Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 79 – PAST PERSON II

“So you and Gracie come right over,” Ellen said, then called down to me, “Mrs. Miner’s coming.”

And there was no way I could leave now. And I remembered why I was here – this search to discover what had happened in the deep dark past in this formal community of big Waspy summer house compounds – the hunt I was on, like an avenger, to get the goods on those people of the past. And find out why the cousins who had been there with me in the deep past were now coming to such horrible ends – suicides and molestations and incesting – it had to be connected to things way back then.

I had not thought Mrs. Milner would still be alive. It was forty years since I had seen her, forty years since her mysterious disappearance from our lives, this rock solid figure of my childhood. She had been at While Wings the two summers I had been there when I was five and six years old, long before my grandparents sold it to Ellen’s Grosse Point parents. But mostly I remembered Mrs. Miner from the biggest, most formal house, White Pines, remembered her as the cook and the woman who ran everything. And was always nice and always had snacks for me and never with lectures about being too thin or too fat. This local New England woman who, I suddenly thought now, was the equivalent of those black nannies in the South who were more like mothers to the segregated white children than were the children’s birth mothers. My mother’s family was Southern, and although she grew up in Long Beach, Long Island, she had told me the only thing she could remember from the first decade of her life was a servant looking down at her in her baby carriage.

And in my mind now, while standing in front of White Wings, I was suddenly in a scene in the area in the back of the commodious White Pines kitchen, on the way to the Boy’s Wing where male children were meant to stay, this area with a big round oilcloth covered table where the servants ate and joked, beside a pantry stuffed to the ceiling with non-perishable food, and containing the glass enclosed box where a number would drop down if someone in the non-servants part of the upstairs pressed a button. I knew that 20 something years ago Ellen, when between marriages and denied more family funds, had worked with Mrs. Miner one season closing up summer people’s houses for the winter. But I never thought that now she would still be alive, much less that I would ever see her. And there was immediately something very familiar and even comforting about her. And I was in another scene back there at the oilcloth table where the servants ate. It was at a point in mid-summer when my mother, whom I had not seen since they dropped us off at the summer’s start, had just arrived back up in the mountains, and came in looking for me, and I could not think of who this woman was.

Mrs. Miner, vital still though probably near 90, appeared now in this present with her daughter Gracy, a quick-witted wiry recent cancer survivor, whom I did not remember until I was reminded that when the guest count at the big formal dining table reached 13, Gracy would be brought in and seated at place number 14 so that no one would have to eat at a table that might carry bad luck.

And I
remembered why I remembered what I did, for Mrs. Miner spoke now of how much of the time I had been banned from the family part of the house, usually she said for being blamed for things I had not done but often were done by my brother or not done at all. ( She never liked my brother, she said she said now, and she also said that she’d never liked two of my first cousins, Robin and Fitz John, each the good little boy in his family

And she said, here in mountain sunlight in front of White Wings, “I have always wanted to find you, I have felt so bad about all the things that happened back then.”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 78 – PAST PERSON I

Living in that family and in those places was at times almost unbearably real and awful and wonderful, and at other times like living in the made up stories of a novel, which may or may not have been because at the center of all myths about that family was a novelist who sometimes wrote from life but also made up or altered his stories. That my grandfather has been a very successful novelist was always in the air, both when he was alive and after he was dead.

I am about to leave on my second morning staying here with Ellen, who in her marijuana haze was unreachable. I don’t smoke it much anymore and I do not drink at all, and now here with the smells of new mown hay grass and pine, and the sounds of northern birds, here in front of White Wings on a field leading to woods which now block to our view of the Franconia Range mountains, which I do not need to see to believe. And here with birds and fields and pines in the air I feel much as I would in a dark bar in which I would be the only one not drinking, the only one who notices the stale beer scent mixed with the scents of urine and vomit. Ellen has stopped drinking too, but she does it with the help of a drug, which most days she starts smoking when she awakes. So this morning I cannot reach her.

This is not a place for me. I leave fast in the Mustang, and all of a sudden forget everything except the beauty around me. I go past the Iris Farm, the most picturesque of all the farms, set against the mountain backdrop. I was taken there as a child to see the cows. And then I am in Franconia village, eating a big happy breakfast with a cup of coffee that gets refilled by one of those pretty local girls whom I could see when very young but the other missed because in the family novel the New England of non-summer people was the land of homely girls. She refills it before I finish it. And I can smell her.

I get gas at a gas station that is the successor to the station I used when I first had my license and was lectured by the craggy owner, Chuck Vintner, about my speeding. The stodgy maroon Plymouth station wagon I had borrowed from the family would, after the his lecture, never go as fast as I wanted. I suspected that Vintner had put a governor on the motor.

I go back now to White Wings, ready to pack up and leave for good. I see Ellen’s old Volkswagen convertible, left over from one of her marriages, is still here. And when I am in front of the house. I can hear her on the phone. She is carrying the phone on the narrow upstairs terrace that connects the two wings, her wing which has a woodstove and about a dozen dogs, and her always absent mother’s locked wing that is kept like a museum from my infancy when I spent two summer there, kept almost just as it was to honor my grandfather, who is the main celebrity in this region – not counting Bette Davis who was here for a time and actually rented the Farm House one summer, the Farm House, which is now my brother Peter’s house.

I hear Ellen saying “You’ll never guess who’s here.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 77 – BIGGEST STORY?

Was this, I wondered, my biggest story? When I was a writer, which I was certain I no longer wanted to be, I had never gone near what I was I putting together now – what was coming out now in memories raised by this brief sexual affair or obsession with Gillian in the week I was no longer alone in my tour of the old sites, the place where happy memories were raised as I drove about the White mountains alone checking out the key places of what seemed key events in my early life – and also awful memories as I drove about the White Mountains looking for and finding increasingly more evidence of what I had been putting together this year – of dark things I had never admitted to that surely must have something to do with why so many people from that time, especially the cousins who like me had spent their summers up here in the family places when young, were coming now to such bad ends in the present while still very far from actual old age. Suicide and molestation and cancer that they seemed to invite.

Why what I had thought, without probing, had been times of light and happiness now seemed times of darkness – actually, though the evidence was not all in yet, times of far more deadly danger than I had known in the very dangerous places –bloodthirsty Papa Doc Duvalier’s Haiti, bloodthirsty General Suharto’s Indonesia – where I had spent most of the years afterwards. Where had this word bloodthirsty come form? Was it the term that belonged here in this family place, these mountains.

And why was I drawn here even now when I knew that it was not a place for me and maybe never had been? Knew that I had mistakenly harbored the idea that it was my place. Why did my spirit leap when I turned my car north from the city up the familiar roads to northern New England?

And why was I so aware of things I had forgotten that did not necessarily fit with darkness and danger – those long yellow rays of winter light in the New Hampshire summer, the cold but alluring mountains, the rocky old farms with their safe scraggly cows, the smell of balsam, the remembered taste of maple sugar and corn picked at a nearby farm scarcely an hour before the cook cooked it in the White Pines kitchen – and the remembered embrace with a girl on a hayride that started in Landaff, which was a ind of paradise even though we made fun of inbred local farm people who all looked alike to us – and the fabled trails up the mountains, up above the timer line where I had felt I could see all that I loved over scores of miles in all directions.

I had to know what had happened, but now it was the light story, not the dark one, that I did not want. I had rarely gone back to this place in the years I had thought of it in the light version. I had stayed away most of the time for decades. And the rare times I was actually there I had made sure, as if afraid to be here alone, that I was never far from a friend brought in from outside, even if it was just a fortifying drink.

And now I was here alone, driving and drifting, looking and looking, and remembering – not the way it was supposed to be but the way that I had determined was the right version in the case that this year I had building up as methodically – as if I had been a careful lawyer, which I remembered now was what the family wanted for me when it became clear I was not what they had expected.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


We talked in a Monday workshop session about putting fictional things into memoir to get at matters we cannot remember. And we talked about even putting in someone else's supposedly more accurate versions.

I hit the ceiling at the very idea of an artist so distorting, which to me means the artist bringing comfort to the begrudgers.

But regarding my story about Rock Pool, there is a question about the disparaging comments by summer gang members the day the Bohemian crafts people appeared. Did I make up those comments, the way I made up the their names? Did I see at the time they were as limited by place and blood and measured aspiration as their reactionary forebears? Why is depression, of which I have been mostly free for 20 years, returning?

I posted the Rock Pool story on my writing blog before the Monday night workshop session – where by pure coincidence I wanted to open with Jay's thoughts about how when there was a place he did want to go in his writing he found himself trying to bring in fiction. It was predictable that I would be adamant about not going into fiction – about sticking to the author’s impression ( as the McCourts say) of what happened as being the only valid truth for the author.

Was it because I stuck to the truth, my impression of what was said by members of this gang of young people, this gang which was the first group to which I felt I truly belonged. What I had just done in writing about Rock Pool was intended to bolster my impression that my peers would become like their elders. Had I had that impression on that day 50 years back that I just wrote about? Had I denied what I saw and felt?

Had I for 50 years edited the words out because what these peers said did not fit with my picture of those summers as being a sacred time, whatever my overall impression, in retrospect, of the White Mountains summer communities? And I began to think about other times, as at Princeton, of listening to people's bigotry and, worse, trying to edit it out.

The depression was a delayed reaction to my having written. It was at its worse on the Saturday after I wrote about Rock Poole. Marta had a morning workshop that I was not involved with that day. I put in ear plugs and went up to my computer for what I thought would be a fine day of writing. But it was as bad as all the times in the past, the times before I got onto my own story in any valid way by facing up to the fact that I had indeed once been a child. Those depression years, but then a plunge into the past I had ignored, and then the past 20 years in which I was virtually free of the hopelessness and fear that had dogged me.

And so on that Saturday morning upstairs at my computer, while Marta and her group were writing downstairs, I could not write. And it was chilly outside. And the depression had not lifted.

That evening we went to the Colony to hear a concert by a new friend and associate, Bar Scott. In one segment she played the piano while being her as bird photographs that made me want to cry flashed on a screen. The picture were taken by her husband Peter Schoenberger, whom I had known in passing for nearly two decades. These photos so close up in spirit and reality as to partake of revelation. And even while moved by the music and the birds I was still sunk in this surprising, paralyzing depression.

To my right at the Colony was my great love in the present, Marta Szabo, and we were holding hands. To my left was a new friend, Polly Howells, whose grandmother was Abby Howells, who used to talk about her best friend, my grandmother Margaret Poole, who talked the same way about Abby Howells. And strangely I had never met Abby Howells and Polly never met Margaret Poole. Though they were such big figures in a careful past world of supposed privilege that Polly and I both write about now.

This depression. The remaining power of the past.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 76 – TWO CATS

My driving is like gentle skating or swimming through the hills and valleys beneath Vermont’s friendly mountains. Past many well-kept dairy cows and a few goats and horses, alongside clear streams and rivers, and through Christmas card white clapboard villages with village greens containing bandstands, sometimes with young guitar players doing sixties protest or peace and love songs still in this summer of 1986, this time that makes me feel I am, for maybe the first time, coming alive, though doing it in what to others, not me, might be middle age. Here so far from the exotic and erotic and chancy places on other continents that I had thought gave me definition and therefore an identity far removed from where I had started out – which was across the border in the stark, sometimes green and warm, more often blue-black and cold White Mountains of New Hampshire.

I am traveling in my lighthearted Aqua Mustang that I recently bought on a whim – the first car I have owned rather than rented since my old Humber in 1969 in Singapore, which closely followed my old tank-like green Rover in Bangkok. And now, of all things, a Mustang.

A group of us had gone out to the 1964 World’s Fair where we laughed at the dowdy mid-America things on display there – like Disney’s mechanical Honest Abe and an exhibit glorifying America's capitalist telephone company. And this led into what we thought of the new Ford Mustang model, which we saw as having been designed to take advantage of people mired in no-risk middle class convention who sadly want to think of themselves as sports car drivers.

But 20 years later I am a Mustang owner and yes, it does feel safe, for the dangerous time travel which I plan. I am plunging subjectively and then literally into deep past places to find out, first, why I have been so attracted all my life to life-threatening matters, and, second, to why my peers in the seemingly Victorian-safe family I came from had sunk or were sinking into unexamined life stories of death and molestation.

As I drive I see certain changes in unchanging northern New England, such as that the more prosperous Vermont farms no longer have the old picturesque elongated wooden barrel-type silos but now have shiny dark blue silos made of what appears to be Plexiglas. And I am started to hear in my head the voice of my twin brother, who took over the last of the big old family houses across the border and is probably there right now with his intensely Anglo wife, this brother who had roamed on orders from the CIA and tricky Defense Department agencies in some of the very places where I, in opposition, had sometimes been underground and/or under death threat. He is telling me what I can see for myself – telling me that it is not real unless he is the one doing the telling.

And then I smile, as I am doing often when alone this summer, smile maybe to keep from weeping. I think of how after college when my brother and I were conclusively away from suburban Connecticut, my parents had begun raising two gray kittens, which they named, and treated as, Good Cat and Bad Cat. After Good Cat was run over they talked of how unfair and unfitting it was that Bad Cat was the one who survived.

Telling about the cats had early this year added to my popularity as I talked before one of those groups of people who like me were on the hunt for what had happened to them as children. The Good Cat-Bad Cat story got laughter that rose and fell, and rose again, and blended into applause in a big dark medical conference room on Seventh Avenue that felt like a place of worship.


Each night driving slowly on the dark Charlotte road so the cows would see us and come over.

Unsure which room to sleep in.

Laughing at the house owner’s in-laws who were dressed head to rubber enclosed toe by L.L. Bean.

Deep from the groin, non-program hugging on village greens.

Then setting off to places of the past,

Together, it seemed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


In my yellow childhood room in Weston, Connecticut, the most comfort came from far outside the house. Partly it was the daytime view of a hill that I could run up after I ran down my second story room’s outside staircase, which was left over from some very different past time when this was a boarding house.

At night, light beams from headlights on the road in front of the house would enter my side window, play along the irregular, glossy yellow walls and over the ceiling and then leave by the back window beside the outside staircase door.

And at night, there would be softer flashes of light that came in regularly spaced intervals from – I learned – a powerful beacon that guided airplanes.

And, moreover, also from far away at night the long sad hopeful sounds of a locomotive’s horn.

Trains, like planes and cars, that told me the future would be different.

Friday, April 3, 2009


From my childhood horse-mattress bed I could look out through a screen door that opened to a paint-flecked wooden staircase that led to the foot of a green Connecticut hill.

At eye level I could see an ancient root cellar door leading right into that hill,

A hill with a rickety windmill of the kind I would know from movie Westerns.

But right here in my room I had a recurring dream in which I walked up that hill and from it saw a gleaming city –

A feeling that would return when in the Met I viewed El Greco’s Toledo… from a river boat spotted a gleaming temple in thick jungle… from the top of the Arboretum in Roxbury came upon Boston’s late 20th century skyline.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 75 - ROCK POOL

I drove out into the backwoods township of Landaff. I was looking for the entrance to Rock Pool – smooth granite formations and a waterfall with a drop of 20 feet that felt like 100 to a cool, deep, crystal clear pool at the bottom. We boys would dare each other, and sometimes take up the dare, to make the leap, watched by our gang’s girls who had been sunning themselves prettily off to the side on one of the huge smooth rocks.

We had heard rumors about the existence of this unusual place Rock Pool, and we found the woodsy path leading into it one summer when some of us were finally old enough to drive. Now thirty-five years later I cannot find the path, but while still in my car I am, in heart and head, back on a certain dreamlike day – the day we saw that the craftspeople had appeared.

Booths made of two by fours and old boards had suddenly been erected on this obscure path. Some of the booths had speakers linked by flimsy lines stretching out from a small wheezing generator, sending out through the woods the heartfelt sounds of Rubenstein playing the Emperor Concerto.

This world about which I had fantasized, populated by artists and artisans who till now I knew only from novels and paintings and movies – these mostly bearded men and mostly pretty women – and no sexless plaid on the girls – nor golf hats on the men
nor the sort of straw hats still around from winter trips to Bermuda. And they all wore sandals. Suddenly right here a world about which I had fantasized in the long winters in dress code boarding school. This was the reality I had thought I would not find till some undetermined time in the future, this life for which I was really intended. These men with facial hair and their lovely pale girls in black – these people out of fantasies that entailed cellar restaurants with red checked tablecloths, the dim lighting from candles whose wax had poured down the sides of wine bottles used as candlestick holders, the men and girls leaning in to each other in sexual promise and in rapt conversation about the kind of art – bright colors, a nude girl at a picnic, touching Montmartre whores waiting, poplar trees in many kinds of light, a waltz at a boat house – the kind of art I'd seen in Paris in the first part of the summer. And poetry I knew from long, cold boarding school winters, the poetry that had meant my freedom – Keats and Wordsworth and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edward Arlington Robinson – and novels in which people like these craftspeople would meet and thrive and copulate.

This was reality far from the White Mountains and far from New England schools and far from parents and grandparents who affected English accents.

But the sudden appearance of the crafts people had led to remarks from the young people of our gang whom I had thought of as my people. Tuckie Marsh, who was 15, a year younger than me and planning on art school, but now saying about the people who had appeared, "I don't know what they think they're doing here. They'll never understand this place..."

Danny Trimble, who was headed to Amherst, using the term "weenies."

Esther Roberts, on her way to socially if not academically correct Briarcliff, repeating "What do they think they are?"

And even deeply tanned Tammie Thomas, who was herself a subject of fantasies, saying "Our life here won't last if just anyone can be here."