THE HUNGARIAN’S QUESTION

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My first husband found the Hungarian for me.  That is, he found two therapists, the first with an American name and the second with a foreign, almost unpronounceable one.  To me, the child of immigrants from Eastern Europe, it was a no-brainer.  I chose the the Hungarian.

My first husband was unhappy that I was taking too many naps on late weekend afternoons. He wanted me to stop it. That’s why he had looked up the names of therapists. He had other concerns as well, such as the fact that he had found empty candy wrappers under the seat of our car. I think the naps trumped the candy, though.  I had only gained about five pounds and could still fit into my clothes so didn’t need to buy anything new, whereas the naps interfered with my listening to him, playing with him, and generally admiring him in any spare time I might have.

I wouldn’t have dared tell my first husband the naps were to avoid being with him so much. But I could have told him, with equal truthfulness, they were because I was really tired — from working five days a week to support us, making dinners and washing dishes afterwards, cleaning the apartment every Saturday morning, pulling a shopping cart to the A&P five blocks away every Saturday afternoon to bring back a week’s worth of groceries and other necessaries, going ice-skating or playing tennis with him (depending on the season) in Central Park on Sunday mornings, and doing the week’s laundry in the basement machines on Sunday afternoons. [There were other tasks, too, but you get the idea.]

However, my first husband wouldn’t have wanted to hear all that.  He felt he was entitled to a wife who could take care of everything without requiring naps because he was a genius who had to spend almost all his time, when he wasn’t ice-skating or playing tennis, writing unpublishable books and therefore needed at least some admiration from someone, especially on late weekend afternoons.  Also, he was certifiably handsome, which in his eyes counted for a very great deal.

The Hungarian was about forty and had an office off the lobby in an apartment house on East 86th Street, between Madison and Park.  He called me “honeybunch.”  I liked that.   I very much needed to be someone’s honeybunch.  Twice a week after work, I would wait on a chair in the lobby until the previous patient had left.  Then I would knock, he would open the door, smile as if he were glad to see me, and say, ” Come in, come in.”  After I had taken off my coat, he would add, “Ma, honeybunch.  So how are you?”  (I think “ma” meant “well” in Hungarian, but I never asked. I was just happy not to have to head home right after work, and to have a place to go that was just for me.)

But honeybunch came later. First, there was the initial visit. The Hungarian asked why I had come. He listened very carefully.  I asked if he thought he could help.  He said he could help if I did my part.

Then he said he was going to ask me a question which I should answer quickly, not thinking about it — with the very first thing that popped into my mind.

This was the question:  “Who are you with when you’re alone?”

[Before I tell you what I answered, ask yourself how you would answer. “Who are you with when you are alone?”]

I said, “What kind of question is that?  When I’m alone, I’m with nobody.”

The Hungarian said, “Really?  When you’re alone, you’re with nobody?”

“Well, what do you expect me to say?” I asked.  “When I’m all alone, of course I’m with nobody. There’s nobody there.”

“But there is somebody there,” he said.  “When you’re alone, you’re with yourself.”

It wasn’t just a word game. I was twenty-eight. And to myself I was nobody.

So that’s where we began.

I owe him a lot.

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“…AND WIFE”

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[Re-blogged from November 30, 2013]

Early this morning, something I haven’t thought about in years floated up out of the vasty deeps within and refused to go away.  Don’t ask me why, or why now, because I haven’t  a clue.

It was the case of “I. de S. and Wife.”

This was the very first tort case ever reported in Anglo-American case law, and the first case I read when I went to law school at the ripe age of 51.  I think “I.” stood for “Isaac.”  I’m not sure where “S.” was. Surrey? Suffolk? Salisbury?  Maybe a friend across the pond can help us out here?

Glossary of terms. Consult as needed.]

  • Anglo-American law.”  American law derives from English law.  No big surprise. We were English colonies before we went off on our own.  English law was all there was. Moreover, the law is thrifty; it keeps everything that gets decided, and builds on it.  Even after a revolution. “Stare decisis” (it stands decided) — if you want to use fancy words.
  • Case law.”  Also known as bench-made law. Or common law. (In contrast to law enacted by legislatures.) What judges decide after all the factual evidence is in, and after they’ve considered all the relevant case law that came before.
  • Tort.”  Not a misspelled Austrian pastry.  A branch of civil law having to do with various kinds of intentional or negligent harm people inflict on each other (excluding breach of contract, which is part of contract law ) — for which there may be financial compensation.
  • Civil law.”  Not criminal law.  No jail time.  No executions.  Can get expensive, though.

Ouch.  Yes, I know it hurts.  But how can I tell you about I. and his wife, who both lived in S. at the very beginning of the 13th century, without the vocabulary?  Anyhow, that ‘s all out of the way now. Onward!

As I  recall — and it’s been a long time, so some of the details may be fuzzy — I. was a tavern keeper.  After he had shut up shop for the night, there was loud and horrid caterwauling in the street below the window.  The wife of I. — nameless for eternity — looked out, and became afeared.  (Tr., She was frightened.)  I.  went to court. He brought suit. He prevailed.

The judges decided there had been an assault.  Even though the guy in the street hadn’t actually touched anyone.  It was the first actionable tort!  Assault:  any intentional act or conduct which  creates in another person a reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm.  Stare decisis.

Significant words that will be on the test:  (1) intentional; (2) reasonable; (3) imminent; (4) bodily.   But never mind that.

What was really significant — to me and all the other women in the class, which was 50% of us — was I.’s wife.  Because she was so in-significant.  She had no name.   She had no right to bring her own complaint. (I. had to do it instead.)  In the eyes of the law she was not a person, and therefore had no injury.  She was his appendage, his property, his chattel.  Frightening her  — by inflicting reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm — was an injury to him.

Sounds nuts, doesn’t it? Thank goodness we’re not living then!

Not so fast.   As recently as the mid-twentieth century (when I was in college), a wife in some states still couldn’t sue her husband — except, under certain limited circumstances, for divorce.  If the brakes on his parked car failed, and the car rolled down the driveway and hit her as she was coming in from the street with the groceries — she couldn’t make a claim against his insurance company.

Why not? Because of the time-honored legal doctrine of marital harmony, with which the courts  – and the insurance company —  chose not to interfere.  Man and wife were one flesh, went the reasoning. So how could a man (through his insurer) pay himself for hurting his own flesh?

Flash forward to a few days ago when, blog-browsing, I came across a really adorable young man.  He’s twenty-five, and still unmarried, but he’s writing posts about what he’ll tell his future daughter(s), and what he’ll tell his future son(s) — most of both of which I really like.  So I clicked “like.”

But he also wrote a sweet and loving post to his future wife, whom he hasn’t met yet, in which he promises to go out in the world to work for her, and take care of her, and always consider her in all his decision-making for the two of them. I know he means well, but I  couldn’t click “like.”  Why can’t she  — the future wife — also go out in the world, and sometimes take care of him, and always consider him in all their decision-making for the two of them?

My ambivalence about traditional “wife”-dom is perhaps surprising in someone for whom being married has been such a central preoccupation over the years.  I used to say I couldn’t leave a husband till I had a shrink, and I couldn’t leave a shrink till I had a husband.  And that was the story of my life, until Bill.  Bill has broken that pattern for me by being both a shrink (now nearly retired) and someone who’s stuck around, unmarried, for almost thirteen years while agreeing that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

I guess he’s my common-law husband. And I’m his common-law wife.  [See glossary, above.]  Not quite a wife, but almost. Works for him, works for us, works for me.

Oh, wait.  Does New Jersey recognize common-law marriage?

I’d better go find out right away.

CLASS OF ’52, WHERE ARE YOU?

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One of the bad things about growing old is that an ever-increasing number of people you know, or sort of know, don’t.

Take my first husband, for instance.  Although nine years older, until just a few months ago I thought he was hanging in there.  Every time I looked him up, Google reported that he was alive and well in a town on Long Island, New York called St. James, with a wife named Rita.  (She would have been the fourth; I was his second.) Good for him, I thought.  91 and still kicking!  Maybe some day I’ll find myself in St. James, somehow or other, so he can eat his heart out.

Google was wrong.  The last time I went hunting for him in an idle moment, I discovered his obituary in a textbook on English Composition.  It was supposed to be an example of good expository prose. He had died of heart problems in 1988, a few months before his 66th birthday. For twenty-five years I’d been under the impression that he was still alive — and he wasn’t!

Oh, it was him, all right.  The names of his children (by the first wife), his education and job history (up to 1960, when I left him) — it was all 100% correct. How could he have done this to me?  Here I was living my life, thinking he was out there somewhere.  And he was dead!

I got over it.   But then it happened again.  After five miserable years with colon cancer, chemo, radiation, adhesions, colostomy bags, ileostomy bags, ports in the arm for feeding and fluid intake, breaking a hip, breaking another hip, cancer in the liver — one of my two closest friends died just before her 75th birthday.  I’d known her since I was 29 and she was 22.

That one I won’t get over so fast.

However, almost as bad as what you know is what you don’t know.  About three years ago, I volunteered to take over the job of Class Correspondent for my college’s bi-annual magazine.  Mine was the class of 1952.  Meaning that was the year we graduated. [If we did. The college counts everyone who enrolled in September 1948 as part of the class, irrespective of what may have happened afterwards. Transfer students count, too.  Tax-free gifts can come from anywhere.]

I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to renew old ties, forge new bonds with a large group of people who go back as far as me.  I never thought to ask the last Class Correspondent why she quit.

The college yearbook for 1949 lists 86 freshmen enrolled for the ’48-’49 academic year, and two more as unclassified who later joined our class, plus one special day student:  89 all together.  The 1952 Program for Commencement lists only 65, including transfers from other schools, as Candidates for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts.

The list I received from the college when I undertook to collect the ’52 news twice a year had 64 names on it.  Pretty good survival rate, don’t you think?    Well, no.  Add the transfers to the 89 at the starting line and you’ve got at least 100 — of whom more than a third were gone for good before I even began.

One more died while I was still looking over the list.  I had spoken with her by telephone a couple of years earlier, to see if she was coming to a reunion. [We were in our mid-70s then.] She said she wasn’t. Then she said that after her husband died, she moved from Rome, where she had lived with him for thirty years, to be near two daughters in California.  But the daughters weren’t very near, and she had peripheral neuropathy in both feet, which meant it hurt to walk, and she could barely totter to her car to go anywhere, and she was very unhappy and didn’t know what to do. And I was very unhappy for her, because without knowing her very well I had always liked her (although we didn’t talk about those things when we were young) and I didn’t know what to do to make her feel better, because nothing ever would.

Now I had 63 names.  But were they still all alive?  If no one informs your college you’re gone, how can the college know? It will go on sending you its magazine with the class “news,”  and also its appeals for money — until the post office sends everything  back.

I wrote to everyone.  I needed a lot of stamps. Only fourteen members of the class, excluding me, had e-mail. Why was that?  E-mail has been around for at least twenty years, since we were all about sixty-two.  What is it with these women? One of them, who used to be quite a close friend, wrote back from England to explain.  She typed her letter on a smallish rectangle of tissue-thin paper, without margins, right out to the edges, so as not to waste any space.  Didn’t she know air mail now costs no more than mail delivered by packet boat?  [Are there still packet boats?]  I quote her:  “As you may have guessed from this spectral typing, I don’t own a working computer and am a complete Luddite technophobe.”  She added: “I do a prodigious amount of reading — proper books, not those nasty little tablet things.”

So there, twenty-first century!

Another, who permitted me to visit her in New York City, where she lives in a large darkened apartment with full-time help, is in a wheelchair because “something” is wrong with her hip but she won’t go to a hospital.  Her daughters bring clothes and books; her son has set up a computer in the apartment, connected to the internet.  She refuses to learn how to use it, although her brain appears to be in perfectly good working order. “What do I need all that for?” she asked me.

Since that first round of letters, essentially unproductive for publication, I’ve only done e-mail with the fourteen who have it. [Or who have let the college know they have it.]  What do I mean ly “unproductive?”  Well, can I really put in the magazine that A.’s blood sugar is hard to control and T.’s arthritis prevents offering tea if anyone visits her in Connecticut?

Now the fourteen are shrinking in number.  One e-mail was just returned; addressee unknown.  Another came back because “addressee no longer has internet service due to circumstances beyond her control.”  I spent a couple of days wondering what circumstances.  Nursing home? Alzheimers? Who would I ask? Do I really want to know?  I hear from their former friends that two more do have Alzheimers, and are in nursing homes.

The ’52 Notes will go on.  I will put down that E. in Delaware is grateful her health is still good and her children are well.  That C. is moving to an assisted living facility for the winter, but is keeping her house for summer.  That P. in Israel and M. in Washington are reading a lot, and that T. in Massachusetts has given up her painting to take care of her husband, who is not well.  I’m meeting F. in New York for lunch at a restaurant in a few weeks, and will be able to report on that. Those are the ones who still answer.

But what of the others?  I look at the 65 of us in the 1952 yearbook — young and fresh and innocent, in our white blouses and pin-curled hair.  It doesn’t seem so long ago.  Best listen to Henry James (The Ambassadors, Bk. 5, Ch. 2):  “Live,  live all you can!”

While you can.

“…AND WIFE”

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Early this morning, something I haven’t thought about in years floated up out of the vasty deeps within and refused to go away.  Don’t ask me why, or why now, because I haven’t  a clue.

It was the case of “I. de S. and Wife.”

This was the very first tort case ever reported in Anglo-American case law, and the first case I read when I went to law school at the ripe age of 51.  I think “I.” stood for “Isaac.”  I’m not sure where “S.” was. Surrey? Suffolk? Salisbury?  Maybe a friend across the pond can help us out here?

[ Glossary of terms. Consult as needed.]

  • Anglo-American law.”  American law derives from English law.  No big surprise. We were English colonies before we went off on our own.  English law was all there was. Moreover, the law is thrifty; it keeps everything that gets decided, and builds on it.  Even after a revolution. “Stare decisis” (it stands decided) — if you want to use fancy words.
  • Case law.”  Also known as bench-made law. Or common law. (In contrast to law enacted by legislatures.) What judges decide after all the factual evidence is in, and after they’ve considered all the relevant case law that came before.
  • Tort.”  Not a misspelled Austrian pastry.  A branch of civil law having to do with various kinds of intentional or negligent harm people inflict each other (excluding breach of contract, which is part of contract law ) — for which there may be financial compensation.
  • Civil law.”  Not criminal law.  No jail time.  No executions.  Can get expensive, though.

Ouch.  Yes, I know it hurts.  But how can I tell you about I. and his wife, who both lived in S. at the very beginning of the 13th century, without the vocabulary?  Anyhow, that ‘s all out of the way now. Onward!

As I  recall — and it’s been a long time, so some of the details may be fuzzy — I. was a tavern keeper.  After he had shut up shop for the night, there was loud and horrid caterwauling in the street below the window.  The wife of I. — nameless for eternity — looked out, and became afeared.  (Tr., She was frightened.)  I.  went to court. He brought suit. He prevailed.

The judges decided there had been an assault.  Even though the guy in the street hadn’t actually touched anyone.  It was the first actionable tort!  Assault:  any intentional act or conduct which  creates in another person a reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm.  Stare decisis.

Significant words that will be on the test:  (1) intentional; (2) reasonable; (3) imminent; (4) bodily.   But never mind that.

What was really significant — to me and all the other women in the class, which was 50% of us — was I.’s wife.  Because she was so in-significant.  She had no name.   She had no right to bring her own complaint. (I. had to do it instead.)  In the eyes of the law she was not a person, and therefore had no injury.  She was his appendage, his property, his chattel.  Frightening her  — by inflicting reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm — was an injury to him.

Sounds nuts, doesn’t it? Thank goodness we’re not living then!

Not so fast.   As recently as the mid-twentieth century (when I was in college), a wife in some states still couldn’t sue her husband — except, under certain limited circumstances, for divorce.  If the brakes on his parked car failed, and the car rolled down the driveway and hit her as she was coming in from the street with the groceries — she couldn’t make a claim against his insurance company.

Why not? Because of the time-honored legal doctrine of marital harmony, with which the courts  — and the insurance company —  chose not to interfere.  Man and wife were one flesh, went the reasoning. So how could a man (or his insurer) pay himself for hurting his own flesh?

Flash forward to a few days ago when, blog-browsing, I came across a really adorable young man.  He’s twenty-five, and still unmarried, but he’s writing posts about what he’ll tell his future daughter(s), and what he’ll tell his future son(s) — most of both of which I really like.  So I clicked “like.”

But he also wrote a sweet and loving post to his future wife, whom he hasn’t met yet, in which he promises to go out in the world to work for her, and take care of her, and always consider her in all his decision-making for the two of them. I know he means well, but I  couldn’t click “like.”  Why can’t she  — the future wife — also go out in the world, and take care of him, and always consider him in all their decision-making for the two of them?

My ambivalence about traditional “wife”-dom is perhaps surprising in someone for whom being married has been such a central preoccupation over the years.  I used to say I couldn’t leave a husband till I had a shrink, and I couldn’t leave a shrink till I had a husband.  And that was the story of my life, until Bill.  Bill has broken that pattern for me by being both a shrink (now nearly retired) and someone who’s stuck around, unmarried, for almost thirteen years while agreeing that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

I guess he’s my common-law husband. And I’m his common-law wife.  [See glossary, above.]  Not quite a wife, but almost. Works for him, works for us, works for me.