Wednesday, June 18, 2008
The Aqua Mustang 22 – HEBREWS ONLY
Now that I am seeing the places through Gillian’s eyes, hearing her confirm now in 1986 the harshness I knew was there as well as some warmth and stark beauty, I realized that I had never before looked at those places of my past, those family places, with any human being, except perhaps a girlfriend once long ago, any human being who was not an interested party in keeping the family story intact.
I walked in Bethlehem and saw what I had always known, that it was a gentle place, funny old boarding houses, with old porches and swings, an octagon-shaped, brown shingle building called a casino, for summer social events, a rickety old movie theater, places for summer snack food, and small shops, selling little gift things like balsam pillows and maple sugar men, of the sort that could only be sold in very old and safe summer towns. Stores that often had “Pine” or “Maple” in the name. Occasionally there would be a street sign with a name that seemed to be from somewhere foreign, though New England had been billed in the family world us as the least foreign of all places. Not counting the White Mountains of the old Wasp summer families which was said, though only by people in those families, to be like Europe.
Bethlehem was a place perfect for nostalgia. But Bethlehem had not been talked about by our elders as gentle since to them the main thing about it seemed to have been that it was the Jewish place. I remembered from childhood my grandmother Nana, who was politically liberal and as always up to date with what was happening in the world – as up to date as most of them usually seemed mired in quagmires of the past - Nana saying once at lunch at the long dining table by the long paned glass window framing the Franconia Range, “It’s not the Jews, you know, it’s just the, you know, the kikey ones. These words from Nana who considered so many words – even such as the word stomach – to be too vulgar for polite conversation. And otherwise considered bigots too lower class to count.
I remember another time at lunch she and her friend Mrs. Gillman, credentialed as the widow of The Herald Tribune’s music critic, talking about a sign reportedly seen on a place renting rooms in Bethlehem, “Hebrews only.” It seemed to hurt them deeply, this evidence of intolerance.
I remembered my grandfather Gaga being so upset when I was 10 and challenged this whose anti-Jewish thing that he took me aside for a long talk justifying it, which made no sense to me, but I did keep quiet. In this family I had a long list of things to be quiet about.
And I remember him reading aloud at lunch articles he was writing for The Manchester Union-Leader, in response an angry statement from another writer about how he had found anti-Semitism when he tried moving to New Hampshire. No such thing, Gaga wrote.
I also remembered Gaga’s stories about his settlement house days when he was a Socialist early in he century, stories that always featured an apparently saintly left-wing social worker named Fred King, who had died young and for whom I had been named, and at the center of everything in the movement an expansive young Jewish doctor named Harry Lorbar – who remained so close that his advice was always sought, which explained why Peter and I had been born in Beth Israel Hospital (which was something Dad seemed to feel needed explaining – the way he tried to explain away a great aunt's findings while doing a family genealogy that there was an actual Jew in the family line). Dr. Lorbar still sometimes visited his old friend Ernest Poole in the White Mountains. When all the rooms at White Pines were filled with cousins, they put him up in a village hotel since the best and only hotel in our world – the sprawling old Sunset Hill House – would not have given him a room.
I wondered about a friendship that could survive that.