The hero Aeneas left his home, the city of Troy when it was in flames, carrying his old father on his back. How often have I thought of that image, feeling the weight of my own ancestors while sometimes wishing I could just leave them behind.
Much of history is traumatic. War, slaughter, famine, plague, and genocide are hardly new. Perhaps everyone on earth is carrying trauma, simply because we are inevitably descended from survivors, even if just survivors of an Ice Age.
When I cam to New Mexico in 1984 I was immediately struck by the respect people had for their communal pasts. They cared about language, names, religion and more in ways I had not been taught to.
In my Eastern European Jewish family, life began at Ellis Island. However, my mother’s parents were storytellers. They weren’t afraid to invoke the past but it was limited, like a lamp casting a single ray in a dark room. My father’s parents did not speak of the past, although their descendants have been able to construct a version, some based on speculation. An example of this black-out–my own father was an adult before he discovered that at least two of his grandparents had come to America, and were indeed buried in Brooklyn. He’d never heard anything about this.
Since these ancestors are still all riding on my back, they often dictate my actions. They fought for justice, loved babies, ate fresh fruit, and valued education. They were also anxious, critical, shaming, and terrified of many–many–things. Fear could make them bullies–dominating who they could.
I’m second generation. My granddaughter is fourth generation American on my, her mother’s, side, and goes back to the Irish potato famine on her father’s.
I can’t put my burden down, and now that I’m old myself I don’t think I really want to. Someone recently encouraged me to focus on the good in my ancestors. It isn’t difficult.
Every morning, first thing, when I turn on a tap I thank my grandmothers for fleeing the Ukraine and landing somewhere where I can easily and simply wash and take a drink of clean water.

The Abortion Poem by Miriam Sagan

The Poem

When I was in high school, I wrote a poem about my mother taking me for an abortion and published it in the high school literary magazine. My mom taught at my all-girls’ high school, and we both got a lot of flak. Of course, this had never happened. I was not pregnant in high school, and if I had been I’d have gotten an abortion by myself, not with my mother.
It was, predictably, a bad poem. I think the central image was of an overblown blue balloon. The most exciting line was “my mother takes me to the abortionist.”
At that time, abortion had just become legal in New York State. For a pregnant high school student the previous options had been to confess to your parents. Some might whisk you off for an abortion in Puerto Rico. Some might send you away to an invented aunt, where you’d give up the baby after a secret pregnancy. Some might force you to marry the guy. Or you could keep quiet and start drinking bleach and throw yourselves down the stairs. Or kill yourself.
We were an unsophisticated group, living at home, without money of our own. An illegal abortion would have been available to a slightly older group, but I never knew of anyone in my school who had one.
As regards the poem, I knew nothing of any of this first-hand, except of course I knew my mother. My mother could be very harsh towards me. She forced piano lessons on me, would never let me quit, and seemed content to listen to me cry as I sat on strike, glued to the piano seat—but not playing the piano—a half hour a day, the better part of a year, until she caved when I was sixteen.
However, my mother could also be transcendent. She shrugged off the gossip. “It’s a POEM,” she told me. “It isn’t literally true.” We shared a love of literature, its ability to create other worlds, other truths. In my poem my mother also provided a solution that allowed autonomy.
Then with publication she rose to the occasion, and to my most positive view of her.
My mother, and her mother Sadie, are the reasons I will always support a right to choose. They came out of an older world where mothers suffered, and often died, from endless enforced child-bearing and lack of contraception. One of Margaret Sanger’s early slogans was: “Mothers! Don’t leave your children orphaned!” By that she meant that contraceptives should be available, as opposed to dying in pregnancy or childbirth.
I should note here that my mother and grandmother came out of a Yiddishkeit culture. My grandmother was from a stetl in Eastern Europe, and was observant before she came to America. Judaism does not forbid abortion, and places the life of the mother first in all situations.
My mother would get an odd look on her face when discussing this: rage, and fear, but mostly rage. She’d seen things I hadn’t. And she didn’t want me to see them.
I feel the same about my daughter and grand-daughter. But now I too am afraid we are going to see those things.
Editor’s note. On Facebook and other venues I’ve been reading accounts of abortion before it was legal. If anyone wants to publish anything like this on Miriam’s Well it can be done anonymously or with author credit as you prefer. Drop me a note at
No anti-choice approaches or diatribes, please–this is not a venue for that.

Call Me Old

Recently I was talking to a family member and I referred to myself as old, and got the response “you are not old.” I knew this was polite in some way. But whatever for?

I’m a lot of things, and old is one of them. I have absolutely no negative connotations with old. I hate euphemisms–for death or anything else. Did I say I was washed up, useless, discardable? No, I said OLD. And that is what I meant. Almost 70 (the age at which my maternal grandmother died). On Medicare, Not young. More years behind me than ahead. Like I said–old.

The truth is, I’m pleasantly surprised to be old. When I was 21, swine flu almost killed me and took one lung, my mobility, and a lot more. I’m quite pleased to not be dead (in my case, the only other option to being old!).

It seems that the All-American fear of death and illness plays into a dislike of saying old. However, ignoring something really does not make it go away. I’m well aware that being old also accurately implies sickness and death. However, this is a universal state, and present in every age.

In New York City, people say: don’t cut off my legs and call me short. I’ve always found that hilarious. It means–don’t attack me and then blame me. I’ve also always thought it meant–don’t blame me for who I am.

In addition, don’t tell me I’m not what I very obviously know I am.

So, call me old. Or at least let me call myself that!

After Roe vs Wade by Miriam Sagan

I have some advice for you. If you don’t like my approach, feel free to skip this post.
My advice is about action, not attitude. Like many women, I feel panicked and degraded by a loss of rights. However, I am almost 70 years old and I’ve learned that my emotional response is not that important in most situations. My ethics and actions are a better place to focus.
So I suggest not allowing your self-worth to be determined by a corrupt society. I may be in a minority in that I’ve never trusted the USA to be much more than a capitalist and nationalist country that supports oligarchy. Since I’ve always felt this way, I’m upset but not disillusioned.
Step 1: Accept that you live in a society that does not necessarily have your best interests at heart.
Step 2: Right now, social change and electoral politics are important but probably too slow to give you peace of mind. Do vote, but prepare in the meanwhile.
Step 3: Protect your fertility in your reproductive years with contraceptives and barriers to STD’s. Support your friends and family in this. Yes, contraceptives can fail, but lack of them really does. Is this anti-spontaneous? You bet. Try and stay awake to your sexuality and to communicating with a partner. The opposite won’t help you.
Step 4: Focus on self-help, in the older sense of mutual aid. I myself am setting up an affinity group for 2-4 women to fund raise and volunteer for reproductive rights.
Step 5: Have a plan for yourself and others. Is abortion still legal where you live? Investigate options before you need them. Perhaps most importantly, start an emergency fund for expenses. That way you can also help other women.
Step 5: Find an organization that supports reproductive rights and support it. Fund-raise, donate, volunteer.
Step 6: If you are comfortable protesting, march in the street.
Step 7: Don’t feel powerless. Contrary to Facebook memes, your only options are not handmaiden or warrior. Your real option is to be yourself.
Yes, terrible and unexpected things can happen in this as in any arena of life. You can be prey to assault, violence, accident. However, I would not catastrophize. Taking care of yourself and others–in a profound, even radical way–is worth doing, particularly in difficult times.
I’m a mom, and a grandmother. In high school I was part of a group that had an abortion fund–in cash, hidden in a sock. We used it once, then replenished it. My mother, and her mother, felt very strongly about reproductive rights. My approach is not perfect, nor does it address all eventualities. But I do know something about how to decrease suffering. And I know things go better when I am not alone.

Grandma’s Studio

I have a hundred square foot writing studio in the backyard. Although I built it to get away from the household, it always had special supplies for Isabel when she was little and now for her daughter, G., aged 3.
So when G. and her grandfather were building with blocks it was no surprise that she added in Grandma’s Studio.
I’m always glad to be personified by Dona Sebastiana. Perhaps the cats–actually ceramic chopstick holders–refer to the writer’s life of herding felines.

Bubbe Report: In Danger

When my daughter Isabel, G.’s mother, was just G’s age (a bit over 3), she used to startle me by saying amazing things. At that time we were commuting to Crestone, Colorado. Thirty years ago in winter, the San Luis Valley felt even more remote than it does today. Vast snow-covered peaks of the southern Rockies loomed over our little Toyota Tercel as we drove.
“The mountains are jealous of us,” a voice said from the back car seat. I wondered why, but I knew it to be true. Because we could move around? Talk? I’d often felt the mountains’ distant but real disdain for human life. Now a child had noticed it.
Months before, Isabel’s best friend Reuben had charmed me by announcing “We have two cats. One is named Seren and one is named Dipity.” They did have cats, but not with those names.
Age 3-4, in my experience, is particularly interesting because a child can have good language skills yet still be in a world of magic. “It’s a little sad when they learn to read,” my mother once said. My mother probably cared about reading more than anything else in life, but I knew what she meant. A school-aged child shares our world. A younger child takes us into theirs.
So I’ve been waiting for G. to say something whimsical, but she is a very grounded person. In eight days, she attended two art openings. By the second–the Haiku Trail at Audubon–she was acting like a hostess. She dragged a folding chair the length of a hall to get Pop-Pop to sit down. She offered her mother cheese. She smiled at strangers and even giggled at their friendliness.
And then I got my window into her mind. I didn’t hear the following myself, but Isabel told me.
Background, G. knows Coyote as a trickster from stories and also as ranch denizens (who once tried to eat Tiny Dog).
Scene: Endangered Species merry-go-round at zoo.
She gets on the gray wolf. “I want to ride the coyote.”
Parent: “That is a wolf. Coyotes aren’t on this as they aren’t endangered.”
G: “Coyote is SO stupid. He is always in danger!”

Old Enough

Old Enough

Last week, I was on a creative retreat in Pagosa Springs, Colorado with my daughter Isabel. There, I fell under the spell of the Japanese series “Old Enough” on Netflix. In it, tiny children run errands, and feel very accomplished and appreciated.
These adorable kids are still toddler-aged, or close to it. They have flags at the cross walks, which they wave as they cross. And guess what, so does Pagosa Springs!
It turns out I was identifying with these kids because…gasp…I was doing the grocery shopping. Something I do not do at home, where my husband Rich provides. I was as excited in City Market as the errand runners in Old Enough. They have an actual sushi chef! Gluten free dessert! Three kinds of chicken wings!
I had my shopping list. I was nervous, too. I missed things and had to go back. I crossed waving my yellow flag.
I’ll be 68 in a few days and it seems I’m…old enough.
Inspired by the show, I tried to get the real toddler, my grand-daughter G. aged 3, to take more responsibility on my return.
“Let’s clean up,”I said.
No. I don’t want to. I want a snack.”
“Throw out the trash in the bin and then you can have a snack.”
She complied, but that was all.
“We need to babysit the baby dolls,” she said.
“Why? Where is the mommy? Or the felt fairy that takes care of them?”
“Gone to Colorado,” G. announced. And that was the end of that.


I was recently very annoyed by something I read. A well-regarded writer, whose family survived difficult historical circumstances, said something like “No one survives by accident.” And went on to say that survival was an act of creativity, intelligence, and will.
I just can’t agree. Of course survival, in holocaust type situations, might be aided by intelligence, but it often seems to be a matter of luck. At least that is what Primo Levi reported. I also once read an account of a “U Boat”–a paperless and homeless Jewish woman in Nazi Berlin. She said she was helped not by good people doing good deeds but by evil people doing good deeds. That kind of moral ambiguity is important to remember.
My grandmother Sadie came to America. Her sister Etrazy stayed behind because her husband was an imprisoned Bolshevik. He was freed, they were re-united, and eventually killed by Stalin. Or was it Hitler? No one knows.
Shall I blame Etrazy for not surviving, for her idealism, her belief in communal solutions? It turns out she was wrong, or on the wrong side of history. Was she foolish, and Sadie smart? I think not. Each was following the twists and turns of her own life as best she could.
In Yiddish we say: ikh’d ala zeyn mazldik vi klug (I’d rather be lucky than smart). To say our survival is not influenced by the random is to aspire to a level of control not given to human beings. To think otherwise is to end up blaming patients for their diseases, refugees for their historical disasters, everyone for their circumstances.
And I’m certainly not going to blame my family members who couldn’t survive. And that in no way diminishes my gratitude towards those who did.

Grandpa George, The Gangster Lepke, and a Platypus by Miriam Sagan

My grandfather, George Sagan, founded the New York Girl Coat Company in 1916. That was not his real name. He was born Gershon Liesenbaum in the Ukraine, a borderland between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Russian one, between Kiev and Odessa.

Gershon became George in America. But until the late 20th century we did not know that our family name was not Sagan. My father had found George’s exit visa from Russia. It was for Liesenbaum.

My father searched for an answer in his own imagination. George had bought Mr. Liesenbaum’s exit visa. Or, George had murdered Mr. Liesenbaum for the visa. My father actually proposed this theory without irony. My grandfather’s power to impose his will was legendary and survived even his physical death.

The most likely answer was more mundane. My grandfather Gershon, a young teenager, was in the Ukraine with his sister and her three children. She died. He was entrusted with bringing his two little nephews and one niece to their father Louie in New York City. Louie may have already remarried at this point. It is likely that Louie’s last name was Sagan.

George tied nephews and niece together with a rope so he wouldn’t lose them on shipboard. At Ellis Island, it probably made sense to take their and his brother-in-law Louie’s last name, Sagan.

One of the children tied to the rope grew up. He attempted to get an education but by the Great Depression found himself working in the garment industry for George, as one of the prime cutters. His son was Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer. On his deathbed, Carl told one of my first cousins who was interested in family history: “You aren’t really a Sagan. The Sagans were the smart side of the family.” George’s descendants were educated and successful. But we’d been told, and had to believe, we weren’t smart like the Sagans, i.e. Carl. And in fact we weren’t Sagans, but Liesenbaums.

In his own way, my grandfather cared not just about material success but beauty and justice. However, it was the justice of a gangster and the beauty of a robber baron that drove him.

The iconic story told about him was George’s meeting with the famous if perhaps second-string Jewish gangster Lepke. When my grandfather opened for business, it was in a storefront on the lower east side. One of Lepke’s henchmen came around and dunned George for protection money, the price of doing business, to be paid every Wednesday. Of course he paid.

A few months later, a second henchman appeared, demanding protection money to be paid on Fridays. My grandfather rebelled. He, a callow youth, demanded a meeting with Lepke. He was taken to a dairy restaurant on Avenue B., a table in back, men in hats.

George made his speech about justice—he would pay once, but not twice.

Lepke nodded in his fedora. Then, he offered my grandfather a job working for him. George politely declined, paid protection but once a week, and went on to make millions.

This story was told in my family not so much as an example of how ballsy George was but of how he had a true sense of fairness. It was not until I was middle-aged that I realized the absurdity of this, crusading for the right to pay protection money only once.

My grandfather’s gangsterism extended to his philanthropy, which was itself vast and generous, yet self-serving. As a small child, I too had been encouraged to be
philanthropic. I had saved up part of my allowance week after week to join the Bronx Zoo. I would be a member, with free admission, discounts, and best of all, a member’s garden party with a private viewing of a rare platypus. I was about ten years old, and ready to give my money to the zoo, when Grandpa George got wind of my stash.

We were alone, on the wraparound screened porch of my parents’ house. He loomed over me and demanded I hand over my savings to donate to plant trees in Israel. But my goal was already set. Israel, no. Platypus, yes. George yelled and screamed, towering over me. My father appeared like a deus ex machina, also shouting, “Leave her alone! It’s her money!”

I went to the members’ party and ate finger sandwiches and chocolate cookies shaped like leaves. I saw the remarkable platypus. I was the only child there, the only young person who had bought herself a membership. Old ladies in hats smiled at me. I planted not one twig in Israel.
This first appeared in the memoir BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE from Red Mountain Press.