Nonfiction: Helena Writes #62--On knowing more than we can understand (yet)

helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 62nd post, she shares both the first draft and revision of a piece about an experience in her early childhood. Enjoy!


“Pitkin Avenue,” first draft


Written in my journal, late September 2022

I’m riding with my father. I am content and safe. I remember the sensation of being with him. He was with me. We were together—easy, good company—our spirits fit together, it occurs to me now—

We are on an errand, are we going to Macy’s? My father loved to shop at Macy’s, things on sale      


I remember the soaps

Imprinted w/ Macy’s…I can’t remember what else he bought, maybe shampoo—on sale

Macy’s I think now had sale days


We are together, me & my 

Father—it feels natural

I am at rest, myself,


In spite of the chaos of traffic outside the car, the buses 

Green & white…soft rounded windowed forms

Late 40’s, 50’s designs…

After the war

We are safe

There are antibiotics

If my father’s children—my sister, Jolene and I—if we 

Get sick, we can be gotten


Different than the child mortality my father grew up with

Different from having scarlet 

Fever that 

Affected his eyesight—

So he is wearing glasses in

All the pictures of him as

A little boy—in a rounded brimmed rain-style hat—standing—I Realize

Confidently, proclaiming himself—

Wearing glasses


Some of the pictures are with

Aunt Laulie—

Laulie for Lillian—

Who looks sour even then

But my father protects her

Even in the photo—

Taken the same day—

He’s wearing a little jacket that looks to me it might be green—


& matching pants

He’s holding his sister’s hand—leaning toward her

Aunt Laulie has long blond curls—

Blond hair & blue eyes ran

On both sides of my family –

My grandmother

& my father’s—

My father’s eyes were a beautiful green—

His hair brown, but



We ride

Trolleys screeching

Car horns blaring

People crossing on crowded

Pitkin Ave—

We’re on an overpass—


Now something I can’t understand happens.

We come to a stop—my father

Gets out of the car—

We have a flat tire—

My father has pulled over

On that overpass—cars and buses

And chaos have suddenly penetrated

Our tranquil world


Our beautiful rounded-

Formed car—

It had to be 

The black Chevy—


Because I wasn’t 7

It wasn’t 1952

When we got the green Dodge—


But I can’t, in my memory,

See our car—

My father has taken out the jack—

Now I am outside the car too—

So he must have stood

Me in a safe spot

I was three years old, that’s 

My sense of this time. This event—

My father has pried off the hubcap—the beautiful


Rounded hubcap—that friendly face with red writing on it—did it Say Chevrolet?


Now I feel myself crying

My mouth wide open


I am in (the) chaos of the busy street—

No one coming to our aid

And I see the terrifying face

Of the lug nuts that were

Hidden under the chrome


It is  A monster—

It is from hell

It is the breaking of the membrane

Of safety

Between me

& the world

The dangerous world

The world my father can’t

Protect me from.


I am screaming


I have seen something I

Will only understand later


I have seen 

Beneath the illusion

Of safety—

The illusion of my three-year-old self—

The illusion

That my father, who may love me more than life,

Can’t protect me from that life


Lurking beyond his strong arms

His love—

His green eyes

Full of sorrow (and love)—

He is not angry

He is 


He leaves our car on the overpass—

I don’t know if he wrote a note

As I would do now

If I was the adult

With the small child

Out of her mind with


I’d write my name

My address

My telephone number

I’d write the time &

My declaration that I’d 

Be right back to fix the flat

To get the car off the bridge over 

The street


My father takes me

Home on one of the green buses.

My father picks me up—holds me close to

Him—the spasms that I remember after 

Crying so hard—must have racked my three-year-old body

Sucking in breath

A gasping I can’t control

Something my body is

Doing for me

My nose is stuffed up—

My father would have given me

His handkerchief—fresh and ironed by

My mother—& helped me blow

My nose—wiped my tears—

I know he took me home 

& my mother must have been home


The memory has gone dark


But not the thing I saw

I’d looked into hell

I’d looked into the face 

Of a monster

It was

An experience


With other small experiences

So big to me

Falling & scraping

My knee—

They were gathering

Accruing—there was a life

Beyond my father that I then knew

Could annihilate me


Only he stood between me &

The terrifying specters

That began to invade

My dreams—

War—skies of planes dropping 

Bombs –


I’d never seen it or lived it

But it had happened,

Ancestral memory?

I knew



I was too 

Young to bear.

My father stood between, was my safety


“Be afraid when you

See me afraid…”


But my father wasn’t 

Fearful—he was

Sad, I knew later,

And bitter—

But never fearful.


I was mad with 


Under the veneer of my father’s


And when I was 26

And he died

The terror bloomed—

And I lived in terror

My first real 

Encounter with hell—

And when it

Was over, passed—from 

A decision

To choose life

By leaving my marriage,


I was reborn—




Still knowing more 

Than I could understand

Or integrate


Developing the muscles

With which I could now hold some


—and (that would) allow me

To live

After my father’s death—

& then, my mother’s that soon



The writing process

When I write in my journal, every morning, with coffee, sometimes the writing heats up, feels like it’s about to deliver something. A hush falls. “Pitkin Avenue” is such a piece, typed from my journal writing. I suddenly felt the hush, and the story poured out of me, ballpoint pen on lined spiral notebook paper. The capital letters at the beginning of new lines is a thing my computer does. But I’ve been faithful to spacing—impossible as it is to capture in this online format—and line breaks. I now take note of these! Why did I go to a new line? Emphasis? Feeling? It isn’t a conscious decision. This writing is unedited, except for two parenthesized additions I decided not to resist adding to this piece, which became a draft.

But there were so many moments I had to ignore the crying-out inside, because I made a promise about this writing, part of an assignment for my students. I promised myself and my students, I’d be faithful to the first journal writing. I nearly was. I succumbed twice to the voice that was clamoring to express the next layer, the life being called into existence underneath the first words I was now fastening into type. I had to turn off, inure myself, dull down, and type what was there on the journal page.

But next, I will revise. I won’t look at the typed piece; I will work again, from the raw handwriting scrawled with such speed, in my journal. So I can write, find what is there, around, in, beneath those words. This journal piece is a key, a mere key, to the door of the cosmos one can experience when revising.


“Pitkin Avenue,” revised

I am riding in our car with my father. I feel the rough pile of velour seat covers on the back of my bare legs. I am wearing a dress. I am content and safe. The smell is home, a mix of my father, the car, and gasoline—I loved the smell of gasoline even then. I know the sensation of being with my father. He was with me. We were easy, good company—like my son, the grandson he never knew, and I, are good company. Our spirits fit together.

My father and I are on an errand. Are we going to Macy’s?  My father loved to shop at Macy’s, on bargain days—things on sale. Soaps imprinted with Macy’s. Shampoo. My father loved soaps the way I do. We are on our way. I am myself, at rest, in spite of the chaos of traffic outside the car, the green and white Avenue buses, soft round-windowed forms. Late ’40s, early ’50s designs—after the war.

I’m safe beside my father, in his car. The car is a shield between us and the honks and fumes, the sounds of air brakes beyond its roll-down windows.

There are antibiotics in the world now. If my father’s children, me or my sister, Jolene, get sick, we can be gotten well. Different than the child mortality my father grew up with. These are modern times. My father had scarlet fever. It affected his eyesight. He’s wearing glasses in all the pictures of him as a little boy. Wire-rimmed glasses, similar to the glasses he is wearing now, in this memory. In some of those sepia-colored, aging pictures, my father is wearing a round-brimmed, rain-style hat. He’s standing confidently, proclaiming himself—wearing his glasses. He told me he was called four-eyes. Yet there he is, looking through those glasses at the camera, standing straight, smiling, then serious. He seems unaffected by the taunts of other children.

In some of the pictures Aunt Laulie—Laulie for Lillian—is standing next to him. She looks sour even then. But my father’s arm is around her, protecting her. She is older than my father, but my father is pulled to his full height and he is protecting his sister, as he did as an adult. That was in my father’s character. He was protective and he was loyal to his family, though his family was not loyal to him—but that was later. He’s wearing a little jacket that looks like it may be olive green, and matching pants. The hat, too, looks olive green. Aunt Laulie has long, blond curls. Blond hair and blue eyes run on both sides of my family. My mother’s mother, the only grandmother I knew, Anna Bailenson, had light hair and blue eyes. My father’s brother, my Uncle Leo was blond and blue-eyed, and so were his both his children, my cousins Gail and Richard. But my father’s eyes were a beautiful green. They were eyes deep with feeling. I look into those eyes, often, in memory, for their compassion, for strength, even now. His hair was brown, but light.  

We ride in the black Chevy, trolleys screeching, stopping for people crossing Pitkin Avenue in crowds.

We’re on an overpass when something I can’t understand happens. Something under the car is thumping. The car is lame, bouncing. My father pulls out of traffic, onto a sidewalk, and stops the car, turns off the engine. He opens the door. I watch him kneel onto the concrete. He is looking at the front, right wheel. Now he opens the passenger door. He lifts me out of the car, stands me behind him on the sidewalk, near a black, wrought-iron fence. Below is the cross street. Nothing outside of our car had any real existence.  

But now cars are passing us, I can feel the wind of their speed. I can hear the air brakes of the buses. I smell fumes, exhaust from cars and trucks, passing us by on Pitkin Avenue. I feel confused. Bolts of fear are darting in my stomach, and through my legs. My father opens the trunk of the car, takes out the jack—the tool that has his name—Jack, for Jacob, though Aunt Laulie calls him Jake—the only person I have ever heard say that name. I wonder now if his parents, my unknown grandparents, called him Jake. I think they must have called him something in Yiddish—Yakov—or maybe he had a pet name. I can only wonder, and feel stabs of regret that I can’t know.

But I know the tool. I’ve seen my father change a tire before—for our car, and for other people’s cars, in the quiet of the country where we go in the summers. But not on Pitkin Avenue. Chaos has penetrated our tranquil world, our beautiful, rounded-form car—it had to be the black Chevy, because I wasn’t seven. It wasn’t 1952, when we got the green Dodge. I think I am three. I must hold on to my father’s back, his tan jacket, with my eyes or I will disappear.

My father has pried off the hubcap with the crowbar that was wrapped in oil cloth, carefully, along with the jack. The beautiful, rounded hubcap, that friendly face with red cursive writing that must have spelled Chevrolet, is off the wheel, has clanked onto the ground, is wobbling from the momentum of its sudden displacement. And I see the terrifying face—the lug nuts that were hidden underneath, concealed, but there all the time. That face is 

monstrous. I am, for a split second, stunned. Then my mouth is open and I am screaming. I have seen something I will only understand later. The membrane between safety and chaos has broken—between me and the dangerous world, the world my father can’t protect me from. There is only my screaming now. I am out of my mind with terror. The illusion is pierced. My father, my devoted father, who loves me more than life, can’t protect me from it—can’t protect me from life. Beyond his strong arms, beyond his love, his green eyes full of sorrow, the world has shown itself to me.

My father is surprised. I am hysterical. I know that he’s surprised by his face, by the tone of his voice though I can’t now hear what he is saying. But he is not angry. His eyebrows are arched, his brow furrowed. He picks me up and holds me close to him, me heaving with the gasps, the lurches that come after crying. He leaves our car on that overpass, on busy Pitkin Ave, and takes me home on the bus. I sit next to him, he has given me his handkerchief. He helps me blow my nose. He wipes my heated and sweating face. 

My mother must have been home, but here the memory goes dark. I know my father will go back to fix the flat tire and bring the car home. But I had seen something I would never forget. Such experiences were accruing. Falling, scraping my knee, the wound feeling like a sickness, as big as the sky. Life seeping in beyond my father. Only he stood between me and the specters that began to invade my dreams. War, skies filled with airplanes dropping bombs. I’d never seen these things, or lived them. Where did the images come from? Ancestral memory?  I knew truths I was too young to bear.

Be afraid when you see me afraid, my father told me. But my father wasn’t fearful. I was out of my mind with fear, mad with it under the veneer of my father’s protection.

When I was 26, my father died. That terror bloomed and reigned for eight months. It felt like an encounter with hell.

It passed; its passing came as the benefit of a decision to choose life. I left my marriage. I was reborn, stronger. Longing still for my father. Knowing more than I could understand or integrate, I was developing the muscles to hold some truth. That would allow me to live again—after my father’s death, and then my mother’s, that soon followed.


Do you recall an experience in childhood that made you realize how big, and possibly scary, the world was or could be beyond your parents’ protection? Have you written about it? What did you think of Helena’s latest column—was it helpful to see her first draft and then her revision? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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Hello, Helena.
I enjoyed your January 2024 Blog Posting. It had particular meaning to me since I, too, grew up in Brooklyn -- not too far from Pitkin Avenue. I used to go shopping there with my parents. I remember all of the stores and the traffic and the people and the smells of food. It brought back memories. Thanks.

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