Friday, October 9, 2009
#18 – LOOKING FOR CLUES
Memories coming from minute to minute. And I decide to hurry up the process, extending my search beyond the parts of town I go to for these meetings.
So I walk along the block on East 66th Street where my grande dame grandmother, who had aristocratic white hair and perfect posture, had had her last apartment. The street’s rich old apartment house facades, like everything else in the smug East 60s, have the air of places that never change – as did the formal summer houses and the regular peoples’ villages up north. Also, the never-ending past is in the present in the clear pictures I still have in my head of what it was like inside Nana’s city place. It had been a miniature version of their quite grand summer houses in the White Mountains.
In her apartment there had been a smaller but equally shiny table for formal dinners. Behind glass in the pantry, the omnipresent finger bowls that gave this family definition. Under the rug at the head of the table something she could press with her foot that set off a buzzer summoning service from the kitchen. In the kitchen the same tall smoky glasses as in the summer places, the same jars, strangely never touched, of macadamia nuts, the same special soup crackers that came only from St. Johnsbury, the same S.S. Pierce canned goods shipped in from Boston.
In college in the fifties, when my grandmother was alive, I would sometimes spend a night in that apartment when I was in town for Broadway shows or debutante parties. I used a day bed in the study she had set up after my grandfather died, a city version of his New Hampshire summer writing places. In this new study a frame held the certificate for his Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which had never been shown in the mountains where everyone knew. Almost everything intact here from the summer places, familiar chairs and desk and some chinoiserie wall hangings. But also there was something new, something disconcerting. In another frame, a close-up black and white photo portrait of Robert Frost looking as sensual as he looked craggy. Had I been thinking of this when I read Frost in my deep depression?
Before my time Frost had been a neighbor up in Franconia and went on walks with my grandfather. But I knew this only from books about Frost, for in our houses he was never mentioned. And yet here he was in this place of honor. What was he to us? Surely he and my grandmother could not have been lovers. But maybe nothing was too far fetched.
In the early sixties in a summer when she was in the mountains and I had just come back again from aboard and again had no home, I had used her apartment for the steamy month of August. Steamy, and air conditioning was not an Anglophile thing. Across from the study there was a guest room, which was used in winter by Nana’s best friend, Frances Perkins, the same one who had been the first woman in the cabinet. While I was there that summer I had brought in the object of my long-time sexual obsession, a syrupy, married Kentucky girl named Laurie. And now here we were in my grandmother’s bed, then the Mrs. Perkins bed, then my grandmother’s, fucking and all the rest in every way we each knew and in ways we had only heard about and had to try out, going from room to room with our latest of many bottles of Scotch. Sweat giving a shine to Laurie’s body. She telling me, who had not been always been sure of his physical self, that she just loved his body’s line. Now together in a bathtub. Now, still too hot for clothes, we could as easily as not gone up against the Steinway, which had been brought down here when White Pines was sold. The Steinway that held a facsimile of the Nefertiti head, which was as perfectly shaped as the head of my grandmother, who wore her white hair in a tight net.
No clothes in this place that cried out for formal wear. Rolling on the living room carpet in this place that, till now, has seemed to exist in an ordered past. Me up, she down, she up, me down. Moving from room to room, hot and dripping. Fucking, but also making love, it seemed. Fucking and making love while getting drunk. My first experience with all three taking place at the same time. And I guess we left traces, for my grandmother turned cold in the fall, and her maid would not speak to me.
And now, in this new time, I am back on 66th Street. Across from where my grandmother had lived there is a big old Catholic church, used by the Upper East Side cooks and maids, apparently as a shelter from Waspdom. I walk now on this street, between her building and that church, in this time of exploration, 1986, 20 years since her death, 30 years since my college time, 25 years since the romp in her apartment, the romp still seeming so out of context as to have no meaning there. As I walk on that street in 1986, I think I should have warm feelings from memories of nights spent here after coming into the city for those debutante parties and Broadway shows, which seemed more real than that out-of-context romp with Laurie.
But 66th Street feels awful now. Stifling. Suffocating – as if I not just walking outdoors in an area of warm memories but rather am being smothered now by old heavily powdered women who have fox furs around their necks.