May 8, 2012

Angel of Brooklyn

One of the pleasures of having a child is introducing him to my own childhood favorites; just a few days ago, Oliver discovered Spike Jones, and is now requesting songs by name. To hear him laugh out loud at every carhorn, gunshot, or sneeze is a true delight.

This pleasure extends, of course, to the work of the late, great Maurice Sendak, as odd and inimitable a mixture of open-hearted and cantankerous as I can think of. I still read to him from my childhood copy of Where the Wild Things Are, but I also enjoy taking him through the bleakly beautiful, shape-shifting We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy.

I once had the pleasure of interviewing Sendak when he brought the Oliver Knussen operas of Wild Things and Higglety Pigglety Pop! to L.A. Opera, and I remember two things about that interview: I told him I'd grown up with his books, and he quipped, without skipping a beat, "Are you all right?" He also told me that Signourney Weaver once took him aside at a party, and pointed out to her husband to Sendak (I've since learned that her husband is Flea Theatre impresario Jim Simpson). She apparently said to Sendak, "Does he look familiar?" Sendak drew a blank, and she finally explained, "I married him because he looks like Max," the protagonist of the Wild Things.

He was always full of great and often startling anecdotes. Some of my favorites were in the Terry Gross below—not just the ones about his colorful and harrowing family history, his bewildering and wonderful Brooklyn childhood (his early notion that Italians were just a sect of "happy Jews" is priceless), but the one about a morbid game his father taught him. It starts around the 27-minute mark below:
SENDAK: I do remember I was a very close companion to death. And I remember a game my father played with me, which you would not exactly call a death game, but did move in that direction, which was that if I lay in bed, which I spent a lot of time doing, and I remember in one particular place we lived in Brooklyn—we moved quite frequently because of financial problems—just opposite the foot of my bed was a window looking out on the backyard, facing just a very boring brick wall. And he said, if you looked and didn't blink and you saw an angel, you'd be a very, very lucky child. And so I did that frequently, and of course, I would always blink, because it hurt not to blink, and then I didn't see it and he'd say, "Well, you blinked, didn't you?" And I'd say, "Yes."

But I remember once I didn't blink, and I saw it—or I imagined I saw it, but the memory of it is so vivid, I can even describe it to you.

GROSS: Would you?

SENDAK: Well, I was lying in the bed, obviously, staring out the window, my eyelids aching, my eyes aching, staring, staring, staring, and something very large, almost like a dirigible, but it wasn't a dirigible, because it was right past my window—a slow-moving angel—she, he, whatever, moved very gracefully and slowly, coming from left going across to right. Not turning to observe me at all. I don't have a memory of the face, but I have a memory of the hair, the body, and the wings. It took my breath away. It just moved so slowly that I could examine it quite minutely. And then I shrieked and hollered, and my father came in and I said, "I saw it!" And he said I was a very lucky kid.

You will have noticed angels in We Are All in the Dumps. I love angels—"obsessed," that's hyperbole, I'm not obsessed with angels, but I do adore angels. I've never drawn them in a book, and they do appear in the new book primarily because so many people have died recently that I have populated my book with their spirits floating around. And they're all reading The New York Times.
Reading that book to Oliver tonight, and relishing anew those Times-reading angels, seems a fitting way as any to honor the man's memory.

1 comment:

MIke said...

I was so busy this week and only caught the story of the angel vision while racing about in the car. So today I went hunting for the story assuming it was NPR. His voiced memory was haunting.