Life & Living V (Bronxville)
Bronxville is a pretty village in southern Westchester County. Originally occupied by the Siwanoy Indians, whose chief, Gramatan, sold land to European settlers, Bronxville was a cluster of poky, not very prosperous farms when it was bought up by a pharmaceutical millionaire toward the end of the Nineteenth Century and converted into one the nation’s first commuter suburbs. The development sported “art colony” pretenses — big houses with big studios that produced, to my knowledge, no well-known paintings or works of sculpture — but from the start Bronxville was an archetypal “designed community.” In addition to gracious homes, there would be churches, a school, a library, a town hall and a hospital, and shops. I don’t know when the idea took hold that shopkeepers would not be residents. Promotional literature announced that Bronxville was “restricted,” but the restrictions were not explained. At first, they didn’t need to be. Then they needed not to be, because they were contrary to the laws of the United States.
There are two Bronxvilles, one within the other. This unquestionably the first thing that you need to know about the place. Realtors don’t fool around. “Bronxville proper” is wholly contained within “Bronxville PO.” The larger entity also includes chunks of Yonkers, to the west, Mount Vernon, to the south, and Eastchester. I’m told that some kinds of people are still unwelcome within Bronxville proper, but persistent would-be home buyers whom in the days of my youth would never have gotten past a phone call are no longer absolutely refused. Bronxville’s restrictions have become somewhat elective.
I grew up in Bronxville PO. When I was twelve, my family moved into Bronxville proper. When I was twenty, my parents moved to Houston. By that time, I knew that Bronxville was a bubble, like some science-fiction zone. Anyone could come and go, but not everybody could stay, and ideas of any kind were suspect. The only important ideas were the ones that had inspired the development of Bronxville itself. There was no need for thought. “Intellectuals” and “longhairs” alike — the latter being concert violinists, not hippies — were equally unwelcome.
For twenty years, I lived in this place, and was afraid of living anywhere else, because almost everywhere else was meaner and uglier. In childhood, I accepted Bronxville’s comforts and its atmosphere without question. Every year, though, the feeling that I did not belong here deepened; every year, I sensed a little more clearly that there would come a time when I would be expelled. As a teenager, I realized that this expulsion would occur when I grew up, because I would no longer be allowed to live in my parents’ house, while it would also be the case that I should be quite incapable of providing myself with a roof in the pretty village. As we have seen, I left, or my parents left, before this eventuality befell me. I was very lucky in that. I didn’t want to live in Bronxville anymore, but I was still afraid to live anywhere else. Houston was in many ways the saving of me.
I have already mentioned the aspect of Bronxville’s domed self-segregation that took the longest for me to understand. That only white, affluent Christians should be allowed to live in Bronxville is not what made it unusual. What made it unusual was its attitude toward the great city a short distance away. It regarded the city not as a rich urban complex of arts and sciences, of ethnic variety, but as a pit mine from which salaries could be extracted by hardy executives. I can’t think of anyone who lived in Bronxville because it was a pleasant suburb of New York. Pleasant it might be, and suburban as well, but at heart Bronxville was a fortress. Its walls were made of social conventions that were deaf and blind to the cosmopolitan allure of the most creative city in the country. I wrote at the beginning that Bronxville might as well have been in Kuwait. That captures the purely exploitative outlook of the bulk of its residents. Kuwait has oil; New York has corporate headquarters. It had a great many more corporate headquarters then. It was only after we left — and we left in the vanguard of recognition — that New York lost the kind of glamour that would make somebody think that a company must be prosperous if it was headquartered in New York City. Today, the city is lucky to have the bankers, who really do need to live here.
I never understood, when I lived in Bronxville, why New York seemed so near and yet so far, why it always seemed bogus to claim that I was “from New York.” I was from anti-New-York, a virtual antipod. It was this hostility to the city, and not the village charm, or the English references, or the politely eclectic architecture, that made Bronxville a fake. I should say that it was fake from my perspective. To most of the residents, it was New York that was fake, as everything cosmopolitan is fake to the truly provincial. Although I was terrified by the thought of living in Manhattan, and the boroughs looked to me then, as they still do, like the outer circles of hell, I was drawn to the city from the moment that my mind woke up, or I woke up to it. At the same time, I was aware that the world was not big enough to contain Bronxville and New York City. If, that is, it was your misfortune to live in Bronxville.
Contrary to the impression that I must be giving, I don’t think about Bronxville very often. I’ve no reason to. My mother has been dead for nearly forty years. Once we moved to Houston, I stopped associating my father with it altogether. You must remember that my parents themselves did not choose to live in Bronxville. They chose, what it something rather different, to stay on. When they got married, in 1942, it was familiar. Their parents lived there. Their parents had chosen it. And they had chosen it for the reasons I’m setting forth, reasons that resonated with my mother without her thinking about them. These reasons had a nucleus, a solid body that, while absent from Bronxville, characterized New York City to a degree approached nowhere else in the United States and, arguably, the world. For when I was growing up, there were said to be more Jews in the metropolitan area than there were in all of Israel. New York City, for all its clubs and coops that were no less “restricted” than Bronxville, New York was a city of Jews.
Am I anti-Semitic? “Of course not,” I want to say. But I am too attuned to distinguishing Jews from everybody else to be quite sure. What difference does it make? Pointlessly, I recognize the difference. It came with the water. When I went to Blair, I met Jewish boys for the first time. My roommate’s father was Jewish. I wanted to be someone to whom such information was absolutely neutral, personally meaningless, but I could not shake the violence of my mother’s attitudes. She did not vent her anti-Semitism often; in Bronxville, there was no need, that was the point of living there. But the few things that she did say would have made her welcome in Hitler’s entourage. This was what made reading about the death camps in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich — my first really thick book — horrifying rather than ghoulish. I never heard my mother say a thing about the Nazis and the Jews. She never, to my recollection, expressed any kind of approbation of the former. It is stupid to imagine what she might have done had she lived in Germany during that awful time. Thinking hard, I can’t decide whether she would have taken advantage of the bargain of living in a flat from which Jews had been expelled. She had her delicacies, and, as an American, they were easy to afford, if you could afford to live in Bronxville — which, as I say, was not the home of a lot of rich people. My mother had the kind of compartmentalized mind that builds an impermeable wall between Now and Then, Here and There. Her mind stifled the implications of her own character.
My mother was more voluble on the subject of blacks, or at any rate more horribly explicit. Do I have to repeat the things she would say? I would rather not, but having gone this far, have I not already been hurtful? This is the threshold problem of recounting this bigotry. To memorialize its existence is bad enough; worse is to suggest that the person remembering the awful things that were said (me) is the true victim. And yet that is what I think. What my mother said about blacks did not hurt them. It shamed me. Basically, she expressed ideas that were held about the Hottentots in the early days of evolution. When my mother characterized the Jews, I could see her point. I’ve heard Jews talk about Jews using the same words. But what my mother said about blacks was simply wrong, outrageously wrong. It never crossed my mind that she might be right. But the shame of hearing her say these things was a burden.
It proved to be an easy burden to lay down, because millions of Americans shared my shame and put their parents’ attitudes behind them. There has, sadly, never been anything at all unusual about racism vis-à-vis blacks. Anti-Semitism, in contrast, seems to have evaporated altogether, leaving me and a few other similarly situated old people with unquiet recollections.
Bronxville is quite small, which is why it is not very well-known. It occupies about a square mile in area, but it is not square. It is twice as wide from west to east as it is from south to north. The Harlem Valley line of the Metro North railway runs not far from its western border, which is the Bronx River. From the railroad station, Pondfield Road stretches from northwest to southeast and then curves not far above the southern border. NY Route 22, also known as the White Plains Post Road runs near to its eastern boundary — Pondfield Road crosses it near one of the corners. At the north, Bronxville simply dissolves into Tuckahoe, another village in the Town of Eastchester. There are three school districts in the Town, and I have just named them. The three districts are like Goldilock’s porridge. If you were looking for a nice, representatively American demographic, Bronxville would be too rich, Tuckahoe too poor, and Eastchester just about right.
Every now and then, you would hear someone refer to the intersection of Pondfield Road and Midland Avenue, which just about bisects Bronxville from north to south, as “Four Corners.” I have already suggested why anyone might say such a thing. It sounds like the informal center of a small town far from New York. Across from Bronxville School rose the Dutch Reformed Church. If you were not Lutheran, or Episcopalian, or a Christian Scientist — was there a Methodist church? I can’t think of one anywhere nearby — you went to the Dutch Reformed Church, which, so far from honoring its Calvinist roots, boasted a cloister. It sat on a small rise and its bell tower had a low peaked steeple, like something in the English countryside. On the other side of Midland Avenue from these vaguely medieval, vaguely collegiate structures were the Palladian Town Hall and its James River cousin, the public library. The Post Office was at the edge of the two blocks of shops. Tucked into the Kraft Avenue side of the shops was the movie theatre. Further along, toward Midland Avenue, stood St Joseph’s Roman Catholic church.
The actual Episcopal church was more definitely Gothic. The Christian Scientists had a sort of Meeting House. On the Post Road, the Lutherans had a church, bordering the Lutheran college there, that was built in a modernized Gothic idiom that I found smart enough to excuse the fooling around. We went to the minority church, the Catholic one: St Joseph’s. St Joseph’s is a somewhat heavy but very severe Gothic building, more ponderous than any archetype but, more to the point, quite Protestant in appearance. Compared with the Church of the Immaculate Conception up in Tuckahoe, it seems a bunker with windows. Even the windows aren’t too tacky. Next door to the church stood, also on Kraft Avenue — a name I always found somewhat, well, cheesy — a parochial school in a watered-down Bauhaus style, very not-Gothic. It has been expanded to occupy the site of the old convent, on Meadow Avenue. The rectory, built to suit the church, stands behind it on Cedar Street. You could tell from the difference between the rectory and the convent how things stood between men and women of the Church.
During my brief parochial school career, I was expected to show up for the Mass at nine o’clock, to sit with my class. Perhaps my parents took us out of St Joseph’s School so that they could sleep late. They favored 11:15 Mass. This was usually celebrated by Father Cronin, whom I instinctively regarded as a learned man, because he was willing to be boring. I couldn’t follow what he was saying, but he made it all sound very sound. This was increasingly important, because the more I experienced Catholicism, the more it seemed like superstition to me. I imagined God in heaven, paying attention to everybody. I imagined Jesus at the Last Supper with the Apostles. I couldn’t have said why, but these images were unattractive. Jesus on the Cross, suffering. “Suffering” meant little more than “Jesus on the Cross.” Deprived of the coherent account of things in Mark, I couldn’t know that Jesus had made his bed when he disrupted the moneychangers in the Temple; this was a connection that Catholic liturgy all but elided. But I could not think of Jesus as innocent. Nor could I regard him as the child of the Holy Spirit. I didn’t think that Joseph was the father — somehow, that would have been rude. It was easier to imagine that Jesus never really existed.
I did not believe, and I did not want to believe. If I did not want to believe, some of the blame for that mortal sin must be laid at the torment that I suffered in the wool suit that I had to wear to Mass. It was inexpensive, and the wool was coarse. What with all the kneeling and the sitting, my legs were on fire by the time Mass was over. My father’s mother once suggested that my mother line the trousers, which highlighted as if by lightning the difference between the two women. My grandmother, whom her sons adored, took their comfort seriously; mother mother thought that I needed toughening up. I squirmed and twitched and sometimes tears popped out of my eyes. My mother’s lack of sympathy — and, like so many spoiled only children, she was not only unsympathetic but distrustful about any pain that she had not personally experienced — and the dour if distant echoes of Irish Catholicism combined to make Mass purgatorial enough to kill any interest in the life after death.
My biggest theological problem was heaven. It always has been, really. As an adult, I have questioned the sheer imaginability of a physical resurrection, which, I don’t know how you feel about it, strikes me as undesirable at best. As an adult — perhaps this reflects our greater life expectances — I have a very hard time understanding why anyone would ever have wished to lug bodies around forever in paradise, especially since you-know-what is presumably off limits. As a child, I wasn’t bothered by these considerations. It had more to do with the altruism problem. Do we ever do good for its own sake? The catechism urged us to love God for the hell of it, but of course it was the heaven. A remark of my mother’s lighted up the problem. I asked her one day why we didn’t have a swimming pool, when three of our neighbors did. She made the usual excuse about not being able to afford it (a rank lie), and then added that, if we had a pool, then our friends would only like us so that we would invite them to use it. Suddenly it was all very clear. Wasn’t this exactly why we were exhorted to sin no more and to lead virtuous lives? So that God would let us use his swimming pool? Wasn’t it all a gigantic trade-off, and wasn’t the Church pretty blunt about it? Life had already convinced me that although God might have thought that he had a great heaven lined up for me, I would find it wanting. This bargain of God’s, which I now saw as the whole point of religion, was not appealing.
Even children understand that bogus authorities can inflict pain, so I expected to be punished by a God in whom I did not believe for the sin of disrespect. In the three years before boarding school, when my atheism calcified in taking a stand against going to Mass at all, I regretted a future in which I should be able to listen to Handel’s Messiah with any sincerity. Mozart’s Requiem was no lost to me, or so I thought.
In my day, there was a hotel, the Gramatan, which sat in Moorish splendor atop the hill overlooking the train station, which was built in the same style. I never set foot in the hotel proper, although we often had dinner at a restaurant, the Hereford House (as in steak), located in the range of shops at the base of the hill. I always wondered if tunnels in the hill connected these shops, one of which was the barbershop, with the hotel. My parents, when asked, neither knew nor cared. The hotel was said to be occupied by old ladies. There were a lot of old ladies in Bronxville, although few of them lived in houses. They lived in apartments whose graciousness was discounted by proximity to the railroad tracks. True, the railroad traffic was confined to passengers, and the trains whisked along quickly, making hardly any more noise than they do beneath Park Avenue. But trains are trains, and, for that matter, apartments are apartments. The old ladies of Bronxville seemed to have their own provenance. They were rarely relics of families that had inhabited the houses. There was one who was sloppy with her makeup. As she sashayed along Pondfield Road in her fur stole and hat, she was followed by whispers. “There goes the Madam.” Even as a child, I knew that it was not nice to be a madam. Which reminds me of a hilarious story about Kathleen, but that will have to wait. For much of my life in Bronxville, Kathleen was growing up on East 96th Street in Manhattan, quite properly oblivious of Bronxville. A point in her favor: she actually lived in the City. A point in mine: Kathleen’s suburban connections were to Long Island and New Jersey. Nobody’s perfect.
My next topic presents a conundrum. Can I say that there were two clubs in Bronxville, except that they weren’t? You don’t build golf courses or tennis courts on land in Bronxville; it’s throwing good money away. (Nor do you build a college — Sarah Lawrence — within the metes and bounds.) One club, the Bronxville Field Club, was not a country club. A country club was a golf course attached to a hotel for weekend bachelors, usually featuring a ballroom and a restaurant for special occasions. City gents would escape to their country clubs on the convenient commuter train. The bedrooms were Spartan, but that accorded nicely with prep-school nostalgia. Ladies were not permitted anywhere near the bedrooms, not to mention the locker rooms beneath them. Men did not go to country clubs to fraternize with ladies. On the contrary, they came to escape from them. We did not belong to the Field Club until I was a teenager. Its principal features were tennis courts and a large swimming pool. My mother was a swimmer, but had outgrown it, or her hair had, and in any event she preferred the pool at the Travers Island campus of the New York Athletic Club, which, during the War, had apparently housed the Swedish Navy, to an officer of which she was briefly engaged. And she did not play tennis. My father couldn’t even swim. Like many people who grew up on Mississippi River — Clinton, Iowa, in his case — he was terrified of water, and even in our pool in Houston he would panic if the float that he was lounging on drifted over the deep end. So I don’t know why my parents joined the Field Club. At the time, all that mattered to me was that we belonged. I wanted them to belong to everything.
I always felt that I belonged to Siwanoy Country Club before I was born — that alone could explain why I was unlike everyone else there. From a very early age, I had dinner there every Sunday night that we did not spend at the Hereford House. I knew about the club’s bedrooms, but I never heard of anybody using them, so I was always a little puzzled by the “country” part of the club’s name. We most certainly were not in the country. We were in the suburbs — one of the very nicest. There were no barns or cows. My father played golf at Siwanoy every Saturday and ever Sunday, weather and business permitting. He served as president of the club for a year shortly before we left for Houston, and his father-in-law had been president during the war, still remembered for introducing “brunch.” This was one of those details that would have made me a truly insufferable snob if only we had been Protestants. But we were Roman Catholics.
And, for a long time, of course, we did not live in Bronxville. We lived just over the Bronx River when I was little, in an apartment in a building called The Wellington. When I was seven, we moved to the other side of the postcode, where we lived in a house on Hathaway Road, also not in the Village proper. Only in 1960 did we cross the line, to a house not far from Hathaway Road, on Paddington Circle. It was then that my three years at Bronxville School began. During that time, my feelings about Bronxville went into reverse. I had worshiped it when I hadn’t had it. Not-living-in-Bronxville-proper was almost as irritating as a pebble in my shoe. On Hathaway Road, we lived surrounded by people to whom Bronxville meant little or nothing. Many of them had, until very recently, inhabited Queens or the Bronx, and were celebrating their arrival in or near the upper middle class with ranch houses and split levels. It would have been rude to tell them what we thought of them. Actually, I don’t think that my sister agreed with my parents and myself on this point. She was never a snob, which was something of a cross for her in her dealings with my parents. My cross, which felt much bigger to me, took form from my being a much, much bigger snob.
We lived in Bronxville PO because my parents had met and married in Bronxville proper, but then, starting out on their own, they had been obliged to find affordable housing. My father had not chosen Bronxville as a bastion of anything; it was simply where his parents lived. His outlook was conventional; he kept his feelings, insofar as they varied from convention, to himself. He was too narcoleptic to harbor resentments. He had been a notorious napper even as a young man. His father had berated him, as unlikely to amount to anything. As soon as possible, my father drifted off to sleep again, or so I imagine. The judge’s hectoring — for my grandfather was a judge of sorts — always amused us, because Dad had amounted to a great deal, although I remarked to friends that he had slept his way to the top. He wasn’t as easygoing as he pretended to be. He took his career very seriously, but I think he understood that success would depend upon his behaving as though he didn’t.
After Notre Dame (’36) and Harvard Law (’38), my father found work with a large law firm in the city. I don’t know what kept him out of the War. Was it flat feet, or hypertension? Those years were shrouded in mist and not discussed. I am not kidding when I say that the only story that my father ever told me about the period between law school and my arrival had a beginning, but neither middle nor end. I had said something about tequila, which was enjoying a fad. My father rolled his eyes. “There was a night in 1944…” His voice trailed off eloquently. A lot of bridge was played. I’m not sure it was a boast, but my father participated in a constant game of bridge, kept up at all hours by rotating players, throughout his sophomore year in college. Or maybe it was for longer. By the time I knew him, he had lost interest in cards. His sole hobby was golf. And he was working at the Company.
I have already stated the name of the Company, so we needn’t go through that again. I dreaded telling people what my father did, because the Company’s name was so ridiculous. It made perfect sense, if you happened to be in the natural gas transmission business, but people were not generally aware how the gas that burned in stoves got there. It came from Con Ed, which provided electricity, too. Con Ed got its gas from a pipeline company, but it wasn’t the pipeline company that my father worked for. My father’s gas came out of the ground in or near Texas and it was piped to the Midwest. The Company didn’t produce anything that you could buy at the store. It was not a bank or an insurance company. Not only did the Company lack a brand name with any currency in the metropolitan area, it provided an unbranded service. The only time you heard about natural gas was when someone’s oven exploded. It was for fear of such an event that my mother refused to use gas in her kitchen. It was irony, not unrelated to my father’s belief that there was more to cooking than throwing something in a pan and turning on the burner. For “belief” &c, substitute my father’s inability to stay awake of early weekend morning, when, feeling peckish, he decided to fix himself some bacon. Oh, the smoke that woke us! No matter how you looked at it, what my father did was undiscussable.
I could make the standard complaint, that my father was never there, but this was true only in technical terms. The hours that he spent at home, awake, were indeed few. I remember a painful half hour in the front yard at Hathaway Road, the two of us tossing a softball back and forth. The End. Dad was the center of attention at the dinner table because he was such a nice change from Mother. He was not, however, voluble. At restaurants, he would phase out somewhat, or he and my mother would have a conversation about worldly things, gossip of various kinds, and my sister and I would be allowed to pitch in so long as we were respectful and knew what we were talking about. Then there might be a drive after dinner. My father was not a talkative driver, and he disliked lively discussions in the car; often, he would not very politely ask us to shut up. Encounters with my father outside these settings were extraordinary and worrying. He didn’t enjoy them any more than I did. Physical punishment was handled by my mother, but petitions and ordinances were my father’s domain. As I grew taller and more assertive, the fact that my father and I had different agendas became problematic. Having two big men in the house was a strain. Boarding school was clearly the answer. Even for my sister it would be the answer. After that, it was we who were never there.
He started out as Sales Manager, or perhaps as Assistant Sales Manager, stepping from the deck of the law firm to the dock of junior-executive status. When I became conscious of such things, he was the Secretary of the Company. Was this not hilarious, my father a secretary? Everybody knew that only ladies could be secretaries! Imagine Dad in a dress! I was very disrespectful to my father, almost precisely as my grandson is disrespectful to me. It is a form of affection that takes the place of a constitutional inability (in youth) to admire. My father might have been a successful man, but it was very easy to imagine the judge scolding him for being a no-good layabout. Admiration for my father bloomed so slowly that it did not actually flower until he had been dead for several years.
He was a big man; he had played football in high school, and grown outward from there. Never actually fat (for his age), he was always overweight. He grew into his own importance. His modesty became reserve; his wariness became discretion. He took on substance the entire time I knew him, at least until my mother died. He was a model executive, bland but effective. Inertia was his friend, and he knew how to use it. I’m sure that he was taken on at the Company because he was affable and agreeable and because, without any kind of air of inferiority, he knew his place. He knew that his place was to support his superiors, and he appeared to be content to wait for them to vacate their positions to make room for him. Not that it was easy. The head of the Company, the man who had founded it decades earlier, could reduce him to tears. Several times in the Fifties, he came home to the house on Hathaway Road to announce that he had been fired. He and my mother would cry, just as they cried when their parents died (which they all did within three or four years) and, at least once, when they made up after a round of suitcase-packing. These breakdowns of parental imperturbability were disconcerting, of course, but they were rare. My father never was fired.
The joke was that Roosevelt had inaugurated the Federal Power Commission specifically to meet Mr Maguire’s threat to shut off Cleveland — or maybe it was Indianapolis. Mr Maguire was the founder of Panhandle. I never knew much about him, but I expect he was out of the same sort of box as Joseph Kennedy. Let us think of him as a promoter. Engaged in a quarrel with the utility company in Cleveland, Mr McGuire declared that he was going to turn off the mains. The result was a federal regulatory agency that imposed some highly socialistic controls over what Mr Maguire could and could not do. Rate increases would have to be approved in Washington; certificates of public convenience and necessity would have to be issued to legitimate every change in the pipeline’s operation. Without this burden, there would have been nothing for my father to do at a natural gas transmission company. As it was, it kept him busy.
As Secretary of the Company, Dad was responsible for the Annual Report to Shareholders. The contents of this report were mandated by law, but some details could be summarized, and the report was regarded as promotional literature, not for the purchase of natural gas but for the possession of Panhandle stock. It was glossy and streamlined, although somewhat homely as well, befitting the utilitarian nature of the Company’s enterprise, which was of course presented as a service. Without waving any flags, annual reports honored shareholders for supporting structural businesses that made America great, or at least dependably prosperous. These were the happy days between Main Street and Wall Street, and shareholding was patriotic as well as self-interested. The annual report was a diploma of sorts, suitable for the coffee table in a manly den. Its combination of facts, figures, and bromides gave it the same aspirational power that men’s fitness magazines enjoy today. Merely to possess a copy was a demonstration that your head was in the right place.
My father slaved over the annual report. How I wish I’d been able to appreciate his efforts! The text of the annual report put me to sleep, but not so quickly that I couldn’t tell that it was well done. There were never any grammatical errors. It was never difficult to follow, even if it was impossible to imagine why anyone would bother. I never doubted that Dad was an effective writer. He complained of the pains that he took, but that’s something that most writers do. I never knew just what kind of pains writing gave him. But I knew that he was better than good enough, and he, for his part, recognized my ability to write. That’s why he wanted me to go to law school. “You can write.” Oh, if only that were all that was wanted.
The difference between “Mr Maguire” and “the Company” was slight, but we spoke of Mr McGuire only in connection with actual sightings, which were rare. He paid a visit to our home on Paddington Circle toward the end of his life; he was not endearing. If he smiled, it was the smile of a powerful magus, capable of reducing you to talcum powder. I seem to recall that my sister and I were cautioned against being too friendly — for we were both virtuosos, in our way, of welcoming people into our home. Mr Maguire’s limousine pulled up in front of the house (which, although it was a perfectly nice Bronxville house, was not designed for the arrival of limousines), and Mr Maguire made his way to the front door with the aid of a stick. More than that I don’t recall.
In Houston, the Company would be something like Bronxville, a dome or zone in which many mortal cares were dispatched to the care of drivers, plumbers, electricians, agents of all kinds, even jet pilots. I had a bit of a rear-ender while driving my father’s car once (when my parents were out of town), and the whole horrid business was taken care of by men from the Company. Parties at my parents house were staffed by Company drivers and their friends, always as perfectly and as unflappably as what you’d see in the movies. At the house, it was easy to imagine that we lived not in Houston but on a Company estate.
There was none of that in New York, where the Company presence was limited to the top executives. Nevertheless, the Company was more than an office to which my father hied every day. The Company rented an apartment in the Carlton House, a residential hotel on Madison Avenue that has just been overhauled and refurbished as a sparkling condo with great art-déco lines. Apartment 10-B, to be exact. Just who used this apartment was unclear. Was it Mr Maguire? Or was it the fourth Mrs Maguire? In my mind — I don’t think I ever met her — the fourth Mrs Maguire was somewhere between Spring Byington and Florence Bates. My mother said something mysterious about a companion who was a baronness. There was a daughter, who married a titled Frenchman. There was an older daughter, by an earlier Mrs Maguire, who was married to the Number Two at the Company, a man whose life was made a very hell by his father-in-law’s caprice. But my mother was fond of leaving her car at the back door of the Carlton House, where it would patiently await her return. Whether it was for the benefit of Mr Maguire (doubtful), Mrs Maguire (somehow also not very likely) or some other person who happened to be a music-lover, the Company subscribed to a box at the Philharmonic. I can’t think of anything less apt to please visiting oil- and gas-men, and, for a time, my mother was able to use the tickets. That’s how I went to my first proper concert.
For a long time, I was just a boy. My world was very small and, by any material measure, protected by good fortune. I was aware of this, as a clever boy might well be, looking out the windows from the rear of a sedan on drives through neighboring, less affluent precincts, such as Yonkers or Hell’s Kitchen. I knew that the bedlinens would always be white and clean; I knew that hunger was unusually unusual. I knew that the only violence in the home would be my punishments, which were rituals of frustration (for my mother) and not very severe. Although I was almost always “in trouble,” and often bored to death, I knew that I was leading the life of Riley. I shouldn’t have traded it with anybody. My only real concern was that my parents would send me to reform school. “Reform school,” in the late Fifties, was still out there as a cultural artifact, even though the grim institutions of the Twenties and Thirties had been cleaned up so much that, had I been sent to one — had any boy from Bronxville been sent to one — it would have resembled a slightly grungy hospital, not a prison. I didn’t know that. Reform school was very vivid in my mind. Already, I was gifted at seeing both sides of a problem. I could see why my parents might decide to “send me away.” When they did, it was to Blair Academy, but I didn’t know anything about boarding schools (that weren’t also reform schools) when I was a boy. I only knew that I deserved whatever I got.
Why? The list of sins was not entirely venial. I was something of a pyromaniac. I liked to see things burn up. I liked to watch the dancing flames consume their own source. It started with a certain kind of weed that grew in the undeveloped acres across from our house on Hathaway Road (in Bronxville PO). This weed rose to a wheat-life crown, and it was also straw-colored when mature. You could pull a nice hank of it with one fist, but I came to prefer to burn it in place. It burned very fast. Nothing else in the woods, as we called this acreage, burned anything like it. So my fires were self-contained. The wheat weed burned so quickly that it never heated anything else. I was disappointed, if lucky, that more plants didn’t burn. I was bright enough not to start campfires, which in any case lacked the sparkling surrender of the wheat weed.
I started a lot of small fires in the woods, but only once did one get out of hand. It was in a place called “the swamp” — a depression in the ground where there was usually some water — and it lay below and behind the house right across the street, which is how my mother came to see the plume of smoke. Having managed to extinguish the fire, I went home to be met by her suspicions. I professed ignorance; then I blamed the flames on a tramp — the fruit of too many Million Dollar Movies. I’m sure that I was punished, at least for lying so baldly. I still remember shaking with mendacity, as if I had suddenly found myself on a tightrope. The most sensational conflagration, however, was still to come.
In our basement, there was a large cement table. Our part of the world — which includes Manhattan — was dotted with boulders and rocky outcrops. For a long time, these were deemed to be too expensive to blast. The price of homes eventually rose out of proportion to the price of explosives, and our house was built during the transition. (The woods, which were undeveloped for this reason, have over the years disappeared into houses, driveways, backyards and swimming pools.) Instead of obliterating a chunk of granite in the basement, the builder simply covered it with a level top and perpendicular sides. Upon this plateau I ran my model railroad empire, trying to pretend that it was not pathetic: a circle of track with some Plasticville structures. Maybe I ought to interrupt this narrative to explain another one of my vices.
I was a thief. I stole money, any money that I saw lying about anywhere. My parents soon learned not to leave money lying about. Then my mother began to miss five dollar bills in her wallet. When confronted with accusations, I had a hard time explaining recent railroad acquisitions, new property developments on the cement table. My career as a thief did not last long. But I was marked for some time as a person who sulked if he couldn’t have what he wanted, who didn’t understand why others didn’t just give him things. This sulking never went on for long, though, because it was boring.
When I was eleven, shortly before we moved out of the house, I underwent one of the first of several fits of aesthetic revolution that characterized the next ten years. I have already mentioned the solo trip that I made to Polk’s Hobby Shop in Manhattan and the very little engine that I brought home. I don’t remember how I engineered the transition from clumsy O gauge to hobbyist HO, but a casualty of the shift was my Plasticville real estate. It was too big. It was gross and unrealistically stylized anyway. I decided that the best way to get rid of it would be to burn it. I had never seen plastic burn before, or perhaps I should have known better.
It was the middle of the afternoon. My parents were elsewhere. Upstairs, either Miss Nelson or Mrs Rogers was babysitting. I lighted a match. No — I did not burn the house down. The cement table provided a very effective firewall, and the flames never rose high enough to endanger the insulation beneath the living room floors. Nothing happened, nothing permanent. The air in the basement was temporarily inhospitable to respiring creatures such as myself, at least above a certain altitude, but I found that I could manage if I crouched. But manage what? The air was full not only of smoke but of great gobs of plastic ash, snowball-sized clumps of black grime. What an idiot I was! Christ! Yes, reader, I blasphemed. The fire eventually went out, but the smoke and the sulfurous remains of the Church and the Drive-In Restaurant (salmon pink, once) and the Train Station did not go away. They hung in the air, drifting very, very slowly.
There was a door that led to a concrete stairway that went up to the lawn. When I opened it, nothing happened. Wherever I turned, there was a physics lesson waiting for someone to take notes. Eventually, the door at the top of the inside stairs opened. “Robert?” boomed a querulous voice. “What are you doing down there?”
Okay, I got in a lot of trouble, but I forget how much it hurt — or if it even did, for more than an hour. What I took away as the moral of the story was how close to a Chas Addams cartoon real life can be brought, if you put your mind to it. Or if you put your mind on hold for a few minutes. I wish I could have been there. As the old man I am today, I mean. I’d have died laughing, if not from smoke inhalation. Who is this kid and what is he thinking?
How long did it take for this story to be funny? I was not thinking funny at the time. Yet again, I was scared out of my wits by an experiment that had gone out of control.
I was also a malingerer. I would tell my mother that I felt sick and wanted to stay home. The number of days on which this worked was shorter than my career as a thief, but the instances were widely spaced. The bad thing about staying home from school was that it was boring, playing sick. I had to stay in my room. On the last of these occasions, my mother ran an errand and returned to find that all the furniture in my room had been moved to a new location, almost like Poltergeist. Not having seen the movie, which would not come out for a few years yet, I didn’t think to implicate spirits. I should like to have seen my mother’s face if I had. “I don’t know, Mom — ghosts?” I never invested much effort in trying to get out of something once I was caught. I fessed up and paid my debt to society, and went on to the next experiment.
I was always getting in trouble for raiding the attic. The attic was full of curiosities, just begging to be fiddled with. And there was something for every age group. There was the large hour-glassed-shaped cage that pivoted at its waist; dice were tossed within. There was the game that I always called Chemin de fer (once I heard the name), even though it was obviously a kind of horse race. There was a long folding piece of heavy cardboard, divided longitudinally into lanes, with colored wooden horses to match. This may have gone with the cage of dice. There were old 78s, for a later stage in my life. I would play the shellacs that my mother had last listened to in the mid-Thirties and imagine the fun that everyone must have had despite the Depression. This was how I discovered Patricia Norman. AAAwwwwwww, I should hate you, but I guess that I sure do love you! During a Cardinal Richelieu period, I covered a table in my bedroom with a tapestry, not too unlike a carpet, that fell to the floor stiffly — an effect that can be glimpsed in at least three of Vermeer’s paintings. I was always made to return everything to whence it came.
My pyromania would not go away, but it settled more or less harmlessly in candlelight. On an eighth-grade class trip to Colonial Williamsburg that provoked the most serious aesthetic revulsioon of all, I saw at once that electric lighting was an abomination. With a zeal that I now recognize as plain puritanical disgust, I regarded lampshades as the apparel of the Whore of Babylon. To paraphrase E F Benson, I threw myself into a frantically Georgian state of mind. How I retained my eyesight is a mystery. Theft was out of the question, because my parents, affluent as they were, didn’t have enough money to furnish me as I should have been furnished. The only transformation that I could manage was the introduction of tea. It has always had to be Twining’s Earl Grey. I understand that, strictly speaking, this is Non-U. I no longer really appreciate the fragrance. It’s just that other varieties, or Earl Grey produced by other firms, taste funny.
Aside from the immolation of Plasticville, I tried hard not to break things. I did not relish destruction per se. Explosions were different. What could be more thrilling than a bucket full of powders and cleansers, not intended to be mixed, that bubbled and burbled and threatened to boil over?
Sometimes, my experiments involved other children. I have already mentioned pulling the chair from behind a classmate in sixth grade. Once, I took two neighbors, a brother and sister who had been strictly enjoined never to go into the woods, right into the heart of them. Then I turned an ran, their screams of dismay following me all the way out. I expect they stumbled upon civilization presently; we are not talking about the Black Forest here. Another fun thing in the woods was to stand at the edge of somebody’s backyard and play “broken radio.” One kid would produce a steady hum while the rest would sing see-sawing motifs. Our ambitions were modest: all we wanted was for someone to open the back door and tell us to shut the hell up. There were a lot of games involving closets, but I don’t think that any of them were played twice.
There was almost always a new house under construction somewhere. At the end of the day, the workers would leave an oil barrel full to the brim with water, usually near a pile of sand. Instant Mississippi! Thus I learned about the formation of alluvial plains at an early age. I also learned what houses are made of. Some of those things are not solid. One time, in what would be the attic of somebody’s home, I was walking from beam to beam when I decided — and I did decide — to step onto one of the dull brown paper bags that were stuffed between the beams. In no time at all, I was gripping the beams with my forearms while my legs kicked desperately from the ceiling of what would be somebody’s living room. A true adventurer would have let go and bravely broken something, but in addition to being a scientist I was a physical coward when finally confronted with danger, and I waited for a ladder. As I say, I didn’t like to break things.
There must have been more; these are but the escapades that entered the repertoire. I was deeply ashamed of myself much of the time, because I was branded by my mother as a person who liked to tear the wings off flies. This puzzled me, because I certainly didn’t; I was never curious about insects or, indeed, any animals other than my own kind. When I realized that it meant that my curiosity bordered on sadism, I filed an inward protest. But what if they were right? What if I really was a sociopath?
I have often wondered what Dr Knight thought. Dr Knight was a psychiatrist who practised in nearby Scarsdale. (I believed that he lived in Bronxville, but he would have starved for patients there. Nobody in Bronxville had the wiring for neurosis.) I was sent to Dr Knight in the middle of sixth grade, when I complained of headaches. It took a while for my mother to see more than malingering in this. I can tell you plainly that there were no headaches, but that the Brother who taught Sixth Grade was making me crazy. He liked to slap a yardstick on his desk for emphasis, and he liked to have me sitting in the front row, given my reputation for disruptions. I think that he was trying things out. He was really an affable fellow, almost self-effacing, not anyone you would confuse with a disciplinarian or a martinet. But undoubtedly this signaled to me that he didn’t know what he was doing. I was very familiar with that phenomenon, foolish myself but clever enough to recognize it in others. And I have always hated insistent percussion. I much prefer a boom to a thwack. I was never struck by mistake, but I was miserable enough to feign headaches successfully.
Dr Knight suggested that we begin with an electro-encephalogram. I wonder now how recently that procedure had been introduced. For our trip to the Harkness Pavilion at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, in uptown Manhattan, we all got dressed, my parents and I, for a nice restaurant. We were conducted to a room with a window at one end. Through the window we could see a girl in a party dress having her curly blonde locks disheveled by a nurse who was busy attaching electrodes. There was no way that anything like that would be done to me. I don’t think that the electrodes themselves were the problem. I was not afraid of being juiced. It was just so mortifying to undergo the ordeal in a jacket and tie, with my parents watching through the window. My amour-propre put its foot down, and we did without the tests — for, of course, there is no point in submitting a patient in a disturbed state of mind to such metrics. Dr Knight and I fell back on the talking cure.
I like to think that he took me for the most boring little snot that anyone ever paid him to endure. I’ll never know. The fact remains that I learned how to conduct yourself at a psychiatrist’s office. You do not notice other patients. Dr Knight had a gala layout with an exit separate from the entrance; I don’t think that I ever saw another doctor with that setup. For I did see other doctors. On and off for most of my life. I often wonder why, and then I wonder if my wondering why is the sign of an untreated illness. Much later, after my truncated freshman year at Notre Dame, I would go back to Dr Knight. He suggested that I pay for my sessions out of the salary I was paid at my prematurely revived summer job at the Bank of New York. I was horrified. Me? Pay? You could diagnose this response as the resistance of a hostile narcissist. I didn’t know about hostile narcissism at the time, but from the moment I learned about it, I wondered if it was the problem with me. Meaning: if that was the problem that my mother had with me. Is that what was wrong, not with me so much (further indication of hostile narcissism) as with our relationship, which, when you get down it, was not meant to be.
I would also worry, much later, about my place on the autism spectrum. I had just learned about Asperger’s. The doctor whom I was seeing at the time pooh-poohed it. More malingering. The question remains, though: why did my mother and I drive each other crazy? I didn’t mind the crazy part so much. It was the incessant shame that I couldn’t stand. Was there ever a more unloving son?
Somewhat shamelessly, I will confess to having typed some of the foregoing sentences blinded by tears of laughter. My mother did not live to see my antics transformed into comedy. I think that she might have smiled at bits of it, but the humor would have largely eluded her. I’m not sure why; I just sense it. Her father was a great practical joker, at least I always thought of him as one, and feared it in him. If I was going to look like a fool, I wanted to do it myself. I hated surprises. But I can’t think of a single one of his practical jokes. Certainly he didn’t go in for the sort of roughhousing where you open a door and a bucket of water inundates you. He always had the ladies in mind. He was more of a stunt man, I suppose. He served chocolate-covered ants as a cocktail snack once. Maybe more than once. Ladies would scream, but no harm was done. He loved to put on Groucho glasses, with the bushy eyebrows, the big nose, and the fake moustache. He may even have gone in for a few sleight-of-hand tricks. My mother loved all that sort of thing. She herself went in for the same sort of gag. She had a pair of satin high heels — without the heels. The part of the slipper’s sole that touched the ground was extended somewhat, just enough to provide a cantilever. She would wear these shoes to cocktail parties and stand with her back to men who had been enjoying their cocktails. She also enjoyed terrifying her bridge friends with the first toilet-bowl fresheners. The colored the water in the tank blue. You can imagine what happened in the bowl.
Perhaps if she had had no sense of humor at all, it would have been better between us. Another phrase involving “narcissism” comes to mind, the one involving small differences. Perhaps I lived in my mother’s uncanny valley. She would often ask, or shout, “How could you think such a thing?” I was obviously depraved. Even I thought I was depraved. I had all sorts of dark anxieties, and I often imagined doing terrible things. A few of the lesser terrible things I did, just to see what would happen. My victims were almost always inanimate objects. Most of the terrible things that I did involved collateral damage. I didn’t think that what I was doing was terrible at all, but it caused others significant distress. For example, playing an LP of E Power Biggs playing Bach fugues when Miss Nelson came to babysit. It made her feel that she was at a funeral, and that led helplessly to tears. Sobs, even.
That must have been one of the last times, I should think, that a sitter was engaged. There were four kinds of babysitter: Nelsy, Miss Rogers, One-Off, and Kitty. These women — they were all women — had a lot to do with my intellectual development, mostly (but not in the case of Kitty) by resisting the very idea of it.
Nelsy had been a nurse. She had taken care of our distant cousin in the big Tudor house, twenty years ago or more. She came from Portland, Maine, and she never married. She was in mourning for the family that lived next door to us in the Wellington. Long after we’d all moved out of that building — Nelsy lived in the building behind — the parents of the other family were killed in plane crash, in a storm outside of Atlanta. The two children, a girl older than I and a boy younger than my sister, were sent off to live with relatives in Ohio. They were only memories to me by the time of the accident, but Nelsy never forgot them, especially the little boy, to whom she sent inappropriately generous presents until asked to stop doing so. Much weeping on that score. (We did not tell our parents about the weeping.) Nelsy was very kind to us; she knew that I was a clever troublemaker and pretended that she was on to me, but she never was and I usually got away with things.
With Miss Rogers, whom we called Ra-Ra, there was no getting away with anything. Our mere existence was grounds for suspicion. Ra-Ra was sharp as a tack. She had driven an ambulance in World War I, we were told, and this sounded thrilling, and very like Ra-Ra, who would much rather have been shooting. She held herself more erect that Nelsy did, and I daresay she claimed to come from a better class of people. She never tired of saying that New York City had gone to the dogs since her day. The other thing she never tired of telling us was how lovely and smart Randy Parr was.
Randy Parr was the daughter and only child of Jack Parr, who is remembered today, I suppose, only by historians of entertainment. He was as big as Johnny Carson in his day, but his day did not last quite so long, and he represented the early, brainy years of television. Jack Parr and his wife and daughter lived in Bronxville, in a rather modern house — certainly not Tudor, like its neighbors — that was painted red. You had to look to see it, because it was on a hillside, at the bottom of a steep driveway. I never met Randy Parr. Maybe once, in the hallway at Bronxville School. But probably not. She grew up to have a successful life, if Google is any guide, and I’m relieved to know it, because it means that the beams of envy and hatred that I radiated in her direction were ineffective. For nearly ten years, I was held up to Randy Parr and found wanting. (My sister, who was not clever, was not even held up.) Randy knew how to entertain her father’s famous friends, as Ra-Ra must have discovered while eavesdropping on pre-dinner cocktails. Randy did her homework on time. Randy went to bed at bedtime. Randy brushed her teeth and brushed her hair. There was no end to the wonders of Randy.
My mother didn’t really get on with Nelsy or Ra-Ra. Nelsy was like my father’s devoted secretary; the nicest word would be “placid.” Ra-Ra, though she was nearly old enough to be his mother, flirted a little with my father, and made it clear that she knew where the brains in the family were. Every now and then, someone else would be given the opportunity to supervise us. Most of them never returned, not because we frightened them away but because we had too good a time. There was a sprightly woman with a VW bug — in the Fifties! — who took us to the Carvel stand in Eastchester and who may have been the instigator of a project that kept us quietly busy for an entire afternoon. My mother was not pleased to return from an overnight trip to find her kitchen decked out like a Chinese restaurant at New Year’s. We had Scotch-taped paper lanterns, chains, and other construction-paper products from one side to the other.
Kitty was my mother’s cousin; her father had settled in Lincoln, Nebraska. She came East for college, attending Manhattanville, by then up in Purchase. She was funny and beautiful, the ideal Hollywood coed. She came down to Bronxville a few times to keep an eye on us while my parents went away for a few days. She took us to fantastically inappropriate movies, such as North By Northwest and Teahouse of the August Moon when they were new. She had plenty of energy and never lost control of us. I desperately wanted to impress her, and I hoped that she would sympathize with my plight among the philistines. I confessed to her the bottomlessness of my desire to possess a set of Resonance Chessman.
She corrected me. Renaissance chessmen. Why the word “resonance” should come more easily to my lips is a good indication of how hopelessly at sea I was, because I certainly didn’t know what it meant. Resonance Chessmen were in fact rather medieval in appearance, which shows how the Fifties could be no less confused than I was. I was no ardent chess-player. I didn’t know yet that I had no gift for chess, and no interest in developing and possessing the skills required to play chess well, but I did suspect, guiltily, that my desire for Resonance Chessmen did not involve much playing of chess. To be honest, I should have had treated my set as a Resonance Tchotchke.
What I really wanted was to be old enough to own a set of Resonance Chessman. And when I did become old enough, Resonance Chessmen, and even Renaissance chessmen, were no longer very high on my wish list; in fact, they weren’t on it at all. By the time I could have owned a set, I knew that Resonance Chessmen were simply tacky, that one ought to play chess with a strong and simple wooden set of orthodox chess pieces. As a child, though, I spent a lot of time trying to cajole someone into buying me a set of Resonance Chessmen, but no one ever did, possibly because of an interdiction from my mother, but just as possibly because my true desire leaked through the pleading, and it was understood that ownership of a set of Resonance Chessmen would not by itself make me old enough to regard a set of Renaissance Chessmen with fastidious disgust. Childhood was an interplanetary flight through waste and dreck that simply had to be sat through.
Puberty was something else.
I was grossed out by the developments of puberty. The hair and the pimples and the subtle but pervasive stench were obviously tokens of mortality: can I just die now? I was also troubled by a new sexual curiosity. I knew that beneath the new world of girls wearing makeup and boys smoking cigarettes there were powerful and very dangerous currents of desire. My problem was that these currents did not touch me. I was standing high and dry. I have never understood why, although one of my psychiatrists did once blandly put it that I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like to be touched. Which is not quite right, but close. It’s not the physical invasion by another person. It is simply the heat of other skin, even my own. I am already quite warm, as anybody who has hugged me in the dead of winter will tell you. When I sleep on my side, I have to make sure that there is a blanket between my legs — a mere sheet is not thick enough — because if they are in contact they will not only sweat but burn, turning lobster-red. It is not touch but sustained contact that is the problem. This was what underlay my sexual curiosity. I was not put off by acts that struck my inexperienced mind as disgusting. Well, all right, I was, somewhat. But that wasn’t the big problem. The doctor was wrong: my problem was that I don’t like to be held. Being held does not make me feel cherished or protected. It makes me feel hot. Not warm. Hot.
As a result, I was a cold fish, and, in a world that expected men to initiate everything, I could easily have lived a celibate life. Nothing happened until college. I was terribly in love with a girl whom nevertheless I would not kiss. It seemed rude, ungentlemanly. It seemed to me that kissing ought to lead directly to marriage, and perhaps I can no longer read Trollope because I see myself in his prudish worship of pure young ladies who never bestow a kiss on a second man. What eventually happened was that the tall girl from Sioux City (and St Mary’s) decided that times had changed enough for her to take a modest first step, and I quickly discovered the joys of kissing. But she started it. I seem to lack the sheer blind drive upon which the perpetuation of the race depends. I suspected as much as a teenager and was ashamed, a little, but for the moment perpetuating the race was not something that anyone was asking me to do; indeed, the entire adult population seemed bent on preventing such perpetuations. We were just about to enter a period of moral and conventional upheaval that has still not come to an end, although a lot of dust has cleared, at least in the liberal democracies. I did what I have often done in situations of mass confusion: I retired from the field of play. I sublimated.
You were supposed to get the whole picture: wanting to kiss a girl led, eventually, to wanting to support a family in comfort. Everything was supposed to click, as indeed it does for a lot of people. My impression is that, even in our unstable, anti-traditional world, it still happens uneventfully more often than it doesn’t. Whether or not guys grow up, they understand what’s expected of them, and how one thing is connected to another. If I were asked for advice, I would recommend any young man at loose ends to sign up with the army or the navy, because so many men have found an indispensable tonic in military service. You are made to respect yourself whether you like it or not — something like that.
Lust is our word for desire that is unaccompanied by love or attachment. I don’t believe that I have ever experienced it — not with respect to a particular person. Does this mean that I am immature, or just the opposite? Does it even make me unusual? Now, don’t burp. As I said, we have been living — myself and everybody younger — through a time of sexual overhaul. Metasexual overhaul, let’s call it. The old black magic is still the same. Most people are mostly heterosexual, and few people long to be spanked. Sexual variation is probably constant. But how we think and talk and act about sex is highly variable, and it is on this metasexual level that the upheaval has taken place. Sexuality expresses itself in private, but metasexuality is a social construct. Shortly before World War I, a metasexual convention so strong that it was taken to be both inborn and mandated by a Supreme Being began to crack. After World War II, it began to crumble. In the Sixties, it simply collapsed. The most extreme change in metasexuality was unquestionably the rejection of the sanctity of chastity.
From being a virtue, chastity became a pathology. From being criminal, “healthy sexuality,” not only having plenty of enjoyable sex but talking about it, too, became the metasexual default. It was just as exaggerated as what preceded it, but it ushered in a new source of discomfort. It’s one thing to want to have sex. It’s a very different thing to feel bad about not wanting sex — which is often disguised as “not being able to get any.” To the guy who can’t get any, I say, after my mother, Can’t Never Did Anything. And maybe the guy who can’t get any doesn’t really want any. This possibility tends to be overlooked.
When I say that I went through my teens untroubled about not getting any, I expect to be believed. I am neither boasting nor hiding. Instead, I was preoccupied by the question about my brains: would I ever become an intellectual? But before diving into that, I want to look at an associated problem. It’s an associated problem in my mind because I am the kind of intellectual who likes to talk to — with women. I have always been this kind of intellectual, since long before I knew how strange it was. Most intellectuals don’t like to talk to anybody. They like to argue, to conduct a verbal pugilism that doesn’t appeal to women. (Please don’t confuse this with the capacity for eloquent, exact, and comprehensive tirade to which women are sometimes pressed by their impatience with ridiculous men.) I prefer to talk to women. And I fancy that women like to talk to me. This is where sex becomes something of a nuisance, or became one when I was a teenager.
The girls! There were four of them on Paddington Circle, four of them in a gang of sorts. There were other girls, too, but these girls were my age, give or take. The gang was about to break up, because high school would change things. The twins, whose house was next to ours, would be going off to boarding school. The other two girls lived next door to one another, right across the street, would go to different schools and make new friends. When their gang split up, I would stick with the twins, whom I’d known in dancing school, but for a while they had a lot of fun flirting with me as an ensemble, and mocking me, too. Each would tell me secrets, which I would then divulge to the others. (The two girls across the street stopped telling me secrets.) One of them lived in a split-level house, and her bedroom was near enough to the ground for me to stand beneath it after dark and whisper to her. We did it because it was both fun and forbidden. And dangerous, because I would make her laugh. None of them had boyfriends yet. That would come later. I would never be one of them.
I still hear people argue: can men and women be just friends? My question has always been, can men be friends? Officially, there’s the view of men set forth by Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, in the lovely song called (nobody ever seems to know this) “Hymn to Him.” The lyrics completely ignore the deadly competitiveness that marks and mars the meetings of men who consider themselves to be equals. Most male relationships that involve more than the occasional get-together for a drink are asymmetric complements of brains and brawn, or upstairs and downstairs, or nerd and poet. Felix and Oscar! Believe me, I sympathise. But why stop at men who are unlike you? Why not go further, into the more interesting territory of women who are like you?
I have already pointed out one problem of such friendships: significant others don’t like them, especially male significant others. I consider it an insult to my honor to imagine that I might be led astray by friendship with a woman, but many men seem to agree with the Arabic persuasion to the contrary. Suspicions are not groundless. Friendships between men and women are not protected, if that’s the word, by the conventions that work against the growth of intimacy between men. My experience suggests that younger women are learning how to impose these conventions, which they’ve learned about somewhere, if not from experience: there are things that it is better not to talk about with a man who is not a lover. Men who are not lovers ought to be treated as kindly uncles, co-opted into a family role before they get any ideas. None of that existed in my day, and a good thing, too, because Kathleen might have been able to keep me at a distance.
So the great question of tenth grade, my last in Bronxville, was not only whether I would ever be an intellectual, but whether a preference for women friends was not a complete bar to intellectual status. For it was widely wondered if women had intellects. Young readers will be scandalized, but the question of the female intellect was closely related to doubts that a woman could ever be a first-class creative artist. Poor Edith Wharton, who was invariably Exhibit A, because we had all read Ethan Frome, that very unrepresentative novella, was saddled with riches as well: there were concerns that well-off people hadn’t suffered enough, or worried enough, or something, to create. Such talking points have been marginalized by social upheavals, but they’re still out there. The consensus in my day was that normal women, the women that you’d want to marry and have children with, were not capable of being intellectuals. There was also a consensus that the men whom these normal woman would want to marry and have children, could, if they wished, elect to be intellectuals, but would decently decline.
I was by now an ambitious, if unfocused, reader. I was also a book-buyer: that was where my allowance was spent. I bought paperbacks, most of which fell apart years ago. My favorite imprint was the Washington Square Press. This argued against my being an intellectual. I invested in honored classics — Shakespeare and Jane Austen even then. Intellectuals, as I understood it, were supposed to read newer things, radical things. I did not like new things, and I already hated and feared anything that bore the label Modern. Modern was very bad, although I had no idea just how bad it was; even to question Modernism in those days was a sign of philistinism. I was already what I am today, so far as Modernism was concerned: I saw it as a soul-crushing dead-end. The Modern atmosphere was designed for robots; it could not accommodate human sprawl. I sensed, but did not understand, that Modernism was as prim and repressive as the most censorious Victorians, perhaps even more so. Modernism was for flagellants. I could not live without upholstery. The prognosis for growth of a healthy intellect seemed poor. (I couldn’t know that it was just the opposite, that my implicit concurrence with the women’s position on intellectual posturing — it’s all eyewash — bode well for my brain.)
As I say, though, I saw Modernism as a dead-end. It wasn’t going anywhere. It had already had its day, in the totalitarian régimes that made the world such an unhappy place in the decades before I was born. Modernism was now nothing but a style, a manner of architecture, profoundly corrupted by consumerism. The only rebels were very much not Modernists: they were the beatniks. But were beatniks intellectuals? I was no beatnik, not with my teacups and my candlesticks and my affection for reading Pope whilst Handel played in the background. I was lazy, but too fretful to be a slacker. I disliked violence, yes, but I respected the power of dress codes.
Intellectuals, like beatniks, were non-conformists, which made them hostile to codes of all kinds. Conformism was a strange bugaboo. I can’t remember a teacher who didn’t implore us to be ourselves, and to resist “conformity” — which was really made to sound like “deformity.” This in a homogenized village where I could stand out, as I did for a while, in a hot-pink summer jacket from Wanamaker’s. This jacket, which my mother liked almost as much as I did, was right on the edge, just different enough. It was the kind of difference that everyone in a conformist society enjoys: it reaffirms the norms even as it provides a note of the unusual. One thing that has remained fairly steady throughout my life — there were deviations in Houston — is my preppy way of dressing. This, together with my table manners and my somewhat bienséant manner of speech, can make me look like just another suburban banker or lawyer. People who are actually suburban bankers or lawyers can tell right away that I’m not one of them, but to strangers to that milieu I blend right in. I am fine with this now, but it confused the hell out of me when I was a teenager. How could I be so different and yet so — conformist? One way of sizing me up was voiced at a chorus rehearsal at Blair. A wit in the class ahead of me spotted the plaid vest (waistcoat) that I was wearing, and said in a loud voice: “You are a bourgeois buffoon.”
This was just, even I thought so. It didn’t matter whether I was an intellectual who was making a fool of himself by wearing preppy clothes, or whether I was a brainless preppy who was making a fool out of himself by trying to sound intellectual, there was something buffoonish about the performance, a je ne sais quoi that was underlined from time to time by intentional buffooneries. I very much intended to have it both ways. My life would be comfortable and look proper. My talk would fall somewhere between the idiosyncratic and the unintelligible, with just enough jokiness to keep my feet on the ground. There was something to annoy everybody.
In those days, intellectuals were supposed to look scruffy and austere, as a way of signalling their preparedness for the downfall of bourgeois law and order, the mere thought of which terrified me. They were supposed to disdain personal possessions, not out of Franciscan humility but because stuff was — bourgeois. In college, I would meet one or two intellectuals from working-class background whose hyperdiscriminating preference for living rough was really little more than a repudiation of their parents’ highly respectable aspirations to join the bourgeoisie. I didn’t meet anyone like that in Bronxville, though. It was hard to find anyone who wanted to be an intellectual in Bronxville, but I did eventually, and it turned out that he lived in the next street, in a house that overlooked Siwanoy’s golf course. He affected a style of dress that is utterly unexceptionable now — jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers — that screamed, back then, that he wished to be someone who had never seen a golf course. For my part, I continue to regard T-shirts as underwear.
I shall call him Ben. He was in my class at Bronxville High. He was articulate, and he didn’t get along with his parents, either. No sooner do I say that than I realize how many different ways there are of being at odds with parents. With my mother, the struggle was visceral and blind, as if each of us were a lethal menace to the other. With Ben, it was all a matter of principle. He liked his parents well enough; he simply refused to honor their bourgeois standards. Ben must have been the reflection of some black-sheep aunt or uncle, some family disgrace. His parents were wonderful, I thought; his mother ran the house with good-humored efficiency, and she never seemed to take her elder son’s unruliness as anything worse than a dustball. His father liked to listen to classical music. His parents made Ben enviable to me.
Unlike me, Ben considered bourgeois good-behavior to be meretricious claptrap. We were opposites in that: I was already thinking that the bourgeoisie was not living up to its own standards. Even though it would be a while before I read Proust, I regarded the bourgeoisie as a class of Swanns, sensitive, learned men free of the egotism of inherited aristocracy and floated by substantial industrial wealth. I was aware of a disconnect between the architecture of Bronxville (rich in historical and aesthetic references) and its inhabitants (uncomfortable with more than muted style). If you were going to live in a Tudor pile, you ought to understand why Tudors built them. (Later, I would insist that you ought to know which phase of Tudor Revival you were living in.) It came down to this: I could never be a slob. Ben was genuinely uncomfortable around any kind of opulence.
Had we been arguing a little later in the century, I expect that we would have differed over Bourdieu. Ben easily perceived the exercise of power behind artistic patronage and display. I saw it, too, but art didn’t stop there for me. I accepted that cultivating the arts would begin as a kind of showing-off. But I believed, as I still do, that it can become genuine and entirely personal, pursued without regard for the opinions of others. Ben was repelled by the courtly origins and associations of much of Western art. This was more than the Bourdieu problem: Ben had little time for graciousness or elegance. The suave merely excited his suspicion. The final difference between us was that talking about all of this was Ben’s way of marking time until he could enjoy a mature sex life.
We should probably have agreed that the problem with Bronxville was that it was phony — the usual adolescent complaint, particularly in the suburbs. In fact it was neither more nor less artificial than any human artifact. The one thing that Ben and I had in common was an impatience with Bronxville’s utter inadequacy as a source of open-ended mental stimulation, which I think Ben wanted out of life almost as much as I did.
The last time I saw Ben, it was on the bus that ran a loop from the station. It was during the long year of 1966, between my freshman years. I had just seen The Group and was dying to find out what the a capella music in the opening credits was. “I think that it’s Brahms,” said Ben, quite correctly as it turned out. But we had progressed too far down the road to becoming ourselves to pretend to revive a friendship that had always been desperate and opportunistic. I don’t know what became of him, although I believe, on the basis of some Googling, that he settled in the Midwestern city from which his parents came.
In latter years, I have found it constructive to try to see myself from my mother’s point of view. If nothing else, it raises more interesting questions than the ones that splutter out of my complaints. What was she thinking? What was she thinking when she took me to hear concerts at Carnegie Hall? This would have been when I was about thirteen, I think. That or the next year. I was fully grown, six-feet four-and-a-half inches. My father was six-five, but he was already stooping a bit. I was tall but not outlandishly so. I was somewhat unruly, as who isn’t at that age. My mother decided that I needed a bit of polish. I knew all the basic manners, but she wanted to be sure that I knew how to take a woman out to dinner and a show. At the back of her mind, she may have been trying to do the tall women of America a favor: they wouldn’t have to teach me how to behave. She might have her doubts that I’d ever take an interest in women, but she wasn’t shy her about her hopes that the woman in my life would be tall. “Now go out there and find yourself a nice tall queen!” she would say, perfectly unconscious of what this might mean.
Maybe she had her reasons for wanting to get out of the house. Maybe our concert nights took place when Dad was out of town. We would drive in and park the car in a garage. Then we would go to the Athletic Club — the main branch, this time — for dinner. All the lessons that I had received were intensified by my mother’s undivided attention. She taught me to break a slice of bread before buttering it, a lesson that I needed because bread never appeared at our table in any form but toast or sandwiches. She taught me how to resist the urge to turn around in my chair when she said, “Don’t look now, but that woman over there…” I don’t know what else she taught me. I remember these outings as pleasant; for a while, I could stop worrying that she was angry with me. After dinner, we would walk two blocks to Carnegie Hall. There, we would install ourselves in the Company’s box seats. Here it was that I learned concert etiquette, but the thing that concerned my mother most was my sitting still. A little man in the next box liked to conduct with his hands, which however he kept fixed to his thighs. I never tried anything like that. If my leg began to jiggle, it was lightly smacked. I learned when to applaud, and when not to.
In those days, Mahler was being re-discovered. This meant that I learned to sit still for long periods. Aside from the Mahler, and a piece by Ligeti (“Atmosphères”), I don’t remember a single work. There wasn’t enough Mozart, and of course there was nothing any earlier. This murkiness of memory seems typical of me. Aside from Kathleen, my great loves have grown on me, starting out indistinctly and only gradually making claims. Of all of my great loves, music had the longest inauguration. I had no real taste; I liked what I liked each for itself, attracted usually by some superficial feature that failed to imply what else I should like. I liked color. I liked intensely regular rhythms — waltzes could be thrilling. I went through a Mantovani phase, which I didn’t abandon immediately when I was laughed at, after having innocently confessed it. (Even in Bronxville, there were people, in high school at least, who were capable of laughing at “a Mantovani phase.” They all went on to Amherst.) I sat through the Philharmonic concerts dutifully enough. My mother had every reason to congratulate herself on her civilizing project.
Here’s a mystery: did I ask for opera recordings? How could it have been otherwise? I can’t imagine my mother thinking that I needed to learn about opera. If she had had such an idea, she wouldn’t have wound up with the three recordings that I got for Christmas that year. I think she went to Sam Goody and was sold a bill of goods. To wit: Birgit Nilsson’s second recording of Turandot, the one with Bjoerling, not Corelli. Karl Böhm’s first recording of Così fan tutte, with Lisa della Casa and Anton Dermota. A Sadler’s Wells recording of The Tales of Hoffmann, with no one I remember — in English. (English is not a language for opera.) They say that if you parachute into a foreign country alone and without resources, you can learn the language in six weeks. Something like that happened to me, but it took longer than six weeks, because even I had other things to. It took over a year to discover what was going on in the Mozart. Oh, I get it! They’re wearing costumes and pretending to be other men! There was a libretto, but if there was a synopsis, I ignored it. I thought that Turandot was trashy, certainly no better than Mantovani, but I was almost instantly taken by the Ping-Pang-Pong scene, the most disposable part of the opera from Fossil Darling’s point of view. No spark was ever lighted by the Offenbach. It wasn’t even rubbish.
Nevertheless, from these inauspicious beginnings a conflagration of music burned in my life, and — what was she thinking? — in my mother’s house. How quickly it would lead to Wagner.
My mother was an only child. Her birth, in 1918, was a difficult one, touch and go for both mother and child. She told me once that her father, pacing the hospital floors, urged the doctors to prioritize saving his wife. This always struck me as too much the right thing to say. In fact, he adored his little girl, and she adored him, and their mutual admiration society was fairly exhaustive. My father was always a distant second. He told me that it had taken her years to believe that he was good at investing. He proved it the hard way, by nursing her small inheritance from her father into a substantial six-figure sum. She remained somewhat grudging about recognizing this capability of his.
My word for my mother is “shrewd,” by which I mean keenly aware of the lay of the local land but inclined to see the distance as a backdrop. This term also helps me to skirt the word that more quickly comes to mind, which is “stupid.” It was hard to say that my mother was stupid, but her lack of curiosity and her willingness to accept the convenience of the first plausible explanation to come to hand made her mentally alien to me. My favorite example is the argument that we had about antiques. My mother insisted that antiques had to have been made prior to 1833. I rebutted that law passed in 1933 required that antiques be a hundred years old. She saw the cleverness of this but could not accept it.
Antiques! Now, there’s a dodo! She may have belonged to the last generation that could speak of antiques with a straight face. In my mother’s view, antiques were old things, yes. We have seen how old, although she broke her own rule all the time, favoring items from the wrong end of the Nineteenth Century. But they were not bits of junk. She did not go in for curiosities from the kitchen middens of the past. She would have blanched at a chamber pot. Nor, however, did antiques belong in museums. They weren’t that fine. They belonged in people’s homes. She would rescue them from antique shops and install them in her home as though they had always been there.
She loved to go “antiquing.” She rarely bought anything, but, given the incidence of antiquings, the house was full of them. It has always been difficult for me to assess her taste, because it was as much a part of her as her way of speaking, and I can no more imagine her without her antiques than I can see her as a blonde. In the years after her death, I decided that a lot of what she had bought was rubbish, or what my mother-in-law, who could almost have been a museum curator, would have called “volume work.” There was usually something fanciful, something Napoléon III about her treasures, and something gimcrack, too. For example, a pair of bronze candlesticks that are not only hollow but sectional — each one unscrews into four pieces — and probably not really bronze, either. (I had them wired and use them as lamps.) There was a sweet ceramic plaque in the shape of a painter’s palette, but with a small box-like projection and a rough-glazed patch — just add matches. Linked to the match theme but not the palette theme are the painted Pierrot and “Au clair de la lune,” words and music. I suppose it’s a good thing that I don’t have what I really crave, her most hideous monstrosity. It’s a centerpiece, I suppose. A bowl, suitable for fruit, stands on three (or was it four?) golden legs over a base in the form of a grassy mound. Across the grassy mound crawls a stark white naked baby. It was breathtaking. My sister was going to give it to me, but it got lost somehow. I can’t imagine Kathleen’s allowing it in the house. It stood on the center of the dining table from the day my mother brought it home.
She was not a collector. There was no theme to her acquisitions. They had only to find a place in her rooms. Once found, their kitsch potential was muted; they made sense where she put them. If it had occurred to me, which it did not, that it was at all odd that my mother bought so little in the way of actual furniture, I should have chalked it up to her peculiar frugality. My father’s sleeping chairs were upgraded several times, each lower and more leathery than the one before. The dining table that I mentioned was new — in 1961. The piano that she bought when I began piano lessons was a French provincial spinet, and a barely okay musical instrument. The house on Paddington Circle had been occupied by an executive with one of the premier furniture companies, and my parents bought their bedroom suite. I was shocked when my mother got rid of the matching nightstand and replaced it with a very frontiersy drop-leaf table with a grossly scrolled base and a tapered pedestal; it shouted a Shaker rebuke to the Louis-the-Phooey curlicues of the headboards. (Yes, my parents slept in twin beds.) The sophistication of this substitution was over my head, but I learned from it. The table is right now the first thing you run into when you walk into our bedroom.
Learning from my mother — what a complicated academy! “You have flair,” she said once, meaning it as a compliment. It was nice to receive a compliment, but I wasn’t very happy that it involved “flair.” By this time, I had graduated from college and a severe course in LSD, and I was no longer much worried about sexuality by association, about what people inferred about my private life from my public behavior. But, still, “flair” seemed pretty insubstantial. It was, however, the closest that my mother could get to understanding the peculiar bundle of though and wit that characterized my personality at its best. “Flair” made me sound like an interior decorator, which pretty well captures the extent of my mother’s interest in it. With flair, you could give memorable parties, and during the Houston period, memorable parties were an important part of my mother’s life. Instead of entertaining friends, she entertained Company employees, not just executives but whole departments, in the case of her favorite group, Aviation. (It wasn’t small.) She roped me in to providing the decor for several parties, and I had a blast fooling around with toy airplanes hung amidst cotton clouds from the dining-room ceiling and (for a very different party) tabletop pavilions made out of Styrofoam and pipe cleaners, to mention the two biggest deals. It was very pleasant to do something that my mother liked. It did not change the nature of our relationship, just the surface, but it made for calm weather.
I mention this somewhat out of time because none of it could have happened in Bronxville. For one thing, I was too young. I was too ignorant, and I was too wrapped up in myself to be able to find out what someone else wanted to have done. More than that, however, my last years in Bronxville were the first of the Sixties, not the Seventies. By Houston, I expect, my mother understood, at least dimly, that it was my “flair” that made it so difficult for me to achieve the future that she had in mind for me, that made such a future so repulsive to me. Everybody, even my mother, loosened up in the Seventies. In Bronxville, neither she nor most of the people she knew had begun to loosen up. But I, unformed would-be intellectual that I was, had already found the beginnings of a different track. I was going to take a different train. (Even now, I hardly know where it was supposed to go.) In my mother’s eyes, this was willful insubordination, treason, and ingratitude.
And the flair that she already must have perceived only made it worse, because knowing that she could talk to me about things that interested her was itself disturbing. My sister took no interest in antiques at all. She lived in the here and now. My mother and I shared a certain need for the softening of old things, things made for a different world, things that had somehow managed to come down in one piece. If we never liked the same thing — my taste was set by nostalgia for a world without the American Revolution — we were fighting over the same page. Not that we fought about such things very often. When we drove along Antiques Row, Route 6 in Connecticut, or when we had dinner at the Athletic Club before a Philharmonic concert, we were on our best behavior together, and dogs were put to sleep. But common areas were limited.
The kitchen was a war zone, of sorts. My mother hated to cook, and you could tell. She mastered three or four meat dishes — steak, chicken, lamb chops, all sprinkled with one powder or another and then broiled — along with something meatless for Fridays (often out of a box), and served these in unbroken rotation. This was partly my father’s fault: he was a meat-and-potatoes man from the Midwest. My mother actually loved exotic cuisines, Chinese and Indian especially (and of course Mexican, once we got to Texas), but even if my father would have eaten a curry, my mother wouldn’t have been able to make it. I remember two disastrous experiments, one a vichyssoise that tasted something like paint, and a mint ice cream in which softened vanilla had been stirred up with the wrong extract, spearmint instead of peppermint. I’m not going to ask you to imagine it.
It was the same old story. My mother’s mother had been a fabulous cook. She also employed a cook for many years. She was also very overweight. My mother had to watch her weight very carefully, and ate only one regular meal a day. Food was not a positive element of everyday life. It was an element, rather, of evening entertainment, at restaurants. As long she she had nothing to do with preparing it, my mother could enjoy food.
I was a greedy little boy, in the way of greedy little boys, and I was always turned on by the pictures on boxes of cake mixes. These varied only as to color. There was a slice of cake, from which a piece was being lifted by a silver fork. The delicious part was the wisp of fronting that the fork pulled into the air. It was creamy, subliminal candy. I don’t remember the circumstances of my first cake-mix cake, but somehow I was permitted to make one. When I tried to branch out into other desserts, however, I was forbidden — possibly because, made from scratch, not mixes, they didn’t come out, and on top of that they made a mess. For some reason, I was enchanted by the idea of Bavarian Cream. I had never seen it or tasted it, but the name was appealing.
I was never allowed to make tapioca pudding, which I loved. My mother would make it, grudgingly, every now and then. Even though it came out of a box, though, it was off limits. Baking a cake means mixing things together and then putting them in the oven. Tapioca pudding means stirring over the stove. I used to think that my culinary activities were frowned on simply because I was a boy and not a girl. And that might have been true, but in another sense: boys are messy. Not that I was particularly messy. I don’t know how anybody starts cooking without making a lot of messes. Gradually, you learn to clean up as you go along, but that’s a separate branch of culinary experience, one that most professional chefs put behind them the moment there’s someone else in the kitchen.
My mother dealt with my aversion to sports in several ways. They were futile, but they showed some imagination on her part. She signed me up for judo lessons to make me less clumsy. She persuaded a Brother at Iona to put me on the basketball team. I was tall enough, but otherwise unsuitable. I hated the stink of the locker room, a miasma that it made me gag to breathe. At least in a morgue they embalmed you.
My relationship with my mother was not helped by the vision of a nearby household. It was the home of my uncle. My uncle was eight years younger than my father, and therefore his experience of the move East was wholly different. He went to Bronxville, not Clinton, High, and was a smart and popular student there. He still had friends in Bronxville, but he lived in Rye, a few miles away, on Long Island Sound. After Dartmouth, he went to Yale Law, and in somewhere in the course of higher education he spent some time in the Navy, as an officer on a destroyer in the Pacific. (He also did training on the campus, of all places, of Notre Dame, living in a hut on the Quad.) He, too, went from law school to a law firm, to rather better one than my father’s. A golden future had always been foreseen for him, and although I think he did indeed have one, it wasn’t what his family expected.
I am not going to tell my uncle’s very interesting story, except insofar as it involves me. As I grew up, I saw, or imagined, many similarities between my uncle and myself; he was always a more simpatico conversationalist, and he actually knew more about the things that interested me than I did. My father was not favored by the comparison. Long before I appreciated my uncle however, I fell in love with his wife. His wife just about turned me into a troubador. I wanted to sing about her, and I wanted to sing her praises. It is difficult for me to sort the sense of her that I had at that time from the sense of a woman whom I knew until she died, a few years ago, but I think I can say now — I couldn’t have said so then, that she struck me as girlish rather than matronly. There was still something young about her, even though she had four children. She was funny and easily flustered, but I thought of her as deeply soft — wishful thinking, perhaps. She was unconsciously smart, a preppy hostess without giving the matter a thought. Injustice of any kind made her angry, but nothing else did.
In later years, long after my mother died, my aunt signalled rather insistently (in response to my insistence) that she didn’t want to know what my mother thought of her. My aunt imperturbably pronounced my mother to have been a wonderful, lovely woman. Well, she wasn’t. She thought that my aunt was a negligent mother who failed to discipline her children and who even fed them Coke syrup when they had tummy aches! This observation surfaced in a fateful conversation that took place, as so many fateful conversations in Bronxville did, in the car, probably as we were driving to Mass, and already, all four of us, cross about it, if only because fasting made us hungry. I can easily imagine ways in which the subject might have come up, the subject being what would happen to my sister and me if my parents were killed in an accident. Years earlier, my mother had come into my room in the middle of the night, sobbing, to wake me with the news about those former neighbors whom I mentioned in connection with Nelsy, the ones who were killed in a plane crash. For quite a while after that, my parents did not fly together. Nevertheless, there were always car crashes. I don’t remember what I said in response to my mother’s pious hope that I would be preserved from the chaos that prevailed in my uncle’s household. I may have been smart enough to say nothing. (Had I carried on by wailing with agreement, I’d have been seen through.) But the hitherto unimagined prospect gleamed like an Eldorado.
Speaking from the other end of experience, I should have to say that I should probably have been no happier living with my aunt and uncle. Instead of agita, there would have been polite distance. I adored my aunt and uncle so much that I never took the time to imagine what they thought about me, and whenever it occurred to me that they were being nice to me because my father had helped his brother out in a pinch, I buried the thought as quickly as I could. I now believe that I imposed myself upon my aunt and uncle, later in life, driving up to New Hampshire for impromptu visits, insisting on taking everyone out to dinner, and generally never shutting up. I also know that, when my aunt died, of a freak appendicitis, I could not compose a letter of condolence to my cousins in which I myself was not the most bereft survivor. You are supposed to feel sorry for someone else’s loss, but I felt sorry only for my own. My aunt was a dream all my life, the woman who wasn’t, but who might have taken the place of, my completely problematic mother.
As it happened, I never got to know any woman of above-average height well except for Bee, and Bee, like my mother, was about five-eight.
My grandparents… but of course I was not related to any of these people.
One of my mother’s pet phrases was “Can’t Never Did Anything.” I hated to hear it, but, being me, I not only agreed but took it a step further. If you don’t want to do something, then your inability to do it will seem like a dandy explanation. You never really know that you can’t do something until you have tried very hard to do it, and in the range of normal human activities, excluding virtuosity, I think that there are few things that you cannot do if you set your mind to it. I often complain that I can’t snap my fingers, but I haven’t set my mind to it, not really. (Kathleen says that my skin is too dry.) I have usually found it not too difficult to do the things that I really wanted to do. For this reason, I find it difficult to excuse my shortcomings. I tend to accept them, thus exposing myself even further to charges of narcissistic complacency.
Bon week-end à tous!