Thursday, May 7, 2009
The Aqua Mustang 82 – PAST PERSON IV
That crucial summer that Gaga was in the Boy’s Wing and we were after real, not virtual, girls, Mrs. Miner had been replaced by Evelyn, a bustling and cheerfully garrulous woman of no clearly discernable age or origin. She had been hired in the city, where Nana had just set up on her own what she had planned, before Gaga’s stroke, to be their new winter quarters, an Upper East Side apartment that seemed to have as much of his presence in it as did the summer houses, though it was an apartment he never saw.
Evelyn was as nurturing as Mrs. Miner, though they were very different. Whereas Mrs. Minor had since the beginning of time been rooted in Sugar Hill, Evelyn seemed to be vaguely from some place in the West Indies. She seemed to be white, but they could not be sure. She talked freely and rapidly in tones that did indicate some place foreign, but the accent did not identify that place. As a child I did not know Mrs. Miner’s first name. As an adolescent I did not know Evelyn’s last name.
Whatever her origins, after she moved into Nana’s tiny maid’s room she settled so quickly into Nana’s life that it was if she had been around our family for many years. When she was serving she tended to enter into conversations going on at the formal city and country dining tables She gave her ideas freely as she circled the table, not hesitating to correct Nana if she thought Nana had gotten some fact or incident wrong.
On 66th Street she also became part of the scene beyond Nana’s apartment. She became a regular at a mysterious place – the big ornate Catholic church on the other side of 66th Street.
Evelyn seemed instantly to be as devoted to all of us – Nana’s children and grandchildren, especially my brother Peter and me – as Mrs. Miner had been. She did not make the same maple sugar cakes that Mrs. Miner made, which were smooth-cornered abbreviated cylinders with golden brown maple sugar icing on the sides as well as the tops. But I was quite happy with Evelyn’s version of maple sugar cakes, which were larger and more like conventional cupcakes, with icing that was white and only on the top, but with the same haunting maple sugar taste that was as much a part of my childhood mountain summers as was the feel of mountain air and the smell of balsam and the pine and wood smell in the souvenir stores at the Flume and the Tramway and by Profile Lake down below the Old Man of the Mountains. Those stores had wonderful common people’s things they said I should not enjoy, such toy tomahawks and balsam-filled pillows that had pictures of the Old Man on them with the words “For you I pine and balsam.”
When the summer parties for kids in our gang began, Evelyn saw to it that Peter and I looked sharp. The first summer when we were sniffing around Mickie Nana had noticed our sweat T shirts and given us a jar of Mum deodorabt. But this next year was different. Nearly every day Evelyn washed and dried and pressed my white and light blue cotton cord suit and Peter’s white and tan one. She was bound up in our coming of age, whereas Mrs. Miner had been on the childhood side of our lives.
And now so many years later I am at White Wings again. Evelyn has been dead for twenty years. But Mrs. Miner is very alive and I am suddenly on equal terms with her – equal terms with someone whose crucial connections are right here in the White Mountains, not Boston, not New York, not Baltimore, not some suburb like Scarsdale or Grosse Point, not some vague island.
And among the scenes swimming in my head as I stand outside White Wings with Mickie and Mrs. Miner and Gracy is one in which I am on a single car train of the old Boston & Maine Railroad from Boston’s North Station that takes Peter and me on the final lap of our return to Plymouth, New Hampshire, where the Holderness School is located. This old passenger car has a coal stove burning inside it. I am hearing the talk of two dowdy New Hampshire sounding women who are seated behind me. One is telling the other about marriage and money difficulties in her life. “Sometimes I feel so blue,” she says, and I feel a little uneasy and a little bit privileged to be so close to someone of a different species speaking in a language I have encountered only in mundane movies and radio plays. Following the family, I make myself feel repulsed by ordinary people, though always I am at the same time excited and almost wishing I were in their world rather than ours.
All those people from different worlds so close to our world, yet their local New England people’s world as distant from us as the world of summering Jews – who, though not at the center since the biggest hotels were “restricted,” came up here anyway, for they were welcomed by innkeepers and landlords in less strict mountain towns, including one not 10 miles away that was called Bethlehem, a place apparently dedicated to catering to Jewish people. We did not know how they talked, but cruel summer kids had made up a language for them – some of these kids driving into Bethlehem and fingering items in the summer stores and saying to each other “Fee-yaps,” which was how, they had decided, penny pinching Jews would talk. Sometimes speeding through Bethlehem at night shouting “Fee-yaps!” from their families’ cars.
And here now was Mrs. Miner, who, with Gracy, was more foreign even then the Jews. Mrs. Miner and Gracy stepping out of the past. Or was it me entering the past? Mrs. Miner were here as a guest, not as hired help sending village girls out from the kitchen to serve us after we had placed our finger bowls with their little round doilies correctly above and to the left of our place settings – the left also the side at which we were offered the platters of abundant food, for some reason quite Germanic, that was so unlike the more meager fare I was used to in Connecticut.
And now I was on this old car of the Boston & Maine, actually inside what might be part of a movie or radio play. And now years later I blink at I stand in front of White Wings and I am dealing directly with people heretofore as remote as actors seen in a darkened theater.
And they are speaking this language in which I had long ago heard the words about feeling blue. And both Mrs. Miner and Gracy, so very alive at they talk about the past. And now they are using a term I had never heard before. This word “buzzing” passing their lips in New England accented form.
I added it to my vocabulary in the only way new words enter my vocabulary, which is not because I look them up in a dictionary but rather because I catch the meaning instantly from the context in which they are used. The context here made it clear that buzzing was another word for fucking.