Amaranth Ehrenhalt

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Russians in Rodos

In love, excited, and curious, Glenn and I were on our honeymoon in Greece, waiting in the airport for our plane to the beautiful, medieval town of Rhodes,(Rodos) the largest of the Dodocanese islands on the Aagean sea. We had considered the ferry, but, anxious to get to Rodos, decided on flying rather than a 13 to 19 hour ferryboat ride. We were looking forward to visiting Lindos with it’s battalions of rainbow hued butterflies. A Greek lovey-dovey couple sat near by and told us that they were also on their honeymoon. A robust man was talking to a thinner, younger looking fellow in what sounded to me like Russian, on the other side of us . Curious and never having seen or heard any Russian tourists, in all my travels, I could not resist inquiring if they were speaking Russian- in English, of course. Why, yes, they were speaking Russian. I said please excuse my inquisitiveness, but I have not seen many Russian tourists. The heavy set man answered, "We are not tourists, I am the Russian Ambassador to Greece and this gentleman is my Secretary"..

Well, this was before "Glasnost" when Russians were not seen traveling around, and many had not yet reached the state of "nouveau riche" where young couples can now pay $20,000. in monthly rent for elegant, well situated New York Apartments.

They spoke perfect English with us, as well as perfect Greek to the other couple.

The Greek couple said to us, "After you get settled into your Hotel, Please come to ours and join us for a drink. We took their address and agreed to stop by later.

We boarded the plane and took off. Glenn and I, our arms intertwined, started to relax. I looked out of the window shortly after take off, and said, " Darling, I don’t think I should be able to count the leaves on the trees below us". Glenn leaned over me to get a better glance and said "It looks like we are in trouble". Just then, the pilot’s voice came on and delivered the message in English and Greek. "We are having some engine problems so we are returning to the airport".

We found ourselves once again sitting with the same people in the waiting area.. Some passengers decided to "drop out’ and not to take the plane and left. We said we would wait and take the plane again for the second time. It took a few hours before we boarded. By then, we had spent a good deal of time talking with our new acquaintances. Once again we mounted the stairs and settled ourselves for take off. It really felt like "deja vue" when I said to Glenn, for the second time, "Uh oh! I can still count the number of leaves on the trees! In fact, if I had my sketchbook handy, I could even draw the veins on the leaves." Then came the familiar Captain’s voice, repeating the same message, " Due to engine troubles, etc. etc. "So back to the landing strip we went and were ushered off the plane into our very familiar waiting area, where, by then, we felt like bosom buddies with the other honeymoon couple and the Russians.

There were a few more drop outs as people decided twice was enough and left the airport. My husband asked me if I would prefer not getting on the plane a third time. I said I thought it was all right to do so, because I thought that destiny will decide when and how we are to perish. By then, we could have been almost half way there on the boat! So we boarded the plane for the third time!

Upon arrival the Greek couple reminded us that we should come over for a drink at their hotel after everyone freshened up a bit. We all felt somewhat haggard so we decided to meet the next day.

When we arrived at their hotel the next evening, we were ushered into a real luxury flat with a sizeable terrace and a breath taking view. We embraced like long lost friends. I think the plane experience created a bond between us. We are both artists and they expressed a desire to see some of our work, so we brought over some photographs.

We went out on the balcony, and a few minutes later the door from the adjacent suite opened up to their balcony, which was separated from ours by a black, wrought iron fence. And WHO do you think stepped out? The Russian Ambassador and his secretary. We all hugged, cheek kissed and said "What a coincidence". The Greek couple then invited the two Russians to come over and join us. It would not be dignified to step over the "iron curtain" so they said they would join us and went inside. We drank refined retsina and munched on tasty tarama and crispy crackers while waiting for our neighbors to arrive.. We waited quite some time before they finally made their appearance, trailed by an Hotel employee who was pushing a cart loaded with Russian hors d’oeuvres: Caviar, blintzes, Vodka, you name it! They must have had an enormous supply of Russian goodies in the hold on the plane. Could all the weight of these delicious delicacies have caused the earlier engine troubles? The Russian Ambassador examined our photographs and asked what our Abstract Expressionist paintings were meant to express. Try as we might, they just did not get it. He seemed totally unaware that "abstract" painting had deep roots in the Soviet Union, having been accidentally started by Wassily Kandinsky, when his cleaning lady inadvertently turned a sea scape upside down and he stumbled across it to see how exciting it was looking at white and brightly colored triangular shapes against the green water and blue sky. He began experimenting, then to be carried forward by Malevitch, Sonia Delaunay, Larionov, Gontsharova, and others,)

We talked about our respective countries and the Russian Ambassador, in good spirits, after having imbibed several Vodkas, and mountains of caviar, suggested that we all sing our country’s National Anthem. We were all enjoying ourselves tremendously eating the delicious foods they presented.

The portly Ambassador cordially invited us to come to the Soviet Union, as his guests, and to spend a week or two, visiting the famous tourist sites in Russia.

"However", he said, very sternly, in his deep voice, while banging his fist on the table, causing the blintzes to rumble, the caviar to tumble, and the cookies to crumble, "Come as a young, charming, newly married, attractive American couple, but do NOT come as "Abstract Expressionist" artists, or, you will be:


Amaranth Ehrenhalt

One, Two, Button Your Shoe

Her tall, thin, balding husband was very depressed. The engineering company he had worked for most of his life had merged with a foreign conglomerate, and she was politely, but firmly, laid off. Really not too bad; he had been so close to his retirement, less than two years. He had tried to use his engineering abilities as a consultant, but nothing turned up. For a few months he was optimistic, but soon he gave up.

Money was not really the problem. His amiable wife had owned a small mercery store, which had managed with charm and wit and well-endowed business acumen; it had sold with a substantial profit.

Their cozy gray stone house with lush vermillion geraniums and a painer d’argent in the front garden had recently been sold. They planned to move to the south of France where their comfortably married dark and freckled grandson lived.

Wearing a brightly colored flowered skirt that she had sewn out of the remnants left after she had made her bedroom curtains, she looked attractive, despite the dark purple circles under her bright blue eyes, as she nostalgically picked away a lifetime of tastefully chosen souvenirs. Her thimble collection, some antique silver, others enameled or contemporary ceramic. The quizzical-looking twin lamps that she had had transformed from a pair of finely crafted brown leather boots after her riding accident. They looked like they were about to walk as they stood on either side of a tall, heavy, white and blue veined Carrana marble chimney in the now disheveled living room. They were waiting to be packed away tomorrow, along with some large wicker baskets from Morocco and Spain. There were eggshells that she had also fondly painted; she had to be careful not to break the ones with the beautiful lapis lazuli blue, and the turquoise one that looked like it could have been hatched on an American Indian reservation.

Meticulously stuffed and tied cardboard boxes of various shapes and sizes stood stacked and leaning against the stone like so many wall flowers, timidly waiting to be asked to dance. Assorted small Turkish raffia baskets in wheat-and-barley-like colors held multihued knickknacks to the point of overflowing.

Her despondent husband was milling around the house instead of making himself useful, but she was understanding and patient and asked nothing of him. He came into the living room and, as if hesitating to disturb her, softly said, "Come upstairs. I want to show you something."

"Go on up, darling" she replied gently. "I’ll come in a little while after packing Aunt Martha’s tea set."

A few minutes later she heard a horrendous, ear-splitting blast. She rushed upstairs to see what had happened and let out a shriek as she found her husband on the floor, bleeding profusely, his mouth wrapped around the barrel of a gun. She almost stumbled as she ran down the stairs and out the front door to seek help. Her neighbors called an ambulance and the police, and then stayed to console her.

Several days later, the coroner’s report arrived. "It stated, "Instant death from self-inflicted wound." It also said that they had found "another bullet in the gun."

Amaranth Ehrenhalt
August, 1991

Waterless Fishing On The Streets Of Manhattan

She looked like one of those utterly uddered, middle aged, rounded, diminutive, Hispanic women, her graying hair pulled back straight to a tight chignon, who look like their expected mission in life is to nurse numerous babies. How she managed to open the deteriorating, black gate I don’t know. I walked by and was surprised to see that she was fishing, and that, on dry land, not in the usual way, like you and I might do, with a rod and bait on a hook, lancing it into water, but with an improvised thin metal cord sporting an invented, rusty hook on the end. Her lake was not one of blue rippling water, but an overloaded dump truck sitting on an alleyway below her so that the top of the junk it held was on a level with the parking lot on which she stood.

I was quietly observing her dexterous movements. Curiosity cancelled comfort as I sat down on a cool, gray cement ledge nearby. With ample inquisitiveness, I wondered what she expected to reel in. Her first fish, albeit without scales or bones, appeared to be a black, leather purse. She opened the metal clasp, peered inside, and deciding it was a worthy object, dumped it into her caddy. Next there was one of those ubiquitous, plastic, plaid Chinese tote bags that caught her attention. She had to bend over the dumpster very far while holding on to the metal gate with one hand in order to reach the cheap bag. Despite the risky operation, she managed precariously to haul it in without falling upon the mountain of discarded rubbish. She evidently thought it worth the trouble when she pulled out a pair of what looked like UGG boots. She was neat and tidy as she threw the empty, still serviceable bag back into the dumpster. Little by little she filled up her caddy, with clothes, toys, kitchen utensils and other bits of civilization’s sundry discards, and then, satisfied with her haul, and having reaped her harvest, she carefully closed the gate and moved on pushing her overloaded caddy before her.

This is the neighborhood of Spa-Ha, Spanish Harlem, the Upper, Upper, Upper East side we might call it, where I often see industrious Hispanic men or women picking out soda pop cans from dumpsters and plastic garbage bags which they sell for 4 or 5 cents a piece. But this was the first time I noticed a fishing expedition, which hauled in, if not edible, then at least usable, objects, without a drop of water in sight. So I learned that fishing isn’t just for fishermen and sportspersons, trying just to catch some wiggly fish, but also for needy matrons hoping to find a good deal in free, usable accessories, in the rich and abundant cast offs of New York City.

Amaranth Ehrenhalt
April 20, 2012

Wham, Bam, Thank you, Mam

In China they destroy
the landscape to make dams
In Chinatown, New York,
you see people eating clams
In Italy they eat figs
and melons with their hams
Often they use the fruit
to make delicious jams

In Greece they drink their retsina
and eat potatoes with their lambs
Hispanics eat guacamole
and cactus with their yams
My lovely young intern comes from Georgia
and sprinkles me with "mams."

Amaranth Ehrenhalt
March 9, 2013

Childhood Memories: "Tattoo"

When I was a young child, we lived on Warnock Street in Philadelphia. There were row houses with alley ways in a neighborhood composed of European Jews, Italian Catholics, Irish and a few other white Scandinavian nationalities. There were no blacks,Hispanics, Asians,or Indians. My mother always said,"There are good and bad in every kind". I was raised to not be prejudiced.

We were a boisterous bunch of kids, screaming with delight as we played « kick the can » and gathered bottles full of lightning bugs in jars with holes punched in the covers by our fathers.

One party we attended gave a list for a scavenger hunt to each of us. On my list was a fly. I went to my father and showed him the list. He took some black thread and glue and dexterously fashioned a convincing looking « fly » which hung on the end of a black string to my utter rapture. This « fly » won me a prize !

My Mother disappeared for about a week. We were told that she had gone to visit her sister and that an « Aunt » would take care of us. We knew as soon as we saw the portly woman that she was no Aunt of ours. She did not look like, cook like, talk like, act like, any aunt we ever knew. We did not like the food she prepared, nor the harsh way she ordered us around.

My older brother Ed and I were playing in the back yard when our father called us in saying that he had a « surprise » for us as well as some ice cream. I think we were more interested in the ice cream, but, in we went. The surprise was Barry, our baby brother. This was completely unexpect- ed since we had been in no way prepared for a new sibling. I took over and became possesive.

I had always been drawing and painting and was not interested in dolls. But a live baby ! that was something else. Barry became « my doll ». I pushed him around in his carriage, learned how to wash him and change his diapers, feed him, cuddle him, and introduced him to all my playmates as « my doll ». I was four, Ed was eight and here was Barry, four years later. Looked like Mom popped us out every four years.

A younger memory was of standing in my crib-bawling. I do not remember why, but my Mother said, « Stop crying-or- I will give you something to cry about ». That immediately shut me up ! One day my father was down in the basement/den showing my two brothers how to make some wooden object. He was hammering away when I came down and wanted to join the fun. But my father thought that little girls had no business learning how to handle tools, and sent me away. I planned and waited for a few weeks when there would be an opportunity to sneak down into the den, when no one was around. I picked up a hammer, placed a nail in position on top of a piece of wood, and, remembering the rapid, sure, strong movement of my father’s hand, I imitated him and brought down the hammer forcefully, swiftly, energetically, and right on- MY THUMB ! I dared not cry because someone might hear me. I could not look for sympathy. I had to hide my thumb, which carried an enormous dark blue-black spot, like a sloppy tatoo,on it’s tip for a long time. To this day, I am not fond of tatoos, and as for doing anything mechanical, forget it.

Amaranth Ehrenhalt
17 Aug. 2008

Yellow Canary

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Sandra, petite and suntanned, with straight black hair pulled back in a ponytail, was trying to put some order into Aldo's very messy artist's print studio, where artists work with a professional printer to make editions of etchings. The way she was flitting around in her short-sleeved, textured, cotton, bright canary yellow blouse with an embroidered hem and matching yellow miniskirt made me ask Aldo, in Italian, "What do you call those bright yellow songbirds?"

"Oh, 'canarini,'" he replied in Italian. (We all know his nationality by now.)

I repeated "'Canarini.' Is one a canarino? Is there a canarina as well?"

"No," was the answer, "only for female. Canarino for male and canarini, plural."

Not to imitate Gertrude Stein, but to cement the word in my head I repeated, the pleasant sounding"Canarini" several times.

Aldo, aproned and cleaning an etching plate, his hands encased in transparent plastic gloves, said, "There used to be a fellow named Giovanni who came here. He was a painter and writer with a slight heart problem. He told me that his neighbors did not like the sound of chirping canaries." Aldo found that a bit odd; so did I.

One terribly cold winter day, Giovanni arrived on his motorcycle. Aldo saw that he was wearing a sweater and a light jacket, with his head bare and recently shaved.

Aldo asked him why he was choosing to run around bald in such cold weather. Most people preferred to keep their hair longer in the winter and cut it short in the summer. Giovanni answered that he just liked the look. Aldo suggested that he dress more appropriately for such cold weather.

But, Giovanni was going through a belated hippie phase. He had come to pick up some etching prints he had made and wondered how he could transport them home.

Aldo, with the help of his friend Alessandro, packed them up between a lot of newspapers. Then, thinking that it might keep him wanner, convinced Giovanni to put the package against his chest as insulation against the wind. Aldo and Alessandro then tied strings all around his body over his jacket to keep them in place. Giovanni stretched his arms up as the two A's cord-wrapped his body like Christo might have wrapped a building.

Much hilarity ensued as they crisscrossed the strings around Giovanni. Then, away he went on his motorcycle, looking like a fugitive from a surrealist film. That was the last Aldo ever saw of his friend, but not the last he ever heard of him. His latest book has just been published.

A few months later, a man resembling Giovanni appeared. It was his brother, come to ask if Giovanni owed any money to Aldo, since Giovanni had died. If so, his brother wanted to pay off his debts. Aldo said, "No, all that has been paid but Giovanni left some etching plates." As he gathered the metal plates together he said, "Once Giovanni told me that his neighbors didn't like the sound of chirping canaries; I always thought that strange."

"Well, not if you lived next door," said Giovanni's brother, "and you knew that he kept five hundred canaries in his apartment in a room without any cages. If you had to hear five hundred canaries chirping night and day, you wouldn't like it either." Imagine: five hundred canaries!

Amaranth Ehrenhalt
Dec. 7, 1996

Hebrew Home for the Aged

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My (then) husband and I had left Paris for New York and we were trying to get some work to replenish our coffers. Looking through the New York Times want ads under: artist, designer, art teacher and anything related, I spotted an ad for a Director of an Arts and Crafts program at an old people's home." Here I go again" I thought. I answered the ad and secured an interview. Being an artist all my life and having done just about every kind of arts and crafts I thought this would be a cinch!

I was offered the job. I had several people on the staff who were under my direct supervision: a lady who was hired to teach knitting and crocheting, a man to teach woodworking, and several others ranging from potters to weavers. Several little old ladies enjoyed themselves and felt very useful knitting vary colored wool squares that were to be sewn together to make blankets. There was a money raising gift store where the products could be sold and the money used to buy new materials, etc.

The problem was that some of the work was so dreadful that there was no way I was going to allow it to get as far as the gift store. After all, the main purpose of all this was to keep the people occupied and happy. What difference did it make if the objects were unacceptable for sale? So I had the worst squares unraveled and the next day gave a different lady the same wool to make more dreadful squares. Most of these people were senile and so out of it that they did not know the difference. It kept them busy and satisfied.

There was an elderly man, named Vladimer, who told me some childhood stories of growing up on a farm in Russia. I liked his stories and asked him to write them down. Then there was another man, Jerry, who liked to draw. I thought his sketches were marvelous! As Picasso had said, all his life he wanted to get back to the spontaneity of childhood. These colorful crayon drawings had a childlike charm. The French artist Debuffet would have flipped over them. So I had the idea to have him read the stories by Vladimer and illustrate them. I encouraged the two men to get together and work cooperatively. I was thrilled with the results. Now I had some lovely stories with attractive illustrations.

Another man had told me that he had been a printer. There were a few copy machines. So. I decided that we would print a little magazine. Now I had Vladimer, Jerry and Samuel working together as a team. They were all very excited about the project and other people started to get involved as well. There was a fellow who loved to paint, having discovered this medium in his late eighties! One day he called me over to look at his painting of a house. He asked me if it would be allright with me if he painted the roof purple. He had told me that he had been a mechanic. I asked him if the business was his own or

whether he had worked for a boss. He told me that he had always worked for a boss. I said to him, "Well, we are going to change all of that now! I am appointing you THE BOSS, so only YOU can decide what color to paint the roof, and that even were I to suggest that he paint it "traditional roof color" whatever that may be, that he was supposed to tell me that since he was THE Boss, he could make any decision he liked. The purple roof became the proud painting of a very happy man. Then there was Isaac, who had been a carpenter. He was doing woodwork and eventually surprised me by offering me a very lovely hand crafted little jewelry box. As he gave it to me he said "Please don't tell the Director of the home as I think he would not like it if he thought I made it for you." I said "O.K." and took it home in a bag with other belongings of mine.

We started to print the magazine and others got involved wanting to staple it together. Everyone was very excited! Nothing like this had been done in this home before! They ALL told me that they LOVED me. That was very rewarding. These people were having more fun than they had had in years! We made a few issues. All the people in the arts and crafts studio read them and wanted a copy. There were even some poems printed. I had believed that I was given the liberty to run the program as I saw fit. I knew that they were all stimulated by this. project and very happy to participate.

Then the Director got ahold of a copy. Before long, I was called into his office. He told me that the adult children of these elderly people would feel ashamed and embarrased to see their parents making such "ridiculous, childlike drawings" and Printing! And distributing! Them no less! And that they all paid a good deal of money to keep their parents in that home. I asked him if he had ever looked at Picasso's drawings, or Paul Klee's. I did not expect him to have ever heard of Debuffet. I defended the drawings, the stories and the magazine! We argued. I asked if he would allow me to speak with the adult children of these people. He refused. He was very adamant and insisted that I stop the magazine. I knew the people involved would be heart broken, i repeated how much they were all enjoying themselves, while keeping busy.-which I thought was the main object.

So I QUIT then and there. I felt very sad to leave without saying goodbye to the wonderful elderly people who had shared their memories with me. On the otherhand, I had never taken that job to make a career out of it. So that was the v beginning and the end for me of the fancy title "Director of the Arts and Crafts Program" at a home for the aged in Coney Island, New York.

Amaranth Ehrenhalt
Coney Island, Oct. 29, 2006