THE DON (A Story) (1 of 2)

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[This story continues in the following post. Ideally, it should be read in one gulp. But a 5,000+ word post  might be pushing my luck.]

Professor Charles Couteau taught the full year Shakespeare seminar at the small experimental college Clara attended. It was tough to get in – especially as he hand-picked the lucky twelve or thirteen juniors and seniors who made it. However, Clara had never worried. As a freshman, she’d done extremely well in his Exploratory Literature course, which he informally called “Meeting the Serpent.” That in itself, she felt, made her a sure thing for the Shakespeare. In fact, she had sobbed in vexation when he refused to let her into it as a sophomore. To ease the year of separation until she became eligible as a junior, she asked him to be her don, a sort of in loco parentis figure established by the college to meet with each student for half an hour or so every other week and keep an eye on how things were going. He seemed pleased at the invitation. Her heart did a little flip-flop of happiness when he accepted.

Judging by the dates of his degrees from Columbia listed in the college catalogue, Couteau was about twenty years older than Clara. He was tall, broad-shouldered, had brush-cut red hair and blue-green eyes, wore rimless glasses, and chain-smoked Lucky Strikes with a slightly shaky freckled hand, exhaling the smoke with audible force. Once he mentioned he had played college football. And he was knowledgeable about so much that wasn’t just literature. The week they discussed Malraux’s Man’s Fate (in translation), Clara confided to her journal she sometimes wished she could be crushed in Couteau’s tweedy arms. Unfortunately he was married, to a woman no student had ever seen on campus, and had a three-year-old daughter named Genevieve.

The Shakespeare, when she was finally allowed to register for it, was no walk in the park. It met once a week for an hour and a half around an oval table where, under Couteau’s Socratic guidance, Clara and ten other young women, smoking heavily, struggled for a whole academic year to identify and analyze the social and psychological underpinnings of the important plays. Although campus gossip had it Couteau was a Marxist, that did not seem relevant to his obfuscations. Instead, what slowly filled the margins of Clara’s heavy Neilson and Hill Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare were despairing pencilled notes about the terms of the culture and dichotomy. She scribbled comments about the impossibility of the human. Many years later, opening the Neilson and Hill, she would also find, in her own college handwriting: Hamlet ½ god, ½ man; Claudius ½ man, ½ fiend; Laertes ½ god, ½ fiend – and even then would have no idea what that had meant. Disjointed notes at the bottom of the last page of The Tempest read: Prospero induces freedom by being conscious of the human limitation. Exists only in relationships with other men. Absolute freedom not freedom. Personal immediate sense of love childish. Why had she written this? Because they were Couteau’s words, as nearly as she could reproduce them.

The less she was able to grasp what Couteau’s perceptions had to do with the stories so familiar to her since childhood from Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, the more she admired him. During one of their don-donnee conferences, she declared he should write a book. He smiled his adorable crooked smile. He had begun several times, he admitted. Then life intervened. The unfinished pages were in a drawer.

“Life?” asked Clara.

“Genevieve,” he replied.

Clara became bolder: “Lots of writers have babies. Your wife should encourage you! Doesn’t she understand how much you have to offer?”

The blue-green eyes looked deep into hers for a glorious moment. Then he asked how her term paper on Othello was coming along.

Clara was a fluent writer, but when she finally managed to disgorge the Othello paper just before Christmas it was apparently a disappointment. Couteau returned it with only two “Good!”s in the margins and many more “Develop!”s. Worse, there was no appreciative comment at the top, where at more conventional colleges, a grade might have appeared. She must have not yet sufficiently internalized his analytic vocabulary. As if to punish herself for this failure of devotion, she broke up with her long-time boyfriend during the holiday vacation. Till recently he had been enrolled at a university a safe half-continent away; now finally graduated, he was back in the East demanding payback for his two years of patient fidelity. Compared to Couteau, his personal immediate sense of love was so childish! She therefore had no dates at all during the whole ten days, not even on New Year’s Eve, which made it a relief to return in January to the thickets of iambic pentameter awaiting her in Neilson and Hill.

Couteau had news: he had bought a Victorian house in Bedford. It cost a pretty penny, and was mortgaged to the hilt, but it sat on four acres of land! His domain! He was practically chortling. They’d be moving in over the summer, after certain necessary repairs had been made. Then he’d have the whole following semester to settle in: he was taking a one-term sabbatical.

Her senior year, and he would be away for half of it! “Doesn’t all this lord of the manor stuff undercut your values?” Clara inquired acidly. An apartment dweller all her life, she was unable to share his enthusiasm for wide open spaces.

“How is that?” he asked. “I love uncultivated land in its natural state. The more of it around me the better. Then no one can box me in.”

It’s possible that by May, Clara finally figured out what Couteau wanted to see in a Shakespeare term paper. It’s also possible that the intellectual dichotomy between glorying in ownership of four acres and a big old house on the one hand and, on the other hand, finding the terms of the culture in every Shakespeare play made it impossible to be fully human — had simply eviscerated Couteau’s interpretive standards. Whatever the reason, he could not have written a better comment about her second term paper, on All’s Well That Ends Well:

This is one of the smoothest and tightest jobs I have ever read. “Words and thought” do match, and “feeling,” form and content too. You have made it sound like a fascinating novelette, with no sacrifice of interpretation.

Congratulations! Publish it.

Oh joy! She read these intoxicating words at home, where he had mailed the paper after the school year was over. Of course, she wrote to thank him. He replied that she deserved it. He signed his note “Charles.”

In early November of Clara’s senior year, Couteau telephoned the college switchboard to invite her and his other senior donnee to his new house in Bedford for Thanksgiving. Apprehensively, Clara opened the closet in the off-campus house where she was now living and was glad to discover her green corduroy outfit with full skirt and paisley blouse still fit, sort of, although it had been bought three years before. She did have a few of the freshman fifteen remaining on her hips, and there was a little bulge in her stomach especially evident in profile. But after she moved the waistband hook as far as possible, the bulge was less noticeable. If she ate very little in the week left before Thanksgiving, perhaps it would disappear altogether.

Couteau was picking them up in his car because the trains from their college town to Bedford didn’t run often enough on holidays. Florence, the other donnee, showed up at Clara’s house at the appointed time. Clara knew her but not well; she was rather messy and disorganized. Her preparations for this special occasion seemed to have been minimal: she had unearthed a respectably clean skirt and shapeless sweater, bleached the dark hairs on her upper lip yellow, and applied an unbecomingly purple shade of lipstick. Clara said she looked nice. She said Clara looked elegant and no, not fat at all. Then there was honking from the street, so they bundled up, hurried out, and climbed into the back seat. All the way to Bedford Clara wished she had thought quickly enough to sit in front next to Couteau.

They hadn’t seen him since the end of May. He seemed another man now, relaxed and jovial, as if they hadn’t been his student donnees. While he drove, he told amusing stories about moving into the new house. Florence supplied most of the necessary “And then what?”s while Clara gazed at the back of his neck and tried to decide how she would feel if he fell in love with her. Maybe twenty years was too big an age difference. Although that was exactly what made it so exciting to contemplate.

Too soon they arrived. There was much wiping of feet on the doormat and taking off coats in the front hall. His thin wife came out to greet them, flushed from kitchen heat, carrying a wooden spoon and dressed in a shabby sweater and baggy skirt around which she had wrapped an apron with food stains on it. Margaret was her name. Clara had been speculating about this wife for over three years and was pleasantly gratified to see how far she had, in the words of the ladies’ magazines to which Clara’s mother subscribed, “let herself go.” She wore socks. She hadn’t shaved her legs. Had she cut her hair herself? And no makeup at all: how did she expect to keep him, such a robust man in the prime of life? Clara began to feel very attractive.

The wife returned to her kitchen; Clara and Florence were ushered into the living room. There Couteau poured red wine into three glasses waiting on a tray. No, Margaret would not be joining them; she was still attending to the turkey and and feeding their little girl in the kitchen. Would his little girl appear? Perhaps later, briefly. He didn’t believe small children should have a role at adult social gatherings. There was chat about the college; Couteau shared some confidences about inter-faculty politics. Clara sipped carefully. (How many calories in a glass of red wine?) They toured the ground floor of the house, glasses in hand, while Clara admired this and that because it was clear he was expecting it. The new house had very little furniture in it. Faculty salaries, he explained with a rueful grin. They returned to the living room to stand by a picture window with a panoramic view of his property.

Then it happened. He put his empty glass down on the mantelpiece and came behind Clara. She sensed him close, his body not quite touching hers but almost. He stood perfectly still. She stood perfectly still. She could hear his breathing, feel his exhalations on her neck. He said something about the trees in the distance. Mmm, she agreed, hardly daring to breathe herself. He reached for her glass, took it from her hand, sipped from it, and gave it back to her. He breathed heavily again, two or three times. She sipped from the glass too. From the same place his lips had been. Oh, oh, was she trembling? He mentioned something else about the trees. Was she supposed to turn around? If she did, her breasts would brush against him. Better not. Let him make the next move.

“Dinner must be nearly ready,” he said. “Let’s go find out.” He walked away. Clara looked at Florence. She had seen it all. But there was no time for discussion; dinner was indeed ready. Still shaking, Clara headed to the kitchen offering to help; the wife shooed her away. “No, no, you’re here as a guest,” she insisted. Clara did notice Couteau didn’t get up to help her carry the heavy platters laden with food from the kitchen, but decided it would have been awkward for him to serve his own students. The wife sat down to her own plate only when all the others had been served.

It was a huge, traditional Thanksgiving dinner, prepared from scratch. After turkey noodle soup, there were freshly baked Parker House rolls with pats of butter; salad with homemade “Russian” dressing; a large beautifully browned bird with chestnut stuffing and sherry gravy; candied sweet potatoes, creamed onions, buttered brussels sprouts; and for dessert two kinds of homemade pie – apple and pecan – with store-bought ice cream on top, followed by coffee and brandy. “This must have taken you days,” said Clara. The wife shrugged. “I like to cook. And now we’ll have enough leftovers for quite a while.”

“She is a good cook,” said Couteau.

How Clara would have loved to eat it all! But what if she were on the threshold of romance and might soon need to be naked with her lover? She sipped a little soup, avoiding the noodles, teased the lettuce out from under its generous layer of dressing, ate some sprouts and two thin slices of white meat without gravy, had one taste of the candied sweet potatoes and passed on everything else. Florence was stuffing herself like a pig. Clara had brought saccharin tablets to the table in her skirt pocket and surreptitiously dropped one into her coffee cup. She did permit herself real cream in the coffee because she didn’t want to make trouble by asking for milk. The wife rejected help with clearing, too. “It’s easier by myself,” she said. “I’m so glad you could come. It means a lot to him to be able to do this for his students.”

Suddenly the visit was over. If they left now, Couteau said, they could catch one of the few holiday trains back to the college. He hurried them into their coats and into his car. They reached the station just in time. No meaningful goodbyes. No tender pressure of the hand. “See you next semester,” he said cheerfully. “Be good.” A taxi was waiting at the college station. And then they were back at Clara’s off-campus doorstep. The house was dark. Everyone else was away.

Clara switched on the downstairs lights. “Stay and have another cup of coffee,” she urged. Florence didn’t mind if she did. They sat at the kitchen table to consider what had just transpired.

[To be continued…]

 

 

 

WRITING SHORT: 47/50

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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.]

For some mothers, the hard part is never over.

A high-functioning daughter is on the phone. Such a nice surprise.  “We’ve just rented a beach house for next August,” she says. “You’ll have to come for a weekend. The kids will be back from day camp then. Bob and I will both have off.”

It’s only October. What closely scheduled lives. But the mother knows she can’t say that. “Oh, lovely,” she replies. “Something to look forward to.”

Christmas and New Year’s come and go. Easter rolls round. The mother thinks about summer. She hardly ever sees these young grandchildren now all three are in school and then rushing to after-school sports, music lessons, playdates. At least those are the excuses.

“Which weekend should I plan on?” she asks carefully at a dinner given by her son-in-law’s mother.  The daughter’s face assumes a familiar unpleasant expression. “No weekend, actually. We owe such a lot of people. We’ve invited too many as it is.”

Did the daughter forget the invitation? Or had it become inconvenient?  “I thought it was a big house,” says the mother, not having learned from experience. “I could also come during the week.” She hates herself for having to beg.

The daughter is decisive. “Not such a big house. And we need the weekdays to recover from the guests.”  She offers a tight smile, as if what she’d said was amusing.

The mother perseveres. “So does that mean I won’t be seeing you this summer?”

“You” could be taken as plural. But the mother really means singular “you” — the “you” who used to be her difficult, brilliant, much loved baby girl.  “Looks like it,” says the daughter.  “Maybe we can find  time in the fall. I’ll check with Bob.”

Why be surprised? For a long time, the mother’s been on tenterhooks with this daughter. Should she have nailed down her August weekend with a confirming email last October? Who does such things with family? It’s been explained by others (counselor, doctor, childless friend) that with this disorder, the daughter can’t know how it makes the mother feel. She shouldn’t take it personally.

The mother nods. Easy for them to say.

It’s not their daughter, she thinks. Not their heart that hurts.

[Reblogged from June 23, 2015]

GHOST STORY

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IMG_1566 Theoretically, I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve never seen or heard one. On the other hand, I’ve known a few not-crazy people who when traveling spent the night at nearby accommodations in New England or Great Britain, reported hearing strange and unexplained noises in the night, and then learned that an alleged resident ghost haunted the premises.

A similar story came from a woman I first “met” online in the mid-1990’s through an early predecessor of social media called Seniornet. We were both part of a five-person group that posted short vignettes of our childhoods on a Seniornet board with a misleading title that kept other people away. We were also, by coincidence, the only two group members living in Massachusetts.  (One of the others was in Texas and the remaining two in disparate locations in California.)

Our geographic proximity meant that eventually we arranged to meet in the flesh — first where she was, in the western part of the Commonwealth, and then in Boston and Cambridge, where I was. It was probably a mistake. She apparently took these two weekends to mean more than I did, and pressed for increasing closeness. Unable to reciprocate her feelings, they ended only by embarrassing me. I pulled away. One of the great deceptions of virtual “friendships” is that it’s hard to know how you will really feel about your internet-only “friends” once you meet them.

However, before we stopped emailing and the “friendship” came apart,  she sent me a birthday present: a small chapbook she had written about a ghost reputed to haunt an inn where she now and then worked part-time for extra money in her retirement. An acquaintance of hers had illustrated it, and the inn had arranged for a small local private printing.

This was almost twenty years ago.  During one of my recent ineffectual attempts to rid our basement of stuff we will never need or use again, I came across the book. I had completely forgotten it. I’m certain it’s out of print. And I know, because I looked it up, that the inn closed several years ago. But whatever the misunderstandings between its author and me so long ago, I don’t think I should throw it out.   Perhaps when you’ve read it, you’ll agree.

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A Note to the Reader

One day recently, I had occasion to go up to the attic of the Inn to look for some papers. In the course of the search, I stumbled over an old trunk in the corner. It was like the one my grandmother had, full of what I thought were strange treasures, when I was a child. And so I raised the lid of this one.

It had a musty dry smell, as if it had not been opened for a very long time. The contents were an assortment of receipts and registers, dating from the early part of this century. They seemed to have to do with the day-to-day business of the Inn. But I came upon one oddity, several sheets of heavy paper, folded twice and covered with spidery elegant handwriting. It was a letter, unsigned, evidently never sent, which I now pass on to you, word for word as written.

Sue Porter, who, like me, works at the Inn and knows it well, has drawn the illustrations.

Betty Hunt

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October 21, 1914

Dear Sister,

You will know by this that I have arrived safely.

The journey from Boston was not without its rigors. On the long hill beyond Greenfield the Maxwell overheated more than once, steam boiling from its radiator. By good fortune, water had been provided at intervals along the roadside, and I was ale to proceed.

On the downhill slopes the most astounding speed was possible: twenty miles an hour — more, if I had not been concerned to keep within the appointed limit. In the towns one may travel at twelve miles an hour; in especially hazardous stretches, eight.

But no — do not be alarmed. I am taking proper care. The Maxwell is a fine well-appointed motor car, and I marvel at the autumn colors; one finds grand prospects of wooded hills around every turn.

I believe the completion of the “Mohawk Trail” to have been a splendid project, and I shall attend the ceremonies tomorrow that celebrate its completion. You will recall Father’s rumbling about the expense: $345.000! For sixteen miles of highway between Charlemont and North Adams! So that gaggles of tourists can gawp at the view and fall off the hairpin turn, I’ll warrant!”

…. For now, I have sought shelter at the Inn in Charlemont. It seems a comfortable place, offering plain hearty fare and a warm fire against the evening chill.

However, I have had the most extraordinary experience here. I confess, dear Margaret, that I found it most perplexing; unsettling, even, since it so defies the rational tenets of our philosophy. I feel that I must write this morning to tell you about it; surely your sensible opinion will steady me.

When I had rested from the long journey, I thought to refresh my spirits in communion with rugged nature: so far from the complexities of Boston; so unrefined, I thought, and simple.

I carried along a copy of Mr. Thoreau’s essays, thinking these appropriate to my primitive situation. But I never read a word.

Yesterday, walking in the bright woods behind the inn, and climbing the hill, I came upon a strange old woman. She was all in black, a black shawl almost covered her ancient face. But she spoke to me kindly enough. Was I staying at the inn?  I answered yes; I was hardly prepared for her next question.

Had I heard or seen the ghost?

Laughing, I said that indeed I had not.

It may be you do not welcome her. She will not appear if you do not, or sing for you either.

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The old crone looked as if there was more to the story. As I was feeling humorous and indulgent, I asked her to go on, to tell me how there came to her a ghost at the inn, and who she was, and what she sang.

Sings the song about black hair. How and then a lullaby. She will tap her foot to a fiddler’s tune.

The old woman cocked her head and peered at me thoughtfully, as if appraising me. “Please go on,” I said.

Whereupon she studied me for a moment longer, then shrugged and sat down upon a rock. She said it had begun about this time of year, a great many years ago, and this was just as her great-grandmother had told it to her.

In those olden days, when stagecoaches stopped at the inn, there was a place for the horses too, a great barn where they stayed and a hostler who took care of them. He had six sons, strapping lads who had fought against the English tyrant a few years back, and though he was proud of them he longed for a daughter.

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At last a girl was born. But the mother was worn out with struggle, hard winters and deep snows and bearing of children, and a few days later, she died. However the child survived; her father watched and cherished her, praying nightly that she might not join her two small sisters who had earlier gone to the churchyard. The child was small and red and wizened as an apple.

He named the tiny girl Elizabeth, for her mother; she clung most stubbornly to life, and grew to be the apple of his eye.

She was a frail girl with solemn eyes, not pretty though she had flaxen hair that shone like pale gold. Much as her father and her brothers might have wished to spoil her, they could not, for there was much woman’s work to be done. At 10 years old she was keeping the house, rising at first light, cooking and washing and learning to spin.

Now and again she was allowed to visit the inn, keeping to the kitchen near the innkeeper’s wife and watching her at her baking. Sometimes there would be a fiddler in the tavern room. Elizabeth would turn her head to listen, round-eyed.

The years passed and she was 16, a plain good girl, her father thought with satisfaction. Not one for the young men (though in truth there were few of them about), and aloof to the swaggering coach drivers who passed through.

But one October day, while Elizabeth helped with the baking, there came from the tavern room the sound of a different fiddler: not the valiant workaday scraping of old Jacob, but a rich plaintive song so passionate that its sadness had a kind of joy. Elizabeth had never in her life heard any music like this. She wiped the dough from her hands and went to the door, using her wrist to push it aside a little, so as to see this wondrous player.

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At first she saw only his back, his ragged clothes, his black hair and the arm curved around the fiddle, and beyond him the fire leaping. Then he turned, still playing, and saw her!  Gave a flash of a smile and a bow!

Elizabeth started and shrank back from the door. But from that time, in the kitchen that had been only warm and simple, as she kneaded the dough, and that night as she slept in her narrow bed, she felt that somehow he was looking at her still.

So that the next day, when she heard the playing of the fiddle again, coming this time from farther away, from somewhere in the glowing woods, she left her work and went toward the sound of it. She climbed the hill, and there he sat, on a rock by the tumbling stream.

He said that he was a tinker by trade, and had not passed this way before. He had a curious way of speaking, his voice smoothing the words so that they flowed along like water. He said that he had been born in Ireland, on the estate of the Earl of Charlemont, the same great lord for whom the town was named.

She gazed at his black curls and his brown smooth face.

I am called Blackjack Davy, he said; my father was a man of Romany. His white teeth flashed with his pleasure in being who he was, and Elizabeth smiled as well. He reached out to touch her fine-spun hair. In the course of time, he made a bed of the gold and scarlet leaves.

On the following day the fiddler said he must go over the mountains before the winter came, but in the spring he would return. She listened to the sound of his wagon, hung with pans and pots, until its soft clanking faded over the western hills.

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When the first snows fell, Elizabeth knew that she was waiting not only for Blackjack Davy, but for his son as he grew, curled up and nestling inside her. She sang at her work in the day and in the evening stared into the fire, her round eyes seeing inward, dreaming.

At first her father was puzzled at the change in his plain dutiful daughter; then when her womb grew round, he was mightily wrathful, glancing at his long musket hanging over the fireplace. At last, when she told him sweetly about the beautiful dark fiddler and his promise to come again, his eyes grew sad.

The baby was born early, in May, but sturdy enough,with curls of black hair on his round head. Elizabeth tended him and sang to him and they waited together. She carried him on her back Indian style. Sometimes they climbed the hill behind the inn, and she sat down for a while on a rock by the tumbling stream. She sang:

Black is the color of my true love’s hair. His lips are like some rosy fair. The prettiest face and the neatest hands: I love the ground whereon he stands.

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Sometimes they went to visit the stable, among the patient standing horses. She sang to the baby, When you wake, you shall have, All the pretty horses. Blacks and bays, she sang, dapples and grays, coach and six-a little horses.

But most of the time, as she went about her work, Elizabeth seemed to be listening, as if at any moment she might hear the clank and tinkle of the tinker’s wagon.

But it did not come, you see, though the spring passed, and the summer, and October came round again. But Elizabeth never stopped listening, until the first frost came.

That frost was sharp and sudden, and brought a fever. Elizabeth took to her bed, and the fever was quick in its work. After a space of chills and burning, she lay cold and still.

When the tinker came again, on a dark November day, he found her in the churchyard. He wept, and went to fetch his fiddle, and played a wild sad song.

Then he stole the black-haired baby, and whipped his horse away in the jangling wagon.

And that is how there comes to be a ghost at the Inn, a young girl who appears in a silvery light.

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Sometimes you can just glimpse her face at the tavern door, darting away. Sometimes people hear her thin voice singing. Or you may see her standing quietly in a corner of the barn, or in the moonlight sitting on a rock by the tumbling stream.

The old woman had finished. She rose and gathered her black shawl about her.

At the top of the hill she turned and cackled, She’s still waiting for him, the silly young fool! And with a hideous wink the old crone went on her way.

Well! She had certainly had me enthralled with her yarn. Evidently she was playing a joke of some kind. I returned to the Inn for a good dinner and thought no more about it.

That is, I thought no more until I wakened about midnight. I was sure I had heard the distant cry of a child. Or was it laughter?

All was still. I prepared to sleep again, but suddenly it seemed that the warm smell of baking had risen from the kitchen and filled my room. Then I thought I heard, from below, a frail voice singing:

Black, black

Black is the color of my true love’s hair

His lips are like some rosy fair

If he on earth no more I see

My life will quickly fade away….

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© Betty Hunt 1994

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.