Tuesday, March 22, 2016

“I Feel Like I Can Breathe Here"



Amazon Book Review: Elizabeth PolinerOur March Spotlight pick, As Close to Us as Breathing, is one of my favorite novels in a while: it has the ring of truth, at least the truth as lived by Jewish-American families in the WWII era in the Northeast. Reading it, I could almost feel the real life in it, and suspected that the story sprang from the author's own experience; something made me think she'd been told, maybe over and over again by her relatives, about their special summer place, and about the kinds of things – good and bad – that happened there. Turns out, I was right! Like all fine novelists, Elizabeth Poliner did write about what she knew, about her mother and aunts and cousins and the place they spent her childhood summers. Here, she writes about the real Bagel Beach.


My novel As Close to Us as Breathing is set in a real place: Woodmont, Connecticut, a small shoreline borough of Milford, Connecticut. Though the characters and events of the novel are fictional, Woodmont is a place loaded with family history, and it's the only place on earth where all four sides of my extended family—the physical and emotional DNA of my very being—intersect. With that astonishing depth of connection in mind, I dedicated the book to "the family: Matzkin, Madnick, Pashalinsky, Poliner," the living members of which surely hold Woodmont memories. I also dedicated the novel to my parents, one from Middletown, Connecticut, the other from Waterbury, Connecticut. They met as teenagers in Woodmont, their families traveling there for summer vacations, part of the crowd of Connecticut Jews who funneled down to Woodmont and, within Woodmont, to the Jewish section affectionately known then as "Bagel Beach." Indeed, if it weren't for Woodmont—and the little bit of it called Bagel Beach—I wouldn't exist.

I grew up hearing about Bagel Beach and my parents' summers there as kids. My mother's nuclear family rented a cottage in the messy cluster of cottages lining the Bagel Beach shore that I describe in the book. Many times my mother has described for me the evening crowd at Anchor Beach and the teenage flirting she did there. Each evening, on the way to the Anchor, she'd wave at her grandparents, one of the many elders invariably rocking on the porch chairs of Parsky's Hotel, their Woodmont home year after year. I've been told that my great-grandfather loved to spend his Woodmont days fishing, and for dinner my great-grandmother would cook the day's catch. Hotel life back then didn't mean luxury living.

As-CloseMy father's family is even more entrenched in Woodmont than my mother's. My dad's maternal grandfather, a peddler who traded junk as he traveled by horse and cart along the roads in Mildford and New Haven, somehow saved enough money to buy a cottage at Woodmont, and beside that cottage, a duplex, he built an additional two cottages. His vision was to have his family there together during the summers, and with eight married children—and the offspring of those eight—he needed the additional rooms.

Many times over the years of my youth I heard how amazing it was for the children of my father's generation to spend their summers at Woodmont. "Freedom" is the word most often used to describe it all, and "freedom" is a word I've used in the book, though the way I've envisioned freedom for my characters—a deepening of authentic self—is different from what I've been told. For my dad and his first cousins, freedom at the shore meant whole days roaming Woodmont, swimming, eating three or four breakfasts a day (depending on how many households of relatives you visited), and, for my dad and his pals, sailing wherever they wanted to go. My father can still recall the exact make of the sailboats he and his friends manned during their teen years in the '40s. He can also recall—with a clarity he doesn't have for other aspects of his youth—the exact Good Humor treats he so happily and regularly ate back then.

One year, my dad's mother defied the family by buying (with her own money, saved over many years!) a cottage in a better Woodmont neighborhood, two houses in from where Clinton Street intersects with Beach Avenue. It's here, right in front of Gram's old cottage, that I placed the tragic accident at the heart of my novel. Because I knew the place, I could see it and see, logistically, how the accident would have occurred. But I wanted to mark the spot too, not to sully it with bad luck, but to offer it as a precise location where the powerful forces of family collide, for better or worse. Throughout my childhood I spent two weeks each summer right there, at Gram's Woodmont cottage. She ceded the place to our family just as soon as we kids got out of school for the year. There, in late June and early July, we did the ordinary Woodmont things: swam, tanned, walked, collected shells, played hopscotch in the sand. My father and brother were always sailing.... My parents would talk of Bagel Beach and Sloppy Joe's where they drank ras-lime sodas, hallmark of another time.

One year—I was a young adult by then—I visited my grandmother at the shore. She was a widow then, and a woman who could never drive a car, but even without my grandfather's help she determinedly packed up her Middletown home, hired a driver, and made it to Woodmont for the summer. "You know," she said to me as we sat inside the cottage's screened porch, a lovely July breeze wafting past, "I feel like I can breathe here. I really do."

I never forgot those words, or the way she did breathe then, serenely, with a sense of—how else to put it?—freedom in her heart. She was her happiest self at the beach, or so I thought that's what she was telling me. And I liked her that way, breathing and joyful. And thus—in the strange way of art and life—the story that some thirty years later was to be the novel As Close to Us as Breathing found its inspiration—though that day I didn't even know I'd be a writer. At that moment I was just a granddaughter, and a mixed-up recent college graduate—someone who secretly wanted to write but didn't have the courage to stand up to the family and say as much—and it was good to see Gram, and so very good to see her, in that space of her own, taking a lovely deep breath.


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