Wednesday, December 22, 2010

#176 - RED TIDE

There was always a change at Tampa or Miami to a shaky little propeller plane, always a captain who looked about 18, and often I’d be tossed around for the there is always foul weather there or looming in this so-called sunshine state. And then I had survived another trip on one of these little unregulated commuter airlines. I was in Naples. It would be too cold to swim, despite Florida claims, and anyway you could rarely swim on the west coast because of something called the red tide that left great welts on Your skin. This place where my father had come to die his horrible death, and where my mother had to be waiting for hers, though she still got around. When the dial phone rang in her condo it could be the policed badgering old people for money. The condo was not on the gulf, for her eyes could not stand the glare from the water , but on a bay where sometimes alligators were killed right in front of her place. She no longer played golf, though she still had clubs in the trunk of the little Plymouth she hardly ever used. They had just built a new golf course and new country club building in the rich part of Naples. The developers had sold big houses, McMansions, on the basis that the country club was being built, sold the houses before letting it be known that the country club would not accept Jews. Naples, the nice people’s place. Mother found this of interest, and did not seem to take sides. Some days there were noxious swamp gases from the Everglades in the Naples air.

I had not seen my mother since I had gotten into the significant changes in all the old stories. And I had not seen her since receiving that postcard she sent when her cruise ship docked at the port of Manila, a city where I had recently been under death threat for my activities with the opposition, including the New People’s Army, to the Reagan’s dictator friends, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. On the card she said that my twin brother Peter, the good twin, the CIA twin, had been there to meet the cruise ship. What a surprise, she said. And Peter had added a line in the margin of the card making light of “people power,” which was the not very accurate name for what had just overthrown the Marcoses. Peter had sworn to me he never had anything to do with the Philippines.

I mentioned this now and my mother asked me what I was talking about. I must be mistaken. I must have made it up about Peter being there and writing on the post card. She could assure me it had never happened.

I did tell her I had been in the While Mountains. I said I had seen Mrs. Milner. She said Mrs. Miner had left the family because Aunt Alice was having an affair with her son, which was not even close to what Mrs. Miner had told me, for Mrs. Miner said she left because life at White Pines was cold and mean. Mother said she had been getting calls from Aunt Alice who said I had written her saying I did not want to see her when she came to new York for the winter because of how she treated Deirdre. Aunt Alice had told Mother that my refusal to see her was the worst thing that had ever happened to her. Mother reported this with no sign of any emotion about any of it.

I asked if she had old photographs, something I had not bothered with before. She did, she said, in a storage space below the bookcase. Actually Peter and his wife had gone through them, but there was still many they had not taken. I found somed I had never seen of mother holding her two little babies, or rather holding Peter in a safe grip and hardly bothering with me. That was when we were about a year old, and the same thing again in a photo a few years later. And there was a picture of me with old two stuffed animals, one of which I recognized as my old favorite – a pale yellow dog made of leather and fake fur that I had named Barksy.

I told her I had been looking into old places up in the mountains. I did not tell her why. I did not tell her about my need to get the story right, to find out why so many of the people from those perfect summers, including all my cousins were coming to such bad ends. Deirdre’s battering the least of it for unlike some of them she was alive and her brain was not damaged. I did not tell her what I had suspected had happened to me.

At one point Mother made a statement about the family. She said, “What separates us is that we have…” and here she paused, “We have good genes.”

That first evening she got a phone call from Aunt Peggy, my late father’s sister-in-law, one of the relatives who stayed away from his death bed scene. The news was that the wife of Peggy’s pampered older son Jonathan – who was named after a purported naval hero in her line of descent – had just killed herself. Hung herself in Rochester, where Fitz was a new assistant professor of anthropology.

I was thinking of this late the next morning, still in bed in the guest room, which had recently been my father’s room. I was thinking about Fitz’s wife Elkaa, who had written to me in Southeast Asia me before she got married saying she had heard a lot about me and was happy there was someone in the family who was not a standard issue Poole. And we hit off when I was back in the country and finally met her – a vibrant , good looking young woman with an ironic but kindly smile. And I knew she disturbed her in-laws. What made Aunt Peggy particular furious was that when Elka came to spend a night in Scarsdale she brought with her a much loved black cat. This was as serious as that Elka was Jewish. I wondered what would become of her cat.

Mother knocked on the bedroom door. She said she had good news. She said she had just been on the phone with Peggy, and Peggy had just been talking with Elka’s mother, and the two mothers had agreed that it was all for the good that Elka was dead now. She had always been such a problem to her family in Long Island. And now Fitz would be able to lead the life he was meant for. My mother presented this as good news.

One photo that hit me hard was of Mother’s father, Grandfather Taylor. I remembered him as a jolly man, even when he was wasted away with cancer. But in this photo he looked like an Irish barroom fighter. He also looked a lot like Pat Buchanan, the Nixon aid turned opinionated journalist who was running for president on a basically anti-Semitic platform. And I thought of how on his infrequent visits he called my mother Dolly, and how he would find a bar wherever he was. I was once asked to fetch him form a bar in Westport where he was regaling everyone with baseball talk and joking stories. As different as it was possible to be from a person in my father’s family.

And then one of those memories that stayed somewhere in conciousness but had seemed meaningless. Once when Grandfather Taylor visited us in Connecticut, which was while his ex-wife, Grandmother Taylor, was away, Peter and I were going through his things and we found a pouch filled with pencils that had our names printed on them, such as ones had had made to give us for Christmas but here were clearly for himself. This discovery set us of crying and shouting, scared and furious.

At one point I asked Mother to tell me something about her childhood. She said she remembered nothing until she was in boarding school except for a picture in her mind of a servant looking down at her when she was in a baby carriage. She loved her boarding school, she said. I remembered that, though she handily ever sang, she had sung to us her old school song – “Arden my garden, my school amongst that pines…”

Sunday, December 19, 2010



A week after getting back to Chelsea from this perhaps final trip ever to the White Mountains it was time for my annual trip to awful Florida. Dull, pretentious bigoted Naples on the genteel people’s usually placid west coast – Naples where three years ago my father had died in great pain, his chest an open red and yellow cancer wound, the death bed scene taking place in a third rate hospital that they all thought was fine but thought turn away Mexican citrus grove workers who came with knife fight wounds. This death scene. My then wife and I would spell each other, though our marriage was entering death too. In turn we would nap beside him on a raised bed that had been placed next to the death bed. At the foot the death bed sat a sad eyed and laconic young private nurse who said she was from a river town in Kentucky. The only sound the forced uneven breathing of my father.

A death bed scene to which no one came, except at the end my almost ex wife taking turns with me there. The others from this family I was now getting the goods on had deserted him. I knew enough already although this was three years before my intense investigations began. I did not just suddenly decide I was not a part of this sometimes intriguing and but also bigoted and deathly world I was born into. The death bed scene to which they did not show up. My mother, his wife, drinking at their condo, where she had already removed his hospital bed and Hoyer Lift and turned his bedroom into a guest room, and my brother the twin, and his British wife, and my father’s last living sibling my Aunt Alice, and his still living sister in law Aunt Peggy – none of them would come to the death. Sometimes the excuse was that Dad was surely in such a coma he would not know, but my wife and I knew he knew a lot, knew he asked for his wife, but none of them would believe us.

My routine now was to go to Florida at Thanksgiving so as to avoid Florida at Christmas. Back in the city I was back with all these new people I had been with all year, people willing to go back into the past so as to be alive in the present, and I was back to drawing cityscapes, water towers and boxy buildings and cars that looked liked cartoon characters, and hanging traffic lights.

Everyone in ACOA knew about my visual adventures, just as they knew about dark things I knew or suspected about the places I came from. At this very time I was back for maybe the last time from the mountains, and about to be in Florida for a cold version of a cliché family holiday visit, a new book by Alice Miller came out and they gave it to me in ACOA. Alice Miller who she did more than anyone else to help get at family horrors and break free of family horrors, her own and those of her readers. Her new book was called Pictures of a Childhood. It contained reproductions of her free form paintings, the paintings by which she got at what had happened.

This tough Switzerland-based analyst who up till then had been an honored orthodox Freudian, holding on to all that Freud had used, including the child sex drive theory, to keep himself from the harshest parts of real stories, those of his patients and probably also his own. She wrote in an introduction of how when she started painting, which she had given up so long ago she had forgotten she ever painted. It was at a time in mid-life that she felt her life at a dead end, then something crucial happened. In the mysterious sphere of art a little girl took her by the hand and led her back into that past she had tried to make better and tried to deny. Back to a time when she was painting, which in the past had been a secret thing between her and the forms and the colors. And then she had stopped altogether so that the narcissists who were her parents couldn’t get to it and kill it. And now this little girl took her back into herself.

I carried Pictures of a Childhood on the plane to Florida. And I drew on the plane. Across the aisle a fit middle aged man was reading a best seller by a basketball coach.


What I was drawing on the plane to Florida were, first, full page cartoon-like faces so distorted they were surprisingly horrible. They appeared almost all by themselves on my drawing pad. They seemed to be faces I knew. And then while on the plane I became focused on what I had suspected all year and really known since that moment last month on the phone when my Aunt Alice was telling me that her daughter was in a battered women’s shelter and that she really sympathized with the batterer because her daughter, my favorite cousin Lauryn, was just too young looking and appealing for her own good. Had it always been this way – these things happening and there being a connection between them. Paul’s death. Elizabeth’s. Malcolm’s druggy incapacitation. Paul’s serial sexual assaults on Deirdre. Deirdre’s battering. I remembered now that in the sports bar Deirdre was also telling me that her mother had gone through the same sorts of things – which I thought I would have known if I had done any reading between the lines.

But that moment on the phone with Aunt Alice. That moment I had had a quite clear idea of why long before I was grown even to the point of looking for prostitutes much less getting involved with girls who seemed to love me, back even when I was so young I had only the vaguest and totally incorrect ideas about the mechanics of sex, not even that sex has anything to do with babies growing in female stomachs, even back then I knew, without knowing I knew, the feel of a bare rounded breast, of bare soft smooth skin, of the special skin on a woman’s inner thigh.

This is on my mind on the plane to awful Florida where I go for Thanksgiving as a way out of going for Christmas with my mother. I have with me Alice Miller’s Pictures of a Childhood and I have the drawing pad I had just taken with me on that last trip to the White Mountains to rescue Deirdre who was back there again just out of a battered women’s shelter in the Midwest. My favorite cousin.

Ever since that phone call I have had I this picture of myself at the end of the upstairs hall at White Pines, the end that used t be blocked off as servant’s quarters but by the time I came along servants wanted to live in their own homes in the village, So these bedroom at the end of the hall were available for overflow family people, as in when they realized how freighted my brother and I were by real and imagined sounds in the night when we spent the nights in the distant Boys Wing and so moved us to these servant bedrooms at the far end of the upstairs of the house. From outside my room here there was a very steep staircase that led right into one of the pantries of the huge kitchen, where I seemed to spent a lot of my time. Down at the foot of the stairs was a box on the wall on which numbers would fall down corresponding to the room of whoever had pressed a buzzer button meaning service to that person’s room upstairs was desired.

I drew the box and the numbers. I also drew a collapsible woods slat gate that was sometimes pulled across the top of the narrow stairs so that we children when alone there would not tumble down. Sometimes I would be visited by someone who came directly up those steep stairs, like the day my Aunt Alice, a proven war widow, told me she had it on good authority that the Japanese pulled their prisoners' tongues out – or when in a still earlier summer Aunt Alice and also a free-flowing California blonde cousin by marriage, came up at twilight time to tuck me in, kiss me good light. They were dressed in flowing silky things that showed their arms and backs and their breasts almost to the nipples. They were on their way to a formal dance, a Red Cross fund raiser, at the Playhouse. During the day I had been up there at the Playhouse with our nurse watching a man hang Japanese lanterns in rows for people pass between as they came in to the dance. These women in my room now, dressed for the dance, they smelled sweet, like my mother’s cologne but more so. And they seemed pampered like kids, their smooth skin powdered like their pretty faces.

On the way to the playhouse, where in my own time we danced in nearly pitch dark not to an orchestra but to LPs, locked together so that, though actual sex seemed out of reach, it felt wildly close.

After I drew the box a few times. I drew the gate. Right here in this anonymous airplane I could smell those women. But my drawing was not accomplished art work. Maybe after I started at Parsons…. As it was, in the three months of my trying to draw I had done the buildings and water towers and hanging traffic lights and waiting cars parked around where I lived. Inanimate things that felt animate. And I had done one of little girls at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden sitting Indian fashion in a semi-circle around a friendly looking fat tree and a friendly woman. I had also been trying to sketch people in the subways, usually adults and children leaning on each other.

In the plane now I can feel myself a small child wrapped in a smooth woman. When I am not trying to draw I am looking at the Alice Miller dream paintings, and reading about how what happened was that finally a little girl came out of the past and took her by the hand. I exactly didn’t see a little boy taking me back, but I was remembering things I had forgotten that had to do with putting lines and colors on paper. I remembered drawing World Wry II planes, like everyone was doing, but mine were flying between and around the planets.

I had not seen anything like it until a couple of weeks ago there was a post suicide show at the School for Visual Art of works by this artist, younger brother of my childhood friend, who had planned to drive up to Vermont with me at the start of the summer but had killed himself insteaed. In the show were paintings of little people pedaling fiercely on unicycles as they dropped through space.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


There were defections. I knew there would be but it still was startling, like a lover moving on, and you had hoped and known she would, but when she does it is like it comes out of the ether.

An early defector was a chubby young girl who seemed violently unhappy, but kept saying everything was fine, a girl whose face was twisted in a grimace often and whose overweight body sometimes seemed nubile but sometimes it was like the sagging body of someone old and defeated. And when she talked, and she talked at length, it was always about how pretty she was, though her moments of seeming pretty were fleeting. She was a friend of the very alive and actually pretty young girl who was back in Lenox, Mass. I ran into the chubby girl one day on the subway. She said she was finished with ACOA, all these people who had nothing do to but complain. She was moving on as, she implied, she always knew she would. Goodbye you little people who can’t get your lives together.

Over on the East Side there was a sweating man in twisted middle age who said people should realize he was really with the CIA, and was gearing up to go on one last mission. And he said not to feel insulted if he did not recognize any of us for he had something in his brain that made it impossible to identify faces.

An older girl or woman who could really let go in meetings disappeared too. She had not claimed to be pretty. She had often spoken of being passionate about sexual attraction to and from women, and she would say that what made her really angry was that the men wanted to keep all the women to themselves. She was the one who when the Reaganites bombed unprotected people in Libya, and Reagan’s Defense Secretary was leaping up and down on television in apparent sexual arousal, came to a meeting angry at the French for, she said, we must all think the worst thing was that the French would not let our bombers fly over their country. And now I ran into her in the subway too. She said I may have noticed that she had not been around. She had had enough, she said, echoing an AA thing about “getting off the pity pot.’”

And there was a well-groomed, soft-spoken, clean-cut man who had been coming for years but now sent a letter around to everyone in Manhattan ACOA whose addresses he could find telling them he had moved on to another stage, and now would go only to a meeting in Brooklyn Heights where people held in their anger. A nice people’s meeting.

And some who stayed were defecting in other ways. A taut woman, who looked like someone who would carry a clipboard, announced what she called the good news that ACOA was getting a national organization, to be based in California. Worse than a defection, this could mean the end to the sorts of tough life-giving things that were happening with people in non-scripted, non-pious Manhattan ACOA. I had seen the vague California version on my last trip out there, the self flagellators, the pious followers of pious versions the 12 steps that we mostly ignored in Manhattan – the Californians’ penchant for cutting off what I thought of as healthy anger, to closing everything down in the name of harmony, whereas in Manhattan there were no rules, no hierarchy. In Manhattan, anything was allowed short of racial bigotry or necrophilia.

And something else was changing too. The really smart people, including the sympathetic therapist who had finally turned her attention to herself and her history, and also my frightening stalker Abigail, had gravitated to each other. We really smart people. And now there was a new intellectual named Harry who had just appeared and it seemed he was “one of us,” the therapist told me happily, “one of us” meaning, to her, that he was a solid atheist who would work to keep any soft and silly AA piety, or any other sort of piety, out of ACOA. She almost forgave him for showing up quite drunk at a couple of our meetings that had expanded to get the goods on all abusers but were originally formed to get the goods on abusing boozers. I certainly was not religious. An author’s directory had me as correctly atheist/agnostic. But this year would not have been this year if I had not become open to alternative versions of reality. I thought of those churches in Vermont. And now for the first time I could see that between my new allies and me there could be a chasm as great as the divide between me and the Poole dynasty of the White Mountains.

And I was finding that I was spending as much time in the museums as in ACOA meetings. I talked with Julia, a tall sweet, sometimes tortured girl in ACOA whose parents had been Cuban before they became American State Department people. She was an artist and understood what I as doing. And she was enrolled at Parsons.

I thought of an open and delicately sculptured girl named Trish, who was more vulnerable than I had realized and whom I had been with a number of times when I was with other girls too way back in the late fifties. She gave me a book of love poetry. It felt wonderful. I could not find her again three years later in a time of darkness after foreign adventures. Had she changed her name?

Trish had been studying fashion design at Parsons. Two parts of my inner and outer worlds coming together, my attraction to appealing visual art and my attraction of appealing women. Visual art, not writing. I had taken Trish on an expense account for something silly to Chicago for a weekend when I was 25. I knew Chicago from when I was 21 and was having what now seemed like serial epiphanies in the Art Institute. Something else in the past to consider in this year 1986 in which so much was coming to me visually, not verbally.

Monday, December 13, 2010

173 – WHALES

There but for the grace of God go I. These words appeared from nowhere in this amusing old Mustang I was in, the car itself seeming as relieved as perhaps I should be feeling to be getting away from the White Mountains. This place I had avoided for so long and did not think I had to deal with, except to admire, until this year of exploration when it had become clear to me that I could not live unless I got the old stories straight. Some of my friends from childhood and adolescence were still there up there in the mountains and in the stories. My brother, who had the last of the big family houses, was still there with his English wife, summers in the mountains and winters in a Virginia suburb near the CIA, where he had gone to work. Donald was still there, for him a place to live with no career, his work life apparently having come to an end when, while still in his twenties, he was denied tenure at Dartmouth despite his work on Rudyard Kipling. And Ginnie was back having decided to delete her art career. And Terri, too, was again in this small corner of the world, living in one wing of a family house, White Wings, that was once one of our houses. Hal was coming up from Massachusetts frequently for the hunting and killing of small animals. These people from our summer gang had been out in the world, and now they were back. There but for the grace of god.

Not that I really believed then either in a god or that I could be trapped that way. But in this year of exploration I had realized how much before this year I had been protecting the family and its restricted kingdom, even while I stayed away, even while I made fun of them all. I had blocked off the mental meanderings that might have led me to figure it out, blocked out evidence of the death and abuse just below the surface – and the way they could kill off anything that did not have family precedent.

And I thought of how it has been when we were all young there. How I had been so sure we would all be so different from the kings and queens of these little kingdoms based on restricted ownership of big summer houses.

There but for the grace of God go I. An AA term, one of the AA sayings that many of us had fun with, and hated, in the much more free wheeling and open ACOA, Adult Children of Alcoholics, where everyone was out to get the goods on the propagators of horrors in the past. By 1986 I had not had a drink in over a decade – not even when back in the Far East – not even when in a failing marriage – not even when I would have moments of seeming success when a book came out. But I did not associate myself with these AA people we were attacking.

In one bleak year, when my marriage was grim and I could not write, I had dropped in with some regularity on an afternoon AA meeting on the Upper West Side, near where I lived then. I kept to myself. I went there not as a participant but to hear the stories of others. Now I thought I unconciously went there looking for some real draw to connections I lacked.

And now I was thinking as I drove away from the mountains, as I played on the tape deck Judy Collins and James Taylor and Joan Armatrading, whose songs has been accompanying me in this year of battle against the old kingdoms – I was thinking that those words from poor old AA applied to me too. For before this year it has almost seemed like life was over. I had finally had to admit despair, and not of the sweet romantic kind, and also the almost literal loss of hope, certainly the deepest of all the depressions I had known, including the incapacitating ones I had denied, this one feeling like the terminal depression – and all this has changed this year as I pieced the story together, revising the scenes of the past, finding witnesses from the past, finding memories I could trust – and people to accompany me to those ignored dark places.

As I drive down back roads all the way from the White Mountains, there is a welling up such as has become familiar in this year. Judy Collins is singing a song about a man on a sailing ship who goes all the way to barren Greenland to kill whales. She sings the line, “There is no bird in Greenland to sing to the whale." And on the tape are the actual sad and lonely whistling sounds of actual whales who will not be saved.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I spent my last afternoon with Lauryn while she was making big lush Christmas wreaths from pine boughs with pine cones and bright ribbons, all her materials laid out on the floor of a glass enclosed old porch at her boyfriend’s old Littlewton house. She said she had had this wreath business when she was living in Littleton in the past, so it was easy to get back in it now. This seemed so touching to me: the brave gorgeous girl being independent with something basically artistic, even back in the darkest days.

This warm world of girlfriends and boyfriends and a town where you were known. The pretty girl’s veneer that she was in a world that was light and happy.

But during the wreath-making her son kept appearing. He had lived in Littleton with his grandmother, Aunt Alice, since he was thrown out of the White Mountain School. Now he kept dropping in at the boyfriend’s house. He was a little angry. He said he thought what we were doing was ridiculous He said he did not like not being able to tell his grandmother that Fred was here in the mountains. Everyone, he said, should get along. His tone was arch.

Here in the warm world of girlfriends and boyfriends in regular place – with the grandson a messenger from places of a colder, sterner dispensation. Lauryn’s mother using her son to get her back.

When Lauryn was in her first weeks in college in Minnesota – a college she want to because her mother did not want her joining her town friends at the University of New Hampshire – she had called her mother for advice and help. She had found herself pregnant. Aunt Alice had promptly flown out to the Midest and talked Lauryn into having the child, though Lauryn wanted an abortion. I had asked her why she had not done what she had wanted to do. Her reply was, “Because this is my mother.”

Her mother, who had been the designated girl in trouble of her generation, the light airy one who was loved to distraction by her father and more or less openly had affairs that so disturbed people who never spoke of such things.

Her father loved her more than anyone else, though she scandalized them. And anyway she stayed loyal. She kept on returning to the White Mountains in the summers, even when she was living in England, and when the going got really tough it was to the White Mountains that she had gone, though to Littleton rather than the correct summer people’s towns. Afterwards she complained that none of the old family friends up there had been welcoming.

She was a problem, especially to my father, who had given up part of his inheritance, and then seen to it that that part and the money that had come to her directly was in a trust set up so that she could never get at the principal. Enough for her to live on but with no extraneous luxuries.

And now it was her daughter, the pretty one of the next generation, who had responded to hard times by returning to the mountains.

Lauryn said she wanted me to take me one of the wreaths. She said she really wanted me to have it.

#171 – A CAR

The next morning Lauryn called me at Terri’s and said she needed a favor. She did not have her own car but someone was going to loan her one. Could I come by, pick her up and take her somewhere.

We drove to what looked like a gravel quarry turned into a construction area. The man who had the car was there in a long trailer where he apparently both worked and lived. Around the main part of it there were blueprints laid out on drafting tables. He was a tall youngish man, another who had been in high school with Lauryn. A quite well off young man whose family owned the property he was planning to develop. Like the boyfriend, he seemed so delighted to see this woman who still looked like a girl. Was quick and smart as well as lovely, challenged men to be their best, seemed not to have a care, seemed so well-adjusted and cheerfull.

This man with the trailer, the family business and the extra car was, she told me, the owner of the Littleton diner. This was not the time for my amusing punch line about the specialty of the day being cheeseburger quiche.

Friday, December 3, 2010

#170 – TOWN GIRL

I started that day after the moonlight trek on little sleep but feeling new energy. It was as if during the night I had gone into battle and survived. A battle of competing versions of reality, my evolving version and that of the people who had been in those big old houses long before I was born, and during my childhood and adolescence. And it was as if during the night it had become absolutely clear what I had been doing and needed to do – not that I had felt at any time in the past year that the attacks I was making on family were not warranted.

Awake in late morning I looked out my room’s window past the aqua Mustang to the familiar field in front of White Wings. The remaining snow cover was melting. Brown grass was appearing.

Before Terri began bringing in retired farm animals this field had already been like a rocky grazing field – which I knew the people of the past would find classier than a tailored lawn. In my line of sight now was a bushy pine thing in the middle of the field, a pine thing that had many separate limbs growing up from the ground. I took from my very old briefcase my still new drawing pad, feeling that I was in the swing of something natural to me. I sketched the pine thing roughly with one of my still new drawing pencils.

I called Lauryn and we met in Littleton for coffee. This lively though so recently battered cousin I had driven up here to comfort or rescue. She told me now that last night she had forgotten to say she was doing therapy. When she got back from the Middle West, out of the shelter, she had found a new group of therapists had set up shop specializing in trauma right here in Littleton, this old time mill town, where she had gone to high school. I was suspicious since I had been hearing so many stories this past year of people going through years of therapy without every getting at family horrors. Therapists scared of their own stories. But she showed me a brochure that made it seem the new group in Littleton was cutting edge, with an approach that was perhaps not so unlike what we were doing in ACOA without therapists. I showed her the drawing. It was a Juniper, she said. And then she spoke again of how, now that the worst was over, she really wanted to continue her studies to become a landscape architect.

In the evening I went over to the house where her new boyfriend lived with his crusty old mother down by the rushing Amonoosic River, a timeless area of mystery with its weather beaten wooden buildings, some of them solid but some so flimsy you’d think the water could carry them away. Old houses. Old shuttered factories in the background. Old-time year-round people. A place of mystery. And in this place a warm old house where Lauryn had apparently found safety.

The TV was on and I believed it would always be on. The boyfriend was a friendly man who worked in construction in the summers and was on the ski patrol, based on Cannon Mountain, in the winter. He said that although he and Lauryn were in the same high school class they had been in such different circles that they hardly knew each other. She the popular girl of the time. And then she had gone away to college like so many in the class, to college or bigger places, and he had found himself one of the very few who never left. In the living room of his family house now she was running her fingers through his hair.

French Canadians down by the river in Littleton. A mill town. The summer people’s shopping town. A real town with its different place in the world. They told me his late father was a legendary figure who had made his living trucking booze in from Canada during prohibition. And the old rum runner’s wife, here dominating the living room even while she simply stared at the TV, she was as solid as the Old Man of the Mountains and nearly as craggy.


I come in late. I think I should be exhausted with all the ground we have just covered at the Clam Shell. But there is an almost full moon that bounces off the early snow that lightly covers the ground, the snow that came as I was driving through the Notch. The cold night air is so clear and fresh, and the past so present, that what I must see I can best see in moonlight.

I walk out the driveway though the field in front of White Wings to to Davis Road, this birch-lined road of summers, this road where I walked as a child with Gaga, who always had a cane and a floppy sun hat, and sometimes actual dogs though sometimes just remembered dogs, this road where Peter and I laid plans to be welcoming North Country inn keepers, this road I drove when I was 16 with my important girlfriend Ellyse – this road that eventually passes the little summer church where my parents were married and where at 14 in a rare good boy phase I would, with my twin brother, take up the collection, this church that some said was so like something you would expect in England.

By now I could not stand the sounds of British English for it reminded me of the fake British sounds of these summer people. But that distaste for those sounds was recent. And I still felt the pull of family that centered around the life and work of the grandfather, the writer, that had its radical side that I had tried to concentrate on – though he spent so much of his life here among people as far from old socialist colleagues as my grandfather could get.

This place that must carry an explanation for the molestation and early death that now seemed the hallmark of a family whose worst failings used to be snobbery – these people whom I had been attacking for a year now, the first year of my life that I have been free of depression.

I walk, through the snow now, past bare apple trees that in the night look like hanging trees, through the grounds of big houses that look now like gothic novel houses – in this place obscured by family fiction that I am trying to burrow into to find out what part is real.

There is beauty here in the moonlight. I am looking for more than horror.

My toes are numb but I walk all the way through pine woods down the twisting drive and look at White Pines against the mountains. From the outside you cannot tell it has been gutted and turned into cheap apartments. It is that house that is always there with the only difference being the cheap tin roof that has been added to what should have still been wooden shingles. The roof now is a giant reflector of moonlight.

I return to the long drive. I cross Davis road and walk below the Farmhouse, shuttered for the winter, and then I walk up to at a rectangle in the ground that is still clear even with light snow, like something marked out on an area where archeologists plan to dig. This place where the Playhouse had stood. I am below the ominous House on the Hill, owned for some years now by old virginal school teachers who never bothered reviving the family tennis court.

I pass a drive that may be to where the man my grandmother may have been having an affair with had lived. And I go on up Davis Road. No cars are out and here are no lighted houses, no houses at all before I get to the paved driveway going up beneath large branches to the Mallory’s old place. The chain barrier and the "Beware of the Dog" sign which in September Gillian had pointed out meant hostility to strangers, are no longer there.

I walked up the drive. It was not plowed but the snow was powdery and could not have been more than three inches. Up the drive, with on the right the long garage where the Mallory's kept their cars, with rooms above for the many servants they brought with them from Philadelphia. Black servants. Enough of them to amuse themselves, people said, since there was no place for Negroes to go in the mountains. Past the garage the tennis court where old family people had gathered, Mrs. Mallory sometimes playing a folky zither, and then the chateau-like main house where people used to go for movie evenings since Otto Mallory did not drink. His death was so ironic, everyone said, hit by a drunken driver while going for his mail in Pennsylvania.

Beyond the chateau at the start of woods there was something that looked like a little house out of a fairy tale that I knew was the house where children had stayed, the counterpart to the children’s house for the Gibbs grandchildren, which had its own kitchen and room for a nurse or governess, and the Boys Wing for us at White Pines, where there was a room for our nurse too. Ours was not a separate house but you got to it through the kitchen and pantries.

On up Davis Road. Cold but not minding it. Up all the way to that little summer church and just beyond the turnoff up past the Pioneer on one side and the Gibbs house on the other to where the old Sunset Hill House had stood. Had it burned down, or was that just something people said. Had it merely been demolished by wreckers, like the Playhouse? And now I come to the much smaller clapboard place that calls itself the Sunset Hill House but is actually the old building where the summer staff had lived, college boys who were summer bellboys, college girls who were summer waitresses. These older boys and pretty girls who came in from worlds beyond ours and with no family looking on – boys and girls who would not understand our people any more than our elders would understand them. The world beyond.

But here I am in the world within. It is painfully cold here. My toes ache and my feet are mostly numb. Probably not frostbite yet, but I do think I might be heading back to White Wings just in time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

#168 – ADRIFT

On the news is a horror scene in the subway, a station not far from here. A pursed little man named Bernie Goetz had cornered three black men and shot them, leaving one paralyzed from the neck down. The police catch up with him and there is suddenly a right wing campaign to honor and save Bernie Goetz. It somehow – no mystery to my mind – gets all tied up with the exaltation of Ronald Reagan. Rita is on food stamps and also distributes government food, cheese and honey, to everyone on the block, whether they qualify as officially poor or not. But she is a great fan of Reagan who would take all this away from her. Also, she is Puerto Rican in this time when Washington is in the hands of racists. And now she has become a great fan of Bernie Goetz. And still she is about the nicest person I have ever met.

She keeps tabs on everyone in the neighborhood. Judging by her sweet, confident smile, and by the looks of a daughter who comes through, she was extremely pretty when she was young and thin and working as a catalog model, which was how she met her late husband. She rents to me illegally since this is a rent control apartment. She is all over the neighborhood, goes to mass frequently, knows everyone and everything. Although her apartment is cold at night, there is a feeling of plenty – a refrigerator full almost to overflowing, everything from ice cream to apple juice to turkey, sandwich spreads, ham apples, frozen deserts, and there are pantry shelves crowded with other fruits, and canned juices and meats, bread and pastries and crackers and cookies.

I am lonely here in this rented room that is so cold at night. Its linoleum floor feels refrigerated. And, moreover, I have the illusion I am wandering again in strange towns where I do not speak the language – Sarajevo, Cairo, Tokyo – though I am having this experience right here in New York where there are so many people I have known for so long. My window is on the ground floor, right on the sidewalk on 25th Street, and there is some sort of bar nearby that at 4 in the morning empties out a batch of men who then traverse the block singing drunkenly.

It has become incredibly cold in here. I am reading, and also following on public TV, the Raj Quartet – sex and double dealing, in stifling hot places. Brits in jodhpurs, lovely tragic girls, some dark and some light, the Indians looking as Indian as the Brits look Brit. My old friend John Thackray has me going once a week to a yoga session, which takes place in a high apartment on Central Park West that looks out over the Central Park reservoir, which is so clear in the winter light. Three lithe girls, John and me, and the teacher, a personable out-of-work dancer. There are signs of the times here. Books linking angels to dolphins, and two flotation tanks. John tells me, in his ironically British tones, how you an be put in one of these wet coffin-like affairs in order to have some by-the-numbers spiritual experiences. But the guy who teaches the yoga class is no yoga martinet and is anyway not the owner of the place. John, who is a world class mountain climber and always in first rate shape (though he wasn’t when were friends 20 years ago) says it is the only yoga class where what they say about how to breathe makes sense to him and works. This yoga guy is a dancer who goes to auditions. All the classes are called off when he gets a role dancing and acting in a road company of A Chorus Line.

I go over to Murray Hill to see my doctor, who is actually the son of a doctor who delivered Peter and me and was a close friend of my grandfather’s close friend, an immigrant doctor with whom my grandfather worked in the settlement house movement early in the century. I like this doctor, who by now is himself getting old, because while we talk he chain smokes and his brash nurse brings him cup after cup of strong black coffee. Once when I was back from abroad and feeling awful he sent me to a series of specialists, all of whom were elderly men with thick accents. He gives me the sleeping pills I want, and I still see him even though he had told me a few years ago my only problem was is that I did not have a regular job. He had held up as an example his brother, whom he said was in the same situation, wanting to be a writer, until he got good job in public relations. He had said I needed therapy, but the kind where the therapist does most of the talking. He doesn’t repeat any of this now, but he does say that nothing physical explains the fatigue I feel, and so maybe I should look at certain aspects of my life. In the past he had said it was probably too late to do anything about whatever it was that kept me awake. My wife went to him once for a checkup and she told me he had said I was a person with whom he would enjoy having a drink.

On my way back I run into my Aunt Alice who has just arrived from New Hampshire to spend the winter in a residential hotel in New York. She is full of ideas of things we should do. At the top of her list is the movie Gandhi which is playing on East 23rd and which I do not want to see. I really cannot take these fictionalized versions of real life. I know what Gandhi looked like. I have seen a thousand pictures. He did not like Ben Kingsley going for an Academy Award. Also, in recent years I have found I cannot stand to be in the same room with Aunt Alice, which I have thought might mean there is something wrong with me. She has always been, to the family and myself, my favorite aunt, the careful rebel of her generation.

Aunt Alice asks me to come to dinner at her club. She say the words “my club” in the English way she learned in her years in London. It turns out, strangely, to be the National Arts Club where some very safe artists have studios and which is stuffier than the Players Club, where my father went when he was in publishing, and nearly as stuffy as the Century, where my father once took me to lunch to tell me I should not take an offered book advance because my grandfather never took money until he had finished a book. For this dinner Aunt Alice brings along the daughter of someone she knows. Match-making is being attempted.

The girl, who has a pretty face but wears a tailored suit, talks about a long love affair she had just gotten over. She works at what sounds like a boring job in finance. Her lover, however, was a painter. She talks of the long quiet evenings at his place where she would read and he would paint, and it all sounds so ideal that she must be sadder than she looks. There is nothing much between us, though it seems like there should be. She speaks about how her father has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Aunt Alice talks about her brother, my father, and his long decline into death with Parkinson’s – giving us and this girl, my aunt seems to be saying, the bond of having things in common.

Near my place I run into a neighbor, Harvey, who had been John’s best man years back when he married an appealing young actress at the Little Church Around the Corner, the Actor’s Church. Harvey is a smart lonesome guy who had a long affair with a woman who loved him but whom he rejected when they were in couples therapy. He works at part-time college teaching and never speaks about ambitions to do anything else. He is amusing in his pessimism about the political state of the world and the sad state of the arts. He lives in a studio apartment in London Terrace, an old middle class and upper middle class development, with strict controls on rents, that covers a full block just west of me. It has a long waiting list to get in. Elliot says it has dawned on him that he has such a good deal he will never leave, though he is unhappy that he did not think at the beginning to go for a one bedroom. I used to think we were at opposite ends – Elliot always down, me usually just back from some adventure or off on another. Now it looks like we may be interchangeable.

Monday, November 22, 2010


At end of the summer in Indianapolis I went to Connecticut for a long weekend with them all, Mother and Dad and my brother Peter at our house in Connecticut. When I stepped down from the train at the Westport/Saugatuck station what got their attention was the new hat I was wearing. A hat I had seen in a store window on a Friday afternoon and that had seemed just the thing to wear for when I was up in Chicago that night. At the train station in Connecticut, they all said in turn, amused and exasperated, that now he has a pork pie hat. Home!

At the beginning of November I spoke to them on the phone, an election night duty call much like a duty holiday call, though like those holiday calls I actually did want these occasional connections by phone back then. When it was clear the awful Eisenhower would win I went to a pay phone on a windy street so as not to be overheard calling home from the United Press bureau. To avoid an argument I skirted the issue of the election. Dad had said he could hear in my words that I had picked up a Middle Western accent, though actually in Indiana some people thought I sounded British.

The pork pie hat. The hint of a Midwestern accent. Always something that brought me back to a sorry role in the lurking family story, which I tried so hard to sweep under the rug until this time 30 years later when I was at last on the hunt for what was there behind the family façade.

When in Connecticut on the long weekend I told them only of the up times in Indianapolis. Of getting promoted to covering the Legislature for United Press, of getting bylines. I did not tell them of things that would only bring them back to their constant jibes. For example, this girl I went out with whose father had the Muzak concession for Indianapolis. On the walls of their homey kitchen there were framed sampler style sayings about the divinity of music and its soothing of savage beasts (breasts?) while down in the basement a huge spool of tape, set on its side, was turning night and day sending out the most awful syrupy stuff to every waiting room and office building in Indianapolis. She was a sweet girl and bright, and I did not want them attacking her even though it would only be their version of her and she would never hear it.

Was this why I was so angry? That they could not see beyond themselves? That nothing was meant to be real? It was crucial to their sense of who they were that my late paternal grandfather had been for a time quite famous, an American novelist who had been on most freshman English classes required or suggested reading lists.

I could not talk to them about what really interested me because they could not connect, perhaps, to any stories that they did not themselves create. So I didn’t tell them about the little man who had just been released from prison after 17 years – one of the stories I was on. It turned out he had been the grand wizard or dragon or something of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan in a time leading up to World War II when the Klan had run just about everything from politics to outright crime in Indiana. But he had been convicted after it was found he had kidnapped a girl, forced her into a Pullman sleeper compartment in one of the many trains running up to Chicago, and there he had not just raped her, he had bitten off her nipples.

I had not heard anyone mention the Klan until this guy was released, and now, knowing how it had controlled the state, so much that puzzled me was suddenly clear. The Legislature I had been covering had just passed a law that, if the courts did not object, would mean a 10-year-old child could go to the electric chair in Indiana for nighttime burglary. Everyone knew who did nighttime burglary. Non-white rapists.

And I had seen the governor, his name was George Craig, standing in the back of a black convertible, surrounded by men with guns, standing as if he had his arm his arm up and out in a way that was halfway between a blessing to his people and a fascist salute. He was driven slowly around the racing oval at the state fairgrounds stadium. He had risen not in the usual ways of politicians elsewhere but through the state police and the American Legion, which has its black marble national headquarters right here.

With this new information about the role of the Klan in Indiana, so much fell into place. The Klan control has been recent enough that almost all the puffed up politicians I covered had to have been members to be in politics. Governor Craig, and cruel, taut senator William Jenner, who had taken over as inquisitor from the disgraced Senator McCarthy, and the obese Senator Homer Capehart whose family manufactured juke boxes that the mob insisted every bar purchase – all these bizarre men. And the Southern racist layout and traditions of the city. And the prevailing suspicion of foreigners, including denizens of the East Coat. And the ever widening use of the electric chair. It all fell into place with this information about the Klan.

And now 30 years later in New Hampshire on the search for what went so wrong that my cousins were coming to horrible ends, I thought back on that time in Indiana and wondered if there were not some piece of information, such as what came out when the prisoner was released in Indiana, that would be about something so awful that it would explain everything.