Magazine article The New Yorker

Spry for Frying

Magazine article The New Yorker

Spry for Frying

Article excerpt

In memories of journeys past, some portions remain stubbornly unavailable to recollection. I can call up no mental picture of my mother and me boarding the plane in Santo Domingo--in those days it was called Ciudad Trujillo--nor do I remember arriving in New York. (I've always intended to Google the airport at which we must have landed. This was May 1, 1951.) And then did we take the bus, the subway, a taxi? Did Paul, my uncle, come to pick us up?

Other pictures come to mind vividly intact. The old Dominican grandmother who sat across the aisle calling on Jesus and her mama whenever the plane dropped, always so unexpectedly, down another air pocket. Every time we straightened out again, she beamed her neighborly, apologetic, gap-toothed smile at my mother and me as we unclenched our voiceless, white-knuckled grip from the edge of our seats. And the Biblical moment, at dawn, when the clouds rent to reveal beneath us the waters of the ocean, choppy, the color of iron, auguring--what? Something terribly, beautifully significant, surely?

"Spry for Frying, Spry for Baking" blinked on and off from the New Jersey shore. While my mother, on that first evening in New York, stayed in the apartment with my grandmother, Paul walked me the one block to Riverside Drive. The advertisement laid shivering paths of light across the black water of the Hudson River and turned the American sky purple. "This would be prettier than the Thames Embankment if it weren't all so commercial," I pronounced. At twenty-three, I had many opinions, and that America was commercial was one I had imbibed in England. It was to England that I had longed, during the drag of the years in the Dominican Republic, to return.

I have always meant to ask our Mexican painter how long it took his family to immigrate to the United States legally. I was ten in 1938, when Hitler annexed Austria, and my father and I queued around the block and up the stairs of the American consulate to get our names on the American quota.

Hitler's Vienna was no place to wait. I was put on a Children's Transport to England; the family followed, as they could--Paul, a medical student, as a farm laborer, my parents on a "married couple" visa as cook and butler. I have a picture of my father, the Jewish Viennese bank accountant, a six footer and already ill, never able to remember to serve from the left and remove the dishes from the right. After war was declared, England interned male German-speaking "enemy aliens" on the Isle of Man. …

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