My Novel BESSIE in Paperback

My 1983 novel, BESSIE, loosely based on the life of my revolutionary grandma, is about to be published in paperback (as BESSIE: A NOVEL OF LOVE AND REVOLUTION, by Ben Yehuda Press). When I wrote it, I was 28-29 and the old lady was alive. Now I'm 55, and she's about 15 years gone. When my daughter was visiting from college last weekend, I read some passages from the novel aloud to her, and kept on choking up. These were passages written in 'her' voice, at age 88, and reading them aloud is one of the only ways I have to visit with her any more.

To visit with her love for me:

"I think these Saturday mornings in St. Albans were the happiest times of my life. The house got very beautiful sunlight in the morning; you could play with the shadows from the venetian blinds and you could see little bits of dust floating in the sun like a million planets. This I remember. When I sat with my grandson, I felt content. He was an affectionate boy, he hugged me all the time, and I would hug him right back. And I hug him to this very day. I get more exercise from hugging him than I do from anything.

“And when I came home from work in the morning, I would sit on the porch and I fell asleep most of the time in one of those beach chairs . . . And I would see my grandson with his friends: black and white, they were playing and yelling and running around. And these sounds would come into my dreams — I must've looked like a real old lady, sitting on the porch fast asleep! — but I would have these wonderful kind of a dreams, about a new world where everyone is playing, everything feels good, and people are all kind of a colors: white, black, brown, red, green, purple. It's true, all kind of a colors, and it didn't make no difference, I wasn't even surprised, I wouldn't even think about it until I woke up."

To hear her kibitzing:

"When you feel helpless about something, sometimes you get a little cuckoo, so you think you actually got influence just by sitting there thinking. F'rinstance, when I watch the president on television, he has his press conference, and you can just tell when he's lying, you know. So I pretend that I can make him speak the truth just by sitting there in my rocking chair and concentrating with my mind. If I think hard enough, he's gonna suddenly drop his hands and say, 'Boy, am I sick of telling lies!'

"That would be something! He would take off his tie, maybe open his belt, let out a big belch, and then he would denounce the corporations!"

To remember that 'revolution' was actually her lived experience:

"To live as a revolutionary means you got to trust yourself. 'Cause you're always gonna be persecuted — until you win. And you're gonna have a career that nobody pays for it. So you got to work a job, and it's like working two jobs, y'see, 'cause making revolution is full-time. Probably you'll be poor despite. And always with a hungry kind of a feeling, excepting it has nothing to do with food, if you know what I mean.

"You got to be crazy. You got to believe that you, a little stinker, can take to be your enemy the most powerful men in the world — and beat them! You got to believe you're a hero, even when in the mirror you see a bum.

"To me, kinderlakh, the world looks so sad. Like when you see a child with polio. The child that she should walk and run and dance, and instead she sits and suffers. Y'see, we got the potential in America that we shouldn't have to worry about things. About food, clothing, health, disease. We got so much wealth in this country! We got machines that they can make miracles, we got farmers that they can grow food faster than you can eat. It's true, we got thrown out from the Garden of Eden a long time ago, but this new place we built for ourselves, it's not so bad! You may take it for granted, but I'm still looking with a peasant's eye. Every time I see an airplane fly, I still give a look, I still say, 'Oh, boy, look at what human beings can do!'"

To get in touch with the spiritual dimensions of my atheism:

"Why do you think people go to church or to synagogue? You think it's because they believe all the meises about God and sin and all that kind of a nonsense? I don't think so. I think it's 'cause they want to be together, they want to sing together, they want to share a feeling that life is worth living, together! They want to get away for a minute from the life that they can't control at all. Who knows, any second an atom bomb might fall in your backyard. Or a chemical that it gives cancer might spill into the water you drink, if it's not there already. Or the stock market might crash on all our heads all over again. Or a computer might get a little rusty and the whole world will disappear. Isn't that what life feels like today?

"It's like everybody in the world should be as old as me We all go to sleep and we're not sure we're gonna wake up in the morning. So we become desperate to believe in something, y'see. And if we get scared enough — if the economy gets fahmisht, if we can't tell where to go, where to live, where we belong — if this kind of a alienation grows big enough, then the entire population becomes ready to take up horrible political ideas, just so they can feel a part of something, of a movement. And then they'll be able to strangle little babies with their own two hands, 'cause when you believe crazy ideas, you're ready to do crazy things.

"But there's another kind of belief: the belief in human beings. It's the feeling that you have when you're a child that you want to play with other children, you want to make, like, a gang, a team, you want to be with them all the time. It's the understanding that human beings can be responsible for each other, to share and to give and to learn, and from this we're gonna gain, we're not gonna lose. It's the belief that there's nothing the Messiah can dok for us that we can't do for ourselves.

"It's true, kinderlakh. I know it's true. I was there a dozen times, I saw the miracles that human beings can do."

And to remember that I have ancestors, and will have descendants:

"I guess this is my job, that I should be everybody's bobe. To show that you can live the way you believe and you won't end up a bum. You can join with other people to win back a part of your life from the system. My generation, we were fighters and poets. We worked for twelve hours in the sweatshops and still we had the strength to stand up and sing and remember who we are. We never made a revolution, no, but at least we never lost the spark of life.

"So we can talk about mistakes if you like, but I'd rather talk about what we learned from our mistakes. And we can talk about disillusionments, but I'd rather talk about the beauty of our ideas, y'see. We can talk about failures, but I'd rather talk about a heritage, a legacy to the younger generation."

If you'd like to visit with my grandmother, too, you can buy BESSIE: A NOVEL OF LOVE AND REVOLUTION for $19.95 from Ben Yehuda Press at (800) 809-3505, or from amazon.com or other online booksellers within a week or two.


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