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.