As I drove through those places of my childhood, I thought of when in adolescence I became so interested in so many things – politics and poetry and dangerous adventures and European trains, and wilderness camping and really appealing young women – I wanted to be on top of events like my grandfather had been as an early Socialist working on exposés in Chicago with Upton Sinclair, and living in the heart of New York’s lower East Side when he was with the settlement house movement, and actively organizing for the Socialists, and then being reported lost and feared dead in the Kerensky phase of the Russian Revolution, which was more moderate than the Lenin phase but also chaotic and idealistic and dangerous.
I though of how I had tried hard to put that together with the man I knew to be often kindly but also so often tired, ill or angry, and who would emerge from his fabled writer’s study not with new chapters but with something he had learned from a stock tip sheet called the Kiplinger Letter which he thought would help him revive the tidy fortune he had lost in the stock market crash before I was born, and had kept him busy ever since trying to be his own stockbroker. And then that final year up in the mountains after his final stroke.
For it took me a long time to see that nothing was exactly how it seemed in the world I came from – especially the New Hampshire part, which consumed only the summers until I was in a New Hampshire boarding school in the winters. The summers remained the officially important time, even as I came into my own in the winters. The summers in those grand and formal family houses in the mountains, clearly the base for the people from whom I came and hence the people who, I could not help thinking, might in the end provide a margin of safety for me – the way my grandfather's Pulitzer was taken as providing safety for all of them.
In books, people who went to these stiff colleges, and lived in these big formal places with such ease that they called them cottages, in books such people were confident in their privileged state. And sometimes it almost seemed that way in life. Here in the White Mountains they spoke with what seemed to be English accents even though they were not from England. The only one who had lived in England for any time was my seductive Aunt Betsy, who had married a young architect there who went into the RAF, and was killed early in the war, before America was in it, supposedly fighting in the Battle of Britain but actually killed in a drunk flying accident when he and a buddy had broken into an air field and tried to take up a flimsy trainer plane. But she had his new RAF wings made into costume jewelry which she wore with showy pride. She had been pregnant at that time of the air crash, and she told her son when he was old enough to understand that he was the son of a war hero. And no one up there in New Hampshire said otherwise. In fact, they backed her up.
In retrospect, they were not confident people, Ivy League club members who traveled life with ease. In retrospect they were not so confident as they seemed to me. In retrospect, I should have looked closer at the people they made fun of.
When I was in college, I once took along to dinner at my grandmother’s place on East 66th Street my roommate, a young man from upstate New York on his way to a successful life at the top. Her sister, my Great Aunt Katherine, was there. She was a bubbly, still pretty, woman who had been married to an alcoholic playwright who had had some Broadway successes, then chased a bevy of girls to Hollywood and was never heard from again. At dinner she talked about World War I when she entertained the boys, as she put it, gave them merry times, performed French songs. I was surprised when my roommate turned out to be so enthusiastic about her – this intelligent and charming woman, he said – for in the family she was dismissed as lightweight. As was her current husband, who in retrospect gave me more than I had realized – Uncle Jehan, Jehan Sesodia, son of a maharaja, they said (in circles where black men were fine if they were from far away cultures and bore titles, such as his, which was "Prince," Prince Sesodia, as Aunt Katherine was Princess Sesodia – often referred to by non-family people simply as the Prince and the Princess). The beginning of stories I must write now. The Prince and the Princess being in retrospect the most charming people in the dramatic personae of this family.
I tried to think for a time that Uncle Jehan and Aunt Katherine were something very minor and silly, for that was the sort of thinking upon which this family staked its place in the world – not least because my grandparents lived not among writers and artists but among the pedigreed summer people (real people, they said) of the White Mountains, whose little, restricted communities were as far away from Kerensky or the Lower East Side, or real war heroes or saucy French songs as you could get.