Rain at the Beach, 1967


When I was a child I spent dove-colored afternoons with my sister, sitting by her side at the kitchen table,
scrubbing Crayola colors onto the pages of a book,
careful to stay within the black lines as I made Underdog’s ears scarlet and Sweet Polly’s dress violet.

Fighting over the periwinkle,
we tore the paper wrappers to insert the nubby tips into the sharpener (“built in!”) on the back of the 64 color box.

My mother sat nearby on the scratchy brown couch,
with her legs propped on the coffee table.
Steam curled from the cup near her feet,
the fruity scent of Constant Comment filling the air as she read or poked a needle through canvas in the dim summer light.

My father snored in his leather recliner,
open book balanced on his ample stomach,
fighting World War II again in his dreams,
As the rain shushed onto the roof and puddled on the porch,
splotched the red Delta 88 convertible in the driveway,
and trickled silently into the sand.

Hot Summer Nights

IMG_7972-3My favorite childhood companion was my stuffed Bantam Morgan dog. She was a third birthday gift from Uncle Fritz Danster, a Holocaust survivor and professional photographer. I loved my parents, my cousins, and my best friend, Patti Reyman, but Morgan was my constant companion.

It was early July, 1963; I was not quite four years old. My parents had gone away for a week’s vacation leaving my sister and me with our grandparents in the city. We had driven up the country (our phrase for the vacation house in upstate New York) for the weekend. It was late and I was in bed; I was supposed to be asleep but between the relentless heat and the sound of the TV I couldn’t drop off. I reached for Morgan, and in pulling her closer to me for a chat, heard a snick sound – like something hard and plastic had hit the linoleum floor. Feeling Morgan’s soft face I realized with dread that the sound had been one of her black plastic button eyes falling off and disappearing, probably forever. She would now need an eye patch like the one worn by my cousin Karen to correct her lazy eye.

Filled with horror at my friend’s potential fate, I shrieked and burst into heaving, gulping sobs. Both grandparents stumbled over one another to reach my small maple bed. “What’s wrong?” my grandmother gasped in fear.

I continued howling. “It’s Morgan! She can’t see!” I held up my stuffed friend. In the glow of the bedside lamp, it was evident that one of the button eyes was indeed missing. My grandmother sighed in relief that it was the toy and not me. “Oh, is that all? The dog lost a button? We’ll find it and I’ll sew it on in the morning.”

Shocked at her callous dismissiveness of my friend’s suffering, I emitted another ear-splitting wail. “No! Now! She’s blind! She’ll fall out of bed ’cause she can’t see where she’s going! Now! We have to find it now!”

I was wide awake at this point; thanks to me, so was everyone else. With a sigh and a snap of the switch, my grandmother flooded the room with light from the overhead fixture and commenced the search while I clutched Morgan and snuffled.

It took about fifteen seconds to find the button; it had, after all, fallen right next to the bed and hadn’t even had the energy to bounce anywhere in the sultry night. My grandmother fetched her sewing box and, under my watchful gaze, reattached Morgan’s eye thus restoring her sight. Perhaps due to the drama, Morgan and I fell asleep right after the surgery.

I sometimes think of Morgan’s accident on hot summer nights; occasionally I think of it randomly when I see her perched on my bed. It’s been over fifty years since her brush with blindness and more amazing, even, than her miraculous recovery, is my grandmother’s reaction to her misadventure, specifically the speed with which she assuaged a little girl’s pain and fear by repairing her stuffed friend immediately.

I miss my grandmother and her trusty needle. She could fix lots of things; I could use her skill now.

Strawberry Fields Forever


When I was little, my family would leave the city on summer Friday evenings just before sunset, after my dad and grandfather returned home from work and it was no longer so hot outside. The drive upstate on the Taconic was boring so I often fell asleep.
Saturday mornings were busy and everyone had a task; the first stop for my grandparents and me was Grand Union in Hoosick Falls for the meat – chicken or steak – that my dad and grandfather would grill in the huge brick barbecue they had built years before. Next we drove to Faile’s Dairy in Cambridge for fresh eggs and heavy cream. My mom would grab my sister and head to Moses Farm Stand in Eagle Bridge for sweet peaches, firm-fleshed Jersey tomatoes, corn on the cob, and strawberries all picked earlier that morning.

I remember the strawberries best of all – plump, luscious, bright-red, and freckled. Soon they’d be swimming in a cold-water bath in my grandmother’s deep kitchen sink, then placed on a paper towel to wait while she mixed and baked an all-butter pound cake. Smelling the fruity berry scent and the rich aroma of the cake bought everyone into the kitchen. No one had the patience to wait until the golden cake was cooled and sliced into three equal layers or to watch my grandmother hand-whip the cream and spread it thickly, then dot it with the shiny red berries. She swatted away lots of probing fingers with her metal spatula while she assembled. Even though there were other things, delicious things, to eat before the cake, the highlight was my grandmother’s strawberry shortcake.

My grandparents are dead and their house long-sold. Faile’s Dairy is out of business. My sister and I are past middle-aged. But sweet, red, summer strawberries live on in my imagination and my garden.

Of Mothers and Books


I am a second-generation story-hoarder. From as early as I can recall, my mother, a voracious reader, read stories to me.  We sat squashed together on the sofa or a park bench, transfixed by the tale, me following the print across invisible lines on the pages with my finger and squinting to see the relationship between the words and the pictures, as she read aloud in her smooth voice.  Once I asked her if she made up these stories and wrote them on the paper for me.  She laughed and said no, a special kind of artist did; they were called writers and the stories they created enriched everyone’s lives. I was impressed. Those people called writers caught magic with their imaginations the way my cousins and I caught lightning bugs in old jam jars.

When I was three, she took me on the subway from the Bronx to the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, to get my first library card so I could join her in the pleasure of checking out books.  I remember climbing the great stone staircase of the Beaux Arts structure slowly, my short legs requiring two hopping steps to equal each one of her long-legged strides.  Of course, the fact that I peered over my shoulder continually, trying to look at the two enormous stone lions, placed like sentinels where the sidewalk met the stairs, and wondering what they guarded didn’t help my awkward ascent. The sheer majesty of the structure made me conclude that this building held valuable things and must therefore be a bank.

When we finally arrived in the cool marble lobby, I gasped as I saw what the unblinking lions were protecting.  The entire building was filled not with money but with books; I could see them from where I stood under the big chandelier.  I knew then why my mother loved this place; this was where those special artists wrote their ideas for the rest of us to hold in our hands and read.  Wandering through the aisles of the children’s section, running my sweaty finger along the plastic-wrapped spines of the Dr. Suesses and Beverly Clearys, it occurred to me why the lions out front were so busy they never closed their eyes; the stories inside of these books were beyond valuable, they were priceless. I knew because my mother had said so.

I caught my mother’s abiding passion for stories like DiMaggio caught pop flies – effortlessly. She encouraged me totally.  In elementary school, when I wanted to own every book in the monthly Arrow Book Club newsletter, my mother wrote the checks. Later, when I decided to try to scratch out my own magic by writing stories and poems, she purchased endless numbers of spiral-bound notebooks for me and convinced my grandfather to build floor to ceiling shelves in my room to hold my expanding library. When, at age eight, I succeeded in publishing my first poem in Highlights for Children, she crept into every pediatric office in the Fordham Road Medical Arts Building and swiped every waiting room copy.  And when I published my first story in a real hardback anthology, so certain was she that I would be a successful writer that she bought dozens of copies of it on Amazon.com and had me autograph them so she could give them to nearly everyone she knew.

I have begun to be what I wanted to be.  My stories have been included in national and international publications, although it isn’t yet time to quit the day job. And it is all because I was lucky enough to have you as my mother. So thanks, Mom.  I love you.

Lost New York


If you sit through the bitter end of a movie filmed in New York City, you’ll see that the closing credits contain a little circular logo from the New York Film Commission:  it says “Made in New York” in white letters on a blue ground.  Me, too: I am a native New Yorker from a long line of native New Yorkers, people who were truly Made in New York.

2474 Grand Avenue, Apartment 18 C, third floor, Bronx, NY 10468, halfway between Fordham Road and West 190th Street , was my family’s home.  My grandparents moved there in 1939, remaining until the mid-1970s.  It’s where I came after leaving Fitch Sanitarium where I was born early one October morning in the late 1950s. At just over 7 pounds, with black hair and indigo eyes, I was the only girl in a nursery populated with squalling baby boys. Fitch, a private hospital founded in 1849 by Dr. Charles W. Fitch, was peculiarly placed at the intersection of West 183 Street and Sedgwick Avenue at Loring Place, within walking distance of our apartment, or taxi distance, if one happened to be in labor.  I was escorted into the world by Dr. Daniel Martuccio, with the assistance of Mary Crean, an ob-gyn OR nurse who was such a good friend to my grandmother she was practically family.  To me they were always Dr. Dan and Aunt Mary.

Immediately upon meeting me that rainy midnight, Aunt Mary tied a string of beads to my wrist: black ink on white glass spelled my entire name, the same first and middle names as my grandfather’s mother, each letter closely following the other, no spacers: the unlettered beads alternated pink and blue.  I imagine Aunt Mary squinting as she poked through the wooden box containing the letter beads, her glasses perched on the tip of her nose, the same way my glasses do now, as I have long since passed the age she was on the autumn night when she strung them. Family lore says that after Dr. Dan tied the cord, Aunt Mary wrapped me in blankets like a papoose and said, “You finish up, Dan; I got what I came for” and promptly carried me into the waiting room to meet my father and grandparents.  My older sister, at home with my teenaged cousins, had to wait a few days to meet me.  Interestingly, she’s never complained about that.

I haven’t been back to 2474 Grand Avenue in years, not since the day in the early 1990’s when, on a pre-zoo detour, I saw that the entire front of the building was changed, added on to, blown out like a boil.  The addition paid no homage to the building’s original architectural classification; it was that ugly, more–room-inside-so-who-cares-about-outside style.

“That’s progress,” my husband shrugged, shifting the car into Drive, completely acquiescent of construction in a city that never stops rebuilding itself.

I scowled.  “Humph.  Desecration, more like.”

“Of what?”

“My childhood.”  What did he know?  His grandparents’ original Tudor house in Forest Hills Gardens remains unchanged to this day: no one has opened a tarot-card-reading shop where he used to play.

When I was little, 2474 Grand Avenue was big, not huge like buildings now, but normal-people big, like buildings in Greenwich Village.  It was a lot like every other building on the block in size and tenancy, which means it was nowhere near as grand as those on the Grand Concourse, but you could never have convinced me of that.  In reality, 2474 Grand Avenue probably wasn’t an especially large building, even when new in 1926, but it and its two identical siblings were distinct from their neighbors by the addition of roomy courtyards created by having the lobby situated back several feet from the sidewalk, bordered by stone balustrades and up two sets of steps: raised flowerbeds then framed the steps and paths.  On ordinary summer days, I played Barbies and jacks in there with my sister or by myself; occasionally my cousin Carl came over and Barbie’s pink world was stretched to include olive-drab GI Joe.  On days when Joe stayed home (Carl said he was “on maneuvers”), Carl and I played Go Fish or Old Maid, sitting opposite each other at the edge of a single step and using the flowerbed wall as our card table.  Neither my mom nor our grandmother had any trouble keeping an eye on us from the windows upstairs.

When it was time for a bathroom break or a drink, the lobby was reached easily through heavy glass doors decorated with black iron scrolled into a curly Italianate design.  The floor was black and white checkerboard-patterned marble and a pastoral mural was painted on the back wall. The lobby was cool and dark and had twin staircases at either side that always reminded me of our cousin Nicholas’s sticky-outty ears.  I recall ascending those stairs to 18 C many times, my little legs climbing, climbing, climbing, while clutching my mom’s hand.  At our landing, the doors stood, all alike, shiny and black.  What they lacked in individuality, however, they made up for in locks, seemingly dozens of locks, locks to be opened just in time  – or not  – when a little girl really had to potty.  On those days when I was on the inside of the door, the clinking and jangling of these locks were like Christmas bells to me, heralding the arrivals of my mom, my dad, or my grandfather.

Besides the locks, the only other really interesting thing about the front door was its proximity to the enormous coat closet.  I loved the coat closet; its dim interior smelled like the polish for my dad’s shoes and the traces of My Sin by Arpege clinging to my mom’s out-of-season wool coat. My grandfather’s red metal toolbox resided in the closet.  The heavy, glass seltzer bottles lived there, too, napping in their wooden crate, rousing themselves drowsily only on Fridays when Mr. Schmuckler, the seltzer man, took away the empties and left full ones in their places.

By city standards, the apartments in 2474 Grand were huge, with up to three bedrooms, a black and white tiled bathroom, and a living room that ran the entire width. Each living room on the street side had three large windows. The front window closest to my grandfather’s favorite chair had a wide sill, and like the old men in “Prufrock” or a solitary house cat, I hung out that window observing the opera of the street and looking for my sister, for my cousins, for my mom and dad, but mostly for my grandfather coming home from Grand Central Station, where he worked days as a Ventilation Cleaning Gang leader (essentially, a supervisor in charge of the crews who ensured the air quality in the station and its tunnels) or from the business he and my grandmother owned at 178 West Fordham Road, where he worked evenings repairing televisions and radios.  I sat on that sill a lot, playing with Colorforms plastic shapes and cutting paper dolls from old Montgomery Ward catalogs.  Sometimes I colored or connected-the-dots.  One day I accidentally knocked my sister’s souvenir Statue of Liberty out the window from that sill, breaking her torch.  (The statue’s, I mean, not my sister’s.)  Ironically, Miss Liberty currently stands on a bedside table in a guest bedroom in my own house looking perfectly content; unlike my sister, she got over it.

The kitchen in the back was narrow but not too small; we had a table and chairs in there and we all fit around the table at the same time.  The table was placed next to another big window with another big sill, wide enough for a child to lean on and unobtrusively stack peas, while hoping for pigeons or my grandfather’s parakeets to swoop down and eat the evidence.  My grandmother, who had lost her right leg from the knee down due to a childhood playground accident – an unsecured wrought-iron school gate swung into her from behind slicing her leg and damaging it irreversibly – perched on that sill, too, while she hung laundry on a line connected to our building with a pulley.  The pulley had a companion across the way, attached to someone else’s building, just outside someone else’s window.  I was surprised when my dad told me a few years ago that my grandfather had hung that clothesline; when I was little I believed that my grandmother knew the person on the other end of the rope, the person who utilized the line on days when she did not.

Walking the five or six blocks from our apartment to my grandparents’ business with my grandmother on summer mornings brought one of my life’s enduring highlights  – approaching Shields’ Bar and Grill on the corner of Grand Avenue and Fordham Road.  On summer evenings, the air around Shields’ formed its own cumulous cloud of appetizing scents like onions and hamburgers frying: raucous laughter and jukebox music spilled through its open windows, sparking my imagination.  In the clear morning air, however, it sat quietly, looking somewhat squinty and unkempt and smelling vaguely of yeast.  Nevertheless, every day on the back step rested one of the biggest pieces of ice I had ever seen; each day the block was uniformly square, about three feet by three feet, resembling an ice cube plucked from a giant’s lemonade glass. When I asked my grandfather how that was possible – our refrigerator didn’t make anything that big – he took me to the icehouse near Yankee Stadium.  Dating from the 1920’s, it made ice for the Bronx Terminal Market and other places.  I stood on the sidewalk, amazed: who’d’ve believed there really was a place that did nothing all day and all night but make enormous ice cubes?

In my imagination, huge aluminum ice cube trays, held by six burly men, were balanced under a massive tap and filled with water.  When the flow stopped, the men staggered to a big freezer and slid the trays into position, one by one. Then, when the cubes were solid, the huge handle cranked back, popping out the cubes, ready for delivery to places like Shields’.  Daily, inches from that massive block, I’d balance on tiptoe and attempt to peer into the screened back door, searching the gloom for the sources of the smells and the mystery of who exactly used that big ice cube and for what, but the dimness inside always prevented it.  My grandmother prevented it, too, tapping my right ankle with her crutch and saying, “Come on.  There’s nothing in there for you.”  Really?  I bet there was, if only I could have finagled a way to get in and find out.

My grandparents’ business was an electronics sales and repair store called DeVoe Radio & Electric (named by my dad, after the park situated just across the street), dating from the days when people still needed specialty stores and it was cheaper to repair than buy new. My grandfather fixed small appliances, like radios, and later, televisions, in the back and my grandmother ran the front of shop and kept the books.  Although DeVoe certainly wasn’t the only electronics store in New York or even in the Bronx at the time (an advertisement for the new General Electric vacuum cleaner placed in the May 19, 1949 edition of The New York Times lists dozens of them), it was one of only two on Fordham Road, and thus, well-known with a loyal clientele.  My grandfather ensured this by stocking cutting-edge products for his customers to try.  (Decades later, a waiter at Smith & Wollensky made me cry by relaying how he saw his first televised World Series baseball game playing through the front window of my grandparents’ store in 1947 when owning a television was uncommon.)

On most summer mornings I sat high up on the counter and played with the receipts poked onto a little brass pole, the receipts from in-store sales or from home repairs that my grandfather would pull from a leather folio when he returned from a call.  Sometimes I’d sit on my grandmother’s lap drawing or crafting paper clip chains (lacking the fine dexterity required to braid the more difficult chewing-gum-wrapper chains that so captivated my adolescent sister and teenaged cousins) or playing Hopscotch on the sidewalk until I felt like a melting Popsicle, and dragged myself next door to Mr. Pigola’s candy store for a cherry Coke.  This was a real cherry Coke, made with two kinds of syrup, cola and sweet cherry, tapped from soda fountain optics into a clear, ice-filled glass with the word “Coke” etched onto the side in script, and stirred with a long, twisted metal spoon.  It tasted cold and sweet and fresh.

Sometimes my grandfather invited me join him on an evening repair call. He would grab his heavy repair case and we’d be off, me trotting beside him on the wide sidewalk, clutching his free hand, and chattering.  If the location were farther than a few blocks away, we’d drive in his red Chevy Impala station wagon.  When we reached our destination, I’d follow him upstairs to the apartment; I always sat quietly where directed while he slid out chasses and changed tubes.  Occasionally someone would offer me a cookie or a glass of soda.  One elderly lady gave me a pocket-sized teddy bear to keep.

My summer days passed this way: all were virtually identical, like running those paper clip chains I made through your fingers, observing each clip’s uniformity in size and shape, with only a minor variation in color and contour.

One variation involved my mom leaving her job in Manhattan early and meeting me at the store rather than allowing me to walk home with my grandmother. I never knew when she planned to do this: hearing the shop door’s bell, I would look up and see her enter.  One such day, after re-braiding my hair and helping me pack away Barbie and Skipper, she said she and I were going for a walk.  When I asked where, she shook her head.  “Mm-mm.  It’s a surprise.”

We exited DeVoe Radio to the left, popped into the liquor store to say hello to Mr. Jacobson, waved to Mr. Applebaum as we passed his pharmacy, and continued walking along the pavement toward Sedgwick Avenue.  We stopped at the corner and didn’t cross, even when the lights changed. I waited with her, holding her cool, dry hand with my little, sweaty one and used the rubber toe of my left Keds to scratch a mosquito bite on the back of my right calf, a mosquito bite I had gotten “up the country” – my cousins’ and my name for my grandparents’ weekend house upstate.   I looked around – apartment houses, the Berenson’s grocery store, Louie Carbone’s fresh fruit and vegetable market, the butcher shop – all places my dad had worked as a teenaged delivery boy – Ralph Camera’s Gulf station, and long, long Fordham Road with the rushing highway at its base.  As the minutes passed I began to grow restless; I’d seen all this before.  Were we ever going to move?  Where were we going, anyway?  This was the wrong direction for the zoo or Aunt Fay’s house. We’d already passed the park so we weren’t going to the swings and we’d passed Piggy’s so we weren’t going to have a soda. To ride the Staten Island Ferry or see the Balto statue or the Alice clock – both in Central Park  – required traveling to Manhattan first and we were nowhere near the subway. Pretending to ignore my shifting weight and unasked questions, my mother merely gazed through her cat’s eye sunglasses at a distant point downhill.  Seconds passed.

Finally she nudged me gently and gestured with her head.  “Look. Look.”

I turned my body slightly to the right and there was my grandfather, climbing the hill from the railroad. Before my mom had even released my hand, I burst away like a dog chasing a squirrel.  My grandfather, laughing, let his Daily News fall to the pavement and caught me just before I crashed into his knees.

My mom had followed me; she bent to retrieve the paper and tuck it in her big basket purse. We walked up the hill in the fading sunshine, the three of us holding hands with me in the middle.  We stopped at Mr. Pigola’s for a packet of cherry licorice and continued along Fordham Road to meet my grandmother, just locking the front door of the store.

The workday was sighing to a close.  My dad would be home soon, and my sister.  There were groceries to buy at Daitch on the walk back to 2474 Grand Avenue, groceries that would contain the inevitable Breyer’s chocolate ice cream so beloved by my grandfather, my dad, and me. There was chicken to roast, potatoes to mash, and peas to stack on the back windowsill.  There were saltines to poke through the bars to my grandfather’s parakeets, and finally, just before bed, scoops of chocolate ice cream to eat from clear, pressed-glass bowls while watching Perry Mason, curled in my grandfather’s lap, in my grandfather’s favorite chair as the sun set behind the water towers on the city rooftops.

Sprechen zei Deutsch? Nein, nein.


When I was a kid, I thought teachers were overworked, underpaid, and got no respect from anyone, probably because I’d seen all the teacher films on Million Dollar Movie – Up the Down Staircase; To Sir, With Love; The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie; The Blackboard Jungle – and certainly none of them glorified the profession.  I certainly didn’t see myself teaching anyone anything.

But then my great-uncle Max remarried when I was twelve. The news astonished me because he had been single as long as I had known him: ex-Aunt Emily had divorced him years before I was even born and I’d had no idea he was in the market for a new wife.  It turns out that he wasn’t, at least not for just any new wife.  He wanted one in particular, a woman named Gisela, his adolescent sweetheart in Germany during the run-up to the Second World War.  They had lost each other when he fled Germany around 1938 to avoid a concentration camp and Gisela, a Catholic and in no immediate danger, remained behind.   After she and Max separated, each created a new life and married other people.  Gisela moved to a rural area in southwestern Germany while Max built his photography career in Chicago.  Eventually, both of their marriages came undone for one reason or another.  Apparently Max never forgot her and probably wondered more and more if what might have been could be still so, early in 1971, he returned to Germany to look for her, found her, married her, and brought her to America and, within a few weeks, to our house.

The visit was intended to be a mixture of business with pleasure since, in addition to seeing us, Max was due to photograph the transformers illustrating Westinghouse’s newest catalog, published by my dad’s sales support division.  That meant that he and my father would be out of the house all day.  My mother and older sister would be at work, too.  Since it was summer and I was off from school, it didn’t take long to determine that I was the one designated to stay home all day with the old German lady while everyone else scarpered off to places more interesting.  At that age, the thought of spending an entire day with any adult bored me senseless, but a foreign one who, due to the fact that she spoke no English, couldn’t even talk with me was a living death.  Besides the communication situation, there was the unwelcome threat to my autonomy.  This houseguest would keep me from doing what I loved, specifically with her in the house I couldn’t lie on my bed and read until the sun had long left its apex in the summer blue sky.

After breakfast, when Gisela went to dress, I seized the opportunity to sit alone at the kitchen table and sneak a quick read of an Agatha Christie.  I became so engrossed in the adventures of Hercule Poirot and the Clapham cook I didn’t hear her returning footsteps. At the last moment, just as Gisela re-entered the kitchen, I tried to ditch Agatha.  Because I had started too late, Gisela caught sight of the book sliding under the chair cushion.  Something about what she saw made her face open.  She pointed to Agatha, then to me, and to the book again, then to herself.  I guessed that she might be indicating that she liked to read and asking if I liked to read, too, so I nodded and said, “Yes, I love to read; it’s my favorite thing to do.”  Although she didn’t understand my words, the enthusiasm in my voice must have spoken to her because she smiled, crinkling her blue eyes, and turned to leave the room.

She returned less than a minute later clutching a book, a children’s reading primer withHans und Fritz printed on its cover.  She stood a few feet away and held it toward me with a hopeful expression on her face.  I had to stretch to reach the book, but I accepted it and riffled the pages.  It was simple story with pen and ink drawings of two children, telling of their adventures in clear, concise language designed to teach English to German children. I opened it to the first page. She continued to stand by a chair and nodded toward me with an expression more intensely hopeful than the last.  I cocked my head to the left like a puzzled squirrel.  What was she saying?  She tugged at the chair and began to motion next to me.  “What? Oh, okay.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, “ I answered her absently, nodding while I spoke.

I read the book aloud, slowly, and Gisela listened attentively.  Sometimes she tried to follow along in the book but at that distance it was hard for her to see the pages so I gestured for her to move closer to me.  Now that she could see more clearly, she followed along even more intently.  Sometimes she reached out to run her index finger across the page under the words as she tried to determine which part of the text I was reading.  Her brow furrowed slightly as she whispered the words I spoke after I read them aloud.  She appeared so engaged in mastering the words that I felt bad that it was such a short book and I started over.  Then I started again. Sometimes she gazed at me as I read the words aloud and once or twice she turned my face toward hers by very gently placing her soft, cool fingers on my jaw or my lips so she could feel the shape of my face as I created the sounds.  Startled and, at first, puzzled by the gesture, finally I figured out what she was doing – she was trying to understand how to form the strange-sounding English words that seemed to possess the same meaning as the more guttural language she already knew.

Ultimately I was able to discern which chubby boy was Hans and which was Fritz and, flattered by her obvious appreciation of my reading skill, I began to alter my voice for each character.  Then I pointed at them when the drawing indicated actions, like jumping rope, shooting marbles, slipping down a slide, or eating a meal so she could learn the verb in English representing the action she surely recognized. Eventually, I must have read the whole book through ten or twelve times.

The hours passed and my family returned home.  Immediately upon entering the house, Max walked over to embrace Gisela and he asked her in German what she’d done all day.  She smiled, and then she picked up Hans und Fritz and read the entire book aloud with mostly correct pronunciation.  I remember the amazement on Max’s face as he heard her speaking English, a little haltingly, but still speaking it, and she beamed when he hugged her.   When he asked her how she had learned to do that in one day, she reached across the table and clasped the back of my wrist.

This point is where a lesser woman would announce that this moment of interpersonal warmth and educational triumph inspired her career choice by having allowed her to discover that she was a born teacher.  Alas, life is not like the movies and I am not Sandy Dennis.

Here is also where a lesser woman would claim that this day’s triumph was just the beginning for Gisela, that she became a fluent English speaker.  That isn’t true, either.  When I visited Max and Gisela in Southern California four years later she still couldn’t speak a word of English, although she could read Hans und Fritz aloud from cover to cover, so I guess I taught her something.

Regardless, Gisela taught me something, although I wasn’t aware of it until decades later when I missed a train in Paris: she taught me that you can actually spend an entire day – rather pleasantly – communicating with someone you cannot talk to.  If only every day of my life were so fruitful.