Gymnasts of God
An excerpt from Indigo, "Don't Ride the Cry Bird"
By Lynn Strongin
“Memory is inaccurate.” (Czelosz Milosz)
Because we were young, extremely limber, and lean; because we were the age of acolytes, walking the tightrope of terror which is childhood, learning our balance, all was purchase unerring in ozone, blue, prophetic. We blazed with purpose. I knew discipline at home—as a doctor’s daughter and a painter’s—where a divine economy ruled. Things lush, cluttered, overblown turned me off and away. I knew the way to be part a Shaker loop. Mother and the women of New Rochelle, New York hardly wore Quaker bonnets in 1945 and ‘6, but their decorum was as reserved as I imagined any Quaker wife’s to have been, and their carriage against a pearl-gray sky became to this child’s eyes a type of ballet where the gestures were understated but the impact profound. Mother brought home new hats from the city . Little else was new in our world. The cooking utensils, our clothing, furniture the colonial home were all as well worn as the homespun, sturdy cloth after which I was named.
When I was five, Mother would send me to the store for butter, milk and an onion… If I forgot the butter, she’d say, “You’d better remember what you forget... Remember Dulcie’s Grandmother.” Dulcie was a girl my age whose grandmother would send her forth on an errand to fetch three things. If Dulcie forgot one, her grandmother would say, “You’d better remember what you forget.” It was one of the warnings that threaded my early girlhood. “Sorry,” I’d say looking her in the eye. “Sorry won’t butter any parsnips.”
Corn-cribs stood filled in autumn. Rusks blew. Hardscrabble Yankee soil. Chores marked the day of the child, girl or boy. New England and New York were a sombre composition, an austere landscape, at times severe as silver, silver pewter, not a comforting severity except as a firm parent can be, the abiding presence. Cobalt sky and iron-clad earth with rust stains are what I remember. School was our holy mead, The gymnasium stood apart even more a temple than the auditorium, our gym with its high cathedral ceilings. I could test my strength against it. Came time for running races, the muscular bodies of the boys, the lean bodies of the girls, I was the speediest. A whippersnapper. I absolutely thrilled to the feeling of my undershirt against my sternum taking the beating of my heart for a ride in its heart cavity. The reality of a child’s life in those days was dark: machine guns, burst of gunfire, flak, and cannons still appeared on the Warner Pathe news. The child gymnast was the incarnation of mystery, Mystos. This ecstasy went hand-in-hand with a painful realization we lived now in a fatherless home, and that there were children, side-lined, like Marjorie Brekengold who had had polio and wore a brace on her leg even though our president had had infantile paralysis. Marjorie had to sit in the bleachers and read while we raced across the gym floor shining like a mirror or a gold lamp. I know now that even my childhood impressions of horror are a treasure. Pouring all her love into her first and second child, our mother staved off darkness, these November and December 1945 evenings, lighting the lamps which only lit one dusky corner, not the room. But the body, my body and my night and day, although it was to change mobility, was still to be an incarnation of a mystery beyond my fathoming. Home was wherever Rachel, Mother, and I were together. By my 12th year, I was to undergo a training more rigorous than any military drilling I’d seen on the army base: I was to be imprisoned for half a year in what resembled a concentration camp for children.
Now, I gripped the blond wood bars that lined the side of the gym, clambered to the top, brushing ceiling with my fingertips, marveling at the distance from floor marked with chalk and pain. Good think we don’t have a crystal ball. With hindsight, I see hat gymnastics was at the core of my childhood. When I became a poet one of my selves passed the torch on to another.
Freud promoted the notion that biology is destiny. What about geography? Granite building lie in lake-water which clouds milkily sometimes. The stone of Morningside Drive built the canyon of my birth, near the Eye Institute where my father had a Research Fellowship, rare as hen’s teeth back then. The lawns of grandfather’s estate in upper Westchester County rolled through my early girlhood, around age 7 and 8, superceded by the forlorn stonescape of upper New York State which haunted my dreams during the final years of the war—Plattsburg, the Fuller Farm—opening into the sun-filled vista of the modest colonial Home in New Rochelle my parents bought after the war. Soon the stone canyons of New York were to make tall and thin the sky, closing in again becoming our home once more, air filled with granite-dust, diamonds whirling in cones of light and soot between giant buildings. After polio, life was wedged between two great Rivers: to the right, the Hudson River, the left, heart-side, the East River. As it had been wedged between my two parents during and after the divorce. As it was to be wedged between Canada and the States, when I immigrated for love.
I’m thankful that I served precisely the right apprenticeship for the life I was given. (I’d seen Nijinksy leap and hover in the air like a humming bird when I was 8 at Jacob’s Pillow. The image was suspended in my mind: in fact, he never landed but was perpetually poised there, mad, victorious.). Gymnastics in a world where every brake locked, every wheel turned in the right direction, every lever pressed just so would determine mobility or a fall—acrobatics were essential. If God is the quintessential, then they were Godly. I learned loneliness early, instinctively a loner. I was filled with love for the arts from mother, reading me Emily Dickinson, “Dear March, Come In,” when I was 5 showing me drawings from the enormous Daumier book our father gave her. She played Chopin, Mozart, Haydn., she led me by the hand through the museums. I learned not to think twice about being lonely. I learned how crucial it was to keep clear. An elder child who must be accountable, who was called to give the low-down. Soon after I was hospitalized, I was outraged that it was summer, I was a kid. I stopped the floor resident as I was being wheeled on a plinth through the hall. “Is there a roof to this hospital? I could go, get the sun?” “Why not?” he smiled. A month later, Transferred to Haverstraw Rehabilitation Center, I was at first bedded in with the adult women. “I’m a child, I don’t belong here,” I told the nurse. “Bet me out of here. Put me in with the children.” Being eldest, amusing Rachel exercised the muscle of my imagination. I was prepared for this enclosure like a novice, a nun although we were Jewish by heritage.
In my 60’s, I come to understand that like the vivid paintings by French master, Bombois, circus contraptions were the furnishing of my childhood: Bombois portrays a unique combination of the whimsical and dangerous. Charlie Chaplin’s little person emerges, striding forth against the world (also a Jew) with his Derby and cane. An Autobiography of a faith was being written by the days of later girlhood, chapter-by- chapter, exercise-by-exercise, maneuver-by-maneuver to get out my long legs, inscribing sand and dirt with of a maze which would challenge Daedalus. These were written by our imaginations, in the tablets of our bodies.
Just as the words I saw projected on the screen at the start of some movie at Haverstraw, from the ward, are blazoned in my brain, “He who follows his own misdeed kindles his own hellfire,” so the gymnasium is etched in my brain like a Durer etching.
I write on an early evening, Thursday three years into the millennium. My life is wedged between two countries: the First of July and the Fourth of July. It’s about 4 p.m, call it early evening up North in my adopted home. At the solstice, light balanced longest like a diver daring the high board, then leap. It teetered there like a tightrope walker doing the highline between two poles. A noisy day beginning with “In the Shadow,” on the radio and the gardener. Now the mower torches on and off as he burns weeds. Why, last night, when some kids set off homemade firecrackers the day after Canada day did a young crow, an immature fledgling, choose our terrace to land on? Dazed, he’d hit his head perhaps on the glass of the door to the kitchen. Ava heard the flap of wings at eleven p.m. She checked, he was on his back, she thought the worst. Then he righted himself. Why, whenever a winged thing is dazed, or trapped, am I horrified? Back walking that terror I learned as a girl in the 1940’s, I stiffen my backbone: that war is done, I am out of the institution, in fact on nearby islands the sheep are lambing.. “When everything’s nothing, arise my soul and sing.” (E.E.Cummings)
In the 64th summer of my life, I find myself approaching the world in terms of gym as much as I ever did running, leaping. a kid. Like bringing brightness to Biloxi after the floods, to the Bijoux theatre downtown. There’s the lintel to negotiate of morning. I wake earlier than ever, before the birds. I wake with an unkillable joy, even exaltation. There is the first mandate to open the eyes, the earliest transfer to wheelchair, roll to the bathroom where light floods in through the muted sky shade we decided to make rose instead of the blue of sky. Good morning, sky. Then there’s cold water on face, chest, breastbone the way Grandmother Suzanne taught to kill the fire of a nightmare. I glance in the glass and catch green eyes. I wheel over to the B’hai prayerbook Rachel gave me many years ago when her daughters were small. Where I open—I read, whether the subject be journey, marital love, hardship, or illness. Then I pick up the phone and do what I never believed I would: Dial Oak Bay United Church to hear Barbara-Anne wish me good-morning. “For dial-a-prayer, press #3.” Whatever she prays, I pray along: this is my service, my bowing, genuflecting to the day to come whether it be focusing on thankfulness, or sorrow, or death of a friend. By now the room is lightening. Ava stirs. “Ummm. . .” and turns over for 30 more winks. There are not enough ways to move although all of them are interior movements, stretches, lifting weights of the mind, flexing spiritual muscle: I lie back down and begin Transcendental Meditation fills the remainder of dawn, daybreak. This is the autobiography of faith. Sometimes I am a girl of 5 again back in Plattsburg, gathering the eggs. “Indigo, step lively! You’d better remember what you forget. And don’t be Gloomy the camel,” I grin at Mother Marcelle, the patch over my stronger eye—the left above the heart—to train the weaker one: move! to cause the boy to jump through the hoop during orthoptics hour which take place at 5, punctual as a military drill: evening, winter, spring, summer, fall. Rain or snow or shine. Mostly it is leaden, a light which rules this era of childhood and goes with the yellow and black checked lino of the kitchen floor between war’s end and divorce. Before polio. “Keep good care of me,” she says, Rachel, and “What are we going to do today? I turn aside. A friend said, “Your heart is always being taken by something or other.
. . . I am 5 and cross-eyed, living on the fifth army post where our father is stationed. Rachel has traveled in the straw laundry basket South and back North with us again. I can feel the blood pounding in my calves. I whistle—but it’s too cold, so I use my energy instead to whack metal posts in the icy February weather just to hear them ring. (Maybe my openness is my mystery.)
. . .The light turns blue as a bath surrounded by white tiles. It is a strange atmosphere, forecast in my darkest dreams. It is the state institution. I am now a dozen years, 12. As she unwound my thin body from the hot rags (some nurse whose name I cannot remember) I catch my breath. The cut up blankets which scalded back and legs have cooled , now clammy and wet—flat—having been drawn through the wringer—I felt the touch of tenderness. Her hand lingered just that moment on my shoulder blade, I turned around and smiled. “It’s good to see you smile, Sport,” said the nurse whose name I have forgotten. Then I remember blinking, bitterly turning to the East River out of the window. Would I ever get out of here? When I did what would I do? As summer melted into autumn, I was transferred upstate the leaves began to take a frost, and turn. Winter came fast that year, 1951. In a mirror-image, one night in my dream, I turned around and faced her when she said that about its being good to see me smile. I frowned, “Don’t call me sport, my name’s Indigo.” “Indigo? what sort of a name is that?” “Mine. It means a natural dye that was used in American Puritan homes for tough cloth. It’s a color between blue and violet in the spectrum.” She gazed at me, said, “Humph, you have Magyar eyes,” and was off. I never saw her again. They sent different nurses around to the overflow wards to administer Sister Kenny Treatments in the early 50’s. The first experimental polio shots were coming in. After she left, I closed my eyes. The tedium. The incredible weight of the tedium. The East River had a scum of oil on it, and the sky had gasoline haze. It was only 9 a.m. This time nearly killed my love of mornings. I wouldn’t have a visitor till 4 that afternoon. Most days in that first hospital, one of my parents came, or Poppa Louis with the silver dollars. I hadn’t seen Rachel in almost the half a year I’d been in. Gradually, as I opened my eyes again, the industrial haze lifted and there began to be a dusty golden sun pouring through the stone canyons on the opposite shore. The opposite shore—it was a place I’d get to, away from here, far from Steelcase Road. There were conditions: the high toll I had to pay was day’s rounds, surviving them. At 11 a.m, the resident physician would begin rounding, at 12 something they called food would be brought on a brown plastic tray. I mostly left it. I dozed in the afternoon. At 4, Mrs Gaines might say, “You have a visitor, Indigo,” and I’d smile. I flapped my skinny arms in those huge gowns the hospital gave us over-starched. They de-sexed us. Neutralized, I felt like a bird. I dreamed almost every night I was one. Geography and biology were destiny. My life was thinned between two great rivers during my 12th year and for the next ten 10: the great Hudson on the right where I was to wheel down to the boat basin during the early days of my first romance in my 20’s, and the East River, with its tugs, its barges, the sole diversion of that 12th summer. I have made a disarray of my covers, Bird Ambulance is on it, some papers, music manuscript paper on which I was sketching earlier that afternoon. Mother pulls up a chair. She opens a map, “This—“ she smiles, “Are you paying attention? This is Paris. This is the Tour Eiffel, the Place des Arts, La Musee des beaux Arts,” but my lids are heavy, drooping. I am hungry, I have not had a real meal in so long. “One day—“ she leans forward, “one day we will go there, Indigo. Mark my word. Remember, we are all measured, cut to wear the cloth we are given.” I nodded, learning through my own eyes that in fact our lives are cut to fit us. There was Mother, still a youngish woman, in her thirties. She had cut up her silk underpants to put on my face in the Alabama when I was taken for a burn case and offered money as if I was a beggar. I never told her about that. This was worse, but now, the light coming through over the East River, touching our faces, my hospital bed, she was peaceful, content turning the pages of the Berlitz book on France. I tried to focus my mind on how that summer of my life had begun. The rickety typing table was set in our sparse backyard in the smaller home in New Rochelle, New York, the one Mother bought after the divorce. It stood to my stage right as I stood in the backyard. On it, she had set my Uncle Phil Davis' ancient Underwood Typewriter, so ancient it was battered, and some of the quaint letters were taped into the circles. “This is the summer you become a writer. You must flex your wings!” Mother had said. I sat on a kitchen chair, which tipped me in 4 directions. I began with expert’s rhythm drill and learned the first 10 letters of the alphabet the first afternoon. That must have been the final day of June. All public places—pools, movies, circuses were forbidden, but a girlfriend called and invited me to her private club swimming pool. “May I go, Mother?” “Certainly.” It was my sole outing. Then the fly buzzed. Then the old jet-black Underwood blurred the yellow foolscap paper, the glass of water, then my tears made everything run, they are calling the ambulance, I am saying goodbye to Rachel against the doctor's’ warning not to go near her, I didn’t' care what Dr. Eisenberg, our pediatrician, said. I was eldest. This was my sister, something momentous was happening to me, the last steps I ever took were to her, 8-years-old, terrified in the doorway to our mother's bedroom where mother let me finish out my night of agony. I saw in her eyes what she always said, "Keep good care of me.” Only, she was mute this time. Then two men came and carried me on a plinth the evening of July 2, 1951 out of that small green stucco house, 15 Edna Place, never to return. Soon the doctor was to slip the fluid form the spinal tap under the microscope on its slide and Mother was to hear him exclaim, “My first polio!” Soon Daddy was to come. Evening was flat as Iowa or the Russian Steppes. But I had a few peaceful moments, maybe a quarter of an hour between the spinal tap and the ambulance ride into Manhattan. I felt as if my life was a thermometer that had broken, I tried to gather the little beads of silver which were mercury, but I was paralyzed: Besides, they were uncapturable, and to boot, were poison. The sky, I remember, was cloth blue. A solid sky. Not a star yet. How could there be? It was July—it was about 5 p.m. Not a cloud either. Form my plinth in the small country hospital New Rochelle furnished its inhabitants with—I saw no bird so heard no song. No leaf either. But that sky was now turning a color between blue and violet. It was sturdy, it was my color, homespun. (When I was a whippersnapper, a runner in the school gym, my hand would take the weight and bear the pain. I could just about shoot through the wall.) I’d been taught from the cradle that “Can’t Lives on Won’t Street.” That I’d better remember what I forgot. Who would ever name a child after a polished Siberian Stone? First and last thing—Naming. “Don’t ride the Cry Bird,” get you, Indigo,” my Black girlfriend of 9 down South had taught me. In the beginning was the Lord, the Word. An American girlhood, from the South’s magnolia and bayous to the Northeast’s smokestacks and steeples—that peculiar bolt of rich blue cloth. Indigo. I had to reach up to the sky and touch it to live up to my name.
(July 3, 2003, Victoria, British Columbia)