Tapestry of Life ~ We humans are all interconnected and woven together.

One of the best selling books of 2006 was Six Degrees of Separation.  The book was originally surrounded by controversy because the author promulgated a theory which stated any one person on our planet can be connected to any other person on Earth through a chain of acquaintances holding no more than five intermediaries. Despite a great deal of heated controversy, several ensuing scientific / mathematical studies proved the author was indeed correct.

The Greeks and Romans wouldn’t have been amazed. In those days, many believed life is not merely a series of meaningless accidents, coincidences, and unexpected connections. It is a tapestry of happenings/incidents leading to a particular occurrence. According to surprisingly many modern and folk beliefs – past and present – the threads of human lives are interwoven, often by short threads.

Do not scoff dear reader! By reading this, you join my chain. Now you are one intermediary away from Dwight D. Eisenhower. You are two intermediaries away from Elvis Presley and Harry S Truman. You are three intermediaries away from Bishop Tutu, and four intermediaries away from the Shah of Iran. Life is indeed a complex tapestry.

A tapestry, of course, is a complex weaving with many intersecting threads. The Greco-Roman goddess of weaving was Athena / Minerva, but due to certain circumstances of myth, Arachne became the goddess of both spiders and weaving. {Art by Gustav Dore} The account of the word arachne (uh rack’ knee) is intriguing. It is a word of Greco-Roman origin, and in modern times became the taxonomic word for the spider Class of arthropods. Interesting as these disgusting, eight-leggers may be to some, the myths surrounding them are more fascinating to me.

According to the myth, a mortal woman named Arachne was extraordinarily endowed with weaving and embroidery proficiency. Furthermore, she had the reputation for being truthful. This aptitude for truthfulness was mitigated by her finely honed arrogance. Arachne rudely challenged the Roman pantheon of deities to find one of their own who might not be afraid of entering a contest with her to see who would be adjudged the better weaver. Minerva, the goddess of weaving, took up the challenge. Unfortunately, the judges declared the goddess the loser.
            Without considering possible consequences, Arachne felt she had no choice but to tell one and all the truth of that verdict. Alas! Her egotistical boasting angered the goddess Minerva.  Minerva wasn’t pleased and emphatically said she should have won because she had woven a tapestry depicting victories of the heroes. Arachne, on the other hand, wove a tapestry depicting the many sexual peccadilloes of Jupiter.
            “The truth is the truth,” Arachne actually snarled.  The goddess screeched, “So, you wish to weave? Wish granted!” In a split second, Minerva angrily transformed Arachne into a spider.There might be a lesson in all this; perhaps several.                                        
            Actually, I prefer weavings and tapestries to some of the past personal experience flashbacks occasionally occurring in my consciousness. These flashbacks, as I recently told a friend, “are like so many air-filled balloons with open mouthpieces rapidly and erratically zooming around me as they lose air.

                As for the romanticism? Spiders are not my favorite animal, so I admit preferring the truths of Six Degrees of Separation.

One of the best selling books of 2006 was Six Degrees of Separation.  The book was surrounded by controversy because the author promulgated a theory which stated any one person on our planet can be connected to any other person on Earth through a chain of acquaintances holding no more than five intermediaries. Despite a great deal of heated controversy, several scientific / mathematical studies proved the author was indeed correct.

The Greeks and Romans wouldn’t have been amazed. In those days, many believed life is not merely a series of meaningless accidents, coincidences, and unexpected connections. It is a tapestry of happenings/incidents leading to a particular occurrence. According to surprisingly many modern and folk beliefs – past and present – the threads of human lives are interwoven, often by short threads. Maya, for instance, is the Hindu Spider Goddess, who holds a person’s fate in her hands.

Do not scoff dear reader! By reading this, you join my chain. Now you are one intermediary away from Adolph Hitler, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon! You are also two intermediaries away from Elvis Presley and Harry S Truman. By the way, officially, no period follows Truman’s middle initial. Investigate this fascinating story on line on snopes.com. Life is indeed a complex tapestry.
            The account of the word Arachne (uh rack’ knee) is intriguing. It is a word of Greco-Roman origin, and in modern times became the taxonomic word for the spider Class of arthropods. Interesting as these disgusting, eight-leggers may be to some, the myths surrounding them are more fascinating to me.

According to the Greco-Roman myth, a mortal woman named Arachne was extraordinarily endowed with weaving and embroidery proficiency. Furthermore, she had the reputation for being truthful. This aptitude for truthfulness was mitigated by her finely honed arrogance. Arachne rudely challenged the Roman pantheon of deities to find one of their own who might not be afraid of entering a contest with her to see who was the better weaver. Minerva, the goddess of weaving, took up the challenge. Unfortunately, the judges declared the goddess loser. Without considering possible consequences, Arachne felt she had no choice but to tell one and all whatever she believed was the truth. Alas! Her egotistical boasting angered the  goddess Minerva after the goddess. Minerva wasn’t pleased and said she should have won because she had woven a tapestry depicting victories of the heroes. Arachne, on the other hand, wove a tapestry depicting the many sexual peccadilloes of Jupiter. “The truth is the truth,” Arachne actually snarled.  The goddess screeched, “So, girl, you wish to weave? Wish granted!” In a split second, Minerva had angrily transformed Arachne into a spider.There mightt be a lesson in all this, perhaps several.                                        

The other day, while checking my notes for writing an essay, I found a memo involving a confrontation when we lived on a chicken farm in Richland, NJ. I was ten years old and my method of practicing piano triggered off one of Mutti’s dramatic reactions. As I giggled in remembrance, other examples of her temper came to mind.

Almost immediately I thought of my early childhood when I lustily, loudly, and off-key sang work folksongs as we washed, dried, and folded our linen bed sheets. The songs made the difficult physical job easier to finish. Burl Ives’ rendition of the Jolly Swag Man was a favorite of mine. Much as I enjoyed American folk songs, Australian melodies and words touched my heart in a special way. As I grew older, I collected as much information about this island continent as I could. One of my dreams was to own an Anzac hat. These memories in turn triggered off a related memory about an adventure I had when I had just turned eighteen, dealing with my mother’s run-in with the Australian Embassy brought about my run-in with the US Air Force.
            When I was a child, I was raised by an outspoken, intellectually talented but psychologically out-of-focus mother who floated in and out of crises – minor through life-threatening without missing a beat. It took years for me to become cognizant of her somewhat bizarre and unorthodox survival techniques. By the time I started having children of my own, I was able to look back with different eyes, and I paid tribute to her for who she was, not who she was not. Our joint tapestry of life together should be hanging in a large room in an art museum, where spectators can trace the minutiae and of the weave.

My first extended memories of my less than ordinary lifestyle began when I was five. We lived in various apartments in New York City in-between 1938 and 1942. How frenzied my poor mother would get when the pressure of overwork, family feuds, and illnesses caused her to react in wildly unexpected ways.
            Actually, I prefer weavings and tapestries to some of the past experiences flashing back into my consciousness these days. These flashbacks, as I recently told a friend, “are like so many
air-filled balloons with open mouthpieces rapidly and erratically zooming around me as they lose air.

 

Three Sheets to the Wind

The title may be familiar to some of you. It’s an interesting idiom, so I chose to make it an inexcusable pun.

Our upper middle class household moved from Austrian the late nineteen thirties to an inconceivably different way of life in America. Long after my parents had died, the migration I was carried by continued to funnel me onto an astonishing trail swathed in poverty, disease, bullies, accidents, adventures, and incidents in addition to major events enveloping me. Perhaps the ultimate irony for me is being deposited on the doorstep of the end of the twentieth century, by Maya, the Hindu goddess of fate. Of course, she is depicted as a spider in the folklore! Who would have thought?
            After we settled in this nation and began to learn the ropes, we managed to physically survive. Eventually, through back breaking hard work, we also managed to financially succeed.

It was definitely not an easy transition for my mother to learn a new written and spoken language, cultural way of life, to work for employers in sweat shops, ride subways, and take on the household chores always done by hired help in the old country. “Oh, the Good Old Days!” she and my father moaned constantly. During the week, my parents arose at 6:00 am to face their world of work. On Saturdays and Sundays the three of us luxuriously arose a half hour later. Both my parents worked long hours, but we slept late on the weekend.

On Friday night, after synagogue, Mutti prepared the Fels-Naptha soap we would use for the next day. It is still sold today.  FNS not only cleans clothes, but also removes perspiration and bottom odors. It is still is a home remedy for poison ivy and other dermatological conditions. The cake of soap, 4” by 3” and one inch thick, was not a soft, lovable, friendly soap. In the decades of my youth, it was hard as a piece of horse radish.

Mutti shredded an entire cake, using a hand grater made of heavy iron. She shed copious tears from the fumes. Then the grater and splinters were heated in a gallon of water. Once the soap softened, the flakes began to congeal. At that point, she retrieved the grater and hung it over the pot to let the soap slip down into the heating water. Constant stirring caused the pieces to turn into a gelatinous mush. Just before reaching the boiling point, the pot was removed from the flame and then left on the stove to cool. The next morning a thick paste had formed. We used our hands to take out globs of the warm soap mixture to clean the laundry. The soap was lye based and burned our eyes when it splashed. Mutti soon realized what this soap would do to delicate fabrics. She commented, “Fels soap will dissolve my silk and cotton stockings!” So she cleansed her precious silk and cotton stockings by hand with expensive Ivory hand soap during spare moments on weekday evenings.

Until we moved to the farm and a less demanding work schedule for my parents, Saturday in Manhattan and then, in Long Island was a crushingly busy day. My dad left for a second job. Mutti and I only had two hours on the schedule list to completely wash and hang the laundry. I was “hired” at the age of five. Standing on a chair at the kitchen sink, I washed, rinsed, and shook out/smoothed delicate clothing, preparing it for the drying process. My iron washboard was miniature size. I still recall the invention of glass washboards in the 1940’s. They were so much easier on the skin than the cast iron pieces, and weighed far less.

Drying laundry in the summertime was not a problem because we always had outdoor clothes lines where ever we lived. I recall living in apartments where the clothes lines with pulleys stretched from walk-up apartment windows across the court, and were fastened to a kitchen window on the wall. In larger apartment complexes, sixty foot tall poles at the end of the alleys anchored the clothes lines from each apartment. However, on rainy days and during the winter we would have to hang everything indoors until dry. One of most exciting purchases early in January of 1939 was an indoor dryer which looked an inverted umbrella without fabric. Our next apartment was to have a six foot by three foot line dryer in the bathroom capable of being lowered and raised by pulleys and cords.

When I finished my job, I put the articles in a wicker basket, ready to be hung. Then, I joined Mutti at the bathtub. We did the scrubbing on bended knees, both of us using Fels-Naptha on cast iron washboards. Mine was miniature and hers was full size. Our hands were calloused from the scrubbing. “Be careful!” Mutti cautioned me. “Hanging over our tub is dangerous, and you always manage to tumble in. What a waste of precious time pulling you out and drying you off.” After my weekly tumble, I continued my work wearing nothing but a dry pair of underpants. They didn’t stay dry for long.

There were two rinse cycles. We stripped down and stood in the tub to twist the water out of the sheets. The second rinse had fine tuning. The two of us stood the length of the sheet on the kitchen floor. Facing away from Mutti, I held one end of the sheet under my arm, wrapping my other arm around it to keep it from slipping to the floor. Mutti twisted the sheet into a spiral to get the last of the water out. Afterwards, we mopped the floor, and then hung the sheets.

For more than five years, until we got our first washing machine in 1942, all our laundry was hand washed in sink and tub by my mother and me. I always lustily sang rhythmic songs to add power to my punch as I scrubbed the fine laundry. Mutti was a music lover, and my inability to follow the intricacies of melody and beat gave her headaches and caused her to react loudly.

The first two hours of Saturday morning were a trial for both of us!

               When I hear Sinatra’s song, it always takes me back to my childhood Saturdays in New York City until the summer of 1942 when we moved to New Jersey’s chicken farm country.

Saturdays were not easy to cope with when I was a child in New York City. My parents worked long hours, and Saturday was reserved for weekly chores.

After a stressful two hour stint of sorting, scrubbing, and hanging laundry was over, we spent the next two hours cleaning the house from top to bottom. It was not my favorite occupation. I did not like the first four hours of Saturday at all.

Every Saturday, a special treat was in store for me. I was going to the movies! Mutti (Mutti is German for Mommy) reminded me, “We are going out in public. Do not forget your hat, gloves, pocket-book, handkerchief, and clean socks, Liesl.”  The socks became knee socks at age eight, and then I had to wear stockings beginning at age twelve. Garters and then garter belts followed in order each ensuing year. By the age of fourteen, I was wearing girdles with bones. Luckily, boneless girdles made of latex rubber soon replaced what I called the Renaissance Torture Boxes.

White gloves and white shoes were worn only between Memorial and Labor Days. Hats were de rigueur at all times. Just before noon, I ran down to the local cinema for the Saturday Morning Special. It only cost a quarter for people under the age of fifteen. Current movies, a cartoon, a silent comedy, coming attractions, and the news of the week were shown. I was not permitted to sit in the balcony “with the whores!”  These were the teenagers who frantically necked and paid no attention to the big screen.               
.           By two o’clock, it was over, and my mother met me outside the movie house with our wheeled shopping cart and four netted cloth bags. We could continue our work day doing our weekly food shopping. Supermarkets were few and far between, closed on Sundays, and were not open after 6 pm. Our long shopping route was on foot, approximately a one to two mile round trip. We always started at the green grocer’s. As each item was purchased, the grocer wrote the price on a large brown paper bag. He added up the items without carrying. He made three passes: hundred, tens, and ones. After I became six, I had to do it mentally along with whatever green grocer we used. I could add quickly, because I started in the left hand column as he did. Many years later, I was able to teach the children in my classes this easy method of addition. Many of them still use the system today.

Hand addition was the norm in all the other stores, which included the butcher shop, the bakery, the liquor store, the neighborhood grocery for dry goods, and the deli. By the time we came home with our cart and four extra bags, we were tired. Then we put all the groceries away. Our Seth-Thomas mantel clock chimed at four o’clock, a welcome sound, as we knew the worst was over.

(Our shopping expeditions became so much easier when we finally acquired an automobile, in late 1940. The automobile, by the way, was a 1937 Ford Station Wagon with a body made of real wood, and we used it until we returned to New York City in 1947. The wood finally rotted away, and the automobile was retired around 1952.)

Mutti then pulled out her treadle sewing machine as she made all of my clothes, as well as many of her own. My sister still has the machine, and it works wonderfully well. Often I played with neighborhood children or read one of my many books. At five o’clock, she began cooking dinner. As I approached seven, I was taught to peel potatoes with a sharp paring knife, and unless the result was a long, continuous peel, I heard a great deal about my clumsiness. As she cooked dinner, I set the table in proper fashion. In those days, there were two forks and two spoons. The napkins were large, made of heavy cotton. We used cutlery in the European fashion, a habit which caused much merriment to the Americans we knew. In 2006, when I visited Australia, the first meal was a disaster for me. My relatives were highly amused “Liesl, where in heaven’s name did you learn to so barbarously use cutlery?” By assiduously watching them and the three year old, I quickly picked up old habits from many decades ago.

Because of then current health beliefs. Water was consumed before the meal, and never during it. Conversation was strictly forbidden, as it affected digestion. Without much ado, I learned to eat as quickly as possible. Of course, chewing each mouthful twenty one times did slow me down quite a bit. Mutti insisted we follow a healthy life style. We ate promptly at six when dad came home. In addition to the main dish, there was always a delightful – nay, an impressive – Viennese dessert Mutti put together.

When we came to this country, she had to learn cooking all over again because the Viennese cookbook she had been given by her grandmother was useless in the US. Measurements in Austria were by weight, and I still have her kitchen scale. Also, the flour, sugar, and butter were processed differently in the two nations.

Her recipes for main and side dishes were disastrous, and often accompanied by true hysteria. It took her years to relearn cooking. Mutti boiled water in our first apartment so we could all wash the dishes. Then, Papa and I dried them as Mutti prepared the Saturday night baths.
            When we first came to this country, the bathtub in our first apartment at 82nd Street and Riverside Drive sat in the kitchen, covered by a wooden door. We had no hot water. It had to be heated on the stove. The toilet was in a former tool closet, its reservoir framed by the locked shut door to a small garden. Mutti boiled large kettles of water to make the bath bearable. After we moved to more civilized apartments, our order of use remained as it had always been – my father first, then my mother, and last of all, me. Our next apartment had hot and cold running water, and it was such a relief to use such a luxury.

Despite this chapter title, and a most hectic and tiring day, it was our most enjoyable night. We had a chance to interact with each other, talk, play card games, chess, and discuss historical events while listening to orchestral classics on a wind-up phonograph with wax cylinders. Eventually we bought a radio, and listened to opera and classical music. Mom and dad would practice their English with me, and she would teach me French. Eventually, once I learned to play the piano half way decently, I would serenade my parents with a mini concert each week.

My father and mother had beautiful singing voices, and I was allowed to listen but not partake. When we got our first RCA record player, they acquired a large collection of 78 rpm records. Often they would play them for an hour or so, and singing melodically, would dance; a favorite pastime of theirs. Between eleven and twelve o’clock we would all go to bed, secure in the knowledge we could sleep until ten the next morning before our family obligations had to be endured.

Saturday night socialization remained an important part of our family interactions the rest of my parents’ lives.

 

If you are familiar with Fűr Elise, written so many years ago by Ludwig von Beethoven, you know it as an intricate piano composition in which the right and left hands rapidly play separate melodies, which meld into one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Elise must have had a real hold on Ludwig. The piece starts out with eight notes in a single measure, rapidly

see-sawing between sharps and naturals, played by the right hand.  Then, on the ninth note, the left hand begins its song. The two melodies continue until the piece is finished. Then life gets complicated. The piece is only several pages long, and worth the torture one must undergo to learn to play it correctly. It is still one of my favorite pieces of music.

By the time I was ten, we were living on our chicken farm in Richland, NJ. Finances were improving for us, thus I had been taking piano lessons from a series of increasingly demanding teachers. Assiduously, I practiced an hour or more each day. Eventually, I was invited to give mini-recitals at school events and the church. My playing was competent, and my mother (Mutti, which means Mommy in German) loved it. It didn’t take me long to realize how it calmed her down when she was in stress mode, so the music became a panacea for both of us.

It was a true win-win situation until the fatal day Fűr Elise entered our lives. One spring evening, after I came in from playing outside, Mom had begun making supper. She was peeling potatoes and not in a good mood. “Do you want me to peel or practice?” I asked.

“Practice. Play me a half dozen of the songs you know, then begin practicing Fűr Elise. It is one of my favorite pieces. I constantly recall the magic of hearing Arthur Rubenstein playing it at Carnegie Hall before we came to this forsaken place.”

Mutti was not happy with farm life, miles from the civilized places she enjoyed.

Happily, I complied. Mutti insisted that potatoes be peeled into a continuous spiral using a sharp paring knife. The peel had to be thin enough so that it was translucent when held up to the light. Paring potatoes was my least favorite job. I would rather muck out the chicken coops.
            The kitchen and piano room were only steps apart, with an archway between. As I played somewhat over a half dozen pieces, including several Australian and American folk songs I liked, she was in a joyous mood and hummed along. Finally I was done and opened my music book to the piece which my piano teacher had introduced to me that Tuesday.

It would be difficult, but I was up to the task. I read through the music, then returned to the first page and rapidly played 1 2 3 4 5 6 7oops. Wrong note!

Mutti called out, “Don’t stop at the seventh note, just keep on playing to the end!”

I made believe I hadn’t heard her and once again played 1 2 3 4 5 6 7oops. I stopped. Mutti said, pleasantly enough, “Good. Now continue onward, Liesl. Slow down.”

Slowly, I played each note. 1..2..3..4..5..6..7oops. There was no way I would continue to notes eight and nine! Quickly, before Mutti could say anything, I did it again. And again. Same results. The seventh note was devilish.

I just couldn’t reach the ninth note without messing up on the seventh! 

Mutti, holding a partially peeled potato in her left hand, and the paring knife in her right, stepped into the room and approached me. “I said, finish it. Go past the mistakes. Those seven notes over and over again make fireworks appear in my eyeballs!”  Many decades later I found out those were symptoms of a silent migraine. Being my mother’s daughter, I get them from repetitive sounds and a repetitive bass sound.

I grunted and tried to argue. Mutti walked up to me and stuck her finger in my face. She was unaware of the knife. Slowly and distinctly, wagging her weaponed finger at my nose, she repeated, “Slowly. Keep going. Do not stop. Finish the piece.”

She stepped back a few paces. I began again. 1..2..3..4..5..6.. (deep breath) 7 oops.

Mutti hissed in my ear.

I continued and made my way to the end, ignoring the mistakes I made.

Mutti was pleased. I was devastated. All those mistakes! This is awful! I cannot get past that seventh note!

She made me do it all the way through again. Then she returned to the kitchen.

Again, I began, ever so slowly and carefully.  1.. (deep breath) 2.. (deep breath) 3.. (deep breath) 4.. (deep breath) 5..6.. (deep breath) 7oops. (deep breath). Another seventh note mistake!

Before my mother could say anything, I once again went to the beginning. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 oops on the 7th note!

My mother charged into the room, I ducked to keep from being hit in the head.  She screamed, “What are you doing? You must play it through! Do not stop for mistakes!” She and struck me a long punch on my right upper arm, but had forgotten the knife in her hand. My arm was slashed and it was deep cut. Blood squirted everywhere. “I said it loudly enough for you to hear. Play it through!  Play it through! I mean PLAY … IT … THROUGH!”

I did, then slumped over the piano.

Then she noticed the blood.

Totally shaken, she telephoned Dr. Cleary. Doctors made house calls in those days. He told her to put cold compresses on the wound, and he would be right over.

When he arrived twenty minutes later, he looked at the blood which had spattered on the piano, the floor, the wall, Mutti, and me.  “What happened?” he asked as he proceeded to clean the wound and stitch it together with four vertical stitches.

Mutti told him.

He said, “I see.”

When he was finished, Mutti began the cleanup. He looked at me and said, kindly, “Play it through Elizabeth.” Only the family called me Liesl.

I struggled through, mistakes and all.

He said, “Pretty piece. It will take a great deal of practice.” He paused, and very softly and slowly said, “Listen to your mother. DO NOT AGGRAVATE HER or you’ll get hurt.”

I nodded.

Before he left, he told Mutti to bring me to the office in a few days.

Three days later she brought me to Dr. Cleary’s office and he changed the dressings. A few days later, I fell off my bicycle on the road and two of the stitches broke. I told no one. It was spring, so I wore long-sleeved flannel shirts. Eventually the cut healed.

Today, I still have the scar on my right upper arm. You can still see the scars of the two stitches that didn’t hold.

Fűr Elise is still one of my favorite songs. The memory of that evening stays with me, and I always giggle about the march of events. Goodness! We were a tenacious mother and daughter!

Several months later she did attend the PTA recital at which I played the piece through without a mistake.  Proudly she joined the enthusiastic applause.

Mutti never apologized.

For years, until I was married, I played for her, and she continued to take great pleasure in the music.

However, I made it a habit to practice when she was not around.

 

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