Monday, March 30, 2009
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Friday, March 27, 2009
"The Mystery of Sons"
from Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton
This day I have begot whom I declare
My only Son, and on this holy Hill
Him have anointed, whom ye now behold.
Unlike Milton and God, I am the mother of two boys. And unlike those single-minded and ambitious fathers, I have not suffered a son’s death. These three differences—motherhood, a pair of sons, and my boys’ everyday physical presence—have vastly influenced my moral and emotional comprehension of the world. I have learned, for instance, that my life is not my own: I am the handmaid of my children; I minister to their demands; I deny my yearnings in service to theirs. Culturally this is a mother’s role; but while it is demeaning and self-destroying, it is also vivifying and rigorous. Like strict training in any discipline, the self-negations and hardships of raising children can, by means of honed boredom and obsessive observation, set a mind at liberty.
Yet neither the ambiguities of motherhood nor the intricate relations between mothers and children interest Milton or Milton’s God. Paradise Lost has no use for the quotidian spats and intimacies of family life—those bickering dialogues about eating what you’ve been served and washing with soap, that endless anthropomorphic commentary about the dog, a decade’s worth of fervent backtalk about bedtime. For patriarchs such as Milton and God, love for an heir is a serious matter, endlessly vaunted and discussed yet, for all its pomp, arid and detached. This blinkered focus strikes me as terribly sad on a personal level (if one can use personal to describe God), but it is also central to the poem; for I think that a father’s loss of his one son, whether foreseen or unexpected, whether as myth or as memory, lies at the heart of the tragedy of Paradise Lost, mirrored in the poem’s rigid adherence to the doctrine of father as king as well as its idealized and distorted image of the father-son bond.
The constraints of biblical veracity meant that Milton had, to a certain degree, little choice in his characterizations. His God is indeed an Old Testament patriarch—tyrannical, unbending, and selfish—and Milton can perorate ad nauseam about the Almighty’s relentless, controlling grip on the universe. But like many big talkers, the poet can be most revelatory when he is silent; and there’s a gap in his exposition: how exactly do his windbag depictions of God the father of creation relate to his ambivalent and painful portraits of God the father of a son?
One can argue that the God of Paradise Lost, as the father to end all fathers, has spawned innumerable sons, notably his docile angels, his bad-boy apostate angels, and that dopy washout Adam. Yet he explicitly refers to the Messiah as his “only Son,” himself comprehending some essential difference between sons as inferior servants and son as heir of a father’s power and devotion. To me, this seems relevant to the anomaly of Milton’s own fatherhood: he did indeed lose his only son, but his two daughters survived, only to become elements of his back story: meek amanuenses, mere girls, fringe characters in a long history of daughterly oppression.
Girls, however, are accustomed to living the back story; and probably any one of us can imagine what Milton’s daughters might have been doing in the kitchen while he was groaning over Paradise Lost in his study: complaining about the lady next door, or maybe darning socks or shelling out broad beans or chasing the cat away from the stew meat. In short, they were doing what women have always done together in kitchens—talking and working and watching and listening. It’s a familiar world to me; for with no brothers and a stay-at-home mother, I grew up in a cozy, girl-centered cocoon of paper dolls, chatter, baking, and ironing. Kitchen life is immersion in trivia, but it is also immersion in detail. The small transcends the grand: when you’re frying an egg or caramelizing sugar, the compression of a minute matters considerably more than any epic battle; and the free-form talk that floats through a day spent boiling jam can raise the forsaken dead.
I was a daughter, and I expected to bear daughters. I never thought twice about it. So when I became the mother of sons, I was amazed and to a certain degree appalled. What did I know about boys? They had big feet and did stupid things like make fart noises in front of the teacher. Loud guitars seduced them like crows to road kill. They were mysterious, rude, grubby, and desperately charming, but how did you raise one?
According to my friend Jilline, God was testing my faith; otherwise, why would I have given birth to a baby who looked exactly like Edward G. Robinson? She herself had two younger brothers so was entitled to be flippant. And as I reminded myself during midnight diaper changes, hysterics over Hot Wheels cars, and horrid tomato-sauce incidents, there’s much historical prestige connected to the bearing of sons. It was some comfort to consider that, had I been unfortunate enough to be queen of England or a T’ang dynasty concubine, Henry VIII would not have sliced off my head and palace servitors would not have left my babies to starve to death on a stony mountainside.
For I loved my sons in mysterious and unexpected ways. Though I’d imagined motherhood to be an altruistic calling, I discovered that, like other loves I’d undergone, whether for boyfriend or great-aunt or Hereford heifer calf, attachment to my children was linked to their attachment to me. Yet my sons’ devotion was focused and specific and thus deeply, helplessly heartrending. More than anyone on earth, they took me seriously. What I muttered or dropped while I poured milk, how I smelled after a bath, the winter texture of my hands: all of this mattered enormously to them. And in turn my duties—feeding, carrying, dressing, wiping, washing them—required an extrasensory, microscopic, obsessive observation that nothing in my life had otherwise demanded. It was dreadful. It was also exhilarating.
Nonetheless, the fundamental selfishness of my love for my sons didn’t diminish its terrors—in particular, the unarticulated fear that by accident or evil, and perhaps because of my stupidity, we would be torn apart. What if they die in a car crash because I’ve been eating potato chips while driving? What if they burn in hell because I haven’t joined the church? Such fears, I think, are endemic to parenthood, though we cannot always express or recognize them and frequently cloak them in anger or bullying dominance or self-lacerating melodrama. This, for instance, is how God talks about his love for his son:
O thou in Heav’n and Earth the only peace
Found out for mankind under wrath, O thou
My sole complacence!
It’s as if Milton conceived of the Creator as the father of all father stereotypes—a passionate yet remote man, bitter, ranting, and lonely, who trudges his worn trail through history.
A father’s dreams for his offspring tread a boulder-strewn route between self-pride and child-pride. Knowing full well that their daughters were desperate for independence and romance, both Patrick Brontë and Leslie Stephen nonetheless wheedled and waylaid and tormented them, unable to tolerate any adjustment in their familial bond. Such changes endanger a father’s feudal control as well as the restorative comforts of a child’s attention and admiration. But God himself does not hesitate to manipulate his beloved son in order to bolster his own pride, as in the following passage, when he hands off the task of creating earth with a commendation that is also a warning:
And thou my Word, begotten Son, by thee
This I perform, speak thou, and be it done:
My overshadowing Spirit and might with thee
I send along, ride forth, and bid the Deep
Within appointed bounds be Heav’n and Earth,
Boundless the Deep, because I am who fill
Infinitude, nor vacuous the space
Though I uncircumscrib’d myself retire,
And put not forth my goodness, which is free
To act or not, Necessity and Chance
Approach not mee, and what I will is Fate.
How often has love for children, and a longing for their love, driven family patriarchs into antagonism, histrionics, and manipulation? This sense of separation, of exile within the family, is a burden that men continue to carry, one that I sporadically glimpse even in Tom’s interactions with our sons: a fraught, knife-edged pride and embarrassment; isolation entangled with communion. In the mornings, on their way out the door to school, our boys always bumble up against me in their coats and boots and backpacks for a good-bye kiss. But sometimes they forget to kiss Tom, even when he’s sitting at the table in front of them. I hate this and usually make them stop and say good-bye to him. But do any of them care about sharing good-bye kisses? I don’t know. All three accept their sliver of detachment without comment.
Mothers, of course, contend with their own burdensome stereotypes, which often feature us as doting flunkies of our children. Sometimes we play the role of happy nursemaid, that soft-hearted non-thinker who adores breastfeeding, cuddling, and singing patty-cake. Sometimes our role takes the form of a more generalized beatification in which a mother’s dutiful kindness and self-denial ooze like a morphine drip into the lives of her offspring. In either case, a woman’s actual interaction with her actual child is overshadowed by her place value in the maternal lineage. I think here of a Sicilian fairy tale I recently read, which featured a queen who longed for a child but gave birth instead to a rosemary plant. Although she was surprised, the queen continued to behave like a mother, planting the rosemary in a beautiful pot and watering it with milk four times a day. Of course, being a fairy tale, the story both fulfilled my expectations (by the end of the story, the rosemary has turned into a dancing princess who marries the king of Spain) and confused them: the queen’s nephew takes a shine to the plant, steals it from his aunt, and smuggles it onto his yacht, along with a goat so he can keep up the milk regimen.
Milton, however, avoided either messing with these parental stereotypes or examining their consequences too carefully. The trope of Paradise Lost is “do what your father tells you, and don’t ask questions,” and Milton takes that order seriously. He is endlessly curious about how things work: What does an angel eat? Is there a difference between day and night in heaven? Exactly how are the apostates tortured in hell? But he remains obedient to the ideal Old Testament hierarchies of human organization: man over woman, father over son, human over animal.
Yet real life never seems to fit the biblical ideal. Wives and children are always more opinionated than they ought to be, and sometimes the wolf conquers the hero. Milton knew this, of course. But his poem willed perfection to be otherwise. Like his descriptions of marriage, which he predicated on his unexamined, wistful notions of men as wise protectors of grateful, compliant women, his depictions of an ideal father-son love highlight his own human neediness. If his manicured paradise hints at his indifference to the rights of nature, his aching images of a perfect son, even when reduced to tag phrases and epithets, exude a real man’s vulnerability to love and grief:
On his right
The radiant image of his Glory sat,
His only Son.
When I read Dickens’s descriptions of good girls like Esther Summerson and Florence Dombey, I have similar feelings; for it seems to me that both men write fervently about imagined perfection in order to stanch their private wounds. But Milton preserves a formal distance between his characters that Dickens blithely overrides. For all their mutual love and admiration, God and his son do not cuddle, embrace, joke, or exhibit any behavior that hints at casual proximity and affection. This would be inappropriate in a high-flown epic featuring God and the Messiah. But why? Why does it demean the Creator’s greatness to imagine him as a tender father who murmurs endearments to his son?
Though maternal stereotypes have damaged countless women’s confidence in their private abilities and have crippled their public independence, even the worst forms of doting self-denial permit a mother to have close, affectionate, informal relations with her children. Nobody thinks less of the Virgin Mary because she pets and kisses her baby. But Milton doesn’t seem to find this a particularly appealing attribute: the only lengthy scene of mother love in Paradise Lost portrays it as perversion. The incident takes place on the outskirts of hell, when Satan reacquaints himself with Sin, his daughter and former lover. Impregnated by their son Death, Sin has given birth to a pack of hellhounds,
These yelling Monsters that with ceaseless cry
Surround me, as thou saw’st, hourly conceiv’d
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me, for when they list into the womb
That bred them they return, and howl and gnaw
My Bowels, thir repast; then bursting forth
Afresh with conscious terrors vex me round,
That rest or intermission none I find.
Before mine eyes in opposition sits
Grim Death my Son and foe, who sets them on,
And me his Parent would full soon devour
For want of other prey, but that he knows
His end with mine involv’d: and knows that I
Should prove a bitter Morsel, and his bane.
Evidently, Milton did not care for babies. And it’s not like I don’t sympathize with him: I’m not a baby adorer myself. Perhaps if babies were less cute, more parents would kill them. But as it’s taken me years to admit, love for a child doesn’t mean you can’t hate him too. Babies are indeed a torment, howling and gnawing at our bowels, devouring their parents for want of any other prey. Milton recognized the hate, without a doubt. What he didn’t comprehend is hate’s hair-shirt role in forging our bonds with our children.
Right now I’m fretting over the fact that I have so little time to myself. If only I had an entire day alone, I could write a masterpiece. If only I didn’t have to quit writing mid-thought to race down to the cellar and stuff another load of mud-sopped pants into the washing machine. Or drive twenty-five miles in a sleet storm so Paul can bash out “Für Elise” on the piano. Or miss a day of writing while James pukes all over the couch. I hate all these things; at moments I hate them passionately. But as events, they’re more than Erma Bombeck-style anecdotes of family life or fodder for aggravated telephone calls to my own mother. They are life. They subdue me; they override me; they excoriate me. Puking is more important than writing. Without my sons, how would I ever have learned this?
Of course, Milton’s particular brand of greatness is predicated on precisely the opposite belief: writing is far, far more important than puking. No baby ever got the chance to spit up on his shoulder. Probably not many spit up on Dickens’s shoulder either, but mostly because he was too busy transferring the spectacle to paper. I think Dickens did believe that writing was less important than puking. Writing just happened to be his obsession. But Milton had zero interest in the charms and irritations of childhood. God’s only son arrives in heaven as an adult, conjured up without feminine interference and ready for command at a moment’s notice. When the Creator announces, “This day I have begot whom I declare/My only Son,” he’s not celebrating the birth of a descendant but his own massive strength and dominance:
Your Head I him appoint;
And by my Self have sworn to him shall bow
All knees in Heav’n, and shall confess him Lord.
As a believer in Christian obedience, Milton needed to delineate a God who is truly almighty; but unfortunately the poet’s workbox was English, a language so impregnated with human-derived word choice, image, and metaphor that describing a spirit as a spirit is practically impossible. Faced with these limitations, Milton chose to paint God as the Big Man who wears the crown of both tyrant and philosopher king, often at the same time. As the Creator informs the angels, under his son’s “great Vice-gerent Reign [they shall] abide”
United as one individual Soul
For ever happy: him who disobeys
Mee disobeys, breaks union, and that day
Cast out from God and blessed vision, falls
Into utter darkness, deep ingulft, his place
Ordain’d without redemption, without end.
So spake th’ Omnipotent, and with his words
All seem’d well pleas’d, all seem’d, but were not all.
To me, that final line is most indicative of Milton’s descriptive dilemma. The hint of discomfort, which eventually explodes into celestial war, is here the blister that also rubs the fabulist. How do you write about a man who is not a man?
Milton’s solution was to write about God in superhuman (and therefore ultimately human) terms while simultaneously undermining God’s persistent manlike characteristics. In the case of the father-son conundrum, he endeavored to eliminate both sex and childhood from the picture. I can only guess that both arenas in some way implied a weakness that the poet was unwilling to delegate to God. Sex is an interesting choice; for as the Adam and Eve idyll makes clear, Milton thought physical love was an excellent and enjoyable benefit of ideal marriage. I suppose it was too sloppy for God, not to mention requiring a lady’s presence in the story, which was neither biblically feasible nor a comfortable narrative prospect, given Milton’s commitment to the solemn joys and duties of marriage partners. It’s perfectly within character for Satan to have a one-night stand, but God’s wife would have to be a permanent fixture—a problem that leads to the childhood complication.
Childhood without motherhood. This was, for a period of Milton’s life, his everyday hell. According to the chronology that appears in my edition of Paradise Lost, his daughter Anne was born in October 1648, his son John in March 1651. On May 2, 1652, his daughter Deborah was born. Three days later his wife Mary died. And a month after that his year-old son died. The intense and complex miseries of this situation, even for a sensible, everyday man, are hardly possible to enumerate. For a man such as Milton—a patriarch who deeply disliked babies and household fuss and had untenable preconceptions about paternal love and duty—dealing practically and temperamentally with this string of losses must have made composing Paradise Lost feel like a stroll in the sunshine. He had probably never picked up a baby in his life, let alone noticed what any of his children ate or wore, whether or not they could use the privy, what made them cry or laugh, or how many hours they slept each night. And now he was solely responsible for the survival of two small daughters. Under such circumstances, what exactly was he mourning? The death of his wife? Or being left in the lurch? With the mother of the house dead, the quick loss of his son may have been a practical relief as much as a tragedy.
But these afflictions were God’s will; and Milton’s Puritan convictions required him to accept them meekly, along with the anger, relief, guilt, and grief that were shackled to his burdens and losses. Milton hoped that Paradise Lost would “justify the ways of God to men.” But perhaps he also hoped to justify the ways of God to himself, as both a representative man and a faulty, unruly, suffering individual. These collisions—between selfish, driven creator and obedient subject; between arrogant intellectual and baby-laden widower; between celestial poet and common sinner—seem crucial to the frozen, bewildering, submissive, ranting interchanges between father and son in heaven: “Effulgence of my Glory, Son belov’d”; “O Father, O supreme of heav’nly Thrones.” Did Milton try, in these characterizations, to imagine a love and a meekness he could not sustain on earth? If so, the attempt is often laced with belligerence, as in the Son’s response to God’s order to assume generalship of the celestial war:
This I my Glory account,
My exaltation, and my whole delight,
That thou in me well pleas’d, declar’st thy will
Fulfill’d, which to fulfil is all my bliss.
Sceptre and Power, thy giving, I assume
And gladlier shall resign, when in the end
Thou shalt be All in All, and I in thee
For ever, and in mee all whom thou lov’st;
But whom thou hat’st, I hate, and can put on
Thy terrors, as I put thy mildness on,
Image of thee in all things.
It’s rank invention for me to puzzle over these biographical connections, but I do so because I recognize the urge to splinter my own wretched behaviors—selfishness, guilt, jealousy, impatience—into mosaic bits and then reassemble them into multiple portraits that are not myself but a sort of flayed exhumation of myself. A few years ago I took to writing poems that faked the first-person, it’s-all-about-me point of view. I featured the I as a poem’s emotional centerpiece but either entirely invented the situation or knitted unrelated actual events into a fictional scenario. Though it was a relief and an interesting intellectual challenge to remove my own I from the limelight while participating in the surprises and manipulations of emotional revelation, I also discovered that such pretense only goes so far. To begin with, most readers (as well as many poets and editors of literary magazines) see poetry as a kind of hepped-up approach to diary writing. They assume that I equals poet. This is tiresome but understandable, given humanity’s hunger for gossip, whether as art or talk-show fodder. But more important to me as a creator, the voices I invented in these poems never turned out to be entirely new people. I could falsify the situation, but somehow I kept turning up anyway.
With omniscient narrative, it’s easier to forget that the poet is part of the poem. Yet even though the I’s stridency may fade into a more various clamor, the artist still paws through his own junkyard for material. Milton’s junkyard was piled with riches—with ancient knowledge, with crystalline rhythm and jeweled metaphor, with stamina and belief and bravery—and those lavish gifts carried him, a mere mortal, even unto the reaches of heaven:
Up led by thee
Into the Heav’n of Heav’ns I have presum’d,
An Earthly Guest, and drawn Empyreal Air,
But like anyone else’s, his junkyard was also a clutter of faults and misperceptions and unreasonable longings. And no one has more misperceptions and unreasonable longings than a parent.
And thou my Word, begotten Son, by thee
This I perform, speak thou, and be it done:
My overshadowing Spirit and might with thee
I send along, ride forth, and bid the Deep
Within appointed bounds be Heav’n and Earth.
When it comes to our children, who among us is innocent of such vast absurdity? A son is a father’s second chance: go forth, my child, and do what I haven’t done myself. At the same time, the father is the power, the source, the wisdom from which the bright-eyed child springs. That’s the dream. But in truth our sons are slippery fish, leaping recklessly from their parents’ grasp into their own uncharted seas. Every Frankenstein has his monster, and that monster is his son.
Somehow this knowledge is easier to grasp now that I have two sons. For it briefly seemed possible that my oldest boy, James, would be an only child. Tom was none too keen on having another baby. This one is already too hard, was his best explanation. I thought this reasoning was specious since I was mopping up most of the mess. But in retrospect I know he was concerned about more than double loads of diapers and unpayable college tuition. James was too hard. The intensity of his gaze through the crib bars was frightening. We were his prey, in his gunsights night and day—snack time or bath time, sandbox or swing. He digested the workings of our minds. He demanded that we retrofit the world to his specifications: “Turn my eyes red.” “Dig up gold.” There was no escape. He expected too much of us. And we, in turn, expected too much of him. Every crayon scribble, every cleverly misused word signified . . . what? We didn’t have an answer for “what?” but nonetheless his future hovered over us like a storm crow.
The birth of our second son, Paul, completely disrupted this obsessive vision. It was like switching from a magnifying glass to a kaleidoscope. Now I looked at two magnificently disparate boys: extra tall or extra short, goofy hair or glasses, crazy about duct tape or crazy about rocks, a shouter or an arguer, a maker of truck noises or a radio mimic. And the boys looked at each other, turning away now and then to watch me, to watch Tom, sometimes as a pair, sometimes separately. As they’ve grown, our mutual perceptions have splintered and fused and mirrored and distorted. The life of a family is vivid chaos, even in separation. Paul crouches by the radio all afternoon, intoning Red Sox play-by-plays, singing along with every Giant Glass and Hammond Lumber commercial. James whistles tunelessly as he hot-glues wine corks into a log-cabin-style replica of the Tower Bridge. Tom reads “The Heart of Darkness.” I fry sausage. Our isolations fracture and intersect, in confusion, in annoyance, in tenderness.
But Milton’s son died young.
Paradise Lost does not primarily concern itself with the tale of Jesus the man. Yet the Son’s voluntary death shadows the poem, foretold both narratively and in more subtle revelations of grief. In Book III, pleading clemency for mankind’s sin, the Messiah declares to his father, “on me let Death wreck all his rage.” Imagine hearing your son speak such terrible words. Strangely enough, I can.
As the mother of a nine-year-old who stomps royally around the house bellowing a tune he calls “The Happy Fields of Conquer-Land,” I’m accustomed to mythological bravado. The Son’s assertion is incorporeal, impossible to scan as realistic adult speech; yet its matter-of-fact jaunty heroism—its solid jump-rope rhythm, its words-of-one-syllable vocabulary—is surprisingly childlike. The Messiah might be a fairy-tale prince, girding on his sword to face the dragon. His jauntiness doesn’t last, of course. Being Milton’s creation, his tone usually inclines toward liturgical gloom:
Life for life
I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;
Account me man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly die.
Yet in this brief space, in half a throwaway line, a real son inhabits Paradise Lost—real because fantasy and sweet bravado are a young boy’s shining sword, his swaggering defense against the fearful unknown. And the Messiah, though he looks like a full-grown prince, really was born yesterday.
Such small linguistic accidents make Milton’s grief palpable, though he says nothing about himself or his son, though he tarts up the ambiguities of affection as pompous paternal control and smirking filial obeisance. His son died young, but his daughters lived on, becoming real girls and then real women who served and irritated and enraged their aggravating, obnoxious, brilliant father. The demands of his material—God the Father, Christ the Son—gave him permission to tell lies as well as truths. No daughters necessary in the story of heaven. Well, maybe Satan can have a daughter. But she has to be awful.
Yet blind reverence exacts its own toll. Milton the evangelist, Milton the voice of an angry God, found himself licensed to render not only perfection—the ideal kinship of father and son—but also anguish, that celestial melodrama, which nonetheless allotted him, quietly, invisibly, room for plain human grief.
Father, thy word is past, man shall find grace;
And shall grace not find means, that finds her way,
The speediest of thy winged messengers,
To visit all thy creatures, and to all
Comes unprevented, unimplor’d, unsought?
Thursday, March 26, 2009
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009
TruckingBaron Wormser"He's pretty good-humored when he's not surly,"That's Peckerwood talking about J.D., thoughIt could be Moonwalk talking about Bear Man,Or Dropkick on Tail Feather. Thousands of milesSpace a mind out until there are gaps that feelLike whole time zones where you forget who's thereBack home or that there is a back home.When you're sitting somewhere getting weighedOr a waitress forgets it was a double cheeseburger,Your head springs back like a rubber bandAnd you feel how damn tired the body isThat supports your drifting mind. And when you callHome and she'd supposed to be there and she isn't,Every crappy, twanging song becomes your own.
Monday, March 16, 2009
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Friday, March 13, 2009
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Saturday, March 7, 2009
Aunt Virginia and the Car
[first published in the Antioch Review's special issue "Memoirs True and False," fall 2006]
A story is a lie. As soon as the teller opens her mouth, the tale jumps out like a toad and hops into the bushes as fast as it can. She won’t see it again. All she’s left with is the story of the time the toad jumped out of her mouth.
The story of Aunt Virginia and the car is a classic story-as-lie, propagated in this instance by my mother. I first remember hearing the story when my mother was teaching me to iron my father’s handkerchiefs. Kleenex was ascendant in the seventies; my father may well have been the last young man in the U.S.A. to routinely blow his nose on handkerchiefs, but this was no surprise, as my father has always favored the habits of his grandparents. What was a surprise is how long my mother kept up the chore of ironing them. She was not an enthusiastic housewife and would much rather have spent her time drinking coffee and reading D. H. Lawrence, adding her own brief and inscrutable marginalia as she crossed and recrossed her lovely Kim Novak legs.
But for whatever reason, the handkerchiefs were destined for the iron, my sister and I were destined to iron them, and my mother hung around the kitchen to make sure we didn’t burn holes in them. This was the sort of moment at which stories were likely to jump out of her mouth. At previous ironing sessions, she had entertained us with (1) a reenactment of how Uncle Melvin’s mother, old Mrs. Thomas, used to walk across the room (apparently she looked just like her son, and he looked like a cross between Edward G. Robinson and, of all things, a toad), (2) the story of how Aunt Sarah and Aunt Rose got involved in naming their mother’s new babies (who ended up as Betty, Babe, and Boy), and (3) the tale of why Aunt Rose married fat Uncle Melvin on the rebound and how that snap decision worked out for them. The material of these stories required much exaggerated slouching and hip-rolling in the case of Mrs. Thomas, a general sense of embellished chaos in the tale of the unnamed babies, and a fervid devotion to the unexplainable powers of Love as evinced in the union of Rose and Melvin, who against all odds lived happily ever after.
Aunt Virginia was a different matter altogether. The story of Aunt Virginia was a tragedy so complicated that it required my mother to concoct several distinct versions over the years, partly in response to her innate reluctance to mention sex in the presence of her daughters, partly also because foreshadowing and revelation are essential elements of tragedy and my mother was both a shrewd student of literature and a terrified prisoner of her own private history. Her prevarications in this story were a way of shattering calamity into manageable fragments of sadness.
It’s important to note that all the afore-mentioned aunts and uncles (indeed, most of the aunts and uncles I laid claim to) were my mother’s, not mine. Like her own children, my mother had, for the most part, listened in on the stories of her elders, with the difference that the elders were old when I first met them and young when she did. The listened-in-on elder in this case was my grandmother, not a reliable narrator under any circumstance, though no doubt a histrionic one.
Granny was born Czeswlawa Kulbacki, the daughter of Barbara and Felix, both of whom had immigrated from Poland to western Pennsylvania coal-mine country in the early 1900s. Barbara was twelve or thirteen when she arrived in America and, once she got here, immediately married Mr. Dimick, another Polish immigrant. They had several children, and Virginia was their youngest daughter. (Virginia, like all her siblings, was christened with a Polish name, but I never heard what it was. At school, the nuns took it as a mission to Americanize all strange names. Granny’s Czeswlawa became Jessie, a name she despised and promptly changed to Sally, giving herself a new birthday as well—another story-lie: Granny has always been very good at them.)
At this point Mr. Dimick died, and Barbara married Felix Kulbacki, an extremely handsome boy from Bialystok on the Russian border who, even as an old man in Milwaukee, could perform Russian dances of the sort that dominate the drinking scene in Fiddler on the Roof. With Felix, Barbara produced a whole second family, including Granny (apparently crazy from the start), and then died at the age of forty, leaving a passel of lonely little kids to the care of her not-all-that-much-older first family.
Thus began the tragedy of Aunt Virginia. During our early ironing sessions, my mother placed great emphasis on this back story of Barbara’s death. My sister and I were made privy, in her telling, to a great and amorphous sorrow for mothers, emanating from a myriad of sources: from Virginia’s loss of a companion-mother, from Granny’s loss of a parent-mother, from my mother’s life-long lack of a sane and loving mother, from our own vulnerability to some analogous loss. As the oldest daughter still living at home, Virginia, motherless maiden, was required by fate to step into the role of Virginia, mother of children, and this she did with beauty and poise—an angel in the house, a veritable Holy Virgin—and the children loved her fiercely, with a kind of schwarmerei devotion.
But this was the 1920s in western Pennsylvania, and Virginia was a modern girl with a job in a Greensburg shop and a family to raise. And one day—here my mother’s voice would hush—Virginia was walking along a crowded sidewalk full of jostling foot passengers, and she was accidentally pushed into the street, and she fell under a moving car and was killed instantly. And the little children lost their mother all over again.
It was a terrible story, and it moved me terribly—the pointlessness of loss, the children’s orphaned loneliness. In real life I had little sympathy for Granny, who smelled bad and was bratty and mean to the adults I loved best. But I could measure out a few grains of love for her when confronted with this tale of woe. It forced me to accord Granny a kind of exculpatory grace.
Then, in my early teens, at a point when my parents’ marriage was fraying and melodrama ruled over all our hearts, my mother suddenly changed the ending. Standing at the bay window, staring into the rain, my mother said, Virginia might have fallen under the car. Or she might have thrown herself under the car. The truth was (my mother hinted darkly), Virginia had reason to be unhappy.
Her misery was, of course, tied to Romance Gone Wrong, but the details my mother provided were hazy; I had the vague notion that Virginia might have gotten herself entangled with a coal baron’s son or possibly a man who owned race horses. I don’t necessarily mean that my mother added the soupçon of social injustice that was now flavoring Virginia’s tragedy. But both of my parents were ardently self-conscious of their plebian backgrounds, shuttling, in all social exigencies, between working-class pride with its concomitant iconoclastic reserve and a painful longing for middle-class academic pleasure and anonymity. I was inclined to perceive a peasant-versus-prince imbroglio in most untenable situations, romantic or otherwise.
This is another facet of the story-as-lie: the listener’s distortion of a tale to suit her own distractions and predilections. If my mother chose a crisis point in her private affairs of the heart as the moment to introduce me to a new, non-motherly, man-distracted Virginia, she also fed me this version at a precise, peculiar age, one at which I had no clear vision of physical love but was enraptured by images of romance and heartbreak, both of which fit beautifully into the division-of-the-classes schema I was negotiating in daily life—a strange, clashing partnership between high sentiment and populist self-protection. And as I applied it to Virginia’s story, her tragedy shifted, in my imagination, from its foundation of mother-loss to the more alarming loss of any sturdy personhood at all. Apparently, Virginia had been the wrong character in her own fairy tale.
But beyond my impasto impositions on the narrative, a truly horrible question remained. Assuming that Virginia had indeed thrown herself under the car, how much did she love those little brothers and sisters at home? Here was my mother staring out the window into a black rainstorm, telling me that Virginia might have been selfish enough to kill herself—that she had reason to be selfish enough to kill herself. The story, now, had become more than a tragedy. It was a warning: Don’t be so foolish as to depend on your mother. That the woman conveying this warning was herself the only child of Granny, the worst mother I knew, made it matter of course. That the woman conveying this warning was my own mother made it unbearable.
The story-as-lie changes from telling to retelling, from memory to memory. Aunt Virginia lived in my mother’s thoughts as a figment of her mother’s sickness, of the entwined anxieties of her mother’s sisters, of a portrait touched and retouched by time and circumstance, of a drama, a sorrow, a warning, a temptation. When my own child learns to ask, “Did Aunt Virginia really throw herself under the car?” how shall I answer, that time, the question no one ever answers?
After the birth of my eldest son, my mother came up to Maine to stay for a few days with the idea of helping his confused parents to cope. But what she mostly did was flounder with us in a cloud of bewilderment—first baby, first grandchild, tacit acknowledgment that her daughter had been having sex, and, what seemed most surreal, the idea that such congress had produced the first boy in a family dominated by girls. With this restless situation and a few broken nights as backdrop, my mother eventually brought forth version number 3 of the story of Aunt Virginia and the car.
When Virginia met her death, she was not living snugly at home with her young stepfamily. She had been banished to a boarding house in Greensburg. This was because Felix, her mother’s handsome second husband, had thrown her out of the house after he found out she was pregnant. The father of the baby was a Connellsville boy, a regular poor local sort, nothing coal baron-ish about him, with an older sister who lived with him and dedicated herself to managing his thoughts and opinions.
In the sister’s view Virginia’s unfortunate good looks had led him down the path of sin; but what was done was done, so the sister took steps to solve the problem. Virginia was kept under surveillance until her baby boy was born. Then the sister demanded the baby for herself. Her reasoning was thus: You are a bad girl. Your family are Polacks. They are sick in the head. Faced with such a litany, what could a lonely girl do? Virginia gave the evil sister her baby.
Briefly she was allowed visiting rights. Then one day she arrived at the house, and the sister refused to open the door. Virginia never saw her son again.
But my mother did. One afternoon, in the 1940s, my mother and Granny went downtown to see a minstrel show. (Those were the days when Granny still got dressed.) The show was a home-grown event; all the black-face singers, dancers, and joke-tellers were middle-class locals: merchants, insurance salesmen, rising young cousins and nephews and fathers.
At the end of the show, Granny waved a hand at one of the minstrels and informed my mother, “That’s Virginia’s son. Go tell him who you are.”
Trapped, unhappy, but nonetheless giddy with knowledge of Virginia’s tragic story (which version? I have no idea) and her own possible role in its dénouement, my mother timidly approached the backstage door and asked if she could “see her cousin.”
And this is the point in the story when I want to shut up my ears, send my mother back to Massachusetts, and refuse to listen to another word about Virginia. Because what happened next is intolerable: Aunt Virginia’s son glanced at the little girl standing in the doorway and said, “No.”
Witnessing a parent’s humiliation is a dreadful weight for a child, one that gets harder to bear as the years erode. And how the humiliations crowd this stage. Here is Aunt Virginia’s black-face son, confronted in the flesh by the shade of his dead mother. What lurid tales had he suffered, year upon year, that he recoiled so cruelly from her small niece? Here is Granny, lighting a cigarette in the dark theater. Who knows what she expected her daughter to manufacture—a happy ending? revenge? Here is my mother, hurt, embarrassed, young, powerless, failing a test she never understood. Here am I, hating this story; wincing, ashamed; rocking a wailing infant who will not be comforted.
But which story is true? Here am I, ten years after hearing the third version of Virginia’s tragedy, not sure what I remember from the telling and what fictions my memory has imposed. Did my baby cry all night long? Or did my mother and I bask side by side in the August sunlight as he watched us peacefully from his puddle of shadow? Did my child-mother really linger like an orphan at the stage door of that minstrel show? Or did Granny, in some fit of goodness, stand alongside her, a fellow waif in search of an ending? When Virginia’s son met their eyes, did he turn away to cry? Or was he looking back at something he’d lost? Did Virginia throw herself under the car? Or did the earth leap up to meet her? Did the stars speak? Did the snow on the pavement of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, sing a faint, thin tune, a song as sweet as a nursing infant’s, as quiet as dawn, as pale as a dreamer’s last sleep?
Tell me a lie, Virginia.
I don’t care what I know, so long as I know it’s you.