September 9th, 2012

Harriet Vane

Boxing and bagging two lives away: the stories the things told

Dear friends and readers,

This blog is written under the auspices of Audre Lorde:

A Litany for Survival

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
For those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
bread in our children's mouths
so thleir dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother's milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid.

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.

Last Sunday the Admiral, Caroline and I took a marathan trip to New York City, Eastern Queens, Fresh Meadows to be exact. We got up at 5 am, drove 6 hours to Queens, went to the airport to get another car (a mini-van it was called) and then spent 6 hours boxing and bagging everything that could be boxed and bagged in my parents' apartment that we didn't want. That means most of it: at least 7 large cartoons of books, at least 10 bags stuffed with my mother's clothes and shoes and accessories, another couple of boxes of kitchen things. We could not box and bag the French Provincial furniture set in one bedroom, the cherry wood teenager kind of furniture set in another, porch furniture in the front room, extra bureaus, bookcases, lamps, appliances. We then worked with great effort to pile into the two cars we had brought one case of books, a set of dishes, a set of silverware (both very nice), part of the cherry wood furniture set that Yvette had liked (a small desk fitted to a hutch and an elegant bureau), boxes and boxes of my mother's endless writing and rewriting about her money and what she had done with it lately (so the Admiral could read and make sense of it and we at last know what to do about all her money), a lazy susan (it didn't make it whole), tall lamps Caroline wanted (which she took apart and blanketed), some few clothes for her and me, two wall pictures (one had nostalgic meaning for me, one Yvette had liked). Then we drove back six hours and went back to bed in our different houses.

My mother had died suddenly a week and one half before (see my mother's death and highline park). It was just September 1st and we needed to get the stuff ready for Goodwill and then returns the keys and give the use of the apartment back to the management hired by the owner of the vast apartment complex. My parents had moved in in 1967 and lived there for 45 years.

To do all this for me was not just exhausting work. It aroused memories that went back to my earliest childhood and stirred emotions so complex or varied and seemingly contradictory that all I could do was in my mind go through the stories that these things told. About two years ago I had read a moving account by August Kleinzahler in the LRB about selling his childhood home (his mother had senile dementia and he and his sister had put her in a nursing home). A good deal of what he wrote explicitly was about packing things up, what was there -- and what it all meant, his and his sister's pasts and present, his parents and the neighborhood's transformation. I remembered this essay as I went about this business and understood finally why this diary entry was important -- and rare.

During the funeral I had not thought much; I was in control and had surface ideas about what was going on just then and how to cope. Now I began to make some sense of what had been. I was seeing things again which began with their wrong marriage. Among other things when one visits a counselor to help you the recent switch to pragmatic psychologists who give out pills or try to coerce the person to conform, the dropping of Freudian analysis is bad: for intelligent people who can see inside themselves and see what they did unfavorably, it is a necessary first step in understanding what jhas happened to us and something of why we did what we did. Not Freud's theories necessarily but their whole bent, their whole point of view.

My first response was to feel sorry for my mother -- I was looking at 3 closets filled with beautiful clothes, just packed in, tight, very fancy, expensive,and until 5 years ago I estimated bought in bunches, most of which she never wore but once, if that. Only part of one closet held clothes she had worn regularly: the oldest from the 1950s and 60s when she worked in a commercial office, and the back of that closet, very very expensive whole outfits she bought to war to bahmitzvahs. She had drawers of jewelry too, from the very expensive, to embarrassing junk, and most of this she never wore. My father was a unusually intelligent man, a continual reader, more acute about people and sociall ife than me and absolutely thwarted, damaged you might say, excluded from any connection with people like himself. All she wanted out of life was a materialistic endlessly showing off, socializing life; and she really wanted a Jew to lead it with her. She married him out of desperate need to marry; he was there, she found herself for once attracted and she went after him, and he didn't know how to cope. He was on the rebound from a Catholic girl I have been told he did love but who would not marry this atheistic (if born Catholic) socialistic reading (strange to her) young man though drawn to him. He made me his substitute wife - not physically but emotionally and intellectually it was a kind of incest.

So my mother and I were intense rivals -- and thinking this week I realized though she would have vehemently denied it, she did what she did to separate me from my father, get me out and to get back at him  - she engineered my first marriage. I was just 16, two days into being 16 when I married for the first time, which marriage crazy as it sounds my mother actually encouraged and enabled me to do) but I dropped that upon starting college.  My father never knew about what happened in that first marriage and if he had known he would have been so enraged; my mother lied to him and kept from him where I was when he was worried sick; in the last years I thought to tell him but never did as I didn't know what effect it would have. There was a level that he hated her intensely. I feared it would give him a heart attack to be told. Why did I want to tell? some really mean impulse probably but I didn't. I kept this secret from him.  Sometimes I wondered if he suspected and think he did.

Well now I realized she did it to separate me from him and to get back at him too. She was frightened that week but she was also in charge of information he didn't have. She triumphed.   I've never spoken of this and don't revert back to it much in my mind. To see Mrs Bennet as her is a pastoral image, Jane Austen as wish-fulfilling to have herself taking care of her aging father in 1803 equally pastoral -- and thin. Austen does glide over, but the my liking for this book was this recognition. It was not until I was well into my 40s I realized (startled) that she had been bored with him. I never thought about stupid people being bored with smart ones. I saw it in books but did not apply.  Maybe too what alerted me to this was my cousin Paul telling us that morning my mother died she had been lucid for a little while and suddenly began to tell of how she had flirted outrageously with my father when they worked together. He thought it was a happy memory for her. Maybe it was, but I remembered the story when my father told it. He was angry with himself, it grated, it irritated him to remember. And my aunt had said (she would bring this up) that my grandmother had not approved of my mother working there. Why? Well she was going out with a non-Jew and she looked at me. This over a dying woman's bed, of something that occurred more than 55 years ago.

Anorexia too must be understood more deeply from a Freudian, family enmeshed center. It's a sickness coming out of sick families,sick out of their relationship with a society that as a whole present patterns for imitations and makes laws and customs that come out of a hatred women. When I married I didn't live far from them after all, carried on seeing them once a week and in a sense we three carried on just in different places, now I was anorexic.

Mine was a teenage marriage. My first husband had bad problems too. He was 17. His mother had been put in an insane aslyum when he was 3. His father was an ex-nazi who used to beat the boys (he had a brother). They lived this solitary intense quiet life apart. So he was lonely too. But he did have a crowd and male friends with their girlfriends and these were the people I would occasionally spend time with. I was not like them at all either. We hardly ever had any sex once we married. I lived in terror of getting pregnant. Remember too I was anorexic (so weighed 72 pounds). This is utterly true: a month after I married my periods stopped and a month after I left my first husband they resumed.  I did begin to weigh more after I left him, I went up to 91 pounds. But one month?  This did happen. I would not know who to go for an abortion and my father had said I had been the nail in the coffin; he could not leave me he said. My first husband too was so dull, unintelligent, he could hardly read. I did teach him and heard that he later went to college and became a gym teacher. It was five long years in which I gradually discovered by going to college (another story) that I wanted to live the life of reading, writing and study. I was 19 when I realized.

Mine was such a stupid act altogether. I should have been smarter even at 15. Maybe that's why I don't like to remember. But also there is her role. My mother.  I couldn't cope at all with the teenager world I found myself in, a kind of nightmare as to sexual encounters. When I tried to talk to her, she called me a tramp. What a searing moment that was. To marry to escape for five years. I finally left him -- actually it was his decision we should part and when I did, he wanted me back. But I said , "the spell is over."  I had won a scholarship for a year abroad at Queens. I was divorced April 1968.

I am leaving out Bechara. Between January 1968 and August I met and went to live with a 40 year old Lebanese French man. A physics professor at Queens College I had met in the cafeteria. A playwright. My French improved. A deeply reactionary son of rich people. He knew people who kept closets full of guns -- I saw them. And their wives wore scarves on their heads. My father was livid; wanted to kill him. My mother was horrified: an Arab! outside marriage too. My sexual history is complicated and includes a series of reactions against my mother's puritanism  -- how she said she hated sex  and how at 47 he told me he was impotent and how much she loved that thin body of hers, to dress it up, attitudes which I have never shaked away altogether. But also that I'm easy and comfortable too once I feel I like someone.  My feminism comes from my experience of sexual life which I think as presently set up is no better for most women than it was in the 1950s. But this was not what I wanted I learned very quickly. I had no privacy, no space to myself, my very body was not my own. He would speak of his mother and how she spent her time and life.  I shuddered. So I left and spent exactly one week in the apartment I was now emptying out. I lived there for one week altogether, sleeping in that cherry wood teenager set. What a week that was. Not much fun with parents.

But my father helped me bring my stuff to the boat that was to take me to England. And I sailed away for 12 days in September 1968 and met the admiral 2 weeks later. A year to the day, the night we began I married him. And then I had indeed found a future and life -- as I thought in England, Leeds. But we made no money, had no opportunities of any kind and so we did return to NYC. I remember how within a couple of hours my mother was telling me not to tell anyone the Admiral was 2 years and more younger than me. "No need for others to know." How she wanted to see the ring. A plain gold one, cost 8 pounds. That my father had made the apartment in Hollis up for us (bed in the wall), how few things we had and they said we looked like immigrants arriving on that plane.

So we are back to those clothes, the price they cost, all the expensive things in the apartment. How he would watch her try the stuff on when she'd bring it back from the dressmaker and ask why she bought so much. She brought 2 dresses to Caroline's wedding. She only needed one, but it was the closest thing she ever had in our nuclear family to a fancy affair like her Jewish relatives had regularly and spent so egregiously on.

My father had two suits. In that apartment half a closet was his stuff. Workmen flat caps which now reminded me of Bob Hoskins in British movies. Many of the books were my father's and some I took home with me. Some of his Dickens books, one Trollope he had given me which started me on my road to Trollopian, a few others. Most of it was junk, mysteries, stupid romances she had bought in the last years, and the books she got when she took college courses. She read them carefully, took notes from what the teacher said, but understood very little, certainly not that they could apply to her life.

Once in the long years living there for 6 months he went to college with her. He understood the books and disagreed with the teacher. He told me of a woman his age he met and talked to and how he enjoyed talking to her. How when my mother returned from her class, she sat down and intervened and got in the way of any talk and he had to give this pleasant time up. I could see he didn't think about it much -- or he didn't seem to. But that she had been instantly jealous, tenacious and possessive. That's how she held onto him.  He had had a couple of brief flings during a vacation or so with his friend, Sherman but some of it disgusted him (Sherman actaully pressured women who worked in friends' factories to go out with them to keep their jobs) and he gave that up too.

He gave up a lot. No one made him have so little. Like her he held on to his money. He had been so poor as a boy. He would not buy books easily. He did buy the furniture sets. At first they were too severe looking someone said. That's when he got the pictures, the bookcases and the lazy susan and the absurd knickknacks.  He went on 3 vacations and would not rent a car so he couldn't reach anything. He didn't seem to know what to do to have a good time. He disliked the hotels, thought the casino boring but had no experience or knowledge to try something else. He never had a passport. She did. I found in the apartment one she had gotten in 2000. Ever aspiring for higher status, to do what others did that others admired. When he died, she threw out all his shoes. In away she was so relieved to live alone. She had never really wanted to be a wife or mother. She loved going out to work best of all and worked from the time I was 9 months old. I went to live with my fathers youngest sister on and off, and that's how I knew my cousins who I spoke of in the blog on my mother's death.

So I still haven't begun to tell it. How can I? My mind has stopped slipping now. I was having these periods of slippage like I used to have when the Admiral went away for a few days or even a couple of weeks. It was so stressful being on my own that just carrying on was enough to work at. I was working at staying sane so how could I remember stuff beyond that?
They've ended for now.

Then on Thursday we learned that Goodwill did not take furniture, that other places wanted us to bring the furniture to them. When I gave furniture and my old air conditioner away here in Virginia the man who was running apartments for homeless people to transition in came and took the stuff. So we called the management and they said they had someone who would take the clothes, the books, the boxes, the bags, the furniture. When they understood what this was about, they first said how they condoled with our loss (very solemn), but quickly switched and began talking of the deposit they owed us. How they would have to deduct the price of the rug, the price of pulling the air-conditioners out of the window. They expected a fight.

It was almost funny. Later we did laugh as we have numbers of times during this series of rituals.

I went to the post office on Friday, mailed away the keys, sent my aunt the part of the money I had discovered was hers, and it was over. I do now have in my room a beautiful stereo radio with two tape decks. It was in their living room. I don't remember their ever having it on. He watched the News, golf, and bowling, she endless situation comedies and these silly action adventure and love stories on commercial TV.

It's playing NPR music right now. Their MCs have taste that pleases me.

Little things ended this big experience. Kleinzahler ends his story with his reading lamp in an empty room, relying on a 24 hour supermarket. Always somewhere to go. He says the US is good at that. I end mine in the post office which is still going despite horrendous attacks by Romney types. They want to take it over so they can charge huge sums for much poorer service. The post office is one of the best buys in town and you don't have to dress up.