In the city as well as up in New Hampshire, I had been looking into places of the past in this year of exploration, 1986. It was as if my life depended upon finding out what had happened in the deep past in the summer houses that had led by now to so much violent death and molestation in involving my cousins.
I walked along the block on East 66th Street where my grande dame grandmother, who had white hair and perfect posture, had had her last apartment. Her city place had been a miniature version of their grandiose old summer houses in the White Mountains. In the apartment, a smaller but equally shiny table for formal dinners. Behind glass in the pantry, the omnipresent finger bowls that gave this family definition. Under the rug at the head of the table something she could press with her foot that set off a buzzer summoning service from the kitchen. In the kitchen the same tall smoky glasses as in the summer places, the same jars, strangely never touched, of macadamia nuts, the same special soup crackers that came only from St. Johnsbury, the same S.S. Pierce canned goods that came from Boston.
In college in the fifties, when my grandmother was alive, I would sometimes spend a night in that apartment when I was in town for Broadway shows or debutante parties. I used a day bed in the study she had set up after my grandfather died, a city version of his New Hampshire summer writing places. In this new study a frame held the certificate for his Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which had never been shown in the mountains where everyone knew. Almost everything intact here from the summer places, familiar chairs and desk and some chinoiserie wall hangings. But also there was something new, something disconcerting. In another frame, a close-up black and white photo portrait of Robert Frost looking as sensual as he looked craggy.
Before my time Frost had been a neighbor up in Franconia and went on walks with my grandfather. But I knew this only from books about Frost, for in our houses he was never mentioned. And yet here he was in this place of honor. What was he to us? Surely he and my grandmother could not have been lovers. But maybe nothing was too far fetched. In this year 1986 I had just found my family’s old housekeeper, Mrs. Miner, still alive in the mountains. And someone else still there, a woman who had been a very pretty summer girl in teenage days and had come back to stay. Now the former summer girl videotaped old but alert Mrs. Miner telling, in local language, about convoluted sexual activities, which Mrs. Miner called buzzing. That it was called buzzing, not fucking, made it instantly believable, though no one in my family except me would ever imagine my regal grandmother doing either.
In the early sixties in a summer when she was in the mountains and I had just come back again from aboard and again had no home, I had used her apartment for the steamy month of August. Steamy, and air conditioning was not an Anglophile thing. Across from the study there was a guest room, which was used in winter by Nana’s best friend, Frances Perkins, the same one who had been the first woman in the cabinet. While I was there that summer I had brought in the object of my long-time sexual obsession, a syrupy, married Kentucky girl named Laurie. And now here we were in my grandmother’s bed, then the Mrs. Perkins bed, then my grandmother’s, fucking and all the rest in every way we each knew and in ways we had only heard about and had to try out, going from room to room with our latest of many bottles of Scotch. Sweat giving a shine to Laurie’s smooth body. She telling me, who had not been always been sure of his physical self, that she just loved his body’s line. Now together in a bathtub, now, still too hot for clothes, up against the Steinway. No clothes in this place that cried out for formal wear. Rolling on the living room carpet in this place that, till now, has seemed to exist in an ordered past. Me up, she down, she up, me down. Moving from room to room, hot and dripping. Not so much buzzing as fucking. Also making love, it seemed. Fucking and making love while getting drunk. My first experience with all three taking place at the same time. And I guess we left traces, for my grandmother turned cold in the fall, and her maid would not speak to me.
Across 66th street was a big Catholic church, used by the Upper East Side cooks and maids as a shelter from Waspdom. I walked on that street, between her building and that church, in this time of exploration, 1986, 20 years since her death, 30 years since my college time, 25 years since the romp in her apartment, the romp still seeming so out of context as to have no meaning there. As I walked on that street in 1986, I thought I should have warm feelings from memories of nights spent there after coming into the city for those debutante parties and Broadway shows, which seemed more real than that out-of-context romp with Laurie.
But 66th Street felt awful now. Stifling. Suffocating – as if I was not then just walking outdoors in an area of warm memories but rather was being smothered now by old heavily powdered women who had fox furs around their necks.