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Florence in Words

Birthday Blog: Quite Late, Too

My dear website manager, Jeannette Petras, wondered that I had written nothing about or for my 85th birthday, since that marker was not likely to come around again. I was too depressed to write. Yes, it was the knee, or the meds I have been forced to take in order to deal with the knee—and it does no good to place the blame. But I did eventually write a small poem, and that’s the present I have for the small but exceedingly faithful readers I have to believe exist. And I do believe, for now and then one of you does write to me. And writing is the only defense I have against depression. I have never said that before, but I do believe it’s true. When I write, when I have written, when I am pleased with the result, I feel good.

So why don’t I write every day? Good question, for which I have no answer. I write often, more often than my blog would indicate. But what I write often is a “journal,” usually describing the day’s events, often reporting on the quality of the depression I am feeling, and in general too “boring” for a blog. At least that is my way of discriminating between the journal I write very often and the blog I write only now and then, and sometimes with large lapses between blogs.

I used to think of the blog as “public” and the journal as “private,” and perhaps there’s some truth in that, but if so, then this is an exception to the rule. And so I will tell you about the small but lovely celebration that occurred two days before the 17th of March, in a private room of a restaurant called The Leopard.

The arrangements were made by Don Thomas, Helene Goldfarb, and Jorge Cao. Invited were my daughter Alice, who traveled from Mississippi, and her daughter Dr. Florence, who works in New York; my stepson David, and my daughter-in-law AnnJ, who traveled from Washington, D.C., and their daughter Miriam, who works in New York; and my dear friend Alida Brill. So there were ten of us seated around a round table, the centerpiece of which was an arrangement of succulent plants I could take home and care for. The six-course lunch was elegant, varied, and memorable, and concluded with a purple and blue birthday carrot cake. The details were typical of the care with which especially dear Don and Jorge do things. And Helene, my oldest friend, was not about to heed my plea about no celebration. So this was a compromise, and a surprise in its own way. Yes, it was perfect in many ways, and I was pleased. And perhaps I was too quiet, still under the influence of the post-op meds and without much appetite. I filled up after the first two courses and decided I would take the rest home to eat the next day. I remember wishing I could be funny or witty, and worrying that I was too quiet. But others were lively and witty and at the end I blew out a single candle, thanking everyone and too choked up to speak.

I’ve said nothing of my feelings, but perhaps only a poem can do that. So here it is, the first poem I have allowed to enter the blog.

At 85

It’s the kind of number that doesn’t come up
readily. I mean in conversation, who would
say, I’m only 85 minutes late or early? Or who
would want 85 more of anything, even at a
shop that sells cookies or birthday candles?
But here I am, at 85, trying to face what facts I can
muster—a word that makes no sense but seems
appropriate today—when I must think about being

Perhaps an image would help me begin. Not the grey,
white-sky afternoon filling my window, clouded today—I’ve just
noticed—by plastic sheets, perhaps taped on by workmen
on scaffolds, searching for worn-out bricks they must mend.
I can’t see the workmen or the mended bricks
but perhaps they are both there,
like the left knee on which, after four months of those 85 years,
I can now stand and sit without pain.
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Ode to Elizabeth Janeway

Elizabeth Janeway
Dear Elizabeth, in whatever heaven you now dwell, forgive this forgetful woman, who still lives on a planet spinning its way to doom. Yes, I haven’t thought of you recently, though on my 85th birthday, I did think for a moment about the party for your 80th. But this week, a brief sentence in a relatively brief obituary for your son, Michael, roused me instantly. Even before your death in 2005, Michael had been for me your “good” son, since he made generous, annual contributions to The Feminist Press in your name. But on April 18, his obituary contained the following sentence, which I know he would not have approved. The offending sentence: “His mother, the former Elizabeth Ames Hall, was a novelist.”

Forgive us all, dear Elizabeth, forgive even the young writer of Michael’s obituary. You were never known by your maiden name. And in your day, you were a famous lady, even more famous than your famous husband, and perhaps both of you more famous than your sons.

Elizabeth Janeway was the author of six novels and five volumes of political feminist prose. In the last decades of the twentieth century, she was, along with Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Grace Paley, a leading feminist speaker and writer, appearing on thousands of platforms on campuses as well as before city audiences. Her New York Times obituary, published on January 19, 2005, describes her “as a best-selling novelist in the 1940’s and later [as one who] distinguished herself as a critic, a lecturer and an early advocate of the women’s movement.”

All of her novels, published between 1943 and 1959, were written during the period when she was rearing two sons, a full decade before the women’s movement began in the late 1960s. One of them, Daisy Kenyon (1945), became a film starring Joan Crawford. Apparently abandoning fiction, in 1971 Janeway published the first of five volumes of feminist nonfiction, Man’s World, Women’s Place: A Study in Social Mythology. All of her titles are telling: in 1973, Women: Their Changing Roles; in 1974, Between Myth and Morning: Women Awakening; in 1980 Powers of the Weak; in 1982, Cross Sections: From a Decade of Change.

When we met in the late 1970s, I expressed interest in one of her fifties feminist fiction which was set in the thirties, because Feminist Press had a fiction series about the thirties in the U.S. But not until 1987 did I persuade Elizabeth to allow The Feminist Press, by then “at the City University of New York,” to republish her 1953 semi-autobiographical novel, Leaving Home, for which she wrote a preface and Rachel M. Brownstein, then a professor of English at Brooklyn College/CUNY, wrote an afterword. The New York Times book reviewer in 1953 had called it “A novel of new detachment and keen objectivity that is a delight to read and re-read, for its subtle, ironic implications.” Yes, this was the way—in the fifties—that one could pay homage to not-in-your-face feminist fiction.

And she, immensely modest, writes in her Preface: “Though it was written in the fifties, Leaving Home is indeed a novel about the thirties….The choice was a while in coming. I was still uncertain about the date of the novel even while I was thinking out its opening scenes. Perhaps I should say that I can never plan a work of fiction to its end. I have always started with a character or two caught in a fix of some kind. It may be large or small, but working to solve it sets the plot in motion and permits the people involved to flesh out into human beings whose actions and ambitions will direct the ‘story line.’”

Important to note, Elizabeth Janeway was also a member of the Board of Directors of The Feminist Press, and as such, part of my daily work life. Before she had agreed to come onto our Board, she had insisted that, as publisher, I had to agree to give at least token advances to authors of one hundred dollars, since she was also president of the Authors Guild. At the tenth anniversary of the Press, in 1980, she was the first to raise her glass of champagne to toast, “Here’s to the next ten years,” something I had not even begun to consider. Several years later, she opened her elegant eastside town house for a Feminist Press fundraiser at which Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen spoke and read to several hundred paying guests.

In 1993, at the home of psychologist Sue Zalk, the Vice President for Student Affairs of the Graduate Center/CUNY, and the Secretary to the Board of the Feminist Press, we gave a party to celebrate Elizabeth Janeway’s 80th birthday.

Dear Elizabeth, you were the life of that party, full of energy and joy. Today, I can comfort myself by remembering your life and your work, your certainty that The Feminist Press had a future and your willingness to be part of it. Thank you, Elizabeth, for filling our lives with good sense.  Read More 
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Mariam Chamberlain’s Death, One Year Later

I dreaded the day, but April 2 passed, with two emails from Mary Rubin, and my two back to her, and one from Heidi Hartmann. It was a day like any other, since I think of Mariam often, many time in a single day, since there is much around me to remind me of her, and I have been confined mainly to my apartment for more than three months.

The painting called “Woman Reading,” which used to hang over Mariam’s bed, now hangs in a prominent position in my living room, near the Kaethe Kollwitz, which I’ve owned for almost 40 years, and the Picasso print which used to hang in Mariam’s dining room. And there are photos of Mariam in various places along my bookcases and on top of my desk in the study, where there is a photo-cluster of dead friends. That’s probably enough, but my friends, Don Thomas and Jorge Cao, persuaded me to replace my own walnut bookcases in the bedroom with four of Mariam’s bookcase units that used to stand in her living room.

So, yes, in every room, Mariam’s photos, furniture, and art work testify to her presence. And as if that were not enough, there are odd pieces of glass on a shelf in the kitchen, or on the dining room table.

Mariam was not a plant-person, though she enjoyed cut flowers and a blooming plant if she didn’t have to take care of it. And on the last day of cleaning out her apartment, I had to decide about a sad-looking plant with yellowing leaves that I could have tossed out. But I took it home, sprayed it, and it decided to live once I found the perfect spot for it. Today it has three blossoms and it is another reminder of Mariam.

Does all of this sadden me? Not in excess of the regret I have felt all year. Regret for her death, and a refusal to accept her age as comfort. Yes, I know: she could probably not have lived even for another year, given the aortal valve she needed, and of course I don’t need reminding that I would have been sad whenever her death occurred.

Perhaps death for those who lose a dear person is bound to be a long goodbye. Even when there seems to be closure—in the form of a burial, for example—there really is none. And I write today thinking of all those people around the world who, for two months, have not had the kind of word they can accept about the fate of their sons, daughters, mother, fathers, and other relatives who were on a huge plane flying from Malaysia to China. No comfort for them, I know, to say that, even when the person you care about has been placed in a casket and buried before your eyes, that act is also no comfort.

There is no comfort in death.

There is no relief.

There is no release.

There is memory and there is grief.  Read More 
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