Not only was I born in Beth Israel, when I was 8 and had became apparently deathly ill with what the fuzzy local doctor in Connecticut could not confirm was appendicitis, might be even worse, they drove me down the Merritt Parkway and on through Westchester, where the road signs were brown instead of green, and sped fast along the Henry Hudson Drive, and under the cars going up to the George Washington Bridge, drove me in a fury all the way down to Beth Israel, where my next memory has eight old doctors, with by Dr. Lorbar in the center, standing around my bed deep in conference. Then, that repeated story, Doctor Lorbor sent the nurses around to confiscate other patients’ flowers and bring them to the room of Ernest Poole’s grandson.
It was also here at Beth Israel that one dark night my mother told me what a trial I was to all them, what a basically bad person I was, how hopeless I was. I had thought I had nothing to worry about, since they brought tiny gifts, like little Scotty dogs on magnets, when they came to the hospital. I treasured a white button, like a large political campaign button but with no words on it, that glowed green when the lights were out. What set off her tirade was that I asked what she had brought me and she had brought me nothing and my question proved how selfish and, in all other ways too, how beyond the pale I was. I knew almost nothing of her past then, and nothing at all about the real effects of heavy drinking. I was defined in emphatic detail that night in Beth Israel in ways I thought I might never escape. For years I prayed in secret into the night to be someone other than who I was. Which was one reason that when I was 16 I became an atheist, and why that particular doctrine had such strength for me for so long.
In the hospital they would gather as if it were for drinks before dinner and talk as if I were not there. Gaga told a joke which he said was about horticulture, a word I had never heard.The joke was that you can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her drink.They refused to tell me what was so funny, just that a whore was a bad woman. Once when I was really furious I used the word, still not knowing its exact meaning, on my mother because I wanted her to act differently. Another mistake. Another reason why silence was safest.
But that was long ago, and this is 1986, the summer I am staying in Vermont, and using the aqua Mustang as a time travel vehicle for these forays across the border to New Hampshire. And I am searching for myself, not for them. I had the started the first foray driving to familiar places, the roads Peter and I used to walk with Gaga, in his flop[y sun hat with the green isinglass in the front part of the brim. His cane form the cane rack in the big entryway to White Pines. Me with one of those canes too.
But this area, our family’s base area, is not my only reason for coming over from Vermont this day. So now I drive through Franconia Village, and take the old road we always used to take on shopping expeditions – my grandmother Nana, a maid, a driver and often Mrs. Gilman and Peter and me, to Littleton, a decaying mill town of year-round people – sometimes known in White Pines as “natives.” Littleton had stores but no shade trees like Bethlehem, and there was nothing summery about it, though it was not much more than a dozen miles away through lovely woods from our family places
Gillian, in my view oozing sexuality, came across into New Hampshire with me a month later, and, l noted how very cold Littleton looked – which was different than that it was a homely town. Cold, even though now there were signs of a little more prosperity, including even a book store. But I still, on this first trip over from Vermont in this summer of ’86, this time of looking for entry points into the belly of the beast, I still could to a point take these places at face value – even though I was so glad I lived on the outside. And I was on a mission. I couldn’t forget that. This time to see the part of the family that had wound up in the mill town, where my cousin Deirdre had become the most unlikely person ever to come from this family, the most popular girl in an actual public high school – that was years back but her mother, who had been pretty too, was still in Littleton, and could still get furious, she said, that Deirdre still looked so good. They had run to Littleton when the law was after one of her brothers in the city after he had been caught with a sawed-off shotgun. She had been taken out of the Lycée, out of the ballet school too.
Deirdre, my favorite cousin, had made herself into something so different, a cheerleader, that it was not just that I liked her so much but also that she represented hope. And although I rarely saw her – she was in Minnesota now – she said something like that about me. And she’d had as many marriages as I had had countries. And I knew enough now to suspect that she was in danger.