MY TWELVE PRINCIPLES FOR GETTING BETTER AT GETTING OLD

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This is not a list of New Year’s Resolutions.

I gave up on those many a New Year ago.  I may be a slow learner, but I finally realized that by January 3 of every year, at the latest, my list of resolutions was always a train wreck and I had lost whatever few remaining shreds of self esteem inspired the creation of the list in the first place.

So never mind all that.  I assure you the principles I’m talking about here:

(a) were drafted last August;

(b) are not to be thought of as “resolutions;” and

(c) were inspired by a redhead in her forties who has become well known, in blogging circles and beyond, not for resolutions but for her pursuit of happiness.  The redhead is Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happiness at Home.  Her blog is called The Happiness Project.  [If you must go see for yourself, just click.]

It was wicked hot in Princeton last August, except inside where it’s air-conditioned, and I was fretful.  What was I going to do with the rest of my life, other than sleep, eat, read, watch too much Netflix, and let the Princeton branch of The New York Sports Club charge my Visa card every month?  I had already tried tutoring English as a Second Language at the local Y.  Pointing to an apple and saying “a-pull” was not for me.  I had already tried auditing courses at Princeton University.  Auditors cannot ask questions or otherwise speak.  Being silenced by metaphorical duct tape was not for me, either.

And I had also already tried learning Russian with a tutor, for an extraordinary amount of money per hour. First she praised me  because my accent was good.  Next I discovered Russian is the second hardest language in the world if your native language is English. (I can’t name the hardest but there must be one.)  Once we got past the well-pronounced twenty or so expressions I remembered from childhood (including “Sing, little bird, sing,”  “I want to eat,” and “prostitute!”) — none of which involved the six declensions of noun, pronoun, and adjective, the god-knows-how-many conjugations, the perfective and imperfective forms of verb, the vocabulary with no perceptible connection to any word in any Romance or Germanic language — Russian wasn’t for me, either.  (And to think I might have learned it in my crib — except that my parents wanted to raise a gen-u-wine American.)

Tai chi and a French language reading group had also bit the dust.  But blogging? That I had never thought about.  And then suddenly — miraculously — there was Gretchen every day, throughout that long hot summer, with her chatty lists and tips and categories and principles. It was actually uplifting. And inspiring. I signed up for a course in “Learning to Blog” right away, even though the course wouldn’t start until late October.

Meanwhile I made my own list of principles.  Gretchen’s principles were designed to make her happier.  Mine were designed to make me happier, too. Some of my principles were therefore borrowed — well, stolen — from hers. But I am nearly double older than she is.  So it’s not the same list.  And if you decide to make such a list, yours will be different, too.  Just remember, it’s not a list of resolutions. It’s more like a nice friend talking things over with you.

What did I do with my list after I saved it on the computer last August?  Follow it religiously?  Are you out of your mind?

But I did read it once in a while, and still do. It keeps me going when I feel I’m winding down.

January 1 seems like a good time to read it again.   In fact, I may well revisit each of these principles in separate posts during the coming year. But for starters, here’s the entire list, without comment. Some of them — such as the first and last — may seem to overlap, but they don’t really, because they take on their subject from different angles.   If the list makes you feel like tossing those resolutions you just made and drafting your own principles, feel free to borrow.  Even steal.

MY TWELVE PRINCIPLES FOR GETTING BETTER AT GETTING OLD 

1.      Now is now.  (Appreciate the moment.)

 2.      The perfect is the enemy of the good. (Stolen from Gretchen.)

3.      Just do it. (Don’t put things off.)

4.      Be myself.  (Sort of Gretchen’s.)

5.      Be kind.

6.      Show love. (Be more demonstrative.)

7.      Move.  (Get off my butt.)

8.      Eat less. (And eat better.)

9.     Shed the past. (Get rid of detritus, tangible and other.)

10.    Reach out. (To people, experiences, ideas.)

11.   Invest in me. (Spend on doing, not acquiring.)

12.   Don’t borrow trouble from tomorrow. (Whatever tomorrow brings it will bring without my worrying about it today.)

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Now it’s your turn.

What are your  thoughts on how to get better at getting old?

FROM ALBERT EINSTEIN, SARAH LAWRENCE AND ME

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LOOK WHAT CAME IN THE MAIL!

Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance
you must keep moving.
Albert Einstein
Wishing you joy and momentum in 2014.
Warm regards,
KarenKaren Lawrence, President
Sarah Lawrence College

Warm regards from me, too.

This blog has changed my life.

For the better.

Thank you all.

Nina

KISS YOU LOVE YOU, COUSIN YULIA

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Until I was fourteen, I didn’t think I had any cousin at all. I knew my mother’s brother back in Russia had had a little boy six months younger than I was.   [My mother always called it Russia; actually by then it was, and had been for a long time, the Soviet Union.]   But when she talked about her family, which was rarely, she always said her brother “had had” a little boy.  She never just said, “had.”

That’s because in 1937, her brother had been arrested during the Kirov Purges and was eventually sent away to Siberia.  His wife went with him, at first leaving their son in Baku with his grandmother. [She was also my grandmother, although I had never seen her.  We didn’t even have a picture.]  Then the grandmother died, and his mother returned to take the little boy away with her to Siberia.

There was never another word from my father’s family about either my mother’s brother, his wife, or their child.  In many ways a hard-nosed realist, my mother considered this silence to be the end of her family.  For all practical purposes she was right; we never heard anything about any one of them again.

My father spoke even less than my mother about the past.  All I knew was that his father had died by the time I was five, and that he had two older sisters back in Baku, both of whom were married. Their names were Berta and Bronia. Berta kept house and was fat; Bronia was a dentist and was not fat. His mother lived with Bronia and her husband. Perhaps my father was too busy trying to keep the three of us afloat in what was for him and my mother an entirely new world. Perhaps he had no time to dwell aloud on the past, or on the hardships of Soviet life for his sisters. In any event, even before my maternal grandmother died, correspondence with the Soviet Union ceased. No more letters arrived. Letters mailed to Baku were returned by the Soviet censor.

But after World War II, the foreign-looking envelopes of thin blue paper began again to appear, and provided news of what had happened in the interim. I was given to understand that the letters inside were written very cautiously. And they were all in Russian, of course, which meant that even if I sneaked into my father’s desk when he was away at work, I would be unable to read them for myself.  But there were photographs in the letters, which my father took out of the envelopes so that my mother could put them in an album.

And that’s how I discovered the existence of Yulia. (Julia in English.)  She was the only youngish person in a family photograph taken just after the war. The other people in the photo were middle-aged Berta, middle-aged Bronia and the two middle-aged men who were their husbands. There was a separate photo of my father’s mother, a formidably stern-looking old woman with nothing “grandmotherly” about her in the picture.

Yulia was twenty-nine at the time of the group photograph.  [I later learned she had been born in 1916.]  She was Berta’s only child, explained my mother.  [Bronia was childless.] Unlike the sisters and one of the husbands, Yulia had small eyes.  She looked like the other husband, who must have been her father.

“Why haven’t I  heard about this Yulia before?” I demanded loudly.  A real living cousin!  (I forgave the small eyes.)  After all, she must have been already out of her teens at the time of those Purges, soon after which the letters had stopped.  In fact, she must have been already born and a young child when my parents made their escape to America.  Now that I thought about it, I realized how remarkably secretive my parents were about almost everything in their lives that didn’t have to do with what we were going to have for dinner or the necessity of being careful with money.  You had to dig for information, and even then you might not get much.

For instance, it was only when I bombarded my father with questions about the Yulia in the photograph that he mentioned Yulia had married someone named Volodya (Vladimir) Kalinin in 1940.  She had also recently finished her schooling and was now licensed to practice medicine as a pediatrician. However, she and her husband still lived with her mother and father in a single room of the now crumbling apartment in which my father and his sisters had grown up before the revolution.  [The rest of the apartment was occupied by another family, with whom they didn’t get along.]

“And that’s life in the Soviet Union!” my father exclaimed, with what sounded like bitter satisfaction.  Was he somehow blaming his sisters for not having been able to get out when he did?

“But it’s great Yulia was able to become a doctor,” I said.

“I’ve got news for you,” said my father.  “A doctor is nothing there.  Especially a children’s doctor.  To be a somebody you need to be a big macher in the Party.  Yulia can now earn a modest living.  If you call that living.”

The letters kept coming, which did not please my mother.  She didn’t like anyone in my father’s family because his parents had not been happy in 1925 when my father wrote he was marrying her.  From their single room on the third floor of Ulitza Basina 35 (formerly Balachanskaya 35) in Baku, they apparently wrote back that she wasn’t good enough for him. Or not cultured enough.  (Ni kulturnaya would have been the kiss of death.) Or maybe it was that her mother had been her father’s second wife. (Did that make her second-rate or something?)  I cannot identify the basis for their objections because after my father died, my mother made sure this letter went into the garbage.  I had only her word for what was in it.  Fortunately (for my mother and later me),  the no-longer-extant letter from Baku arrived in New York City too late.  My parents had already gone to City Hall.

My interest in cousin Yulia was fleeting.  Perhaps I had discovered her existence too late. Before you could count one, two, three (years) — I had left home for college, where I stopped concerning myself with anything going on in Baku.   Yulia didn’t know English, I didn’t know Russian.  What was the point of getting all worked up about a relative fifteen years older than I , with whom I  — the Great Communicator — would be entirely unable to communicate?  Boys  — or by default, male faculty — were more interesting.

Nonetheless, over the ensuing decades, I would hear little bits of information from the letters whenever I came home and — after my parents moved to the West Coast and I married — whenever I would visit:

— Yulia and Volodya never had children.

— My father’s mother, who had been doing the letter writing since 1945, died in 1949, when she was 78 or 79.  She had been ill and bed-ridden for some time.   Bronia then took over the correspondence.

— Berta’s husband left her for a younger woman. Bronia’s husband died young, in his early fifties.  She found a second husband, a former dental patient.  It didn’t work out, for undisclosed reasons.  Then she found a third.  (Must have been a hot ticket, that Bronia.)  The third husband died too, of stomach cancer.

— Berta died in July 1974, after two months of illness at home.  She had been diabetic and hypertensive. She was 82.  The funeral took place on my 43rd birthday. (Although I didn’t know it at the time.)

— Bronia died a year later in July 1975, after a severe heart attack. She was 81.  Her funeral was a day before my 44th birthday. (I didn’t know that at the time, either.)

— On the death of her mother, Yulia and Volodya moved in with Bronia, and after Bronia passed away they stayed on in her apartment. It was in a building that had been built in 1935 and was considered  “luxurious.” It had a bath, telephone, and gas!

— Of all the family, now only my father and Yulia were left.  He was 73; she was 59.  She had not seen him since she was six.  But she continued the correspondence.

After my father died in 1986, I persuaded my mother to give me his carefully saved letters from Baku.  She was planning to throw them out.  (She had already weeded out the offending 1925 letter, and perhaps others.)  Although for six years I couldn’t read what I had brought back to Boston with me, in 1992 I managed to have the letters translated by a somewhat bi-lingual lady in St. Petersburg. (Another story.  For another time.)

Here is Yulia in 1975 (in translation, and very much abridged), just after Bronia died:

Dear aunt Musinka and uncle Menichka!  I couldn’t even write you because I was nearly killed by my sorrow — July 20, 1975, 12:30 p.m.,my second mom, dear Bronichka, died. Volodya, as usual when something happens, was away in Leningrad…to visit 90 year old mother who is living with brother and daughter-in-law.  I was staying with Bronichka this time. It was very hot — 45 degrees. She was standing all this heroically….I went to my job, everything was all right. When Bronia sat for a breakfast she felt a pain in her heart and she could not breathe…  [She describes the dying, the doctors, the injections. Then she continues.]

They made an artificial breathing, an injection in heart — but she was sleeping.  Beautiful, with copper hair, clean, clever, kind…She was my friend, husband, mother,  everything…. The emptiness is incredible….

Now I shall write you, I have no other relatives except you.  Best regards to Ninochka and her family.  Kiss you, love you.  Yours, Yulia.  We buried her in our place: there are grandmother, mom, Bronichka and her husband.  But there are no more places left; they didn’t think about me.

She went on corresponding faithfully for another ten and a half years.  Two-thirds of the letters remaining in my father’s collection were from her. Always ending: “Kiss you, love you. Yours, Yulia.”

[1978] Are you all right?  Let me hear from you, don’t forget me.  You and Musinka [my mother] are my only relatives….Nothing has changed, only the sorrow is so heavy.  She [Bronia] was an outstanding person. She was clever, she knew life, could understand a human soul and could appreciate everything.  Such a sorrow for us! They say that time is a doctor, it is not true. It smooths a little bit but the wound still exists.  She was a big friend of mine in life.  I have never had and never would have such a friend…I am so lonely…. Kiss you, love you.  Yours, Yulia.

My father was kind, and wrote back.  He sent money, and little gifts.  My mother was exasperated.  “So sticky, so sweet.”  I don’t think she actually said, “Feh!” but her voice said it for her.

[1980]  Let me hear from you, my only and dear one, just a little bit.  Take care of yourself, don’t get sick.  Kiss you, love you. Don’t forget me!

[1981]  Today is Bertochka’s birthday.  In the morning Volodya and I went to the cemetery and put flowers on the graves of grand mom, Bronichka and mom.  I am in bad spirits.  I came back and decided to talk to you, my dear friend, by letter.  I read all of your letters from the recent time and I felt better.  Your letters are as a medicine for me, they calm me down.  Your letters [in Russian] are so grammatical, not a single mistake!  You are so clever and kind.  You are a wonderful couple, you and aunt Musinka.  Kiss you once more.  Loving you so much, Yulia. I have no one except you…

[1985]  My dear, you smile when I advise you something. [About his health. Which was now bad.]  Of course you remember me to be very little.  I remember many funny things when we lived with you in grandmom’s and grandfather’s house.  Now everything is over.  Nothing but the memory remains… Kiss you, love you, Yulia

Before my father’s death in January 1986, he left an envelope addressed to Yulia in which my mother should put a letter telling her that he had died.  She took her time doing it.  (I can’t blame her for that.)  Yulia answered:

Dear Aunt Musinka!  I received your letter in the envelope with poor uncle Menichka’s hand!  I am in despair: such a wonderful, talented man has died…I have no words to console you…It is awfully hard to be alone. I am crying with you, kiss you, love you.  Was he conscious when he died?  What date?  If you can, please, describe me his last hours.  I know, it is very difficult, if it is not too much trouble for you.  How are you staying alone — it is so terrible to sleep and stay alone.  Maybe, you would better move to Ninochka.  I shall continue to correspond with you with pleasure.  Give me your address if you change it.  You have a beautiful hand, not a single mistake.  I would never say that you have not been writing [Russian] for 65 years….Let me hear from you….Lovingly, Yulia.

My mother never answered this letter. She could not forget the letter of 1925.  [Written when Yulia was nine.]  I used to remonstrate with her.  But I got nowhere:  “What do I need her for? What is she to me?  They never liked me!”

Six months later, Yulia wrote once more:

My dear aunt Musinka!  I did not get an answer to my letter.  Maybe you left for Ninochka and did not receive it.  Still I cannot believe in dear Menichka’s death.  …Happy New Year. I wish the coming year to be better than 1986.  It was so sad.  Kiss you, my dear.  Let me hear from you and I shall answer you immediately. I wish you health and happiness.  I’ll write you in detail when I learn where are you now. Best regards from Volodya.  Lovingly, Yulia.

My mother stayed in California until she died near the end of 1993.  However, this was the last letter from Yulia.  She may have been emotional and lonely, but she had her pride.

Perhaps I should have taken on Yulia myself, although we had not ever been in touch.  I had the address: Baku-370010, Az.S.S.R., Ulitza Solntzeva 24, block 12, Apt. 116. But during his lifetime, my father hadn’t wanted me to.  He had the idea that if I contacted her, the Soviets would come after me and force me to spy for them — or else!  Or else what?  They would kill Yulia? And what would I spy on?  The inner workings of Public School 166 Manhattan?

But after he died?  I tell myself — now — that the mid-80’s were a bad time for me.  Besides, I still couldn’t write Russian.  And what was the likelihood that anyone who lived at Ulitza Solntzeva 24 could read English?  Yulia was my mother’s job!

That doesn’t really cut it.  Although Yulia almost certainly is no more, I feel I must do something.  Even if it’s too late.

Because maybe, just maybe, it isn’t too late.   If Yulia’s still alive, she’s 97.  Are there nursing homes in Azerbaijan?  Is she still in Apartment 116, with someone from the state taking care of her?

If you’re out there somewhere, Yulichka — your first cousin Ninochka wants you to know you still have a relative, who is so sorry we never met. And who loves you. And kisses you. And wishes you a very happy New Year.

BLOGGERS, ARISE!

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GET UP, GET OUT, GET MOVING!

(Weather permitting.)

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“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk.  Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness.  I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it….

“But by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill….If one just keeps on walking everything will be all right.”

— Soren Kierkegaard.

ALICE MUNRO

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IMG_0154Since this is by definition a blog about getting old, It seems fitting not to leave 2013 behind us without a tribute to Alice Munro, the 82 year-old Canadian short story writer who this year won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

What makes her Nobel so unusual is not that Munro is a woman or Canadian — but that she hasn’t written novels, or big think books, or inspirational literature.  She hasn’t tried to change the world, or stir it up, or scold, or exhort.

All she’s ever done is write short stories, usually but not always about the lives of ordinary girls and women.  But in staying within this limited metier, she has transformed our conception of the short story. Even each of the stories in her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (published when she was 37) — although conventionally linear in development from a beginning through a middle to the end —  creates a spacious and entirely three-dimensional world within its relatively few pages.

As she went on, however, the stories became longer and their shapes began to change.  You could call them globular.  In her calm conversational way, she might start in the middle or at the end, or off to the side (although you didn’t always know it as you were reading) — and by the time you had come to the last sentence you had to go back to read it all over again to find what you had missed.

Sometimes what you had missed wasn’t even on the page. It was implied.

She has said that Dear Life, the most recent collection of her stories to be published, will be her last and that she is not going to write any more.  (I understand she has been ill, is a cancer survivor and has heart problems.)  Indeed, I don’t think it is her best collection.  Perhaps it represents a slight falling off.  Perhaps she knows that.

Therefore, if you are unfamiliar with her work I wouldn’t start there. Open Secrets (1994) or Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) might be more representative of Munro in her prime.

But I do want to end with a piece from Dear Life. I have recently been posting about last paragraphs.  Munro gives us memorable last sentences.  Many are of the kind I’ve just described — pointing you back to the beginning of a story to savor it in its entirety.  But occasionally she gives us another kind of last sentence.  You think you are reading about someone else, usually in Canada and far from you — someone who has nothing to do with you. And then suddenly there it is:  a last sentence that jumps up off the page and bites you in the ass.

This piece from Dear Life (which is itself also called “Dear Life”) is — unusually for Munro — not a story but one of four short memoirs of her childhood, the only ones she says she has ever done or ever will.  Here she tells us of the house she then lived in, down a long long road away from town, and of a possibly dotty old woman who once came snooping around when she was a baby in her carriage, and how her mother — alone in the house — grabbed baby Alice from under the covers and ran for dear life (as her mother used to say) back into the house for safety. The piece then moves on to Alice’s life as a young married woman in Vancouver, and ends like this:

I did not go home for my mother’s last illness or for her funeral.  I had two small children and nobody in Vancouver to leave them with. We could barely have afforded the trip, and my husband had a contempt for formal behavior, but why blame it on him?  I felt the same.  We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves.  But we do — we do it all the time.

That’s the last sentence of the last piece in the last book she says she will ever write. It’s about me, and you, and all of us.

ENDINGS (2)

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There are certain kinds of last paragraph that give me shivers.  They can occasionally occur at the end of a book.  More often, though, this kind of paragraph ends a much shorter piece — usually not fiction. It goes on delivering its magic no matter how often I read it.  Although I can’t write a last paragraph like that — here, and in yesterday’s post, are two by a great Italian writer that do it for me every time.

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This piece, like the last one, is by Natalia Ginzburg (although it was written later in her life), and also comes from The Little Virtues, translated from the Italian by Dick Davis.  The “He” in its title refers to her second husband, Gabriele Baldini, a scholar of English literature, whom she married in 1950.  It is longer than “Winter in the Abruzzi,” so I can give you only a taste here of how Ginzburg characterizes their unusual but affectionate and apparently entirely satisfying marriage of opposites.  If you like the flavor, do read the whole thing.  [I can’t provide a working link, but if you Google “Natalia Ginzburg” you will find it.]

Again, it’s especially the last paragraph that leaves me filled with wonder, envy and delight.

HE AND I

He always feels hot, I always feel cold. In the summer when it really is hot he does nothing but complain about how hot he feels. He is irritated if he sees me put a jumper [sweater] on in the evening.

He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well. He manages — in his own way — to speak even the languages that he doesn’t know.

He has an excellent sense of direction, I have none at all.  After one day in a foreign city he can move about it as thoughtlessly as a butterfly. I get lost in my own city; I have to ask directions so that I can get back home again.  He hates asking directions; when we go by car to a town we don’t know he doesn’t want to ask directions and tells me to look at the map. I don’t know how to read maps and I get confused by all the little red circles and he loses his temper.

He loves the theatre, painting, music, especially music. I do not understand music at all, painting doesn’t mean much to me and I get bored at the theatre. I love and understand one thing in the world and that is poetry.

He loves museums, and I will go if I am forced to but with an unpleasant sense of effort and duty. He loves libraries and I hate them.

He loves traveling, unfamiliar foreign cities, restaurants. I would like to stay at home all the time and never move.

All the same I follow him on his many journeys. I follow him to museums, to churches, to the opera. I even follow him to concerts, where I fall asleep.

Because he knows the conductors and the singers, after the performance is over he likes to go and congratulate them. I follow him down long corridors lined with the singers’ dressing-rooms and listen to him talking to people dressed as cardinals and kings.

He is not shy; I am shy. Occasionally however I have seen him be shy. With the police when they come over to the car armed with a notebook and pencil. Then he is shy, thinking he is in the wrong….

He likes tagliatelle, lamb, cherries, red wine. I like minestrone, bread soup, omelets, green vegetables….

At the cinema he likes to sit very close to the screen. If we go with friends and they look for seats a long way from the screen, as most people do, he sits by himself in the front row. I can see well whether I am close to the screen or far away from it, but when we are with friends, I stay with them out of politeness; all the same it upsets me because I could be next to him two inches from the screen, and when I don’t sit next to him he gets annoyed with me….

He tells me I have no curiosity, but this is not true. I am curious about a few, a very few, things. And when I have got to know them I retain scattered impressions of them, or the cadence of phrase, or a word. But my world, in which these completely unrelated (unless in some secret fashion unbeknown to me) impressions and cadences rise to the surface, is a sad, barren place.  His world, on the other hand, is green and populous and richly cultivated; it is a fertile, well-watered countryside in which woods, meadows, orchards and villages flourish.

Everything I do is done laboriously, with great difficulty and uncertainty.  I am very lazy, and if I want to finish anything it is absolutely essential that I spend hours stretched out on the sofa.  He is never idle, and is always doing something; when he goes to lie down in the afternoons he takes proofs to correct or a book full of notes; he wants us to go to the cinema, then to a reception, then to the theatre — all on the same day. In one day he succeeds in doing, and in making me do, a mass of different things, and in meeting extremely diverse kinds of people. If I am alone and try to act as he does I get nothing at all done, because I get stuck all afternoon somewhere I had meant to stay for half an hour, or because I get lost and cannot find the right street, or because the most boring person and the one I least wanted to meet drags me off to the place I least wanted to go to.

If I tell him how my afternoon has turned out he says it is a completely wasted afternoon and is amused and makes fun of me and loses his temper; and he says that without him I am good for nothing.

I don’t know how to manage my time; he does….

I don’t know how to dance and he does.

I don’t know how to type and he does.

I don’t know how to drive. If I suggest that I should get a license too he disagrees. He says I would never manage it. I think he likes me to be dependent on him for some things.

I don’t know how to sing and he does. He is a baritone. Perhaps he would have been a famous singer if he had studied singing….

In our house there is music all day long. He keeps the radio on all day. Or plays records. Every now and again I protest a little and ask for a little silence in which to work; but he says that such beautiful music is certainly conducive to any kind of work.

He has bought an incredible number of records. He says that he owns one of the finest collections in the world.

In the morning when he is still in his dressing gown and dripping water from his bath, he turns the radio on, sits down at the typewriter and begins his strenuous, noisy, stormy day. He is superabundant in everything; he fills the bath to overflowing, and the same with the teapot and his cup of tea. He has an enormous number of shirts and ties….

His rages are unpredictable, and bubble over like the head on beer. My rages are unpredictable too, but his quickly disappear whereas mine leave a noisy nagging trail behind them which must be very annoying — like the complaining yowl of a cat.

Sometimes in the midst of his rage I start to cry, and instead of quietening him down and making him feel sorry for me this infuriates him all the more.  He says my tears are just play-acting, and perhaps he is right. Because in the middle of my tears and his rage I am completely calm.

I never cry when I am really unhappy….

When he was a young man he was slim, handsome and finely built; he did not have a beard but long, soft mustaches instead, and he looked like the actor Robert Donat. He was like that about twenty years ago when I first knew him, and I remember that he used to wear an elegant kind of Scottish flannel shirt. I remember that one evening he walked me back to the pensione where I was living; we walked together along the Via Nazionale. I already felt that I was very old and had been through a great deal and had made many mistakes, and he seemed a boy to me, light years away from me. I don’t remember what we talked about on that evening walking along the Via Nazionale; nothing important, I suppose, and the idea that we would become husband and wife was light years away from me. Then we lost sight of each other, and when we met again he no longer looked like Robert Donat, but more like Balzac. When we met again he still wore his Scottish shirts but on him now they looked like garments for a polar expedition; now he had his beard and on his head he wore his ridiculous crumpled woolen hat; everything about him put you in mind of an imminent departure for the North Pole. Because, although he always feels hot, he has the habit of dressing as if he were surrounded by snow, ice and polar bears….

[Last paragraph]  If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale; two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.

— Natalia Ginzburg, 1962.

ENDINGS (1)

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Certain kinds of last paragraph give me shivers.  They can occasionally occur at the end of a book.  More often, though, this kind of paragraph ends a much shorter piece — usually not fiction. And it goes on delivering its magic no matter how often I read it.  Although I can’t write a last paragraph like that — here, and in tomorrow’s post, are two by a great Italian writer that do it for me every time.

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This is an abridged version of “Winter in the Abruzzi,” by Natalia Ginzburg, who began to write during World War II.  She wrote it in Italian, of course — a language of which I neither speak nor read a single word other than “ciao” and “grazie.”  The version I am quoting from comes from a collection of her essays called The Little Virtues (“Le Piccole Virtu”), translated by Dick Davis.  You can read all of “Winter in the Abruzzi” in translation, for free, at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2002/may/23/winter-in-the-abruzzi/  I urge you to do so, because — for reasons of post size — what follows is less than half of the whole.

The husband in the last paragraph was the anti-Fascist scholar Leone Ginzburg. The Ginzburgs had spent the early years of World War II in political exile with their three young children in a poor village in the Abruzzi.  When they came back to Rome in 1944, Leone Ginzburg was arrested and severely tortured.  He died in prison at the hands of the Fascists.

Natalia Ginzburg writes plain. She writes true. When she’s done, there’s nothing left to say.

WINTER IN THE ABRUZZI

God has given us this moment of peace

There are only two seasons in the Abruzzi: summer and winter.  The spring is snowy and windy like the winter, and the autumn is hot and clear like the summer.  Summer starts in June and ends in November.  The long days of sunshine on the low, parched hills, the yellow dust in the streets and the babies’ dysentery come to an end, and winter begins. People stop living in the streets: the barefoot children disappear from the church steps.  In the region I am talking about almost all the men disappeared after the last crops were brought in: they went for work to Terni, Sulmona or Rome.  Many bricklayers came from that area, and some of the houses were elegantly built; they were like small villas with terraces and little columns, and when you entered them you would be astonished to find large dark kitchens with hams hanging from the ceilings, and vast, dirty empty rooms.  In the kitchen a fire would be burning, and there were various kinds of fire: there were great fires of oak logs, fires of branches and leaves, fires of twigs picked up one by one in the street.  It was easier to tell the rich from the poor by looking at the fires they burnt than by looking at the houses or at the people themselves, or at their clothes and shoes which were all more or less the same.

When I first arrived in that countryside all the faces looked the same to me, all the women — rich and poor, young and old — resembled each other  Almost all of them had toothless mouths: exhaustion and a wretched diet, the unremitting overwork of childbirth and breast feeding, mean that women lose their teeth there when they are thirty. But then, gradually, I began to distinguish Vincenzina from Secondina, Annunziata from Addolerata, and I began to go into their houses and warm myself at their various fires.

When the first snows began to fall a quiet sadness took hold of us.  We were in exile: our city was a long way off, and so were books, friends, the various desultory events of a real existence.  We lit our green stove with its long chimney that went through the ceiling: we gathered together in the room with the stove — there we cooked and ate, my husband wrote at the big oval table, the children covered the floor with toys.  There was an eagle painted on the ceiling of the room, and I used to look at the eagle and think that was exile.  Exile was the eagle, the murmur of the green stove, the vast, silent countryside and the motionless snow.

At five o’clock the bell of the church of Santa Maria would ring and the women with their black shawls and red faces went to Benediction.  Every evening my husband and I went for a walk: every evening we walked arm in arm, sinking our feet into the snow.  The houses that ran alongside the street were lived in by people we knew and liked, and they all used to come to the door to greet us.  Sometimes one would ask, ‘When will you go back to your own house?’ My husband answered, ‘When the war is over.’  ‘And when will this war be over?  You know everything and you’re a professor, when will it be over?’ They called my husband ‘the professor’ because they could not pronounce his name, and they came from a long way off to ask his advice on the most diverse things — the best season for having teeth out, the subsidies which the town-hall gave, and the different taxes and duties….

Every day homesickness grew in us.  Sometimes it was even pleasant, like being in gentle slightly intoxicating company.  Letters used to arrive from our city with news of marriages and deaths from which we were excluded. Sometimes our homesickness was sharp and bitter, and turned into hatred;…. But it was a hatred which we kept hidden because we knew it was unjust; and our house was always full of people who came to ask for favors and to offer them….

I talked to our children about our city.  They had been very small when we left, and had no memories of it at all.  I told them that there the houses had many stories, that there were so many houses and so many streets, and so many big fine shops. ‘But here there is Giro’s,’ the children said.

Giro’s shop was exactly opposite our house. Giro used to stand in the doorway like an old owl, gazing at the street with his round, indifferent eyes.  He sold a bit of everything; groceries and candles, postcards, shoes and oranges. When the stock arrived and Giro unloaded the crates, boys ran to eat the rotten oranges that he threw away. At Christmas nougat, liqueurs and sweets also arrived.  But he never gave the slightest discount on his prices. ‘How mean you are, Giro,’ the women said to him, and he answered ‘People who aren’t mean get eaten by dogs.’…..

In February the air was soft and damp. Grey, swollen clouds travelled across the sky. One year during the thaw the gutters broke. Then water began to pour into the house and the rooms became a veritable quagmire.  But it was like this throughout the whole area; not one house remained dry. The women emptied buckets out of their windows and swept the water out of their front doors. There were people who went to bed with an open umbrella.  Domenico Orecchia said that it was a punishment for some sin. This lasted for a week; then, at last, every trace of snow disappeared from the roofs, and Aristide mended the gutters.

A restlessness awoke in us as winter drew to its end. Perhaps someone would come to find us: perhaps something would finally happen. Our exile had to have an end too. The roads which separated us from the world seemed shorter; the post arrived more often. All our chilblains gradually got better.

There is a kind of uniform monotony in the fate of man. Our lives unfold according to ancient, unchangeable laws, according to an invariable and ancient rhythm. Our dreams are never realized and as soon as we see them betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.

[Last paragraph]   My husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli, a few months after we left the Abruzzi. Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish which preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us — to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow. At that time I believed in a simple and happy future, rich with hopes that were fulfilled, with experiences and plans that were shared. But that was the best time of my life, and only now that it has gone from me forever — only now do I realize it.

— Natalia Ginzburg, 1944.