Survivors: A Visit to the Berlin Zoo

According to Wikipedia, during World War II the Berlin Zoo was destroyed, and “only 91 of 3,715 animals survived, including two lions, two hyenas, an Asian bull elephant, a hippo bull, ten hamadryas baboons, a chimpanzee, and a black stork.” Not having a firm grasp of World War II history, which was too recent to be taught when I was in school, I’m not sure exactly how the animals were destroyed, but I believe at least some of them were eaten by hungry Berlin residents. Most of what I know about the Berlin Zoo during the war (and to me “the war” is World War II, not Vietnam or any of the wars that  followed) I learned from reading Richard Zimler’s The Seventh Gate, a novel that mixes Jewish history with a compelling mystery story. The zoo appears and reappears several times during the Zimler novel, although one of the most important animals in the novel was not a zoo animal at all but a squirrel.

I like squirrels. When I was a child, my imaginary playmate was a squirrel named Zipper. I don’t remember why I chose that name, but, when I’m sitting on the porch off our kitchen and I see a squirrel in the cedar tree outside, I always call him or her Zipper. My original Zipper was a lighthouse keeper, and I always explained Zipper’s absence from any birthday or Christmas party I attended by saying he couldn’t leave his light. I’m proud of inventing an imaginary playmate with a solid alibi.

On our last day in Germany, Joe and I visited the Berlin Zoo in the Tiergarten and saw many of the 20,000 and some animals now present, although some were probably already hibernating or just shy or uneasy around people. The giraffes and zebras were particularly impressive, and a lone polar bear with a solid sense of self surveyed us from his habitat. We saw animals that looked like squirrels and animals that looked like house cats. We saw parakeets that resembled my old friends Tippy and Roscoe. And we saw elephants. I love elephants, although my political leanings are solidly Democratic and of course I also love donkeys.

I couldn’t help but remember a passage from The Seventh Gate about the fate of the zoo animals during the war:

Hans asks me if we can go now to the Berlin Zoo. I’ve told him about it as a bribe. “What a good idea!” Else exults, plainly trying to please my son. “We’ll walk through the Tiergarten. I think the zoo might still be closed, but we can look at ducks in the ponds on the way. A few have come back.”
          “They left?” I ask.
          “We were starving. We ate ducks, rabbits … anything we could catch or raise.”
          Hans turns up his nose.
          “Yes, it wasn’t pretty,” she tells the boy. Whispering to me, she says, “The zoo animals were slaughtered too . . .”

 We were glad they were back, and we enjoyed watching the elephants, meerkats, rhinoceroses, and oryxes in something approaching their natural habitats. We were glad to see that they were well fed. And I actually got to spend some time in a monkey house, although I felt sorry for the large gorilla sitting with his back to the crowd trying to enjoy his dinner in peace. He was a little too close to human—a loner whose sense of privacy was being violated. I’m sorry about that, about being one of the violators, although I think it’s important for children to see these animals up close and personal, accompanied by all the zoo smells they produce.

Wikipedia reminds us that human history can produce its own variety of zoo smells: “In 1938, the Berlin Zoo got rid of Jewish board members and forced Jewish shareholders to sell their stock at a loss, before re-selling the stock in an effort to ‘Aryanize’ the institution. The zoo has now commissioned a historian to identify these past shareholders and track down their descendants.”

I wrote most of this post on my iPad on the Amsterdam-to-Detroit leg of our return flight. By the time we arrived home to an empty refrigerator, it was morning in Berlin, and our bodies were still running on German time. The next day was Election Day. We voted and went grocery shopping, and then we went out for pizza, wanting to compare it to the flammkuchen we had eaten just three days earlier. Then the election returns started to come in.

On Wednesday I was depressed about the election and still jet-lagged, no longer familiar with either my habits or my wardrobe. My disorientation was so complete that I seemed to be walking around in a different kind of zoo, one run by pigs who walked upright and engaged in neverending battles. They governed themselves according to a familiar principle: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

A River Runs Through It: Vienna

The river is still the Danube, but it’s less evident than it was in Budapest, where we walked by it or across it every day. In Vienna we feel the presence of the Danube as a musical time signature, curved and sweeping, superimposed over our daily activities. Music is everywhere. In the gift shop of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Jesus and the Virgin Mary share space with Mozart and other composers; rosaries and tiny music boxes get equal billing. You can hardly eat a chocolate bon-bon without having to peel off a very attractive wrapper with Mozart’s face on it.

That’s high classical—Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—but there is also the waltz, the Waltz King, and “The Blue Danube.” On our second day in Vienna, which happened to be Halloween day, we visited the Haus der Music, a modern, high-tech museum devoted to the history and science of Viennese music. We rolled dice—Joe threw the red die and I threw the blue one—and a giant screen made aleatory music out of the results. The composition wasn’t half bad, either. Then we let Mozart write music based on the spelling of our names. He seems to have composed a brief phrase for every letter of the alphabet, and the results could be played back in their original form or orchestrated. And that was just the first floor.

The next level was devoted to the science of music, and that’s where everything got very high tech. I learned that my ability to discern musical pitch was somewhat better than a grasshopper’s and nowhere near as good as a dog’s. On to the next level, with rooms devoted to various composers with Austrian roots, including Johann Strauss, called the Waltz King, who composed “The Blue Danube.” I remembered watching Kathryn Murray demonstrate the Viennese Waltz, and I wished I had sent away for the footprints. The museum’s app, which we had downloaded to our phones, contained additional information about each composer, along with links to You Tube videos of each composer’s music. Last stop was the virtual conductor room, where a large, interactive philharmonic was playing on the big screen. Anyone could attempt to conduct, and there were choices of three or four different pieces of music. We watched a couple of children make the effort, including one who was still a toddler. They both did quite well at waving the baton, but at a certain point the musicians stopped playing and started laughing at their ineptitude. It was all good fun, but I didn’t give it a try because I didn’t want the musicians to laugh at me.

But the Danube isn’t all waltzes and music. One odd association that I brought to it comes from research I did some years ago for a series of poems that I’m still trying to turn into a book. My main character’s gentleman friend—I’ll call it that, but it was more than friendship and certainly less than love—had an uncle who was instrumental in encouraging settlement near the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. The uncle, David Parish, was born to a wealthy Scottish family in Hamburg in 1778. He was associated with an international banking firm in Antwerp that sent him to the United States, where he supervised the transfer of Mexican silver to Europe via New Orleans. In other words, he was laundering money. In upstate New York, he invested in land purchases, iron works, and sawmills and built a mansion in Ogdensburg; the mansion is now a museum housing Remington bronzes. He returned to Europe, settled in Vienna, and, in an uncertain financial climate, made some bad investments and lost all his money. He drowned himself in the Danube in 1826. 

We had been spiraling higher and higher in the Haus der Music, and by the time we took the elevator back down to the ground floor, night had fallen. Halloween night. The nice people at the ticket desk were all wearing costumes, and the large ground-floor room was filled with children, little girls dressed as witches, little boys dressed as skeletons. Time for us to waltz out the door and look for a place to have dinner. 

A River Runs Through It: Budapest

The river, of course, is the Danube, which in my mind is always associated with dance. “Take this waltz,” sings Leonard Cohen in three-quarter time, and I’m back in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, when every school dance (not that I went to that many of them) included a prize waltz as the highlight of the evening. I learned to dance by counting: “one, two, one, two” or “one, two, one.” I remember a particular prize waltz competition when the eliminations were faster and more furious than usual; instead of spotlighting a small group of the best dancers among us, the teachers who were running the shebang eliminated everyone. The dance floor was bare. We thought we were waltzing, but we were all doing the fox trot, the popular dance of the day.

We could have learned to dance by watching the Arthur Murray Party on TV, hosted by Arthur’s wife Kathryn. Those people knew what they were doing and never would have confused a waltz for a fox trot or a lindy hop or anything else. And If we had been serious about it, we could have ordered paper footprints for the various dances. I think there must have been different footprint combinations for men and for women, but I don’t really remember. I do remember that there was a class of waltz—a very classy waltz—called the Viennese waltz, but I’ll save that for another city.

Right now I am on a train leaving Budapest, where Joe and I have spent the past four days. We walked along the Danube, crossed the Chain Bridge, admired the views, both upriver and downriver. We photographed Buda from Pest, where our hotel was, and Pest from Buda, where the castle was. We saw small tour boats, those that took tourists on ninety-minute cruises, and large Viking River Cruise ships looking not quite as spiffy as the ones we used to see in donor videos (i.e., commercials) before every episode of Downton Abbey. Budapest is a beautiful city, and the Danube runs through it.

On both sides of the river the city contains memorials to Hungary’s heroes from various historical periods. Some of these examples of public art employ traditional sculptures of men on horseback, while others vary from the expected by being whimsical in design and execution. The most unexpected, most simple, and, in my opinion, most moving memorial is called Shoes on the Danube. It is on the Pest side, down from street level, close to the water, and it looks at first like a scattering of old shoes perched on the edge of the walkway. The shoes look old, musty, worn out, as if they had been in some old grandmother’s closet since the 1940s. When I searched for further information, I learned that the eighty pairs are not the real shoes but rather replicas cast in iron by the Hungarian sculptor Goulart Pauer. Pauer and his friend Can Togay created the memorial in 2005. A website about the display tells me the following: “The Shoes on the Danube is a memorial to the Budapest Jews who were shot by Arrow Cross militiamen between 1944 and 1945. The victims were lined up and shot into the Danube River. They had to take their shoes off, since shoes were valuable belongings at the time.”

According to Wikipedia, Arthur Murray was born in Galicia, Austria-Hungary, in 1895. His parents, Sarah and Abraham Teichman, named him Moses. They brought him to America in 1897 and raised him on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Because of anti-German sentiment after the start of World War I, Moses changed his name to Arthur Murray. He was an immigrant kid who loved to dance and made a career out of teaching others to dance. How would he feel to see the sad shoes of people who never danced again? 

Time for a Little Leitmotif

I began to notice a pattern. First there was an organ grinder in Berlin, right near the Brandenburg Gate—a real, live organ grinder, but without a real, live monkey. Instead, so that we’d get the idea, he had hung from his organ a toy monkey, useless as a collector of coins but cute and still a monkey. Then we went to Dresden and visited the Zwinger, an elegantly groomed estate with a couple of museums, one of which was devoted entirely to porcelain from the collection of Augustus the Strong. In addition to his other interests, which mostly had to do with ruling countries, Augustus was a champion of porcelain arts. His collection includes impressive pieces from Japan and China: large vases, cachepots, pieces that look like gigantic ginger jars, teapots, and figurines. Augustus was also instrumental in establishing a home-grown porcelain industry. The galleries devoted to Meissen pieces were my favorites, especially those showcasing Augustus’s porcelain menagerie. I saw lions and lambs and rhinoceroses, but what I liked best was the grouping that included a set of monkeys engaged in everyday activities like taking snuff or eating grapes.

When I was a child and lived in New Bedford, my mother would often take me to Buttonwood Park. I would play on the swings and slides, and then my mother would buy me a box of Cracker Jacks. I didn’t like the popcorn part of the Cracker Jacks, but I liked the peanuts, which were not plentiful, and the toy hidden somewhere in the box. I would find the toy, eat a few peanuts, and hand the box to my mother, who liked Cracker Jacks quite a lot. Then we would head over to the park’s zoo. There were bears inside a double-fenced enclosure that included a pool to splash around in and a cave to hide in when they got tired of being gawked at. There was a buffalo that was very careful not to step on the chickens walking around him. There were goats and geese, as well. Two or three years after my brother was born, one of the geese bit him on the finger; I guess my brother shouldn’t have been poking his finger through the wire fence and calling “Mother Goose, Mother Goose!”

There was also a monkey house. I thought the monkeys were cute, and I liked visiting them, but I never got to spend much time there because my mother was always yanking me out the door. She didn’t approve of the monkeys’ behavior, but I was a little girl and didn’t notice that they were doing anything wrong. Maybe one of them was taking snuff and setting a bad example.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate is imposing, even in the rain, even with a whole lot of other people milling about.

I was actually in Germany when reunification happened, twenty-six years ago this month. I was there to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair, staying in a hotel in Bad Homberg and commuting by train to Frankfurt. Berlin was many miles away. Since I had a full schedule of appointments the next morning at the Buchmesse, I had decided to ignore the reunification events in favor of getting a full night’s sleep. I went to bed early, but something, maybe the excitement in the air, forced me to wake up before midnight. I watched the televised ceremony, and I’m glad I did.

The next morning, my commuter train didn’t show up, and I had to wait for the next one. When I got to the Buchmesse, one of the escalators was broken, and I had to climb a lot of stairs.


Carly Simon’s hit song “Anticipation” was, according to the singer’s website, composed quickly while she was waiting for Cat Stevens, her date for the evening. I don’t know what sort of date she was anticipating, but the song, released in 1971, was a hit on the singles charts and appeared on several compilations. The melody is spirited, and the uncomplicated lyrics obviously resonated with listeners. Later “Anticipation” was featured in commercials for Heinz Ketchup. I guess you could say that the drawn-out, five-syllable first word of the chorus is almost onomatopoeic; the visual in the commercial was of ketchup slowly deciding to come out of its bottle.

Our multitasking minds probably spend more time looking forward to events than experiencing them, almost as though the foretaste of the ketchup is better than the eating of it. In fact, one of the big questions of travel has always been whether the anticipation of a trip is more rewarding than the trip itself. In his book The Art of Travel Alain de Botton writes, “It seems that unlike the continuous, enduring contentment that we anticipate, our actual happiness with, and in, a place must be a brief and, at least to the conscious mind, apparently haphazard phenomenon . . . . The condition rarely endures for longer than ten minutes.” Is he right?

Soon I will take off on a trip, a real journey this time rather than a virtual one (although the virtual trek will be operating in the background, as always) and I am trying to anticipate the historic landmarks I will see, the exquisitely prepared regional specialties I will sample, the colors of the façades of the buildings, the sounds of the streets at night, the expressions on the faces of people I will see. I am trying, but I seem instead to be preoccupied with packing a capsule wardrobe suitable for the weather swirling through the places I intend to visit. Will I need a raincoat? Will I have room in my suitcase for a Tilley hat? Will I need more than two sweaters? I am preparing to explore the unknown, although you could say that Central Europe isn’t exactly the unknown. When I worked in publishing I went to Germany every year at about this time to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair. In preparation I taught myself two German sentences; Sprechen Sie English? was essential, and Wo ist die Damentoilette? also proved useful. This time we are headed for Berlin, where my two German sentences will still be useful, but afterwards we will explore countries in which I will have no idea how to ask for directions to the ladies’ room.

I guess I’m obsessing rather than anticipating. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the most memorable moments of a trip are those that are impossible to anticipate, like buying a tube of red lipstick in the Marais, or eating crêpes from a food truck, or getting front-row seats to see Juliet Binoche in Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone at the Théâtre de la Ville.

The song “Anticipation” ends with a twist, a call to stop anticipating because “these are the good old days.” Of course this flash-forward to reminiscense is only another form of anticipation. There’s no getting away from it.

Encore: Another Marvelous Fourth of July Parade with the Pickle Pin Club

In honor of Fourth of July Weekend, I am reposting what I wrote last year at this time. It’s still appropriate, although my brother’s cat, Trixie, died a few months ago. This is the post that made me cry. 

Evelyn and I started the club because we wanted a club.  We were the oldest on the street, or at least the oldest of the young kids, and we felt it was our duty to organize activities for the others.  Evelyn was nine at the time, and I had just turned ten.  We would ask our mothers for money for refreshments and prizes, and they would give us whatever change they had handy.  We would walk to Vee’s Variety and buy Tootsie Rolls, the ones that cost only a penny, and packets of Kool-Aid.  Then we would ask our mothers for sugar to put in the Kool-Aid.  We held our meetings in our clubhouse.  Actually it wasn’t ours.  It was a tar-paper shack that Evelyn’s brother had built in their back yard, but he didn’t seem to be using it anymore. Because it had four walls and a roof, we thought it was grand.  We had a bag of pickle pins that one of my father’s customers had given him, green plastic pins shaped like pickles with the number 57 in the middle.  Everyone who joined got a pin, and we had a lot of pins left over.  That was how our club got its name.

I don’t remember which of us first thought of a parade, but we were running out of ideas for field-day-type races and games, and we were giving away a lot of Tootsie Rolls.  A parade was easy.  Everybody came dressed as something or brought something to bang on.  We had no music, but we had noise.  Evelyn and her sister Joan had a supply of dancing costumes that could be customized, made to look patriotic.  I had had only one year of dancing lessons, and my choices were limited to a tutu that I had grown out of or a ghost outfit that glowed in the dark.  Neither was especially appropriate, so I settled for shorts and a t-shirt and an Uncle Sam hat that my mother paid 25 cents for at the 5&10.  It was made of cardboard and had stars and stripes all over it, and it matched the flag I carried.  Evelyn wore one of her dancing outfits and twirled her baton.  I didn’t have a clue how to twirl a baton, but I had an Uncle Sam hat.  Joan showed up in a costume that she said represented Miss Liberty, whoever that was.  Kirsten and Donna and Betsy and Marcia wore red, white, and blue and brought flags and noisemakers.  My brother refused to march with us, but he let us borrow his toy drum.  We gathered at the end of our dead-end street early in the morning of the Fourth of July, and we started to march.  The parade route took us up our street and back down again.  People came out of their houses to watch us go by.  Some had cameras.  It was exciting!

We did this every year for what seemed like a long time but couldn’t have been.  By the second year people were lining the streets with movie cameras.  (Well maybe there was only one movie camera.)  But by the third year Tootsie Rolls and Kool-Aid had lost their magic, my brother’s drum had a hole in it, and somehow my beloved Uncle Sam hat had gotten dinged.  Besides, Evelyn and I were growing up.

So that’s how it ended.  We grew up, we grew apart, we moved away.  The bag of pickle pins seems to have disappeared, although it may be in my brother’s attic.  Evelyn and Joan are gone.  Kirsten lives in California.  I don’t know where in the world Donna, Betsy, and Marcia ended up, but I hope they are happy.  My brother is the only one who still lives on our old street, but his cat, Trixie, spends more time there than he does.

Those were the best parades of my life, and no abundance of flags, floats, marching bands, or Clydesdales could have made them more spectacular.  I’m not big on fireworks or picnics or flag-waving, at least not without my Uncle Sam hat, but oh what I wouldn’t give for one more Fourth of July parade with the Pickle Pin Club!

Mr. Micawber, Mr. Marner, and the Slow Quickening of my Monthly Budget

 It’s not what you earn, I said to myself. It’s what you don’t spend. That was in the late 60s, early 70s, when I lived in San Francisco and made a point of spending less than my paycheck allowed. I lived on what I liked to call the slum side of Nob Hill, in a neighborhood populated mostly by young singles. My furnished studio apartment cost about $95 a month. It had a bay window on one side and a wall bed on the other, with a kitchen and bathroom small enough to be hardly noticed. I didn’t make much money, but I lived cheap.

My budget tool at the time was a packet of manila coin envelopes. I would stash money in the envelopes, seal them, write the date on which each was to be opened, and hide them in various pockets of off-season garments. I never forgot where the money was hidden, and I never opened an envelope before the appointed date. I was good at budgeting. I had read David Copperfield at a young age and taken to heart Mr. Micawber’s advice to David “that if a man had twenty pounds a-year for his income, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy, but that if he spent twenty pounds one he would be miserable.” Made sense to me.

After some pay raises, some rent increases, a job change, and a move back to the East Coast, I decided I needed to do some long-range planning. Also, I guessed that paying for a never-ending supply of manila coin envelopes was not cost effective, although I liked the simplicity of the system and the feel of the envelopes in my hand. (I still have nine of them in my desk drawer, left over from my last packet.) But the world was no longer simple. Suddenly I had credit cards and used them more frequently than cash; I wasn’t about to hide my MasterCard in the pocket of an old raincoat. And the check register might be a good enough place to record the checks I had written, but in essence it was a spending tool. Even if I hadn’t hated the sight of my own handwriting, I was at a point in my life when I needed to think seriously about saving.

I don’t think I would have become acquisitive if I hadn’t read Silas Marner in high school. I loved best those passages in the book that described Silas’s relationship with his gold and silver coins. What George Eliot had written was money porn, and it stayed in my head:

He loved the guineas best, but he would not change the silver—the crowns and half-crowns that were his own earnings, begotten by his labour; he loved them all. He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children—thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.

Luckily, technology came to my rescue. First there were spreadsheets and integrated programs; for the Macintosh, Lotus Jazz and Wingz come to mind. At work, where we had a Kaypro in the basement, I used Perfect Writer to churn out contracts. We also had Perfect Calc for spreadsheets, but my job didn’t involve spreadsheets. Whatever there was, there was always something better the next year, but nothing was ever good enough. At some point I bought myself an IBM PC, which was compatible with the computer I was using at work. (The university press I worked for had ditched the Kaypro by then, and nobody was weeping over it.) I was using spreadsheets and databases all the time now. I enjoyed them, but not as much as Silas Marner enjoyed his piles of guineas.

What I knew I needed, although I didn’t know it existed, was money-management software. Luckily, my first laptop computer, an IBM that ran on DOS like its predecessor, came preloaded with Andrew Tobias’s Managing Your Money, a program that did everything I wanted it to do, including computing my debt-to-equity ratio whenever I asked it to, which was daily. I loved Managing Your Money. According to his website, Andrew Tobias, who is currently Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, still uses the last DOS version, even though the rest of the world has closed that door and opened its Windows.

When I switched to a series of Windows computers, none of which I especially liked, I said good-bye to MYM and hello to Quicken. I liked Quicken. If I told it when I wanted to retire, it would tell me whether I could afford to do so. And although it refused to calculate my debt-to-equity ratio, it gave me enough information so that I could do the arithmetic myself. With each new version, Quicken for Windows became more sophisticated. What I liked best were the budgeting features. I could have as many income and expense categories as I wanted, and I could budget a different amount in each category for each month of the year. I could be as obsessively precise as I wanted to be, and Quicken would cheer me on.

The story could have ended happily right there, except that I really wasn’t happy with my string of Windows computers–not in the way I had loved my DOS computers and my manila envelopes. I finally made the decision to switch platforms, and for me it was the right decision. In most cases, transitioning to software designed for the Mac was easy. The Mac version of my genealogy program, the one I worried most about, worked just fine. The same is true for my word-processing and spreadsheet programs. I was almost happy.

However, I soon learned that Quicken software for the Macintosh was greatly inferior to the Windows product. Quicken Essentials, the version that was available when I made the switch, was so bad that I have blocked it out of my mind completely. I bought Quicken 2015 for Mac as soon as it became available, and it was an improvement, but nowhere near what I had gotten used to. What was missing–well, many things were missing, but what I missed the most–was 12-month budgeting. Quicken 2015 for Mac worked on the assumption that one’s income and expenses were exactly the same from one month to the next. It would have been a good program for a young single living in a $95-a-month studio with a wall bed in San Francisco, someone who spent exactly $120 a month each month at Cala Foods, someone whose monthly PG&E bill came in consistently at under $4. It was not a good program for a retired homeowner with property taxes, school taxes, and estimated taxes to worry about. My Quicken budget was a caricature of my financial life, and I was almost ready to go back to those envelopes.

 Now for the happy ending: Earlier this month Quicken 2016, which I hadn’t bothered to buy since it seemed to offer nothing new that I wanted, finally got around to adding 12-month budgeting to its other features. No, I told myself, they’re just trying to suck me in. It won’t work. Don’t believe them. I held my breath and downloaded the new version. I held by breath and transferred all of my data. I held my breath and looked at my budget. Yes, it was true. I could fine-tune my budget as much as I liked. I could assign guineas to a leather bag under the floorboards if I wanted to. (I do, in fact, have a Quicken account called “Stash,” but I don’t keep it under the floorboards.) I spent several hours editing my budget, and during those several hours I was ecstatically, hilariously happy.

There’s an element of uncertainty to all this happiness, however. Intuit has sold the Quicken line to a private equity firm, and, while the new owners have promised to double the number of engineers working on the Mac version, probably nothing will happen during the transition period. So I’m happy for now and can recommend the product, but I will keep my eyes and ears open. And I’ll hold on to those nine manila coin envelopes just in case. Hey, you never know.

Lily, Mr. Bluebird, and the Beginning and End of My Singing Career

“Nancy, I want to ask you something,” my cousin Lily said. By the look on her face, I could tell it was important. “How would you like to be a flower girl at my wedding?” she continued. I didn’t know what a flower girl was. I had heard people talking about sweater girls, and I sort of knew what they looked like, but I didn’t think I could look like that. I was only four years old. “You would wear a pretty gown,” Lily said, as if she were reading my mind,” and you would carry a bouquet of flowers.” I was still worried about the sweater, but I liked Lily. So I said OK. 

I still remember that day and how confused I was by this very grown-up request, how I wanted to please Lily but didn’t really know what I was getting into. Most of my cousins were older than I was, and a few of them were already grown up. Lily was grown up, and she and her boyfriend, Charlie, were getting married in June, a few days before my fifth birthday. Charlie was different from the people in my family. He had lighter hair, blue eyes, and a mother from Cuttyhunk. Even though I was very young, I could tell that he and Lily were in love.

Later I learned more about the responsibilities of a flower girl. I learned I would have to walk into the church next to the ring bearer, who was a boy I didn’t know. I think he may have been related to Charlie, but his name kept changing. One day it was Norman, and the next day it was Ronald. I think Norman was the first choice, because he was my age and we would have looked cute walking down the aisle together. But, because Norman refused to be in the wedding party, his older brother, Ronald, agreed to perform the ring-carrying duties. (I may have gotten their names mixed up.) 

At the rehearsal I did almost everything right. The Communion part confused me, though. I was too young for Communion, but I didn’t know when to stay in the pew and when to follow the others.  The bridesmaid, whose name may have been Rita, came up with a solution; she would scratch my gown with her fingernail when it was time for Communion, and I would know to stay seated. “Like this,” she said, and she scratched my skirt. I noticed her red nail polish and hoped her long fingernail wouldn’t snag my gown. I loved my gown. It was yellow and, as Lily had promised, pretty.

One afternoon before all of this, before the rehearsal and before the wedding, my mother took me to see a movie called Song of the South. I don’t remember too much about the plot, only that it involved cartoon animals as well as real people. I caught on right away that of the three main cartoon characters one was dumb, one was smart, and one was smarter. In the cartoon segments, which were mostly scary, the bear and the fox (dumb and smart) were always doing terrible things to the rabbit (smarter). Unlike Norman and Ronald, the three characters all had the same first name, Brer. Because Brer Rabbit used his head and not his feet, he was able to escape from his enemies over and over again. I didn’t understand everything that was happening, but I liked the briar patch segment after my mother explained it to me. The part I liked best, though, was when Uncle Remus walked along singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” while cartoon birds and bees and butterflies flew around him and landed on his shoulders. I especially liked Mister Bluebird. Although I had never seen a bluebird in person, I always had bluebirds on my birthday cakes along with pink roses. (My father worked for a bakery, so I always had bakery cakes with my name written on the white frosting. I don’t think I had ever seen a homemade cake.) Later my mother bought me a record with all the songs from the movie on it, and I learned the lyrics to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” by heart.

On the day of the wedding I walked down the aisle with Ronald-or-Norman, and maybe-Rita scratched my gown very gently, without doing any damage. After the ceremony we all went to a photographer’s studio and had lots of pictures taken. And then, because there was still time before the reception, we went to Buttonwood Park for more pictures. My mother had bought Kodacolor film specially for the occasion. She wanted to take outdoor photos in the gardens across the road from the pond. Lily, the maid-of-honor, and maybe-Rita walked along the garden paths in gowns as long and willowy as the columns in front of the savings bank. The men looked on as if they were expecting something to happen, but nothing happened except that my mother snapped some photos with her box camera. I remember that the flowers–I think they were hydrangeas–quietly nodded their heads when they saw us.

Many years later, when I read Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” I thought of those pictures, not the photographer’s formal wedding portraits but the Kodacolor photos that my mother had taken. Except for the blurry hydrangeas, everything was new and intensely still on that sunny June day under the “happy, happy boughs.” Between the wedding and the reception, all of that love was “still to be enjoy’d.” 

The reception was held in a rented hall. a large room with a stage at one end and folding chairs set up along the walls. Some of the women were arranging paper plates and napkins on the food table and setting out platters of chicken-salad sandwiches, bowls of chips, and bottles of soda. Although many of the guests hadn’t arrived yet, the band was playing, the singer was singing, and people were dancing. My mother wasn’t there. She had gone home to get a dress for me to change into; obviously she was also worried about the possibility that I might snag my gown or spill something on it. Left in the care of my aunts and cousins, who were still too excited to pay much attention to me, I joined a small group of children, including Norman-or-Ronald or possibly both of them, and, not knowing one another, we talked and played warily.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The music stopped and the band left the stage. The singer left, too. The set was over, and they were taking a break, but I didn’t know about sets and breaks. Naturally we children climbed onto the stage, and the boys began to examine the drums, and I’m not sure what the other girls examined because I was fascinated by the microphone. I had been watching the singer, the way she held it as if she loved it, and the way she swayed from side to side while she sang. I wanted to try, so I grabbed the microphone, which was way too tall for me, and I started to sing the only song I knew by heart, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” I swayed from side to side, and I sang, but not too loud because for me it was a private pretend moment. The hall was suddenly very quiet. I was sure nobody could hear me because I wasn’t a real singer and the microphone was only something to hold on to. I sang all the verses, all both of them, and when I got to “Wonderful feeling, wonderful day!” I stopped singing. And then something surprising happened. Everyone in the hall–including my aunt Mamie, my cousin Lily, and maybe-Rita–started clapping. I should have been happy, I suppose, but I remember feeling that my privacy had been violated, although I wouldn’t have used those words. So that was what a microphone was for! I felt betrayed. 

My mother was surprised when she arrived a few minutes later and asked if she had missed anything. But I wasn’t about to perform an encore, and the musicians and the real singer were already reclaiming their space. That was the end of my singing career but not the end of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” It won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1948, and James Baskett, the actor who played Uncle Remus and spoke the voices of Brer Fox and, I think, one of the butterflies, won an Academy Honorary Award. Song of the Southwas a success at the box office, both at the time of its original release and when it was re-released in 1972. Since that time, though, the film has been widely criticized for its portrayal of African-American former slaves in the Reconstruction-era South, and for that reason it has never been released on DVD in the United States. I’m sure the criticisms are valid, but at the age of four I was not ready for a realistic depiction of life in one of the ugliest periods of American history. On the other hand, if Keats was right when he wrote that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Song of the South can be faulted for not being true and thus, despite the charm of the animated singing creatures, not being beautiful. I’ll go along with that. Everything was not satisfactual, not really. But when I think of Uncle Remus singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and when I think of Mister Bluebird perched on his shoulder, it’s not truth or beauty that I’m seeing but a celebration of the human spirit. And to that I say “zip-a-dee-ay.”

Painted Ponies Redux

Here I am riding one of the painted ponies that seem to be haunting me these days. This photo may have been taken at Lincoln Park, although the carousel looks much too small. Was there a smaller carousel in Kiddie-Land? Or was the photo taken at a different park? It doesn’t matter, because the parks are gone, or at least the ones I remember are gone. Lincoln Park, in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, had the longest  run, lasting from 1894 to 1987. In its heyday it was an oasis of delight, a place where families could spend all Sunday afternoon without running out of things to do, eat, watch, or ride. Lincoln Park was where I tasted my first pizza, although I didn’t much like it. I liked the rides, though. I started out on the  Kiddie-Land train and worked my way to the grown-up Merry-Go-Round, Ferris Wheel, Bubble Bounce, Tilt-a-Whirl, Dark House, and Fun House. (I secretly thought the Dark House, with boats sloshing through a watery channel, was more fun than the Fun House.) The Penny Arcade had a “Grandma” fortune-telling machine, and right outside of Kiddie-Land it was possible to ride an unpainted, real pony that walked around in a circle inside a small corral. The real ponies didn’t go up and down, and there was no music. I liked the carousel horses better.

My Uncle Walter worked at Lincoln Park briefly. He operated the Tilt-a-Whirl and then moved up to the Dodgems. He let me ride for free, but I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. The Tilt-a-Whirl was fun, but I didn’t understand the philosophy behind the Dodgems. I would drive my car very carefully, trying not to bump into anyone, but others would bump into me and start laughing. I thought they were very uncivilized and hoped my uncle would be promoted to a nicer ride, like the carousel. But that didn’t happen because Uncle Walter decided instead to go to California and seek his fortune.

When I grew older, I rollerskated in the skating rink and bowled in the bowling alley. I didn’t get good at either skating or bowling, although I liked the distinctive thunder and clatter of the duckpin alley. There was a ballroom, too, but I never went there. By that time I was too busy doing my French homework and sending out college applications. I should have noticed that the park was losing its magic, but I didn’t. 

Here’s what happened, although not right away and not all at the same time: Duckpin bowling disappeared, as did the equally if not more challenging sport of candlepin bowling. As tenpin lanes took over the bowling landscape, TV shows like Duckpins for Dollars and Candlepins for Cash were replaced by the unalliterative Bowling for Dollars.  And that was only part of it. Theme parks and water parks multiplied like rabbits, and I guess they had a lot more to offer in terms of fantasy and adventure and gigantic water slides, but you couldn’t get there on the Union Street Railway (which was not a railway) or by driving a short distance up the highway. Lincoln Park had this going for it: It was there. 

And how could I almost forget to mention the scholarships? At my high school graduation, after all the diplomas were given out, the local scholarships were announced. These were mostly from organizations like the College Club of New Bedford and the Portuguese-American Civic League, but the biggest local scholarships, one to a boy and one to a girl, were presented by Lincoln Park, and I was lucky enough to receive one. It was more than enough to cover my first year of college tuition, and my other local scholarships paid for most of my second and third years. I didn’t get to meet Cinderella or shake hands with a mouse, but I did get to go to college. Lincoln Park, the College Club of New Bedford, and the Portuguese-American Civic League were my fairy godparents. Some people walk on air, but that night I was walking on glass slippers.

As for the painted ponies, they had their own fairy godparents. Carousel #54, made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, had been at Lincoln Park since 1920, and it needed a new home. Thanks to the Fall River community it was purchased, refurbished, and moved to Battleship Cove, a “fleet museum” right by the Braga Bridge. I’ve never visited it in its new home, but I like knowing that for two dollars I can have one more ride.