Saturday, October 23, 2010


Her voice was not English, although that’s where she’d started out, and it wasn’t New Hampshire, though that’s where she’d wound up when her mother suddenly took her out of the LycĂ©e and the ballet school and headed up to New Hampshire with her brother as a possibly last ditch attempt to keep Paul out of prison, he was wanted on so many charges, from carrying a sawed off shotgun to major shop-lifting, and it got worse in New Hampshire, going into kidnapping, I heard, and holding off police officers with his guns.

And then the brother was gone, first into the army – which a new Hampshire judge gave him as the only alternative by then to prison
a time when he had dressed up in special forces clothes, complete with jaunty green beret, had his picture taken and created a fictional story of being a green beret killer in Vietnam – which was not the first time a fictional story of heroism had appeared in this family. From what I had learned in this year of probing nothing seemed unlikely.

After the hero caper the brother had been killed in a mysterious motorcycle accident, which did not surprise anyone in the family except maybe his mother. But the story was not over.

Lauryn did say on the phone that the woman with the French accent was the mother of her new boyfriend, which was all news to me, but she had more boyfriends then the family thought I had girlfriends, though
I had been with, and lived with, different women like she had lived with different men. We were the only family members to get divorced, not counting my mother's parents.

On the phone she said that the place to meet that evening was the Clam Shell. I had been there in the summer, this landlocked seafood restaurant in this New Hampshire mill town where right at your table there would be an aquarium with slimy bottom feeding fish and eels. (The slimy live water creatures right at the table where dead water creatures were being eaten was one of the best metaphors I had ever encountered.) She said she didn't mean the main restaurant but rather the Clam Shell’s sports bar upstairs. I had gone out of my way even in drinking days to never go into a sports bar not because I was against the drinking but because I had nothing to share with sports fans.

It was a big smoky room with a pool table and long bar. Linoleum tables. Everyone smoking except me – and I had been off tobacco less than a year. It was nice to see her smoke. She did indeed look just the way she had looked all those years ago. Almost 40 now but just like she had always been. And she still had that way of giving you a sympathetic and amused look. There was nothing like her in the family. I asked for matches so I could light her cigarettes.

And at first it was like we were getting together socially, as if it had not been four years since we had last met up. Since then, she had left one marriage and taken her son to Minnesota where she was studying landscape garden design, and quickly had another husband then another son. And then this lover who kept on beating her to the point where she was taken away to the shelter. Which explained why she left Minneapolis.

I mentioned that I had heard from her older brother Lawrence, who was in the theater but so correct he lived in Princeton, and his wife Margaret, who had been a dancer with Merce Cunningham. I had heard from them that when they were all visiting Lauryn and Lawrence's mother in New Hampshire last year she had suddenly gone berserk. They were watching a made for TV movie that was about a girl who was badly abused, and Lauryn, usually so pleasant, had started screaming. In their account the reason was that Paul had once raped her.

And now she was telling me that it was not once but at least hundreds of times.

But the talk wasn’t entirely about what had happened to her. For she seemed to hang on my every word as I told her about what I had been discovering in the past years – tales of fakery and intimidation – what I had learned from Mrs. Marsh, and the bigotry outbreak that had had so much to do with setting off my plunge into the past. And I talked a little about the long standing rivalry between me and my brother that I thought now had been set up, consciously or not, so has to keep us both in control. And then I spoke of this childhood rivalry coming into the present. I told her about how I could so easily have been killed.

She said that she herself took heart in her belief that “what goes around comes around,” which I took as meaning justice of the revenge kind in the end. But then as if I had explained nothing she said,

"You are so angry. Why are you so angry?"

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I have a bare room with a comfortable narrow bed on the ground floor of Terri’s wing. I look out on the field that separates White Wings from Davis Road. Across Davis Road there is another field, and then trees that have been allowed to get so tall they hide the lower two-thirds and part of the upper third of the mountain view. We would come out on this field when we walked with our grandfather Gaga. We would go beneath the sheltering long green pine needles, and over the brown needles on the ground on our way to check the level of the spring water wells that they called “reservoirs,” one actually on the path and one over near the Farm House. The reservoirs, big rectangular cement walled containers that rose above the ground and were protected with what looked like small houses, brown clapboard and roofs of weathered wooden singles. Gaga, with his cane and his floppy sun hat, would look inside and say the water level was getting lower, but I could never see the change. Every summer he said it was becoming an emergency, and ordained that baths at White Pines should not be run more than three inches deep.

Also on that path my twin and I built a wobbly little tree house with the connivance of two local boys. And then when we were into puberty this path was the route Peter and I took to visit Terri in the bright new children’s wing of White Wings.

For a number of years the presence of Terri seemed to change everything here where everything had seemed so set in place. In the years that followed our adolescent summers Terri continued to come to White Wings, this house in which I had spent summers when I was 3 and 4. Her parents spent less time here, but she would come up alone, or with a girlfriend from Grosse Point, as in the summer she had left her the General Motors husband her parents had decided upon for her. By this time she was an adult but still gorgeous and lithe, and by now busy rescuing animals. First a pet sheep who walked beside the pretty girl along Davis Road. Later a rescued cow, and then an amusing little pet pig, and of course rescued dogs.

Looking out towards Davis Road and the mountains from the window of my room now in Terri’s wing, I saw in the near distance what looked like a burgeoning low lying pine tree. I brought out my new pad and drawing pencils and I drew it as accurately as I could.

Terri was up and out before I awoke. I found the phone extension beside the refrigerator and called the number I had gotten from Rob. A woman with a French Canadian accent answered and put Lauryn on the line. “Fred, where are you?” The way Lauryn spoke it seemed like connecting with family the way family should be.

Monday, October 18, 2010


For so many years I looked at this place – the White Mountains of new Hampshire, the summer towns, Franconia and Sugar hill – the summer families who had always been there – looked at it just as if it was something set in place that could not be much tinkered with - even though I saw plenty wrong. I started going there in infancy. My first memory is one of threatening violence, not actually in the White Mountains, this first memory, but on the way up on a single track rail line built to bring vacationers. I am riding in a Pullman car in which you could smell the coal smoke from a black iron steam engine, and the smoke smell that might blend with the balsam smell from the pine trees all around outside – but on that train, in that drawing room, which was an outsize compartment at one end of a Pullman car, something horrible had happened. I was almost pre-verbal, not quite two years old, but the scene is there in my mind still, the despair of the mother, her head on a table, the sounds of the grandmother, the wailing of my brother peter, and another smell that cut through the coal smoke and the balsam. Many years later when I finally went back in like an obsessed detective I realized years the smell was of fresh blood. Realized

That scene on the train always there even as I looked for so long at that part of the world almost uncritically. Not completely uncritically. I was able early to separate far enough to be furious maybe about the area’s anti-Semitism. When a car stopped our grandfather on his walk and a nice looking couple asked for directions to a hotel he told them there were no hotels in the region. Furious. We were right at the turnoff to the Sunset Hill House. But when I objected, at the age ten then, he took me on another walk to explain that this was the way things should be. You have to watch these people, he said, for a Jewish fellow will work harder than anyone else and take some other fellow’s job away from him.

The unforgivable bigotry and the snobbery. Yes I was often furious even in this time I remember as a time when I was relatively unquestioning in my mind, though the questions were there, and in this new time of exploration I had spoken about how these people of my family past people should be prosecuted. But also always in my mind, whether there or not, was this haunting sense of the beauty of the place. These mountains laid out in the summer people’s principal view, form the Sunset Hill House and all the old time summer people’s places. Especially from White Pines, which was reached through pine woods by a very long twisting driveway on which you had to keep honking in case someone was coming the other way. And when you reached that house you had the best view of all: out to more woods and to the distant mountains, a view that did not have a sign of a living creature in it if you did not count one place in one of the bigger mountains where for just an instant a cable car would be silhouetted against the sky. The mountains rising at Lafayette to where only scrub pine could live.

These White Mountains that sometimes seemed warm , and sometimes gray and black, and are part pure granite and scarred by avalanches.

And yet such beauty. Even a rosy orange hue sometimes when at the end of a clear day the setting sun plays on them.

The sunset seen from a once perfect place, though in this year 1986 when I got to my own story, not the stories the summer people told, not the stories my novelist grandfather wrote, not the versions of my twin brother – but my own view from this once perfect place, the place where I began to see the possibilities of a life, and where I was mysteriously popular, and fell in love with girls and nature – though in this year 1986 so much of what I saw and felt is mingled with white hot anger.

I thought also in the past that it was something wrong with me that made me see death so clearly in that beautiful summer place, but when I began to look only with my own eyes I knew that among much else it had not been a place safe for children of any age.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


The moment I met up with them the night before sailing I knew I was back in a horribly familiar place. From various parts of the country we had come to the Henry Hudson Hotel over by the West Side highway across from the ships’ berths from where a Holland-American Line student ship would depart the next day for Europe. A half dozen boys and girls were already there, congregating in one of the anonymous carpeted bedrooms, and the scene was dominated by this burly guy Bruce from Akron, Ohio who did all the talking. No chance for me to get a word in, hard as it was to speak at all, and I thought I might never connect with any of the girls there – the sad, puppy-like blonde from California, the olive skinned, sharp featured girl from New Jersey, the firm pug nosed girl from Boston, the intelligent New York girl who said her father was a state supreme court judge. Bruce never stopped talking. Saying the obvious. There we are, he said. Here we are, he said. Now you look very ready, he said. And the girls watched him, and the other boys, who seemed small and retiring, did too. A running commentary as if we are all part of nothing more than his own story. Annoying and frightening for he seemed to have power here. Like the ones who used to make fun of me before it became clear to me and the world that I was bright and that a pretty girl could love me.

Out of the blue Bruce started making fun of me, for I hesitated to speak and that seemed to tell him I was an enclosed intellectual. He leapt on my not being able to speak by asking why I was so afraid, asking it a way that did not require an answer.

Why was I here? The previous summer while in Europe with the family I had had this idea they all scoffed at that I would become a poet and live in Paris. I had been able to so clearly see myself in a small basement restaurant such as I so far knew only in fiction, a warm dark place with red and white checkered table clothes, glowing candles with cheerful congealed wax down the sides, me and a warm dark girl in black leaning in over the table, forehead to forehead, she making love close up with her eyes as we talked in shared intensity about something. Monet? Keats? Socialism?

And there I had been with this fantasy last summer while on the one hand in Paris and on the other back in the family. Which had opened up new worlds but also made it seem to me that I could never get safely beyond the family’s version of my life. In this past year in boarding school, I had in a world beyond the family, and my victories in school had been confirmed by my surpring popularity in summer in the White mountains. But back in the family everything else in my life could seem flimsy.

And then our Southern grandmother had offered Peter and me new trips to Europe. There was this outfit called the Experiment in International Living, based in Putney Vermont, that was popular with parents in our Connecticut town. It set up groups of young people for summers aboard to live in foreign families. Most of the groups were for college students, but they had this one group for just graduated secondary school seniors. Not for Paris. Rather for Holland, which I knew mainly from sappy children’s stories about blonde kids in wooden shoes, sexless little blonde girls in dumpy cloth hats. Hans Brinker and his silver skates. Funny little dog pulling little carts. But I jumped at the chance to board a ship again and leave an old life behind. Though I also thought that just maybe what I really wanted was back up to the White Mountains – despite this pull to sail away from whatever it was that bound me.