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March 20. A cold spring morning. It rained last night, perforating the crusted snow of the Tates' front lawn, and everything is wet and glitters: the fine gravel of the drive, the ice in the ditch beside it, the bare elm twigs outside the bathroom window. The sun shines sideways at the house, brilliantly, impartially. Seeing it through the kitchen window when she comes down to make breakfast, Erica Tate feels her emotional temperature, which has been unnaturally low of late, rise several degrees.
"Tomorrow's the beginning of spring," she says to Jeffrey Tate, aged fifteen, as he stumbles into the room fastening his shirt.
"What's for breakfast?"
"Eggs, toast, jam—"
"No, not today." Erica tries to keep her voice cheerful.
"There's never anything to eat in this house," Jeffrey complains, falling heavily into his chair.
Suppressing several possible answers to this remark, Erica sets a plate before her son and turns toward the stairs. "Matilda! It's twenty minutes to eight."
"All right! I heard you the first time."
"Look at that sun," Erica says to her daughter a few minutes later. "Tomorrow's the first day of spring."
No reply. Erica sets a plate in front of Matilda, who will be thirteen next month.
"I can't eat this stuff. It's fattening."
"It's not fattening, it's just an ordinary breakfast, eggs, toast ... Anyhow, you're not fat."
"Everything has gobs of butter on it. It's all soaked in grease."
"Aw, shut up, Muffy, you'll make me barf."
Again Erica suppresses several rejoinders. "Would you like me to make you a piece of toast without butter?" she asks rather thinly.
"Okay. If you can do it fast."
The sun continues to shine into the kitchen. Standing by the toaster, Erica contemplates her children, whom she once thought the most beautiful beings on earth. Jeffrey's streaked blond hair hangs tangled and unwashed over his eyes in front and his collar in back; he hunches awkwardly above the table, cramming fried egg into his mouth and chewing noisily. Matilda, who is wearing a peevish expression, and an orange tie-dyed jersey which looks as if it had been spat on, is stripping the crusts off her toast with her fingers. Chomp, crunch, scratch.
The noises sound loud in Erica's head; louder still, as if amplified: CHOMP, CRUNCH, SCRATCH—No. That is coming from outside. She goes to the window. In the field beyond the orchard, something yellow is moving.
"Hey, the bulldozer's back," Jeffrey exclaims.
"I guess they're going to put up another ranch house," his sister says.
The tone of both these remarks is neutral, even conversational; yet they strike Erica as more coarse and cold than anything that has yet been said this morning. "You don't care what's happening to our road!" she cries. "How can you be so selfish, so unfeeling? You don't really mind at all, either of you!"
Her children go on eating. It is evident they do not.
Chomp; smash. The hands of the clock over the sink move toward eight. Jeffrey and Matilda rise, grumbling, grab their coats and books, and leave to catch the bus for junior high. Alone in the kitchen, Erica clears the table. She pours herself a cup of coffee, puts the buttered toast Matilda refused on a clean plate, and sits down. She starts to reach for the sugar bowl, and stops. Then she puts her head down on the table beside a splash of milk and some blobs of cherry jam, and weeps painfully. Tears run sideways across her small, slightly worn, delicate features, and into her crisp dark hair.
There is no one to hear her. Her friend and husband, Brian Tate, is away lecturing on foreign policy at Dartmouth. If he were there, she thinks, he would understand why she had screamed at the children, and not blame her (as he sometimes does lately) for being unable to handle them. He would listen to her, share her feelings, and console her afterward—possibly back in bed. Lately the Tates have taken to making both love and conversation on weekday mornings before Brian leaves for the university. In the evening there is always the suspicion that the children might be listening—at first from the sitting room for the unguarded exclamation, the raised voice; later, overhead, for the thump and squeak of bedroom furniture.
Once, Erica had liked the acoustical permeability of this old house, because it meant that she could always hear Muffy or Jeffo if they should wake crying with an upset tummy or a bad dream. Now, at night, she and Brian dare not either laugh or cry. In the dark, in their pajamas, they may begin to speak or move: "They were so rude today," Erica will sigh. "That ass McGruder, my grader, you know what he's done—" Brian will begin. Then upstairs the floor will creak, and he will fall silent; or will remove his hand from her breast. "We live in the same house and we sleep in the same bed and we never see each other any more," Erica had whispered once recently.
But now it is eight-fifteen. Brian is in Hanover, New Hampshire, and she is sitting with her head on the kitchen table, weeping, trying to understand her situation. How has it all come about? She is—or at least she was—a gentle, rational, even-tempered woman, not given to violent feelings. In her whole life she cannot remember disliking anyone as much as she now sometimes dislikes Jeffrey and Matilda. In second grade she had briefly hated a bulky girl named Rita who ate rolls of pastel candy wafers and bullied her; in college freshman year a boy with a snuffle and yellowed nylon shirts who followed her around everywhere asking her to go out with him. She had, in the abstract, hated Hitler, Joseph McCarthy, Lee Harvey Oswald, etc., but never anyone she had to live with and should have loved—had for years and years warmly loved.
They were a happy family once, she thinks. Jeffrey and Matilda were beautiful, healthy babies; charming toddlers; intelligent, lively, affectionate children. There are photograph albums and folders of drawings and stories and report cards to prove it. Then last year, when Jeffrey turned fourteen and Matilda twelve, they had begun to change; to grow rude, coarse, selfish, insolent, nasty, brutish, and tall. It was as if she were keeping a boarding house in a bad dream, and the children she had loved were turning into awful lodgers—lodgers who paid no rent, whose leases could not be terminated. They were awful at home and abroad; in company and alone; in the morning, the afternoon and the evening.
But the worst moments for Erica were at night, when they were asleep. She would go into a bedroom to close the window against wind and rain, or make sure they were covered. In the filtered light from the hall, the childish features she remembered so well could be recognized again beneath the coarsening acned masks. Her dear Muffy and Jeffo were still there, somewhere inside the monstrous lodgers who had taken over their minds and bodies, as in one of Jeffrey's science-fiction magazines.
One windy evening not long ago, after this had happened, Erica got back into bed and asked Brian if he had ever thought that they might try to have another child before they were too old. But Brian replied that they were already too old. If they conceived a baby now, for example, he would be past retirement when it finished college. Besides, they had to remember the population problem. He forbore to mention what the babies they already had, had turned into, which was just as well, for Erica would probably have cried out, "Yes, but before that happens we would have at least twelve good years."
Though equally awful, the children are awful in somewhat different ways. Jeffrey is sullen, restless and intermittently violent. Matilda is sulky, lazy and intermittently dishonest. Jeffrey is obsessed with inventions and space; Matilda with clothes and pop music. Matilda is extravagant and wasteful; Jeffrey miserly, and ungenerous. Jeffrey is still doing all right in school, while his sister's grades are hopeless; on the other hand, Matilda is generally much cleaner than Jeffrey.
Erica knows and remembers that Jeffrey and Matilda had once loved her. They had loved Brian. Now they quite evidently do not like either of their parents. They also do not like each other: they fight constantly, and pick on each other for their respective failings.
The worst part of it all is that the children are her fault. All the authorities and writers say so. In their innocent past Erica and Brian had blamed their own shortcomings on their parents while retaining credit for their own achievements. They had passed judgment on the character of acquaintances whose young children were not as nice as Muffy and Jeffo—But everyone did that. To have had disagreeable parents excused one's faults; to have disagreeable children underlined them. The parents might not look especially guilty; they might seem outwardly to be intelligent, kind and charming people—but inside were Mr. and Mrs. Hyde.
It was agreed everywhere, also, that Mrs. Hyde was the worse; or at least the more responsible. A father might possibly avoid blame for the awfulness of his children—a mother never. After all, they were in her "area of operations," to use Brian's term. An admirer of George Kennan's early writings, he had long subscribed to the doctrine of separate spheres of influence, both in national and domestic matters; he attributed the success of their marriage partly to this doctrine. He might advise Erica on important policy decisions, but ordinarily he would not question her management of the home, nor would she ever try to intervene in his professional life. If he lost his job (which had never been very likely and was now impossible, since he had tenure), it was his fault. If the children became uncontrollable, it was hers.
The fact that they had been quite all right until last year was no excuse. Erica has read widely on the subject and knows that there are several unpleasant explanations of this. Only last week she came across an article which spoke of the tendency of women who marry older men to remain, and wish to remain, children. (Brian is now forty-six, seven years older than she.) It was pointed out that such women tended to identify closely, "even symbiotically" with their children. The author of this article would probably say that Jeffrey and Matilda are now struggling to break out of a symbiotic neurosis. Other experts might maintain that Erica has bewitched them out of spite and envy of their youth, energy and "developing sexuality," while still others would assert that the children have been assigned to work out her and Brian's repressed antisocial drives. And any or all of these experts might be right. Erica is not aware of these motives in herself, but that does not prove anything; naturally, they would not be conscious.
It is all academic by now, because now she consciously dislikes her children, and this alone would be enough to poison them spiritually, morally and emotionally. She dislikes them for being what they now are, and for having turned her into a hateful, neurotic, guilty person. For if the truth were known, that would and must be her reputation in the world.
Outside, the bulldozer continues to operate. Crack; crunch; smash. Blackberry and sumac bushes are uprooted; wide muddy wounds are scraped in the long pale winter grass. What is happening to Jones Creek Road seems to Erica all of a piece with what is happening to Jeffrey and Matilda: natural beauty and innocence are being swallowed up in ugly artificial growth, while she watches helplessly.
Eight years ago, when the Tates first moved to Corinth, they found on this back road a big deserted, sagging gray farmhouse smothered in broken dark pines. It had been for sale for over a year, but they were the first to see its possibilities. The trees were thinned, the house remodeled and painted yellow; suddenly they owned a beautiful, even a rather grand place, only a few miles from campus.
Not far enough, as it turned out. Three years ago Jones Creek Road was widened and resurfaced, and the first ranch homes began crawling toward them over the hill to the west, blocking their sunset. Brian and Erica, realizing what was happening, tried to buy more land around their half-acre. But it was too late; the developer was not interested. Each subsequent year the bulldozers have moved nearer; soon they will be surrounded.
The Tates have talked about moving farther out, of course; but to be safe now they would have to go ten or fifteen miles, beyond the school district. Besides, Erica cannot bear to abandon her house: the chestnut woodwork she has scraped and scrubbed and refinished; the double daffodils and white narcissus she has planted under the old trees; the asparagus and strawberry beds—hours, years of loving labor.
It is not only the ruin of the landscape which is so painful, but also the redefinition of this part of town, now renamed "Glenview Heights"—what it means now to live there. Not that their new neighbors are poor white trash—indeed, most of them are richer than the Tates. The Glenview Home to their left, a "Charleston" model with false white pillars and wrought-iron balconies glued to the façade, costs twice as much as their house; the "Paul Revere" next to it not much less. The Homes are full of expensive built-in appliances; their carports bulge with motorboats and skimobiles. The children who live there watch 25-inch color TV every evening, their eyes reflecting the artificial circus lights. Jeffrey and Matilda watch with them when they are allowed. "You're not against television on principle; you just don't want to spend the money. You want us to freeload off the Gobrights and the Kaisers," Jeffrey had accused recently, voicing an opinion which Erica suspects is shared by her neighbors. She knows that the Glenview Homeowners, who are mostly not university people, regard her as unfriendly and a little odd, though she has tried to maintain cordial relations, and has never mentioned aloud that she believes them partly responsible for the awful change in her children. And even if they are, she is not exonerated, because it means that the heredity and environment provided by the Tates were faulty or ineffective. Anyhow, why mention it? It is already too late, and it will go on being even later.
Jeffrey will be living at home for nearly four more years. Matilda will be with them for nearly six more years. As Erica is contemplating these facts, with her head on the damp table the telephone rings.
She sits up, rubs her eyes dry, and answers.
"Hello this is Helen in the Political Science office, how are you today? ... Oh, I'm very well too ... There's a letter here for Brian, it's marked 'Urgent—Personal,' and I wondered ... Well, if he's going to call you tonight, that's fine ... That's a good idea. I'll phone Mrs. Zimmern in the French department now and ask her to pick it up ... You're welcome."
This conversation, though banal, raises Erica's morale. It reminds her that she is successfully married, whereas Helen is a widow, and her best friend Danielle Zimmern a divorcée; that Brian is an important professor who receives urgent business letters; and that he calls home every evening when he is out of town.
She is encouraged to stand up, to clear the table and do the dishes and start her day's work. She picks up the house, skipping the children's rooms; washes out two sweaters; draws for an hour and a half; and makes herself a chicken sandwich. After lunch she goes shopping and to the bank, driving cautiously, for the sky has darkened again and an icy drizzle is falling from it. Her morale has fallen also, and a parody of Auden, composed by her friend Danielle some years ago, keeps running tediously in her head:
Cleopatra's lips are kissed
while an unimportant wife
writes "I do not like my life"
underneath her shopping list.
Excerpted from The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie. Copyright © 1974 Alison Lurie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 7, 2014
Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates (1974) opens in March, 1969, spans fourteen months, and is set in the university community of Corinth, purportedly based on Cornell University and, by extension, Ithaca, New York. While references are made to Viet Nam, overpopulation, the generation gap, and subdivision development, the dominant focus is feminism and the gender wars, with the major protagonists being Erica Tate (homemaker, artist, and writer of children's stories) and her husband Brian, an accomplished political scientist at Corinth University.
Their middle aged angst comes to a head when Brian has an affair with, and eventually leaves Erica for, a co-ed graduate student half his age: an immature girl who lacks his wife's defined character and seems to passively conform to the late sixties counterculture. Characters are successfully utilized, along with a smattering of satire, to delineate flaws on both sides of the gender divide. Erica tries to empathize with others, but frequently misreads people and misinterprets situations. By contrast, Brian, a chauvinistic caricature, is so obsessed with his own wants, needs, and career that he has little left for his wife, mistress, and petulant adolescent children. Perhaps he is the stereotypical academic, brilliant in his field, but oblivious to the disconnect between his ideals and his treatment of others. His antithesis, Sanford Finkelstein, aka Zed, a one-time university chum of Erica's, is an inept dropout who abandoned a failed academic career in favour of astrology, eastern philosophy, and proprietorship of the Krishna Bookshop. And while Brian abandons human commitments, Sanford cannot possibly do this because his lack of initiative meant he never established any to abandon. Doubtless, such men leave much to be desired. But the women fare no better. Erica laments the disdain for a chivalry that goes hand in hand with opening doors and holding coats. And she disapproves of feminist peers who are loud, aggressive, and competitive. She nevertheless errs when she dismisses these behaviors as male traits just as these women err if (according to Erica's theory) they think such behavior makes them more like men. After all, attributing behaviors to groups instead of individuals is not only bigoted, but socially destructive if individuals start believing they are powerless against deterministic forces. Unintended consequences might include absolving individuals like Brian of personal responsibility for their actions. Also, radical feminism turns ugly when a group of ideologically motivated women (initially egged on by Brian) disrespect academic freedom by persecuting one of Brian's political science colleagues. On a concluding note, this novel is not without its humour or entertainment value and is, all things considered, a satisfactory read. Besides, any novel that wittingly or otherwise skewers chauvinists and man hating feminists alike cannot be all bad.