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Stories We Tell Ourselves"Dream Life" and "Seeing Things"
By Michelle Herman
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 2013 Michelle Herman
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Chapter OneAll day today I have been feeling melancholy and nostalgic, teary-eyed and loving toward all creatures great and small (from husband to cockatiel). Whereas yesterday all day I was irritable and angry scolding the bird for chirping, yanking the dog when she didn't move along fast enough to suit me, snapping at the husband when he asked if there was anything for dinner. And nothing happened between yesterday and today to change my mood nothing except for a night's sleep, and a dream from which I woke up cured of all bad feeling.
There is something of the chicken-or-the-egg about this. Was it the dream that sweetened my disposition a gift from the dream gods? Or was it simply that the bad day I'd had was over, and I was ready to start fresh (with a new, improved attitude) and thus inclined to view the dream which was not at all on the face of it a "good dream" tenderly, just as I have viewed and treated everything and everyone around me all day long today?
The dream was about my grandmother, as my dreams so often are, though it's been fifteen years now since her death. Sometimes in my dreams she is very old as old as she got to be in real life and sometimes she's in her sixties or seventies, as she was in my childhood and youth, but even in those dreams I am almost always my present middle aged self, and aware that she is much younger than she should be.
She was fifty-seven when I was born, and ninety-five when she died. Until last night I had never dreamed her younger or older than I'd known her in real life. But in last night's dream she was ancient as old as she would be if she were still alive today. And she was tiny, not much more than a handful of bones. She couldn't speak; she could hardly move. She was living in the terrible apartment in East Flatbush where she lived in real life in the early 1990s, the place where she was living when she died the place in which she died, sitting in the chair in the living room where she sat all day, every day, that final year of her life.
I should mention that neither she nor I ever managed to think of this apartment as her home. It was in a cheerless little building, part of a housing project of twenty identically cheerless buildings, in a grimly rundown (and, worse for her, for me unfamiliar) neighborhood, and it was even smaller than the small apartment in Brighton Beach where she'd lived for over half a century. Each time I went to see her in her "new" apartment, it struck me that she still hadn't truly moved in. No one had had the heart, I suppose, to sort through her things before the move, and afterward there seemed to be no place to put them all. In every corner there were cardboard boxes and plastic and paper grocery bags and shopping bags imprinted with the names of stores that had gone out of business years ago, all of them stuffed full of papers, cards, photographs, knitted and crocheted things she'd made tucked into still more plastic bags from Speedway and John's Bargain Store, hats my grandfather had made during his years at the hat factory, leftover scraps of fabric, balls of yarn and pillow stuffing and jars of buttons, squares of folded-up, used giftwrap and tinfoil, and all kinds of assorted junk. There wasn't room for all her furniture in the new apartment, either, but it had all come with her anyway, and there was furniture everywhere, positioned at odd angles.
She hadn't wanted to move. I hadn't wanted her to move. She'd been living alone since my grandfather's death, in 1982, and for a long time that had been all right, or mostly all right. At the beginning I visited once a week and so did my mother, and we both called her every day. But in the autumn of 1984 I moved away, for graduate school in Iowa, and by 1988 I was living in Ohio, where I'd found a teaching job. My mother kept making weekly trips from Manhattan; my Uncle Aaron, the eldest of my grandmother's children and the only one who still lived in Brooklyn, stopped in for at least a few minutes every few days. But by the late 1980s, Aaron was in his seventies; his wife, Aunt Shirley, had died, and he wasn't altogether well himself. And so just as my grandmother, now past ninety, began to require more frequent check-ins, Aaron told us that he was finding it increasingly difficult to make the trip so often from his place to hers a distance of less than six miles that felt like more than that to all of us, and not just because there wasn't a good direct driving route between the two neighborhoods.
Brighton Beach was where my grandmother had raised three of her four children. It was where she and my grandfather had landed safely, like so many other Eastern European Jews, after escaping first from the Lower East Side, their initial stop in the U.S., and then Borough Park, their second (where they'd lingered for some time until Aaron was grown, and my mother, the baby, was four years old). Brighton Beach was where the old people, most of them born at the turn of the century, all of them born on the other side of the ocean, dragged folding chairs downstairs and set them up along the wrought iron fence around the building, where they sat and gossiped all day in a mixture of Yiddish and English. "How's Grandma?" they called to me when I visited, when she became too frail to join them (not that she admitted this; what she said was that she couldn't bear the gossiping anymore. "Who needs it?" she told me. "Better to sit in the house and mind my own business").
I'd lived in that building myself, just down the hall from my grandparents, until I was three and my mother was pregnant with my brother. The old people had known me all my life. Their children had known me all my life. The building was as close to a homeplace (something I knew about only from novels) as it was possible for me to have.
But there was nothing for it. When an apartment became available in the building Aaron had lived in nearly as long as his mother had lived in hers the place where he and Shirley had raised their children, now long grown and scattered, with children of their own my grandmother was moved in to it.
Aaron stopped by to see her in the new apartment at least once every day. My mother kept up her weekly visits and called daily. I called nearly every day, too, from five hundred miles away (in those days when long distance calls were still something of a luxury, when one waited until after 5:00 PM to place a call or, better still, after 11:00). My brother, who had just moved back to the East Coast from Chicago, visited as often as he could; my Uncles Isaac and David, both of whom, like my brother, lived in New Jersey, called and dropped in, too, if inconsistently, and once in a great while one of my cousins turned up. But it wasn't long before visits and phone calls, no matter how many or from whom or how long they lasted, weren't sufficient. Full-time "home health workers" were engaged, at first to make sure Grandma was eating (for she had reached the point at which the only thing that had "any taste," she said, was bread sprinkled with Tabasco sauce, and some days she wouldn't even want "to be bothered" with that: "I'm not hungry anyway. Why should I go to so much trouble?") and to remind her to take her various pills. Soon it was to bathe her and dress her, too, and to take her to the bathroom in the middle of the night. And finally it was to keep an eye on her every minute of every day.
It was one of these home health workers who was with her on the day she died. She had been dozing on and off in her chair all day, and she had opened her eyes and cleared her throat and asked for something to drink. Her helper went to the kitchen to get her a glass of water, and when she returned with it, my grandmother was gone.
But in my dream, none of this had happened none of it except the move from Brighton Beach to East Flatbush. In my dream, many years had passed, and in all that time my grandmother had been alone in the apartment. She was so tiny and silent and immobile because she hadn't eaten anything in all those years. But now just as the dream began something was happening, some kind of celebration. My whole family had gathered around her in that gloomy, overstuffed apartment, and as the days passed, she grew visibly more robust. By the end of the celebration, as everyone prepared to leave, calling out goodbyes, gathering up coats and tinfoil-wrapped leftovers, she was young and strong again. And she was beautiful. She looked like a movie star. She was slim and glamorous, with a fifties hourglass figure and long blond curls, dressed to the nines, in high heels. She might even have been wearing a mink stole. She looked nothing like herself at any stage of her real life, the life in which she had married at seventeen and begun a career of housework and worry. The few photographs that exist of her as a girl, newly arrived in the States at fifteen, show her to be handsome and stern and solid-looking, a little bit stout, with her long, unruly, dark brown hair hair just like mine, she always told me bound up in a bun.
It was understood, the way things are understood in dreams, that not being alone was what had "cured" her. And so it was clear to me what had to be done. I was going to take her home with me to Ohio, to make sure that she would never have to be alone again.
In real life, I had actually tried to do that. When I bought a house in Columbus after my first year of teaching, it was one with a room in it that was earmarked for her, and I set about trying to persuade her to come live in it. I was determined to persuade her, but I got nowhere. She insisted that it was impossible for her to move in with me: she couldn't be so far away from "the children." We discussed this, debated it argued about it for months. And my dream acknowledged this (that I had tried and failed, years ago), but in the dream I squared my shoulders, ready to try again. I had logic on my side this time, I told myself, as I followed my glamour-girl grandmother around her gloomy little apartment, making my case. Ohio would be easier now, I argued, since there were only two, not four, of her children to be far away from. What I meant was that only two were alive Aaron and my mother. (But this was dream-logic. In real life, Aaron is long gone. In the dream, it was my mother's two other brothers, both of whom are still living they are in their eighties now, the elder of them nearly as frail as my grandmother was toward the end of her life who were gone, and Aaron still alive.) Aaron and my mother would visit her in Ohio, I promised. They would be happy if she came with me. Even in the dream I was not sure this was true, but I said it as if I were.
In my dream I did not note, as I did once I woke up, that it was the children my grandmother could count on her eldest and her youngest who were alive, that the absence of the other two would make very little difference in her day-to-day life. My grandmother didn't say it either, just as she would never have said it in real life. In real life, she had often expressed favoritism (which had infuriated my father and brother; my mother claimed it didn't bother her) toward her youngest son, Davey the one who paid her the least attention, the one who was selfish and breezy and uninvolved (and who, in real life, moved to California before her death and cut off contact with all of us, after a dispute that only appeared to be about money. There was no money, but that has never stopped families in all sorts of other kinds of trouble from arguing over it).
It didn't matter, anyway what I said or did not say because my grandmother wasn't having any of it. "It's no good," she kept interrupting me to say. "This is where I live."
But it wasn't, I told her. "This isn't home. You don't even like it here."
"It's less far," she told me. "I can't go so far."
I began to panic as I watched one after another of her guests kiss her and walk out the door. I knew that once she was left alone, she would lose every bit of ground she'd gained. She would grow old again, and soon it would all be over this time for good. And I had to go. It seemed that I was on a schedule; I didn't have much time. I stood there anxiously telling myself that there must be something I could do, something I could say I just had to think (surely I could think of something!) as the curtain fell on the dream, as I woke up in tears, thinking, I'm not going anywhere without you.
In my waking life my "real life" there was good reason for me to have been in a bad mood yesterday. The night before, my daughter had come home from a week at camp. I had missed her and was delighted to see her; she, however, was not happy to be home. When she deigned to speak to me at all, it was tersely, crossly, sarcastically.
My daughter is fifteen, and so one might imagine that all of the above should go without saying.
But in truth it does not. My daughter and I are close unusually close (unnaturally close, some would say), just as my grandmother and I were. We are closer, in fact, than my grandmother and I were, because Grace and I have lived together all of Grace's life, and because times have changed (there were subjects I would not have dared to broach with my grandmother, for fear of shocking her; I've made sure that Grace has no such qualms), and because Grace and I have similar temperaments and are interested in many of the same things, while my grandmother and I had to reach across great barriers of temperament and experience and affinities as we made our way toward each other in friendship although we had in common, it occurs to me now, one crucial experience: as children we had both felt rejected by our mothers. Whereas my daughter, unlike my grandmother and me and unlike my own mother has never felt neglected or abandoned. (On the contrary, she has sometimes felt has sometimes been over mothered.)
I was not only surprised and wounded by Grace's surliness and dismissiveness I also felt foolish. Worse than foolish: I felt pathetic, obsolete. I had outlived my usefulness and I hadn't even known it that was how I felt.
And this week at camp, a singing camp at the university where I teach, where she stayed in a dorm and ate bad cafeteria food (or so she had reported gleefully last summer, her first at "Harmony Camp" her first away at any camp from which she'd come home full of news and delighted to see her family, her room, her dog, her bird), had served as a preview of coming attractions. In just three years, I'd reflected as I pulled up at her dorm a week ago (and she jumped out, calling, "You don't have to come in this year I know where to go"), I'd be dropping her off for her freshman year on a college campus, no doubt one considerably farther away. When she comes home then and forever after it will be for visits only. And only as frequently or infrequently as she chooses.
I had worked myself up into a panic by bedtime. And with the panic came self-castigation and shame. What did I want, after all, I asked myself angrily: to lock her in a tower so that I might call up, "Let down your hair" like old Mother Gothel, the witch determined to keep teenage Rapunzel all to herself?
Here is the puzzle one of the many puzzles of dreaming:
It's not as if I didn't know, before I went to sleep and dreamed, that my daughter's growing up was is inevitable. Or didn't know how much I want to keep her near me ... or that in some ways she will always be near me. (How near to me, after all, my grandmother always was, even when we were hundreds of miles apart. How near to me she still is, even fifteen years after her death. Fifteen! It is only as I write this that I stop to think about it: that Grace's years on earth match the years my grandmother has been gone from it.)
It's not as if I didn't know that I am fearful, now that I have passed fifty, of growing old myself. Of growing old, of death. It's not as if I haven't thought, I am nearer now to death than not.
It's not as if I didn't know that I have felt neglected, deprived (starved) in some way all my life.
Excerpted from Stories We Tell Ourselves by Michelle Herman Copyright © 2013 by Michelle Herman. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Two exceptional essays by the gifted and perceptive Michelle Herman. The writing is both conversational and visceral, like a clever discussion with a friend that turns unexpectedly vulnerable. The writing tacitly permits the reader to indulge in their own self-analysis along the way. We're left with a clear picture of the author but a clearer picture of ourselves as well; the essays will leave you thinking new thoughts and seeing this differently for a long time, and what else can we ask from an essay? They're also a very digestible length for a few quiet afternoons, perfect reading for the beach or curled up in front of a nice fire.