Chapter One: My Grandmother's House
Some days I would be left at my grandmother's house. I never knew why. Usually, I could ask my father anything, but I couldn't ask him that, why I was being left at my grandmother's, because I knew it was a privilege to be in that house, and no one, even my father would understand my reluctance. It was only a partial reluctance anyway, and I believed then that I had no business communicating anything I only partially understood.
Entering the house, I was plunged into an atmosphere of bafflement. The words, the manners, all the things, were foreign to me. The foreignness almost seemed literal; often I didn't understand what the people in my grandmother's house were saying, and often what I said was not understood.
What do I mean by understand? There were names for things that I found unfamiliar: "commode" for toilet, "box" for the area of the floor where the dog was made to lie, "pantry" for a series of shelves on one of the kitchen walls. My mother used these words easily, but she didn't use them to describe anything in our house. Or our apartment, what my father and I called home but what was to her something else. Something serious and untemporary. Something that generated no names proper to itself. In her mother's house, my mother knew that everything had been named long ago, once and for all.
I had trouble placing my grandmother's house. I knew it had nothing to do with America. Or postwar life. And yet it stood at the center of the lives of all her children and her children's children. It expressed an era historical, perhaps, wholly imaginary, that we grandchildren only vaguely understood. We knew that it had ended long before we were born; it seemed to have touched upon our parents' early childhood, but we weren't sure. There were twenty-one grandchildren who visited my grandmother's house regularly. Of her nine children, only two had settled more than ten miles away from her. We all lived on Long Island, in towns that bordered Queens and took their identity more from "the city" than "the island." My grandmother had lived in the same house since 1920, when the area was farmland; she despised the people who had moved there from Brooklyn or the Bronx after the war. She condemned new houses and the objects in them.
Each object in her house belonged to the Old World. Nothing was easy; everything required maintenance of a complicated and specialized sort. Nothing was disposable, replaceable. There were no errors of taste because there were no imaginable other choices. I was not unhappy there; each object's rightness of placement made me feel honored to be among them. Yet I was always guilty among those things, as if they knew I preferred what was in my glamorous aunt's house. She lived in the next town from my grandmother's; her husband owned a liquor store and made more money than anyone we knew. My aunt and uncle bought things easily, unlike the rest of the family, and so the house was full of new or newish objects: the plastic holders for playing cards, like shells or fans, the nut dishes in the shape of peanuts, the corn dishes in the shape of ears of corn, the hair dryer like a rocket, the makeup mirror framed by lightbulbs, the bottles of nail polish, the ice bucket, the cocktail shaker, the deep freeze. And the house was stocked with pleasurable things to eat, drink, sit on, listen to, lean against, watch, sleep in, ride, or wear. I knew these pleasures to be inferior, but I sank into them each time, stealing their luxury and fearing for my soul, as I half feared for my aunt's which I couldn't imagine to be the same, interested as she was in having a good time.
My grandmother had no interest in having a good time that is, in doing anything that would result only in pleasure and her house proclaimed this, as it proclaimed everything about her. Her house was her body, and like her body, was honorable, daunting, reassuring, defended, castigating, harsh, embellished, dark. I can't imagine how she lived, that is to say how she didn't die of the endless labor her life entailed. Nine children. It's easy either to romanticize her or utterly to push her aside.
Although I wasn't happy there, I did, somehow, like her house. Her garden had old-fashioned flowers, bright colored, a little wild; marigold, cosmos, foxglove, phlox. Older varieties of roses, whose petals seemed thinner than those of more recent types, more susceptible, as my soft flesh was more susceptible than those of the adults around me, to insect bites that made it horrible to the eye. I liked her garden even better than my aunt's, where the greens were deeper than the greens of any leaves or grass I'd seen anywhere else. I linked dark greenness to prosperity, as if my uncle had invested in that greenness so that we would all be more secure. My grandmother's house had no connection to prosperity; it had righteousness instead.
There were three ways you could enter the house: through the front porch, the side porch, or the kitchen. The kitchen was the most common way. Tacked on, it hadn't originally been part of the house. It floated on nothing, it had no foundations, it was a ship that sailed on air. And yet it was a serious place. Difficult and steady work went on there; the kitchen was productive, rigorous. And yet so light! Its lightness was a particular pleasure in summer. The screen door opened with a leisurely, indulgent creak. It bent back on a steel hasp, and even a child could hook it open easily. All the things that kitchen contained: marjoram, nutmeg, green peppercorns, sage from the garden, mason jars of preserved fruit! Some hints of the Italian from my Italian grandfather: ricotta mixed with cinnamon and sugar, almond biscotti, fresh figs purple at the top, fading to a tender green. Irish soda bread my grandmother had learned to make as a girl at home. Inexplicably, hamantaschen a way of using up the jars and jars of preserved figs. She would save a little dough, a little bit of fig, for me to make my own. She'd put mine in the oven along with hers, but mine were much, much smaller and they always burned. Beside her rows of golden pastry hats were my two burnt offerings, charred and solid black. I would eat them anyway, pretending they were good. I felt I had to, out of loyalty. "Don't eat those things, eat one of my nice ones here," she'd always say, and, guiltily, I would.
What was this all about? She was an expert baker. Why didn't she put my pastries in first and take them out before she put hers in? Or put mine in later, so they'd be ready at the same time as hers? What was she trying to show me? That I could try and try but would never be as good as she? That I should not have trusted her? That I should always keep an eye out, because whatever I did in life would be my own affair? It never occurred to me that the situation could be any different. My grandmother's implacable posture made the idea of alternatives impossible. What was, was. Because it had to be.
That kitchen was a monument to her refusal to accept the modern world. The sink was deep and had two narrow spigots, made of brass, that let out only thin, slow streams of water, unlike the jubilant spurts from the stainless steel faucets of ordinary fifties sinks. The table was white deal, with a seam down the middle where it could be made to fold, but it was never folded. My grandmother would run a knife blade through that seam and the ones along the sides, to dislodge crumbs of dried food. This was the sort of thing she was doing when people perceived her as being still. The linoleum was dull gray with spattered dots of red, yellow, and black. Her dishes were white with gentle floral patterns, pink and blue. I don't know where they might have come from.
There were a lot of things around the house that, like those dishes, suggested a half-glimpsed gentility. If you went into the side porch, for example, which you rarely did, there were objects of mimed opulence: black jardinieres with Oriental scenes painted on them, holding palms or tall, full philodendrons. The side porch had been my grandfather's workroom; he'd been a jeweler. He died when I was one year old. The room was kept purposely useless, in memory of him. I often stayed there, lonely, feeling I'd stolen grace.
In my grandmother's house I was often alone, left to myself because my grandmother was always busy. Sometimes she'd include me in her tasks: I would hold open the trapdoor so she could carry the wash up from the basement. She'd ask me to hold the funnel steady so she could pour antifreeze into the car. Sometimes I'd help her find a thimble or a pin while she was sewing at her machine; her thick foot in its black, low-heeled oxford pushing her treadle. The words she spoke when at her sewing machine seemed ancient to me, and she was the only one I'd ever heard using them: "rickrack," "grosgrain," "dotted swiss." Nothing she sewed was for me, nothing was for anyone I knew. I never understood what happened to all that sewing; it disappeared magically like sewing for the dead, her black foot steady on the treadle like the hoof of fate.
She rarely talked. She lifted pots and tools and basketfuls of earth and bowls of vegetables. She tore meat off bones and carcasses and made it into soup; she beat eggs into silky custards. I believe she very much enjoyed her life. But she had no time to play with children. And so I wandered the dark house alone, from room to room, beginning with the dark porch, where my bachelor uncle, who still lived with her, slept, winter and summer. There was a piano on the porch, and bound music books nobody opened, full of songs no one I knew had ever sung. "Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms," "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," "High Above Cayuga's Waters," "Eli Yale!" And odd pieces of sheet music, "My Buddy," "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen."
Why did they make my uncle sleep there? It was cold in winter, hot in summer. He slept on a couch that was only the semblance of a bed, camouflaged each morning with a gray-and-red-spotted cover. There was almost no place for his things; I don't know where he put his clothes. But I have no understanding of how my uncle lived. I've never come across anybody like him, anyone who would even give me a clue to why he was the way he was. He conformed to no type.
He served the family, especially his mother, with the devotion of a pilgrim to a sacred shrine. He surprised them all by marrying at forty-three one of the happiest marriages I have known, but that was later. Throughout his twenties and thirties, the family thought of him as at their beck and call. He was a strong, handsome man, a champion athlete, head at one time of all the lifeguards on Jones Beach. Yet they expected him to do their bidding, to be at their service when they needed him. There were nine brothers and sisters; all but two of them had mates or children. Someone was always sick or weak or broke or down on his luck. They called and he arrived.
Just this year, seven years after his death at seventy-four, his wife told me that he had decided when he was fourteen that he would dedicate his life to making his mother's life easier. He made the decision when he saw her fixing the roof during a storm. She was six months pregnant, nailing down tarpaper while the wind blew and the rain fell in torrents. He told her to go inside, that he'd take care of everything. From that time on, for nearly thirty years, that was his job: taking care of everything. When he married, it was his only defiance of my grandmother. She fainted at the wedding, which wasn't a Mass: he was marrying a non-Catholic. He moved seven miles away. He moved his things off the porch, his few things with their male smells: Popular Mechanic magazines, turpentine, neat's-foot oil. Things I always stood far away from if I ever wandered onto his part of the porch, averting my eyes and fixing them on the garlands, green and pink, around the words of the sheet music on the piano "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen."
One of my mother's younger sisters, the only one who hadn't married, had taken over the upstairs of the house. The upstairs didn't seem quite connected to the rest, but, unlike the innocent detachment of the kitchen, this disconnection seemed sinister. There was an awkward step down after you reached the top of the staircase leading from the living room. After you stepped down, there were two rooms on the right side of the corridor; a full bathroom (the only one in the house) was on the left. In this bathroom, there was blue-black linoleum on the floor, an old bathtub with claw feet, a small sink, a white wooden bureau, a white wooden washstand, a basin and pitcher, from which protruded overripe philodendron. I had a vague but powerful distaste for what I imagined the water in the pitcher might be like: the slimy stems in the unclear yellow liquid. The old-fashionedness of the bathroom made me feel it wasn't quite hygienic, not like the sky blue tiles, the chrome fittings of my glamorous aunt's bathroom, or the light apple green of the bathroom in our apartment. Only my aunt who lived upstairs used the bathroom regularly; my grandmother used the "commode" in her bedroom downstairs. She emptied it sometime, no one knew when, in the upstairs toilet.
My aunt's bedroom was large, industrial, and cold. There was gray linoleum on the floor; her bed and dresser were gray deal. The walls and trim were painted the same shade of gray. Only a small flowered mat lay on the floor by her bed. Each footfall, even your own, sounded ominous in your ears.
My aunt kept some small boxes of jewelry on her oversize dresser. I remember one pin: a cluster of false-looking purple grapes. She had many more dresses in her closet than my mother, but none of them had the cool freshness of my mother's summer cottons or the urbane, theatrical fragrance of her winter suits. My aunt didn't keep a bottle of perfume on her dresser like that vessel of transparent amber I so loved to approach among my mother's things.
All these lacks on my aunt's part made me pity her. I felt she'd missed the point of it all: adulthood, womanhood. She'd thrown away her chance, and that seemed connected to her childlessness, her cruelty, her bitter tongue, the dark circles below her eyes, the deep imprint of her vaccination scar, her miserliness, her law-abidingness, the way she would dream aloud about the new appliances and modern furniture she'd seen on TV. I pitied her and yet I feared her; no one else could make me feel so bad. My wrongs were so abundant: talking too much, not being quick enough to help clear the table, reading too much, dreaming, dreaming. Her hair was thick and black; her eyes light brown and surveillant. She was thought a beauty; I could not understand why.
The room next to my aunt's was another place in the house, like the front porch, that I couldn't comprehend. It had four iron cots and a gray iron bunk bed. It was nearly always empty. When I asked why my uncle couldn't use that room instead of sleeping on the porch, or half the porch, my mother said, "It has to be like that. In case people need to stay over." But who needed to stay over? Everyone in the family had less than half an hour's drive to get to my grandmother's house. Twice a year, perhaps, the two families who lived far away in Baltimore, in Philadelphia might or might not arrive. Meanwhile, my uncle slept outside.
I'd walk around this empty room, set up like a dormitory, remembering that this was where my mother had slept as a child. The oldest, she always had to share a bed with the next youngest baby. I heard all this, but I didn't believe any of it. The child who was my mother, who lived not with me but in this house, was no one I could have known. The girl who slept in this room was not my mother. That girl had died at the moment of my birth. My mother was someone I had given birth to; whatever had gone before had sunk, like a stone in dark water, into the oblivion of life before me. She was dead, the girl my mother was; this empty room with the blank iron beds and the walls that echoed when I shouted out my mother's name, was only a shrine kept for the veneration of the dead.
I didn't like staying upstairs for long, so I'd walk down to the living room, which was a place where no one ordinarily spent time. Both the living room and the dining room, where meals were had only on holidays, were about display. There was a sad, apologistic falseness to them. They were rooms that had to appear to be inhabited; occasional actual habitation was a by-product, a necessary and regretted step that had to be got through to reach the true and desired end: display. The motif of the living room was pastoral. Fragonard's aristocrats gamboled in high-heeled boots and feathered hats on the front faces of the maroon table lamps, curlicued gilt mirrors, inexplicable bibelots: a venetian glass lady's slipper, a floral cup and saucer stood on a shelf beside life-size heads of the Mater Dolorosa and of Jesus suffering beneath the Crown of Thorns. The tears congealed on her cheeks; sweat made bumps on his brow, which I liked to run my fingers over, fearing I'd sinned by taking pleasure in the Savior's represented anguish. It was the texture in itself that captured my attention, not the living memory of the Sorrows of the Lord. On this shelf there was also a thin black stork riding on a turtle's back. I'd been told that it was originally bronze, but I had no reason to believe that. No one ever touched it; it stood for my grandmother's astonishing fecundity, nine children, all born healthy, all still alive. Beside the stork there was a clump of peat, wedge shaped and porous, that she'd brought from Ireland. She arrived in 1897, alone, at seventeen, to be met by strangers and to take up a domestic's life.
There were no pictures in the living room or in the dining room or in the halls or on the stairways or on the front or side porches. The pictures, all religious, were clustered together in my grandmother's small bedroom. Her bedroom on the first floor had no door, only a doorway. Anyone could go inside it at any time; we imagined she could always see out of that room, see whatever we were doing. All her grandchildren made several ostensibly aimless trips into her room each visit. We did it to frighten ourselves. The room was particularly frightening at night.
Her smells: lavender, ammonia, Pine Sol (always at the bottom of the commode), a green pool reminding you inevitably of the corruption that you, as a human being, had no right pretending you could rise above. Old lace, smelling of dust hair oil, liniment. Unmodern smells that seem to us Indian or pagan, rising from darkness punitive or curing: we could not tell which.
The pictures on her walls were not about pleasing the eye. There was a brown picture with an imprint of Jesus' head: "The Shroud of Turin." Then the words to "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" on a blue background, framed with an ivory border. A picture of Christ with long, smooth, girlish hair, pointing to his Sacred Heart, the size and shape of a pimiento or a tongue. Most mysterious: a picture made of slats. You turned your head one way: it was the Scourging at the Pillar. Another turn of the head produced Jesus Crowned with Thorns. If you looked absolutely straight ahead, you saw the Agony in the Garden. I spent hours looking at that picture, frightened, uncomprehending. It was part of my grandmother's hidden supernal path into the mystery of things, a hard road, unforgiving, made of beaten flesh.
The floor of her bedroom was always undependable. I knew you could push the iron bed against the wall and lift a large part of the floor right up if you grabbed hold of an iron ring and pulled. This was the trapdoor to the basement. I was always afraid that I'd walk into her room one day, heedless, dreaming or reading (which I'd been accused of doing far too much), and hurtle down to the dark basement. I didn't think it would mean my death. I thought my bones would break and then I would be punished by the family. For what they believed was my chief offense: not paying attention.
How could I tell them how much and with what life-and-death intensity I paid attention? They wouldn't want to know, and anyway they'd say I paid attention to the wrong things, I thought about the wrong things, which is why I would never be happy and why I would never prosper. They were just trying to help me to a good and happy life.
There was some story about a cousin of my mother's falling through the trapdoor, landing on his head, then sitting up in my grandmother's bed, his head swaddled in bandages, and being fed soft-boiled eggs and tea. All the family despised him. I thought about him his shame, his fear. Perhaps he read magazines in the bed or looked all day at the pictures on the walls while his head reeled and his vision clouded and he fell in and out of fitful sleep, knowing they were laughing at him behind the kitchen door.
We always arrived at my grandmother's house for family gatherings late, unhelpful, overdressed, but somehow daunting to the others. Six other households were represented only the upstairs aunt wasn't living somewhere else. But except for my glamorous aunt, her generous, prosperous husband, and her fashionably dressed children all exceptional because they lived so modernly, so differently from everything my grandmother stood for the rest were minor characters, undistinguished background figures. Nevertheless, each family but ours had some function: the women cooked and served food, the men carried things, moved furniture. We were simply there, representing something they despised: the outside world.
We were coming from where we lived not a house but the top half of a house; we called it our apartment, liking the urban sound. It was just three blocks away, but traveling there meant some border had to be crossed. The transition made me fretful and fatigued. Often, going to my grandmother's house, I felt physically ill, as if we were making a journey over difficult mountains and had experienced a change of air.
Arriving at my grandmother's house from our apartment was like walking from a movie set onto a stage where some slow-moving, slightly out of date play was in the middle of the second act. Some operetta: men in moustaches, girls in curls, flowers, horses, women with their hands in muffs, women in dresses with elaborate trains. But this makes the atmosphere sound too pleasant, as if the brocade couches and gilt mirrors were the whole of the house. Underneath the floral playfulness of the decor, there was always that implacable judgment emanating from the body of Grandmother. She never had to say a word or do a thing; her daughters with their cruel tongues, her sons with their strong backs, took care of everything.
At these family parties, everything seemed to take too long: the games, the songs, the meals, the stories. There were no wisecracks, no abbreviations, no slang, no smacks. Everything seemed the same unvarying texture: thick and heavy, serious, unchangeable, forbidding. In our apartment, there were bold patches of vividness, alterations of texture, glass and chrome, striped wallpapers, lamps of a color known as bisque, whose bases looked like ice cream. I would touch them with my tongue; they were delicious, carved and polished, cool. Their satin shades, pinkish and smooth as dresses, gave the room an amorous shadowiness when you lit them at dusk.
I don't know where my mother got our furniture. Or if my parents bought it together, an engaged couple, before the wedding. But that's impossible. My father would never have shopped for furniture. He took pride in ignoring his surroundings. To care about things like furniture would have been for him the proof of an inferior nature. To shop for it with his bride-to-be would have made him feel both emasculated and declassed.
So she must, my mother, have gone shopping by herself. To buy the maple bedroom set, the dresser shellacked on top, the lamps, the carpets, the soft chairs. Was she lonely in this, or exhilarated. She was leaving her mother's house for the first time, at the age of thirty-nine. She'd been a major support of both her parents and when my parents left my grandparents' house for their wedding, my grandfather handed her a card which said on it "You will work till the day you die."
My grandfather was partly right: my mother did work hard. She came home from the lawyer's office in her navy blue suit, putting down her leather purse with its built-in compact, changing into a housedress crisp, printed, fresh colored and then she cooked for us. She washed our clothes on a washboard. Originally, she'd used the washing machine in her mother's house, but my upstairs aunt insisted she stop. She said the water bill was sky high. Hadn't my mother thought of that?
My mother was overtired, my father was a failure, they fought nearly all the time, and always about money. I would go up to the attic. Upstairs, away from them, I felt free. What had money to do with me, or I with money? I stood beneath the bare beams, in the emptiness, watching the gold light strike the bare wood floor in straight vertical bars. I would sing loudly so I couldn't hear what they were saying. "I won't give you one red cent for carfare." "You ought to have your head examined." I twirled around and around, pretending my skirts were long and billowing. I thought the dust motes traveling down the shafts of light were a blessed substance, like manna. I was privileged to be in proximity to it, but I would never dream of following the light upward to its source, for who has looked upon the face of God and lived?
The attic was meant to be our storage space, but we had nothing to store. My mother had taken nothing from her mother's house, and my father had lived nowhere: in spare rooms of other people's houses, in hotels. I believed that the people who owned the house before us had stored treasures in the attic for years. Their name was Chamberlain. "English," my father said. Meaning "Protestant, nothing to do with us." I associated those bare beams, that clear light, and all that space with Protestants. Chamberlain the clean sound, the clipped-off consonants, the relaxed polysyllable. No need to rush or argue for the Chamberlains. They'd left a beer stein on one of the attic windowsills a black background, green figures in salmon-colored pantaloons and black tricornered hats. I never touched it. I believed that if I touched it the Chamberlains would never come back. I longed for them to come back and give me retroactive permission to inhabit their attic. Perhaps they would move in there with me; I could imagine the sun striking their blond hair. Sometimes I'd look out the window and imagine I could see them walking up the street. I'd never met them, but I knew I'd recognize them the moment they appeared.
From the attic, I could hear my father and the radio. WQXR: the radio station of the New York Times. I'd sneak up on him and see him conducting a phantom orchestra. My mother listened to radio serials while she ironed. I remember the name of one of them: "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar." In my memories of my mother ironing, it's always a summer evening. She sips cool drinks, which she leaves on the end of the ironing board. Her arms are lovely in her sleeveless dress, buoyant and fragrant, freckled like an early apple. The iron hisses on the damp fabric, and the joyous smell of cleanliness enters the air of the living room. Then there is the sound of gunshots from the radio and low, conspiratorial, no-nonsense voices.
We didn't have a television. To watch television, we went either to my grandmother's or to my glamorous aunt's. My aunt's TV was in the middle of a room they called the TV room, but my grandmother's was hidden in a piece of furniture. Perhaps that way she could pretend to herself most of the time that she hadn't capitulated to modern life. She hadn't bought anything new.
To get to the TV, you approached a mahogany console. You opened the doors slowly to see the treasure, hidden like pornography: the turquoise screen with its tiny central moon, the size of a fingernail, that appeared when you turned the dial and disappeared after you turned it off.
On Tuesdays, we went to her house to watch Bishop Sheen. Those nights after the moon vanished and the screen filled in its image, what you saw first was an empty chair. His. The bishop's. And then himself, in his beautifully fitted cassock with its purple sash. (We knew it was purple all bishops had purple sashes although we saw only black and white.)
We watched as the bishop sat in silence, a few seconds before he spoke. His eyes seemed transparent. They knew everything. They looked into your sinful soul. There was a blackboard on which he drew diagrams and wrote key words. He said that during the station break his guardian angel erased the blackboard. I believed this, and was thrilled by the conjunction of the supernatural and the technological. When the upstairs aunt told me it was just a joke, I wept against my father's jacket.
I have no memory of what the bishop said, but I know I was convinced of its importance. Here was someone talking about the Faith, just as Edward R. Murrow talked about Russia. The Russians wanted to destroy us, Americans, but particularly Catholics. Communists had a diabolical hatred of the Catholic faith. After Bishop Sheen, we would go into the kitchen and kneel for the Rosary. Or my grandmother, my father, and I would kneel. My mother and my aunt, both being crippled, were allowed to sit. After the regular prayers, we said a special prayer for the Conversion of Russia.
When I was seven years old, my father had a heart attack. The next day my mother and I put some clothes in a suitcase, and in a paper shopping bag, plain brown, a doll and two books, Fifteen Saints for Girls, and Pius X, the Farm Boy Who Became Pope. In that month, when we hoped my father would live, my mother drove straight from work through the Midtown Tunnel, to Bellevue Hospital where my father, in an oxygen tent, did not recover from his first heart attack, but had another and a fatal third. That month I slept beside my grandmother's large, acrid, reassuring body, in the room of the frightening pictures, the lavender and Pine Sol. My mother slept on the living room couch. Why did no one suggest that we sleep upstairs in my mother's childhood room? What was the impulse that had kept that room inviolate, that had forced my uncle to a heatless porch, that placed my mother on a couch rather than a comfortable bed. I will never know, and soon after it was no longer a question because the room became mine and my mother's. After my father died, we moved to my grandmother's house to live all the time. My grandmother's house became my house, although no one suggested I think of it that way. It must have been important to them my mother's brothers and sisters, I mean that I not think of it as mine, that it was still theirs much more than mine, although they'd moved out at least twenty years before, and had their own houses with their own children, my cousins.
What a relief it must have been for my mother to exchange the taxing, if initially exhilarating, role of wife for the familiar, comforting, and comfortable role of daughter. My parents' marriage was not happy, and my mother believed that her life in her mother's house had been a series of joyous moments, joyous adventures, meals, loving exchanges, songs around the old piano, ceremonies, and, what must have been to her, the deepest possibilities of repose. I understood how hard my mother worked to keep our life afloat in the apartment. In her mother's house, she would no longer have to do the wash on the washboard. No one could say anything to her about using the washing machine now, as she'd be contributing her share to the water bill. She wouldn't cook her quick, colorful dinners: hamburgers, sliced tomatoes, canned corn. We would eat, seriously, soberly. My grandmother would do the ironing.
Of course, no one asked me what I thought of the move, and perhaps it was right that they should not have. I was seven years old, and I was in shock. The loss of my father had made me see everything as if it were at the end of a tunnel, dim, inaccessible, and almost impossible to interpret. What could I have said that would have done anything but cause me shame in front of these practical people, who were acting, I'd been told and told, for my own good. Could I have said: "I want to be in a place where my father was, in case he might come back." "Your father is dead," they would have said. "It's time to get on with things." And how could I have said they weren't right?
Getting on with things meant turning the room that had been saved for visitors into a room of regular habitation by two, rather than seven, souls. This meant removing the iron bunk beds and, in a concession to our new tenancy, painting the room.
My mother allowed me to choose the color. And this was a wonderful thing for her to do, for it allowed me to enter into a world without words, and words had failed me, failed to explain the enormity of my loss, failed to console, to pierce the darkness. Color did what words could not. I surrounded myself in questions of pure color. From the Dutch Boy paint shop, with the picture of the smiling blond boy with his cap and brush in the window, I was allowed to take home as many paint samples as I liked. These paint samples weren't, of course, really paint, but small pieces of cardboard, perhaps two by three inches, that were the colors of the paint.
First I had to decide what basic color I would choose. Colors, to me, were always people. My favorite color was blue (I was named for the Virgin, and it was her color) but I knew that blue was the favorite color of many people, and so I said my favorite color was orange, which I knew no one liked best. But this sacrifice made me hate orange, and from that day on I've never bought anything orange, except the fruit. I didn't want blue for my bedroom, it was too much like the color of my inner world. I didn't want green; green was efficient and official, committed to getting on with things. Red was dangerous, purple was too old, yellow was a blond. I wanted something entirely unlike my life, but representing what I wanted my life to be. I chose pink.
But I felt, deeply, that some pinks were hateful. I used to cry every time we passed a pink stucco house, on my way to dance class, because I felt the wrongness of the color to the depths of my soul. Pink should not, I knew, suggest candy. It should bring to mind the floral rather than the edible. And yet there was another risk: I didn't want to venture too near the abject orange. Each day, on my way home from school, I would stop in the paint store for one more sample. The salesman was kind; he understood my anguish. I was surrounded by riches; there was somewhere the possibility of exactly the right choice, but also myriad chances for failure. And if I made the wrong choice I was, as my mother kept telling me, stuck with it. At night, I would spread the samples out on the dining room table, where I was meant to be doing my homework. In the end, it came down to two choices: powder pink or apple blossom. Apple blossom was a little darker; perhaps it had a hint of yellow. That was the one I chose.
My choice was wrong. On the walls, nothing suggesting petals lit by the sun appeared. The color was much darker than the sample had suggested. It was sugary rather than papery; it closed in on us, rather than opening us out into the world.
But, as my mother said, I was stuck. My aunt's friend, a Polish man, did us the favor of painting the room for free. So it took many, many months from March until late August. All that time, I slept in my grandmother's room and my mother slept on the couch.
When the room was done, we bought a bookcase which the Polish man stained a maple color; the surface was always sticky, and sometimes books stuck to it, leaving behind a layer of paper. I had my own bookshelf, painted white. On top of it I had my statue of the Guardian Angel, and a plastic model of a shoe from Thom McAn, which was the symbol of the gift certificate for a pair of real shoes I'd given my father the Christmas before he died. My mother bought each of us a cardboard chest of drawers; they were floral, blue and pink, and the drawers did not fit properly.
I have no memory of inhabiting that room with my mother. I slept there, read there, must have been sick there, had nightmares, or wept. But I cannot tell you what it was like to spend time in that place, except to say, how odd, there were no curtains on the windows; it was only later, when I took upon myself its decorations, that curtains were put up, and then they were too short, and so, after a few months, I took them down.
Nor do I have much memory of living in my grandmother's house in the state it was before the renovations. I remember one thing only: the labor required to keep it in shape. My weekends were devoted to helping clean the house. There was no joy in it; it was a grim battle against dirt and disorder. No modern products were employed. Ammonia burnt my eyes and hands, Bon Ami cleanser, shaken from the gold can with the chicken only half out of its egg, got under my nails. That I would think of asking to play on a weekend was considered unthinkable. I had no friends anyway, and why should I be left on my own to read when my mother and my aunt, both crippled from polio, and my grandmother in her late seventies "worked their fingers to the bone." I trace to this my phobic dislike of housework, and the rage that trait has caused in men, particularly my first husband who said to me once, "You don't deserve to live in a house." I was hurt, but I felt he was right. I felt, not unjustly accused, not ill-described, simply unmasked.
And then there were the renovations. When my grandmother was eighty, my aunt decided to completely renovate the house her mother had lived in for forty years. To do it without telling her, do it in a month, when she was in Florida, so that she would come home to find it all destroyed.
It was my upstairs aunt's idea, and because I have always associated her with cruelty, I speculate that this, too, was a cruel act. I believe that if I could pity my aunt rather than fear and condemn her, it would be the sign that I had left the things of childhood behind, at least of moral childhood. Sometimes, almost, I can do it. I think of the circumstances of her childhood. The third child in the family to be stricken with polio, she alone was sent away to a school for crippled children, run by French nuns. It was on the opposite end of Long Island, and she was separated from her family, who came on Sundays to bring her a picnic lunch. The nuns sounded sadistic. Thinking it important to make the crippled children self-reliant (they were all on scholarship, all the children of the more-or-less poor), they stressed a lack of pity. Self-pity or pity for others. They were obsessed with cleanliness to the point of mania, to the point of tying rags onto the bottom of the crippled children's feet so that as they shuffled on the wooden floors they would keep them perpetually polished. When I think of my aunt in this way, I can forgive her almost anything. It makes sense of her determination to be sure I had a childhood without pleasure.
Was it rage against her mother for sending her away; rage cooled for thirty-five years, that caused my aunt to come up with the plan? They would knock the kitchen, so light, so insubstantial, off the back of the house. They would turn the dining room into a kitchen/dinette. The table where holidays had been celebrated for nearly half a century, where my grandfather had laid his jewels out for customers to choose among, would be put up in the attic, along with the eighteen chairs that matched it. The wall between the living room and the porch would be knocked down to make one large room. The side porch would become a bathroom and a launderette. The washing machine in the basement would be carted away to the junk heap. The trapdoor would be sealed.
For a month, our house was strangely and unusually filled with men. Tony and Frank, the contractor and the foreman, and Steve the electrician and Bill the plumber. Each morning they came with coffee and doughnuts; the Italians sang, the Irish and the Germans were silent. We pretended that the electrician had a secret crush on my aunt, although he never paid her the slightest bit of attention. Each night we slept with fast-beating, excited hearts: worry that the work wouldn't be finished, eagerness to see what it would be like. My aunt consulted no one; only she spoke to the contractors, only she looked at the blueprints, only she ordered the carpets and the new furniture. The old wood floors would be covered with a broadloom pattern that was called instead of pepper and salt, cinnamon and sugar: dots of brown and white. The brocade couch and chairs and the doilies crocheted by my grandmother would be replaced by something called a sectional, its color called, deceptively, gold. There were orange throw pillows and orange drapes. Instead of maroon and gold Fragonard lamps, there were rough white pottery lamps each with an orange stripe. A Danish modern coffee table, in light pine. The cabinets in the new kitchen would be light pine; there were no handles on the doors, and the kitchen table would be light pine, except that it would be covered, always, by an orange print plastic tablecloth. The linoleum was speckled white and gold.
When my aunt and uncle brought my grandmother back from the airport, she got out of the car like a general inspecting a bomb site. She said nothing. She looked around at her missing kitchen, her missing furniture, the missing history of her whole life. She was completely silent. "Say something, Ma," her children kept saying, one after another, sometimes two at once. But she would not. She went into her bedroom, which, except for the trapdoor having been sealed, was the same. She lay down and would not join the party. I remember only a sense of shock, and then false gaiety; tunes played at the piano and sung in desperation, as if everything were going to be all right.
It was not all right again. From that day on, my grandmother grew old. She went on cleaning and cooking, but the charmless modern surfaces she tended gave her no joy. For the first time in her life, she was the victim of minor illnesses. She got colds and sore throats; she sprained her ankle; she took naps in the afternoon. In a year, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and in two years she was dead.
But before she died, something almost as shocking as her illness happened. My aunt, who was forty-six, had been keeping company with a man who'd been in love previously with my mother's best friend, who'd died young of a heart attack, and with my other aunt, who was already married. He'd said he could never marry because of his "hypertension." Each Friday at suppertime, he drove up in his truck (he was a plumber) and carried a box with twenty-four bottles of Budweiser beer down the cellar steps, depositing it in the old coal bin, which was empty, except for some broken kitchen chairs. On Fridays he took my aunt to dinner. Then they would come back and sit in front of the couch (the gold sectional) and watch TV. He would drink beer after beer. When he got unsteady, I was sent downstairs to get his beers. One night, when I was eleven and beginning to develop breasts, he looked down the neck of my nightgown. It was the first time it occurred to me that I had anything a man might be interested in looking at; it was a horrifying thought. When I complained to my mother, she said it wasn't our house, we were lucky my grandmother and my aunt were letting us live there and we couldn't "make waves." Once, when I was bringing him a beer, I saw him pinching my aunt's breast. I determined that no man would do that to me, ever.
One Saturday morning, my aunt married him, telling none of us. As it turned out, it was First Saturday and I was at Mass on the way to a school trip to Radio City. I walked into church with my friends to find my aunt on the altar, a bride.
I have never known why she did this, so senselessly, so precipitately, so obviously near to my grandmother's death. Perhaps she couldn't stand to live near the dying one more minute. Or perhaps she was pregnant. It was possible, although unlikely; she was forty-six, she'd never borne a child. I suspect this because I once came upon her going through my closet, stealing sanitary napkins from my box.
My grandmother died. The collapse, the multiple collapses, began. Within six months, her oldest son, the black sheep of the family, was dead of a cancer identical to his mother's. Another aunt developed cancer of the throat. My mother began drinking. She and my aunt of the secret marriage became enemies. The family split into two camps, my aunt's side and my mother's; because both had been living in my grandmother's house and she had died without a will, both felt the house was theirs.
On the evening of Labor Day, three months after my grandmother's death, we came home from a barbecue to find the living room emptied of furniture, my mother's papers dumped in a heap, like piles of dried dead leaves. My mother's papers, whose order she treasured as a way of showing her mastery over anything official, anything typed or printed on a letterhead, anything that proved she had never been and never would be a penny or a dime in debt, were exposed, shamefully, in the center of the room.
For a year, my aunt and mother struggled. My mother's boss, a lawyer, represented her. My aunt hired a stranger. The argument was this: my mother had paid the mortgage on the house from the beginning of the Depression till she left to marry my father seventeen years later. After she left, the other siblings were required by my aunt to divide the mortgage payment into nine equal parts, one part for each child. This arrangement went on until my grandmother's death. My mother said that my aunt, who had a good salary, had lived rent free for thirty years, whereas she'd contributed a disproportionate amount of her salary to the upkeep of the house in her single years. My aunt countered that she'd bought new furniture, paid for the wall-to-wall carpeting, and had shared equally with my mother in the cost of the renovations. In the end, the ownership of the house was given to my mother and my aunt was to be paid what she'd contributed toward the renovation. But the family, that fully leaved tree of so many strong branches that had grown from my grandmother's body, was split in two. There was never again harmony, never a wedding or a graduation without a scene, never a night after the night of the stealing of the furniture when my mother didn't go to sleep stupefied by enough glasses of sweet vermouth to keep her from the painful truth of all that had been lost or stolen from her.
It was not a good thing that my mother got the house, not a good thing for the house, certainly, not a good thing for me, and I think (though I can't be sure, considering the alternatives) that it was not a good thing for my mother. The house was too much for her. Perhaps it would always have been too much for her; one person, handicapped, with a full-time job and a bookish daughter who couldn't be counted on to do more than her share of housework. What the house always required, and had always got, was a devotion to its upkeep. I grudged every minute that took me away from reading, dreaming, writing poetry; I had no feeling for domesticity; no loyalty to the furniture or the rooms, particularly as they had been redone to my aunt's specifications. Would I have cared more lovingly for the house in its archaic state, with its improperly digested dreams of Europe, a Europe whose grandeur was unfashionable in the stripped-down, fast-moving, discarding temper of the times? Probably not, probably the horror would have been worse; dust, which became dirt and grime, settling into doilies and brocade rather than wall-to-wall carpeting and the fake fibers of the sectional. Probably it was better to destroy something charmless in its heart than something which, with care, might have maintained a tender innocence.
My mother and I destroyed the house. We didn't set fires or throw bottles at the mirrors or slit the surfaces of the furniture with furious knives. The house softened our limbs, congested our lungs so that we always felt we couldn't breathe or move enough to do what was required. We let things pile up. Every surface was covered with papers, some many years old, and we couldn't imagine how to begin to get rid of them. How could we contemplate repainting? Who would take the things off the walls, where would we put them while the painting was going on, how would we cover the furniture, and with what? Who would we hire? In my grandmother's time, she had only to lift a finger to get some man in the family to volunteer, but we no longer had those rights. In an odd burst of energetic employing, my mother hired the man who washed and waxed my glamorous aunt's linoleum to wash and wax our crumbling kitchen floor once every two weeks. We had to get ourselves out of bed by eleven on a Saturday morning to answer the door for him, to appear that we'd been up awhile, breakfasted, and were at work on our own tasks.
The living room became uninhabitable, so dusty that I was overcome with asthmatic attacks if I tried to sit there. So we didn't sit there. We stayed in the kitchen, where we would clear a little space on the table large enough for two plates. Not two together, one plate for my mother, then some papers, then an opening for a plate for me.
Upstairs in my pink room, the pink that age had darkened to the color of a particularly feminine bad luck, I allowed chaos to overcome me. I took my dirty sheets off the bed each week, but sometimes I didn't remake the bed for a day or two and slept on the bare mattress cover for a couple of nights, the sheets at the bottom of the bed in the brown paper from the Chinese laundry. When I was fifteen, a bird got into my closet from a hole in the wall near the chimney. I heard it struggling in there, and then I knew it had died. I waited a few weeks, then opened the door quickly, took out all my clothes, laid them on the chair, and never opened the closet again till it was time for college.
No change, even temporary, happened until I brought a man into the house. Or, of course, not a man, a boy, for I was still a girl.
My first boyfriend was an orphan. His parents had both died when he was in high school; he spent his last two years of high school in his sister's house. Did I choose him for myself or for my mother, or for both of us, to give to our diminished family unit a false sense of amplitude? Perhaps only an orphan could allow my mother's and my imagination the possibility of playing host, which we may have felt deprived of more than we knew.
Perhaps I chose him only because he chose me, a thing that before this hadn't happened. He was older than I, a college man, hired by the nuns at my school (in a rare slippage of vigilance) to coach the debate club. Boys who'd gone to Jesuit high schools and colleges had got a training we, instructed by nuns to be quiet and deferential, simply had no access to. The Jesuit boys were trained to be killers, killers for Christ! They were encouraged to practice their arts on the Catholic Forensic League, where they regularly slashed their opponents to ribbons.
The one they hired as a coach, the one who later chose me, had no killer instinct. Rather he was orderly and formal. Formal without elegance, formal with the unlovable insecurity of someone who follows the rules without grasping the beauty of their original impulse, and cannot shape them to his nature or his taste, because he has no sense of either.
So in an age when boys were beginning to wear jeans and let their hair grow, he wore suits and visited the barber every week. His glasses were too heavy. His nose was too small, and his chin was weak. He was impatient without being quick, ingratiating with no natural sweetness. Still, he was male, and he wanted me. My mother took one look at him and thought her fears for me were over.
His college was in Jersey City, and he lived there in a fraternity house where he was tortured by the slovenliness of his housemates. Compared to them I guess, my mother's and my housekeeping failures must have seemed meliorable. He seemed glad to visit us, and we had so few visitors, none that seemed unwilling to leave. It was a long ride from Long Island to Jersey City. And so, my mother thought it sensible, natural, when he brought me home after our dates, to ask him to stay the night. Natural and proper, but it was neither natural nor proper for my mother to suggest that I give up my bedroom to him, and return once again to sleep beside her in my grandmother's old bed, the bed where I had slept before my father's death and then just afterward while our room was being fixed up. Not natural or proper for her to allow me to disappear with him upstairs for hours, under the feeble pretext that I was getting him towels from the linen closet. We lay down on my bed, across from the one that had been my mother's before my grandmother died and she took over that room, more convenient since she wouldn't have to climb the stairs. It was there that I was first touched by a man, there in my own girlhood bed, with my mother downstairs listening, if she chose, to the sounds we worked hard to muffle. And afterward I would lie down beside my mother, my body sweaty and lubricious from the upstairs activity that was extensive but stopped short of my virginity.
You see, I believe that house made people act strangely, made them come to decisions that could never be explained. My uncle on the porch, the family not telling my grandmother about the renovations, my mother allowing the house to decay, and now this, my partial violation on the premises that must have been protected and guarded by my grandmother's ghost. Was all this odd behavior an expression of a family taste for punishment, first of my uncle (punished for being male and good), then of me and my mother for intruding, then of my grandmother, in retaliation for her rigorous demands, and then her ghost? It was a house of punishment; it knew how to suggest punishment, and then to punish back.
My boyfriend was determined to try to bring the house back to order. He often stayed over on weekends, and, as we had when my grandmother and my aunt lived there, we spent all of Saturday cleaning. How my mother loved it: a man knocking himself out for her sake, and for mine. I didn't love it. He was my boyfriend. It was 1967. We should have been walking hand in hand singing Simon and Garfunkel, picnicking in Central Park, seeing Monet's Water Lilies in the Museum of Modern Art. Instead, the vacuum sounded its harsh, accusing roar and, like my aunt and grandmother, he found my housekeeping efforts inadequate and halfhearted. It was no wonder that, as soon as I got to college, I left him for a boy from southern Alabama I met at a be-in at the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.
The house demanded strength, but did not give it. It was not a loving house; it was a house that required service from a devoted lover, and perhaps, the limits of devotedness having been tested and reached, it would return regard. But we failed the house and it punished us and we, like whipped creatures, huddled against it, trying simply to survive. We needed a protector, and it had to be a mother or a man. After my grandmother's death, there were only two times when the ruin was staved off, and that was when I brought men in. What does that mean about my grandmother? That her implacability took the place of maleness? Did her qualities of unbending, perhaps merciless, rectitude give her the skeleton of a man, the shoulder span the house needed to keep itself alive, to breathe, and to be happy? My college years, the years between my first boyfriend and my first marriage, were the worst years for the house.
Before I left my poor first boyfriend, who was no match for everything that the be-in at the Sheep Meadow represented (the impromptu ease, the hopeful expansiveness), he'd painted my room yellow buttercup yellow, cheerful as the rising sun and helped me put up white curtains with yellow embroidery. I bought the curtains at JCPenney, already made up. They were too short for the windows of my bedroom, which had been there fifty years. He cleaned out the closet for me; I never mentioned the dead bird. It was bad enough to hear him complain about the dust-covered Halloween costumes, my eighth grade graduation or ninth grade dance dresses. If he saw a skeleton in the closet, tiny bird bones arranging themselves on the dust-covered floor, he didn't say anything. And he wasn't reticent in his complaints about the way he lived. What happened to the skeleton? Did it disappear, absorbed into less spectacular, less organic, more anonymous dust? Or was it never there? Was it simply the living metaphor of my terror and disgust, my inability to cope with something that anyone else would consider insignificant?
Ostensibly, I lived in my grandmother's house, now my mother's, for my first two years of college, but I was never there, or there with such reluctance, such rebellion, such unease that I never made a mark on the newly painted room. I slept on the floor of my friends' dorm rooms whenever I could; I slept in the beds of boys or men, calling my mother with false stories and false numbers. From my own newly yellow bedroom, next to the statue of my guardian angel and my father's picture of the Sacred Heart, I talked down friends on LSD trips and listened to my homosexual boyfriend's account of being taken to a party at Andy Warhol's Factory. By my junior year, I'd saved up enough money to pay for my own dorm room, and my mother reluctantly understood that as she had lost me anyway, she might as well give in. A week before I was to leave, she took a drunken fall and broke her leg in three places. With the heartlessness of desperation, I left the house anyway, left her in the care of the wife of one of her cousins. She was in a wheelchair for three months; I came home, furiously, resentfully, every Friday night, and spent the weekends that I thought would be my time for fun in the house that had become the house of a bedridden alcoholic. The dust piled high; the carpet shredded with age, the linoleum near the doorways disappeared, revealing a black underlayer, and I didn't lift a hand. I couldn't. In that house, I could do nothing but sleep.
Then I left the house; to go to graduate school in Syracuse. I came home, like other students, three or four times a year. Came home only to sleep and watch, helplessly, the house's degradation. My mother sealed off the top floor she didn't want to pay to heat it by taping plastic garment bags from the cleaners to each other to make a plastic curtain that hung from the ceiling to the floor of the stairway. It was hideous, but I didn't look at it, staying entirely out of the living room, sleeping in my mother's bed when I came home.
After graduate school I married a man who was a fanatical house cleaner. My mother's house, I'm sure, gave him pause about me. Like my first boyfriend, he spent all his visits cleaning the house. "It's hopeless," I said, "leave it alone." Let's not visit her, let's not come here, invite her to come to us, to our new house, the house you spend your spare time fixing, that you want me to decorate. I wanted to say to him: How can I decorate, I have no idea how to live, I have never bought a proper set of curtains, decisions of carpet and slipcover are as foreign, as terrifying, to me as space travel, and far, far more dangerous. Please, my love, my husband, my rescuer from the house that takes my breath, please understand. But he did not, and I left him. I left him for another man, but I couldn't tell my mother that. I told her, simply, my first husband and I were incompatible. She said, "I don't get it. All my life all I wanted was a man to clean up after me."
My second husband found the house a grief, but in the kindness of his nature, and his talent for avoiding the unpleasant, he pretended not to see what was unbearable to see. We went there rarely, and he, too, cleaned when we went, but without the furious, punitive vacuuming, the harsh application of fluids and polishes of my first boyfriend and my first husband. We brought a baby to the house, and I feared her contamination, but she was not contaminated, and my mother was happy, making a space on the table for the baby seat, letting the baby take her naps beside her in the bed that had been my grandmother's, and hers, and shamefully, mine.
At seventy-five, my mother, whose drinking was beginning to interfere for the first time with her work, decided, on my prodding, to retire. I bought her a house a block away from me in the small town on the Hudson where I lived. I was pregnant with my second child. We sold my grandmother's house to people who lived two doors away, a kind Italian family who had helped my mother with shopping, who agreed to buy the house at a bargain price in return for my not cleaning out the attic and the cellar.
The mover was someone I'd gone to grammar school with; he gave us a good price and sent his men to help us pack. The week of the move, my mother-in-law became fatally ill, and my husband had to be at her bedside in Florida. I had to pack the house alone. I was constantly nauseated with morning sickness that stretched into the late afternoon, but I felt it was the right physical state to g
o along with my feelings for the house.
As I was about to pack up a set of dishes that had been bought by my aunt, I had a moment of inspiration. I'd always hated those dishes; my grandmother's cheerful blue-and-pink forget-me-not pattern had been put away in favor of these, these horrible beige and white ones with a gold rim, a pattern called Golden Wheat which my aunt had got in box after box of Duz detergent. There was a service for twelve. I took the set outside to the macadam of the driveway and broke dish after dish. The sound was violent, and I was left with a small mountain of shards. Happily, I swept them into those black plastic garbage bags that always seem appropriate only for the bodies of the wartime dead. I left them on the sidewalk. I followed the moving van, driving with my mother and my baby, named for her, in my gray Honda Civic station wagon.
I went back to the house only once. The Italian family had completely transformed it. It was unrecognizable. They seemed happy. I was happy for them, and for myself, that the house had become something it was no longer possible for me to know.
Copyright © 2000 by Mary Gordon