Saturday, February 27, 2010


My new outdoors and indoors Saturday routine as I probed the past in 1986 made me think of routine I adopted in Paris when I was 16.

I was surprised that summer that Mother knew about these artists called Impressionists, for painting was not something that was part of this family (not counting my suave paternal Great Uncle Abram, a portrait painter who had once been married to a woman who ran off with Greta Garbo and had recently, although very old, married a rich woman who ran Vogue magazine.

The sort of thing that they said was so unlike anything in our family, saying it each time anything entailing sex happened ). But suave Uncle Abram did not paint like what I was seeing now. My regular routine now of first the Olympia to see cheerful naked girls, then to the Place de la Concorde to the Jeu de Pam to look at my favorite artists now that I had favorite artists – Monet and Manet and Renoir. But by nightfall I was back in the family at dinner at our hotel, where I had to hear about how my twin, my rival, Peter was so fine he had bought an old book by someone named Diderot at the stalls along the Seine. And they sheltered him one morning when he seemed to be having a nervous breakdown – Grandmother Clark called these episodes "Peter's spells" and seemed to find something heroic in them – this last spell brought on when he was nervous about a shy pretty American girl in the hotel dining room.

And there were other haunting matters in Paris that summer when I was 16 an finding new life but also death. I did not know until just after I first went there that the Place de la Concorde was where so many of the guillotinings had taken place, including the king, whose head was chopped off at one end of the huge open square and some months later Marie Antoinette, at the other end. In a sense I knew all about this. Nana, the grande dame grandmother, used to sing to us when we were very small, French songs, in French, from a songbook that had illustrations of people spouting red blood from necks that had been chopped in the course of their beheadings, and also of French soldiers in fancy uniforms spouting blood from where limbs had just been sliced off with swords.

Nana was supposed to have been in Paris with us, but she got hit by a car that was driving on the left while she crossing a street in London, so right now she was in a London hospital. But I did feel her presence. For although so much was new and fresh, so much was also from other times, and this was a family, led by Nana, that seemed certain past times were better than present times.

That year, 1951, Paris seemed to be fully from past time. We had just been in London which was in past time to the point of having such strict wartime rationing still that I was constantly hungry there. In Paris the signs of other times were appealing – squared off buses with open air platforms on the back, like in children’s picture books, and pissoirs on the corners, and flower ladies everywhere, and also, like in books, actual streetwalker prostitutes– and, moreover, gendarmes wearing dramatic capes – one of whom was at an intersection to direct traffic but right there with cars honking he was busy kissing a pretty girl, bending her back so that she was almost horizontal. And despite the family I wondered if this could not be present time too.

In London we had stayed in a small flat where Aunt Betsy lived all year except for the summers, when she was in White Pines in the White Mountains with her son, Robin, a then intensely unhappy little boy who knew many of her lovers but never his father, who had been killed din the war. Also her adopted problem child Paul. In White Pines, though I thought not in London, she wore her late husbands RAF wings as costume jewelry , even though he had not been killed heroically in the Battle of Briton – the family story told by family members who knew better – for he had died in a drunken accent when he and a friend broke onto an airfield at an RAF base after the pubs closed, took up a plane and promptly crashed it. And this too, the real story as well as the fake story, fit well with a family who kept pushing the idea that everything used to be better than it was now. This family that was with me even in Paris!

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