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closing the book on 2010

Blei and Branko

Closing the Book on 2010

by Norbert Blei

This was the year the visitor, old age, knocked on his door with a battered black suitcase in hand, shuffled into the room, said nothing, locked the door behind him and cast a permanent shadow into every corner, every waking moment, every sleepless hour.

There was no shutting out the occupant now, he began to realize through a sense of diminishment in his once-upon-a-time-life: discomfort, lack of focus, loss of energy, of spirit, of dream, of all the things he once was.

There was no denying the other occupant’s presence as he opened the musty suitcase to despair: a broken alarm clock set to go off at any time; black and white x-rays of a body’s map to unpredictable woes; prescriptions, medicine, pills…a patient’s bill of right’s for as long as whatever; newspaper obits and wrinkled memorial programs of too many friends reduced to earth or ashes; photographs and letters of the way things used to be…images bent and blurred, paper yellowed, words disappeared in faded ink.

And to the depth of what dark recesses could the light of love still be seen, if it existed at all?

Yet another New Year of hope and promise was on its way this night, a babe we are lead to believe, bearing down upon us tooting his horn, minute-hand sweeping timelessly as Old Year, head bent to the ground, hobbles along somewhere on the outer edges of this sad, dark room, headed to our mutual destination. While ‘hope’, whatever remains, rests mainly in memory.

Finding some comfort in that, the man who suddenly became old in 2010 remembered a favorite poem that he religiously sent to other friends each new year. And though even this did not light up the overwhelming loss felt in the room tonight, he read it aloud by candle anyway, as they used to say, “For old time’s sake.”

New Year’s Eve Letter to Friends

by David Clewell

Every year the odds are stacked against it
turning out the way you’d like:
a year of smooth, a year of easy smile,
a year like a lake you could float on,
looking up at a blue year of soothing sky.

Mostly the letters you’re expecting never come.
Lovers walk out and keep on going
and in no time they’re no friend of yours.
Mostly, the sheer weight of days
gone awfully wrong: a tire blown out,
someone’s heart caving in,
the hole worn finally through the roof.
Sometimes it’s only a few tenacious cells
digging in against complete dissolve.
The smallest strand of DNA, stretched thin
over thousands of years, goes taut
and finally holds.

I’ve watched men at the Mission staring out
into the middle distance,
putting up with the latest version of salvation,
all the time wondering just
how long until the bowl and spoon.
They’ve been around long enough to know
the good part’s always saved for last and
there’s no promise they won’t make to get there.
Each year cuts our life down to size,
to something we can almost use. So we find it
somewhere in our hearts: another ring shows up
when we lay open the cross-section.
One more hard line in the hand
spreading slowly out of its clench.

It used to be the world was so small
You could walk out to the end of it
and back in a single day. Now it seems
to take all year to make it mostly back.
And so this is for my friends all over:
a new year. Year the longshot comes home.
The year letters pour in, full of the good word
that never got as far as you before.
The year lovers come to know a good thing
When they find it in the press of familiar flesh.
Walk out onto the planet tonight. Even the moon
is giving back your share of borrowed light
and you take it back, in the name of everything
you can’t take back in your life.
Imagine yourself filling with it,
letting yourself go and floating
through the skeleton trees to your place
at the top of the sky.

And here’s the best part, coming last,
just after all your practiced shows of faith.
Even now, while you’re still salvaging
what passes for resolve.
Remember this, no matter what else happens:
this year you’ll never go without.
It’s no small thing you’ve been in line for,
this bowl and spoon passed finally to you.

from BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE, Viking, 1991

Three Brothers Restaurant, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Memory brought him back as well to where he should be tonight, to New Year’s Eves past, celebrated for years now, just he and his partner, in old Milwaukee.

Waking the streets, the lakeside, visiting museums, favorite bookshops, bars, restaurants. Then New Year’s Eve dinner ,at his favorite haunt in an old neighborhood so reminiscent of his own Chicago neighborhood filled with small ethic restaurants, aromas of homemade food to soothe the Old World soul within him which he cherished.

So it was off to Three Brothers Restaurant, the two of them (which they identified with through their Eastern European heritage) to indulge in appetizers of Serbian salad or Stuffed grape leaves. Serbian specialties (main courses) of Burek, Sarma, Chevapchichi, Roast Lamb, Roast Goose, Stuffed Peppers. Roast Suckling Pig, Chicken Paprikash, Chicken livers, Pljeskavica… And homemade desserts of Strudel, Baklava, Palacinka, and either Grandma’s or Branko’s Torte.

Ah, Branko…

Much of the pleasure on being there was old Branko himself, in his 80’s, in apron and black beret, a smile on his face, always on the scene, visiting the tables, stopping to talk to people. Branko, whom he inevitably invited to sit down, join them, have a glass of wine, as he and Branko would talk, talk talk of Old World memories, inevitably working on Branko the few small words and phrases of the old language he still remembered, which brightened both their worlds in laughter and story on this most precious night of ‘in-with-the-new’—-but slowly, oh so s l o w l y ‘out-with-the-old’ where Branko and he now both seemed to live and thrive.

Happy New Year Branko, he whispered to the dark outside his window… May you live forever. Sorry to miss you this year. I have become old, fighting time just like you. ‘Maybe’ next year. (There goes that damn ‘hope’ again, ringing the bell, determined to be heard!)

He felt out of breath, winded, talking to himself in the dark room. Time for The Long-Winded Lady, he thought, to shed a little light on that black suitcase, on all these shadows…bestow a blessing upon us all. –Norbert Blei

“We have received another communication from our friend the long-winded lady.”

A Blessing

by Maeve Brennan

I THOUGHT if I got the three words “cold and sunny’” into a first sentence, I could write you a letter. And there you are. I did it. I have no news, only a few observations and they are not even random observations. They are very solid observations, and if I am not careful they will hem me in and eventually turn into secrets and then, worse and worse, into convictions.

Thirty minutes later. I went off to make some coffee for myself, and while I waited for the water to boil I considered all the nonrandom “observations” I had so portentously lined up for your inspection. While I looked them over, they began to vanish, and finally they had all vanished — all gone, and a good thing, too. They would have made very dull reading.

They were a stilted crowd and rather disagreeable, as though they had found themselves at a party that was not quite what they expected and where their clothes were all wrong. They all wore elaborate taffeta ball gowns that seemed to belong to the eighteenth century, and each ball gown was a different shade of green.

T hey vanished one by one, but their departure seemed sudden, and I think now that they weren’t observations at all but complaints, and, if so, they have gone into the complaints department, where I never look around at all. I am never to be found anywhere near the complaints department. There are too many mirrors in there for my liking.

The complaints department becomes empty every once in a while — stone-cold empty, and quite deserted. I always when it is empty. When I am happy, I know is empty. That is, when I am especially happy. Furthermore, I believe that all the unhappy ones in that dismal department then turn into angels, or into ling like angels, and go far, far away.

Yesterday afternoon, as I walked along Forty-second Street directly across from Bryant Park, I saw a three-cornered shadow on the pavement in the angle where two walls meet. I didn’t step on the shadow, but I stood a e in the thin winter sunlight and looked at it. I recognized it at once. It was exactly the same shadow that used to fall on the cement part of our garden in Dublin, than fifty-five years ago.

We lived in that house thirteen years. It was one of a long row of houses that faced, across the quiet little street, another long row of houses, just like them, each with a front garden and a good-sized back garden. Every my father came into the house, coming home, he went first into the back sitting room to look through the window at his wife’s garden and see for himself what changes she had made there during the hours he had been away.

I celebrated my fifth birthday in that house, and I also celebrated my seventeenth birthday there, and I feel absolutely impelled to tell you that five is closer to seventeen than seventeen is to five.. What do you think of that? And, of course, all my birthdays between five and seventeen were celebrated there. The birthdays of all of us were celebrated with presents in the morning and a very special birthday-cake high tea in the evening.

One New Years Eve, something marvelous happened on our little street. It wasn’t called a street; it was called an avenue.

Cherryfield Avenue. And it was closed at the far end — no “thru” traffic. What happened that New Year’s Eve was that in the late afternoon word went around from house to house that a minute or so before midnight we would all step out into our front gardens, or even into the street, leaving the front doors open, so that the light streamed out after us, and there we would wait to hear the bells ringing in the New Year. I nearly went mad with excitement and happiness. I know I jumped for joy. That New Year’s Eve was one of the great occasions of our lives.

I must tell you now that I am praying to Almighty God for blessings on your house, with extra blessings to go with you whenever you leave the house, so that wherever you are you will be safe.

Blessings on your house. Happy New Year. January 5,1981

[from THE LONG-WINDED LADY, Notes from the New Yorker]

Blei and Branko

26 Comments

  1. Thank you. Thank you for making me think and feel things I had put on a shelf and hadn’t acknowledged for a long time. Thank you for the graceful and uncomfortable way your words say so much more than just words do. Thank you for the images and the goodness you leave behind whenever I read your thoughts (as opposed to reading your mind, which was never very successful.) Your words are closer to prayer than poetry. Thank you. Happy New Year, Norbert.

  2. You made it through 2010 and now on to 2011. Happy New Year from the west coast and I know this will be a new beginning of good health and happiness…Love you

  3. Norb,
    We’ll see you in 2011 and haver a cup.
    Keep the faith and the dfight.
    We will see you along the way.

  4. NEW YEARS EVE POEM 2010

    Another year passing by
    like clouds banks on the horizon
    your affair with time doomed
    like a failed love affair

    Your passion ignited early
    burned out
    like a candle
    at the end of its wick

    You came in dressed
    in a sequin gown and scarf
    a coy like promise of a heated
    love affair

    now you scurry away
    like a thief in flight taking
    with you your eleven sisters
    and brothers

    down at Pier 39
    the sea lions bellow their contempt
    but you as always shrug your shoulders
    ignore their plaitiff call

    you with your cold stare
    and ice cold breath
    creeps up my spine
    makes its way into my blood

    Soon you’ll head out the door
    rush head long into the future

    how nice it must be to be immortal
    born anew year after year
    like specs of dust gathering
    in the womb of the universe
    while I approach my 75th year
    doing a slow shuffle
    down the street trying
    to stay one step ahead
    of my trailing shadow

  5. NORB ~ MY BEST TO YOU IN THE COMING YEAR..
    I AM COUNTING THE DAYS TILL SPRING ARRIVES…
    SPRING BRINGS HOPE AND I FEEL THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE..ALWAYS….

    I CARRY YOU IN MY HEART

    LUCHA

    BY THE WAY I JUST HAD A DINNER OF DOOR COUNTY WHITEFISH..A BIT OF HEAVEN……WHAT A WONDERFUL WAY TO CELEBRATE THE COMING YEAR…

  6. Good writing, Norb–YOURS, I mean.

    When you start talking about old European food, you are the Walt Whitman of it.

    And when you talk about the people associated with it.

    Now, this new character, old age–distressing, sure–but isn’t he the one you were always trying to see thru the rush of the modern world, the current, the fads of America, even the injustices of America & the modern world?

    Weren’t you always trying to focus on what almost everyone almost always only wanted to forget, already, & get on to something better?

    This is some of the best of your writing in a long time.

    I’m glad you are still willing to put your thoughts & feelings into words & transmit them. You’re unique & nourishing.

    Be well, & live long –

    Eric

  7. Happy New Year, Norbert!

    I’ll not add to your pain with my own–just yet.

    Jerry

  8. Norb, my unseen unmet friend of the word:

    I heard of you about a year ago, sometime in this illustrious 2010 I heard of you re Purinton’s ferry book.

    But, ah, Branko! Why am I not surprised you are a frequenter of the 3 Bros in Bayview and a friend of Branko the Serb? As am I, and so many of his other restaurant frequenters…..

    During the Serbian unrest I stopped going to 3 Brothers, protesting because of my reading (probably not entirely correct reading) of Serbia’s complicity in the atrocities. Before that I’d been a regular since the 1960s. It pained me and my gullet not to be partaking of Branko’s wonderful fare but I held out for about a year.

    Finally I had to relent, after sending Branko a note about how bothered I was about the political situation and how it was why I had been absent.

    Soon thereafter I returned with my wife after my heart surgery for a fine dinner and the ambiance of the historic corner tap.

    Branko, at his post at the end of the bar, tending the scrawled reservations, saw me enter, and exclaimed, “Ah, Mr Deeks! You come bek! Vy?”

    Hearty laughter then, and a gratuitous Slimovitz with linked arms…..

    Oh. yes. I know Branko!

    May we return there many times, and may he be there to welcome us

    The picture of you two is precious to me! Happy New Year!.

  9. Any time you want to go down to Three Brothers I’ll volunteer to drive. I’ve only been there twice but I can still smell the smells and tastes the tastes. Just can’t find it on my own. But Branko’s spirit is there.

    Love your drawing of the place.

  10. Norbert…Your latest report from Door County made me cry…almost weep…and I need to weep…for you and for all of us with less years ahead than behind…but thank you for the optimism too…there is always tomorrow…to improve yourself…to move toward Light…to help others…to be used up…have a great year in 2011, Norbert…Godspeed…Ellis Felker

  11. A blessing of words that transforms the heart, a kindling that makes one realize we only have the moment. A zen thing, an awareness that holds the secret to our sanity, our fate. Life is life is life…and on and on. I bow to your gift of enlightenment. Your bravery to lead the way with your tireless spirit. Your open heart….

  12. Thanks for your wonderful gift of words with the imagery and emotion they convey. Happy new year and all the best to you in 2011.

  13. Carol Sklenicka

    January 1, 2011 at 6:58 am

    Thanks for three moving pieces, yours on the unwelcome visitor, the year-end poem, and the reminder of good old-world food at Three Brothers. Old age be damned, I hope you’ll continue with the website in 2011.

  14. Aum mani padme hum. Bodhi svaha. Alleluia. Amen.
    In your heart is the flowering of universes.
    So let it be! Praise God! Amen!

  15. Bridget Blei Buff

    January 1, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    I miss you dad.

  16. You have the true grace of the old year and the hopeful view of the babe. Thank you for all your blogs and this one in particular. You made me hungry for the past of simple pleasures and honest sweat while we eat our various ethnic foods and partake of the true spiciness of life.

  17. Jan 1, 2011, New Years Day
    Norb,

    Just read your New Years Blog! WOW!!

    It fits our situation for 2010 perfectly!

    Thanks for the memories as ours go back a hell of a long time, only as a writer you put into and select words that make me think and almost cry. I hope we havet many more to go!

    Love

    Edd and Marianne

  18. What good words to start the new year and I liked the drawing and pictures, as well. A fine 2011 to you and all of your readers. Barbara Larsen

  19. Norbert, I hope you will work your ass off to send as many as you can for N.B.COOP NEWS, Basho’s, Once Upon a Time and Poetry Dispatch and other Notes from the Underground. As always: Cheers ( your german-french comrade )

  20. Beloved NorbertO: that suitcase resides in all of our houses … what you’ve experienced this past year, was not so much its arrival, but the awareness that it exists. Some might use this new Awareness to become acutely grateful for the many forms of goodness that fills your life, beginning with the “Cancer-Free” body you inhabit and the prognosis of returning vitality. Neither are you required to spend long hours in convalescent or therapy centers to re-capture it … you do have to choose good food, and hardest of all perhaps: be patient. Do not confuse your choice to be alone with lack of love. From your vibrant and loving family to the many people reading this blog – you are abundantly loved. Likewise, you have always lived in the spotlight of love of a good woman: before, now and in years to come – you will have that. Celebrate all these things.

  21. Thank you, Norb for also being at MY side during all of my difficult years . . . Here’s to better days ahead for both of us. Judy and I wish you much hope and peace. Take very good care of yourself my friend. Tom

  22. Alice D'Alessio

    January 2, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    Dear Friend, That battered black suitcase of misery – what a chilling metaphor for a truly bad year – and yet, you’ve been through the fire now, and things can only get better in 2011. Thank you for reminding us that we can expect that visitor at any time, and must not neglect to make an inventory of what we have to be thankful for. Your unique and always inspiring words are at the top of my list. The visitor has not been able to douse them! Happy 2011.XXX

  23. Nazdar, Norb, a Stastny novy rok! I wish you all the best in 2011. Keep that digital ink flowing. 😉

  24. We watch ourselves.
    We see one another.
    Even as we get old
    We become something new.

    ¡Feliz año nuevo!, Norb.

  25. It is hard to contribute anything of worth with all the wonderful sentiments expressed… your god-brain and god-essence is truly appreciated. Best for Twenty-11.

  26. Dear Norb: You have been through the fire and survived. What the fire doesn’t melt it forges into steel and steel you are! Thanks for touching that place inside me that knows only too well, as this new year begins, that the wick burns dimmer as it grows shorter. You continue to inspire me with every blog. I hope to see you in June.

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