Karen Petersen – A Special Realm

A Special Realm

The train ride to the little hamlet on the south shore of Long Island lasted an hour, and I saw that the town hadn’t changed much since I was a child except for the “For Sale” signs everywhere.  I had lived on one of its main streets, a broad avenue filled with overarching maple trees and Victorian houses–a stone’s throw from the local grocery store and the high school.

In those days my father commuted by train three hours daily in order to be able to live “in the country.”  He worked at various editing jobs in New York City, none of which he held for long, much to my mother’s great irritation. His was a highly creative, enthusiastic mind and although he should have been playing his violin or working on one of his inventions, he instead got up every morning at six and came home every night at seven after a hard day dutifully trying to edit some dull textbook.

I used to run to meet him as he came through the door, the smell of pipe tobacco and train smoke hiding in his tweed jacket. A tall, handsome man with thick, black hair and a great sense of humor, he’d sweep me up into the air in a big hug, and although I didn’t understand it at the time, he was like a god to me.

Our little house stood in the middle of the block in a tiny yard, a small red brick cottage with a peeling black roof and faded green shutters tucked away in the woods behind a larger house.  Soon it was going to be torn down to make way for some developer’s scheme and I was lucky that a local realtor, an old friend from high school, had called to let me know I could visit one last time.

As I opened the old door, light streaked across white walls cracked with age.  To the left of the living room was a small kitchen, and next to the sink were the hanging spice racks that my father had built over thirty years ago for my mother.  I was surprised they were there; a precise reference to a physical past that still existed.

The living room, with its bay windows, was bright and sunny, and the curved stairway in the corner was unchanged.  The windows were a lovely feature of the house and the light that spread through their slender frames gave the room its warm emotional tone.  It was through those windows that the neighborhood kids had peered the first day my baby brother had been brought home from the hospital.  I remember my father proudly holding him up for all to see, wrinkled and red and bald.

Behind the living room was a small room under the stairs.  For me, death lived there.  That was the room where my father had quickly wasted away and died of cancer one damp, rainy day in March, two months after his 43rd birthday. I had no use for that small room, now or ever, and hate March to this day.

As I went upstairs the floorboards creaked just like they always had.  The bedrooms were tiny, and it was hot and stuffy.  Summer nights the air had often been so still I’d lie in bed sweating, and the crickets and other insects would be buzzing and creaking, sawing away out in the woods.  But they’d suddenly quiet down when my father began to play his violin and I’d lay there, listening to the sound drift up as he’d play for friends. He’d play for hours–Brahms, Debussy, Bach–and the most sensual memory I have is of lying there in the warm night as that beautiful music floated around me.

Walking back down through the living room, I wondered if the other tenants had ever discovered the secret hiding place I’d had in the front closet.  I felt behind its molding to the left of the door.  There had once been a loose panel inside, which you could take out, revealing a space between the wood and the insulation. I felt for the panel and it wobbled, sliding quickly into my hand.  I carefully groped around in the dark and felt an almost square, heavy object–a book.

Taking it out into the sunlight I saw that it was a book of fairy tales, a present from my father when I was ten.  I had loved this book and thought it lost.  As I opened it, admiring the turn of the century illustrations, I found a yellowed memoir in my father’s handwriting.  Just after his death thirty years ago I had found it among his papers and hidden it from shame.

It was called

My Childhood, 1930-1940

“It seems, now that I look back, as though nearly everything I had was second-hand: a second-hand home, second-hand parents, and second-hand love and affection. The one thing that was first-hand was the knowledge of want and need and the inner hunger for acceptance by a family which itself was hungry for acceptance.  It hurt me to be poor, and to have the knowledge of poverty and the pretense of social worth to cover up this poverty. 

My mother, step-father Paul, and myself seemed like outcasts compared to the rest of the ‘relatives’ group. My relatives made me feel that something was wrong with my mother because we were poor.  They had all married well, except my mother, who had married first a blue-collar laborer who had abandoned us, and then a sculptor. 

I hardly ever had new clothes–always somebody else’s second-hand, worn out coats and pants.  I wore shorts: short pants, until I was twelve, and when I did get my first long pants Paul complained so much about the cost that he ruined the occasion for me. 

At the Rectory School, I went without a haircut for four months because no one would send me money, and when it finally did arrive it was too late.  The boys had been calling me sissy, so in desperation I tried to cut it myself and ended up looking even more ridiculous.  How I hated it  there!  I had been sent to this school to be gotten ‘out of the way’ but I had no friends since my  poverty was so embarrassing to the others. 

But there was one thing that gave me great pleasure.  I loved to play the violin.  When my mother insisted on auditioning me at The Julliard School of Music in New York City to impress her sneering family, I cried all day.  My self esteem was so low by this time that I felt my worthlessness and lack of talent, as well as my excessive demands for attention would surely be discovered, and I would fail.     

The sad part of it was, I did fail.  This one incident stands out more than any other, and hurt the most.”

My poor, dear father.  I saw now how this sensitive little boy with no self esteem became a frustrated man who never fully realized his talents.  He’d gotten no emotional or financial support from anyone over the years, as a child or as an adult. Trying to have a creative life was difficult even for the luckiest, and a man like him in the end just fell through the cracks, stuck off in some dusty corner of a publishing house to edit books no one else wanted.  But he’d given so much to me–God, how I missed him.  Father, I love you, I sobbed in the empty room.  Please come back.

Outside, the afternoon shadows had lengthened and become what had always been for me a magical time, best summed up in that wonderful word that even by its sound evokes the sense of strange presence all things have at this hour: dusk. It was then that my friends and I had often played hide and seek.  Mysteriously, one of our companions had sometimes been a rather malignant ghost from the woods who would flit about the trees while we were playing one game or another–always scaring the pants off whoever was unlucky enough to see it.

But there was no ghost in the woods now, only the fading sun and an occasional squirrel crackling the underbrush.  Perhaps it left when all of us moved away–but come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing it after I entered adolescence–so maybe it was still there somewhere in the shadows, hiding and waiting for other children to arrive.

I went back to the city and found myself thinking more and more about my father as the months went by.  I wished so desperately for a grave marker I could visit and talk to, something tangible, especially since my mother, brother and I had never properly mourned him or formally honored his memory.  He had been cremated by the Navy at sea, as he had wished, and thanks to my mother,his painful memory had been put away as quickly as possible.  She’d kept some photos but gotten rid of all his clothes and sold our piano.  I’d carefully hidden the violin, which I now had in my own apartment.  I liked to keep it as a sort of talisman.

One rainy night I noticed that public television was doing a special series called “The Golden Age of Television.”  It was selections from the 1950’s U.S. Steel Hour.  I had ignored the series but the show that night was supposed to be particularly good so I stuck in one of my videotapes that had an empty hour left on it.  I’d often use up videotapes this way, sometimes watching what I’d taped later, other times taping right over it again without even having seen the first program. Tonight though, just by coincidence, I sat down to watch while it was being taped.

The show was called “A Wind From The South,” a teleplay by James Costigan, directed by Daniel Petrie, and whose opening song “A Soft Day” was sung by none other than Merv Griffin. It starred Donald Woods and Julie Harris, who had been nominated for an Emmy for her role in it.   Perhaps it was the nostalgia of seeing something from that early black and white era of television that made me watch it that night, or maybe the heavens had been aligned  in a special way.

The show was about a brother and sister who happily run a country inn in Ireland until a stranger (Donald Woods) shows up and the sister falls in love and the brother feels abandoned.  The plot gets rolling when Donald takes Julie out to a local dance for the first time, leaving the brother resentfully behind to run the hotel.

But as I’m watching a kind of miracle happens.  A great gift really.

I’m watching the television, watching Donald squire Julie into the dance hall, when the camera pans around the room and stops on two good-looking men in dark suits.  They are really very handsome and I suddenly have this queer feeling all over me as the camera follows them dancing with their dates.  A sort of tingling envelops me and then it’s as if time has suddenly stopped and every neuron in my brain is firing simultaneously.

One of the men is a young Roy Scheider and the other is my father.

My father.

There he is in black and white, moving about from within this glowing screen and all of a sudden I’m crying, sobbing, bawling from astonishment, love, grief, happiness, shock.  I’ve seen my father again and I’ve got it on tape, I’ve got it on tape!  There he is, in a dance scene that only lasts less than a minute, but there he is.  Thank you, God, for this strange electronic miracle, this beautiful resurrection from the grave.

For it was a miracle.  When I told my mother what had happened she said that, yes she remembered he had had one brief part in a tv show in the ’50’s.  This was the only time my father had ever been filmed and it was something more than coincidence–the odds of me watching, much less taping that show had literally been a million to one.

My father may have felt a failure professionally but he made it onto television, albeit in a small way, and for a brief moment was in the living room of anyone who was watching that night, all across the nation.  For a moment a door in the universe had opened and he came back again, handsome and vibrant, back into his family’s life for a few brief seconds. That was something incredible I think.  And although my father may have felt he failed as a violinist, to me he always played the most beautiful music, and told the funniest jokes.


Author’s Statement on Beauty

Something that is beautiful gives a great sense of pleasure in gazing upon, hearing or reading it. It is thought that a person’s reaction in considering something to be beautiful is based upon evolutionary notions of survival, but I think that, while this certainly may be an element of perceiving beauty, recognizing and responding to beauty is more about its appeal to a higher, spiritual nature which is innate, and perhaps our saving grace–as we are mostly brutes.


Karen Petersen has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications. Most recently, her poems and short stories have been published in The Manzano Mountain Review in the USA, The Bosphorus Review in Istanbul, Antiphon in the UK, The Wild Word in Berlin, and A New Ulster in Northern Ireland. New work will be appearing in Idiom 23 in Australia. In 2015, she read “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” at the Yeats Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the KGB Bar in NYC. Her poems have been translated into Persian and Spanish. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Vassar College and an M.S. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.