The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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He is well-groomed, mustachioed, in a dress suit and dark shoes. His wavy white hair is pressed against the hard satin pillow, an uncharacteristic serenity replaces the usual flashing grin.
She has dressed hurriedly with a kerchief covering her hair and a plain dark dress. She is almost comically short compared to him. He is 6’2”, she’s barely five feet. Her face and figure are soft. Hers is a body with a memory for its youth, with a continuing sensuality.
They have not become wealthy. He has preferred company and conversation to commerce. Still, there is a sense of abundance about them. Like any other grandparents’ kitchen, theirs smells of butter or cream or both. It reliably yields the tastes and smells and textures that come to one in dreams or at the mention of unexpected words. One is comforted by the heaviness of the bathroom fixtures, the bounce of the carpet.
They have always been lovers and they have not lived for their children but for each other. When he greets his children, for all of us seem to have this status, he puts muscle into the embrace and one is forced to participate.
She lifts her arms unself-consciously. One is reminded of the times he would sit smoking his cigar elegantly and would hastily drop it in an ashtray to receive her unabashed kiss at the breakfast table. Or of the times they would dance a few steps in passing through a hallway.
Of course she throws herself across his chest, across his impossible coffin. If we had any sense of the future, we would, too, but we are ashamed. We see her love unreturned for the first time and we learn the fear of rejection, of being without constant approval and acceptance. We are otherwise a family of children, his children, now fatherless.
My father’s father escaped from Russia during the persecution of the Jews in the late 1800s. In New York City he met his wife, my grandmother, a pretty Jewish girl with three brothers and high musical ambitions. Grandpa became a salesman and they moved around the country a bit before settling in Baltimore.
When he retired, they moved to the house beside ours in rural coastal North Carolina, and there they stayed for several years while I was pre-teen. My impressions of them from that time are strong, packed with confused longing and some nostalgia. When I got to know them again later, I was in my late teens and, of course, my understanding of them changed. Grandpa’s illness caused them to return from Florida to North Carolina, and then, very slowly and angrily, he died. My grandmother had become a small, incomplete version of my memory; now she smiles, complains of pain and loss of beauty, discusses food prices — all outrageous — otherwise entertains herself with TV and large-print novels.
But when I was younger and they lived next door, they were my other world. Their house: the aromas of their foods and the furniture polish which grandfather so often massaged into the mahogany china cabinet and sideboard and baby grand, and other antiques they had collected. My parents had furnished our house as they could afford — necessary pieces, factory made, upholstered in my mother’s quiet colors — and her preference was for less instead of more, few knickknacks or inside plants. Grandma, however, had gathered quite an array of statues and porcelain pieces — busts of composers, alabaster women with painted robes barely covering their breasts, their uplifted arms draped with vines. Every windowsill and furniture surface held a potted plant, exotic rubber plants and African violets that Grandma nurtured. At the time it seemed unusual to have so much greenery in the house; my school friends’ homes were more sparsely provided with couches, easy-boys and TVs, woodstoves, and kitchen tables with formica tops, and if there were flowers they were more likely to be the less time consuming artificial ones.
My grandparents were always awake before dawn. On occasion, when I’d slip out at sunrise to run up the dirt road or traipse through the weeds beside Bogue Sound, I’d be drawn to their lit windows or would knock on their locked door, and Grandpa would let me in. Early mornings were the only times he seemed to care for my grandmother. They had separate bedrooms; Grandma would let me in bed with her, and as always, he’d serve her breakfast there — sour cream and cottage cheese and toast, strong coffee and cream. She’d be sleepy, sweet-smelling and subdued, and he would speak kindly, if indeed he spoke at all.
He never faked his feelings, and would usually snarl at her in front of us kids or anyone else when he was displeased, which was most of the time. “Oh, you know how Lou is,” she’d laugh, “so moody,” and she’d speak of his eccentricities and obstinate ways as if he wasn’t in the room. Mostly she spoke about herself, her needs, her youth. But also, she smiled readily, laughed richly, played the piano and sang with gusto. She taught some of us children to play piano, sing, embroider, listen to music: thick old records of opera and classical pieces, and Broadway show tunes.
She wore heavy brooches on her large bosom, and had a drawerful of jewelry which she called valuable. (Later I was to see that it was only old.) She had perfumes and talcums, scarves of bright colors, and she changed her dress several times a day, even though we lived miles from anyone. She had no friends, indeed, thought the country people too simple. When she and Grandpa moved to Daytona Beach, she again found her community — ladies from the North and Midwest who could reminisce about serving doughnuts to the soldiers when they, as had my grandmother in Baltimore, worked for the Red Cross.
Grandpa, though often gloomy, still seemed more content than my grandmother to live in rural isolation with his son’s family. He drove us to school events and friends’ houses and to the store, and daily to and from the schoolbus which wouldn’t attempt our long, muddy road to pick us up. Grandpa sat outside with us, watching us play, and occasionally would join in our antics: I remember how amazed I was to see him do a somersault on the grass. Every now and then he’d jump up and do a few shuffling dance steps, a jig, while we howled and hooted, until he’d sit back in his lawn chair, running a palm across his bald head and smiling a little.
In his bedroom, he’d slowly, quietly tell me stories about Russia and his large family there, all of whom were scattered or killed when he left. He told me about coming to America, about proposing to my grandmother the first day he met her. Sitting in his green armchair, the brown tassled curtains behind him subduing the afternoon light, he’d cross his legs and swing the upper foot, and I’d sit on it, riding up and down as if on a merry-go-round horse.
Grandpa enjoyed cooking the daily meal; since they started the day so early, dinner would come at eleven o’clock. The afternoons were long and full. Grandma helped my father, a freelance consulting chemist, with secretarial work. His laboratory and office were just across the yard. While she typed letters and kept the books at the office, Grandpa cleaned their house.
All afternoon their house smelled of spicy meatloaves, chicken casseroles, tuna croquettes, or whatever he had fixed for their lunch that day. Supper was simple, a sandwich, or cheese and crackers, sweet wine and ice cream, and then Grandpa would watch the news and go to bed. Grandma stayed up later, watching “The Price is Right,” and “To Tell the Truth,” and if there wasn’t a movie on TV, she’d read excerpted novels by Reader’s Digest and play records. They were both devotees of Lawrence Welk and those young people he featured. “Really quite a person,” my grandmother would say when impressed by, say, a young woman singer with starched, sparkling clothes and full red lips, a perpetual smile. “You can do that too,” Grandma would assure me. “Never say can’t.”
Before a hurricane destroyed it, Grandma and Grandpa had a breezeway cooled by the wind off the water, and there we would sit, with Grandma talking and Grandpa remaining silent until she’d go into the house for something. There were three wooden rocking chairs, the largest one for my grandfather, the medium-sized one for Grandma, and a small chair for one of us grandchildren. If the small rocker was taken, I’d sit on the concrete steps into the house. We’d eat ice cream and talk about school. I remember Grandma never seemed to catch the details, but she always tried to get me to enunciate because I talked extremely fast and ran all the words together. She also campaigned to save my fingernails, to no avail I’m afraid, as I chew them still.
Or we’d sing, or talk about composers; my grandmother knew the lives of all the greats — Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky. She had many tales about her childhood and early adult life, when she was quite a singing star with the Red Cross, performing at the piano for the troops. There were picture albums, and she’d often bemoan the time my grandfather destroyed many of the photographs she’d saved, had snipped them up with scissors.
Neither of my grandparents spoke of my father’s older brother, and only later did I hear how my uncle had excelled in school, how he made straight A’s through law school, how he graduated with honors, then broke down and tried to kill himself. He was diagnosed schizophrenic, disappeared and later they heard that he had died in some state institution after years of wandering.
When Grandma decided that she wanted to move to Daytona Beach. I think my grandfather wanted to stay with us. I thought I’d die when they left, that half my life had been sundered.
My memories of Grandma from that time are rich — the way I was attracted to her, her aroma, performances, jewelry, the mink stole in her closet that she never had a reason to wear while she lived next to us. But my grandfather’s silent gloom and grandmother’s flamboyances didn’t jibe.
And there was the way he seemed so constantly angry with her — except in the early morning when she was sleepy. I always wondered about the photographs he had destroyed. And there was the picture in the album of my grandmother posed beside a piano as if singing, dressed in dark velvet with lace around the bodice, and someone had jabbed holes through the print where her eyes had been.
There was a man I lived with when I was five years old. He had a moustache, which, when he drank milk, grew a funny white border, and he smoked a pipe that made a lovely smell. He was a rich man, who never turned anyone in need away. The tramps in the area soon learned that it was more profitable to go to the front door and speak with the master of the house, than beg for scraps from the cook at the tradesmen’s entrance. The big house in which we lived was filled with pictures, many by famous artists, many painted by himself. (Later I discovered that “famous” painters rarely start out “famous,” usually very poor.) He had given them money when they were unknown and destitute, and, in return, they had given him gifts of their paintings.) I once found a book amongst the hundreds which lined the library that was written by him — about the life and work of one of the artists, Walter Sickert, and then I knew that he was a writer too. When I was sick and feverish, he made me well again. That was when I learned that he had also practiced as a doctor. Now that he had retired, he collected stamps, played chess, did crosswords, and still occasionally painted.
He and I had a secret place in the woods — it was called “The Secret Garden.” We cleared a spot, planted snow-drops, and eagerly watched them grow and flower. Everyday we would go for a walk along the seashore, rain or shine, and find shells, bits of colored glass, pebbles — all manner of treasures. Another place where treasures were to be found was under an enormous oak tree in the garden. In the roots was a small opening, and every now and then, he would tell me to go and find what the fairies had left for me. Always I would find a tiny china animal, a sixpence, a little “something.”
He had built a swimming pool in the garden, where we spent many hours — he holding me in the water while I kicked and splashed, until I was confident enough to leave his arms and kick and splash on my own.
He was a man of few words; I was a child of few. Between us there was little need to verbally communicate anyway.
When he died, I did not grieve alone; the whole village in which we lived missed him. A month later, I won a silver cup for my school, swimming. I remember going up onto the stage to receive the trophy, feeling he could “see” me and was very proud. It wasn’t my victory; it was ours. When I visited the old house, I went into the woods. They were overgrown with brambles, but I hacked my way through to where The Secret Garden had been, and while the distinct circle we had cleared was lost, where the snow-drops bloomed, their noble little heads defying the encroaching tangle of thorns and underbrush.
Now, many years later, when I am engaged in my hobbies — playing chess, doing crosswords, painting or swimming, and indeed, as I work (I write by profession) — I remember him, and bless him for his care and his love. My Grandfather was/is the finest human being I knew/know.
Mama scurries down the beach house steps toward us, and stage whispers, “Surprise her!”
We tiptoe in. She is standing in the middle of the living room, her back toward us, with nothing but a towel around her large body. The ocean breeze coming through the open windows gently ruffles her thin, white hair.
I think: it is right for her to be here on her 80th birthday.
She turns, sees us, announces with glee: “You did come! They all thought they’d given it away last night but they didn’t; I never knew a thing about it!”
I laugh loudly at the contradiction. I’m glad to be here, among the familiar beach house furniture, plastic glasses, heavy plates, gas stove, outdoor showers under the house. It means ocean, and family.
We hug. Her warm scent is the same as that of her clothes closet or her bedsheets. Soft fleshy arms envelope me. “Ummmphhh,” she says. There are mammoth splashes of bath powder across her chest, neck and shoulders, which leave an imprint on my shirt.
She remembers her nakedness, and jokes about it as if it were nothing. To her, it is. She’s always drifted around on hot afternoons after her bath, oblivious to her daughters’ “Mother, you are exposed for all the world to see. Put some clothes on!”
She is happy. Being with family, the familiar, is all she wants. (Her indignant, predictable response whenever she hears of someone who does something unconventional or alien to her mores, is, “Well doesn’t he have any family?”)
I forget her momentarily as we greet the rest of the family, politely refuse the profusion of food offered with Southern insistence. We stand, awkwardly, tired of sitting, while the others make up luncheon plates.
My grandmother suddenly emerges from her bedroom, in a summer dress now, her brow furrowed, her lips in a tight line of impatience. She grabs me by the hand, marches me into a corner of her bedroom by the window where the light is best, and plants me there, then turns to her dresser and begins searching for something. I wonder, “Is she going to give me money, wad a dollar bill into my hand, as if it were a fortune, and say firmly, ‘Buy yourself something you want, hear?’ or is she going to wear a face of concern and complain that I’m working too hard and look tired, and make me into her baby?” Neither.
She turns back to me and thrusts a pair of tweezers into my hands, juts her chin out, freezes into a pose and orders between clenched teeth, “Get them. I will not have whiskers on my face.”
I am pleased. She has unknowingly welcomed me in the way I most appreciate, in the here and now, without dramatics, putting nothing between us but a pair of tweezers.
I pull out the few white, coarse hairs I can find on her chin, one by one. She demands I look for more. I pretend to, to satisfy her, but instead look at her motionless face, a few inches from mine. She avoids my eyes, her gaze out the window, but I can see her eyes flitter nervously, like pigeon’s feet on the roof, scratching, clinging to their perch with an annoying restlessness.
Even so, her face is strong. Personality oozes from her eyes when she laughs, a staccato whoop that begins like a thunderclap and repeats itself in that hypnotic rhythmical way one refers to as “an infectious laugh.”
“Do you have cataracts?” I ask her. I see lumpy clear tissue over one eye. She ignores my question, looks back at me, and I feel her discomfort with the silence. She pulls me forcefully to her abundant bosom, hugs me tightly, bellows in my ear, “I’m so glad you are here, my darling!” thrusts me away from her and abruptly leaves the room, her attention gravitating back to the food on the kitchen table.
I follow her out, and wonder who I am for her. Certainly not an adult; none of her children ever reached adulthood in her mind, how could I expect to? I am still a ten-year-old to her, spending afternoons on her backporch, with my comic books (she with her Ladies Home Journal), eating pineapple sherbert, asking her questions she didn’t want to answer, vague questions for which I had no vocabulary. She’d get irritated with me for asking such things; her responses were always firm, proud, and emphatic. “Well there’s what’s right, and there’s what’s wrong. There are questions you can answer, and questions you can’t.” (The latter spoken scoldingly when I asked her what it was like after you were dead.)
I listened to her. She’d been untouched by doubts, her persuasiveness was great, and she was the most compelling actress I’d ever known, the sheer volume and richness of her voice turning heads, her storytelling ability feeding life into every china cup, every piece of furniture. (“This is a precious piece that came over from England on your great-grandfather’s clippership.”)
She was adept at acting out whoever she thought she was, but the stage she insisted you share with her became brutally painful to stand on. The surface appearances became transparent and pale, and the telling of the story, the hearty hellos and goodbyes, the well-intentioned love of family all crumbled beneath her because she never learned to leave the stage, she never learned to be faceless, she never learned how to listen.