Mary Trautmann: July 26, 1920-Oct. 12, 2015

Swimming into CloudsIMG_0732

Mary Winfrey Trautmann was born in Des Moines in 1920, and raised in Indianapolis. Her father was the theologian Frederick Kershner, who wrote many books including PIONEERS OF CHRISTIAN THOUGHT, a great book I read a few years ago. She began writing poetry in the ’30s and helped her father by reading to him, since he lost his eyesight in late middle age. She got married, moved to Whittier, California, and had three daughters. She lived in the same house from about 1955 until earlier this year. Mary was active in the women’s movement in the ’70s. She lost a teenage daughter to leukemia and wrote a memoir about it, called THE ABSENCE OF THE DEAD IS THEIR WAY OF APPEARING. In 1979 she lost her husband in a plane crash in Chicago. Another daughter is mentally ill and has been institutionalized for over thirty years. In the early 1980s Mary helped found a publishing house called Cleis Press, which just two years ago came out with her book of selected poems, called SWIMMING INTO CLOUDS. Her third daughter Julie Trautmann lives in Seattle and is a speech therapist in a hospital.

Over the past twenty years, ever since I first arrived in Los Angeles, no one has been a better friend to me than Mary. She was wise, funny, supportive, a good listener–she was a patient, dear friend. I had been writing mediocre short stories until I first met her in 1995 at a writer’s group in Pasadena. She was one of the first people who inspired me to start writing poems seriously at the ripe age of thirty-five (I had dabbled a bit as a teenager and in my early twenties). She was always so funny and smart and kind-hearted and giving. She’d experienced so much loss in her life but she didn’t dwell on it, she bore it lightly. Though very talented, she was never really comfortable promoting herself and hunting for a long list of publication credits and renown. I admired her for this. I admired her for her strength and modesty.

I learned so much from Mary: how to craft a free-verse poem; how to edit my own prose, watching out for awkwardness and unnecessary repetitions; how to keep prose elegant and muscular. In the realm of living, I learned from her about fortitude in the face of adversity. She was not plagued by status anxiety. It so happened that the author Kurt Vonnegut went to her school at the same time she did, was in a class below hers at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis.  I asked her if his world renown etc. ever got her down, and she answered, “It would, if I let it.” I’ll never forget that. (I myself went to high school with a fellow now sort of world renowned, and later went to college with a world-mythical figure now living in Washington DC in a big white house–and so I try to keep her attitude.)

Where is Mary now? I know she is with her daughter Carol and her husband Paul, and with her parents and her beloved brother Fred and sister Bea . . . How do I know? Can anyone know something like this? Probably not. From the last pages of Thomas Mann’s BUDDENBROOKS, here’s some of the dialogue. The decline and fall of a great North German dynasty is now complete. Some ladies, left behind, remember all who have passed on:

“Hanno, little Hanno,” went on Frau Permaneder, the tears flowing down over her soft faded cheeks. “Tom, Father, Grandfather, and all the rest! Where are they? We shall see them no more. Oh, it is so sad, so hard!”

“There will be a reunion,” said Friederike Buddenbrook. She folded her hands in her lap, cast down her eyes, and put her nose in the air.

“Yes–they say so.–Oh, there are times, Friedericke, when that is no consolation, God forgive me! When one begins to doubt–doubt justice and goodness–and everything. Life crushes so much in us, it destroys so many of our beliefs–A reunion–if that were so–”

But now Sesemi Weichbrodt stood up, as tall as ever she could. She stood on tip-toe, rapped on the table; the cap shook on her old head.

“It is so!” she said, with her whole strength; and looked at them all with a challenge in her eyes.

She stood there, a victor in the good fight which all her life she had waged against the assaults of Reason: humpbacked, tiny, quivering with the strength of her convictions, a little prophetess, admonishing and inspired.

 

Here is a poem from Mary’s early, formal phase:

To One Now Blind

What you have lost is not so great a losing

As many think, or say in smothered phrase:

The green and yellow-throated hills, refusing

Winter’s black stare; the violence of day’s

Familiar whiteness; count of birds combining

Their narrow wings in patterns on the wall;

The curving cone; the languor of declining

Wet birches; rainbows; fire—are all, are all

Which, by this subtle cheating, have been hid.

How shall you lack the pageantry of these?

Color and shape and thought still pyramid

From undiscovered sources; still they please

And, one world gone, the galaxies arise

To spires of light behind your darkened eyes.

 

And here is a later poem:

shadow river

once

            the river was young

as we were

            graced with small summer islands

that entice   lead us toward the shallows’

lucent brimming pools

 

each island different   though every

windward shore churns with rapids

            wild shudders and foam

            a ragged din

            that swings fear up the throat   drives us

headlong past the tumult

 

to stagnant shoals

soft as fresh ferns

to long hours that grow feet sunk in mud

fingers

            straining after driftwood

            shells   crawdads   whatever

the river sends

 

show-offs we put together dams and pyramids

skip rocks until the river’s skin

is stamped with silver rings

or wade   beguiled

            among the lazy fish

            torn bits of honeysuckle buds

 

we claim it all – islands   the brindled crescent beaches

the mud and gnats –

the river   too   is ours

until

            one golden buoyant August afternoon

traps

an unknown child on the windward islands

            face down in the reeds

            fishlike body striped

            bluegreen from algae

the tawny hair a net for water spiders

 

some mistake   we think   some sort

            of knife change in the weather

            bringing him here

            without heat or breath

a child like us

but not like us

 

tears

singeing our cheeks

we cut him loose

and let the rapids fling him near the town

 

then

run   go

give up forever

            the sunlit pools   the dams

            the honeysuckle islands

abandon summer

            to the waves

            of this hypocrite river

we never mastered or owned or understood 

*

NOTE:  On November 8, following S.A. Griffin’s reading at the Second Sunday Poetry Series (3433 Cahuenga Blvd West, 5 pm) I will read a few poems from Mary’s books, SWIMMING INTO CLOUDS (available from Cleis Press and Amazon); THE ABSENCE OF THE DEAD IS THEIR WAY OF APPEARING (on Amazon); and KEEPING CAROL (which can be purchased by writing to me: alex m frankel 2000 at att.net )

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Biological Half-Sister I Never Got to Know

 

Samantha

Bio half-sister Samantha Havens in the early ’90s.

As I wind down work on my memoir about adoption, I realize that one character will not be appearing until the end, and then only a little: my biological half-sister, Samantha Havens. Why only at the end?

The memoir, Fallen David, chronicles my childhood with my adoptive parents, Henry and Vera Frankel and my accidental discovery at the age of seven that I wasn’t theirs. It wasn’t until 1990 that I asked my father for more information. When I found out that my birth parents were Marcia Cranston and Frank Verges, it was easy to track them down. The book tells about our reunion and its aftermath.

In the early ‘90s, when I was living in Spain, I made a trip back to the States and met more of my birth parents’ relatives, including Samantha, a year younger than I am. Our father (how odd to put it this way: “our father”!) Frank Verges, after leaving the young Marcia Cranston to take care of her pregnancy situation on her own in 1960, went on to date many other young women, and one of them was Penny. What the two of them shared was guilt: both had given up children. Frank (through Marcia) had let me go; and Penny had let go of a child whose whereabouts are still, to this day, unknown. This fact from their pasts—so I am told—was the glue that held them together, for a time, a very short time. They married, and less than a year later, Frank took off again, leaving Penny behind with a daughter, my half-sister Samantha. Penny had to raise Samantha on her own, with rare visits from Frank after the divorce. In the ’80s father and daughter began to get acquainted a bit more (both lived in California, she in the north, he in the south). And then in ’90s I came along. Samantha—usually known as Sam—was living in Sacramento when I first met her. She had a tall, serious husband, Lyle (a lawyer, I think) and three children. Our meeting was pleasant. We had lunch in a beautiful restaurant by the river and toured the capitol. We were a large party: my birth parents and I, Sam and Lyle and their three young children. We toured Sacramento as one big, awkward blob, and Sam and I had no chance for a tête-à-tête or anything remotely resembling a tête-à-tête. What was she like? I’ll say it again: pleasant! She had a friendly, warm, candid face. She talked a lot and very, very fast, and didn’t listen much. It was a struggle to wait for her to stop talking so you could get a word in edgewise: you really had to plan carefully when to jump in—she was an express train going by, oblivious to everything. I’d always wanted a sister when I was little. Not a brother, but a sister would have been perfect. Could it be that even when I was seven or eight I sensed that she was out there? Nothing much happened in Sacramento except sightseeing. I thought it was an all right start.

I moved back to the States three years later, in 1995, and around that time we met again, when my birth parents rented a house in Laguna Beach. She was visiting for a few days with her children (by that time she’d already divorced her husband). I was excited to see her. I went up to her in the living room and asked when and how we could find time to talk and get to know each other. I was struck by her manner: she seemed guarded, cautious around me, evasive and puzzled when I asked questions. Later that night my birth father said, “Obviously a lot of sibling rivalry on her part, and almost none on yours!”

It wasn’t until many years later that we met again, in Frank’s old Fullerton house this time. I was not good company: my adoptive father had just died a few weeks before and I was grieving. Once again Sam was very, very talkative, and I couldn’t help noticing how much she loved her beer. Her beer-guzzling boyfriend loved his liquor even more; he was an L.A. transplant up to the Central Valley, who, when he had enough liquor in him, would begin pontificating about urban planning, baseball, Eastern Europe, and related topics. She was like an empty vase next to him, needing to be filled up, always playing the role of the co-ed hungry for knowledge about the world, hungry for instruction by strong male figures. I know I’m using an overused phrase—“no there there.” And I almost want to delete it. So I’ll take something from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: a character who compares himself to an onion; you peel and peel and there’s nothing at the core. I could have said to her, “I might go to Peru to spread the Gospel and father eighteen children,” and she would have said, “Oh! Nice, when are you leaving?” and her big, open face would have looked at me untroubled. I could have said, “Now that my adoptive father has died, I have no one and wish to end my life, do you have any suggestions on how to do so?” and her big, open face wouldn’t have looked concerned or the least bit emotional, and she would have fired away questions, cheerfully asking to be fed more facts and opinions on suicide as she drank her beer. Nothing of substance ever really got started.

I complained (to some people) that she never tried to reach out to me, include me in her family, invite me to be an uncle to her children. But I myself didn’t reach out, and didn’t particularly care. I didn’t care, but I wanted her to. Biological siblings—whom adoptees have no history with—are like dog littermates. When your puppy is weaned and whisked away from “brothers” and “sisters” there is no ceremony, no expectation of later bonding, nothing. They just go their own way. Samantha and I are littermates.

My birth father—a heavy smoker, drug user, and diabetic—began showing signs of senility several years ago. I lived thirty miles away and saw him often. I tried to communicate to Sam—still in Davis—how badly he was failing; it took her a long time to catch on, but when she finally did, it wasn’t long at all before she took charge. She helped him sell his house, and moved him up to Davis. After that, I always had to hear news about him from third parties. With all the money she’d inherited after the sale of his house, Sam took an extended tour of Europe. Then she bought a house in Oregon, and he went along (he had to, now that he was declared incompetent). There isn’t much left of the old man. He talks a bit, walks a bit. The last time I spoke to my sister, six months ago, she was in an awful hurry to get off the phone, and as for him, he only had the strength to chat for a few seconds: “I’m stuck here at the house, lost my license. Not much to do. Well, okay, bye.” She promised to text me their new Portland address, but I didn’t hear from her again.

A friend said to me, “I’m sure she’ll call you when he dies.”

Samantha. Who is she? Who are her children, my “nephew” and “nieces”? I don’t even know their names. Sharon, Brenda, Brandon, Brennan, Brandy? Who knows? I doubt they remember they have a biological half-uncle. Why would they?

This is what many reunions are like.

 

 

AN OLD SLUT PONDERS GAY MARRIAGE

Rodin ThinkerThe biggest moment in the gay rights movement since Stonewall has arrived. Now straight people, when referring to a queer acquaintance, can say not only, “He’s gay—but he’s in a loving, long-term relationship”; they can also say, accurately, “He’s gay—but he’s about to be wed to his long-term partner,” as if to counter the notion that all gays are whores and pederasts (a stereotype that doesn’t apply to lesbians). The truth, of course, is that gay marriage is much more than the right to marry. It’s about human rights, after a long, long history of discrimination and persecution. And yet I can’t help seeing a giant index finger rising cobra-like out of the Supreme Court building; unlike the “Uncle Sam Needs You” finger in the famous poster, this one is pointing sideways—toward churches and city halls, with the understanding, “You folks are all right if it’s all about love and commitment till death do you part.” The stirring language of the more liberal justices is important for posterity and an absolutely necessary milestone, but what about us sluts?

Today great actor Ian McKellen was interviewed on the radio. Speaking about the 1950s and ’60s in Britain, he said, “[Homosexuality] was against the law, so you kept quiet, but within the confines of a play or a screenplay or a script or a piece of fiction, you could indulge your emotions, which you weren’t allowed to do publically, as an ordinary person. Now, once I came out, once there were no restrictions on being myself, once I could hold hands with somebody I loved in public, once I could draw attention to my feelings, acting for me changed from being about disguise and came to be about revelation, about telling the truth.” The experience of coming out turned him into a better actor, and he makes this point eloquently in the Fresh Air interview. Notice the words I’ve italicized. Coming out and being oneself, in this instance as in so many others, are lumped together with “holding hands with someone I loved.” The long-term, caring relationship, is set up as not just the ideal but the norm: “See! We may be queer but we can love just as well as you!”

Many of us have tried and failed in that endeavor. Due to the way we’re wired, “relationships” can’t last. Some of us love too much, too obsessively, while others can’t love at all. Then, in the absence of anything big, we go for gratification where it’s fast and easy. We still dream (some of us do) about “someone special,” but as Quentin Crisp told us in The Naked Civil Servant, “I have never found the great dark man because there is no great dark man.” Perhaps (no, for sure!) we’re fantasists. So we go on, without abstinence, often without boundaries, occasionally without condoms. On the June day the decision came down, I could almost feel every bathhouse and sex club and peephole in the country starting to crumble, termite dust aplenty pouring down the walls, roofs giving way . . .  Marriage is here: suddenly going into one of those establishments, or pleasuring oneself in front of a computer screen, or obsessively checking Grindr profiles, has taken on a new significance. This is lust trying to survive in the age of marriage. This is lust prowling the parks wondering if good things like groping and exploitation will ever come our way again.

That June day everything changed. While the loving couples, of both sexes, celebrated, the sluts sensed—with varying degrees of awareness—that the act of entering a porn theater or an adult bookstore was taking on a new meaning. The government of the country had given us a way to official recognition and respectability, and yet we (some of us) were denying it, as if it were 1975, and slinking back into our outmoded ways. If straight society saw us as “bad” before, how much worse are we now that we (some of us) have rejected a path to legalization? Are we doubly depraved? But maybe the opposite is happening:

One could say we’ve been granted a general amnesty that spreads beyond marriage and into the walls of the sex clubs and bathhouses that we (many of us) have always loved and needed. The government has in the broadest sense completed its evolution in the direction of accepting homosexuality, which could make all the lurking in the shadows obsolete. In their final phase of decadence, the sluts’ old haunts are becoming relics, soon to go the way of Gold Rush ghost towns or the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas.

Sartre’s well-known words come back to me now: “We were never so free as we were under German Occupation.” A  British friend of mine in Barcelona always used to say, “The Catalans were much more interesting under Franco, when they had something to fight against.” What’s going away is the thrill of the forbidden and the illicit, the quick heartbeats on finding the perfect hooker within reach, the delights of exploitation and abuse. Now, post June 2015, if these acts occur between two men or two women, they are boringly legal.

At any rate, these are the issues I ponder when I (still, occasionally) enter one of those dying establishments in which most of the patrons haven’t been young since 1975. Are we more depraved now than ever? Or are the glory holes and the slings and the orgy room more “vanilla” than ever before? But there’s no doubt that U.S. society, represented by the high court, is recognizing queer men and women as never before in the same breath that it asks us to behave like straight men and women—or, I should say, asks us to behave. We left the age of free love behind decades ago and have entered a new age in which nearly half of all marriages end in divorce.

I celebrate the court’s decision (with my dog, not my lover—lover, where are you?). Nor is the rightwing radio commentator right to casually and flippantly assert that most gays don’t want to marry and would’ve been content with the pre-June status quo. I am speaking (writing) mostly from what we may call a personal, psychological point of view, as someone whose vocation it is to be single and unattached, a stoical worshipper of the ideal young buck who might consent to sleep with me once or twice, but who ultimately demands his freedom, the way Carmen does in Carmen:

Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra!

Free she was born and free she will die.