Michael Heller


Excerpt from Living Root: A Memoir (SUNY Press, 2000, 188 pp. $24.95, Paper$14.95)

I cannot remember the exact day of my mother's first departure for Florida. I do remember her giving us each a kiss at the door of 172 Pulaski Street and being driven off in my father's two?toned blue Oldsmobile. It was 1943, the year of war, blackness, siren-filled nights, and her disappearance plunged the gloomy basement living room and kitchen of that flaking brownstone into an even darker vacuum.

The anguish of separation affected my nerves which, like a dead frog's, had been given a galvanic response. I suddenly began to twitch all over; my body broke out in rashes. The dark living room, with the blatting one?eyed radio, the shadowy slopes and valleys of upholstery, became again a moonscape of frights. Was my mother truly to be lost to me? Days for children are like weeks; months closer to centuries than years.

Now, in troubled fantastical dreams, my mother became an historical figure, a player from some adult costume drama who appeared nightly but with a sense of foreboding and forlorness, and I lived with the memory of her as I did with the vaguer memories of storybooks and fables. She had become one of those anguished spirits of the night that seemed to vist me only in sleep and then only to hector me over my faults which had made her desert me in the first place.

In the family scrapbooks, there is a postcard written by my father in May 1943, mailed from Fort Pierce enroute back to New York and addressed to my mother at the Arlington Hotel, Ocean Drive and Fifth Street, Miami Beach. The postcard is a tinted and retouched photograph of Miami Beach's Lincoln Road. In it, the sky is a pale, inviting blue, and the buildings are all captured in creamy white perfection, their colorful but dignified awnings giving the place a stately air. The automobiles, mostly black and glistening in the sun, suggest beetles marching in regular columns along the paving. This card, burnt into my mind as one of the first places by which my mother could be located, constitutes an ideality, a memory against which the subsequent reality of Miami Beach was to be held and found wanting.

Possibly the postcard records a short scouting mission on my parents' part, for in May of 1944, my father again requested a leave of absence from his CO to take my mother to Florida. In any case, by mid?1944, my mother was living at the Hudson Arms on 15th Street, and I was scheduled to go down there for a lengthy visit during the spring half of the school year.

My father, being too involved in his business matters to make the trip himself, turned me over to the Schusterhoff's, another Brooklyn family, distant relatives it turned out, whom he asked to bring me with them on the train and deliver me to my mother. Of that train ride I remember little of the scenery except the pine forests and savannahs of the Carolinas and Georgia, the irregular rows of the trees and the great swampy flats that seemed to embody the longing for my mother that I felt. Much more vivid in my memory was the heaviness of the plated silverware in the dining car, the creamers and sugar bowls lustered and bright, the interiors of which blossomed an egg?colored gold. They were the very symbols of solidity and respectability: like my mother's silver and cut glass, they were minute bulwarks of self definition against the changes that were to come. To me, they looked curiously perfect as though embodying the weightiness of lives, something which, in the marbled black hands of the white?coated porters, would last forever.

The train arrived in the middle of a sleepy morning in downtown Miami, which at that time was--once one was away from the waterfront areas--very much a Southern town of small houses, hibiscus bushes and palms. From the station, empty, untrafficked streets marched off in grid square patterns walled in by spanish tile and rain streaked stucco, a few scrawny palms and fruit trees shimmering in the heat. A few high buildings, rather simplified in design, stood desolately in the withering sunlight. This was not "Florida" as I had understood it from my mother's postcards showing canals and cool white buildings set in lush tropical foliage. Possibly, this was the "south" which had been timidly discussed at dinner times when the plans for my mother's new home were being made.

Indeed, now that I recall the hesitancies, the nearly moral character of my parent's indecisions, Florida or California, communicated to me as they can only be communicated to a child, I understood that there was something not quite right with Florida because one had to "go south" to get there. And this station was, even at a glance, redolent of that South, tinged for my parents by a faint immorality, with its segregated facilities, its black people in uniforms or old clothes with their mock deferentiality and politeness. The black soldiers?? this was during World War Two??could be seen filing off the far end cars of the train, to huddle only for moments and then disperse from the station. It was as though, having experience things a little bit differently in the north or in the Army camps, they were now embarrassed by the racial pecking order of the station. As a child, one smelled the southern ethos here first as the rank sweat of poor food and hard work laced with the biting acid of resentment, soured in itself by self?containment and lack of release. Coupled with this smell was the sense that trains always arrived at odd off?hours, at times when only black people were around and had been destined to be bidden and to do the toting. I was to return to that station many times both to come and to go from Miami, to watch across its polished floor, clumps of Jews from the north like myself, ordering the porters around, uneasily at first, then with sharpness.

By noon, the Schusterhoffs and I were in a taxi heading for their hotel on Miami Beach, leaving the 'south' behind us by crossing, it seemed, an endless causeway of bridges and islets, of purifying blue?green water which surrounded bright sunlit villas and sails under a deep blue sky. There was barely a cloud as I remember; the tires ticked on the road surfaces with a clean sound, and off to my right, a giant dirigible was anchored just a few feet from the ground above trees and water. Its steel skin reflected and bent, like a funhouse mirror, the whole panorama of skies, trees and buildings. From my seat in the taxi, I could smell the tang of salt in the air and see the dancing of miniscule dots of light caught under the sun.

At the hotel, the Schusterhoffs discovered they had misplaced my mother's address and phone number; telephone information seemed of no help and when it sunk in to me that I was not to be immediately reunited with my mother, that the Schusterhoffs would have to call my father that evening in New York, a sudden childish bitterness and depression possessed me. Paradise had been violently rent, and my mother had fallen beyond reach through its gaping hole. I burst into a tantrum, storming and crying, accusing my escorts of betrayal and stupidity. The Shusterhoffs, almost as an act of self defense, packed their kids and me off to the beach while the parents tried further attempts, including calling the police, to contact my mother.

To go down to the beach, it was necessary for me to change into my bathing suit in the Schusterhoff's hotel suite. My white skin, even paler in the dresser mirror than I imagined it, betrayed the recency of my arrival from that blackened and distant north and in my eyes exposed my newness and uncertainty, the lost ground and childhood legitimacy of place. And now, as well, entwined into my estrangement, my mother could not be found. But this shame was almost as nothing to what I felt when I emerged, thin, pale and absurdly callow, from the lobby's swinging doors onto the sundeck with its human forms trussed and oiled like barbequeing chickens. Embarrassed, I ran quickly down to the sand and stood there, looking at the immense rippling planes of the ocean, the waves of which hovered over my head. I wondered what held it back from breaking over the beach, drowning the thousands who lay on their mats and blankets taking in the sun. It was then too that I had my first sight of the entire wall of hotels running up and down the island, all of them cleanly cut out of the blue of the sky, and only slightly, if fancifully, decorated with balconies and terraces.

Till then, ponds and lakes, even little streams had been my swimming holes. The ocean was what I saw from the prospect of the Coney Island boardwalk, taken there by my parents or led along though the winding streets, Luna Park and the other amusement areas by a counsellor of my Brooklyn summer day camp. I was led to that water's edge and allowed to dip my toes, to stray up to my ankles in the roiling surf. At such times, we were careful as to how we put our wet feet in the sand lest we track up school or home. Often, we just sat on the edge of the boardwalk, our feet dangling over its edge ten feet in the air above the beach. If I remember, this was when my feet in my sneakers felt the hottest, and the thought of running down barefooted into the water was a delicious one. From the boardwalk, and even from the heights of the parachute ride and Ferris wheel, I looked out on the glittering expanse, watched the swimmers bobbing in the surf, saw the sails and the smokestacks, the shadows of clouds.

That easy motion of everything caught up in the water has always struck me as the opposite of my intense feelings of arkwardness, my gawky walk and slightly stuttering speech. Now, in the very first afternoon on the shores of Miami Beach, and with neither of my parents present, the alleviating bouyancy of the ocean was to be mine. Still, I was hesitant, for the first thing that flew into my head was that I could never swim in this, that I would be lost in its vast folds of wave and surf.

This reflection was cut short, however, when it became apparent that the bottoms of my feet were being roasted by the hot sand. I ran up to the lip of the ocean, let the tepid waters run over my feet and noticed that a sandbar stretched some distance offshore paralleling the beach as far as I could see and that other children my age were standing perhaps fifty yards offshore in water no deeper than their knees. I looked around again; the beach stretched away, blankets, people whom I had barely begun to notice, a few palms waving in the breeze, the brightly decorated hotels standing like sentinels against the sky. The whole world seemed to be witnessing this immersion of mine. I was dizzy with it and also with the heat as it fanned down from the sun. I took two steps into the water and was immediately knocked down by a breaker. Water poured into my mouth and nose as I was rolled and pounded along the bottom. I broke through to the surface for air, and found my footing. I had swallowed a good deal of salt water and as I pulled myself from the surf, feeling it suck at me from under my feet, I was leaden with the water and nauseated. I ran up the beach to the hotel.

Back in the room, the Schusterhoffs informed me that they had gotten in touch with my mother. She was on the way to the hotel to collect me.

Over the next few weeks, I was told by other children who I met about the German "wolf pack" submarines that sunk ships right off Miami and left huge slicks of oil which coated the dead bodies of seaman and wreckage washing up on the beach. With those gulps I had taken of the sea, I had physically ingested a taste of the enemy, the minute and bitter savors of my childhood, the black and brackish waters of disaster.