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Waltz with Shirley

October 16, 2009

“I beg your pardon/I never promised you a rose garden/Along with the sunshine/There's gotta be a little rain some time/

When you take you gotta give so live and let live/So smile for a while and let's be jolly/Love shouldn't be so melancholy/Come along and share the good times while we can" From Rose Garden, lyrics by Joe South, sung by Lynn Anderson


Waltz with Bashir is a haunting and deeply troubling film about memory and war. The Israeli artist, Ari Folman, wrote and directed the movie which is an attempt to make sense of his nightmare dreams and what he had forgotten about his role in the 1982 Israeli-Lebanese war and massacre of Palestinian civilians by the Christian Phalangist militia as payback for the murder of their leader, Bashir.  When I watched the DVD, almost all of it a hallucinatory memory-excursion done as a cartoon, I was struck by the loss of his memory. Ari was able to completely suppress the horrors that he witnessed from his consciousness.

            Like Ari, I can barely remember that much besides a handful of memories, some photos and one Beta video tape of my brother, Kenny, who died in 1982, and I remember even less of my Aunt Shirley from California, who died almost 3 years earlier on October 18, 1979.

            One of her two sons, Or-Li, wrote that he normally panics around the anniversary of her death, unable to “stop the flood of horrific memories,” but decided this year, on the 30th anniversary of her death, to instead recall “good memories of the real person my mother was.”

            Thanks to Or-Li, I have been playing the images he remembers in my head. His memories include her repainting a wooden picnic table and “how she would polish the glass tops of the coffee tables in the living room while she listened to the soundtrack of West Side Story.” She loved musicals, he wrote, like Applause, which she saw in London with Lauren Bacall, “a very glamorous movie star.” She took her other son, Alan, my sister, Leslie (who just turned 50), and Or-Li to the movie, Jesus Christ Superstar, on a new big screen theatre. “It was magnificent!” Or-Li wrote.

            Shirley introduced Or-Li to Shaw’s Pygmalion and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, and took him to see Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. She was a contestant on the T.V. game show, “Split Second,” a vague memory of mine as well. She loved their antique player piano, “pumping the pedals to play the music rolls and singing along with them.” She loved books; she was nice to her parents-in-law and to our Zadeh Nuchum, who lived with Shirley’s family for awhile.

            One day, she kicked Alan’s portable record player and broke her toe, which she laughed about for years. And when her family moved to Tellem Drive, a large group of ladies, former neighbors from Grenola Street, brought housewarming gifts to surprise her. She played Clobyosh and Pinochle and ate corned beef sandwiches at Zucky’s Deli in Santa Monica and loved to eat hamburgers, fries, and Coke at her local Chinese restaurant, House of Lee.

            Shirley painted the master bedroom in her new house pink while the ceiling and deep shag carpeting was pure white. The dial phone in the bed room was pink, even its long connecting cord. But according to Or-Li, Shirley loved red, bringing a big red thermos to the beach while packing food and beach towels in a red plaid bag. And her station wagon was red with wood paneling.

            Or-Li wrote, “I remember how she or my dad made coffee in the mornings in a stove top percolator with a glass knob on top. I loved watching and hearing the coffee percolating. I still make coffee in a percolator with a glass knob on top.”

            I can imagine my aunt, the baby of the Goldman family, my mom’s dear friend who helped her meet my dad, polishing the glass top coffee table in my daydreams, waiting for the coffee to percolate. I can imagine her listening to one of her favorite songs, “Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson, and waltzing in her pink bedroom, holding her pink telephone, talking to my mom or her other sisters or brothers, laughing the way I remember her. I remember her laugh and her smile more than anything, her face a haunting memory that wakes me from a 30-year-sleep. I imagine her waltzing with the pink cord, singing along with Lynn: “I never promised you a rose garden. There’s gotta be a little rain sometime but smile for awhile and let’s be jolly. Love shouldn’t be so melancholy. Come along and share the good times while we can.”

            So in this 30th year anniversary of Shirley’s passing from this life, we should try to not be melancholy and think about the good times we shared with her and the sunshine she gave. As Shirley would have said, she never promised her family and friends a rose garden. We felt the aching sting of heartbreak in October, 1979, and it’s taken 30 years for the pinpricks of pain to wear off a little.

            I can imagine my aunt waltzing into my daydreams, singing, “When you take you gotta give so live and let live…”

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