That House on Oxford: Haibun

Not a ghost, but the emanation of some past emotion. That’s what I feel in that house in Havertown—the one my mother rented after my parents divorced. Have you noticed that some houses have their own emotional atmosphere? Well, that’s my theory, and if you’ve never felt a house reeking of love, terror, or despair, then it must sound weird to you. But this whole house makes me feel welcomed; my bedroom in particular—it’s as if someone has felt joy there in the past, and the feeling now lingers. . .forever. This room, painted a golden yellow, seems to glow all the time. Every molecule in its walls, floors—even the air—releases joy and serenity—at least for me. Here I also experience first love. I wonder if my feelings will join the room’s aura, biding there for future inhabitants.

thrush sings amid buds,

trees flower, and then leaves fall—

echoes hang in air

Dock Street Creek once flowed here.



This Haibun is for dVerse, where Lillian has asked us to write a traditional Haibun—that is, a tight paragraph or two, which is a true account, not fiction, followed by a traditional haiku. The haiku should be nature-based but allude to the prose. It should have a seasonal word, and “a haiku must have two parts including a shift, an added insight. Japanese poets include a KIREJI (cutting word). BUT there’s no linguistic equivalent in the English language therefore punctuation creates the cut: a dash, comma, an ellipsis, an exclamation point. Sometimes it’s simply felt in the pacing or reading.”

Lillian has asked us to write about one of the first houses we lived in. This was not the first, but it was the first one we lived in after we moved from Dallas to Havertown, PA, when I was in 7th Grade.


This is also for Colleen’s Tuesday Tanka, using synonyms for the words beliefs and strange. I’ve used theory and weird in my prose. Colleen notes that a Haibun should be written as though it is happening now.







The Taste of Nostalgia

I’ve been thinking about nostalgia for a few months. (Nostalgiazing over nostalgia?) As a historian, my present—and my future, as far as I can see it—is infused with the past. I don’t have a longing for the false past of mythical “good old days;” I’ve read enough to know that despite my longing for a climate-controlled time machine equipped with full amenities, such as running water, a toilet, hot, brewed coffee, and a supply of good chocolate, I do not want to live in the past–even my own past. I have no desire to relive my youth, although I wouldn’t mind having the energy I had as a teen, and I could do without the vague pains of middle age.

Still . . .nostalgia is pleasant. In fact, I’ve discovered it can be good for you. An article in July in the New York Times discussed the study of nostalgia and its effect on people. Nostalgia comes from Greek words meaning to return home and the pain that comes with it. The term was coined by a 17th century Swiss physician who believed it was a serious mental affliction. Now, researchers—and it is something that is actually being studied—believe nostalgia can be useful. Moreover, nostalgia can be found among people all over the world, from all different cultures and backgrounds, and ages. Even children can feel nostalgic.

“Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” says Dr. Routledge, a psychologist at North Dakota State University, “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.” According to the article, nostalgia can make people feel less anxious, and it can even make us feel warmer in a cold room.

In June, when my husband and I celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary, I went through some of our wedding photos and thought about people who were no longer with us. At the same time, we were making plans to bring my wedding gown to our older daughter, who plans to wear it when she gets married next year. Past and future merged in a kaleidoscope of images in my brain—memories of our wedding and thoughts of a wedding yet to come, a wedding gown connecting the two.

So. . .I was nostalgic, and then I started thinking about nostalgia. Naturally, I thought of food. . .because, well, if you’ve read my blog before you know I always think of food. I wake up planning dinners. That’s true—ask my family.

Anyway, I started wondering what nostalgia would taste like. Not simply comfort food. My ultimate nostalgia meal would probably be Thanksgiving—simply because the scent of the onions, turkey, cinnamon, and everything cooking melds together and elicits from me such a strong sense of home, family, and the past– that even thinking about it now makes me feel warm, cozy, and happy.

But what if I had to narrow it down to one item? So I started thinking sweet, bittersweet, cakey—gotta have those carbs—and I came up with this: A sour cream coffee cake with cinnamon, bittersweet chocolate, and a light glaze. The addition of the chocolate doesn’t make it really taste chocolatey, but it adds a depth to the flavor. It’s not too sweet. It’s comforting, and just right. It smelled good, too, while baking.

I don’t know that this cake is actually the taste of nostalgia, but it’s a good cake. To be perfectly honest, the bottom of the cake stuck to the pan, so the cake was kind of lopsided and crumbled. It was delicious though. Still, isn’t that like life? Sometimes you get stuck, sometimes things don’t work out, but then you look back and remember those sweet, spicy, and bittersweet moments? Perhaps some day, I’ll remember making this cake, and I’ll feel nostalgic.


A little misshapen, but still delicious

A little misshapen, but still delicious


Nostalgia Coffee Cake
(adapted from “Coffee Cake Exceptionale” in Coralie Castle and Jacqueline Killeen, Country Inns Cookery.)

¾ cup butter
1 ½ cups graulate sugar
3 eggs
½ tablespoon vanilla extract
3 cups flour
½ tablespoon baking powder
½ tablespoon baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
1 ½ cups sour cream

½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cups finely chopped walnuts
½ tablespoon cinnamon
finely ground bittersweet chocolate ( I used 2 Ghiradelli squares)

I added a glaze of confectioners sugar, vanilla, and milk

Grease and flour tube pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix butter and sugar until light. One at a time, beat in eggs, then vanilla. Combine dry ingredients, and stir in alternately with sour cream.

Combing filling ingredients. Ladle half of the batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle evenly with filling and spread remaining batter over it. Bake 50 minutes, or until cake pulls slightly away from the sides of the pan and tester comes out clean. Cool at least a bit before adding glaze, if you can resist that long.


Time is the Longest Distance Between Two Places


“Time is the longest distance between two places.”
~ Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

I mentioned my grandfather—my mother’s father—to a friend in a cycle class at the gym last week. I told her that he had been in great physical shape even when he was in his nineties because he walked everywhere. He walked several miles every day. (And yes, thank you, I do get the irony that I drive a car to the gym to ride a bike.)

Later I was thinking about my grandfather, and it suddenly struck me that he was born in the last decade of the nineteenth-century. Of course, I knew that, but now that we’re on our way to the second decade of the twenty-first century, the realization that I had known someone who was born in the nineteenth century—not simply the previous century, but the one before that—slammed into my brain like a thought-wave missile. Actually both of my grandfathers, as well as some other relatives were born in the nineteenth-century, so I’ve conversed and interacted with people who might even have known people who were born in the eighteenth-century. How wild is that?

Last weekend, my husband and I attended an honors and awards ceremony and dinner for our younger daughter, who will graduate from college in a couple weeks. I looked at her and her classmates, bright and glowing with that youthful radiance that does not last, but is oh-so-beautiful while it does. They are all so eager and fearful to face the world. Excited, trembling, and ready to vomit all at the same time. I imagine it is something like the feeling my daughter has when she is ready to make an entrance onto a theatre stage, only this time the stage is the real world.
I tell her it will all work out. Just decide what you want to do now; you don’t have to decide what you will do for the rest of your life. I want her to find success, but even more, I want her to be happy.

When my grandfather was about the age of these soon-to-be college graduates, he literally stepped onto a new stage, an unknown world. He crossed an ocean to do so, and never returned to his homeland. He was a Russian Jew, escaping persecution and hoping for a better life in America. He was one of about 1.75 million Jews who came from Eastern Europe to the US between 1900 and 1924, when tighter immigration restrictions were put into place. By 1920, Russian Jews made up the largest immigrant population in Philadelphia. Shortly after my grandfather arrived in Philadelphia, he was drafted into the US Navy, in what was not to be “the War to End All Wars.”

My grandfather was born before commercial air flights were commonplace; for that matter, before cars were common. (The first gasoline-powered cars were invented toward the end of the nineteenth-century. See .) However, he traveled in both. He did not have a telephone as a child. He died before computers were an essential feature of everyday life in the US. I suspect he would have enjoyed Facebook though and seeing photos of grandchildren and great-children.

My grandparents were practical people. College was for their son, not their daughter, who would surely get married, although secretarial school was an acceptable compromise. After he retired though, this practical man learned to paint and discovered the joys of ballroom dancing with other retirees in Miami Beach. When my husband and I got married, my grandfather attempted to dance with every woman, young and old, at the reception. I think he succeeded.

My younger sister and I saw my grandfather only once or twice a year. My cousins in Miami saw him regularly. The relationship between parents and children and grandparents and children is different. My mother was sometimes impatient and annoyed with her father—he was her dad, and he could be stubborn. My sister and I loved that he was the grandfather who had countless hours to play hide and seek with us, to take us on long walks, and to show us surprises like the duck pond that we did not know existed near our house. When I was in college he wrote letters to me—that to my regret, I did not keep. Each letter was one long run-on sentence. The words were spelled phonetically as he pronounced them in his accented English. I loved receiving these letters. He did not live to see the books I’ve written or to know my children.

When I was at college, I called my mom once a week. Collect. From the payphone in dormitory hallway. In contrast, I communicate with my college daughter through text, Facebook, email, and phone calls almost every day.


I only knew my grandfather as an old man. I look at a photograph of him as a young man, and I know he must have had the hopes, dreams, fears that we all have when we are young. He was born an ocean away and in a time that now seems like ancient history. Yet, he was young once. He sailed across a sea. He fell in love. He raised a family, and he lived to see his grandchildren grow up. Time and space separate and connect us.

“There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.”
EUGENE O’NEILL, A Moon for the Misbegotten