Wednesday, October 24, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 10 - Stories Told Once
If in my father’s side of the family there could be no stories beyond the stories long ago set in place and constantly repeated, in my mother’s side it often seemed to me there were hardly any stories at all that were repeated. Her great grandmother, she said once, had hidden in a barrel feathers in southern George when the Yankees came through. After the Civil War they had all moved to Galveston, but then the tidal wave came, and they wound up in Dallas, and then her parents had appeared in Long Island. That was about it.
My father walked in on my mother and me. He was red faced in a tuxedo, and it was like we had been caught out in something disgraceful. He was returning from a class dinner to this Perry Street apartment he had rented so they would have a city presence. He had rented it on his own and so never heard the end of what was wrong with it. I assumed the red in his face came from drinking with his old classmates, but I also suspected anger. And anyway there had been plenty to drink here on Perry Street too. For no clear reason my mother had been telling me, with hardly any specifics, about the kind of thing I had never heard anyone mention in connection with this fragile family – an affair she was saying she had had after she was married. And she was saying how it still hung over her life.
The story of the affair was something that – like all stories from her life – was told once and never again.
Like her abortion. My first wife was suddenly pregnant at what did not seem such a bad time to me, though things concerning career seemed up in the air and we were not established in the sense of being owners of property. I wanted the child and she didn’t, and at some point she phoned my mother, with whom she did not get on, and, she said, my mother told her that she, my mother, had once had an abortion. Something I never heard of before or later, and maybe no one else had either.
My mother passed through Greece when I was living a bohemian life there. She was on the way back from Cambodia where she and my father’s mother had been visiting my twin brother Peter who was doing the family proud, she said, in his very correct job as a Foreign Service Officer with the American embassy in Pnom Penh, where as part of the deal he had a big house and servants all to himself. She did not come my house – one room without plumbing on the side of the Acropolis. Instead, we met at a seafood restaurant for a long lunch with plenty to drink outdoors in Piraeus. A bedraggled young gypsy girl came to our table and held her hand out and stared at us. “No one,” my mother said firmly,” should look so hopeless.”
Later in the meal my mother told me how when she was a girl in Long Beach, Long Island, and her Texas father was working for the Republican machine in Garden City, she had spent many days in court seeing, she said, “Daddy on trial.” Like the affair and the abortion, I had no indication she had ever told any of this to anyone else who was still around. It never came up again. Years later she told me she could remember nothing of her childhood before she was in boarding school.
Once and once only she said it really had been hard on Dad to have her mother living with us – her mother from Dallas who sat in her room surrounded by antiques, and a decanter and a small portable radio that looked like a small suitcase, which she played all day and then at dinner relayed what she had heard, as if the commercials were objective news casts.
Mother almost always spoke highly of my father’s family, but once she said they had given him a horrible childhood. She said it once, and never again and no one else said it either. His parents would travel all over the world and leave him at home with a governess, she said – even at Christmas, she implied. This sad little boy, whom she had first spotted in the White Mountains from the small golf course at the Sunset Hill House, where she went every day in summer and could see him coming up the hill from his family’s place in his pony cart.
When she and Dad got married, she said, her father, who was always writing and wanted badly to be a published writer, came up to stay at the Sunset for the wedding. He was divorced from Grandmother Clark, who had been a Texas debutante when he was a Texas ranch hand back in open range days. He was excited just before the wedding, she said, because, he had already arranged to go on a long walk with the man who was about to be her father-in-law, who we called Gaga but was known to others as Ernest Poole as, you know, they always said, the famous novelist.
Before the walk, Mother said, Gaga and her father, Grandfather Clark, had a drink together. Gaga pointed out it was the Depression, and asked him how he would help the new married couple. He said he was broke. Gaga said well in that case I don’t want to talk to you, and he canceled their walk.
When I brought this up another time she kept to the pattern and did not repeat the story. Instead, she said, You should remember, Frederick, that Gaga was a wonderful man.