She Was Only a Bootlegger’s Daughter: In Memory of My Father

“She was only a bootlegger’s daughter, but he loved her still…” an old song goes.

***

I notice the mannerisms and instinctive moves I have after my dad who died two years ago today. I smile. I cry. I remember him in my body and soul.

This morning, in the shower, I turn the water off and before I reach for the towel hanging over the shower door, I run my hands over my body in energetic downward and outward moves brushing off the excess water.

He used to do that before drying off to reduce the wetness of the towel. Probably a trick he learned during his days in the army in Norway or from when my family spent weeks at a time on our wooden boat in the summer, sailing down the Oslo fjord. Smart.

I am in my car with one of my sons next to me in the passenger seat. I instinctively reach over and hold his leg, by the knee, and stroke it, gently yet firmly press on it, as if to say things like “Do you know how much I love you?” and “I love that we are here together,” without using words.

He used to do that to me when I sat next to him in the car. Loving.

In my kitchen preparing dinner, I peel the carrot holding it in my left hand and slowly and rhythmically rotating it as the peeler works its magic all around in smooth motions, leaving the orange root clean and glistening .

Pappa peeled vegetables just like that. Thoughtfully and deliberately.

It’s 10 am and I feel overwhelmed by everything I am not achieving, not getting around to, even though I have said I planned to. I briefly entertain the idea of not getting dressed, opening a wine bottle, and staying at home all day reading and sulking. Forgetting the pain of all that unaccomplished and the disappointments.

My father spent days, weeks, months and years like that. Not so smart, but I understand…

The love I feel for my three sons is so full and so filling, I think to myself, if I accomplish nothing else, having raised these beings whose company I enjoy and who seem to be able move about in the world relatively competently with kindness and a sense of humor; if that is ALL there is and will be, I am contented.

I am my father’s daughter.

He felt contented with the love he gave and received from his two daughters.

Feeling this love, he was able to just be, in the mess of it all. Wise.

“I am only a bootlegger’s daughter…”

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The Tiny Cross-Dressing Dancer in My Bag

Imagination going wild at 7am. No booze, no drugs, no accompanying euphoric experience like spectacular nature or sex. Just me reflecting on the small woman who is a man in my bag.

The short, stout store owner, perhaps in his mid sixties and with a halo of mad professor-like white hair, gently but ceremoniously pressed the tiny pink wooden cut-out figure into my hand. For having brought in a new customer to his fabulous furniture and home decor store in Fairhaven, CT, he is now bestowing me with “a prize!” “Is it edible?” I had blurted out instinctively, hopefully, as he reached into a jar. It was just after lunch and a small sweet treat would be perfect. I looked at the object his warm, small hand had just transferred into mine.

“This is me doing the happy dance,” he begins, “I am thankful for what you have done for us!” I quickly glance down at the pink doll in my open palm; it has tiny hands reaching for the stars, a narrow waste and long slender body whose silhouette is whimsically cut as someone wearing women’s clothing. My gaze still on the graceful creature measuring no more than one inch and weighing maximum a quarter ounce – if I ever could guess that kind of lightness – and while I was calculating his imaginary prowess, he quickly added, “I’m wearing my wife’s dress.” “Ah…” I emit, as if that explains it all, smile and look up to meet his twinkling countenance, and out of my mouth falls, “there’s a name for that you know” followed by a wink, which thankfully, he takes for what it is intended as: a gentle and good humored response to an unusual comment and mental image. This little jovial pot-bellied man, doing the happy dance dressed up in his wife regalia.

I mean, had I not been me, he might have scared me away by now.

“I don’t care what you do with it,” he continued, “but you might carry it in your handbag, and when you see a friend or a stranger who does something that makes you happy, pass it on to them.” I, of course, love the concept of “pass it on,” especially when it has to do with gratitude and kindness. I clutch it in my hand reaching for my porte-monnaie buried somewhere in the bowels of my disorganized handbag. I open my wallet, flip to where I keep my little laminated card with the travel-prayer in Hebrew, and tuck the figure in next to the good karma spot.

Meanwhile, my friend learns that the shop-owner is originally from Belgium, (they switch between German and French just to show off their linguistic nimbleness, to which my cross dresser adds Dutch, and so “wins.” Men…), and my friend is told that the owner’s 98 year old mother still travels between Europe and the US several times a year, with her little dog nonetheless, to her home that she has kept over there, “since before The War.” Ah! Nobody can mention “before The War” within earshot of me, without there following a quiet pondering of what might have happened to that family, or that woman, during that time, and what side she might have been on, and how has she emotionally “stayed” there, if she was Jewish, or how does one live with oneself, if one had been a collaborator.

It seems in the imaginary, the majority of people, who are neither victims nor perpetrators, can easily fall between the cracks. It’s the strangest thing.

So by now, I’m trying to figure out if my charming and loquacious drag queen is a landsmann, a fellow tribesman, or not, and instinctively drop into the tribal lingo test. I wander over toward the shelves displaying beautiful ceramic items and tell him how “it’s meshuganneh” that it has taken until now for my friend, his new customer, who has lived in New Haven for most of his adult life, to discover this gem of a store. I’m thinking that if his family goes back to “the old country,” even if they were fancy, educated city folk, he’d be familiar with some Yiddish jargon. He looked at me quizzically with a slight tilt of his head and said “what?” I repeated, “It’s crazy that it has taken this long….” and our conversation continued while I admired the goods, fumbling a bit making small talk while many whacky thoughts bounced around in my mind.

It could be he is simply hard of hearing. A Jew hard of hearing. It happens.

I wonder how many people in this world carry around self-representations of this delightful character in their bag. Many years ago, my friend Jodi once introduced me to this store, and she has since become a regular customer and is on quite jovial terms with the eccentric owner and his wife. “Does Jodi carry a mini-cross dresser around as well?” I ask myself. She never told me about it. It probably didn’t stir up a whacky story for her, that she felt compelled to share. She stuck it in her pocket book, forgot about it, busy as she is saving lives at the Yale New Haven Hospital.

What can I say. Perhaps that’s the point with writers and the writer’s mind: these insane imaginary journeys always take the front seat, despite ourselves, and we have to heed their right to be born. To some, they may seem like a waste of time. Like day dreaming. But the storytelling that have the capacity to make our hearts skip a beat from joy, wonder or fear, is just that: a chance encounter that begets a story.

“Every character deserves the open destiny of life” (Grace Paley)

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