Thursday, June 30, 2016

ANCESTORS AND ELEVATORS: Reflections on Class, Identity, and Public Spaces By Elena Harap

Elena Harap

ANCESTORS AND ELEVATORS: Reflections on Class, Identity, and Public Spaces

By Elena Harap

            Hospital  corridors: long, shiny, and impersonal. I passed through them each afternoon during my husbands week of recovery  from surgery for a knee replacement.  The operation succeeded and he soon came home to our Boston apartment, walked freely, climbed stairs without pain, took hikes in the Arboretum. As I write I am not even sure I remember which knee is the one with the scar.
            Nonetheless, I experience a certain melancholy when I recall the hospitals faceless corridors and quietly metallic elevators, empty of traffic at the end of the work day. The surroundings were politely intimidating, lacking in texture, although I respected the labor evidenced by meticulously clean bathrooms, freshly mopped floors. Billboard-like posters along the walls remind me how caring and humane (smiling patients were quoted) was this place. Plaques and  signs named benefactors, who became my companions on trips to and fro. 
            Most prominent were Florence and Mortimer Gryzmysh: I was fascinated by the consonants. Following sign after repetitive sign on the way to their building, resisting my sense of outsider-ness, I invented a story of penniless immigrants who built a fortune, donating millions to raise this tower. I became suspicious of my imagined entrepreneurs. Was theirs ill-gotten wealth? Finally I consulted the Internet, where I found the report of a gift from this family, some fifty years ago, of half a million toward the development of the hospital complex. I felt vaguely disappointed. $500,000––a formidable sum,  but the donors didnt appear to be multimillionaires. Besides, they were native Bostonians, and I had incorrectly copied the name, which should have read Gryzmish. So much for my story; still, it had brought a human face to the imposing names on the wall.
            I took note of other honored families: Leon V. and Marilyn L. Rosenberg; John and Rosalie Frank. Maybe their descendants would find a welcome in the familiar names. The title over the entrance to the Clinical Cancer Center would evoke someones genial, joke-telling grandfather or outspoken, activist grandmother. Even elevator cars bore plaques above the doors. On the way to some upper floor the visiting relative  might recognize the name of an austere uncle, a beautiful and stylish great-aunt, and feel a sense of belonging.
            And sowhy not?I began to insert my own familys names. How about the Moses and Yetta Harap Cancer Center, for the grandparents whom I knew only from a turn-of-the-twentieth-century family photo, whose legacy of children included my father and some of my favorite uncles and aunts? Yetta had died of Hodgkins Disease, an immigrant woman still raising her family of nine children.  Her husband, a New York factory worker, clung to an Orthodox isolation, but his kids, secular Americans, roamed into worlds of business, scholarship, farmingand the next generations explored medicine, fashion, politics. Maybe if Yetta had lived into her seventies I could have known her; maybe at this moment someone elses grandmother was being healed in Yettas Cancer Center. She too might contribute to the cultural galaxy of an urban hospital.  
            For my mothers side, I would endow the Norah and William Chater  Interfaith Chapel. English and Episcopalian, these grandparents numbered priests among their descendants. The visitor could sit quietly in their space. I would mourn there for William himself, a journalist whose death by drowning, a possible suicide, left his wife to raise four children, teaching piano and taking in boarders at their row house in Brooklyn. Norah would bring to the chapel the music she loved.
            As for the elevators, I transformed plaques over the doors and rode up to my husbands ward in the company of Eugene and Edith Frankel, Connecticut cousins who used to visit and tell stories from family history. Coming down, I might dedicate the compartment to my own parents, Joan Chater and Henry Harap. This strategy amused but also sustained me, a  comforting way of entering and owning the hospital culture. You, the reader, might try it next time you walk through a high-ceilinged hospital entrance hall feeling adrift and anonymous. But this is hardly the kind of suggestion one would find posted  at the door. 
            Suppose healing is connected with identity; suppose that as a house of healing, the hospital must somehow represent all of us––donors, financiers, architects, builders, laborers; medical, administrative, and maintenance workers;  students and researchers; patients, their parents, grandparents, children, siblings, extended families and friends––assuring each an equal stake in this institution. An inspired painting or tapestry in the lobby might affirm the worlds within worlds of all who come and go. Each ones story would occupy space, in the current moment and in the mirror of time. It seems unlikely. 
            Instead, for short-term consumers like my husband and myself, revolving through massive doors into the labyrinth of a large hospital, I envision a simple technology. We could dedicate our own elevators, at least for the duration of our ride. Elevator cars would be equipped with a keyboard on which we could enter the name of an ancestor, a living relative, or a friend. The name would then appear over the door as if on a plaque.  No neon, nothing glitzy, just clear black letters on a neutral backgroundTHE Reverend Walter Chater: my minister uncle who sought to help post-World War II refugees;  Lynda Patton, a sister by mutual adoption, a questioner, dispeller of prejudice right up to her death in her early sixties. You, reader, will add your chosen names. If were in the elevator at the same time, our electronic gadget will accommodate numerous plaques around the wall of the compartment, watching over us, lifting our spirits. Having seen us safely to our floors, the names erase; the  space is open for the next passengers honoree.
            Im almost ready to believe my invention will work when I start to worry about its misuse. TV characters, political candidates, or villains of history might be made appear on the walls. How to protect the concept of a perpetual wall of respect: an honor roll that constantly recreates itself? The technology of inclusion might provide wall screens like those in airports, where a flurry of confetti-like fragments creates a personal silhouette as we walk by, then resolves again into a blur, ready for the next imprint.  Or another approach: ancestors names would light up under visitors feet, sent from myriad hospital rooms to adorn the floor of the main lobby. 
       One way or another, were all stuck with the risky business of birth, death, and everything in between; we come to a hospital in trouble, needing help. As I walked the corridors and played with fantasies of naming, I was attempting to tap into a source of resilience.  I wanted to bring my fullest reserve of humor and wellness to my husbands room on the orthopedic floor. Borrowing the impulse of those who named the buildings and other structures, I elevated those closest to me, giving them a public presence and invoking their benevolence.
            Now, living in the small state of Vermont, I enter the carpeted halls of the three-story building that houses my local hospital, not as a stranger. Im acquainted with the artist whose painting hangs in the lobby; I recognize the retired surgeon who sits reading a newspaper in the coffee shop; I am at ease within the architectural scale. I know this place, and it knows me. This is the healthy reciprocity that should be available to everybody, not only in hospitals but in public spaces generally. If we find it we are nurtured; if not, we have to create it for ourselves. Remember were around, say the ancestors, in case you need us in the elevators.


Elena Harap, descended from English Protestant and East European Jewish immigrants, grew up in Nashville, TN. She earned her B.A., Wellesley College; M. A., Boston University; MFA in Writing, VT College of Fine Arts. She has worked privately with Kathleen Spivack. At the Joiner Institute, UMass/Boston, Elena studied with Martín Espada, Martha Collins, Fred Marchant, Charles Dumas, Danielle Legos Georges, and Lady Borton.

 er poems and essays have appeared in Sojourner, Bayou, Jewish Currents, Summer Home Review, and on NPR. She tours nationally in "Meet Eleanor Roosevelt," a one-woman show written and produced with Josephine Lane

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