Wednesday, February 8, 2017
On Being Sick
Last night was my last night quarantined upstairs in Reine’s old room. I’ve been sick and banished, along with my germs. Not exactly banished. Not remotely banished, though pleasantly remote. It was more like taking a little vacation at home: just moving upstairs and excusing myself from real life.
Tonight I will move back in with my beloved on the assumption that I will not infect him with my copious germs. I am of course delighted to rejoining the marital bed, but still….
It was such a haven up there, gravely quiet but for the occasional hiss and clank of the radiator. Up there I can fall asleep midday, and then wake in the middle of the night, turn on the light, and read The Nix for hours. Or The Guermantes Way. Or both. I can watch a Mexican miniseries about Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, a 17th century scholar who had to become a nun on order to get the peace and quiet to study, read and write. Not surprisingly, in one of her greatest poems, “The Dream”, she writes of “the darkest hour of the night, shadow marking midpoint to the dawn…”
The rooms upstairs are the oldest in the house, unchanged since 1790 with their casement windows and bubbly glass, their sloped ceilings, their wide painted floor planks and fire places. The moldings are uneven and handmade, and the cracks in the wall, if they do not have the habit of looking like a rabbit, make me smile by resembling the Nile. These cracked walls have presided over scenes of love and lust, hysterical weeping, astronomical discoveries*, and clogged sinuses.
Because nothing is new under the sun, and certainly not in Reine’s room, every object tells a story. On the wall (cracked, of course) to my left, is a print of poor benighted Othello along with Iago as a corpulent burger, taken from Simplicissimus. Bine, my almost oldest friend, whose father was my grandfather’s friend and textile colleague, Bine, who taught me everything I know about European art and Euro-chic, gave it to me more than forty years ago. On the occasion of my first marriage. What did she know?
On the likewise cracked wall in front of me is the needlework “A Paris tous les 2” that I recently rescued from the Orchard armoire filled with linens and laces that Mom had no idea what to do with. None of us did, or do. This piece I assume was made by either my father’s mother, Germaine or his cousin, Madeleine in a distant French youth, but we will never know. It is not quite embroidery and not quite a collage. It portrays a red and black carriage being pulled by a brown horse with a white mane; the coachman wears a yellow shirt, a great cap and his legs are wrapped in a red and black checked blanket. The carriage appears to be empty, or perhaps the two who are heading to Paris are engaged in vigorous copulation in the aft portion of the carriage, and unseen through the window. I washed it in Woolite and ironed it and then dismantled yet another old frame, and framed it. Now I love it.
It replaces the poster from a Sandy Skoglund exhibit at the Smith College Museum featuring naked people walking upon eggshells among snakes emerging from toilet bowls. I am fond of that too, but one of the grandchildren found it disturbing, and so it has been deaccessioned. Others, not the disturbed grandchild, have focused on all those eggshells. Not the obvious metaphor made literal, much as I enjoy that, but the literal eggshells: Are they hard-boiled for strength? Are they uncooked? Are they blown and empties of their yolk and white? And if they were all blown out, hundreds of them, by whom? My cheeks get tired after blowing out two or three eggs at Easter-time. Lately I have heard there are devices that will blow out an egg for you, but I have never actually seen or used one.
Straight ahead is the desk cum bookcase that was made by Italian craftsmen in Egypt for Bonne Maman and Bon Papa. According to Mom, several of the pieces in her Little Red House were made in Cairo by Italian craftsmen, the very finest. This may well be true. In the mid 1950’s all that furniture traveled across the ocean in a huge wooden furniture crate that would be turned into our playhouse, and the scene of sunny afternoon re-enactments of family weirdness and power plays.
The desk cum bookcase would end up in Bonne Maman’s ‘sewing room’ in her house on South Pleasant Street. One entire shelf would be filled with the eleven volumes of Journeys Through Bookland. Between the red leather covers of Volume IV, I first read “The Dog of Flanders” and blubbered uncontrollably. In other volumes I read Robert Louis Stephenson, Aesop’s fables, and countless lesser lights of children’s literature. Now on the shelves are multiple translations of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. One can never tire of the Metamorphosis. Change, hubris, retribution and redemption never get old.
Flanking the desk cum bookcase are two rocking chairs. The left flanking rocker is from CSB’s house in Bedford, a lovely Empire style mahogany rocker upholstered in striped silk. The Branch’s - someone among the Branch’s - had great taste in fabric. They still do.
I did not ‘know’ that the rocker in question was Empire in style. In the past, by which I mean pre-Alzheimer’s, I could simply have called on my mother and described the chair and she would have said: Empire style, and then given me a brief disquisition on Empire, how it related to Napoleon and how he had used bees as his imperial symbol because he believed it connected him to the ancient kings of France, because a stash of gold bees was discovered in the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric. But my mother no longer knows a Windsor chair from a Chippendale and so I have to resort to The Field Guide to American Antique Furniture. The stuff about Napoleon I already knew, though I may have made up the Childeric details.
The right flanking rocker is for a child; it was assembled and stenciled by Granny for her first grandchild. Like the red painted toy chest that Granny painted and stenciled for Reine 38 years ago. First grandchildren tend to be spoiled and given gifts they are far too young to appreciate, by their eager grandparents. I write from experience in three subsequent generations. My attic is full of examples.
On the marble mantel (Tuckahoe quarry, acquired in bulk for the whole house in 1849) is a photograph of Bonne Maman, at the site of excavations in the Valley of the Kings, clutching in each arm a large 4000-year-old terracotta vase. So I was always told, and I still believe it. Though certain questions creep in, such as: wasn’t it a bit nerve-wracking to carry something quite so old and quite so precious? Whose idea was it anyway? Why is she standing so close to a deep pit? One of the stories from my grandparents’ days in Egypt was about the director of the Cairo museum who carried a flame for my grandmother. That part made perfect sense. Anyone in his right mind would adore my grandmother. The story is that when the museum was reorganizing their collections, he wanted to give Bonne Maman a genuine eleventh dynasty mummy of child. Hence not so very large and cumbersome. She refused, graciously, having no interest in owning the dead embalmed body of a child, no matter how old or ornate. It need not be said that I regret her refusal.
Also on the mantel are two white porcelain figurines from China that CSB inherited from his mother, who spent her childhood in Shanghai. They represent laughing old men with long beards, and each one is missing a hand. I have always wondered why, and bemoaned, that in the dispersal of family treasures from China, poor CSB ended up with the amputated statues.
Back in our own room, I will miss Morgan, the sad and worn out stuffed basset hound who was the dog of our youth. He spent the last 40 years exiled to the third floor at the Orchard, and when the time came, I could not allow him to be exiled to the dumpster. So here he is in Reine’s room, which is really just an extra guest room since Reine’s real life is in the wilds of Brooklyn. I have deferred, delegated, ceded ultimate responsibility for Morgan. Someone else will have to commit Morgan to the dumpster, at some later date.
Then there is the Nyquil. When I have a bad cold, something involving the mellifluous ENT triad, something involving the less mellifluous mucus, I have to, I must, I am allowed to take Nyquil in order to sleep through the night. And sleep I do. But before sleeping I am overtaken by Lethe and her warm embrace, and before I am released by sleep I have dreams that, if they are not soothing, are compelling. Although yesterday I dreamed again that Bonne Maman was alive and we were on the deck of a large ship and she was telling me the names of the islands in the distance, in different languages, Arabic and Flemish, then also Coptic and Heliopolish and Dalatian. The more languages she told me, the more we laughed. Then a handsome man came to tell us very sad news about a broken propeller, but it took us a while to control our breathing enough to stop laughing.
Good night Nyquil. Good night Empire rocker. Good night stenciled toy chest. Goodnight Paris in a pony cart. Goodnight box of tissues. Good night poor sad Othello. Goodnight casement windows. Good night handless laughing Chinamen. Good night Bonne Maman clutching ancient funerary urns. Goodnight clanking radiator. Goodnight Sor Juana Inez. Goodnight lonely nights.
*Seriously. See The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel.