boy on the Green Bicycle: A Memoir

boy on the Green Bicycle: A Memoir

by Margaret Diehl


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781569472019
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/01/2003
Pages: 309
Product dimensions: 5.55(w) x 8.24(h) x 1.03(d)

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Chapter One

We were A family of six. My father worked in publishing in New York, my mother took care of us. Our house was big, twenty-two rooms if you count the maze of windowless chambers, what used to be servants' rooms, on the third floor. We had seven bedrooms and seven baths, halls long enough to play soccer in, a wine cellar, the dungeons, and an attic. The house sat on a plateau halfway up hilly Union Street, two pretty acres of roses, tulips, and flowering dogwood, green lawn, and a curving strip of young woods. A Mediterranean-look beige stone rectangle with a red roof, it was immense, imposing, though not quite beautiful. Not a house so much as an edifice.

    We moved in when I was seven. After my parents bought the house, during the long months of renovation—we weren't allowed to see—I imagined it as the old house the children move into in the first chapter of the story. Or else it was one of the palaces in fairy tales, built overnight: the palace of silver and gold, the palace of diamond and pearl. Gradually I was disabused of my more extravagant fantasies—no silver, gold, diamond, pearl, no visible magic—but held on to an inchoate hope.

    My parents were southerners. My mother grew up in Memphis and then Houston after her father died, my father in Wilmington, North Carolina. My parents were liberal Democrats, book lovers, jazz lovers, who came north to be with their kind. Yet they were not like the people in New Jersey; I was always aware of that. It was somewhere else my mother's voice acquired its languor, its you-alls, where she learned songs like "Summertime," which she sang to us at bedtime. (My mother couldn't carry a tune, but I didn't mind. Her voice wandered around the melody with its own plaintive charm, producing none of the excitement of music on the beat but something more intimate and curious. Something like my mother, who though sociable was also eccentric and fond of solitude. Who would wander around her enormous house all day, making and fixing, planning, arranging, talking to herself in a low, contented murmur.)

    It was somewhere else she had been a young lady of prominence, a thousand people attending her wedding. Her mother's brother, Gus Wortham, was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Houston, the founder and chairman of American General Insurance Company. Uncle Gus—no, I confess, we called him Uncle Bubber—had been like a father to her since her own father died. He was like a grandfather to us now. We were required to talk to him when he called, that hearty, yet oddly shy Texas voice full of an affection I found mysterious. How could he be our family if he was so far away? If we barely saw him? He came through New York on business maybe once a year—short, big-stomached man, smiling—we went to Houston in those early days only twice. Bubber lived in a white house with pillars, which I couldn't believe he was serious about, and the servants cooked fried chicken, biscuits, and rice. All of us sitting formally around the table, being served from the left. The two black people slender, straight, very dark, selves rigidly contained behind impassive faces. Yet I had heard their low sweeping laughter in the kitchen.

    Bubber also had a ranch an hour or so out of town. He'd take us kids riding in an old car over the flat dusty ground, through the droning masses of Black Angus cattle. Then he was happy, turning the wheel with big sloppy moves, stopping and starting—a man in his seventies, born in the horse-and-buggy days. Sometimes the car couldn't move at all, bovine faces pressed up to the windows. I was nervous, but Bubber would sound the horn and the lumbering creatures would list sideways, hooves scrabbling. Driving a car through cows. That was what the man liked to do. He sat down low in his seat, legs spread to accommodate his belly, ten-gallon hat riding his small head.

    I liked going to the ranch. I also liked riding the elevator to the top of his office building, being ushered into the enormous, plush CEO's office, where he sat daintily behind a massive desk. He had sad brown eyes, silver hair, small hands and feet, a big nose. A sweet, old-southern-man smile. When you know nothing of business or the world—and I was an exceptionally unworldly child—there is a clean, unguilty satisfaction in being related to power. I didn't want to grow up and be a CEO, or marry one; I merely wanted him there, in his distant office. It was my parents who had to suffer the lost possibility of being his heir—my father who quit a job working for Bubber, a job that would have made him, eventually, very rich, in favor of books; my mother who had to wrestle with the idea that if she'd been born a boy ...

    If she'd been born a boy, she'd have done what my father did, giving up the insurance business for something more artistic. She left the South of debutantes and the Junior League for the bohemian life in New York City, and when I was little she was still energized by her escape. The natural inclination of a child to think that wherever she lives is the right place, the only place, was bolstered for me by my parents' relief, their self-congratulation at having left the South. And my mother's pleasure in her power: grown-up, her own mother and mother-in-law far away. She told me once that thirty-six is the perfect age, and I remember her at thirty-six, slim wand of beauty, that drawl in her voice that spoke of magnolias and hammocks on front porches even while she was crisp and efficient, buttoning our snowsuits, fixing lunch, doing all the mother-things with no sign of strain. More than that: with glory. She had the stamina and vision of an artist; and we were her raw materials. Her children and her house. I knew that very young—resented it—envied it—fell inside it and became both object to myself and rebellious sorcerer's apprentice. Writer. Putting her in my book now as she once put me in my life, the big dark lamps of her eyes shining.

    We all knew New Jersey was the right place to be, the progressive place, the normal place, yet I liked the South. Its warmth, perfumed air, servants. Servants—so brilliant in their performances, like the movies (I was brought a Coke in a frosted glass on a silver tray!), so smart and evil-minded in private. I knew it wasn't fair to them, being servants—that's why you couldn't like the South, though we had a maid in New Jersey as well, it was confusing—but even in their wickedness, their manners were so supple, like well-oiled leather, so soft. And they weren't fooled by the adults of my family: they saw everything, and I could see it, too—even if I didn't quite understand—in the lively glinting roll of eye and lip.

    Bubber took care of us. His yearly stock gift raised our income considerably above what it would have been on Daddy's salary alone; he created trust funds for us kids. It's also the case that my parents knew how to live on a certain sum of money as if they had twice as much.

    My mother always told me we weren't rich—not as rich as the so-and-sos who lived down the block—and I knew this was so, but she had the gift of creating an atmosphere of luxury. She bought Persian rugs, Danish teak, green leather chairs, colorful paintings with mythological themes, abstract sculpture. On the coffee table a huge hunk of gnarled driftwood and a silver cigarette box, on the dining-room wall a pair of china climbing cats painted with blue and lavender flowers. Crystal whiskey decanters, gleaming mirrors and chandeliers, vases of fresh flowers, books. At least a thousand books. She bought them, he bought them, he brought them home free. Poetry, philosophy, history, novels, art books, and books on witchcraft and the occult. My mother was probably the only person in Montclair with Magick in Theory and Practice by Aleister Crowley on her library shelf.

    But more than what she owned, what was notable about my mother is that I never sensed any fear or doubt regarding money. There was always enough—not for everything we wanted, certainly, not for a pony or a swimming pool—but enough; and if more was needed, if an emergency arose, there was always that rich old man in Texas. My mother felt safe, so I did, too. More than safe: I felt elect. My mother told us almost daily what superior children we were, so intelligent, beautiful, talented, good, destined for the highest success. Success which would occur not without some effort, but without serious competition. Our defeats in school, my defeats in social life, she waved away as having to do with the temporary status of being children. She insisted that when I grew up I would conquer the field without difficulty. I would dazzle while the girls I now deferred to at school would be revealed as the ordinary creatures they really were. (This made me anxious, a little sad; I didn't want my friends to lose their charms.)

    I loved safety, privilege, and comfort as only the introverted and physically clumsy can. I was intoxicated by the romance of my mother's hopes for me. I knew she wasn't telling the whole truth. Mommy, who drilled into us the importance of honesty, wasn't honest about the nature of the world. Not a deliberate dishonesty. She was telling me what she passionately wanted to be true, and that passion, as much as anything, snared me. I would live in her heart's desire as if in the branches of a flowering tree. Yet I was aware, how could I not be, of a different, grubbier world passing just beneath my nose.

    My mother in her late youth still had chivalric ideals, and I learned early about honor and nobility, particularly as they come down to us through the myth of the South and through literature. The former was never stated—it drifted in on her voice—the latter reinforced every time she made a selection at Brentano's. I think of the legend of Robin Hood, of King Arthur and the knights of the round table; of the high-minded collies of Albert Payson Terhune.

    She believed in the religion of books in a way that is perhaps not possible anymore. For her generation books were the way out—of small towns, provincial cities, of closed-in families and social repression. The transition from a lonely child's love of books to an adult's respect and reverence for them was more seamless for her than it will be for any succeeding generation. I can't imagine it will be true in the future that people are judged by whether they have many books in their house but that was how my mother judged people. That was how I judged them until fairly recently. I felt dizzy in a house with no books. No company. No anchor. No life.

    When she didn't have guests, my mother read to me at night. She would sit in a chair by my bed, The Green Fairy Book, or The Yellow Fairy Book, or The Blue Fairy Book on her lap. She encouraged my belief in fairies. She told me she believed in them, too. I didn't realize she meant something different than I did. That she meant she was once a bookish lonely girl in Memphis, Tennessee. That now, as a mother, she was still bookish, still lonely. I took her literally.

    Mommy. Her long neck bent, the smooth cap of her dark hair, her dark eyes, her calm, which is almost preternatural. The power she spreads around herself, shining like feathers. It is motherhood that gives her such power, but I don't know that. Or I know it but not how small it is in the clamorous world. There is no world but this house, what happens in this house, and one moss-green path away.

    Most fairy tales are about a child being rescued. The youngest or kindest or most beautiful, or, in the modern stories, the child with imagination. Sometimes the child is an orphan, as in the novels of the great Victorian writer George Macdonald. The Princess Irene, who climbs the stairs of her father's castle and finds rooms she never knew about, in one of which a beautiful white-haired woman sits by a fire, awaiting her. The boy Diamond, in the tale At the Back of the North Wind, who is the son of a coachman and sleeps in a tiny room with holes in the walls where the cold comes in. One night North Wind herself comes to visit; she is a grand and gracious lady; she gathers him in her arms and tucks him into her long hair, where he's not cold at all, carries him along in her travels across the sky. That long, thick hair, that ocean of hair, hair as in the other story, the one about a princess whose hair won't stop growing until it threatens to cover the whole kingdom with its tresses. Easier than riding on a winged horse, or balancing on a flying carpet to cling to the ropes of a woman's long hair.

    North Wind comes for Diamond again and again, tapping at his window, and when the boy is convinced she is only kind, she takes him out to sea to watch her sink a ship. "This, too, is what I am," she says, as the sailors drown. "If you will know me, you must know this."

    None of my siblings believed in magic the way that I did. None of them had this hunger for stories, especially stories of journeys, quests, transformations. Something becoming, or revealed as, something else. Animal to human, and vice versa. Straw to gold. I would stop listening for a moment at that moment in the reading, savor a sensation of exquisite pleasure, as I would feel later discovering the conceits of Shakespeare or Donne, the imagery of Yeats, any effective metaphor. This to that. This to that. It hardly mattered what the thises or thats were, as long as the two were in the proper balance. What I liked best sometimes were the silly changes, the ones where no one gained or lost, there was no particular, or moral purpose, just a surge of sparkly energy. The Oz books were full of that sort of abundant, not-quite-random change, magic simply out there, how life proceeded.

    I didn't think my mother would mind if I joined the fairies. Though she was so careful about warning us not to talk to strangers, never get in anyone's car, etcetera. Though she made such a point of how she loved us, would do anything for us, give her life, etcetera. Yet she couldn't mind if I went off, because she was the one who read me the stories. Who confessed that she, too, had longed to be, and wasn't, taken.

    How could she sit there and talk so nostalgically—yet so calmly—about it? Her childhood, when she lay in bed at night waiting for Peter Pan to step in through the window? Thrilling low tones in her voice, her eyes dreamy. As if it were possible that she could have been as I was, an actual child. I knew all adults believed this; I imagined it as a kind of mass delusion. The world had begun when I was born, my mother fully created as this tall, long-necked beauty. All the grown-ups fully created, in their shoes and girdles, suits and briefcases. With their pasts like picture postcards. Or else, for the sake of argument, if she really had been a child—that cute, dark-eyed face I saw in the photographs, chubby cheeks, smile, big soft bow in her hair—then her belief that she would be taken by the fairies was a sad mistake. I could barely imagine the grief of that: to have experienced this joyous anticipation, lying in bed in your springy flesh, being loved from afar by the invisibles, in the light of their gaze—then to realize you were mistaken. They didn't want you after all.

    She'd never had a chance. She was fated from the beginning to grow up and become my mother. It was more important that I be born than anything else she had wanted; and I was going to have what she'd been denied. It was me the slim boy would come for, stepping across the window frame. The inexorable logic of my feeling led me to a frightening knowledge: My mother's whole life was in service to mine. How could she possibly forgive me?

    I lay quietly listening, and hid myself.

    Mommy read me "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderalla," "Snow White." The liquidity of her voice was like the milk of the moon poured down shining on my bed. She talked about princesses taken to the dance, about dresses made of bluebirds' feathers. And as she spoke something in her soul came forth—it was a beautiful girl, a girl of glass who had been shattered into a thousand pieces, each piece sewed back together so she was flexible, she could bend and twist, but was still shattered. She glittered but there was a whiteness in the glass; it was cloudy.

    This girl, as she reads to me in bed: Nobody else knows her. Nobody else can see. I am so still, I barely breathe, coaxing her. I let my eyes drift secretly over her arm, shoulder, neck, the outline of her head. An alertness in my flesh, protective and excited yearning. Don't be afraid, girl. Come out, oh, come out.

    The calmness with which she reads; my body under the crisp white sheets. We are traveling; we do this every night. My mother comes to me and we go down the river of the story. This I can trust: that she will come. But she is also the river of the story I want to dive into.

    "Read me another one."

    Sometimes she does, which is a great coup. I get more stories than the others because of the ones I choose. Johnny asks for a book called Little Brown Monkey every night for years, Charlotte and Jimmy are listening to Jules Verne. Only I stick to the true tales. Only I can make the girl come forth.

    But eventually she closes the book, kisses me good-night. She has an adult life to go to, with my father. I tell my mother that I love her. "I love you, too," she says. Her voice doesn't quiver.

    "But I love you," I insist, hanging my arms around her neck. Her neck is creamy and smooth, the scent of her skin, which is very mild, she barely sweats, overlaid with the expensive seductions of her cosmetics. Herbessence, by Jean Natè. She slathers it on every morning. She almost bathes in it. Her eyes look at me, those big dark orbs, and where I want to see the girl again, there is only her shiplike calm. She blinks, gets up to leave.

    I'm alone in my big bed. I scissor my legs back and forth, or lift them up to bicycle in the air. I'm not afraid to be alone. I love the white field of my mattress which spreads out on either side, and above and below me. I enjoy falling asleep, how my consciousness rises, first, into the air, so I float around near the ceiling—in the far corner—as if at the top of a taut string. Then I plummet down into a tunnel; I fall and I fall. Sometimes I imagine the princes who slid off the glass mountains in the fairy tales, hundreds dying before the princess finds her match, and strangely I, too, am a prince; sometimes I think of Alice's rabbit hole. Sometimes it's not a fall but a drift sideways, a kind of loop like what a needle does when making a knot in cloth: that's the best, when you can taste that contact—sleep on your tongue—just as you dissolve. If I am ever afraid, and I sometimes am, of the dark window, or Dracula, or clothes on my chair, I get over it so as not to ruin the sweetness of night. Quiet, my room, my bed. But I don't understand what happens to love.

    In the old house, when I was five and six, I would get out of bed at night, go looking for my mother. I'd find her in her sewing room, sitting at the machine under a cone of light. My mother sewed as some people write or paint, and I saw that fierce energy in her, that obsessive love of craft. Unfinished dresses and coats hung in her closet; she only wanted to do the impossible thing, copy the picture in Vogue, makeshifting a pattern, or fashion perfect buttonholes, perfect collars and sleeves. Then she grew bored. Then she wouldn't bother to hem the garment but would hang it up, go on to the next thing. I understand this now. But as a child, I wasn't sure. Ought I to be scared? I'd stand in the doorway as the machine whirred, as the needle bit down, traveling quickly through the cloth. My mother was very intent, her face sallow in the lamplight.

    The floor was covered with paper patterns, glistening with pins. "Watch where you step," she said. In the corner, on a small bed, my younger brother slept, face turned to the wall. The old house was not so big; Johnny and Mommy had to double up.

    I stood on one bare foot and then another, watched the steady progress of the needle, its chomping force. "Go to bed," she said without moving her eyes from her work. The paper patterns whispered, seemed to move slightly toward the small bed. The tousled curls of my brother's head were visible on the pillow; I was concerned. Was she in control of this sharp magic? What do mothers do when their children are asleep?

    She was also thin, so thin. When I sat on the floor and looked up at her straight on, it looked as if she were standing sideways.

    My mother was always making. Copies of designer clothing for herself, hand-smocked dresses for us. She made clothing for our dolls out of scraps of fine material so my Jackie Kennedy doll had a blue-and-white silk dress like my mother's with the same high neck and blue velvet sash. She sewed drapes for the living room and the dining room, and red velvet Christmas stockings, lined with red silk, decorated with cut-out felt toys and the letters of our names, silver bells jangling at the toes. She baked angel-food cakes and devil's food cakes, made chocolate mousse, pots de crème, crème brûlée. In all chocolate desserts, she taught me, you double the amount of chocolate called for. This was something, like the owning of many books, that defined one as a proper person.

    At Christmas the downstairs was hung with holly, pine boughs, and mistletoe. She glued the Christmas cards we received to red ribbons and framed the fireplaces. She decorated our big tree with painted glass trumpets and drums, wooden Santas, Mexican tin ornaments, little birds that clipped onto the branches, and delicate glazed balls in crimson, yellow, and violet. Under the tree on Christmas morning, unwrapped, were our presents, arranged in intricate tableaus. Madame Alexander dolls in printed cotton dresses and white petticoats, Steiff animals, Lionel trains, chemistry sets, Erector Sets, books, bicycles—all of it right there, taken in at one glance, that was the idea: abundance, dazzlement—

    I'm reminded of the tarot card, the seven of cups, where a man staggers back before an array of fairy gifts. The central gift is a woman, standing in a chalice, arms outspread in greeting, her head and upper body hidden beneath a cloth.

    I wanted to do things as well as my mother, and that wasn't possible. She made perfect layer cakes, I made lumpy cookies. She sewed evening gowns of pale silk, I sewed a little cotton change purse in art class that she put in her drawer and never used. She promised me I would inherit her skills with age. I believed her—did I believe her? It didn't matter. I needed it now. Art was the shape of love; how could I disburse myself of feeling? I wooed her with my poems and pictures, and she received these graciously.

    "Thank you, Margaret," her voice mild, drawling—that difference that seemed to swathe her in a private melody. Sometimes she talked of the South—afternoons in a hammock in the early Texas spring, the warm waters of North Carolina. I thought it was a made-up country, though I'd been born there. My first memory—of shafts of sunlight on a bed where I lay, my mother mysteriously absent, which I mull over, remembering voice, hands, scent, and locating a faith that she'd return from the wilderness of not-here: that had taken place in Texas. In the little house in Houston I'd seen in photographs. Still, the South was mostly a place inside her throat.

    "Thank you," she always said, unfailingly courteous, yet so private. My love was a bat squeaking in the darkness. She knew I loved her, but she took it for granted. It was her love for me she thought I needed to focus on.

    "I will always love you; I will always take care of you; nothing you can ever do will change my love."

    "What if I killed somebody?"

    "You wouldn't do that."

    "But what if I did? It could be an accident."

    "I'd be very upset. But I'd still love you."

    "How do you know?"

    "You'll understand when you have a child."

    It was my love itself that sometimes led me into error. Once I found some lovely daffodils in the woods, nodding fresh yellow heads in little hollows of pine needles. I yanked the stems from the earth and presented my mother with a bouquet. She was in the kitchen, preparing something—this kitchen that she had designed herself, spacious, light, and clean, with its modern island, two stainless-steel sinks, two ovens. I gave her the flowers. She didn't scold me but became very upset, flinching to contain her distress—I remember the muscles of her back in motion, her weight resting heavily on her hands. She had planted those flowers specially to look as if they were growing wild. She had strewn them.

    She didn't scold me. She didn't need to. Mommy's beautiful idea.

    Even in the woods, there she is.

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boy on the Green Bicycle 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
lynnwords on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I finally found a book which reminds me of how it felt to be a child in a family of three siblings, (sisters no brothers). While the accidental death of a sibling and suicide of a parent are not familiar, I related to the descriptions of this teenybopper's dark depression and massive losses. Families are a complex society and this book tells it like I remember it in the 1970's: though California-style not in New York City, with a Southern-bred Mother.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book amazed me. It's about grief and how a family deals with death, but more than that about the mind of a child. It brought back memories I hadn't thought of in years. I felt for all the characters, couldn't stop reading, and at the end wished there were more. I didn't have tragedies in my family but I know what's it's like to grow up feel alien and different from other people.Diehl reminded me of how intensely kids feel things, and she makes it interesting too--not just subjective, but with beautiful descriptions of people and places, and even humor, though this is a sad story. I highly recommend this book.