Lisbeth Davidow‘s work has appeared in Mandala, Prime Mincer, Pilgrimage, and Alligator Juniper. Her essay, “Separation Anxiety,” was nominated to be included in Best of Creative Nonfiction, Volume 2. She also co-wrote Ryan and Angela, an original screenplay, for Universal Pictures and edited and assisted in writing Women in Family Business: What Keeps You Up at Night? She lives with her husband in Malibu, California.
I had the opportunity to interview Lisbeth about The Last Suitor, a tory which is part of All That Glitters, a nonfiction collection published by Sliver of Stone Magazine.
MJ: In The Last Suitor, you describe your mother with such beautiful details, showing a real talent for characterization. What are some other people who have impacted your writing?
LD: Many of my essays are about members of my family. I’m presently compiling a collection of my published essays (Separation Anxiety and Other Essays) which opens with “Rain or Shine,” about my relationship with my father, who died when he was 57 and I was 20. It closes with the title essay, which takes place four years after “The Last Suitor,” shortly before her death at 94 and deals in more depth with the complexity of her character and of our relationship. As imperfect as my father and mother were as people and as parents, I found them both irresistibly loveable.
MJ: How do you think your own daughter sees you?
LD: We are very close, and we get along very well, but I shudder to think how she would describe me if she were to see me through a writer’s eye. Thank God, she doesn’t, not yet, anyway. She’s 26, bright, creative, observant, insightful, aware and articulate, but when I dared to put your question to her, she answered: “I don’t know. I never thought about it. You’re my mommy.” If, however, you are asking me what my fantasy is of how she thinks of me, or what she might say to someone else who did not put her on the spot like I did, I imagine she would say that I’m funny, smart, a good mom, (except when I get too anxious or too nosy), that I dress too much like a shlump and talk too easily to strangers.
MJ: You compare your mother to an ancient Tai Chi warrior, “both graceful and fierce.” How did you get into Tai Chi and what purpose does it fill in your life?
LD: In addition to loving words, I’m a movement junkie. I was a modern dancer, choreographer and teacher for 15 years. I had to stop when I was close to 40 because I injured myself and soon after that gave birth to my daughter. It was terrible, like withdrawing cold turkey from a narcotic. Later, when I was well enough, I learned Tai Chi. The ongoing, smooth nature of its phrases let me feel like I was dancing in a safe way. I practiced it every day for seven years. When I wanted something more vigorous, I switched to yoga and did that for another seven years until I injured myself yet again. Now I take walks and swim at an easy pace and am grateful to do that. I also teach the Feldenkrais Method®, a subtle, gentle way of improving how one moves.
MJ: You listen to Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra while doing Tai Chi because “they know all there is to know about timing and grace”—two elements that are also important in writing. What are some of your favorite authors?
LD: I have always been drawn to authors who write lyrically about loss. In high school, I sobbed after reading How Green Was My Valley. (“…and the valley of them that are gone.”) And what can be more graceful, rhythmical or moving than the first few words of James Agee’s A Death in the Family: “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee…” ? I read that book in college shortly after my father died and wanted either to swallow the book whole or disappear into its words so thoroughly that I could bury my own grief inside them. And then there’s Toni Morrison’s short but powerful description of childhood friendship in her novel, Sula: “We was girls together.”
In my twenties I read a lot of American Jewish authors—Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, Bernard Malamud and Phillip Roth. I stopped reading Roth after “Portnoy’s Complaint” because I hated how he depicted women, especially Jewish women. But I went back to him a few years ago at the insistence of a smart, Jewish woman friend, and was enthralled by the energy of his sentences, his voice, and his ear for how American Jews of my parents’ generation expressed themselves.
I also like the boldness of Amy Bloom, who, when writing about love, sometimes takes her characters’ behavior way beyond what is acceptable without ever losing her or our compassion for them.
MJ: You describe going to the Gulf Hill Dairy with your father for ice cream, the hot evenings in July. What can you tell me about growing up in Massachusetts?
LD: Only many years after leaving for college, did I realize that New Bedford, Massachusetts, the last city before Cape Cod, was a great place to grow up. Unlike a suburb, it was a place unto itself, a town of about 100,000 people 60 miles southeast of Boston, noted for its history in the whaling, textile and fishing industries. Its streets are lined with maple trees and clapboard houses and it’s close to the water, with at least three beaches to sunbathe and swim in, and large parks, some with ponds that freeze sufficiently in the winter to ice skate on.
I went to its public schools with other children of immigrants, mainly Portuguese; but I lived in its small Jewish community, nestled in the West End among other extended Jewish families. We all belonged to the same temple and knew everything about everyone. Without anonymity as a possibility, my identity was forged by academic achievements and good behavior. As restrictive as that could be, all these many years later, after living in New York and Los Angeles and after dismantling and reconstructing my self-image several times, I still carry inside the nice Jewish girl from a small town who cares deeply about what others think of her, and wants not only to please but to be thought of as a mensch.