OUT OF PURGATORY ( AND ANOTHER POST FROM THE PAST)

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[Although I’ve been out of commission for a while with an obscure form of misery caused by a dermatological virus of unknown origin, I seem to be, slowly, coming back to life.  Not quite there, though. So if you’ll please bear with me a bit longer, here’s a piece from the end of last year, to keep you going until I can organize some of the new thoughts for posts that came in the night when scratching triumphed over sleep.  Finding it helped remind self-referential me that my temporary distresses have been comparatively minor.]

[Re-blogged from December 29, 2013]

KISS YOU LOVE YOU, COUSIN YULIA

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, 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.

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MANY THANKS, AN UPDATE, AND A POST FROM THE PAST

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[As friends and followers know, I checked out of blogging about five days ago to scratch what was first thought to be eczema.  Many thanks for all the good wishes that came my way from (in order of receipt) John Hayden, Takami, Mr. T. (whose real name I still don’t know), Margaret, Taylor, Maggie, Rachael, Carol, Annie, Shimon Z (whose recommendation of Aloe Vera lotion was extremely helpful) and Caspar.  I appreciated your messages very much, even when I learned a day or two later that it is not eczema, which tends to appear in patches.

The good news is that it isn’t, because eczema recurs, due to a sensitivity to substances often unknown.  What I have is a one-time thing.  Its fancy name is general viral exanthem (violent skin response to an unknown virus), and it’s supposed to run its course in about fourteen days.  The bad news is that it doesn’t appear in patches.  It’s a scalp-to-toe proposition, front and back (and orifices too), and makes you feel like Job. (In my case, female version.  Was there a Mrs. Job?).  The treatment (to shorten duration and supposedly lessen desire to rip oneself to shreds) is oral steroids for fifteen days, and both oral and topical antihistamines.  Both of these — whatever else they do — leave you groggy, dizzy and sleepy.  Not at all the kind of writer you’d like to read.

I do expect to emerge my usual smooth-skinned and verbal self again in due time, so please bear with me.  In the meanwhile, for those of you who came on board more recently, I’ll be re-posting some earlier pieces from time to time that received favorable comment when first they ran.  Maybe long-time followers won’t mind seeing them again, either.  Xoxox to all.]

[Re-blogged from December 10, 2013]

A REALLY SOPPY POST ABOUT MOTHERS

When I was young, I sometimes went to walk in the local cemetery on weekends — usually after my mother had firmly observed that it was too nice out to spend the day indoors reading.

What I liked about walking in the cemetery was being able to speculate about the lives of the people who were buried there.  In the older section, where the burials had occurred in and around what was then known as “the turn of the century,” one could find men and women who had been born in the 1850′s and 1860′s — just like the principal characters in the Victorian novels we were reading for English that were my favorite part of high school homework.

The headstones in this part of the cemetery were mainly clustered in family plots, usually around one large stone commemorating the names and dates of birth and death of the father and mother — with smaller stones bearing names and dates for each of their children (and the children’s wives and husbands, if any).

But now and then, only the father’s name and dates were on the large stone.  Where this was the arrangement, among the smaller stones bearing the names and dates of sons and daughters was one without a name.  It was inscribed with just a single word:  ”Mother.”

An only child, I would stand in front of one of these family plots, subtracting dates of birth from dates of death, and arranging family trees in my head.  When I saw the early death of an infant, I would try to imagine the cause — diphtheria? scarlet fever? smallpox? — and picture to myself the loss and the grieving.  When I discovered an unmarried daughter (not uncommon in those nineteenth-century families), I would try to imagine what her life had become as her brothers and sisters married and moved away.

I also sometimes wondered about the occasional mother buried namelessly among her children.  Here too were possibilities for dramatic speculation.  Had she endured a despotic nineteenth-century marriage in which repeated childbearing and endless housekeeping had entirely eroded her identity?  Or — a more benign hypothesis — perhaps the family plot had been purchased long after she had died, so that she was actually buried elsewhere, in an even older cemetery, with a proper epitaph.

In any event, I never wondered about her for long.  After all, she had lived way back in the nineteenth century.  Women were full-fledged citizens now.  And I was sure her children had loved her. Which, for a mother, was what counted, wasn’t it?  Besides, early childhood death and spinsterhood provided richer and more comfortable vicarious emotion. So I would move on — the cemetery tourist — to other headstones.

When I was much less young (in mid-life actually), I lived near another cemetery.  This one had also been founded in the mid-nineteenth century, so that here too there was an older section with family plots. And here too — when strolling on a beautiful weekend afternoon (as my mother would have recommended) — I could come across a cluster of headstones amid which I could just make out, on one small darkened stone tilting into the earth, the single word, “Mother.”

But now, a mother myself of grown children, I was angry for this poor anonymous woman.  Was this all her life had amounted to?  Transmission of DNA to the next generation?   Flushed with unwelcome rage, I would quickly hurry out the open scrollwork gates of the tranquil cemetery and plunge myself again into the problems and remaining pleasures of a professional person in mid-life who happened also to be a woman.

Today, well into the twenty-first century, I am not young at all — and have only just begun to understand a little how private, and in the end how evanescent, is every life — male or female.

I had thought to leave behind, while I still can, some record of my own mother, other than her gravestone, for my children and grandchildren.  I find that all I can do is commemorate her as my mother.  To say that what I can write about her is her life story would be untrue.

Yes, I know where she worked and what she did there after I grew up and no longer needed her. I know the patchwork of selected anecdotes from her past she chose to tell me. I have memories of what she was like with me at various periods of my own life.

But I never knew her as a person who was not my mother.  I never knew how she felt as a girl, or woman, or wife, or old woman.  I never knew what she really hoped, or dreamed, or suffered.

All that went into the grave with her.  So perhaps I was right when I was young — that to be a remembered and (yes!) much loved mother is enough.

Love and remembrance: Is there anything better to leave behind?

OUT SICK — NO NEW POSTS FOR A WHILE

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Nothing fatal. Just a comprehensive case of eczema that makes it painful to sit, think, or type. So if you’ll excuse me while it gets getter, here’s a rerun that should cheer you up until I rise again from my couch of itchy-scratcy, all anointed with Medicare Part D-approved medications that are supposed to relieve the need to tear myself apart with my fingernails.  Please bear with me and enjoy.  It’s a flashmob performance of Beeethoven’s Ode to Joy, recorded in one of the main plazas of Sabadell, Spain.  Some of you will have seen it before; others not.  Whichever category you’re in, my feeling is you can’t get too much joy. 

[Re-blogged from November 23, 2013]

JOY

FAMILY HISTORY

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S.’s mother refused to marry his father unless her mother, a widow twice over, could live with them.  S.’s father must have wanted to marry S.’s mother very much, because he said yes.

S.’s mother was extremely attached to her own mother because she was all her mother had.  When her mother had arrived in the United States from Poland, she was already a widow with two very young children.  S.’s mother was three.  Her baby sister was less than a year old.  S.’s mother’s mother, without husband or income, gave the baby up for adoption to a Jewish family that was better off.  The baby was taken away for a better life in New Brunswick, Canada.  After the sisters were grown, S.’s mother tried to get in touch, for her own sake as well as her mother’s.  But the younger sister refused to have anything to do with her, and could not forgive their mother for having given her away.

S.’s father was not a religious man. His new mother-in-law was a very religious woman. Although she had lived in the United States since S.’s mother’s was three, the mother-in-law had never learned English.  She communicated with the world, and with her new son-in-law, mainly through her daughter, his new wife.  And only in Yiddish.  S.’s mother – who S. suspects never cared much for religion herself — kept a kosher home for her mother’s sake.  When S. was eight or nine, his father would take him out to the fights on Friday nights, where they would eat trafe hotdogs (unclean! unclean!) slathered in mustard and relish. “Don’t tell your mother,” his father would say.

S.’s father and S.’s mother’s mother hated each other.  When he was really annoyed at her presence under his roof, he called her “KUR-veh.”  It meant “whore.” Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it must have been the worst word for a woman he knew.  He spoke English perfectly well; he used the Yiddish word so she could understand it. For variety, he sometimes also wished cholera on her, in Yiddish. Since he was the breadwinner, she had no recourse but to retire to her room whenever he came home from work. S. cannot remember their often having been in the same room together, and never for very long.

The family lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where S.’s father ran an Army-Navy store in a rundown neighborhood.  The apartment had two bedrooms.  S.’s father and mother took the bigger bedroom, and the mother-in-law the smaller bedroom.  When S.’s sister was born, she slept in a cot in her parents’ room.  When S. was born three years later, he slept with his grandmother.  In the same big bed.  He slept there until he was eleven, when he woke one morning with an erection and refused ever to share a bed with her again.  Another arrangement was then made:  the living room couch.

S.’s grandmother adored him.  He was the Boy.  He was going to be a rabbi.  Like her uncle. At least, those were her plans for him.  She had a rabbinical school in Poland all picked out.  (Had she succeeded in getting him there, he would have arrived in Poland just before Hitler’s armies marched in.)  When S.’s father was out of the house, she would creep into the kitchen to do her own special cooking, since S.’s mother worked during the day in the store with his father.  He remembers his grandmother rendering chicken fat  — to be used instead of butter for cooking fleisch (meat) meals — and giving him special treats of it, salted and smeared on rye bread. She also gave him the chicken necks rendered of their fat to chew on and then spit out. They were called gribenes. His sister didn’t get these treats.  His grandmother said it was their “secret” together.  The only other memorable aspect of her cuisine S. now recalls was the spaghetti – boiled and mixed with a can of Heinz vegetarian baked beans.

S. accepted the fact of his grandmother. But the woman he says he loved was his mother.  “Tatele mein,” she called him when she got back in the evenings.  “My little man.”  But he has few other memories of her, other than her veneration for learning, her love of opera, her interest in early ideas about health food, her ardent support for FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, her rejection of makeup, her unending yearning to be reconciled with her little sister, and her great fondness for the state of Georgia, where she had apparently spent several happy years as a child after her mother found a second husband and lived for a time in Georgia with him.

Matters in the apartment came to a head shortly after S. was moved to the living room couch.  S.’s father put his foot down; he wanted his mother-in-law out!  By then he was able to pay rent for her on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Except how could she live alone? She couldn’t speak English.  She was getting old.

The solution S.’s parents devised was to send both of their children to live with her during the week.  S.’s sister, by then fourteen, would do the shopping and help with the housework after school.  But why did S. have to go too?  To this day, he’s not sure.  At eleven, he could have managed in Bridgeport until his parents came home in the evenings.  He thinks his mother deferred to her mother once again.  There were better Hebrew schools on the lower East Side.  And in one or two more years, Yeshiva – the equivalent of high school for the devout.  A wonderful preparation for Poland!

From then on, S. and his sister saw their parents only on Sundays.  S. did not do particularly well at the Yeshiva.  At sixteen, he even took a forbidden Saturday job as an usher at the movies, where he luxuriated in sinful appreciation of what was on the screen. But thanks to the hard work of their parents at the Army-Navy store, both he and his sister went to college, their tuitions fully paid for.  (The Polish option was not considered.)

After an advanced degree in Spanish literature, his sister subsided into deferential marriage to a religious man and motherhood of four children in Montreal.  S. says she was never a happy woman. S. himself  became an M.D.  His parents were very proud.  Afterwards, he married a lapsed Catholic.  Although she made a nominal conversion to Judaism, when she came to meet the family bearing a bouquet of flowers, S.’s grandmother threw the flowers on the floor.  S. does not comment further on this incident, or indicate whether his mother apologized for her mother to the bride.

When S. talks about these things, he says his mother – by now long dead — was an angel.  If asked what kind of angel would repeatedly choose her mother over her son, he further says that actually he can remember very little about his his mother as she was when he was a boy, but his sister, who shared their parents’ bedroom until she was fourteen, always said she was an angel.  Then he asks, somewhat rhetorically: what choice did his mother have?

A hard question to answer.  However, S.’s medical specialty is interesting.  He elected to do psychiatry — even though he says that during the rotations, he enjoyed radiology best. His Hebrew remains very well pronounced, but he has no opportunity to use it.  He hasn’t gone to synagogue or temple for many years.  He calls himself a secular humanist.

S.’s sister’s four children have five children between them: four girls and a boy.  S. has three children and two grandchildren: a boy and a girl.  Thus the generations succeed each other.  But their stories will be someone else’s to tell.  Not mine.

CLOSURE

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[click for back story]

February 16, 2014

 Dear Amy,

I’m using your first name because we met once, although you may not remember it.  Your father brought me to dinner with you and your partner in Revere.  It was a Sunday evening in late January or early February 1988.  I was living in Newton then.  You were beautiful and gracious, and it was a most hospitable meal.  As I told him while we were driving back to Newton.

This is an extremely belated condolence letter.  I learned only a few days ago that your father died last May.  I am so sorry for your loss.  It’s very hard when a parent dies. You become nobody’s child.  Time slowly makes it easier.  But the pain never really goes away.

I knew your father for such a long time, since the summer of 1948, that it was a shock to come across his obituary online.  Although we last saw each other in 2006, when he came to lunch because I was leaving Massachusetts, I somehow thought he would always be there in the big house on Burnham Road, or at least as long as I’m around.  I hope his leaving was easy, and without pain, and that some of his family – if not all of you — were with him.

He was a fine young man in the years I knew him best, and I’m sure he was a good man and caring father all his life.  I do know he loved you, and your sisters and brother, very much.

 My very best wishes,

Nina Mishkin

NO PAINKILLER AVAILABLE

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Not every ache or pain is age related. And not every pain can be numbed, even by prescription. Here are three paragraphs about pain not numbed in someone not yet old. I call the three paragraphs a story, although the beginning of the story precedes the three paragraphs and the story has no end. Which I suppose is the point.  There is no end.

I didn’t write it.  I wish I had.  To me it says everything there is to say about what it’s about. Which (I think) makes it impressive, if unconventional, writing.  Yes, it’s by Lydia Davis again. [From The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador paperback edition, pp. 170-171.]  I know some of you found her hard to take when I posted about her before. But this piece really got to me, so I thought I’d try again.  It’s not very long. See how you feel about it.

Wife One in Country 

Wife one calls to speak to son.  Wife two answers with impatience, gives phone to son of wife one. Son has heard impatience in voice of wife two and tells mother he thought caller was father’s sister: raging aunt, constant caller, troublesome woman.  Wife one wonders: is she herself perhaps another raging woman, constant caller?  No, raging woman but not constant caller.  Though, for wife two, also troublesome woman.

After speaking to son, much disturbance in wife one.  Wife one misses son, thinks how some years ago she, too, answered phone and talked to husband’s raging sister, constant caller, protecting husband from troublesome woman.  Now wife two protects husband from troublesome sister, constant caller, and also from wife one, raging woman.  Wife one sees this and imagines future wife three protecting husband not only from raging wife one but also from troublesome wife two, as well as constantly calling sister.

After speaking to son, wife one, often raging though now quiet woman, eats dinner alone though in company of large television.  Wife one swallows food, swallows pain, swallows food again.  Watches intently ad about easy to clean stove: mother who is not real mother flips fried egg onto hot burner, then fries second egg and gives cheerful young son who is not real son loving kiss as spaniel who is not real family dog steals second fried egg off plate of son who is not real son.  Pain increases in wife one, wife one swallows food, swallows pain, swallows food again, swallows pain again, swallows food again.

P.S.  If “Wife One” is at all to your taste, you may enjoy some of the quiet musings of one of the WordPress bloggers I follow.  She identifies herself as JMPod, and her blog is Original Pea.  I don’t know if she’s read Lydia Davis, but some of her short pieces remind me of Davis. What she writes is often not upbeat. Although she does say she writes mainly for her own pleasure, it would be great if more people found her.  Some things can’t be fixed. But it helps when you can write about them and other people read what you write.

COULDA, SHOULDA

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It was a single session yesterday.  Often the Pilates studio can pair me up with someone, which lowers the price by ten dollars. But sometimes, they can’t.  Despite the ten dollars, I like having Peggy to myself.  We get to do some girlfriend talk while she puts me through the various routines I can manage. Also, near the end of the hour she often gives a delicious back massage while I’m stretching forward on a fearful-looking apparatus called The Tower.

Peggy is sixty, and looks wonderful in her exercise clothes from Lululemon, Athleta and (sometimes) the sales racks at Marshall’s.  (But you really have to look hard to find something at Marshall’s, she cautions.) She is rounded and shapely (“Great legs and ass,” says Bill), but also firm and strong, with highlighted blondish brown hair she’s growing out into a longish pixie cut, and nicely made up blue eyes. Her face is cherubic although her chin is softening, but just a little.  She has two beautiful blonde daughters in college (the older finishing in May) and — after spending nearly all her life in or around the Princeton-Lawrenceville-Pennington-Flemington area of New Jersey — a wonderful sense of adventure.

Peggy had a relatively long career in fashion marketing and merchandising until her marriage to a divorced man who shared custody of his three small children with his ex-wife.  After the marriage, fairly late in her thirties, she became a full-time wife and mother both to her own two daughters and — for half the week — his three children as well.  She moved out about a year and a half ago,  when the youngest daughter had gone off to school, after four or more years of increasing unhappiness in her marriage.

During that time, she discovered Pilates, became a certified Pilates instructor, and has been working fifteen to twenty hours a week ever since.  Now that the divorce is finalized, she is waiting for her older girl to graduate before moving on. At the end of June, she’s taking herself off to the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, near the beach.  She knows no one there, but she loves Charleston, loves the southern climate, loves the beach.  “When I was shoveling snow off the driveway for the umpteenth time this winter,” she said, “I told myself never again!”

She’s worked it all out with her accountant.  She knows how long she can afford to look around for work, what she can spend per month, when she needs to start earning again, when she’ll be able to replace her car. [2016. She hopes it lasts that long.]  She thought she’d begin with Pilates again, because a certified Pilates instructor can always find work in an upscale community, but she really wants to become an interior decorator now.  She loves resort/beach style.  She’s friendly, outgoing, energetic. Unlike Jasmine, the eponymous heroine of Woody Allen’s last movie, who also said interior design was her career goal, Peggy will do just fine.

Faithful readers of this blog may surmise what has been on my mind the past few days, and will therefore not find it odd that I took advantage of my single session to ask Peggy a particular question I otherwise might not have asked while I did leg warmups on The Reformer.  It had nothing to do with her prospective move.  At least, neither of us thought it did.  At first.

“Do you remember your first serious boyfriend?”

She looked surprised at this turn in the conversation.

“Serious,” I said.  “Not just idle flirting.”

“Oh, yes,” she said.  “Very serious.  We met as freshmen in college, and it lasted four years.  Why do you ask?”

I told her about finding the online obituary of my first serious boyfriend, and filled her in a bit about our slight subsequent history together and how upset I was to learn he was gone.  “Is yours still alive?” I asked.  (Foolish question.  He’d be only 60, or 61.)

“Oh, yes.  Very much so.”  Her face took on a wistful look.

“What happened?  After the four years, I mean?”

“Well, he was going back to Colorado, where he came from. I was intent on a career in fashion in New York City!”

“And you broke up over that?”

She smiled sadly.  “We argued about it for two months.  But I thought, ‘Colorado?  There’s nothing there for me.'” She brought over a purple block and put it between my raised knees for the detested “tabletops.”

“He was handsome, and we were crazy about each other. He had some family money, and then became very very rich.  He’s a millionaire and more today. But I was 22 — and stubborn.”

“Did you ever see him again?”

“Oh yes.  About five years ago he was in New York for business, and we had a three-hour dinner together.  He looked great.  It was great.  We talked about our time together, and what might have been.”

“And?”

“He’s married now.  Has four lovely children. The youngest is still just sixteen.  I said, ‘If your wife ever kicks you out, call me!’  He laughed. But she won’t.  And he wouldn’t leave. I think they’re very happy. Actually,” she added, “he did come to New York once before, about three years after we broke up.  It was to tell me he was getting married.  That was an earlier marriage, one that didn’t work.  He didn’t want me to hear it from anyone from him.”

“He flew to New York from Colorado just to tell you he was getting married?”

She nodded.

“He must have cared about you very much,” I said, trying to achieve twenty angel wings with my knees still raised in tabletop. (The language of Pilates sometimes reaches throw-up levels of cuteness.)  “Maybe he married the first time on the rebound from you.”

She shrugged.  “Too late to think about that now. Career in fashion!  Hahaha.  I went on the road, marketing Ship ‘n Shore blouses.  Within a few years of college, he had a chain of sporting apparel stores all through Colorado.  I could have styled and managed them! And he was tall and gorgeous and we really did love each other.   And now he owns ski resorts, and a beautiful home where I could have done his entertaining!  And look where I am!  Off to Charleston at 60 to live in a rental while I figure out the lay of the land.”

“It’s going to be a great adventure,” I said, sitting up to get a drink of water before doing the arm work.  “You know it will!”

“Yes, it will!” she declared.

“Bill has a saying,” I added.  ” ‘We get too soon old, and too late smart.’ ”

“I’ll have to remember that one,” said Peggy.

Then we both agreed that “coulda, shoulda” never helped anyone, and we all do the best we can with what we have in the way of wisdom and knowledge of life at any particular time, and that there’s no point in beating yourself up about what you did or didn’t do when you were young.

“Tell Bill to get himself out and start walking,” she said, as I finished up for the day.

I shall miss her when she leaves.