression of rebellious youth; it was a peaceful gathering of young and old, women and men, pink pussy hats and homemade posters. We protested with our signs and prayed with our feet. The woman who made our hats described herself as a “nasty woman” from Wisconsin who was honored that we would wear her creations. “March on with pride,” she wrote.

In an interfaith service just before the march began, I contemplated the Torah portion of the week: the first chapter of Exodus. One of the narrative strands that stands out in that chapter is the dramatic and heroic act of the midwives Shifra and Puah. These women refused to obey the Pharaoh’s order to murder newborn male children. “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live,” says the text. Here is a stark moment in the Bible in which women have agency and use it to alter the course of history. If these Women’s Marches of love and size and hope show us anything it is this: Let us go forth and use our power for good.

 

This piece originally appeared on WBUR/NPR’s Cognoscenti Opinion Page

Memories of Cuba Past by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Fidel Castro’s death is complicated for me, a first generation Cuban-American. I know what Fidel wanted for Cuba and what he actually accomplished. The strands of his legacy are a braid of totalitarianism and Utopian socialism.

Fidel is the fiery figure of my childhood. He is a memory shaped through the insistence of repetition. He is the man whom my mother swore again and again she sat next to once on a bench at the University of Havana. He invited her to join him for coffee, but she declined the offer when she saw a handgun peeking out from under his jacket.

That was 1956. Before that Havana had been a sexy, rum-soaked playground for the mafia and spies alike until Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains and triumphantly marched into the capital on New Year’s Day 1959.

Four years ago I walked the streets of Havana for the first time until I came to la Calle Mercéd 20 in Old Havana, my mother’s former house and the storied address of my childhood. For me, all things Cuban began and ended there. It was the place where my mother was forever young. It was the place where my grandparents shut the door on 50 years of life in Cuba and walked away forever.

When I knocked on No. 20’s entrance, a pregnant young woman answered the same heavy door my grandfather stumbled through after a night of drinking away his paycheck. It was the same door my mother gently tapped on in code to let her mother know she had safely arrived home. A young woman now lived there with her husband and extended family. (Housing is tight in Havana and extended families live together to save on rent.) The apartment was booming with the noise of too much stuff in a small place. The small living room of my mother’s former home was crowded with maroon brocade furniture and a big screen television that ran without the sound.

The tenants’ relatives in America had transfused the living room with American materialism. They must have taken one of the daily charters to Cuba that left from a corner of Miami’s International Airport. Check-in there was a veritable marketplace of Cuban expats toting Costco and Target and Best Buy purchases. Carts almost toppled over with boxes of microwaves and televisions. The expats were also determined to get even larger items like bicycles, scooters, and air conditioners to their trapped relatives. There was so much concentrated determination in that terminal.

I looked beyond the woman and saw the open-air courtyard between the dining room and rundown kitchen. It was the very place where the shochet, or kosher butcher, had slaughtered the chickens my Jewish grandmother bought from the market place. He cut the chickens’ throats and drained the blood out of the animals. As I walked the length of the courtyard, I saw laundry hanging from a balcony like team pennants or flags of surrender.

callemercedcourtyard

I thanked my hostess profusely and tried to offer her money for the impromptu visit. As soon as I held out the cash I felt like a fat cat gringa buying memories that weren’t quite mine. I sat on the stoop of la Calle Mercéd 20 trying to catch my breath after I had broken down in front of the woman. It was the kind of crying that darkens the mind like the night sky. I squeezed my eyes shut and saw a galaxy of stars. When I opened them I was still in Cuba, at my mother’s house, crying for her unfulfilled dreams of a Cuba libre—a free Cuba.

* * *

Cuba is an aging queen whose beauty is still evident despite decades of neglect and poverty. The place is translucent with pastel colors. Even the façade of la Calle Mercéd is painted in a light green. There is also the hunger of the people for all things that I, as an American visitor, might be able to offer them. The requests were humble. Kids came up to me and asked me for caramelitos and plumas—candies and pens. I gave them a couple of pens from a frilly Boston nail salon that wrote in purple ink. The women in a state-run pharmacy flagged me down on the street and asked if I had any medicine in my purse.

The cab driver who drove me back to my hotel asked me if I had any antacids or aspirin I could spare. He had perennial heartburn. His wife had migrañas and he was desperate to help her.

“There is nothing here,” he said. “Look at this old Lada that I drive.” Each morning he prayed that the thirty year-old car would start and that he’d catch enough fares to put food on the table.

Estoy aburrido de esta vida.”

He was more than fed up with life in Cuba. His was a lassitude mixed with the same Cuban melancholia my mother had. I told him my mother missed the Cuba she remembered.

“What is there to miss here anymore?” he asked me. “Tell your mother not to come back.”

As I was getting ready to pay the fare, he said he had a mother-in-law in Jersey City who sent his family money whenever she could. It helped more than I could imagine, he said. I tipped him generously and gave him the half empty bottle of Advil I had left.

Gracias mi hija,” he said. In Cuba I was everyone’s daughter.

This essay originally appeared in TABLET Magazine http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/219002/memories-of-cuba-past

With Love, From Harold: A Father’s War Story Offers Hope In An Uncertain Time by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The Second World War made my father an American. The Holocaust made him a Jew. And the confluence of those two events made him the bravest of the brave.

By the time dad graduated college he had already been recruited to be a 90-Day Wonder. He, and other young men like him, were fast-tracked to become military officers. It was 1940. For three months my dad was immersed in training at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. He was 21 years old and when he finally came up for air he was saluted as an ensign.

One of my favorite photographs of my father was the one that I turned up snooping in his dresser as a little girl. My father had sent the 3 x 5 black and white picture to my grandmother. He dated the back of the photograph 1941 and signed it, “With love, from Harold.” Barely a year out of Yale, he was most likely running guns and butter to Greenland just before Pearl Harbor. In the picture, he is below deck where it is dark and windowless — a circumstance that must have made my father claustrophobic given his later penchant for observing a vast sky of weather. When he tracked a storm from my bedroom window his gaze was dreamy, suggesting that he was still drifting on his supply ship. But my father never coasted for long. He eventually righted himself to know exactly where he was going.

“With love, from Harold.”

I recognize that love. A desperate love born of a certain time. A love wrapped in loneliness. In the wake of the election I know this love intimately. As I texted my sister and comforted my young daughter, that was the love I felt in the early morning hours of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. A couple of weeks later, I joined the rally on the steps of the State House against the hate crimes occurring across Massachusetts. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh talked about love. But with love comes a vigilance when fear lurks in the background.

Harold Bolton - Navy

K. Harold Bolton

My father’s war picture shows a man who had lost a lot of weight from adrenaline rushes anticipating an oncoming war and the compulsory exercise to prepare for it. He must have punched extra holes in his belt. His officer’s cap fell below his ears as if from the weight of his brassy naval insignia. His Adam’s apple was prominent and his neck muscles taut.

I focused on his shirt, the top button undone, so that I could almost make out the chain of his dog tags. But the longer I stared, the more it faded away. I knew definitively those tags were stamped with an “H” that stood for the biblical-sounding descriptor — Hebrew. Dad told me as much. My assimilated grandparents were nervous about sending their son out in the world as a Jew. They had heard bits and pieces of news coming out of Europe. Hitler was a menace. Jews were harassed, arrested, even deported. Father Coughlin was on the radio. Isolationism was the prevailing politics. America’s geography suggested a false kind of safety.

I once asked Dad if he was scared back then. “Not at all,” he said crisply. Yet even with his “this too shall pass” disposition, I know that if he were still alive he would consider alt-right a euphemism for white supremacy. But what would he say about Steve Bannon having the ear of the president-elect? He’d seen the Bannons of the world rise up before. We need to stand firm, Dad would say. I try and translate what that means today. How do we protest appointments and policies that simply cannot stand? I think I know Dad’s answer. He was the man who sternly told a guest in our house not to spew her racism in front of my siblings and me. I’m sure he would have approved of the postcard I sent to President-elect Trump with the message: “Not Bannon.” Small acts of protest can have a meaningful ripple effect for years to come, he’d tell me.

My grandparents begged my father not to identify as a Jew in case he was captured. But my father, who lip-synced prayers on the rare occasions he went to temple, would not wear dog tags stamped with an “O” that stood for Other. In Dad’s military, O functioned like the universal blood type. O accepted the last rites from any religious tradition. But in the end, that kind of open-endedness was not for my father. If it came to it, he would die as a Jew.

These days I contrast the khaki-uniformed photograph of Dad with another one of him in full naval dress. That formal, flawless black and white portrait, in which it looks as if cotton batting is the backdrop, was displayed in our living room forever. Now it stands vigil in my mother’s small dorm-like room in a nursing home. This is the picture that would have accompanied the obituary if my father had died in the war. And in these post-election days, I take comfort that at the time both pictures were taken my father was not afraid of the future. I hope one day I can share his optimism.

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti, the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station — http://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2016/11/30/comfort-post-election-judy-bolton-fasman

A Season of Joy by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The blessing I prepared to say when Hillary Clinton was elected president was the Schehechyanu – a prayer that is uttered when something noteworthy and wonderful happens for the first time. I found the thick, block-printed Hebrew words free-floating on the Internet alongside a transliteration and a sturdy translation. I cut and pasted the words – in Hebrew and English – in an email to myself. And then I eagerly waited. I waited to chant the prayer in the familiar, traditional melody when I would first hear the news. I waited to display the blessing in my Facebook status in honor of President-elect Clinton.

shechiyanu

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Schehechyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all:

For giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.

Instead, I found a line from a poem by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski that more accurately reflected my mood after Clinton conceded. It begins: “Try to praise the mutilated world.” How I want to try to praise our gorgeous broken world. How I want to try to praise our beautiful confused country. But I barely have breath.

When Clinton dropped out of the presidential election race in 2008 she declared, “We weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time… [but] it’s got about 18 million cracks in it. And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

In the wake of the 2016 election, I take solace that there must be at least 36 million if not 54 million cracks in that glass ceiling. I purposely evoke these good solid Jewish numbers, multiples of 18. In Hebrew, letters double as numbers and the number 18 also spells out the word chai or life. More solid, black letters telegraphing sacred wishes.

“Tough morning,” a friend said checking in. She asked how I was and I cried all over again. My mother-in-law called from Florida and she was almost apologetic for living there. My sister, a middle-school social studies teacher, dreaded facing her classes in the aftermath of this election. She texted me throughout the night. “I’m so sick,” she said. I didn’t tell her that I’d been dry heaving since Clinton lost Ohio.

In the early morning hours of November 9th, when it felt as if it would stay dark forever, I thought about saying the Mourner’s Kaddish. After all, I was grieving. But the choice felt too facile, too obvious.

I am clearly mourning Clinton’s loss, but even in my anguish I am able to see that this situation does not have the finality of a death. Yes, it’s very bad. “We won’t have clarity about this for quite a while,” said my wise husband in one of his many morning phone calls to check up on me. After we hung up, I thought maybe we the people could finesse the situation a bit, wait it out, eventually fix it. That was the optimistic part of me poking through like a shoot of grass in a concrete sidewalk

It’s significant to note that the Kaddish does not mention a single word about death. It’s a love letter, praising a wise, beneficent God. It says in part:

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

But I was not feeling very charitable towards God.

Instead, I went to my synagogue to look up the Prayer for Our Country that is said each week after the Shabbat morning Torah service. It begins straightforwardly:

Our God and God of our ancestors, with mercy accept our prayer on behalf of our country and its government. Pour out Your blessing upon this land, upon its inhabitants, upon its leaders, its judges, officers and officials, who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public. Help them understand the rules of justice You have decreed, so that peace and security and happiness and freedom, will never depart from our land.

As I was leaving the synagogue I ran into my rabbi. The moment I saw her, I fell into her warm embrace and cried. “The sun rose today,” she softly said. Her words, so deceptively simple, were also unexpectedly hopeful.

I encountered more words from thoughtful, loving friends that further consoled me. On Facebook one of them said:

Like many of you, I am in shock this morning. And I am ready to fight. To fight for what I still believe this country can be.

But before I fight, I know I have to listen. Because a lot of you have known that it was this bad. A lot of you did not have faith that America would avoid this. I need to learn to see what you see.

Then we fight.

Through my own Facebook status I tell my friends that I have to sit still with my silence. Except for my typing, I write this essay in absolute quiet. It’s the closest I come to resting my voice, quelling my tears. As I write, I am anxious yet determined to find my prayer. And then even though it has always been with me, I finally hear it from within me. I have been saying it all my life:

Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

Hear O’ Israel the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.

Even my assimilated father knew those six words of Judaism’s signature prayer—a prayer tucked into Jewish liturgy morning, noon and night. The Sh’ma has always been the prayer of prayers for Jews. And it’s the one that has always challenged me to stop and to listen and to learn.

Hours after the election is called, I purposefully took out the Sh’ma like a comfortable dress to wear – to say the prayer slowly, deliberately. I annunciated each letter.

Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

I listened for the silence of God’s looming presence.

This is the prayer I turned to on the morning after the 2016 election. This is the prayer that someday soon will help me – please God – to reach a new season of joy.