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.