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Take today's Lechery poll:
Males under 32
Males 32 or older
Females under 32
Females 32 or older
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Today, a very simple chat update, as promised at the end of last week's chat.
Here is the long-promised A POLL on LECHERY:
Males under 32
Males 32 or older
Females under 32
Females 32 or older
And finally, I leave you with this, "The Poet and The Birthday Girl," which, at 32, taught me more about writing than any single story I ever edited. We'll discuss this in the next chat, but I do have some study-guide questions.
1. Note how each significant fact is disclosed.
2. Note how there are three main characters, not two.
3. Is it possible to not cry at the end?
The Poet and The Birthday Girl
By Madeleine Blais
May 8, 1983
Victoria Hospital, private room: That's where Vivian Kahn was born on April 16, 1943. She does not hesitate to remind people of this fine beginning, especially when her birthday is approaching. Every year there is a big celebration. One time Vivian Kahn went to a Tony Orlando concert: "He kissed me once. He kissed me twice. And he called me one of God's special children. Which I am."
Her mother Hannah:
"When you learn your child has Down's syndrome, one of the first thoughts is: How will I get through the first Christmas? The first major holiday. And then you think, how will I get through the first Mother's Day? The first day of first grade, when all the other children are enrolling in regular classes. And then you think, how will you tell her about the womanly processes?
"But you can. And you do."
"How was work today, Viv?"
"What did you do?"
"Well, we said our address and when our birthday is and our social security number."
Vivian's speech is exceptionally clear for a Down's victim, and her vocabulary reflects her mother's love of language. "Marty said that on my birthday he's going to play music. He said he had something cooking up his sleeve and we're really going to town. Ronni said she's going to give me a present." It is dinnertime and Vivian looks up quickly from her plate, anticipating her mother's disapproval. "I told Ronni a card would be plenty." Vivian swallows hard and repeats herself, "Plenty, Hannah, plenty."
Hannah: "One thing with retarded kids. They're not jealous. They are noncompetitive, nonmanipulative. One gets something, they're all happy. Call it pure soul or pure light or whatever you want to call it."
Vivian Kahn goes to "work" every day at the Association for the Development of the Exceptional, on North Miami Avenue. She is small, 4 feet 7 inches tall, and dresses young for her age: Hannah says that size 14 Polly Flinders fit the best. She joins 50 other retarded adults who are taught how to count, how to take a bus, how to answer the phone. Her mother drives Vivian in the morning, and she is given a ride home to their apartment in the afternoon. Her mother, who has had a job selling furniture at Whitecraft Industries' showroom for 41 years, arrives home a couple of hours after Vivian, at 5:30. A few minutes before her mother's blue car pulls into the parking lot, Vivian goes to the window and looks for her, so she can wave a greeting at the woman with silver hair. Hannah has a remarkably energetic stride for a woman of 72; it is the always-hurried movement common in mothers of young children. When she is alone, Vivian can take care of herself. She can watch television or type a letter or answer the phone as long as "I don't give no information to wrong numbers. Frank taught me that. He taught me not to climb and not to touch the stove too."
Frank Kahn was Vivian's father and the stepfather, though he disliked the term, of Hannah's two sons from a previous marriage. Hannah Kahn was 19 when Melvin was born, 21 when Danny came. "No one could have been more scared with a baby than I was. I remember the doctor told me, as long as you've got a healthy baby, they'll probably turn out all right no matter what you do." Hannah Kahn's first marriage is a phase of her life about which she is uncommunicative, yet it has perhaps figured in some of her writing. For in addition to the steady prosaic life amid the rattan, selling the etageres and convertible couches, Hannah Kahn is a poet of some note, once considered a leading candidate for the title of poet laureate for the state of Florida. Ex-Wife is an early poem about which she says today: Too obvious, everything about it. The sentiments, the rhymes:
Wonder if my shadow/ever interferes,/do they know their laughter/as an echo of my tears.
Wonder if her love/is stronger than was mine?/I who only asked for bread --/She whose bread was wine.
Sometimes when the shadow/is intensified,/I can hear him breathing/softly at my side,
I can feel his fingers/reach across the night/and rest upon my eyelids/shutting out the light--
I have heard him tapping/on my window pane/and when I rose to answer/found out that it was rain.
Wonder when their beings/merge within a flame/does he ever call her/by my name?
Dinner over, Vivian helps clear the dishes. She inquires after dessert. "When God gave you to my house, Vivian, there must have been a contract requiring dessert with every dinner." Dessert is an apple. After dinner, Vivian says, "I'm cold, I'm chilled."
"What should you do when you're chilled?"
"Put something on."
Vivian was Frank's first child. Hannah had wanted a girl, and when Vivian was born Frank told Hannah, "It's a girl. You got what you wanted." Hannah recently came across the hospital bill: 10 days, $100.
Vivian has fetched her sweater. "Hannah," she says, very businesslike, "take your pills."
"See," says Hannah, reaching for her pills. "She watches over me."
She touches her daughter's soft pretty hair. "I was born with nervous hands," she once wrote. "What they loved they had to touch."
They found out that Vivian had Down's syndrome when she was 8 months old, just after Christmas: "We went to the doctor for a routine checkup. She was dresssed in white shoes, a blue organdy dress. For the first time her hair was long enough for a narrow ribbon bow."
Frank and Hannah Kahn were left alone with Vivian in the examining room. The child's chart was on a table, open. The doctor had written, "Did you tell her that Vivian is a Mongoloid child?"
"In those days nothing was known about retardation. No one knew anything about an extra chromosome. Lightning strikes. I felt that I was the only person in Miami who had given birth to such a person. I can still remember the words of the doctor: "They Are Unfinished Children. During Pregnancy Because Of Some Endocrine Or Other Deficiency In The Mother That We Do Not Know, The Unborn Child Is Not Completed. She Can Never Go Beyond The Mental Age Of 5 Or 6 And It's Best For You And Your Other Children That She Be Placed In An Institution When She's 13 Months Old. There Is No Doubt About Our Diagnosis. See This, These Special Epicanthal Folds In The Eyes. (But her eyes are impish....) Their Little Fingers, Short Curved Like A Fish. Their Hands Are Short And Stubby. (Her fingers which we had counted and re-counted. She's double-jointed....) These Children Usually Are."
At home that night Hannah performed the usual tasks in a trance. She prepared the dinner, talked to the boys, cleared the table. Frank took Vivian into her room, changed her, gave her a bottle and put her to sleep. Hannah thought: I should have known. Should I have known? The pregnancy was so easy, too easy. I told the doctor the baby wasn't kicking as much as the others had. He said, "We'll take care of everything, Mrs. Kahn." At the hospital the nurses remarked on what a good baby Vivian was, how well she slept.
Frank came into the living room, dressed for the card party they had planned on going to. Hannah Kahn was incredulous. "Get dressed," Frank said softly. "Everything goes on." Hannah remembers only one detail from the evening. "I drank cup after cup of coffee. It tasted like blood."
"Frank established the rhythm. Frank set the pace. Without him I don't know how I would have survived. . . ."
"We never actually sat down and told the boys something was wrong with Vivian. We said she was slow in some ways but advanced in others, like her dancing. Both boys were always good with Vivian. I remember Melvin used to go to the beach with the debating team, and every now and then he'd ask me if Vivian could come along. I told him, Melvin, the other boys aren't going to want Vivian to come along and he said oh, they do. Vivian walks around and she attracts the girls and helps us make friends. Danny told me that whenever he took Viv to the playground, he never thought she was slow. He simply assumed all the other children were very advanced.
"In whatever way Danny and Melvin might have been hurt by it, they certainly got to be more considerate people through their association with Vivian. By far she has enriched me. Without Vivian I would've had such an ordinary, take-for-granted life."
"Child," the mother once wrote, "give me your hand that I may walk in the light of your faith in me."
From a letter Hannah Kahn wrote to a friend shortly after her husband's death in 1975:
"Vivian's relationship with her father was unique; everyone who knew them grieved doubly when he died, wondering how Vivian would adjust. She's been wonderful. . . . He taught her well.
"I don't have to tell you how grief comes in waves. Vivian sometimes sets the table for three instead of two.
"About six months ago he re-wallpapered our kitchen. The icebox goes in a niche. . . . He already wasn't feeling well -- moving the ice box was difficult. I told him no one would know if he didn't paper behind the icebox. He looked at me, smiled and said 'I would know.'
"Tomorrow I have to go the lawyer's office and sign a new will. . . . Vivian's future is my greatest concern."
I walk among the headstones in my sleep--
I read the names, the dates. I place two stones
Upon your grave. I ask you to forgive
That in some strange, distorted way I live.
The cells divide
My body is their battleground
I am the field they occupy.
Hannah Kahn had a mastectomy seven years ago. During a recent visit to the doctor "something showed up on the scan." Hannah now rehearses the reality of the future: "Someday our life together, as it is now, will end. Vivian's not going to be by the window and I'm not going to get out of the car." She is looking into Haven School, the possibility of placing Vivian there five days a week to accustom her to separation. "It has always been my unspoken dream that something would happen to her before something happened to me so Vivian would be forever sheltered."
"Hannah," says her daughter, "now please don't forget your pills."
Vivian Kahn has never been to her father's grave. She thinks he is buried in the clouds. On his birthday she always waves to him in the sky ("That's where Frank is, he's in heaven") and sings Happy Birthday including the second verse, We love you, we do. "Frank didn't want Vivian to see him sick in the hospital. Instead they spoke to each other over the phone. He never wanted Vivian to go the the cemetery. He didn't think she could handle the thought of the underground thing.
"At the time of Frank's death I was very worried about the effect it would have on Vivian. I didn't understand that for a child like Vivian who has two parents, when one dies, her life didn't change very much. She was in the same house, the same bed. There was no break," says Hannah, "in the rhythm."
When it came time to tell Vivian about the womanly processes, this is what Hannah Kahn did:
"Frank would die if he knew this. He was a very modest man. I never sat down and told her. I took her in the bathroom with me and showed her and tried to behave as naturally as possible because I have discovered with Vivian if you're casual, she's casual. With Vivian, I don't know how much she needs to know. At Vivian's job, at A.D.E., they keep stressing Who-man Growth and Development, as Vivian pronounces it. I don't know what they're telling her. I don't know what she understands. I'll never forget the day Vivian was watching "All In The Family," and Vivian is yelling 'push, push' and I ran into the living room to see what was happening and Gloria was having a baby and my daughter's coaching her."
"At A.D.E. they say, this is reality. This is actuality. The children should know about these things. I look at Viv, and I see a child, in many ways, a child of 8 or 9, and I keep thinking: Who would want their 8- or 9-year-old child thinking about getting married?"
Only once did Vivian ever cross Hannah. That was when Richard gave Vivian an engagement ring, a diamond. Hannah told Vivian to return it. Vivian put it in her pocketbook.
Vivian often chooses to wear the clothing that Richard has told her turns him on. "What does that mean, Viv? Turning someone on?" "Actshully, Hannah, it means I light up his life."
Vivian has a notion her mother would like her to cool it with Richard: "I think she's wants me to be just friends."
Would she like to be more than friends?
"Be honest now. I would love to, but I don't know if my mother's going to let me."
"Because he thinks I'm beautiful and so on and so on."
"I would suggest sex is good, you know why? I'm not embarrassed in saying it. Now making love is when you're kissing on the lips. My mother won't let me kiss on the lips. Sex means when you get VD."
"I do have my dolls, Princess from Hungary and Granny from Russia. They are not real babies, they're dolls. But the only thing is how is my mother going to put up with it, it's a big job, supposing he starts doing something in his diapers."
Where do babies come from?
"Babies," she says, "can come from anywhere. The mother's stomach, a hospital, could come from God."
Vivian Kahn begins the celebration of her birthday on January 1st, with references to surprises and cake. On the first day of April she announces, "It's my month." This year was the first year in a long time that Hannah Kahn allowed Vivian to be her true age: 40. For years Vivian's age was frozen at 16. Hannah: "It was easier that way."
The festivities lasted two days. On Friday April 15 Vivian received flowers at A.D.E. and everybody gave Vivian a kiss. There was a wondrous cake from a Cuban bakery. Vivian got to sit in the middle of the cafeteria next to a person of her choosing. She chose Richard. As the birthday girl, she was given the first piece of cake, but she made certain that Richard received the next piece. "Here Richard, this is the second piece." Marty, a man in his 50s who has spent his life in institutions and who has a gift for playing the piano without being able to read music, told Vivian "You ain't seen nothing yet." Then he sat down at the piano and played Vivian's favorite song, You Light Up My Life. She got up and sang, So many nights I sit by the window waiting for someone to sing me a song. Vivian has told her counselor at A.D.E. she would like to be Debby Boone, or a secretary. Ronni gave Vivian more than a card, she gave her a bracelet and kept saying, "Happy Birthday. Many more 'til next year." Vivian clapped her hands and touched her bracelet: "I've never had it so good. The cake and this and the flowers." Marty was asked by popular acclaim to play "those Marine songs" which he did, and at the end of the hour, he got up, received a smattering of applause, and looking at his scruffy shoes when he spoke, which is his custom, he said, "I told you, you ain't seen nothing yet." On the next day Hannah and Vivian attended the annual luncheon of Women in Communication at the Omni, and Vivian stood before the hundreds of women in attendance to receive some birthday applause. A private party followed, at the Kahn's residence.
Hannah Kahn's Eve's Daughter was published in 1962. Her latest collection, Time, Wait will be published soon by the University Presses of Florida. By far Ride a Wild Horse is her most successful poem. Published first under the title Into the Sun in The Saturday Review, it has been in more than 20 textbooks and anthologies:
Ride a wild horse
with purple wings
striped yellow and black
except his head
Which must be red.
Ride a wild horse
against the sky --
hold tight to his wings
Before you die
whatever else you leave undone --
once ride a wild horse
into the sun.
Vivian has written two poems:
The Pink Carnation
The Pink Carnation is wearing a white sport's coat
all dressed up for a date.
The Ocean View
I look across the Atlantic ocean
I see Europe
the ocean waves are dancing just like diamonds.
When Hannah Kahn is asked the difference between prose and poetry, she answers with a quote from one of her poems:
I wanted to write about the old men
Who looked at the dinner menu for a long time,
And then ordered doughnuts and coffee.
"I wanted to say, as quickly as I could, these men were poor and could not afford to order what they wanted. A prose writer might have said the same thing, but in a more complete way. A poem is as much what you don't say and what you imply as what you do say. A poem gives the reader the chance to add to or complete the thought.
"A poem can be about anything. It contains a certain moment you can almost take a picture of. It should capture a feeling or an essence or a scene. Something that stands out, that is not blurred into the momentum."
A certain moment:
After the guests had departed, Hannah and Vivian Kahn sat down to a light supper of gefilte fish and salad and chocolate mousse cake. ("I like my life," says Hannah, "but sometimes I don't like the facts of my life.") After dinner Vivian sat by the phone to collect more calls. More than once, she admired the flowers from her nieces and nephew. Vivian examined her gifts: the doll from Mexico, the Lollipop bloomers from Aunt Sylvia, the handkerchiefs. She wanted to play her new record, Elvira, sung by the Oak Ridge Boys, but she decided she better wait by the phone. Whenever it rang, and it rang a lot, it was for her: Danny and Phyllis from Spokane, Leslie in Washington D.C., Estelle's son in California. Vivian decided that on the next day she would like to wear one of her new dresses. She thought it would be nice if her mother took her for ride past Victoria Hospital.
At 8 o'clock Hannah said, "Viv, I think it's time. I think this is the time you were born."
"Oh, you think so Hannah."
"Think so? I know it. It's 8:20, Viv."
Vivian rocked back and forth on the sofa. Her chin was buried in her neck, concealing the wide happy smile. The short stubby fingers clapped in delight. "Victoria Hospital. Private room."
"That's right. Nothing but the best for my daughter."
"Hannah, do you think we could go out on the terrace and say hello to Frank?"
The older woman stood, and crossed the room, her stride erect and swift, as usual. She opened the sliding glass door and made a sweeping motion with her hand, ushering her daughter onto the balcony. "That's because I am the birthday girl, right," said Vivian. The two women stood side by side. They held each other's hands. They looked up. The night was cloudy and still. Vivian took her free hand and raised high the short bent fingers. She waved at the sky. In a soft shy voice she said, "Frank, it's my birthday today. Right now I will be born, be born, sure, Frank. Thank you for carrying me home from the hospital." Then her hand still raised, her face uplifted, Vivian stood utterly still and listened as only she can listen. "He says he remembers me," she said, her head beginning to rock. "He's singing Happy Birthday."