Everyday Miracles

Everyday Miracles” (Boston Globe-February 22, 2010)

I tell people that Aunt Zelda was the mother I was meant to have.  We all have those people who save us from our parents and ourselves.  Leonard and Zelda and their two children lived in Miami, and when my father called them from our apartment in New York to tell them that his marriage was over, Zelda said, “Bring Karen and come down.”  I was three, and still have photos from that trip: Zelda holding my hand in the surf of South Beach, washing the sand off my feet, helping me into dry clothes, making sure I was ready to face the day.   “Stay as long as you like,” Zelda said to us then and for the rest of her life.

            She was an award-winning public school English teacher, administrator, and teacher of teachers.  She was a voracious and opinionated reader.  Bad grammar offended her.  She had a sharp wit and a high-pitched voice for which we teased her.  She wore sunglasses the size of salad plates and waged the Florida homemaker’s ongoing war with crumbs and ants.  She was fiercely loyal to her children, her friends, and her liberal ideals.  And she was one half of that rare thing: a good marriage.  She and Len argued and laughed; they made and lost money, and every day they demonstrated how much in love they were.  And, as my father would tell passing strangers, they still had sex.

When her family walked into a room, her face said: there isn’t anyone in the world I’d rather be with.  Reuniting with her, I felt the heat of her same regard.  I spent most birthdays and holidays in Zelda’s world.  Jewish Zelda, just shy of Socialist, had a real Christmas tree for me every year despite the mess of the symbolism and the needles.

Her kids moved away; I went to Miami.  My father died; I went to Miami.  I married and had my own kids; we went to Miami.  Her home was proof that family didn’t have to be a balancing act on melting ice.  Her home was evidence of what was possible.  She was the reason I’m a teacher and a writer, the reason I didn’t marry all those horrible boys I used to date.  Everything about her life said: We’re not here to settle.  We’re here to be the best versions of ourselves and inspire that in somebody else.    My darling, she called me.  My sweetheart.  My baby.

In a restaurant, I got the news that she’d been killed in a car accident.  She and Len had been in the backseat.  A woman in a pick-up had run a red light.  I was forty-one and wailed like a child.

She wasn’t my mother; she wasn’t even my aunt, really.  Len and my father were first cousins.  What did that make Zelda and me?  Her children didn’t call me until the day after the accident.  I wasn’t at the cremation.  I was asked to speak at the memorial service, but not in the final line-up of family members.  These were, I knew, petty things, but they announced a status as outsider.  I withdrew slightly.  I didn’t call Len as much, only visited once a year.  But you can’t withdraw from the dead.  In the early morning hours between sleep and wakefulness, she reappears.  It’s unfair, I tell my husband.  He agrees.  And he adds that if she’d lived to 103 and died in her sleep, it would still be unfair.

And I realize I’d always been to some extent an outsider, since I wasn’t a member of her immediate family.  And that this was an instructive emotional position for a writer, since what do we do if not compare the worlds we have to the worlds we desire?  We labor through our language to clarify and welcome the world, as Zelda had, to bring it into focus for ourselves and for others.

So, I’m not Zelda’s daughter.  But the miraculous thing was how often she made me feel I was: the everyday miracle performed by the good teacher, or friend, or mother.