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…”