Let’s talk about bonbons. Ice cream bonbons, to be exact.
We never had them at home when I was growing up. But when my parents took us to the movies, there was always a box to be shared in the dark, before the feature even started. Those chocolate covered frozen treats were both seductive and terrifying to me, from the moment I saw my parents leave the concession stand with them. I knew when we sat down, the box would open and one would be placed in my hands, still rock hard, along with a wad of napkins. If I put the entire bonbon in my mouth, I would be in instant agony as it adhered to every soft surface it touched. If I tried to spare myself that misery by biting off a reasonably sized piece, the chocolate shell would split, sending fragments onto my chest or lap, leaving the rest to melt in my hands.
Thus, most of my favorite childhood movie memories—South Pacific, Carousel, West Side Story, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, Tom Thumb—are intertwined with those bonbons, and the sensation of puffed out cheeks, a sore tongue and upper palate, and melting sweet cream and cocoa.
As I think back, I suppose I could have declined the bonbons, asked for a different treat. But, in a strange way, that would have drained the outing of some of its excitement. Everything was large and magical then—the theater, the films, the treats; and nothing was larger or more magical than those bonbons dissolving in my mouth, and the love in the hands that shared them.
I remember where I was on September 11th, 2001. We’d come back from a wonderful visit with family in California barely a week before. I was still in its afterglow, as I was still in the long afterglow of four months in Budapest.
Fall was approaching, my favorite time of year. It was a beautiful, mild, sunny Midwest morning. I was relaxed. I was happy.
I came downstairs early, made my breakfast, sat on the sofa in the living room, and turned on the news to see smoke billowing out of the first tower and gawked in disbelief. A few minutes later, the phone rang.
Are you watching? Did you see it? Her voice cracked. It always cracked. This time was worse.
Yes. I recognized the same crack in mine.
And we watched together, a thousand miles apart, as the second tower was struck, and gasped, together.
My mother didn’t cry much; but she cried that morning.
My husband rose about thirty minutes later.
The minute I heard him padding about, I rushed upstairs.
He took one look at me and knew something was wrong.
I think I told him to come down, eked out a few words about the towers, but I don’t remember what I said, exactly. I do know he didn’t linger on the second floor, checking his email, stretching, as he usually does. And I know that when he saw the screen, his face was a mirror of mine—tear-stained, stricken.
I tried to call my mother back, but the lines had gone down by then, so I sent emails to family and friends in New York, hoping they would be received, praying for one answer: We’re all right. We’re safe.
Later that afternoon, our spirits numbed by images of burning buildings and planes, we trod off to the grocery store—to replenish staples, get out, breathe.
Everywhere we walked, we saw our shock and grief reflected—in other cars, the parking lot, aisles, checkout counters. No one spoke much. No one smiled. People just shook their heads, sniffled, and sighed.
After dinner, my husband gave me a small package wrapped in newsprint, tied with a string.
I bought this for you a while ago, and was going to give it to you for Christmas; but I think you need it now.
Inside the wrapping were the milk glass salt and pepper shakers pictured above.
I know how much you love milk glass.
They are a fixture in my kitchen, those shakers, and have been since 9/11, a constant reminder of what preserves, and what burns— salt and pepper.
I vowed not to return until I had news about some piece, or poem, or what-have-you being published, knowing that at the rate I finish work and submit, that could be years…
…but then Philip Roth died.
I came to Roth’s work through a friend, who handed me a copy of The Ghost Writer and insisted I read it. Since the friend had also been my composition teacher in graduate school, I didn’t waste any time in getting to the assignment, and even took the book with me when I went home to visit my parents several days later.
When my father saw what I was reading, he said, “Roth? He’s anti-Semitic, isn’t he?”
My father had never read any of Roth’s work.
I said, “I don’t think so. Read the jacket.” I handed the book to him.
After reading, he seemed interested. The next day, I bought him a copy.
He finished reading it while I was visiting, and loved it.
I suspect Roth found other new readers with The Ghost Writer, a tale in which the author/protagonist’s notorious anger is replaced by a yearning so potent it bleeds off the page. It is, at its core, about the love of story and storytelling, the need to create, and the search for redemption through creation.
So, It was no accident that my former teacher—a composer and artist—loved the book. Nor was it any accident that my father—a linguist and writer— loved it, or that so many people who love storytelling have loved it, too.
My friend, my father, and I went on to read all of Roth’s Zuckerman books as they were released.
It wasn’t until I was teaching that I finally read Portnoy’s Complaint. One of my students mentioned it in class, and another burst out laughing, saying, “Even the title gets me going.”
I never taught Portnoy, but I did teach The Ghost Writer, numerous times, as well as Operation Shylock, Deception (a work which has continued to fascinate me), Goodbye, Columbus, and, of course, Defender of the Faith.
I will say that every time I taught any of these works, students came to class with plenty to say about them, which was not always the case with other literature we studied.
When my mother was getting on in years, she confessed that she had grown up in a Kosher house. We never kept Kosher, and ate trayf at home and in restaurants, so I was confused. Besides, I had seen my grandmother eat all kinds of trayf. My mother shook her head. “She’s always eaten it, just never at home…at least, not until the day I bought a pound of bacon and fried it in one of her pans.”
There’s an anger that brews when you’re subjected to a set of rules and standards, only to see them broken by their makers and enforcers.
And if you’re a writer, you turn that anger into prose and take aim, pitting good against bad, reverence against hypocrisy, knowing, hopefully, that readers might take offense.
I know with absolute certainty that Shadows and Ghosts would not have been written without Roth’s influence.
I never met the man, but the lessons I learned from his writing are all over mine.
I’ve seen the anger, the “anti-Semitism,” the misogyny (not my favorite books), and I’ve also seen a writer who, even at his most offensive, is unflinchingly and brutally honest about his experiences and feelings.
Sadly, my father never spoke much about his relationship with his father, other than to relate a couple of hilarious anecdotes. (The time my grandfather threw my father’s student violin out a window comes immediately to mind. Anyone who has ever suffered through a beginning violin student’s practice sessions will sympathize.) Even though I wished he had said more, I didn’t press him. My grandfather died of cancer when I was a baby, and I sensed my father was still pained by the loss. However, when he read Patrimony, he opened up a bit, enough to let me know that Roth’s remembrances of his dying father resonated in a profound way.
Honesty in writing, the kind that clings to the bone, is a rare and difficult quality; it can disgust and inflict pain, but it can also provide understanding and solace.
In the past year, while I’ve had much to say about a number of issues and events, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not the time to speak, as tempers are running high, and I so often run afoul of popular opinion.
Frankly, who needs the tsuris?
But Roth’s legacy has given me pause, something to mull over as I crawl back into my comfortable silence…