• Shannon Stocker

Lesléa Newman: InHERview

It seems to me that if one is to be a poet, she cannot do so without honesty. The ability to reflect on the world around her is imperative, of course, but also the ability to look within.

After explaining to Lesléa Newman that I started inHERview because I believe that everyone has a story, it becomes clear that she is a poet’s poet. 

 “I completely agree,” she says. “Are you familiar with Muriel Rukeyser? She once said, ‘The world is not made of atoms, the world is made of stories.’”

It is fitting that Lesléa quickly ties together a concept that is so personal for me with a quote from a woman who is so much like her. Muriel Rukeyser wrote about and fought for equality. Social justice. Judaism. Feminism. So many of the topics that Lesléa has gracefully and powerfully tackled in her own writing. 

“Yes, I’m familiar with her,” I say. “But I didn’t know that quote. I love it.”

Lesléa’s attention is drawn away for a moment. “Hello, Neshama,” she says, before turning her focus back to me. “My cat is keeping me company in the study today. She’s my dignified duchess.”

“How old is she?” I ask. 

“Thirteen.”

“Her name is beautiful,” I say.

“Thank you! It’s Hebrew for ‘soul.’”

I quickly feel a kinship with this fellow poet and cat-lover. “So tell me a little about you, Lesléa,” I say. “Am I pronouncing your name correctly?”

“No.” I hear the smile in her voice; she’s not offended by my mispronunciation. Rather, she sounds appreciative for my question. “It’s pronounced Lez-LEE-uh.”

“Thank you! So, Lesléa,” I say, careful with my pronunciation, “tell me more about you. Where are you from?”

“Well, I was born in Brooklyn and grew up both there and on Long Island. In Brooklyn, we lived right across the street from my grandmother, who was very important to me. I eventually went to the University of Vermont and then to Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I had the great fortune to be Allen Ginsberg’s assistant; he was my mentor. I’ve always been enamored of the Beat poets. After I read ON THE ROAD and Allen’s book, HOWL, I thought, ‘This is who I need to study with.’ I went to Boulder, Colorado, and became his student—and I like to think, his friend. We stayed in touch until he died. After living in New York’s east village for a year, I wanted a quieter place to live and write and wound up in Northampton, Massachusetts by happenstance, and I’ve been here ever since.”

“Are you married? Do you have children?” I often think it should feel strange to ask women I’ve never met such personal questions, but it never does. 

“I live with my spouse of thirty-one years and Neshama. I’m not a mother, but I’m an aunt to a wonderful nephew who just graduated from high school.”

After we chat for a bit about her nephew and our mutual love of cats (a few of Lesléa’s books feature felines, including KETZEL, THE CAT WHO COMPOSED, THE BEST CAT IN THE WORLD, CATS, CATS, CATS! and the forthcoming WELCOMING ELIJAH: A PASSOVER TALE WITH A TAIL) I ask her to share with me the first pivotal moment that makes Lesléa… Lesléa.

“I think,” Lesléa muses, “that my first pivotal moment would be when I moved from New York City to Long Island.”

“Why did you move?”

“My mother said it was because she wanted her children to know what a tree looked like.” Lesléa laughs.

“How old were you then?” I ask.

“I was eight,” she says. “At that age, you have no power. We moved from this urban environment to a suburban one, and it was traumatizing because I loved my maternal grandmother—Grandma Ruthie—more than anybody. The transition was jarring. In Brooklyn, my grandmother lived across the street, so I’d been able to see her anytime. All that changed once we moved to Long Island. My mother didn’t drive and my father worked, so occasionally my grandmother would visit us for a month at a time. It was wonderful to see her, but it was different from being able to visit daily. I have two brothers, so she stayed in my room and really was my first roommate. She embodied the old world to me. She’d been raised in Europe and always said about where she grew up that sometimes it was Russia, sometimes Poland, depending on where the Czar put the border that day. Her father died when she was young, so she and her mother immigrated to America when she was ten. She always said she felt like she never spoke ‘good English,’ even though she spoke it for years.” Lesléa pauses, and I let the silence stay. She continues.

“She was filled with stories. She worked in a lace factory as a child. Since she was too young to be working legally, the other women really mothered her and hid her when the inspectors came. When she married and stopped working, all the other women in the factory went without lunch one day a week. They pooled their money and bought her a beautiful cut-glass crystal bowl, which I have. On the day that she and my grandfather married, she brought all her presents home and changed out of her wedding dress before they went to a restaurant. But when they returned, all the presents had been stolen…except that bowl, which she had hidden in a closet. After that, she was always hysterical at weddings. She believed no one should put wedding announcements in the papers because it made it clear that no one would be home.”

“That’s so horrible, but what a gift that you have that bowl!” Despite having seen cruelty first-hand innumerable times, I still feel shocked by such coldness.

“Yes, it means a lot to me.” Lesléa’s voice is quiet.

“How long did you stay on Long Island?”

“Until I was sixteen. I graduated early from high school.”

“And your grandmother was in Brooklyn that whole time?”

“Yes,” Lesléa says. “She lived there until she died at the age of ninety-nine, almost thirty years ago, on November 13, 1989.”

“That must have been very painful for you,” I say.

Lesléa sighs. “When she was ninety-eight, she had mini strokes and couldn’t live alone anymore. My parents moved her into a nursing home, which destroyed her both emotionally and spiritually. I became her main caregiver and would go once a month to stay in her apartment for a week so I could spend the days with her at the nursing home. It was fitting that when she died, my parents were halfway around the world on vacation so I’m the one who got the call. Even at ninety-nine, she was still able to care for herself. The morning she died, she dressed, bathed, went downstairs and had breakfast, and then put her head on the table and died.” Lesléa pauses.

“Did she have a heart attack?”

“Yes, they think so. One of the residents said she was full of the devil and died like an angel. I always loved that. My grandmother was very spirited.” Lesléa’s voice gushes with nostalgia.

“How so?”

“I’ll give you an example. When I visited her once at the nursing home, they were giving out ice cream. They got to my grandmother and gave her a piece of sponge cake. When she asked why, they said it was because of her dietary sheet. She argued that she shouldn’t have any restrictions because she didn’t have diabetes and had never had any restrictions before, so she shouldn’t have any now. She told them she wanted two ice creams, one for her and one for me, and they finally gave in. We took them upstairs to her room, where she threw them both away. I asked why and she said, ‘I don’t like ice cream, but they’re not the boss of me. They can’t tell me what to eat. They should be asking me what I’ve been eating all this time that I should live to be ninety-nine.’” 

Lesléa and I both laugh. I can’t help but feel she should’ve been born a redhead.

“How can you argue with something like that?” Lesléa says. “She was in her nineties! Let me tell you another story.” 

I smile as Lesléa launches into another tale, oozing fondness and love for this wonderful, special spirit who helped shape her.

“Years before my grandmother moved into a nursing home, she went to the bank. This was back at the time when they would give out a free set of knives or something like that when people opened an account. Well, at this time, they were giving out clocks, so my grandmother said she wanted a clock. The banker said, ‘No, I’m sorry, that’s only for people who open new accounts.’ My grandmother said that didn’t make sense because she’d been a loyal customer for forty years, but the banker told her that was the way it worked. So she said to the bank teller, ‘Darling, I could take all my money out of the bank, walk around the block, bring it back and open a new account, and that would be more work for you and more work for me. Or, you could just give me the clock.” Lesléa chuckles. “She got the clock.”

“She was your mother’s mother?” I ask.

“Yes,” Lesléa says.

“And your newest children’s book, GITTEL’S JOURNEY: AN ELLIS ISLAND STORY is about her to some extent, correct?”

“Well, Gittel was the mother of my Aunt Phyllis, but she’s not my biological aunt. She’s my Godmother. She and my mother became best friends when they were ten years old. So Gittel is mostly based on my Aunt Phyllis’ mother, but there are some traits from my maternal grandmother’s life in there, too. She’s the one who brought the candlesticks to America with her.”

“So what is your second pivotal moment?” I ask.

“There might be moments in between, but definitely coming out as a lesbian was pivotal for me.”

“How long ago was that?”

“I was twenty-seven, so that was…thirty-six years ago.” I think of how different the world was back then and can’t help but feel respect for Lesléa’s bravery.

“Was that scary for you?”

“I don’t know if it was scary, so much,” Lesléa says. “It was liberating. I’d had a few boyfriends, but I was never happy. I kept thinking it was the wrong guy…I never really thought that it was the wrong gender. When I moved to Northampton, which is a very LGBTQ-friendly town, I was at a bus stop and a woman told me a guy was bothering her, so she asked if we could pretend we were together. I was happy to help a sister out. We got to talking and she was Jewish, from New York, and a poet. She invited me to a party and asked me to bring poetry to read aloud. The women there had such a positive, enthusiastic response to my poetry. I felt like I’d found my people. They understood me better than anyone ever had. I decided it was who I wanted to be.”

“How did that change your world?” I ask.

“In every way.” Lesléa’s voice trails off.

“Did it change your views politically? Your relationship with your parents? How you viewed the world?”

“Yes, yes, and yes—it changed all of that. This was a long time ago, before there were the initials LGBTQ. It was just ‘gay liberation.’ I’m not sure there were even marches back then. I never thought I’d get married and have children and have a conventional life, but I didn’t know there were any other choices.”

“How did you meet your wife?” I ask. Lesléa laughs.

“She was, and is, very well-known in our community. When I met her, she was a deejay. DJ Mary V—she played at all the women’s dances. So I knew who she was. I started teaching women’s writing workshops in my home. She took a class and asked me out, but I said no because I didn’t date my students. The class ended and I thought she might ask me out then, but she signed up for another ten-week workshop. When we finally got to summer and I wasn’t teaching, she asked me out and I said yes. After only a very few dates, and this still surprises me, she proposed. It’s amazing because in 1988, lesbians weren’t getting married. She didn’t plan on proposing, but she said it felt right, and I said yes! We’re wildly different in many ways. She’s from Puerto Rico and is a former nun, and I’m a Jew and a New Yorker. She’s a wood carver and photographer, and I can’t do anything with my hands. She’s a great dancer, too.” Her love for Mary is palpable.

“And you?” I ask. “Are you also a good dancer?”

“I like to think so,” Lesléa’s voice smiles. “Mary can make anyone look good on the dance floor.”

“How did your parents respond when you came out?”

“They were very upset,” she says, the smile fading away from her tone. “My dad and I never talked about it but my mother was upset. She wrote me this horrendous letter and said, ‘I’m sure you’re under the influence of somebody else, you were always a follower, and if they walked up Fifth Avenue naked with frying pans on their heads you’d be first in line.’ That comment makes me laugh now. How ridiculous is that? But they came around because they met Mary shortly after my grandmother moved into the nursing home, and my whole family was in an uproar. Mary is a gentle soul. When she went out to eat with my family for the first time, she ordered what my mother ordered, even though Mary didn’t like it, and she complimented the dish.”

“It sounds like a smart way to connect with her,” I muse.

“Yes—my parents grew to love Mary. It was undeniable how happy—how much happier—I was with her, than when I was trying to live a heterosexual lifestyle. I was finally happily living as my authentic self.”

“How long did it take for them to come around?”

“Well, it was funny. They kept saying, ‘Don’t tell your grandmother, this is going to kill her.’ But my grandmother, who was ninety-nine at the time, kept saying, ‘I don’t want to die and leave you alone. A stone is alone, not a person.’ Why aren’t you with anyone?’ I finally thought, ‘I have to tell my grandmother so she can die in peace.’ She was very upset at first—she spit over her shoulder three times—but she had known and liked Mary. So she called me the next morning from the nursing home and said she’d been up all night thinking about it. She said, ‘I don’t want to die being mad on you. If you’re happy, I’m happy. You could marry a dog and I’d still love you.’”

“So it didn’t even take her a day to be at peace.”

“Exactly,” Lesléa says. “She put everybody else to shame. My parents were quasi-accepting for a while. My dad would introduce Mary as my roommate.” I can almost hear her eyes roll through the phone. “But they couldn’t help but fall in love with her because she’s such a wonderful person.”

“So those are two incredibly defining moments,” I say. “What is your third?”

Lesléa sighs.

“The third actually includes two moments: the death of my parents. My mom died in 2012 and my dad died in 2017. My mom and I had a pretty strained relationship for most of my life. Around 2002, she collapsed on a cruise ship and was put on life support in California. We were so estranged I didn’t know if I would even go see her. My therapist, whom I’ve known for thirty-five years, said, ‘I’ve never told you what to do, but I’m telling you what to do: you need to go see your mother.’ So I went. My mother had a breathing tube, a feeding tube, hands tied to the bed, and she was heavily sedated. The nurse who invited me in to talk to her said she could hear me but wouldn’t respond. So I went in and said, ‘Mom, I’m here.’ Her eyes flew open.”

“That gives me chills,” I say. “What did you say to her?”

“I’d spoken to my therapist about what I’d wanted to say—I’d fantasized about telling her how I felt about all the horrible things she’d said to me over the years. But I didn’t say any of that. I just said, ‘I want you to know I’m happy. I have a wonderful spouse, great friends, a good career, and a full life. You were a wonderful mother. I’m really glad you were my mom.’ I could tell that it took her a lot of energy, but she nodded her head and then went back under. The next day the nurse told me my mother took a turn for the better; they were taking her off the breathing tube. From that moment until she died, ten years later, we had a really great relationship. My mother credited me with saving her life. I wrote a poetry book called I CARRY MY MOTHER that tells this story; there are about sixty-eight poems in it.”

“So how did she die?” I ask.

“My mom had COPD and cancer from being a lifelong smoker. She refused cancer treatment because, as she explained, ‘It’s not a tragedy.’ She was old and had had a full life and knew many people for whom cancer treatment was worse than the disease. She was sick for about two years, and I cared for her during that time. I didn’t want to have any regrets. After she died, my dad was bereft. They’d been together since they were teenagers, with a clear division of labor. He worked and made money and she ran the home, so he didn’t know how to do anything. I spent a lot of time in New York putting things in place so he was taken care of. He retired at eighty-nine from practicing law, because he’d been having mini strokes. His brain wasn’t as sharp. Eventually I had to work with the neurologist to have him declared medically unfit to drive, and losing his independence like that just about killed him. He and I were very close and we grew even closer after my mother died. During the last year of his life he moved to be near my brother. I think he probably died of a broken heart because he’d lost so much…his wife, his law practice, his independence, his identity as a New Yorker, his ability to play tennis, and most of his hearing.”

“Did you ever regret not telling your mom how much she’d hurt you?” As someone who’s estranged from an abusive father, the question is a personal one for me.

“Never. I cannot say enough about the power of forgiveness. I feel like we forgave each other in that moment. It was all gone. I’ve dabbled in Buddhism, so I tried to forget about the past and the future, and just wanted to be in the moment. When I walked into her hospital room, all I saw was an ill, old woman who needed compassion.”

I remember my own mother’s apology two months before her death; it gave me tremendous peace. I also think of the abusive father I haven’t spoken to in a year.

“That’s a powerful gift that you gave one another.” The words catch in my throat.

“It was. I didn’t suffer when she was gone.”

After we say our goodbyes, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe for Lesléa’s ability to let it all go. Forgiveness is definitely a powerful force, and I’ve long believed that I, too, have forgiven my parents for the wounds they inflicted on me as a child. In many ways, that forgiveness has allowed me to move on with my life. To heal. To be a better mother.

But forgiving and forgetting are different things, and it makes me wonder. If we forget what someone has done and we allow them back into our circle, aren’t we opening ourselves up for more abuse? What was it that changed Lesléa’s mother enough to stop inflicting fresh wounds? Was she softened by her near-death experience? Or was it simply a peace within Lesléa that shielded her from further pain? I’m not sure. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful for the closure Lesléa and her parents shared. It was a gift.

I wonder if that gift will ever be mine.

The world is not made up of atoms; the world is made up of stories. Circular, honest, unpredictable, unavoidable stories.

I wonder how mine will unfold.

I CARRY MY MOTHER

 I carry my mother wherever I go
 Her belly, her thighs, her plentiful hips
 Her milky white skin she called this side of snow
 The crease of her brow and the plump of her lips 

 Her belly, her thighs, her plentiful hips
 The curl of her hair and her sharp widow’s peak
 The crease of her brow and the plump of her lips
 The hook of her nose and the curve of her cheek
 
 The curl of her hair and her sharp widow’s peak
 The dark beauty mark to the left of her chin
 The hook of her nose and the curve of her cheek
 Her delicate wrist so impossibly thin
 
 The dark beauty mark to the left of her chin
 Her deep set brown eyes that at times appeared black
 Her delicate wrist so impossibly thin
 I stare at the mirror, my mother stares back
 
 Her deep set brown eyes that at times appeared black
 Her milky white skin she called this side of snow
 I stare at the mirror, my mother stares back
 I carry my mother wherever I go
 
 -- Lesléa Newman   

“I Carry My Mother” copyright © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA). Used by permission of the author.

Look for Lesléa online at:

Website: https://lesleanewman.com/

Twitter: @lesleanewman

Facebook: Lesléa Newman

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