Monday, March 23, 2009

No escaping the past

My former Sunday school teacher is getting bat-mitzvah'd at the age of 89 and a half. She's sitting in the front row, the woman w/the blue folder in her lap, in this story in yesterday's Times. Mrs. Agin looks exactly the same as when she was my teacher at Temple on the Heights in Cleveland, Ohio, now called B'nai Jeshurun. I didn't realize she had a first name but apparently it's Mintsy.

My dad forced us to attend Sunday school. Most kids love to learn. I sure did and what could be better than Jewish history? We had a wonderful book called Pathways Through the Bible with marvelous illustrations but something was vastly amiss with this Sunday school. Ever read the children's stories of Roald Dahl? How bout The Witches? Or The Twits? The reason he's so popular is cuz he tells stories from a children's point of view: how MEAN grown-ups can be.

I can now hear my late father's voice: Ruthie, don't exaggerate. Your Sunday school teachers weren't all that bad.

Ruthie: Yes, they were, Dad. They were awful. They were mean. They'd make us sit there for hours and hours as they droned on and on. It was pure torture, you don't understand.

In fact, Dear Reader, and I vividly remember this, when I used to go into the basement restroom in Sunday School - it was painted a deep dark shiny green - I used to think, If there's a hell it couldn't be worse than being in here.

As if that's not enough, when I was about 8 years old, I was walking in front of the temple to the meeting place where my dad picked us up, and the following thought flew into my brain, the brain that would become, at age 38, that of a manic depressive: It'll all be over in one hundred years, all the misery of going to Sunday School. Nothing will matter in a hundred years. Yes, I was an exquisitely sensitive little girl. My malleable brain was being formed.

Mrs. Agin believed in the value of shocking her students so they'd remember things. She taught us the word anti-semetic and delighted in talking about all the people around the world who hate the Jews. I think in The Times photo you can see her mouthing the words, "They hate us." Then she told us about quotas. Harvard University had a quota system that only allowed in a certain amount of Jews. And pogroms. Oh how she loved telling us how the Cossacks were roar through town killing everyone in their path.

But oh how she loved Admiral Hyman Rickover of the Navy, father of the nuclear submarine.

How can a 63-year-old woman (moi) still remember the teachings of Mrs. Agin some 55 years later? My sister Donna and I reminesced about Sunday School earlier today. The first word out of her mouth about our teachers was the word "mean."

The first time I heard about The Holocaust was when they herded us into the auditorium (no gas jets, thankfully) and showed us films about concentration camps. Can you imagine a little kid forced to sit there and see all those dead bodies in mass graves, all those skeletal bodies waiting to be liberated, and bulldozers shoveling dirt over the bodies?

Boy o boy they just loved shocking our poor little brains with that stuff. No wonder I couldn't sleep at night. This is true.

Oh dear, my dad has finally decided to believe me. Thanks, Dad.

An extremely well-read man, he liked much of my writing. I remember showing him, when I was 19, a vignette I wrote about a man I used to work for. Dad was sitting at his huge brown desk, holding my piece of typewritten paper and said, "We've got to do something with this, Ruthie, we've got to do something with it."

Well, we finally did! We - or I - tucked it away in the basement.

Not so my new short story, though. Thank you so much Marcy from California for listening to the last one-third this afternoon, at the time when the sun comes flooding into my kitchen windows. I was dazzled by the light when I dialed her number.

I'm gonna enter the story into a contest due March 31. Today was my only 'free day' to write so I simply had to finish it, no excuses. Of course I spent the morning talking on the phone but after I did that, I pulled out the plug and began writing in earnest.

Marcy said my characters were interesting. Marce, I said, I've gotta write about characters who interest me, who I'd recognize if I met them on my street, and who have interesting habits and quirks. This story features a lot of cars and some action that takes place in a gas station. So when I went to my Hatboro Sunoco station yesterday I paid attention to the looks of the place and asked some car questions. What, I asked them, are a few names of sports cars? I remembered what they said and goggled the cars and looked at their photos, settling on a particular model of a Jaguar. See, I can't even remember the name cuz I'm not much into cars, but you can be sure I got that name right cuz who knows? The judge of the contest might look it up.

Writing fiction is the hardest thing I've ever done. I'm gonna keep at it, however, and even have the name picked out for my next story: Dissecting Jessica. Now all I have to do is think up a plot.