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The house where I grew up, in Durham, New Hampshire, is the only one on the street with a fence surrounding it. That fit. Our family -- my mother, my father, my older sister, Rona, and I -- never belonged in that town. Or anywhere else, it seemed to me, but in that house, with one another, like a country unto ourselves, a tiny principality with a population of four. Arguably three, since my sister tried to remove herself as much as possible.
There was a phrase we used in our family: "one of us." We didn't use it often, but what it meant was that we'd encountered a person who might get inside the fence and enter the fortress of our family. No one ever did, fully. The only ones who were truly "one of us" were ourselves.
My father comes into my room just after six every morning and wakes me with the snap of my window blinds. "Time to get up, chum," he says. Four decades since he lived there last, you can still hear England in his voice. Years later, when I'm in my thirties and beyond, and he's long dead, I will sometimes be at a movie and Sir John Gielgud appears on the screen, and, though he looks nothing like my father, the sound of his voice will be enough to make me cry.
There's no unkindness in the way my father wakes me. He simply believes it's an unconscionable waste to stay in bed when the sun is shining. Or even if it's not. My whole life, I have been unable to sleep late.
Every morning, my father brings my mother coffee in bed, then comes back down to make his breakfast. He'll be eating it when I come down the stairs. Porridge, maybe, or an egg. He always reads while he eats breakfast. It might be the letters of Harold Nicolson, or the journals of Simone Weil. Although he knows Paradise Lost by heart -- eighteenth-century literature is his field of specialty, and he teaches it at the University of New Hampshire -- he may still read over a passage from Milton that he'll be lecturing on today. Sometimes my father will read the Bible at breakfast -- another book he knows well.
My father's parents were British Fundamentalist missionaries who left the Salvation Army because of its excessively liberal teachings to join a sect known as the Plymouth Brethren. The second to last of their seven children, my father, Max Maynard, was born sometime around the year 1900, in India, where his parents had come to proselytize. Of the many mysteries that surround my father's family, the first concerned the date of his birth. He claimed his parents told him they were so occupied with the Lord they hadn't written it down. I never met my father's parents, or any parents so consumed with God that they'd forget the year of their child's birth. If nothing else, the story told me something about my father's perception of them.
As a small child, my father had loved to act and sing, but his deepest passion was for painting. He had known for a long time that he wanted to make art, but hadn't dared ask his parents for paints. When he was ten, he finally got himself a paintbox, which became his most treasured possession. He painted and read constantly, and with so much reckless abandon that he broke the inviolate rule of his household, to observe the Sabbath with no activity but reading of the scripture. His older brother saw him painting and reported the news to their parents.
His father called him to his study.
"Bring me your paints," he said, and when my father delivered them, his father placed them in his desk drawer and slammed it shut. "For one year, Max, you shall not paint," he said.
My father broke with the church and with most of his family when he was a young man, having emigrated from England by now and settled in British Columbia. While most of his brothers and sisters pursued a life within the church -- one, Theodore Maynard, becoming a moderately well-known Catholic theologian -- my father took up with a group of early modern artists in Victoria who were regarded as a radical bunch. One, a much older woman painter named Emily Carr, would become the mentor and inspiration of a group of young modern artists in the twenties and thirties. Several among this group would later become celebrated in Canada, part of what was known as the Group of Seven.
From the little I've been able to gather of those early years of his -- decades before I came on the scene -- my father led a bohemian life: making art, making love, making poetry, and waking up with a terrible hangover the next morning. He was a handsome, dashing man -- blue-eyed, blond-haired, compactly but athletically built, with the broad shoulders of a powerful swimmer. He had a cleft chin and a strong jaw, but what probably melted the hearts of women, more than his good looks, was his ability to draw and write for them. He could dash off light verse or a romantic sonnet in flawless iambic pentameter, illustrated with a funny or erotic drawing of a couple in mad embrace, or a caricature of himself, on bent knees, holding out an armload of flowers.
When I was sixteen I learned my father had been married once before his marriage to my mother. Although that news came as a terrible shock, the stories of my father's many flamboyantly romantic escapades in Manitoba and British Columbia were almost a source of pride and legend in our household. I think my mother actually derived some pleasure out of the sense of my father's romantic and rakish past. He used to say she had probably saved his life; it was all so reckless and undisciplined before she "whipped him into shape."
He met her in Winnipeg, where he had fled, on the lam from some romantic disaster. He was hired by the University of Manitoba as a last-minute replacement for another professor -- the only reason he could have gotten an academic job with no more in the way of credentials than a bachelor's degree.
His lack of formal training in literature hardly kept him from establishing a reputation as a riveting lecturer. My mother -- at nineteen, in her senior year as the English department's top student -- was assigned the job of being his assistant, with the task of reading student papers. Partly, it was supposed, she was serious and sensible enough to withstand his attempts at seduction. She had already earned a reputation as a single-mindedly driven young woman, headed for a brilliant academic career.
My mother labored over her first batch of essays with elaborate corrections and comments. After she'd delivered them, he stopped her outside his classroom to compliment her on the job she was doing.
"But you mustn't trouble yourself with tracing plagiarisms as you have," he told her.
"I didn't trace them," she said. "I recognized the sources."
Where my father's story has tended to be murky (relatives we never meet; an ex-wife I learn of only well into my teens; vague talk of a former career as a cowboy, a radio announcer, a diving instructor), my mother's is so well known to me, from her own rich retellings, it has taken on the aura of mythology.
She was born Freidele Bruser, the second daughter and last child of Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms of Russia for Canada in the early part of the twentieth century. Her father was a shopkeeper and a dreamer -- a tender-hearted, not particularly practical man who once opened every box of Cracker Jack in his store to give my mother the particular treat (a tin ring) she longed for. The store -- a whole series of them, always named The OK Store -- went bankrupt regularly.
My grandmother, a woman of fierce ambition and pride in her children, particularly my mother, launched Freidele in the study of elocution, the oral presentation of poetry, popular in rural areas during the Depression. From the age of four, my mother was hustled to the front of grange halls to recite verses -- sometimes comic, sometimes sentimental and tragic -- in a voice that was not simply loud but strikingly clear, and capable of bringing the crowd to great laughter or tears.
All through my growing up, my mother recited poetry to me. In the middle of dinner or driving to the store or hearing me describe an incident that happened on the playground at school, she plucked lines from her head -- maybe Shakespeare, maybe Milton -- that referred in some way to what was going on in our lives. For as long as she lived, whenever I needed a line of poetry for a paper, or a debate speech, and, one day, for my wedding, I only had to ask my mother.
There was more to my mother's encyclopedic knowledge of literature than the fluke of her photographic memory. She loved poetry, most of all reciting it out loud. Even when she wasn't quoting poetry, its rhythms were present in her speech, as they were in my father's.
For both my parents, I think there was a sensual pleasure in shaping the words of Keats or Donne or Yeats or Dylan Thomas or Wordsworth. Neither one of my parents played a musical instrument. For them, language was music. They loved the sound of the human voice delivering the best the English language had to offer.
They loved rhythm, meter, timbre, inflection. They were performers who knew instinctively when to take the breath, when to lower the voice very slowly, or pause, or linger over a syllable -- and they did it so well, even a person who didn't speak a word of English would know, just listening to them, that this had to be poetry, and pay attention.
My mother won the golden Governor General's Award at the age of sixteen for being the top graduating senior in all of Canada in the year 1938. That earned her a full scholarship to college at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. She'd lived in small prairie towns all her life.
My mother was eighteen (Fredelle now, not Freidele) when she met my father in Winnipeg. He called her Fredelka and courted her with sonnets he wrote her, sketched beautiful drawings of her, and the most elegantly humorous cartoons of himself on his knees, beseeching her to accept his suit. But she was Jewish; he was not. Her parents had told her she must never marry a Gentile, and she had never disobeyed her parents.
But the same qualities in my father that made him such an unacceptable candidate for a husband in her parents' eyes were, no doubt, part of what drew my mother to him. He was a dark and dangerous character who distrusted conventions of every sort, and the most romantic man she'd ever met. He introduced her to modern art and classical music. All her life, she'd been the good daughter. He was the Bad Son. She fell wildly in love.
My mother was my grandmother's favorite, and as the favorite, she carried the responsibility to heap honor and glory -- the Yiddish word is naches -- at her mother's feet. Because her mother sacrificed everything for her -- so she could have her elocution lessons, so she could go, as her older sister did not, to the university -- it went without saying that my mother's mother was entitled to complete loyalty and devotion in return. Her life, her accomplishments, her successes, belonged not to her alone, but also to her critical and hugely demanding mother.
Every summer she returned home to the prairies of Saskatchewan to work in her father's store. My father began courting her by mail, but her parents withheld his letters to her. He got himself a radio show in Winnipeg, and read poetry to her over the airwaves,
under the pseudonym of John Gregory. But his voice was unmistakable. On Valentine's Day, 1943, he sent her this:
Not all the loveliest words will go
In rhyme with "dear Fredelle"
But all the fondest thoughts I know
Are subject to that spell.
Like honey dripping from the comb
In streams of amorous sweet they come.
My lily flower, my luscious peach
My pretty octupus, my leech
My swordfish whose sharp-pointed dart
Runs precious panic through my heart
My biblio-vandal whose least look
Rips all the pages of my book,
My dazzling jewel by whose glare
The very sun is in despair,
My arching sky, my curving earth,
My death, my life, my second birth,
My sun-warmed field, my shady tree,
My time and my eternity,
My cigarette, my nicotine
My coffee, tea, and whole cuisine
My loaf of bread, my jug of wine
All this and more, sweet valentine!
Knowing she had to find a Jewish husband, she went to graduate school in Toronto to put some distance between herself and my father. A young Jewish man, recently back from a distinguished career in the army, courted her. He was intelligent, kind, deeply in love -- a man who had all the signs of becoming an excellent husband and a good father. But there was none of the romantic excitement with Harold Taubman that my mother felt for Max Maynard. Every day came a new letter from him, in his exquisite
artist's hand, on nearly transparent onionskin, sometimes decorated with drawings.
Reading these letters now, from a distance of more than fifty years, I am struck by the wit and extravagance of my father's expression to my mother. But I see something else too. These are not so much the letters of a man who burns for a flesh-and-blood
connection to a woman as they are the words of a man in love with the idea of such a romance. There's an unreality to his fervor. My father has made himself into a character who might have been created by the romantic poets. He is drawn relentlessly to the impossible, the tragic, the unattainable. The vision of life without Fredelka inspires him with nearly suicidal despair. But never in all the hundreds of pages he writes does he realistically envision a life with her.
Hearing of Harold Taubman's proposal of marriage and my mother's anguish over the decision, my father sent her another poem:
I simply can't make a decision
On the one hand the talk's circumcision
And all it implies
On the other: revise,
Change outlook, have faith and some vision!
She held him off for five more years. In 1946, she left Toronto for Ph.D. studies at Radcliffe, where she earned a doctorate, summa cum laude. She wrote her dissertation on the concept of chastity in English literature. She liked to say she was the world's foremost
authority on the chastity belt.
My father sought a job as close to Cambridge as he could to be near her. The job he found was at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Weekends he traveled to Cambridge, begging her to marry him. Seven years after he'd begun courting her, she said yes. Her parents were broken-hearted. It was the first time in my mother's life that she had failed to please her mother.
This is as much of my parents' story as I hear growing up. The next part I learn only later.
Although my parents had written hundreds of pages of letters to each other, they had lived in different cities, separated by hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles for most of that time. They knew each other largely through words on a page.
The day my mother moved into my father's bachelor apartment, she found empty vodka bottles hidden in a third-floor closet -- an experience she describes with comparisons to the story of Bluebeard's bride opening the door to the forbidden room and finding her life destroyed forever by the discovery of what lay inside. That very day, she also came upon a letter he'd written his ex-wife -- no doubt while drunk. "I've made a terrible mistake," he wrote. "I've married a clever little Jewish girl."
Until she moved in with my father, my mother knew almost nothing about liquor, coming from a family where wine was touched once a year at most. But having flown in the face of her family to marry my father, my mother could not tell her parents the
truth -- that the marriage was in trouble from the beginning. She kept the fact of my father's drinking hidden not just from her family but from everyone she knew -- and, as much as she could, from herself.
By the time my sister was born, in 1949, my mother's once-boundless hopefulness about her own bright future was vastly diminished. By my birth, in 1953, her marriage was in many ways already finished.
"You were conceived the last time we made love," my mother eventually tells me, years later. Her words strike me with something close to physical pain.
I have a photograph of my mother when she must have been a new bride in Durham. She is sitting on the porch of the little apartment my parents rented. She's not yet thirty. My mother had always said she was simply smart, that her older sister Celia was the beauty. But the young woman in this photograph is, like the older woman she will become, exotically beautiful. She wears a simple cotton dress, pushed down over her shoulders. Her body -- which she always worried about, and tried to slim down--is not
heavy so much as ripe. (In an era when women were encouraged to bottle-feed their babies with formula, she insisted on breast-feeding.) She has curly black hair and dark eyes of unmistakable intelligence, and her skin is so brown that when she was younger, she was more than once denied entrance someplace when she was thought to be, in the word of the time, colored.
It isn't just my mother's romantic hopes that are dashed early. Wife of the fifties, she can't get a job. The University of New Hampshire has a strict policy against hiring faculty wives. When she applies for high school teaching jobs, they tell her she doesn't have the right credentials; she needs education credits. She could go back to school, but she sees no way to study, pay for school, and care for her children.
As a young faculty wife in a small New Hampshire town in the late forties and fifties, my mother doesn't know what to do. Bursting with ambition and energy, the lone Jew in a world of blue-blooded WASPs, far away from her family, inhabiting a lonely and difficult marriage, my mother pours her prodigious energies into the too-narrow space of domestic life: baking, sewing, entertaining, shopping for bargains, growing flowers, canning vegetables, and raising her two daughters to have what she had not: fame, fortune, career success, access to the big and glittering world of the city.
My mother has always been a wonderful writer and storyteller, but these days the only writing she does takes the form of letters home to her parents in Manitoba, and to a couple of old friends from her Radcliffe days, Marion and Phyllis. Recognizing, as she must at this point, that these letters may be her truest forms of expression, she keeps carbons of the hundreds of pages she writes: funny stories about her husband and children and life as a faculty wife in a small New Hampshire town, tirelessly looking for an outlet that might give more direction to her life.
A letter she writes to the Sunbeam Appliance Company, in 1959, remains, as they all do, in her correspondence file:
I want to express my total disenchantment with Sunbeam vacuum cleaners and with the kind of repair service provided under your one-year warranty.
In May of this year, after carefully studying the analyses in Consumer Reports, I purchased a Sunbeam canister cleaner, Model No. 635, confident that I was acquiring a top-quality machine and a "best buy." From the first, the vacuum seemed long on noise and short on suction, but I tried to persuade myself I must be mistaken. In October, the cleaner developed a roar like that of a jet plane; it smelled and felt hot when operating, had lost suction almost completely. I took the machine to the place of purchase, for repair under the warranty. My vacuum departed and was gone ten weeks -- a long time for a housewife to be without a cleaner.
Last week my Sunbeam returned, with cord neatly folded and afresh new bag inside. Happy, I plugged it in. Imagine my surprise. The machine roars like a jet plane, it smells and feels hot when operating, it has no suction at all. Pins and fluff on the carpet before vacuuming are not disturbed by the mighty assaults of the 635.
There seems no point in returning this ruin for further "repairs." Evidently--after five months' use--I must purchase another vacuum cleaner. It will not, I think, be a Sunbeam. Since I clean my house once a week, I figure it cost me something over $4.00 for every whirl with my magical Touch `n' Lock. A more appropriate motto might be Touch At Your Own Risk.
Money is a theme of my mother's letters. Our family is always coming up short and searching out new avenues for earning it. Even more, my mother keeps looking for ways to make use of her inexhaustible energies.
"You know I've always said I wouldn't sell if I were starving," she writes to her parents, in the summer of 1954. "But I am now engaged as a salesperson of the Book of Knowledge encyclopedia. Who knows, I may discover I have capacities I haven't explored. If nothing else, the whole thing should provide me with invaluable literary material...."
My mother works hard selling the Book of Knowledge, and earns a set for our family. But the huge commission checks elude her. In another letter, written a few months later, she mentions to her parents that she's applying for a Guggenheim grant to work in England and Wales on research concerning Dylan Thomas, who has recently died.
"It is unlikely that Guggenheim will greet my application with cries of joy (and large checks)," she writes. "Chief against it is the unlikelihood of any committee viewing seriously a researcher who comes accompanied by two small girls and a diaper pail...."
She doesn't get the grant. In the years that follow, my mother's letters to her parents no longer mention academic and scholarly aspirations. They are breezy, chatty, and lighthearted -- reports on my sister's activities and mine, mostly, and English department gossip.
A single letter to an old Radcliffe friend, Phyllis, comes closest to offering a glimpse of the frustrations my mother must have felt during her years as a New Hampshire housewife:
You asked if I were happy. Ten years ago I would have had a definite yes or no. Yes, I think I am; but I am a different person, and I no longer think of happiness in terms of either utter serenity or perfect ecstasy.... I would say that I understand the Ode to Melancholy and Wordsworth's Intimations much better than I did ten years ago. I think I am in some ways a "better" person, and yet less a person.... I am afraid that you will find
me not at all the girl you remember. Overweening personal ambition is no virtue; but while I had it, I could have danced on a bed of nails.
--From At Home in the World : A Memoir, by Joyce Maynard. (c) 1997 by Joyce Maynard.