MEDITATION ON FLOWERS

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I bought myself some flowers...to cheer myself up..I was the one who bought them. It wasn’t an impulse purchase.  Last Sunday afternoon, I deliberately walked to the flower shop a few blocks away.  So how could this large arrangement of fresh flowers feel so wrong when unwrapped and on the coffee table?

I never used to buy myself fresh flowers. Before Bill, I was working in downtown Boston all the time, and nowhere near a florist. I certainly could have picked up reasonably priced bunches of multi-colored flowers at my suburban supermarket on weekends just before checking out with a cart of groceries. But they somehow always looked unreal to me, and cheap.  Besides, when would I have enjoyed them, or even have had time to change the water? I always seemed to be at the office.

 Afterwards, it was Bill who brought them home.  Always for birthdays and holidays,  more often for no reason at all.  In fact, it was unusual for there not to be a clear glass vase of fresh flowers on the coffee table in the family room where we spent most of our time when downstairs.  (The clear glass was my choice; I disliked opaque containers for fresh flowers.)  When they began to wilt, my frugal tendency would have been to nurse them along a little longer. He would insist on throwing them out. Then he would add “Buy flowers” to his daily list of things to do.

 He especially loved sunflowers.  If they were out of season, he chose lilies, preferably yellow or orange ones.  He never really spent a lot. Three stems, or even two, would do for him, with as much greenery as he could persuade the lady florist to throw in for free. (He had a way with ladies.)  When very occasionally persuaded to bring home roses because they were more romantic, they were yellow.

 My favorite color is red.  (You can see it in the chairs we bought together.  He chose the designs, I chose the reds.)  This made for a certain amount of mild dispute about flowers.  Once he did yield: a dozen red roses on my birthday.  I received them with great enthusiasm, hoping to encourage repeat performances.  No such luck, even though I generally expressed somewhat less warmth than he would have liked for all the yellow, or orange, or yellow and orange it fell to me to arrange in one of our two clear glass vases.

 As for the sunflowers, when we began life together they were my special bête noir.  I had never liked the ubiquitous Van Gogh that shows up in all surveys of French nineteenth century painting. And I particularly disliked the large brown centers and short little petals of the sunflowers themselves. They just didn’t look flowerlike to me.

 Unfortunately, at various times — either before he met me or surreptitiously afterwards — Bill had acquired about twenty stems of artificial sunflowers. They were to tide him over, I suppose, during those periods when there was a dearth of live ones.  Some were close replicas of the real thing, down to the big green leaves.  Others, more fanciful, were white and red, as well as yellow, with larger-than-real petals and colorful smallish centers.  He also had a secret cache of objets d’art in the depths of his large office closet, from which he produced three containers in which to put nine of the fake sunflowers. (Three, three, and three.)  These, after much discussion, found their way into our bedroom, to the top of the piano, and onto a sill in his office. Some of the others   appeared in the finished basement in still other containers I’d never known he had, although we’d been together for over eight years at that point.  The remainder of his sunflower stash I found thrust into the back of that capacious office closet when I was staging the condo to sell it; they were still waiting their chance to come into the light.

 It should come as no surprise I kept them all after he died.  Death changes the value of everything.  In retrospect, I was sorry I’d made a fuss about them.  It wasn’t such a big fuss, but still.  How much I would rather have had him back with all his nutsy sunflowers, actual and artificial, than live alone in a sunflower-free apartment!

 Bill’s fake sunflowers are therefore flourishing again at WindrowsThree sit in my office window:fullsizeoutput_c08 Three are on the bureau next to what I still think of as “his” side of the bed:Bill's sunflowers in the Windrows bedroomThree of the most fake adorn the all-purpose table in what the Windrows architect  designated as the “dining” area:fullsizeoutput_c0a The rest are stuffed into a red (yes!) vase that sits in the living-room window:fullsizeoutput_c0c But even with all the manmade sunflowers artfully placed here and there, up until last week my “new” apartment (not so “new” anymore) still had no fresh flowers in it, if you don’t count the two white orchids given to me on my most recent birthday by people I’ve met only in the last year. Yes, I put the orchids on my living-room windowsills away from direct sun, and yes, I keep them going, as recommended, with three ice cubes in each pot once a week. But to me they’re something else:fullsizeoutput_c0fArt objects maybe. fullsizeoutput_c0eNot what I think of as “fresh flowers” though.  And what’s a home without real flowers?

 About some things I’m quick.  About others not. A while ago, during a burst of sporadic early morning exercise, I passed Monday Morning, an upscale flower shop in Forrestal Village a few blocks from where I live. In the window sat a huge water bucket crammed with bunches of large-faced sunflowers, their big brown living centers turned avidly in the direction of the sun.  $7 a bunch. Instead of going right into the shop as Bill would have done, I walked on by, with a smile of course – thinking how he might have run amok inside and bought two or three bunches.  (One summer he gave my older son a dozen huge sunflowers in thanks for having invited us to visit in Southampton. It was hard to find a vase large enough to accommodate them all in the rented summer house.)

 It took me two weeks of staring at the empty surface of the black glass table in front of the sofa. That was two weeks too many. By then only a few bedraggled sunflowers with little faces remained drooping in a small bucket at the back of Monday Morning, far from sun. Poor sunflowers. (I know: pathetic fallacy.)  And now they were priced at $5 a stem, a deal breaker.

 But I had come out for flowers and I’m stubborn. So what did they have in the big window water bucket this week? There was a twenty dollar bill and a credit card in the back pocket of my jeans and I wasn’t going back with nothing.

 What they had, in more than one bucket, were bunches of red blooms that looked to me sort of like petunias but weren’t. That tells you how much I don’t know about flowers. Almost everything looks like petunias to me. Except sunflowers and lilies and orchids. (And pansies and daisies and carnations: I know what they look like too.) There were also bunches of carnations in all colors, including not only red, but yellow and white and red-rimmed cream.  And also many bunches of greenery, some in thick-leaved silvery green, others with dark green spikes and feathery fronds. $10 a bunch; 3 bunches for $20. All very fresh and perky.

“What color do you like?” asked the saleswoman, closing in for the kill.  “Her chairs are upholstered in red,” said a Windrows acquaintance helpfully; she had come out with me for the walk to Monday Morning and was now putting in her two cents.

I kept eyeing the yellow carnations“Can I mix yellow with red?” Bill had always said you can mix anything with anything, and I always disagreed.  Except now death had intervened.  “Not really,” declared the saleswoman decisively, ending discussion.  “Try these.”  She pulled from the water a bunch of red-rimmed white carnations and pressed them against the bunch of dripping wanna-be red petunias she was already holding.

“Isn’t that nice?” she asked rhetorically.  “It will go perfect with your furniture.”  Really?  What did she know?  But it did make a third bunch of the spiky greenery free. And the greenery might help the flowers.  And the carnations were a kind of orange.  If you squinted.  I wielded the credit card, the acquaintance peeled off for a cup of coffee,  I walked back to Windrows alone with a tissue-wrapped armful.  Literally an armful.

 Which meant I now needed a very large glass vase. There was one, at the back of a high kitchen cabinet, which had come into my possession fifteen months before, when Bill died. It then contained an expensive condolence arrangement.  Bill wouldn’t have liked this vase, even if condolences on his death had nothing to do with it.  It was beyond large, and had a “fancy” shape.  As I trimmed each stem and placed it in the vase, trying to mix red-rimmed carnations with red mystery flowers, I knew the whole enterprise had been a mistake.  Why had I bought so many? Why had I listened to a saleswoman who didn’t know what was in my heart? Did I even know what was in my heart? What was it I really wanted? By the time I had forced the spiky greens in around the edges, and placed the completed arrangement in the center of the black glass table (see top of post), I was hating it.

 Maybe it would look better if I sat on the sofa?  Not really.  fullsizeoutput_bedHow could I make it look the way fresh flowers used to look on the family room coffee table before Bill died?   I moved the vase off center and considered:

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(Sophie had no aesthetic opinions to contribute here. However, as I had awakened her with all my fussing, she was plainly planning to taste the flowers when I finally went away and left her in peace. As there’s never any way I can stop her from doing most of what she wants to do, and since I was already disheartened by my purchase, I had no problem with her plans.)

The table was just too bare.  In the condo, there used to be a large shiny black ceramic bowl that looked like a giant ashtray on each of our two coffee tables, one of them next to the glass vase that held the fresh flowers of the week. The bowl in the family room had a bright yellow inside surface and the one in the living room a bright red inside surface. Occasionally Bill would switch them around — “temporarily,” he said — to see if they looked better that way. I didn’t really care which was in which room as I privately thought they were both extremely unattractive (although clearly some designer’s idea of decorative “art”) and hoped for a long time, without success, that they would fall out of favor when Bill acquired something new that needed table space.  It goes without saying I got rid of them both when downsizing.  Now my eye was missing them.  Why hadn’t I kept at least one?

What I had kept were two small black bowls of his — partly because they didn’t remind me of ashtrays but mostly because they didn’t take up much space. One was lime green inside, the other orange.  I put the orange one next to the oversize vase of red and red-rimmed flowers and pushed it around a bit until it seemed to settle itself on a diagonal to the vase.  It was much smaller than the shape in my memory, but it was all I had. Maybe with Bill's orange dish near it?To cover more table top, I added a third object — my black-bound Kindle, representing the piles of books that used to accumulate wherever Bill was sitting.

A little more mess? And the flowers pulled up higher?

Then I pulled the flowers out of the vase as far as I could — to give them air and free them up a bit.

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Bill would have said, “Enough already.  Leave it.  It’s fine.” And he’d have been right. This was as good as I could do. Let’s face it: I’m neater than Bill ever was.  I can’t leave messes of books and papers around, even to simulate the feeling that he’s still here.  My books are on shelves, my papers in files, magazines in magazine racks.  I was ying, he was yang.  Or vice versa.  That’s why our flowers looked the way they did. And why mine look like this now that he’s gone.

The bottom line here?  When these have lived out their natural life, I’m buying more. No one’s going to talk me into red ones next time. I’m going for yellow. Not necessarily sunflowers, although I’m not ruling that out. And definitely not too many, even if “many” is a bargain.  They’re going to have to fit into one of my own two much smaller rectangular glass vases.

Next time I’ll also know that buying flowers, even yellow ones, won’t be like bringing him back for a while, or making the place where I live like home.  It’s just as close as I can come to it. And that’s something.

 

 

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BEREAVEMENT ASSIGNMENT

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I’m not generally a group person. I have belonged to book groups over the years, where I invariably tend to talk a lot.  As a rule, however, I’m more comfortable meeting people one on one, rather than being one of many sitting around a conference table.

That said, Bill (in helpful mode to the end) noted from his hospital bed that I might find it comforting to join what he called a “grief group” after he was gone.  Dutifully, despite my lack of enthusiasm for groups, I found two, terming themselves “bereavement” groups.  The first, which cost $50 for six weekly sessions and by happenstance had only women participants, is over now and was not, for me, particularly helpful, other than being a place to go when I needed very much to get out of the house.  The second, also running for six weeks but free, has another two meetings scheduled and is more interesting, possibly because there are a couple of men in it who speak of their bereavement in somewhat different terms than the women in both groups have tended to do, but possibly also because the leader/coordinator is a much better counselor.

For this second, still ongoing, group there was an assignment this week: I was to write myself a letter from Bill in which he addresses what he valued and appreciated about me during the time he was facing his illness and death with such bravery, and then to reflect  on what difference this letter might make for me in my life currently. I was also cautioned not to stress about it or put myself under any pressure, and to remember there is no right or wrong.

Stress? Pressure? Me? This “assignment” was like waving catnip at a pussycat. Thirty minutes later I had sent it off, thinking, as I clicked “attach file,” that it might also make a pretty good sequel to the last piece I posted here several weeks ago. So for those of you who are wondering how I’m doing, here’s how I’m doing, as of now:

Bereavement-Group Assignment, July 26, 2016

I wrote many letters for Bill during the years we lived together – business letters and also letters to his grown children, the latter based on what he wanted to say to them but typed all lower case so as to look as if he were the one at the computer and not me.  The fact is Bill not only couldn’t really type, but also couldn’t write worth a damn (which he cheerfully acknowledged), and couldn’t spell very well either, although he had a huge vocabulary and was an easy and charming conversationalist.  It’s a wonder he got through medical school, and in French, too. (His medical degree was from the University of Geneva, in the days when very few Jewish boys were accepted by American medical schools.) So it seems extremely unlikely he would have written me a letter when he was dying.  If he had, it would have looked like the messages on the birthday cards, Valentine’s Day cards, Mother’s Day cards, and cards that came with flowers for no reason at all just because he felt like bringing flowers home that day: “For my beautifull wonderfull Nina. All my love, Bill.”

But he did tell me what he might have put in a last letter, had he thought to write it.  He told me on the evening of May 3, the last night before intubation and three days before he died; it was the last night he could still speak, although through the bi-pap mask.  I wrote it down as soon as I got home, so I would never forget it.  This is what he said:

            “It breaks my heart to see you so sad.”

             “You were the best thing that ever happened to me.”

              “You’re one in a million.”

               “I love you so much.”

                “You are wonderful and beautiful. You’re intelligent, and funny and sexy.”

                 “You’re so kind.”

                 “We had fifteen wonderful years together.”

                 “It’s all right to cry.”

                 “I hate to leave you. But I don’t want to live on a machine.”

                 “I know everything will be okay.  You’re strong, and you’ll be fine.”

 Does rereading this change anything about my days without Bill?  It doesn’t make them less painful. If anything, it reopens the raw wound of his having disappeared from my life.  I feel it’s better for me not to dwell on what is gone and irreplaceable, but just to go on putting one foot in front of the other and trust that, as he said, eventually “everything will be okay.” Maybe not “fine.” Certainly not “wonderful.”  But okay. After all, he was “one in a million,” too.

When I was somewhat younger, I used to think what you had to do in life was find the “right” person and become secure in your relationship together, and that would be the end of the story, that particular search story, anyway. I now feel nothing in life is secure, and that it’s all a journey each of us takes by ourself, with good times (if we’re lucky) that we don’t entirely appreciate while we’re passing through them, but also times after the good times that are not so good, because at bottom we remain profoundly alone, even where there are other (similarly lonely) people to keep us company at the movies.

 

 

WRITING SHORT: 17/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

I attended a special city high school for smart girls in Manhattan. To get there, I took the E or F subway train from the Union Turnpike station in Queens. I was just twelve and a half but went by myself; parents didn’t helicopter back then. Those weekday trips were my earliest exposure to lives quite different than mine.

Only two other students took the E or F train home. Marjorie, who lived at the end of the line, was about my age. She was the youngest of five or six, some still living at home but working at jobs (as were her parents), so she had three hours to herself after school in an empty house. She said that every afternoon she baked a cake and ate it all before beginning her own job, which was making dinner for the rest of the family. I didn’t know how to bake. My mother was always there when I got home. I longed to eat a whole cake like Marjorie did. I never thought she might be lonely.

Jacqueline was a grade ahead of me. We connected only in my third year, which was her last. She was a serious student of French; her parents had even paid for extra tutoring from a French lady who lived nearby. As we clung to the central pole of the lurching train car, she told me of her summer love affair with the Mexican ward of her tutor. It was 1946. She was just sixteen. He was already twenty — tall, handsome and smart, but very poor — and had a full scholarship to Harvard. They made love under a tree in the park after dark, and sometimes in the tutor’s car. They made love! As I listened, my eyes consumed her curly dark hair, blue eyes, white skin lightly dusted with freckles. She had small breasts — which he had fondled? — modestly concealed beneath white blouses tucked into dark pleated skirts. Why couldn’t I be more like Jacqueline? Why couldn’t I meet someone tall, handsome, smart, foreign and poor? After she got out at the Jackson Heights stop, I would think of her and her lover all the way home. I still remember his name.

Christmas 2014

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I’m re-blogging this timely post from Montaigbakhtinian’s always thoughtful blog, where I just left the following comment: “My own mother died in 1993, my father in 1986, and my sons and grandchildren are living far from where I live or are spending the Christmas week elsewhere. This piece therefore so closely mirrors my feelings about the so-called “holiday” season in America that I’m reblogging it today on “The Getting Old Blog.” Thank you for writing it. We should be glad that at least we both have someone to hold hands with on the living room sofa in the evenings preceding the Big Day. As you point out in your comment about lonely ends, some people don’t even have that. I wish you a better 2015 than 2014 has been for you.” And I wish all readers and followers of TGOB a warm and quiet holiday with at least one someone they love.

montaigbakhtinian

elephant tsunami{Click for pdf}
 
It is often, if not always the case that an intellectual, if he is honest and dogged enough, will be able to discover the not necessarily warm and fuzzy personal experiences and feelings underlying his theories and empirical observations. And he or she may have to decide either to ignore this personal stuff or to not be ashamed of it and find places for it in the text. The latter approach could also involve throwing out the theories and data altogether, but, you might say, I would have my cake and eat it too.

All this to tiptoe up to my experiences-theory of the present Christmas season. Early in December this year I noticed—and found that I was noticing—how the garbage area of my apartment building was already filling daily with empty cardboard boxes—the former containers of electronic devices, cooking utensils, children’s toys. And…

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HOTEL DU LAC: SHOULD EDITH HAVE MARRIED PHILIP?

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Edith Hope is the main character (I hesitate to call her the heroine) of Anita Brookner’s “Hotel du Lac,” a book which one of my book groups decided to read during the time I was sick last month.  I was unable to attend the discussion, so don’t know what the other group members thought of it.  I will therefore put it to you!

But let’s start with Brookner.  Now in her mid-eighties, she was an international authority on eighteenth and nineteenth century painting, in 1968 became the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University, and then for twenty-five years taught at the Courtauld Institute of Arts in London.  She is reported by her students as having been a superlative and dedicated teacher.  In one of her rare interviews, she herself declared that she loved art and loved teaching students how to look at it.

However, at some point in her early fifties, she began to write a short novel during each of her summer breaks from teaching, and after retirement continued with the novel writing.  She has now written, I believe, close to thirty of these shortish novels, although none for the past couple of years.  “Hotel du Lac” was the third, and probably the most successful in sales; there was also a movie, starring Anna Massey, based on the book.

For quite a few years, I used to read Brookner’s books as they came out, but eventually stopped because after “Hotel du Lac,”  they began with very few exceptions to seem essentially more or less the same, except that the protagonists grew older as the years went by. They were almost always about a lonely woman (although sometimes a man), living in London on somewhat limited but not uncomfortably limited means, often with ties to an elderly and dreary European relative (or relatives) still alive or recently dead. This protagonist took long solitary walks in all weathers in London’s parks while considering her (or his) situation, which never seemed to resolve in any way that seemed to me satisfactory, much less happy. The books were certainly instructive about how to pass time if you were lonely, which I often was when I first began to read them. But after a while, enough was enough for me.  I also used to wonder what Brookner’s own life must have been like for her to focus so exclusively on short fiction about lonely single people growing older from book to book.

However, since I had to read “Hotel du Lac” again last month at the behest of the reading group, afterwards I went online — a resource not available to me back in the days when it won the 1984 Booker Prize and I first read it. That is how I found the most recent of her rare interviews, given when she was eighty — in which, among other topics, she considers the ending of “Hotel du Lac,” written so many years before, when she was considerably younger.

Here is the book’s plot, in brief.  Edith Hope, a thirty-nine year old unmarried writer of very romantic novels with names like “Beneath the Visiting Moon” and “The Sun at Midnight,”  has come to spend two weeks out of season at an out-of-the-way old-fashioned hotel in Switzerland, just before it closes for winter, because she is in disgrace for having decided not to show up at the church for her wedding to Geoffrey, a dullish sort of bachelor recently bereft of his mother. She had been “fixed up” with Geoffrey by her one female friend, Penelope — a flirtatious sort who doesn’t marry but has plenty of fun.  Edith has not had plenty of fun.  Instead, she has a secret:  David, a married lover who has been the delight of her life during twice-a-month visits for the past five years.  David has children and will not divorce.  For all Edith knows, he may be unfaithful to his wife elsewhere than with her.  But it is apparently glorious to be in bed with him when he is there, and he adores her cooking of fattening comfort foods denied to him by his wife.  She gives him up for social standing as the wife of Geoffrey — “Are you sure?” David sobs into her neck during his final visit — but then cannot go through with the wedding.  She is sent off to exile in Switzerland while the oprobrium dies down.  (Even her cleaning lady leaves her because of the scandal!)

At the Hotel du Lac, there are very few other guests:  an old French lady parked there by her son and daughter-in-law to get her out of the way; a very slender and beautiful Englishwoman with a little dog and an eating problem who has been sent there by her husband to get in shape to have children (or he will divorce her); a lovely older woman (who turns out to be 79) and plump pretty daughter (who turns out to be 39) with plenty of money; they apparently come to Switzerland once a year to shop extravagantly and eat pastries.  There is also an immaculately dressed and somewhat mysterious Englishman in his fifties named Philip Neville who arrives for a few days.  Edith spends her time observing the others, trying to engage them in polite conversation, going for long walks around the lake and to the village, trying to finish writing “Beneath the Visiting Moon” for her publisher, and composing long, coyly amusing letters to “darling David,” who never once during the time she is there writes back.

About halfway through her intended stay, Edith accepts an invitation to lunch across the lake from Mr. Neville (Philip), during which he proposes to her. He has been watching her during his time at the hotel, and it is an extraordinary and (I think) intriguing proposal.  [I’ve shortened it somewhat, in the interests of blog-post length.]  He makes it on the boat that takes them back from the lunch:

Tilted back in his chair, Mr Neville watched her face. ‘Let me see,’ he said mildly. ‘Let me see if I can imagine what your life is like.  You live in London.  You have a comfortable income. You go to drinks parties and dinner parties and publishers’ parties. You do not really enjoy any of this. Although people are glad to see you, you lack companions of first resort. You come home alone.  You are fussy about your house.You have had lovers, but not half as many as your friends have had; they, of course, credit you with none at all and worry about you rather ostentatiously. You are aware of this.  And yet you have a secret life, Edith.  Although only too obviously incorruptible, you are not what you seem.’

Edith sat very still.

…’Of course you would say that this is none of my business. I would say, simply, that it does not concern me. Any more than my diversions need concern you. Whatever arrangements we may come to must leave these considerations scrupulously unexamined.’

‘Arrangements?’ echoed Edith.

…’I think you should marry me, Edith,’ he said….’I am not a romantic youth.  I am in fact extremely discriminating.  I have a small estate and a very fine house, Regency Gothic, a really beautiful example….I have a lot of business overseas,’ he went on…’And I like to entertain.  I am away a certain amount of the time.  But I dislike having to come back to a house only occupied by the couple who live in it when I am not there.  You would fit perfectly into that setting.’

A terrible silence installed itself between them. ‘You make it sound like a job specification,’ she said. ‘And I have not applied for the job.’

‘Edith, what else will you do?  Will you too go back to an empty house?…You see,’ he went on, ‘I cannot afford another scandal.  My wife’s adventure made me look a laughing stock.  I thought I could sit it out with dignity, but dignity doesn’t help. Rather the opposite.  People seem to want you to break down.  However, that’s all in the past.  I need a wife, and I need a wife whom I can trust. It has not been easy for me.’

‘And you are not making it easy for me,’ she said.

‘I am making it easier for you.  I have watched you, trying to talk to those women.  You are desolate.  And without the sort of self-love which I have been urging on you, you are never going to learn the rules, or you are going to learn them too late and become bitter.  And when you think you are alone, your expression is full of sorrow.  You face a life of exile of one sort or another.’

‘But why should you think me such a hopeless case?’

‘You are a lady, Edith.  They are rather out of fashion these days, as you may have noticed.  As my wife, you will do very well.  Unmarried, I’m afraid you will soon look a bit of a fool.’

‘And what will I do in your fine house, when you are away?’ she asked.  And when you are not away, she thought, but kept the thought to herself.

‘Whatever you do now, only better. You may write, if you want to.  In fact, you may begin to write rather better than you ever thought you could.  Edith Neville is a fine name for an author.  You will have a social position, which you need. You will gain confidence, sophistication. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing me credit….’

‘Again you are paying me the tremendous compliment of assuming that no one else will want me, ever.’

‘I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you know the difference between flirtation and fidelity.  I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you will never indulge in the sort of gossipy indiscretions that so discredit a man.  I am paying you the compliment of believing that you will not shame me, will not ridicule me, will not hurt my feelings.  Do you realize how hard it is for a man to own up to being hurt in that way?…. I am not asking you to lose all for love.  I am asking you to recognize your own true self-interest.  I am simply telling you what you may already have begun to suspect: that modesty and merit are very poor cards to hold.  I am proposing a partnership of the most enlightened kind.  A partnership based on esteem, if you like.  Also out of fashion, by the way.  If you wish to take a lover, that is your concern, so long as you arrange it in a civilized manner.’

‘And if you…’

‘The same applies, of course. For me, now, that would always be a trivial matter. You would not hear of it nor need you care about it. The union between us would be one of shared interests, of truthful discourse.  Of companionship. To me, now, those are the important things. And for you they should be important. Think, Edith.  Have you not, at some time in your well-behaved life, desired vindication?  Are you not tired of being polite to rude people?’

Edith bowed her head.

‘You will be able to entertain your friends, of course.  And you will find that they treat you quite differently.  This comes back to what I was saying before.  You will find that you can behave as badly as you like.  As badly as everybody else likes, too.  That is the way of the world.  And you will be respected for it. People will at last feel comfortable with you. You are lonely, Edith.’…..

‘I don’t love you.  Does that bother you?’

‘No, it reassures me. I do not want the burden of your feelings.  All this can be managed without romantic expectations.”….

‘And you don’t love me?’

He smiled, this time sadly and without ambiguity. ‘No, I don’t love you.  But you have got under my guard.  You have moved and touched me, in a way in which I no longer care to be moved and touched.  You are like a nerve that I had managed to deaden, and I am annoyed to find it coming to life….

‘I may have to think about this,’ she said eventually.

‘Not too long, I hope.  I do not intend to make a habit of proposing to you.  You will have to get your skates on, if we are to leave by the weekend.’..

‘May I ask one more question?’ she said.

‘Of course.’

‘Why me?’

This time his smile was ambiguous again, ironic, courteous.

‘Perhaps because you are harder to catch than the others,’ he replied.

Edith gets back to her room, has her bath, thinks, sits, thinks some more, then writes a letter to “dearest David,” telling him she is going to marry Philip Neville, a man she met at the hotel, and does not think she will ever see him (David) again.  She tells him (David) he is the breath of life to her, that she doesn’t love Mr. Neville nor he her, but that he has made her see what she will become if she persists in loving him (David) as she does. She says there is no point in giving him her new address.  She recognizes she was always more willing than he was, and sends him her love, always.

She awakens in the middle of the night after a bad dream and decides to go down to the desk to get a stamp for her letter.  As she opens her door, she sees Philip Neville making a discreet exit, in his dressing gown, from the room of the plump rich thirty-nine year old daughter of the rich seventy-nine year old lovely mother.  She then retreats to her room again, tears her letter in half, drops it in the wastebasket, goes downstairs, tells the night porter to get her a ticket on the next plane to London and sends a telegram to London.  First, she writes, “Coming home.”  Then she realizes that is not entirely accurate.  She crosses out “Coming home” and writes simply, “Returning.”

When I first read this book, I thought the ending felt warm and brave.  Now I think Edith was a damn fool.  Perhaps she need not have married Neville — although the older I get, the less objectionable his proposition begins to appear — but she certainly should not have “returned” to the life she had had.

This is what Anita Brookner had to say at eighty when asked by an interviewer about marriage and the ending of “Hotel du Lac.”  First she observed that she herself had never married not because there had been no opportunity, but because she had always been interested in the wrong sort of man and the wrong sort of man had been interested in her. She then remarked that her books had always seemed to write themselves, and that this book had been no different:  at the time she wrote it, the ending simply came out of her.  But after it had been published (when she was well into her fifties, and not thirty-nine as Edith Hope had been), she began to think she had been wrong.  And now, living alone at eighty, she was certain that if she were to do it again, Edith would have married Neville.

It isn’t good to be alone, she said, when you grow old.

So I ask you, friends:  What do you think?  If you were in my book group, what would you have said?

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.

NEARING THE END ALONE

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Having recently expressed my affection for Louis Begley’s books online, I looked up again a clipping of an Opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times Sunday Review two years ago. I had saved it initially because I thought it beautifully and truthfully written. Coming across it again last fall, I transferred it to a folder of ideas for this blog.

However, I haven’t used it until now because it is extremely sad.  But it is about the “dealing with the rest of it” which is the second half of the subtitle to this blog. So perhaps, in the interests of balance, it’s time.  I’ve shortened what follows a bit, but not by much.

Age and Its Awful Discontents
by Louis Begley
Published March 17, 2012

My mother died in 2004, two days short of her 94th birthday, and 40 years and two months to the day after the death of my father. He died at 65; for the preceding four or five years he had been in poor health.

My mother and I lived through the German occupation in Poland; my physician father, having been evacuated with the staff of the local hospital by the retreating Soviet army, spent the remaining war years in Samarkand. Left to fend for ourselves, my mother and I became unimaginably close; our survival depended on that symbiotic relationship. All three of us — I had no brothers or sisters — arrived in the United States in March 1947, and once here I began to keep her at arm’s length. Especially during her long widowhood, I feared that unimpeded she would invade my life, the life she had saved.  I remained a dutiful son, watching over her needs, but was at first unwilling and later unable to be tender.

My abhorrence of the ravages and suffering inflicted on the body by age and illness, which predates my mother’s decline in her last years, is no doubt linked to there being no examples of a happy old age in my family.  The grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who might have furnished them all met violent deaths in World War II.

Unsurprisingly, dread of the games time plays with us has been a drumbeat in my novels.  Thus, arms akimbo, majestic and naked, standing before a glass, Charlie Swan the gay demiurge of “As Max Saw It” [one of Begley’s books], illustrates for the younger narrator on his body the physiology of aging: misrule of hair, puckered brown bags under the eyes, warts like weeds on his chest, belly, back and legs, dry skin that peels leaving a fine white snow of dandruff.  Listening to him, the younger man is reminded of his own father in a hospital, permanently catheterized, other tubes conducting liquids to his body hooked up to machines that surround his bed like unknown relatives.  He prefers his mother’s “triumphant” exit. A headlong fall down the cellar stairs kills her instantly.

…. And yet my body…. continues to be a good sport.  Provided my marvelous doctor pumps steroids into my hip or spine when needed, it runs along on the leash like a nondescript mutt and wags its tail.  My heart still stirs when I see a pretty girl in the street or in a subway car, but not much else happens.  Except that, since by preference I stand leaning against the closed doors, she may offer me her seat. When last heard from, Schmidtie [the protagonist of a series of other Begley novels] figured he had another 10 years to live.  I have a similar estimate of my longevity.  Such actions as buying a new suit have become dilemmas. The clothes I have may be fatigued and frayed, but won’t they see me through the remaining seasons?  Can the expense of money and waste of time required to make the purchase be justified?

My mother did not remarry after my father died.  She lived very comfortably, but alone, in an apartment 15 blocks away from my wife’s and mine.  If we were in the city. we went to see her often, then daily as her condition deteriorated in the last two years of her life.  Our children and grandchildren tried to see her often, too — and those visits brought her great joy — but they live far away and the happiness was fleeting.  During her last decade, she was very lonely. Most of the friends she had had in Poland had been killed.  Those who had escaped and settled in New York one by one became homebound or bedridden, lost their minds or died. Or she found they bored her. Hearing poorly, tormented by arthritis in hip and knee joints, too proud to accept a wheelchair, she stopped going to museums, concerts and even the movies. She had loved sitting on a Central Park bench and putting her face in the sun. That humble pleasure was also abandoned; she couldn’t get the hang of using a walker.

Having rehearsed the bitter gifts reserved for age, T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding” that “the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” The closer that place — the human condition — is to home, the harder it is to take in. I could speak movingly of Schmidt’s loneliness after the loss of his daughter, calling his existence an arid plane of granite on which she alone had flowered.  But it has taken me until now, at age 78, to feel in full measure the bitterness and anguish of my mother’s solitude — and that of other old people who end their lives without a companion.

Two years older than Begley, I find this very moving. But having read it again, I must turn my head away. Thoughts like his take me down to that Little Gidding place, where I’m not yet ready to go.