Friday, December 9, 2016

Going Away

I’ve heard that there are people who buy a ticket, throw clean underwear in a suitcase, grab their passport and cellphone charger, lock the door, and head out to distant lands.
That sounds amazing.

Before leaving for Vietnam and Cambodia we did what I thought was everything we could do to obviate any domestic crises in our absence. (It’s true I could not guarantee Bruno would not die, but he was in fine fettle for one so ancient, and the vet is on speed dial.)

We suspended the newspapers, engaged our chicken sitters, and dog sitters; we bottled honey for the Whitney museum; we made lots of lists; we mixed the paint for the dining room ceiling and floor; I made schedules for my mother’s caregivers for the next month and prepared a three-ring binder with encyclopedic information regarding my mother and her needs. (My mother has since hidden that three-ring binder; hiding things remains something she does remarkably well.)We double checked my mother's furnace. I paid my outstanding parking tickets, and returned my overdue library books. I harvested all the butternut squash and made pesto with the nasturtium leaves. We completed and sent in our absentee ballots.
That was not enough.

Then we flew to Vietnam. After 15 hours we alit at the airport in Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) where there are multitudes of stuffed pandas being sold, and only pandas. Then on to Hanoi.

I don’t know exactly what I imagined we would find in Hanoi: infinite variations on Ho Chi Minh’s beard? French-speaking Communists?
Not at all. For starters, we loved Hanoi. Or decided to love it once we learned how to cross the street. Never in my life have I seen so many motorbikes carrying so many people and animals and large articles unfit for transport by motorbike. We loved Ho Chi Minh’s collection of used cars.
I probably cannot say enough good things about Vietnam: the people, the food, the landscape, the food, and yes, the food.
And all was going well.We visited Halong Bay; we did not swim in the South China sea off Danang because of all the tiny jellyfish washing ashore. In the Hotel Saigon Morin, in Hue, the ancient capital, I saw a picture of Bon Papa, my grandfather, sitting in the lobby in 1939 smoking a cigar. I never knew him to smoke cigars. The next day was Tuesday November 8th in Vietnam, but still Monday the 7th in the USA. It stopped raining, so Hillary joined us in visiting the the tomb of Tự Đứ. Tu Duc was a 19th century Nguyen emperor who, even with 100 wives, never managed to beget himself a son. For all the usual dysfunctional dynastic reasons, Tu Duc actually took up residence in his tomb complex while still alive. And he is buried somewhere else; no one knows where. All the workers who buried the king were beheaded to keep them from revealing the secret. Still, it is called his tomb. There is a lesson here.
The next day was Wednesday morning in Vietnam, and Tuesday afternoon in the USA, and as we took a bus from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, I was texting with my brother and sister about the election results. We were lighthearted. Texting from halfway across the world seemed remarkable of itself. Then something very creepy started to happen. After all those weeks of The New York Times telling us that Hillary’s chance of winning was somewhere in the 80th and 90th percentiles, Trump was now projected to win. I checked other websites because this just seemed too weird and disturbing. And the Wifi on the bus was spotty, so some websites were not loading very quickly, or at all; I fixated on the spinning colored ball, as if the intensity of my gaze could re-align the stars and fix this election.
You all know what happened.
By mid-morning a funeral silence had enveloped our bus, as if we’d been overtaken by volcanic ash.
By the time we arrived at Cần Thơ, known for its floating markets and Vietnam’s worst-ever engineering disaster, it was a ‘fact’ (yes, a bizarre word to use relation to a presidential campaign that had been fact-free, positively fact-allergic.) that Trump had won the electoral college and the world as we know it - the world as we hoped it might become – was no longer.
Drinking and lamentations ensued. I was overcome with shame.
In the days that followed, I felt compelled to apologize to every Vietnamese person we encountered. They had been so gracious, so forgiving, and this is what the Americans just perpetrated on the planet. Almost universally, the Vietnamese had more important things to do than worry about the emergence of Trumpistan: growing rice, raising silkworms, tuning up all-purpose motorbikes, reforesting the mountains, saving the depleted fisheries and making pho.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Wasabi and Alzheimer's: Do not mix

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

My kitchen was transmogrified into its alternative existence as a honey production workshop, an arrangement that includes an electric extractor and dozens of large plastic buckets filled with honey or about to be filled with honey, a large red bin into which CSB was carefully shaving off the capping wax of the supers, piles of honey supers waiting to be processed, and bees, hobos who came along with their honey. That was the state of my kitchen, and I had all sorts of people to feed: Iggy, my precocious demonic 5-year-old grandson, my mother with Alzheimer’s, my sister, her number one son and his girlfriend who is gluten free.
What would you do?
You would take them to Sushi Mike’s.
Sushi Mike’s is close by and open on Sundays.
Iggy loves sushi and miso soup.
Mom, although she may not recall, used to love sushi and ate it regularly.
Everyone else likes sushi, except CSB who would not eat raw fish if you held a gun to his head. But he was not planning to join us because of the aforementioned honey extracting. In fact, he was looking forward to our absence.
So off we went. Mom was suddenly adamant that she had never eaten Japanese food before, even though I said she used to love it. She said I was probably confusing her with my father when he was in Japan winning the war. I didn’t argue. She thought the chopsticks in their paper wrappers were someone else’s debris. I asked for forks.
I ordered for her and Iggy (miso, California rolls, salmon for Iggy, nothing too strange), and my sister and her son’s girlfriend parsed the gluten free options on the menu. My nephew described a recent birthday party to his grandmother. Mom told him about going to the dentist early in the week and how delightful it was not to have a certain hole in her mouth anymore.
We talked some politics. Iggy explained our plan to balance a Hillary sign inside the antlers of our animatronic illuminated reindeer, named Otto. My mother cannot recall his name, so she refers to Trump as His Highness with the Orange Hair and accompanies it with a hand gesture delineating his cantilevered do.
Iggy ordered a second bowl of miso.
Then my mother looked miserable. Pained. She said her mouth was burning up. “Was it that stuff?” she said, pointing to the spot on her platter where there had previously been a sizable dollop of wasabi.
“You mean the wasabi?”
“I don’t know what wasabi is,” she said.
“It’s a strong green condiment made from a root, like horseradish,” I said. “It’s great for clearing up a stuffy nose.”
My mother said, “Nothing’s wrong with my nose. But…” She drank more water, and I gave her white rice. She had eaten, straight, all that wasabi. More wasabi than even Iggy eats in a month.
She wasn’t feeling any better. I took her home and gave her milk and some sugar. She was weeping and telling me how terrible her mouth felt and she didn’t know why. I explained about the wasabi, again. I tried to be calm, but it did seem that I might have killed my mother, or done irreparable damage to her mouth or her throat or whatever else in there was suffering.
That night I looked up wasabi to see if any deaths had been attributed to it. (None, but that doesn’t mean anything. Only that they are not on the web.) I learned that wasabi is not really a root, but the stem of the plant Wasabia japonica. Its isothiocyanate levels are what make it so pungent.
I did not sleep well that night. I imagined how badly my mother must be sleeping, if she even was. How would I tell my brothers that this green paste had felled my mother, while I was theoretically right there keeping an eye on her? Yes, I was grateful my sister had been there as well, so I could share the blame with her. But I was the elder, and I felt responsible.
The next morning, my mother told me how much she’d enjoyed dinner with my sister and ‘those two nice young people’. She told me that they had taken her to a restaurant with fish swimming in the walls. (There was an aquarium. Absolutely.) She wanted to know where I had been.
“How do you feel this morning?” I asked.
She said she felt fine, and no, she could not remember what she had eaten last night. It had been good though.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Writing Letters for Hillary

Are we more likely to read a handwritten than a printed letter? And if we read it, will it affect our opinions? That is, at least in part, the presumption of the Durham Letter writing campaign.
So I signed on to write 20 handwritten letters to registered women Democrats in Durham, NC, because North Carolina is a swing state and hence important for Hillary to win if we are not to become the Dystopia of Trumpistan.
In the past I have not been a political activist, unless you count lawn signs. But this project appealed to me because it could be done in a room, alone. It could be done wearing pajamas. It could be done at dawn or dusk while listening to opera, preferably Nabucco. Like green eggs and ham, it could be done in a box or with a fox. One reason I am a writer is that a prefer sitting alone with a blank sheet of paper while chewing my toenails to almost any form of human interaction. I would prefer surgery sans anesthesia to knocking on doors and speaking to strangers. So you can imagine my delight with the Durham Letter Project, the Power of the Pen.
I sat down at my desk with my favorite fountain pen and a pile of stamps. I had figured this was a good opportunity to use the enormous stash of commemorative stamps my mother amassed at the Orchard. That is what happens if you buy several sheets of every commemorative stamp issued by the US post office, and more than several if they feature architectural themes. In the Orchard basement, in her office closet, and in her desk, we found these stamps in drawers, boxes and folders. I calculated one pile to be worth over $248, but then I realized that unless they are used as postage, they really are worth nothing at all, because no one collects stamps anyone. I have 22¢ stamps of American mammals, the bobcat and the Black-footed Ferret; 25¢ stamps of Carousel animals, unicorns, reindeer and camels; 25¢ stamps honoring Polar explorers with ruddy cheeks against a deep teal background; 18¢ stamps featuring Edna St Vincent Millay looking poetic in an oval frame; 20¢ stamps of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, the first synagogue in America and a must-see for architectural historians; 22¢ Folk Art stamps, celebrating the decoy with a Broadbill duck; 32¢ stamps honoring the Centennial Olympic Games with a drawing of a muscle bound naked discus hurler; 33¢ series of Insects & Spiders – who would not love a Spinybacked Spider or the Eastern Hercules beetle?; and the 15¢ Architecture series, picturing A.J. Davis’s Lyndhurst, just down the road, and Furness’s Penn Academy in Philadelphia. I could go on, but it gets tedious to keep having to hit the option key and the $/4 key in order to get to the ¢ cents sign. These stamps are so antiquated that they require actually licking, as in with an actual tongue and I have lost the inclination to lick glue with my actual tongue. But to entertain the recipients of my letters, and to elect Hillary, I will do it. I will do the math required to come up with combinations of 15, 18, 20, 22, 25 and 32 to achieve the required 47¢ for a first class letter. And I will consider whether the recipient would be more likely to appreciate architecture, natural history, poetry or sports. I will lick the stamps.
Then I started writing. The Durham Letter Project has sent us sample letters to use as templates. But they are all rather long and not especially amusing, and I have arthritic fingers, a weak wrist and a short attention span. So I constructed a shorter letter, which was still 5 paragraphs long; I had ample time, while writing those letters to the ladies of Durham, to consider my penmanship, and wonder what Sister Mary-Give-Us-Mercy would think of the evolution of what used to be my classic parochial school script, also known as the Palmer method. You could always identify someone who had gone to a Catholic school by their penmanship; there was something uniquely Catholic-school about it, a marker, like the APOE-e4 gene marker for Alzheimer’s. And that is why, after finally being sprung from St Christina the Astonishing’s School for Scrawny Girls, I did my utmost to alter my handwriting, in order to disguise my ignominious past. I like to think I have succeeded, while still retaining legibility.

Soon, such considerations and indicators will be a moot point, since many students are no longer taught to write in script. Soon, graphology will go the way of philately. [Insert de rigueur lamentations here.]
As I enumerated several good reasons to vote for Hillary (health care, reproductive rights, foreign policy. Plus, she is sane.) my mind wandered, as it must, from the quasi-barbaric pedagogic techniques of Sister Mary-Give-Us-Mercy, to the monkish scribes of the middle ages, spending their lives in scriptoria copying holy works by candle light. (By beeswax candles, made by virgin bees.) What happened when their fingers started twisting and gnarling like winter twigs? How did they keep their minds from wandering as they wrote the same martyrologies every day, the same virgins devoured by lions, the same saints roasted alive on spits? Aside from their fingers, what body part troubled them most? Saint Ferreol of Uzes, a sixth century bishop who was banished from his post for being too friendly with the Jews, wrote in the rule book for his abbey: “He who does not turn up the earth with the plough ought to write the parchment with his fingers.” And furthermore: “He who does not know how to write imagines it to be no labor, but although those fingers only hold the pen, the whole body grows weary.” He knew what he was talking about.
All I know about these women I am writing to is this: their names and ages. I want to glean some clue from their names, something to help me connect personally. Could Meisha-Gaye have an adventurous spirit that would appreciate Richard Byrd flying over Antarctica? Gail Ysraelle is a good name for a poet; was that her mother’s intention, 21 years ago? Would it be appropriate for me to say something friendly about their names? Would Minerva like to know that my latest granddaughter is likewise named Minerva, and that she is sometimes called Minxie, or Merv? Would Marquetta Leticia be interested in my trip 30 years ago to Leticia, Colombia, a small insanely humid town on the Amazon, where Colombia has a tiny finger of land stretching down to give it a sliver of riverfront? Would Bronwen like to hear about my travels in Wales and especially visiting Welsh Holy Wells, of which there are myriad? Because I assume she is of Welsh extraction, or maybe her mother just liked Dylan Thomas. Would a Hairy Jumping spider stamp on a letter to an arachnophobe cost Hillary a vote?
And how should I identify myself? A female fellow Democrat. A mother and a grandmother? I did include those qualifiers, but now I am concerned. Will my grandmotherly status be off-putting to a young woman? I think of grandmothers as inherently benign, but maybe that is not universal. Some grandmothers are witches, surely.
Word choices plague me. When I first used the expression “fear-mongering” to describe Trump, I considered it an accurate and useful term. After after ten iterations I began to doubt this: was it fear-mongering on my part to refer to Trump’s fear-mongering and bigotry? Was I engaging in the very activity I deplored? What about the expression: Get out and vote? Does that sound bossy, and even a little patronizing? Or is the whole project bossy and patronizing? How would I feel about getting a letter from an actual human being who knew my name, age and political affiliation? Or are my letter recipients – like too many of us – indifferent to the Big Brother apparatus that knows our shopping habits, our appetites and how often we clean our toenails? What word choices can make my letter seem less intrusive than the Google algorithm that produces pop-up ads eerily reflective of the book I just read, or the pink teddy I just eyed on the Victoria’s Secret website?
As I wrote for the thirteenth time, “Hello my name is Christine…” I considered the classic schoolroom punishment, of being sent to the black board to write 20 or 200 times, “I will not call the teacher fear-mongering ever again” or “Thou shalt not cheat on a math quiz”. The worst part of said punishment is not the sore arm you get or the chalk dust you inhale, it is the idiocy that takes over: by the tenth time you write them, every noun and verb can be twisted. By the 20th time, even the prepositions reveal themselves as multi-faceted.
The temptation to make small changes, to insert parenthetical jokes, even to use Queen Victoria’s creative punctuation can be overwhelming.
Blessed it is that, unlike the Irish monks of the 9th century, the communal memory of western civilization does not depend on the accuracy of my transcription.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A life in days and weeks

In the annals of transgressive behavior, this task feels surpassingly noteworthy. I have been designated to skim through more than fifty years of my mother’s daily calendars. No, not designated. I volunteered, but only because my brothers would have simply thrown them away, and my sister needed a break, after having repeatedly risked Hanta virus and finding new homes for lace bonnets, a 19th century sleigh, an antique organ and bark paintings from Guam. And silk and kidskin gloves, so many gloves. I volunteered, also, because I didn’t trust any of the others to detect what I believed I could detect.
The old house is almost empty now, almost ready to be handed over to another family, a family we don’t know and can only imagine. (The young mother has grown prize-winning pumpkins. This reassures me.) The 437 framed paintings, drawings and photographs have been distributed to offspring, given away to friends, and tossed into dumpsters. The silver and china have been parceled out to grandchildren as yet unaware of their need for such things. New homes have been found for the furniture, most of it. More than a hundred boxes of books were given to the local library, in small increments, because they limit the number of donations they will accept each day. In the barn the bullpen has been emptied of 80 years of business records. The pigeoncote no longer houses decades of office machinery: adding machines, typewriters, devices to measure the humidity content in cotton samples. Thirteen steamer trunks have been donated to local stage companies, along with dozens of hats in hat boxes, wigs, gloves, 1950’s cocktail dresses, and mod fashions of the sixties. In the time of our family, five residents of the house have died, but not a single thing they ever owned was ever discarded. Not until now. We found but did not entirely read every school paper written by my father and his brother, dating back to their less than stellar performance at Brush Hill Academy. We’ve kept the wartime correspondence, scanned it and made digital files. We are all of us traumatized by the amount of stuff. I have the antique ink blotter collection and a mission to find an ink blotter collector who will want them.* Of the five complete punch bowl sets, I gave two away as wedding presents, to young couples who are sophisticated foodies and actually think punch bowls are a good idea. We still don’t know what to do with the trunk filled with antique lace, so my sister will store it.
By tomorrow the only thing left in the house will be the model of a two-masted schooner, fully rigged, built by our grandmother’s shipbuilding ancestors in Normandy. Next week it will travel to its new home in my brother’s landlocked farm in New Hampshire.
Photo by BMLK.

Every year my mother used the same appointment book, a standard weekly calendar, Monday through Wednesday on the verso, Thursday through Sunday on the recto. It had a brown plastic cover on which was embossed: Season’s Greetings from your friends at Leigh Textile. Dozens of these were annually presented to customers and business associates, and my mother. She disliked the plain brown cover and so each year she neatly recovered her book with decorative wrapping paper, paper featuring the designs of William Morris, oriental carpets, Islamic tiles, Rococo fabric, Pompeian frescoes, more William Morris, Toile de Jouy, kimono patterns and so on. In 50 years she never repeated.
And then she kept them, year after year. As I read I see the pattern of her life: dentist and doctor appointments, times five; school meetings, times five; cello lessons; board meetings; lectures delivered and attended; textile manufacturers conventions attended; ski trips and Caribbean trips, travels to Europe and Asia and South America; endless dinner parties for family, friends and foreign visitors. (The guest lists and menus are included.) The house hosted a cataract of foreign visitors, business associates and friends from the cotton-growing swath of the planet: India, Pakistan, Egypt, El Salvador; as well as the cotton-processing swath: Germany, France, Belgium, England, Japan. In the early decades, at the end of each year’s book I discovered a single page accounting which elderly family members were hosted at what holidays. I suspect that this was intended to document what my mother perceived as a certain in-law inequity; while her husband and his brother were equal partners in the business, my mother did 100% of the business entertaining, and 90% of the elderly relative entertaining.
As the years progress, there are no longer medical appointments for her children, but many more for herself and her mother. There are annual visits from her furrier. There are biweekly appointments with Giovanni, her hairdresser. There are weddings and graduations, and christenings. There are meetings of the Society of Architectural Historians. There are meetings with historical commissions all over New England. At the end of each year is a list of friends and associates who died in the past 12 months. Often copies of the obituaries are included.
There are, written in plain ink, evidence of disputed facts. For years my mother has asserted that she put her mother in a nursing home a scant one or two years before her death. We used to contradict her and were glared down; now we no longer correct anything she says. Even though it is right there in my mother’s 1991 book: six years before Bonne Maman’s death they moved her to the nursing home. Reading this was a bit of a revelation, but it has already been for quite a while that my mother has recreated history to suit her intention of the moment.
In one of the books from the early years of this century, there is a list at the back of “Favorite sayings of Philip”: He’s a scholar and a gentleman. It won’t be good for breakfast. Life in the tropics.
Any personal notes are few. One year, I found, written in Sharpie next to the flight information for a Belgian relative, “Finally.” On another occasion, after the entry for a dinner party including an aged maiden aunt ad a certain elderly rector she wrote: “Never again.” But such notes stand out because of their rarity.
What made me consider this perusal as transgressive behavior? This is nothing. We’ve found much weirder things in the Orchard. The calendars we have here are ordinary, banal. They are the life of a lady of a certain era. And yet they are peculiarly my mother’s.

The most interesting parts are what is missing. In each years’ books there are carefully scissored out sections, sometimes the top third, something the top fourth of a page. Never ripped, always scissored. These are the black holes, the places with the gravitational pull to absorb all that surrounds it. The scissored out bits are the event horizon from which there is no escape.

*If anyone reading this knows of an ink blotter collector, please oh please let me know.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Happy Birthday Maman

Today is my mother’s birthday, and as with so many things, her attitude toward her birthday is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago. Back then, back when she was the mother I knew, she hated drawing attention to her birthday and adamantly told her children that she didn’t want any gifts. She is not that person any more. She craves the small attentions.
Two days ago she could not recall the name of the son with whom she had just spend three days. Of course, she insisted she was very tired; I assured her that travel was exhausting and told her his name. I try to imagine what a tenebrous chaos must be engulfing her brain, such that she could forget the name of a beloved child. I try to imagine how it will be when I forget every detail of my children’s histories except for the face in front of me, but I cannot. Not yet.

So I am spending some time today recalling the mother who wrote this letter, in 1999. The mother who, as a foreigner and naturalized citizen, knew more about American vernacular architecture than any American I’ve ever met; the mother who never missed an opportunity to correct the spelling of Olmsted’s name; the mother for whom proper fenestration was a religious conviction; the mother who never once graced a Historic House Tour* without - politely, but firmly - correcting some historically incorrect label or pointing out an unfortunate solecism. That mother delighted in and could recount the life stories of Palladio, Christopher Wren and Inigo Jones. That mother chided her own mother when, in the early stages of her own Alzheimer’s, she repeated her stories. ** . That mother taught her first granddaughter the meaning of fenestration before she entered kindergarten.

So here she is, in all her glory.

(Just click on the letter to enlarge it.)
If you read the above letter carefully, you will note typos of its own. Also, it is unfinished and unsigned. In fact, we don't even know if it was ever sent. But we assume that this was the draft for her files, and the final copy was sent out, flawless.

*As her frequent companion on these house tours, in various states and countries, I followed in her wake, simmering with trepidation. She was always correct, but not always tactful.

**Only sea snakes, scorpions, Boy #1, and tiger whiskers. No fenestration. Possible defenestration.

Happy Birthday Maman

Today is my mother’s birthday, and as with so many things, her attitude toward her birthday is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago. Back then, back when she was the mother I knew, she hated drawing attention to her birthday and adamantly told her children that she didn’t want any gifts. She is not that person any more. She craves the small attentions.
Two days ago she could not recall the name of the son with whom she had just spend three days. Of course, she insisted she was very tired; I assured her that travel was exhausting and told her his name. I try to imagine what a tenebrous chaos must be engulfing her brain, such that she could forget the name of a beloved child. I try to imagine how it will be when I forget every detail of my children’s histories except for the face in front of me, but I cannot. Not yet.

So I am spending some time today recalling the mother who wrote this letter, in 1999. The mother who, as a foreigner and naturalized citizen, knew more about American vernacular architecture than any American I’ve ever met; the mother who never missed an opportunity to correct the spelling of Olmsted’s name; the mother for whom proper fenestration was a religious conviction; the mother who never once graced a Historic House Tour* without - politely, but firmly - correcting some historically incorrect label or pointing out an unfortunate solecism. That mother delighted in and could recount the life stories of Palladio, Christopher Wren and Inigo Jones. That mother chided her own mother when, in the early stages of her own Alzheimer’s, she repeated her stories. ** . That mother taught her first granddaughter the meaning of fenestration before she entered kindergarten.

So here she is, in all her glory.

If you read the above letter carefully, you will note typos of its own. Also, it is unfinished and unsigned. In fact, we don't even know if it was ever sent. But we assume that this was the draft for her files, and the final copy was sent out, flawless.

*As her frequent companion on these house tours, in various states and countries, I followed in her wake, simmering with trepidation. She was always correct, but not always tactful.

**Only sea snakes, scorpions, Boy #1, and tiger whiskers. No fenestration. Possible defenestration.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Another Nothing-in-Common Road Trip.

Once again we got in the car and headed south, and then west. This time it was mostly west to Kansas, specifically to Lawrence, Kansas, a delightful college town replete with excellent diners, Prairie and Craftsman architecture, and transplanted Easterners.
Historians know that Lawrence was settled in 1854 by the New England Emigrant Aid Company, originally 29 men intent on promoting the abolition of slavery and ensuring that Kansas would enter the Union as a Free State. All did not go smoothly. On August 18, 1863, a certain William Quantrill led a group of pro-slavery Missourians (Bushwhackers) against the anti-slavery residents of Lawrence (Jayhawkers) and slaughtered everyone they could find. At the end of the day there were 85 widows and 250 fatherless children. These days you can take a self-guided driving tour of Quantrill’s Raid. It takes about one and a half hours.

But I get ahead of myself. We meandered our way to Kansas, stopping to bathe in mineral springs in West Virginia, lunch in Harmony and unsuccessfully seek Economy, Pennsylvania.

One thing that strikes the insular New Yorker in the course of visiting other states is the prevalence of signs prohibiting guns. These signs are necessary because, so I learned, guns are otherwise legal and carried everywhere. Absent such a sign, you can assume that the diners at the next table in Indiana, or the passengers on a Mississippi river boat, or the lady in the stall next to you in the rest room, are all carrying concealed weapons.

Here is the home of James Thurber, beloved humorist and creator of Walter Mitty.

And here is the home of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, even at Lincoln’s home it is necessary to tell gun-toters to leave their weapons at home.

And here is the Dana Thompson House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in Springfield, Illinois.

This sign is outside the wonderful Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

You get the idea.

We drove straight home Sunday and Monday,with no more stops at historical sites or museums (Well, yes there was one. We visited the Kent State University Memorial in Ohio.)and the one story on the radio, on every radio station from Kansas to New York,was the shocking massacre of 49 people in Orlando, Florida by a man who was allowed to legally to buy automatic weapons that have no other function than to slaughter people, lots of people.

Friday, May 27, 2016

I walk downtown to the jewelers to get the clasp fixed on a bracelet that Mom gave me years ago. I worry about our jewelers because they are not young, and when they no longer are downtown I have no idea who will fix my watch or find my necklace a clasp that is friendlier to my arthritic fingers, or make my wedding ring, though thankfully I don’t anticipate ever needing another one. I don’t know how old they there, but I know that when Darius retired – he was a professor of chemical engineering – he realized that retirement was a bad idea, so he apprenticed to a jeweler and jewelry-repairer and learned the trade. Since then, at least 20 years ago, he and his wife Fenu, have kept their weird and lovely shop in Hastings. It is filled with estate jewelry and odd bits of porcelain, crystal and silver, and has always been filled with those same dusty pieces. I don’t think anyone ever buys anything in the shop. We go there for repairs, lengthy repairs and conversations. Darius and Fenu are both from Bombay, when it was still Bombay. They are Parsees, or Zoroastrians – fire worshippers - which may perhaps be the most ancient religion in the world.

In the back of the store, Fenu sits behind her desk, piled with papers, pads and the cashbox. Beside her, just about four feet away, is Darius’ work table where he repairs. It is covered with the tools of his trade. On the wall above him are four clocks, but only one has ever told the correct time. I tell them I have come for my bracelet, and this means that Darius pulls from under his table a large cardboard box filled with items repaired or to-be-repaired, each in a separate plastic bag. He looks through everything in the box, and whatever I have come for is always the last one he examines. We are in no rush. The bracelet still needs to have its clasp fixed.

I mention that I saw this wonderful movie about an Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and Darius says that for some reason there have been many great Indian mathematicians. He tells me about a student back in Bombay who had no shoes but was uncannily brilliant. Meanwhile, WQXR is on the radio, as it always is in their small shop, and now they are playing the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco. I am pleased because it is one of the few pieces of music that I can actually identify. Darius says to me, “Do you know how the Jewish people ever recovered from the war? I always ask my friends that, because it was such a terrible thing to recover from. Are you Jewish?” I say I am not, and then I think, what if I say Yes? I could be Jewish. Ever since Reine tested positive for the Tay-Sachs gene, I have assumed that there is some Jewish strain in there. Theoretically, the recessive gene could come from her father’s family, the Über-Waspy-Hewitts, as shocked as some of them would be to discovered such a thing; but honestly I prefer that it comes from the Euro-mélange that is my side of the family.

Meanwhile, we all concur that Nabucco is a beautiful opera, one of Verdi’s finest.
While he is welding a tiny lobster clasp to the bracelet, Darius recalls in incident when he was doing his BSc at the university in Bombay. There was a chemistry conference that brought in scientists from all over the world, including Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband. Darius was an undergrad then, and his department head asked him to walk Madame Joliet-Curie back to her hotel so that she could freshen up for the evening’s events. Of course he did. He escorted her to the hotel and watched her go up the elevator; her hair was wild, and her clothing rumpled. When she emerged from the elevator a while later, she looked exactly the same: wild hair, rumpled clothes. Of course he said nothing to the eminent Nobelist, but it caused him to ponder the idiosyncratic nature of genius. As he tells me this, Darius is almost weeping with quiet laughter. Fenu, his wife, is also laughing, though I assume she has heard this story dozens of times. From the Panasonic transistor radio, the exiled Hebrew slaves were singing,
Golden harp of the prophetic wise men,
why hang so silently from the willows?
Rekindle the memories in our hearts,
tell us about the times gone by!
Remembering the fate of Jerusalem
play us a sad lament
or else be inspired by the Lord
to fortify us to endure our suffering!

Apparently Irene Joliot-Curie was not the only eccentric member of the family. Darius relates an incident when Frédéric Joliot-Curie was lecturing and writing formulas on the blackboard with one, and erasing previously written formulas with the other. In the audience was another scientist, a Finn and a fellow Nobel prize winner. Seeing his colleague’s dilemma, he jumped up, grabbed the eraser and said that he would hereafter erase the board for Professor Joliot-Curie, whenever needed. Again, Fenu laughs heartily as if for the first time.
Darius has fixed my bracelet, and it is time to go. “Thank you for the story about the Curies,” I say.
“They were two stories,” he corrects me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

All the S.W.A.G. You can Forget

What person in her right mind takes her mother to the Second Annual Hudson Valley Dementia Conference?
What is wrong with the above sentence? How many things are wrong with the above sentence?

And yes, I was the one who thought it was a good idea. After all, there was a special reduced rate for “Persons with Dementia”.
I actually thought my mother might glean something from the lectures, and might find comfort in the company of other likewise impaired persons. I had not figured on the ubiquity of SWAG.*

The conference got off to a slow start because of an accident on the Tappan Zee Bridge. An enormous tractor-trailer full of scrap metal tipped over and blocked several lanes; the entire bridge was closed for four hours, trapping speakers and attendees on the western shores of the Hudson. But remarkably, this did not make the evening news: Dozens of Dementia Professionals Stranded on the Wrong Side of the River.

Meanwhile, Mom and I were walking the halls of the DoubleTree at a pre-climate-change-glacial speed, stopping at every exhibitor table to admire and collect the pens, hand cleaners and pill boxes. My sister, back at the Orchard in her ongoing project to empty the house, texted to inform me that my mother had apparently kept every hospital bracelet of hers and my father’s, in a box in the top drawer of a bureau. And there were a lot of hospital visits in Dad’s final years.

At one table Mom was quasi-ecstatic to receive a Memory Boost package of tea bags and two purple ballpoint pens, purple being the signature color of Alzheimer’s. I have no idea idea why.

My sister texted a photograph of a pile of small crucifixes. A week ago she believed she had found all the crucifixes, rosaries, holy cards and religious bric-a-brac, and delivered them to her favorite monk at Glastonbury Abbey. So she was rather perturbed to realize that there were several more crucifixes and holy medals still lurking in the house. Perturbed on many levels. Obviously, there is the question of why there had to be so many crosses and stuff, even if you take into account the fact of nothing ever having been thrown away in all the years my grandparents, great-aunt, parents and other grandmother lived in the house. There still remains the question: just how religious were they? I didn’t think of my parents as religious; I would have said they were more pro-forma than anything else. So why the plethora of paraphernalia?

At the exhibit table for the Jewish Home for the Aged, Mom examines and then collects several brochures; she tells the lady sitting there that she is not taking this for herself, no, she taking this for her friend.

It is, of course, too late now to learn the whys and wherefores of our ancestors' religiosity; those that remain with wits are only my heathen generation and the youngsters.

Just in case you are wondering, or considering joining us for the Third Annual Dementia Conference, here is a partial list of the swag collected by my mother:
2 Collapsible water bottle (Somers Manor)
Multicolored 7-day pill box (Marquis Home Care)
3 Squeeze balls (Osborn Rehab)
8 hand sanitizers (Crystal Run Health; Somers Manor; First Light Home Care; Hamaspik Choice)
Magnifying glass w/Light (Somers Manor)
2 Silicone pedometer bracelets (Jewish Home Family)
Red plastic case with band aids (Putnam Ridge
Pill cutter (Osborn Home Care)
Stain remover (Centers Health Care)
First aid kit in green plastic (Jewish Home at Home)
Memory boast pack of tea bags (Home Instead Senior Care)
Gum (Centers Home care)
Lens cleaner (Hamaspik Choice)
Emery board (Interim Healthcare)
2 Lip balm (crystal Run Health)
Post it Pads (Centers Health Care; Hamaspik Choice; Life House; Interim Healthcare; Atria; United Hebrew)
Spiral notebook and pen (Willow Gardens)
11 Ballpoint pens (Alzheimer’s Association; VNA; United Hebrew; Home Instead Senior Care; Interim; Hamaspik choice)
2 Long shaped purple pencils (Bristal Assisted Living)
Neon green card holder to stick onto cell phone (Marquis Home Care)
Several carry bags (Somers Manor, Alzheimer’s Association)

*SWAG. An Acronym for Stuff We All Get. I thought that was the only thing it was an acronym for. I was very very wrong. There are so many others, including: Secretly We're All Gay, and Scientific Wild Ass Guess.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A day off. Oh Happy Days.

Because sometimes it is important to sneak away from the Land of Lost Memory and Poison Ivy, the other day I went to New Haven. An obvious choice. The original plan was to meet my friends, Becky and Wagon, and see Happy Days at Yale Rep, but then the plan expanded.
It turned out my niece, Eliza at the law school, had a few free minutes before plunging into the subtleties of Military Justice, so I was able meet her and then wander through the quad (Do they call it a quad there? Or a yard? Or a commons?) to evidence and high heels, while eating ice cream made from the milk of very happy grass fed Connecticut cows.
Actually, I had first suggested to Eliza that we meet at the Yale Art Museum and see the Dada exhibit, because I am fond of Dada, which frankly seems less absurd every time I see it. Or absurdity seems less farfetched. Saner. But once I arrived Eliza quickly switched our plan to ice cream and a walk (she has benefitted enormously from law school). We nodded in the direction of the New Haven Green, erstwhile home to an Occupy Wall Street encampment until a three-day old dead body was discovered in one of the tents.
Then Eliza went off to study Evidence and I ambled over to see Dada at the Yale Art Museum. And it was fine. I am still intrigued by Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. May Ray’s spectrographs used to amaze me. I would have liked more Beatrice Wood.
But it was two stories down, among the old European Masters, that I stopped moving. Side by side were two - two among the hundreds in the world - paintings of the Temptation of St Anthony. I have been fond of Brueghel since I stopped teething, so I first checked out Brueghel the Elder’s version. Then came David Teniers the Younger, and it magnificently encompasses so much of the appeal and mystery of hagiography. There we have St Anthony, the 3rd century Egyptian anchorite, holed up in his cave praying, and the Satan sends him temptations in myriad forms. Why? Do we really thinks Anthony will abandon his cozy cave for these satanic enticements?This scene has been a favorite of painters for centuries. Teniers painted at least five versions, that I could locate. The Temptation at Yale features: Bats and flying fish, a lady in a black gown and a lacy white shawl, trailing a soggy handkerchief in one hand and holding aloft a dry Martini in the other; dueling flying creatures: a fish with legs and a beaky fox; a devil with butterfly wings wielding a backscratcher; and an owl. The owl is particular. It is hard to tell for sure, but in the lower right corner I think that is a deformed or tailless chicken standing atop a water pitcher, preparing to defecate. That same possibly defecating chicken is also in the version currently hanging in Ponce, Puerto Rico. In St Petersburg, Dallas, and in Amsterdam, St Anthony is eternally resisting the temptations of a lady dressed in red and black robes; a skeletal bird in a hoodie playing a bugle; Satanic imps riding flying reptiles; an horned old lady; gnarled chimerical creatures tugging at his robes and spitting; a dog with a funnel hat playing a horn; a bibulous frog astride a robed antediluvian anteater-type creature; beaky rodents; a birdman wearing a funnel-hat riding a flying reptile, dueling with an ugly frog astride a flying fish; a crone with hyena legs; a Tasmanian devil; snakes; and a gnomish man with a felt hat, pointing to way to perdition. (It has been suggested that I stop now enumerating the temptations of poor Saint Anthony. I will try.)

I know. All of that and still we have not arrived at the main event. The museum closed at 5 and I had to leave my contemplation of St Anthony’s stalwart determination in the face of such blandishments. I crossed the street and met Becky and Wagon, and we went to dinner at yet another restaurant that boasts of its relationship with farmers and their farms.
Then to poor Winnie and Willie, in Happy Days. But Winnie doesn’t complain. Winnie is not even tempted. Winnie is buried up to her waist in an immoveable mound of dirt. She is not tempted. In her bag (nearby, just) she has a toothbrush, toothpaste, a magnifying glass, an umbrella, a gun, lipstick. If Winnie were not already so delighted with her situation, she might envy St Anthony in his cave, still unencumbered, still capable of free will. She might be tempted by mobility and by a desert serenity unmarked by the piercing bell for waking and sleeping. She might witness the flying reptilian devils, and think, “Flight! Freedom! Autonomy!”
Winnie has not been canonized. She will never be canonized.
You may find this helpful: when, upon examining a small moving creature through her magnifying glass, and upon hearing from Willie that the white stuff being transported by the small moving creature are “Eggs!”, Winnie exclaims, “Formication.”
Sitting in the audience, you may think you are hearing the word fornication; a word appearing not infrequently in general usage, a word whose definition we know well. But that is not the word Winnie speaks. I was pleased (smug, delighted) that I knew right away the word was formication, not because I knew exactly what formication meant (a sensation like insects crawling over the skin) but because I knew very well that the word in French for ants is fourmis, and in Latin it is formica (Not the laminate, invented in 1912, made of composite materials that is heat-resistant and wipe-clean, not the branded product.). And had not Winnie been just then peering through her glass at the ant?
All of which makes it abundantly clear why the noun, formication, is the only one that makes sense.
In the second act, Winnie is buried up to her neck in the mound. The set looks very much like a termite or ant hill in the tropics. Or the desert.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

On not throwing away all the old books. Yet.

Never let it be said that I don’t appreciate simplicity, uncluttered surfaces and broom-clean rooms. I like to tidy and purge as much as anyone. For months now my sister (mostly my sister) and I have been cleaning out the Orchard, the house where we grew up and where my father grew up. In 1922 my grandfather bought the Orchard: the house was big and lovely and old, but the barn was much bigger, and then there were also the lower barn and the ice house and the apple orchard, the fields and the woods. I don’t know how much stuff was in the barns or the house when he bought it; I have heard differing versions, that include the sleigh, the distillery, the cider press, and skeletons. I feel confident we will never know for sure. All we know is that after almost a century of no one ever throwing anything away - not when there was this wonderful vast barn to store it in - the place is full of stuff: all kinds of stuff, farm equipment, office supplies, furniture, paintings good and bad, steamer trunks empty and full, things broken and not, worthless stuff and stuff that could well be a treasure, for the right person.
And now my father is dead, and now my mother can no longer remember where the mahogany room is or how my father died, so she has moved here with me, and not one of her five children will move into the Orchard, and so now it must be sold.
Because at least four native born Francophones (both grandmothers: one French, 0ne Belgian, Tante Madeleine, my mother) have lived there over the years, and because at least six students of French (my father, all five of my siblings and me) have lived there over the years, there are lots and lots of French books in the house and in the barn. Because - have I mentioned? - nothing ever gets thrown away. There are many other books of all ilks, from architectural history to gnostic gospels to textile waste to H.G. Wells, but I decided that I would make the French books my mission. I decided that the books needed to be gathered, listed and donated to a good home. Would I have felt differently about these smelly paperbacks if we lived in a French-speaking country? Would I have felt differently if I did not regard one grandmother (Belgian) with adoration, and the other (French) with chronic bewilderment?
So I collected all the French books I could find, confident that I had not found them all, that new stashes would be revealed over time. (And so they have.) I brought them all back here and made an alphabetical list. There were hundreds. The titles were heavily weighted toward Camus and Sartre, mais oui, along with the other workhorses of high school: French, Moliere, Racine, Montherlant, Gide. Then there were the novels, Simenon and Vian and Duhamel and Gary, that someone read ‘for pleasure’. I purged the ones egregiously doodled and defaced by bored students. I neatly packed up the rest and started looking for a French school that would like them. You would be surprised how hard it is to give away books.
Some, though, I cannot bear to part with. They come with marginalia and inserts that bring memories, or beg questions. They are envoys from another century, from the cavernous barn, from all my dead family. From the hundreds of French books, I culled these ones that would not stop speaking to me, in their foreign tongue.

Now, the ziggurat of French books has stood on my desk for 3 months and 28 days. At 48 square inches, they take up 1/25th or 4% of the available space on my computer table. For three months they have inhabited that space, threatening to topple, and accomplished nothing. That is not entirely true: They smell of dust and attic mold and Tante Madeleine’s lavender cologne. They prevent me from filling that space with unanswered letters, drill bits from CSB’s pockets, tiny Lego pieces or Leda’s psychologically redolent drawings. They remind me of Mademoiselle Baumlin at least once a day.
I was a disappointment to Mlle Baumlin. That is what I recall. She was our French teacher at the Girls’ School. I should have been a stellar student, given that my mother and grandmother were Belgian and spoke French with me, and that I had attended a French kindergarten in Cairo and at the age of 4, so the story goes, my French was excellent and my English was accented. But I was not a stellar student. Even with such a head start, I was lazy about learning grammar. I was a daydreamer in any language.
Like so many of our teachers, Mlle Baumlin was a Miss, a Spinster, an Unmarried Lady of a Certain age: hers was a condition that we, her callous & entitled students, confidently believed we would never inhabit.
Yet Mademoiselle was a profound romantic. How often did she tell us of her sister’s broken heart? As often as was necessary to counter our skepticism. It was early in 1941, and Mlle’s sister, Roxane, was engaged to a young French soldier named Pierre. One day Roxane received the news that Pierre had been killed. She gasped and then fell into the arms of her sister, our teacher, and died. Just like that. She was young and healthy, and then she was dead. When they opened her up – because they must have performed an autopsy, though Mademoiselle never used that word so I don’t know how to say autopsy in French – they discovered that her heart was broken in half. She had died of a broken heart. Literally. And who were we to doubt such a thing? When I think of Mlle Baumlin, I think of a heart broken in two. Ruptured into eternity.

At the top of the pile is Paul Claudel’s L’annnonce Faite a Marie. It never ceases to delight me that all over America the curriculum for high school French classes rely heavily on readings of either 20th century existentialists or excessively devout Catholics. All over America, callow pimply youths discover being and nothingness in a romance language. But there was so much more we could have learned. There we were in a very Protestant New England prep school, reading Claudel’s play about a young woman achieving salvation through leprosy. We never knew that Claudel’s sister Camille was a great sculptor whom he committed to an asylum for life. We never knew that after the ultra-Catholic Claudel’s pregnant mistress left him, he quickly married a woman named Reine. Inside this copy of L’annonce faite a Marie is an official discharge slip from Beth Israel Hospital, Room 445, at 11 am. The date is January 16, no year. The name of the patient was my beloved grandmother, Reine Brancart.

I did not read anything by Boris Vian in Mlle. Baumlin’s class. So this must have been my mother’s book, because for a long time she read as much in French as in English. Now we wonder if there will soon be time when she forgets her English altogether, along with her children and the principles of architecture, a time when she has only the fraying thread of her childhood French. I found three copies of the same postcard inside this copy of Boris Vian’s L’arrache Coeur. All three portray a collage of happy vacationers at the “New” Hotel Herredura Inn in San Jose, Costa Rica. The hairstyles of the young men place them in the late 1970’s. On the reverse of the car, you are encouraged to call or write Miss Sunshine for reservations.
My father must have stayed dozens of times at Hotel Herredura in San Jose, from the seventies through the nineties, when he started staying at the newer Hotel Cariari. Several times a year my father traveled to Costa Rica and Nicaragua for business, and sometimes my mother went with him. They usually stayed for one night in the capital and then went to the coffee farm in the mountains, or the sugar refinery in tropical Guanacaste. Dad loved being in the tropics, he loved the challenge of starting up new companies to process raw material no one else wanted (cotton seeds), he loved staying up all night belaboring coffee pruning or sugarcane varieties. He loved flying in small rickety planes over dense jungle, looking for more land to plant. In Nicaragua they stayed at the Intercontinental in Managua, the same hotel where Howard Hughes took over the top story, blacked out the windows, and watched old movies all day long in the nude. Until the earthquake, and then Hughes fled. Sometime in high school, a friend, most likely my boyfriend, the same one I later married, wanted to know if my father was in the CIA. What an odd question that was. It had never occurred to me, to any of us. My father was not a stealthy person. My father was a businessman who knew the world price of cotton, coffee and sugar over the last hundred years, the way I knew the poems of W.B. Yeats. Once I asked Dad if he was in the CIA, and he said, no, of course not. What else would he have said?
Did my mother read Boris Vian while she lounged by the pool in a French bikini, being admired by long haired young men on the postcard? While my father was negotiating the price of coffee futures with Swiss brokers, did she read happily and obliviously her French novels? Did she realize that the author was named for Boris Godunov? Would she have cared that young Boris’s father was murdered by burglars in his own home? Did she know that in 1947, as the author of I Spit on Your Graves, Vian was sued for indecency in France? It was the first such suit since Gustave Flaubert was sued for immorality in Madame Bovary a century earlier.

Somewhere in the middle of the pile of books is Voltaire’s Contes: Zadig and Micromégas. This copy belonged to Peter, the youngest of my three brothers, the only one who ever became fluent in French. On the frontispiece in Peter’s recognizable script, written with what was surely a mechanical pencil, is the famous Voltairean riddle, Frederick’s invitation to dine at the palace:
P ci
Venez à sans

(Venez souper à Sans Souci.)

With the answer: G a

(G grand. A petit = J’ai grand apetit.)

How much did we delight in knowing that riddle? Quite a lot.(We were an odd lot, but we had our moments of smugness.) Elsewhere in the book, in the same faint penciled script, Peter wrote: “The irony of Voltaire is frequent – notice it.”

Among the hundreds of French books culled from all over the Orchard, there were five copies of Huis Clos, Sartre’s iconic existential play, though all I can tell you about it now is: Hell is Other People. (L’enfer, c’est les autres.) How many years of high school French are reduced to that depressing quote? From the biblio-evidence, we can assume that all five of us studied Huis Clos in high school.
At least one of us expressed his feelings for the book on the flyleaf: Very unfortunately, because it is required in that dumb French class I am in this is my book. If found, don’t return until you’ve read as much as you want. If you really want it, keep it. I abhor it. CPL

At the bottom of the pile is Henri Troyat’s fat biography, Tolstoi. Our lives are full of family stories that get told and retold and implant themselves in our psyches. One of those was my mother’s tale of the birth of her first child, my birth. She told us that she was reading Henry Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy when she went into labor, and so she took the book with her to the hospital (MGH). All throughout her labor she continued reading Troyat’s brilliant rendering of Tolstoy’s tumultuous life. It was only when I became pregnant with my own first child, and then proceeded to have a protracted and difficult labor during which I could not have read a cereal box never mind a biography of Tolstoy, that I realized how amazing was this feat of my mother’s.
Much much later than that, now that the daughter I first gave birth to has given birth to her own daughters, I find this copy of Troyat’s Tolstoi, and read inside that it was first published in France in 1967. Five years after the birth of my mother’s last child. Whatever she read when she was laboring to give birth, it was not Tolstoi. And now it is too late to ask her. So there it is at the bottom of the pile of books. It contains no suggestive marginalia. I keep it there to remind me to notice the irony.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Another Life

Yesterday I took my mother to a regular check-up with her doctor. Nothing has changed. Aside from Alzheimer’s she is healthy. All her former complains (arthritis, costochondritis, GIRD) have been forgotten, and so they no longer trouble her. (Some insufferable Pollyanna’s would argue that this is a positive aspect of Alzheimer’s, but I would rather keep my aches and pains and still remember your name and why I loved Bob Dylan.) I have never before considered impacted earwax to be a medical event, but that was the main topic of our visit. I will spare you the details of my mother’s earwax and its removal. There will be no illustrations. Let’s just say that it was, for me, a uniquely appalling and disturbing experience. In order to calm my queasiness, I resorted to Wikipedia. (The efficacy of factoids as a means to allay anxiety is seriously underreported.) I learned that there are in fact two kinds of cerumen: moist and dry. Asians and Native Americans have dry cerumen, while Europeans and Africans have the moist kind. The difference could, possibly, be related to diet. This distinction has lately proved useful to anthropologists in studying the migrations patterns of Eskimos. Even mom’s doctor, who is an adept at cerumen removal, did not know this factoid. I am hoping she will share it with other patients. I look forward to cerumen classifications becoming Common Knowledge.
After the doctor’s appointment I took Mom to lunch at Mint, a lovely restaurant in Tarrytown owned by Hassan, who is Moroccan and charming and always gives me tastes of several cheeses. Mom assured me she had been to Morocco many times and spent time on the wide beaches there. She asked me how many children I have. The instant I answered, truthfully, that I have two, I regretted it. For years, I longed for a third child or even a set of twins, and now I can rewrite my history and have as many children as I like. I can name them according to my obsession of the week: Abelardo, Ishmael, Daphne and Hyacinth.
The possibilities do not end with offspring. Since Mom daily asks me what I do, (Why are you leaving me? What are you doing?) it seems that this may well be my chance to have the careers I once imagined for myself but did not pursue, due to lack of talent or circumstance or living in the wrong century. My career as a professional Ping Pong player, for instance. It never got off the ground, off anything. But I dreamt of it. I dreamt that when the journals wrote about my exploits, they would call me Careening Christine, the Joan of Arc of Table Tennis. Then there was my vocation as a cartographer, back when maps were hand drawn and decorated with mythical animals. There are also my careers as a defrocked nun and a botanical explorer and an opera set-designer, all imagined, all unrealized.
The next time Mom asks me what I am doing, and there will be a next time, because any question worth asking once is worth asking twenty times, if I do not tell her that I am mapping the newly created country of Surlandia, and then granting an interview to Sports Illustrated about my proprietary line of Ping Pong paddles made with sustainable tropical wood, I will have only myself to blame for my pedestrian and monochromatic life. Again.

Monday, March 28, 2016

How it is that a certain old clock is now chiming the hours in my house.

First cotton was grown by small farmers all over the world, from India to Mexico to Togo to the Sudan. Then came the carding machine and the spinning jenny and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, and global trade was never the same again.
Soon cotton mills were established beside rivers all over New England, to take advantage of their abundant water power.
In 1823 the Merrimack Manufacturing Company built its first mill along the Merrimack River in Lowell, Massachusetts. More buildings followed. By 1884, it was the largest company in the city, based on the number of employees, the amount of cloth produced, and the size of the mill’s chimneys. On the factory floor there was a sign posted: “No person can be employed in the company whose known habits are or shall be dissolute, indolent, dishonest, or intemperate, or who habitually absent themselves from public worship or violate the Sabbath.”*
When it shut down in 1957 MMC was “the oldest integrated cotton textile operation still extant in the U.S.”

By the middle of the twentieth century most of the textile mills in New England had moved south in order to access cheaper labor. But some remained. In the late 1940’s or early 1950’s my grandfather and a group of investors bought the Merrimack mills, planning to manufacture velveteen and corduroy. That is the short answer to the question of how hundreds of pages of handwritten Merrimack company records from the early 19th century, and dozens of five- foot spools of colored corduroy and velveteen, and a tall oak clock with “Merrimack Mfg. Co. Lowell” written on its face and endlessly displaying midnight (or noon), all ended up in the basement of our house, called The Orchard.

For most of my life, all I knew of Merrimack was the velveteen. There appeared to be an endless supply of it, in jewel colors. My grandmother sewed for me a princess dress of emerald green, with a lace collar and a bow in the back. Then there was the royal purple gown with a matching bolero jacket and tiny pearls sewn onto the cuffs. There was also a teal skirt and a ruby red hooded cape, with black satin ribbon edging. It goes without saying that once my sister and I outgrew these elegant garments, my mother labeled them and stored them in the attic. Years later I had a daughter of my own and someone remembered the Merrimack velveteen dresses and so they were brought out for Reine to wear. Her princess period was brief, but she was appropriately dressed throughout. According to my uncle’s History of the Lehner Family, which is essentially a history of the machinery used in producing textiles and processing cotton waste, and has very little print space wasted on actual people, “velveteen is where all the individual rows are cut so that there are no wales between the rows of fiber” (as distinct from corduroy).

In the first decade of the 21st century we started the process of cleaning out the basement at the Orchard, and so I found the Merrimack records that had been stashed in a tall double-door painted wood cabinet half a century ago, and left alone. There were piles of loose papers and also a journal kept by the treasurer and superintendents, containing inventories, accounts, and a list of girls who would be discharged if they dared to attend a public dance for a second time. Financial records listed orders, costs, purchasing and sales. Other pages recorded all the coal used in the mill, as well as the mean temperature in the Carding, Spinning and Weaving rooms. The average wage in the Number 2 Spinning department was $1.78.
Eventually, we gave all these papers to the Textile History Museum in Lowell.
No, not all. I kept one document with the “Catalogue of Girls who have left the Merrimack Mills irregularly since February 13, 1834”. At the top of the page the “Ring leaders” are named: Hannah Barbour, Hannah Barker Dolly Willey, Ellen Carney, Elizabeth Carney and Sarah Rowan. There are dozens more girls listed: carders, spinners and weavers. I can only imagine them – hard-working and spirited, and seeking something better than subservience. I treasure this document, as in some way honoring the bravery of these girls who chafed against their patronizing employers and their bleak working conditions. Those girls, the two Hannahs, Dolly, Ellen, Elizabeth and Sarah, dared to stand up for themselves.

When my mother came here to live with us and we had a moving van bring her furniture to New York, it occurred to me that the old clock did not have to remain silent for another century. So it was trucked here, with its heavy lead weights and brass pendulum in separate boxes: its first time ever out of the fine state of Massachusetts.
Of course we knew nothing about old clocks or clock repair, so I looked in the phone book and found Franklin Clocks in White Plains. I called and spoke with Jonathan and we made an appointment for him to come and see the clock the next day at 2 pm.
That evening the phone rang at 10 p.m. It is a well-known fact among the cognoscenti that CSB and I are early-to-bed sleepyheads, so when the phone rings at such an hour my mind instantly plunges down the rabbit hole of panic: a child, a grandchild, my mother in distress?? I answered with trepidation.
“Is this a good time?” said a voice.
“Who is this?” I said.
“It’s Jonathan. I am right around the corner and I could come see the clock.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late,” I said. “Don’t we have an appointment tomorrow?”
The next afternoon Jonathan arrived. He marched into the front hall, wearing a headlamp over his backwards baseball cap. Directly he opened up the clock.
“Hello,” I said. “Did you have any trouble finding the house?”
“What have you done with this?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” I said. “That is, we just brought it here and I am hoping it will be able to tell time again.”
Then Jonathan proceeded to extract the weights that I had carefully stored in the bottom of the clock case, and attach them to the pulleys. This required me to squat down and support each weight while he fiddled with the attachment. I should tell you that clock weights are much heavier than I imagined. Then he attached the pendulum. I was delighted that the parts of the clock were once again in their proper places. But of course nothing was moving. Jonathan opened the hatches on both sides of the clock, and aided by his headlamp as well as a flashlight which he held in his teeth, he did mysterious things to the inner workings. I noticed that the shaft of his flashlight was wrapped with duct tape and covered in teeth marks. After a long while of this, the minute hand started moving slightly and we heard an unmistakable ticking.
“That’s great,” I said.
“Mahmoud needs to work on this. You need Mahmoud,” Jonathan said. “Can you bring it to the shop?”
I said that we could, and we would. Jonathan implied that Mahmoud and only Mahmoud could repair and revive the clock. Then he asked me how old our house was, and I told him. He noted some old black and white photographs that hang in our front hall.
“Who’s that?” he asked, pointing to a grainy picture of several men standing in front of a log cabin in a snowy landscape.”
“That’s my husband’s great-grandfather. He was the Forestry Commissioner of the State of Maine.”
“I’m related to someone famous too,” Jonathan said.
“Oh,” I said. Had he misunderstood? Had I misspoken? I had not meant to imply that there was any fame involved in the Forestry Commission of Maine.
“Yes,” he said. “You would know him. You know –“ and by holding his hand flat at about shoulder level, he indicated a short stature.
“Napoleon?” I said. Not entirely seriously.
“That’s it. On my mother’s side. He was French, you know.”
“Yes, I did know,” I said.
“We had an old family house too,” he said. “My grandmother on the other side harbored John Brown and his men there.”
“In Harper’s Ferry?”
“You can see the house if you go there,” he said.
Jonathan imparted that if we delivered the clock to their shop in White Plains, Mahmoud would fix it and then they would return the clock to us. She showed me how to remove the weights and pendulum for safe transport.

It is two months later; the Merrimack clock has returned to our front hall. It was delivered by Mahmoud and Jonathan. Jonathan called from the road for directions, explaining that he has a lot of trouble seeing at night.
“Are you driving now?” I asked.
“I’m on Broadway going north. And I can’t see where to turn.”
I explained as best I could that he should drive – slowly and carefully – for another two hundred feet and then turn left. Thirty seconds later a station wagon pulled into our driveway, followed immediately by another station wagon. Jonathan stepped out of the first car, and Mahmoud merged from the second. Although I had hung up the phone at my end, Jonathan was still speaking indignantly about the difficulty of seeing at night. Mahmoud shook my hand and I almost fainted. He displayed that phenomenon more honored in the breach than the observance: a grip of iron. When he released them, my limp arthritic fingers emerged crushed and more misshapen than they already were. He smiled sheepishly. I wanted to say something witty about how strong fingers were a clockmaker’s friend, but such bon mots eluded me.
The back door of his car lifted, and I saw our clock recumbent inside Jonathan’s car, amidst a jumble of satchels and tools. I mentioned that my husband had just come home, in case they needed any help bringing the clock inside.
“I have a bad shoulder, so I shouldn’t lift anything,” Jonathan said. “Where is your husband?”
I located CSB, my husband, and like pallbearers, he and Mahmoud bore the clock up the five front steps and into the front hall.

For the next thirty minutes they installed the clock, attached the weights and pendulum, shimmed the case. Mahmoud adjusted, and then readjusted the winding mechanism. Jonathan wore his headlamp at full brightness.
Mahmoud gestured to Jonathan to turn off the headlamp when they were speaking, as it glared directly into his eyes. This appeared to confuse Jonathan. Mahmoud told me that his father had been a clockmaker in Lahore, as had his grandfather. In Pakistan they had worked on many fine clocks. Jonathan said that they serviced the clocks of many famous people in the area. Did I know Maria Carey? No, not personally. Well, Jonathan serviced her clock. Also Hillary Clinton’s.
“They call her Madame Secretary,” he said.
I must have looked blank. “Her people,” he explained. “Her helpers.”
Mahmoud showed me on his cellphone photographs he had taken of the inner workings of the clock, with the name of the clockmaker: Aaron Willard, Jr. Our man (1783-1864) was the son of Aaron Willard and nephew of Simon Willard, both well known clockmakers of the time. Mahmoud estimated that our factory clock was built in 1824.
Jonathan said, “His clocks are everywhere. One is in the Oval Office.”
I was of course pleased to hear that. “So this is something Obama and I have in common. In addition to our opinion on universal heath care.”
Jonathan peered through the hatch on the clock’s head. Then he turned back to Mahmoud to discuss the movement, who asked him again to turn off his headlamp.
I took notes while together they explained how to wind the clock, and how to adjust the time and how to silence the chime if we had guests that found the noise objectionable. I was – I still am - so besotted with the clock that I could not imagine any circumstances in which I would willingly silence it.
Jonathan examined the black and white photographs on the wall, again, and asked me who the people were, again. I told him about Forrest Colby, the Forestry Commissioner of Maine, but this time Jonathan did not allude to his imperial kinsman.
As they were packing up their tools to depart, Jonathan said there was something else I should know about Aaron Willard, Jr. I assured him I was eager to learn all I could about the man who had crafted this clock almost 200 years ago.
“Not him!” Jonathan said. He told us about a man from Weymouth who made twentieth century copies of Willard clocks that were almost as good as the old ones. But that wasn’t what was interesting about him. This man, Elmo someone, was a murderer who was eventually murdered himself. After he was arrested for murdering his wife, he kept making clocks, and signed them OOB, for Out On Bond.
“Weymouth is right near where you come from?” Jonathan said. I nodded. Apparently he remembered that I was from Hingham, which is indeed adjacent to Weymouth, Massachusetts. “I don’t suppose you ever knew him?”
“To my knowledge,” I said, “I don’t know any murderers.”
“That’s too bad,” Jonathan said, “Because his clocks are very valuable now. It was written up in Yankee magazine. Do you know Yankee magazine? I have a subscription.”
I said that although I knew of the magazine, I rarely read it.
“I’ll find out his name for you. O.O.B. Remember that. And then later his clocks had the initials M.C.I.P., for Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Plymouth. But he said it was for Made Case in Prison. Get it? OOB, then MCIP.”
“I won’t forget,” I said. It was time to go. I made sure Jonathan did not leave behind his duct- taped flashlight, and I did not shake Mahmoud’s hand again.

That evening I went online to the White House website where I learned that yes, there is an Aaron Willard clock at the White House, but it was made by Aaron the father, not the Junior, and it stands outside the family dining room. The clock in the Oval Office was made by John Seymour. Truman ordered that all the chimes on all the White House clocks be turned off, because they could not be made to chime together. That seems a shame. Also, it seems disturbing that a country that can drop an atomic bomb cannot manage to get all the clocks in the Presidential residence to chime in unison.

We were already asleep when the phone rang much later that evening. I answered with the usual mix of annoyance and terror.
“Elmer Stennes is his name.” It was, of course, Jonathan speaking. “I found the article in the Yankee magazine. I keep them catalogued, at my mother’s house. His name was Elmer Stennes. He stabbed his wife in 1968, but only spent about two years in prison. He was murdered in 1975. Probably by his son, but they could never prove it. His clocks are collectors’ items.”
“Thank you,” I said. “That is good to know.”
“Do you ever watch Antiques Roadshow?” Jonathan asked.
“We do,” I said. “And good night.”
I rolled over to share this news with CSB, but he was still asleep. The murderous clockmaker could wait. A few minutes later, the Merrimack clock chimed eleven times. One remaining piece of the machinery from the factory floor of Merrimack Manufacturing was still running smoothly, marking the hours.