want to go home."
When my mother and Durant were in California, he surely heard those words from her, a lot, just as I did. When she spoke them to her new husband, he was unable to resist. She was at the height of her persuasiveness, her life in front of her, and the words had power. When she spoke them to me, she was broken, old, diminished and pleading, but the words were no less powerful. Not enough to make me go back, but enough to evoke "home" so vividly that there were times when it seemed as if the ancient melancholia, not content to lie in wait, had uncoiled itself, left its lair, searched me out and found me at the other end of the continent. And it made me understand the extent to which we'd cut out her heart by taking her away from there. The town was my mother, and my mother was the town. Whatever I am, that place made me. And my mother made me.
Yes, life would have been very different indeed if we'd stayed in Beverly Hills. I don't think Tim Durant and Miss Janie ever met; if they had, she would have been the object of his considerable derision, and she'd have loathed him in return. But the two of them were close partners in helping to create the mysterious, complicated push-me-pull-you force field that emanates from the town, that haunts my brother and me to this day. Not that my wicked stepfather and my batty old nursery-school teacher did it all by themselves, but they were major players. I like to picture them riding in a car together for all eternity in a sort of existential Driving Miss Janie, Durant at the wheel swerving toward trees while she whacks him with her cane .
In that same cemetery where Miss Janie took us, (link) and not far from where she's in repose, there's a tree with letters carved on it. That tree is a perfect cemetery tree. It has smooth bark, a big sturdy immortal-looking trunk and long lush droopy branches with whispery, rustling leaves. You have to know what the carved letters are in order to recognize them. Forty years have made them spread and bloom into illegibility. I know what they are, though: "T.C. + A.C." My brother and his best friend, André Chernov. The old guy who tended the cemetery was furious with Tommy and André, and called the parents. André got into some trouble, but my mother just laughed. So they carved their initials in a tree, she said. Big deal. It's what kids do.
We've known André from birth. (Link) His father was my mother's erstwhile flame Alexis (link), the very same Alexis who stashed his illicit New York girlfriend with my parents one long-ago weekend. My parents divorced, but Alexis and his wife did not, and the Chernovs were our tightest family friends. Alexis was a classically trained artist whose gift put you in mind of Rembrandt or Michelangelo. His family left Russia just before the revolution and moved to Germany. He was the same age as the century, and in the 1920s went to live in Berlin. There he was, a brilliant educated young man in the prime of his prime, an artist, handsome and black-eyed, in the heart of the Bertolt Brechtian cultural hub of Europe between the great wars.
As strong young men do, he worked at different jobs. One was in a foundry. When we were little kids, and Alexis was in his fifties, he'd take off his shirt and solemnly show us the scars on his back from flying bits of molten metal. He was also tacitly showing us his ropy, powerful physique. Another of his jobs had been as a court artist. He'd been there for the trial of Fritz Haarman, a pervert and mass murderer extraordinaire whose shenanigans make Jeff Dahmer look like a dilettante.
Once in the 1970s Alexis pulled a couple of sketches from a portfolio and showed them to me. The first was of Haarmen in the courtroom during the trial; the other was Haarmen just a few moments before his execution by decapitation. Alexis was a portrait artist without peer. When he showed me those sketches, fifty years fell away in an instant and I was looking right into the colorless amoral eyes of the Butcher of Hanover.
And what, you might ask, of the wife behind whose back Alexis was sneaking around, the mother of his only child? Katrina Chernov was one of the great madwomen of all time. If ever there was someone who was not a member of Dorothy Parker's terrible slow army, it was Katrina. To call her merely "mad" would be to do her a great disservice. Mad she was, but she was also the living antidote to everything humdrum, tepid, quotidian. Infuriating, too, of course-able to exasperate you to the point of spluttering incredulousness, eventually eighty-sixed from several people's houses and lives, including my mother's, but never, ever ordinary, and often on fire with inspiration. Today, they'd call her bipolar. Back then, the name was manic depression. She and my mother were pals for years until their final falling-out.
Clinically, Katrina was a textbook case. She went from dizzy highs to the blackest lows on a cycle as regular and predictable as the movements of the stars, with stages in between where she was either on her way up or on her way down. The time from her highest point to her lowest was about two months. Every year, year in, year out, as long as she lived. She was about fifteen years older than my mother, but you would never have known it. She seemed immune to age. Her skin stayed smooth, her body limber. My mother had a theory: the time Katrina spent in the "down" part of her manic cycle was a form of suspended animation. All processes slowed, including the process of age. My mother may have been on to something. Katrina lived to almost ninety, and her honey-blown hair never turned gray.
When she was "down," as my mother called it, she became a ghost. She retreated to her room, drew the curtains, rarely left her big four-poster bed where she'd watch her black-and-white rabbit-eared T.V. all day and all night. She occasionally cracked the door just enough to whisper to her son. If she dressed, it was in black, and she wore her hair in a severe knot.
Gradually, she would emerge from this chrysalis of gloom. When I say emerge, I mean emerge. Two months later might find her scampering barefoot across the village green in a milkmaid outfit, hair streaming, shoulders bare, eyes blazing. When she was "up," we kids thought she was the most fun grownup around. None of the other mothers, not even mine, let you ride on the luggage rack on the roof of the car under the full moon at sixty miles an hour on country roads in the middle of the night.
The Chernovs lived in what had once been the stable and carriage-barn of a defunct grand estate. Built in the 1860s and converted to a house sometime in the early 1940s, it was big, dark, sprawling. A rickety crooked wooden staircase led up to what had once been the hayloft, then Alexis' studio. Downstairs, at the other end of the enormous main room where horses and carriages once rolled in, a heavy door led to another wing of the house and Katrina's and André's bedrooms and the one tiny bathroom.
The Chernov house (Link) was done in a style I'd call Fallen Baronial. It was (still is) magnificent, in an entropic, old-world sort of way. A long, refectory-type dining table with ten tall carved gothic chairs and stately candlesticks. A fireplace at one end of the main room big enough to burn tree-trunks, an ancient dark velvet couch and a couple of tattered-but-noble stuffed chairs arranged in front of it. At the other end of the huge room, an antique grand piano, untuned for decades and with half the keys stuck. Shelves packed with dusty leather-bound nineteenth-century German-language books. A display of bones from the horse cemetery out back. A threadbare hotel-lobby-sized Oriental carpet on the floor and heavy dark tasseled drapes. A horse-drawn sleigh from the 19th century. The only window in the main room, which was all old dark unpainted wood, was a bay window where the big sliding stable doors had once been, so even on the brightest summer day the house was brooding, shadowy, cool. In the winter radiators hissed and clanked inadequately here and there, and it was often necessary to wear an overcoat inside the house. Alexis' paintings and sketches, (?) some of heroic proportions with biblical themes, looked down from the walls. Alexis liked to thump the ceiling over the long table occasionally with a broom handle, dislodging ancient bits of hay, to show that he lived in a stable.
There had once been money, but it was mostly gone by the 1950s. Alexis supported the household doing commercial art. He was never paid what he was worth, so it was a life of genteel poverty, always on the brink by the time I, my brother and André were little kids running around that house, one of the first places I saw, its molecules and ambience some of the first I breathed when I opened my eyes on this world. It was quite literally a second home to me and my brother.
To get from our house to the Chernov's you could follow the roads, or, if you were fast and agile like us, you could take the shortcut: up the hill, through the woods and the cemetery got you there in about eight minutes.
About a hundred paces from Miss Janie's final resting place is a modest flat stone, flush with the clipped green grass. It reads: Marion Wood, 1905-1962.
My piano teacher. A maiden lady, Miss Wood lived with her impossibly ancient parents and her younger brother. For five years my mother dropped me off at Miss Wood's house once a week, where I was always sent into the kitchen to wash my paws before I was allowed to touch the gorgeous shiny black grand piano in her parlor. For five years I resolutely resisted learning to read music, and she kindly and just as resolutely persisted in trying to teach me. I know I drove her to despair, because I was not in fact totally devoid of musical ability. I played fairly well, but always by ear, which of course limited me to just a few pieces.
Too bad I was so damned stubborn. It wasn't that my mother was trying to make me into a concert pianist or anything like that. My mother was a big believer in fun, and she was simply trying to add a skill to my repertoire that would help make my grownup life as much fun as it could possibly be. People who are able to sit down and play the piano can open just about any door in the world, she said, and she was right. So I spent many, many hours, many years, on the bench next to Miss Wood. I may not have been learning to read music, but I was my mother's daughter, and I was alert.
I remember her silver hair pulled back into a spinster's bun. But I also remember her soft fuzzy low-necked short-sleeved sweaters and pearl necklaces, her smooth pale skin, her voluptuous bosom, her lavender aroma, her slim tailored wool skirts with the zippers up the back, her silkily stockinged legs, her suede high heels working the pedals. When she went out, she wore a flowing overcoat, a beret and a long elegant matching scarf. And I remember the younger brother. The much younger brother.
He was a grownup, who wore a hat and had a job and drove a car, but even I, aged six when I first saw him, thought in an inchoate way that those bent, creaky gray people I occasionally encountered back in the kitchen were sort of old to be his parents
That's right. After Miss Wood's early death from a cerebral hemorrhage, which I hope had nothing to do with pupils who refused to learn, the story made its inevitable way out into the world: He wasn't her brother. He was her son. Her parents, those plain country folk moving diffidently in the background, had conspired to protect her in a crisis, probably sometime in the early 1930s. Did the son know all along? I could ask him. He still lives in that house.
Ah. Grown sons living with their mothers. We had a lot of those odd couples in our town. Not quite the same arrangement as Miss Wood and her boy. Most of them were elderly widowed mothers and their never-married middle-aged sons. They functioned exactly as couples in many ways: Son driving Mama to the movies, escorting her to the Firemen's Carnival or the theater or to a town meeting, taking her shopping. And these bachelor fellows were not bums mooching off their mothers. They were not lying around the basement playing the guitar. Like husbands, they went off to work every day-as insurance salesmen, lawyers, teachers. Probably Mama cooked, though I suspect that some of these husband-sons had to tie on aprons when they got home in the evening.
My mother had a wicked fantasy: She said she'd like to give a dinner party and invite all of the town's mother-son couples. She pictured them sitting at the table, the realization of what they all had in common dawning on them one by one.
Bill and Ellen Wilcox were such a pair. Ellen was a fiercely intelligent old lady with a house full of books, a string of degrees and a prolific pen. She and my mother were good friends. When my mother went to New York to work as an editor a few years after she split with Durant, Ellen wrote to her three or four times a week. My mother kept all those letters-witty, biting, erudite observations of the big world and small-town life-which eventually amounted to hundreds. There's a book in this, my mother said. I remember her reading a favorite opening line from one of Ellen's letters:
"Mary, my dear --The weather has turned, and today it rains on the just and the unjust "
The just and the unjust! I love it! my mother exclaimed, then put her head back and laughed with pure delight. When someone died, Ellen would say archly of that person: Well, his troubles are over. My mother loved that, too, and it entered her lexicon.
Bill, Ellen's only child, was a big, easygoing slobby guy, about six-three and four hundred pounds. He worked as a paint salesman. He drove a big Dodge sedan that sagged almost to the ground on the driver's side. It had a bent antenna, a faded vinyl roof and a sticker on the rear bumper: MASURY PAINT IS GOOD PAINT. If you ran into him in town, and you were in your car, he'd stand and chat with you through the rolled-down window, his enormous stomach right about at your face-level, his bellybutton peeking out of his straining shirt like a third eye. To his mother, he was "Billy." I know she wished for greater things for her Billy than to be a paint salesman in a country town, but she loved him as he was. They lived in a cramped, cluttered old house. Ellen had a stroke and ended up in a wheelchair. When I was a teenager, she hired me to come for a day while Billy was at work. The disorder was getting away from her. Billy wasn't much help in that department. There was a staircase, which of course she couldn't use, and it was stacked all the way up with papers, books, magazines, catalogues, unread mail. She had me go through the piles on every step and she'd decide whether things got tossed or kept.
On the highest step, in a dark dusty corner, I found a stash of Playboys. Don't worry, Billy, I thought, up at the top of the stairs where Ellen couldn't see me pushing them further back into the shadows. Your secret is safe with me. Except of course that I told my mother, who pumped me for details of what I found inside the house. She thought it was hilarious about the Playboys. Just you wait, my mother always said. As soon as Ellen dies, Bill will find a wife.
My mother's prediction was wrong, though. After Ellen's death he lived on in the dilapidated house, alone, drove his Dodge sedan to work and back, his Playboys providing him with probably the only feminine companionship, aside from his mother's, he'd ever known. Masury Paint is Good Paint.
In our town, we had not just one but two expatriate Russians with manic-depressive American wives. Alexis' eyes were so black that iris and pupil were indistinguishable; Colonel Boris Samsonoff (Link) had eyes as pale as a winter sky in Siberia. The Colonel had been an officer under Tzar Nicholas. When the revolution came, he'd been a supporter of the progressive leader Kerenski; when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over and Kerenski fled, so did the Colonel-first to the Ukraine and then to Turkey. Eventually, he made his way to Paris.
He was in his seventies by the time I knew him. My mother had first glimpsed him when she was a teenager. God, she said; he was the handsomest man I ever saw in my life. You could still see it when he was old. Tall, broad shoulders, a full head of wavy white hair, and those eyes. He'd been a master Cossack rider in his prime. My mother told us that she remembered him in his younger days riding his horse into town, wearing his old Cossack coat.
He had a few horses. He gave riding lessons to children, and I was one of them. Again, my mother, such a fine rider herself, was simply trying to add something fun to my life. I never learned to jump. It was a little like my recalcitrance with Miss Wood. The Colonel, though, wasn't always as sweet-natured as Miss Wood about my failings. I remember him red-faced and raging once when I refused to gallop toward the raised bar. I was about eight, but somehow I knew it wasn't really me he was so angry at.
His wife, Margaret, was a painter whom he'd met and married in Paris. I really liked her-she was fun and friendly, to kids especially. She wasn't quite as wild as Katrina in the "up" part of her manic cycle, but she did occasionally drive to the post office in her nightgown. The Samsonoffs were not the intimates that the Chernovs were, so I don't know the details of what went on at home, but I don't think it was always fun for the Colonel. I suspect great quantities of alcohol were involved. Young though I was, it often seemed to me that there was a cloud of sadness around him.
He had real Russian soul, though. One day when my mother had dropped me off for a lesson he said solemnly that he had something to show me. We went into the barn, and he held the head of one of the horses tenderly between his two huge hands so that its eye was framed. "Look," he said. "See how beautiful it is." And we stood there and gazed into the depths of the horse's big purply-brown limpid eye with the long black lashes. And he was right. It was beautiful. Like my years on the bench beside Miss Wood, this was not wasted time. And of course, like everything else, I had my mother to thank for it.
The Colonel and Margaret had two sons. The one I knew best was named Ivan, and by the time he was a young man he was at least as handsome as his father had once been. Black hair, blue eyes. A true heart-throb. My mother definitely checked him out. I may have been just a little kid, but I certainly noticed him, too. He was an athlete, a runner, decades before jogging was invented. My mother and I, riding in the car, often caught glimpses of him sprinting along leafy roads around town. My mother would draw her breath in sharply with appreciation, and I'd see her glancing in the rearview mirror for another look after we passed him. And he was a really nice guy with a sunny disposition. Women were mad for him. The Colonel adored him.
Ivan got some kind of rare bone cancer in his leg. They cut it off, all the way up to his pelvis. He wore an elaborate prosthesis for a while-elaborate because they'd cut off so much that there was no stump at all-and then he died. On the day of Ivan's funeral, the Colonel took his old Cossack rifle and blew his head off. I remember my mother answering the phone and bursting into tears. So much for my riding lessons. And I really, really missed him
A classy, witty educated beauty like my mother moved with ease in èlite circles, and my brother and I were beneficiaries. Because of her, we met and got to know all kinds of fascinating people. The artist Alexander Calder lived in our town. Arthur Miller, who still lives there, was his close friend and neighbor, their properties in the rolling hills adjoining one another. My mother knew them both.
Later, when Arthur Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe, my mother was a guest at a dinner at the Calders'. Mr. And Mrs. Miller were supposed to be there too, but they were late, and dinner was held up for one hour, then two. My mother said there were a lot of phone calls back and forth between the two houses. Mr. Miller was having a difficult time getting his wife out the door. Calder was growing impatient. Finally he'd had enough. After perhaps the fourth or fifth phone call, my mother heard Sandy, a down-to-earth guy if ever there was one, say in his growly voice: "Tell Miller if he doesn't get over here in ten minutes he can't borrow my extension ladder any more!"
Calder's studio was one of my childhood haunts. I watched him make mobiles, wire sculptures, paintings. I was there for a performance of his famous miniature circus. He made a miniature crossbow and arrows to go with it for my brother. The Calder house was a wonderland of arty esoterica and sly humor. The toilet-paper holder in one of the bathrooms was a hand, life-sized, made of heavy copper wire. The roll of paper sat on the vertical extended middle finger. Typical Calder, and something it probably took him about three minutes to make. In the kitchen ornate wiry whisks, giant pasta spoons and whimsical serving forks, all Calder creations, hung from the ceiling over the stove like one of his mobiles, and the atmosphere was redolent with cloves and red wine.
Once when I was perhaps ten I was there with my mother. While the grownups talked, I amused myself looking through some of Calder's hundreds of photography books, and I came upon a picture that still rises up in my mind occasionally. It was a close-up of the head of a corpse lying in a coffin after a grave robbery in a New Orleans cemetery. The corpse's gold teeth had been taken. The bottom jaw, unkindly dislocated by the robbers, lay flat on the chest. The face was bloated with putrefaction and the eyes bulged from the sockets. I remember closing the book immediately, stunned, opening it again for another peek, then slamming it shut again. This was the pornography of death. Over the years, whenever I went to their house, I'd wait until no one was looking, find that book and dare myself to look at the picture. That picture might have been as important to my education as the trip to the cemetery with Miss Janie. The hard facts were not softened or hidden or sugar-coated: Death is real. Decades later, when death set up housekeeping in my mother's poor brain in the form of Alzheimer's, that photograph would flit through my dreams from time to time.
I'm looking at another picture right now: It's a big black-and-white glossy print. It's obvious that this is the work of a serious pro. No flash was used; the light comes from a tall 1790s-vintage multi-paned window in the background, brilliantly overexposed so that you can barely see what's outside. Three people sit at the end of a long wooden table. There are the remnants of lunch-French bread, a bottle of wine, wooden bowls. Cigarette smoke curls in the air; wisps of steam rise from a big shiny kettle on the stove. One of the three people is a child-me. On either side of me, talking across the table so that they're in semi-profile, are a man and a woman. The silvery window-light picks out their features: The man's brainy-looking forehead and bald pate, thick glasses and bushy mustache, the woman's fantastically handsome nose and tousled dark hair. It's the Calders' kitchen. The man is Saul Steinberg, the woman is my mother, and the picture was taken by Gjon Mili, one of the greats of twentieth-century photography and my mother's lover. No doubt they met in that house. My mother's body language and the way the shot was framed make it plain that they were already doing it when that picture was taken. And of course, I knew. If you look closely at the window, you can see snow on the panes and ghostly bare branches beyond. While my prospects for riding in the Steeplechase and being the life of the party playing sambas on the piano may not have been sterling, plenty else, all thanks to my mother, as always, was sinking in.
Her versatility, for instance. Our town was sociologically complex, and my mother moved with ease and assurance through all the various strata. This made at least as strong an impression on me and my brother-maybe stronger-as all her arty intellectual connections. A guy named Zip Zumph was our plumber for a while. My father, explaining to my brother and me the theoretical system of categorizing people according to their physical types as either endomorphs, mesomorphs or ectomorphs, cited Zip as a perfect example of an endomorph: shortish, thickset, barrel-shaped. He was smart, talkative and funny. After he fixed something in our house, he'd stay for a cup of coffee and he and my mother would shout and laugh. They became pals. She called him "Zipper."
Zip had a wife, but no one ever saw her. After Zip and my mother had been friends for a while, we got an invitation to dinner at the Zumphs'. I don't know where my brother was, but he wasn't there for this expedition. It was just my mother and me. Zip's wife turned out to be a beautifully groomed and coiffed, rather stout Puerto Rican lady who spoke almost no English. The dinner was formal and a wee bit strained. Zip wasn't anywhere near as relaxed as he was at our house. Part of it was a touch of class consciousness creeping in (not because of my mother; she always put everyone at ease), and part of it was that Zip's gracious wife was something of a nut case.
She had no children, but about five hundred dolls that we spent the evening being introduced to by name. My mother exclaimed and complimented like a trooper while Zip grew quiet and reflective. Later, my mother and I tried to imagine Mrs. Zumph's life in a tiny Connecticut town, at home all day every day with her dolls.
Zip was a SwampYankee, which you were if your family had been in town for generations and you talked a certain way. The breed is specific to a small part of rural northwestern Connecticut. The term is not a pejorative. It's a label worn with wily pride by members of the tribe, some of whom have been known to cultivate the speech and mannerisms as if they'd formed a Preservation Society. Taciturnity is a must (either that or chatty as all hell, like Zipper), as is an economy of mouth motion (Wumbeer? Translation: Do you want a beer?), the liberal sprinkling of oaths and expletives (Christ, the goddamn car fell through the goddamn fuckin' ice), and especially when you're cracking a joke, the maintenance of a deadpan demeanor. Christ, yeah.
A friend of mine bought himself a very old, very used Alfa Romeo for a few hundred dollars when he was a teenager. He was really excited about it. He took it to the local garage to get it checked out. He'd always known that Wayne, one of the mechanics, looked on him and his friends as snot-nosed hifalutin' types (from "up the hill"). But Wayne didn't say anything. He just glanced at the car, rolled under it for a few minutes, rolled back out, looked at my friend, then punctured his dreams with three little words, delivered with perfect expressionless Swamp Yankee malicious glee (try saying this out loud without moving your lips, in four descending notes, and you'll get a fair approximation): "She's rusted out." My mother and brother and I practiced our Swamp Yankee a lot on each other, around the house, riding in the car.
I went to the local public school through the eighth grade. It certainly would have been possible for my brother and me to be snobs, but with my mother as our example, we weren't. Quality was everything, but her definition of quality had strictly to do with whether or not someone was interesting. You could be John Huston or you could be Zip Zumph, and you could be pals with my mother, as long as you did not commit the one sin unforgivable in her eyes: being a bore.
Not that you couldn't fall from grace. Katrina Chernov was certainly a live wire. But like a lot of bipolar people, she had a problem with what they nowadays call "boundaries." That's a polite way of saying that when they're flying high they're apt to, say, barge into your house when you're not there and rearrange the furniture. Once my mother came home from errands in the afternoon and found Katrina upstairs in her bedroom trying on her clothes. Katrina wasn't even slightly embarrassed. Quite the contrary. My mother said she remembered Katrina's mad manic dilated pupils as she swirled the long skirt of an evening dress with a grand fashion-model flourish when she saw my mother coming up the stairs.
But that wasn't what finally made my mother eighty-six Katrina from her house and life. Nor was it the time my mother discovered that someone had stolen some of her clothes. They were just plain gone: a couple of sweaters, a dress, a skirt. Katrina was the prime suspect, and so one afternoon when we knew everyone was away my mother and I went to the Chernov house and snuck into Katrina's bedroom with the huge dusty tapestry and the four-poster bed (Link) with the ancient tattered curtains and searched her closets and bureau drawers for the missing clothes. We didn't find a thing. If she took them, she was clever enough to hide them. I personally don't think it was Katrina, though I have no alternate suspects. My mother always thought she did. It remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the ages.
And my mother didn't break it off with Katrina the time she actually did steal something, right out from under my mother's nose. At some point in the past, before I was born, I think, my mother had stored a few pieces of antique furniture with Katrina, things from her parents' long-ago summer house. The agreement was that Katrina could enjoy them until such time as my mother wanted them back: a mirror, an embroidered footstool, a small table. The pieces were old and dark and right at home in the Chernov milieu. They looked as if they'd been there forever. So much so that when my mother tried to reclaim them, Katrina said Mary, dear, you're mistaken. These pieces have been in my family for generations.
No. The end came one rainy afternoon. It was not over clothes or furniture. It was over a box of doughnuts. My brother and André and Katrina had gone to the movies (my mother always instructed us to ride in the backseat, for safety, when we drove with Katrina), bought doughnuts on the way home, and there was some question as to how they should be divided up. When Katrina burst into my mother's house demanding her share of the doughnuts, my mother reached her limit. Blazing with anger, my mother tossed her out, and I don't think that over the next nearly forty years until Katrina's death they ever exchanged another word.
The split didn't affect my mother's friendship with Alexis. Their friendship would eventually suffer, but much later, and it would have nothing to do with Katrina. It would have to do with my mother's novel (Alexis' old-world vanity was offended, so the story goes, because my mother made him an avuncular friend, not a lover, of the female protagonist). By the time my mother threw Katrina out, Mr. And Mrs. Chernov had been estranged for years, under the same roof, he at one end of the rambling house and Katrina at the other. They met occasionally in the kitchen, I think.
The town had a drama group, and for a few years there was a miraculous convergence of talent resulting in some awesomely good professional-quality theatre. Alexis designed and painted sets. My mother was one of many fine actors and sometimes directed. A close friend of hers, Phil, a brilliant veteran theatre guy, came up from New York to direct shows, staying at our house while he did it. When I was about twelve, they put on Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie as theatre-in-the-round. My mother played Laura, the sad girl with the limp. I went to every performance, choosing a different vantage each night. I felt magically invisible and voyeuristic. One night, I positioned myself so that I watched through the shelves of glass figurines. Somewhere in the first act, Laura limped to the shelves and took one of the pieces in her hand while she spoke. There was my mother, about four feet away, looking through the glass and the invisible wall right at me, without a flicker. And I understood: At that moment she was not my mother. She was Laura, a crippled spinster girl waiting in vain for a gentleman caller.
My mother did such a convincing job as Laura that it upset some people. They didn't like to see her lame and dejected and tragic. My mother had no patience with this. Idiots, she said. What do they want? A steady diet of Gilbert and Sullivan?
Another production during the theatre's glory days was T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. It was Phil directing again, and Alexis designing the costumes and the posters, blood-red on black. My mother played the Tempter, a seductive, Puck-like entity tantalizing Thomas à Beckett onto the shoals. Tommy played one of the hooded monks who eventually carry the dead archbishop out of the church (he missed his cue one night because he was out in the bushes with a girlfriend). I, aged thirteen, was in the chorus, wearing a hooded medieval-style robe, speaking lines like: " the starved crow sits in the field, attentive, while in the wood the owl rehearses the hollow note of death " while my mother, in bright tights and gossamer silk, sidled and insinuated and slithered around the doomed archbishop. This time, no set was needed; the show was put on in the local Episcopal church, a magnificent neo-gothic stone structure that really was like a miniature cathedral.
The audience sat in the pews, the reflections of candle flames glinted in the stained glass, a few well-placed theatre lights pierced the gloom so that the actors moved in pools of illumination. It was thrilling. It was such a hit that we actually took the show on the road, putting it on in a real cathedral in nearby Waterbury where it sold out every night.
Not everyone got it. There were a few detractors in our town. One woman, her mouth pursed with reproval, said she thought it was scandalous to put on a play in a church. Again, my mother was scathing. If she weren't such an illiterate blockhead, my mother said about the woman, if she knew anything at all about history, she'd know that the tradition of putting on plays in churches started in the Middle Ages as a way to get the teachings out to the common man. No, my mother didn't suffer bores, and she didn't suffer "dumbbells."
But she had all kinds of friends. Some of her friends were women and men who drank martinis and laughed too loudly, some were bookish, scholarly and prim, some were farmers. And some of my mother's pals were the offbeat sort that made Tim Durant very uptight indeed and were, I suspect, one of the banes of their short marriage. Like Kevin and Jerry.
Kevin and Jerry were in big demand at dances. Wifeless, and superb hoofers, they whirled the ladies all over the floor, my mother included. What DIVINE dancers! my mother would exclaim, exhilarated, after a party. They worked in New York, something to do with production design for T.V., and they had a house in the country where they came on weekends and for the summer. They had fluffy Persian cats and little yappy dogs. They had white-painted wrought-iron curlicue chairs in their dining room, lavish flower arrangements in the living room. In the bedroom they had twin beds with festoons of green silk on the headboards and walls. I thought it was really neat that these two guys had this cool house together. One night when we were there for dinner, and my mother and Kevin and Jerry were talking, laughing and carrying on, Tommy, who was maybe thirteen to my eleven and evidently much more worldly than I, whispered that Kevin and Jerry were "homos." Nah! I said. Oh, man, it's so obvious, he said. Hmm, I said, and gave it some serious thought.
When children contemplate the mysterious lives of grownups, they must fill in the blanks and learn fast. I had a fair grasp of why the Colonel blew himself away. But why did George Sondergard kill himself? And why did he do it the way he did?
George owned a prosperous insurance agency in town. He lived in a fine big white colonial house. He had a wife and kids. He acted in plays, a couple of times with my mother, and he sang really well-I remember him in a musical she directed. He was a cheerful guy. One weekend his wife found him hanging in the attic of his big house.
My mother explained to my brother and me that his method revealed something of his motivation. Hanging yourself, she said, is an act of aggressive hostility, quite different from other forms of suicide. You are not just escaping from your own life-you are creating a ghastly tableau carefully calculated to shock and destroy the person who discovers you. That made sense to me, though I couldn't imagine why such a nice man would want to shock and destroy his wife. But isn't this how children learn the hard facts? Death of a salesman, indeed. George Sondergard dangling in his attic, eyes and tongue black and protruding, became part of the town's gothic lore, of which there was already an abundance.
For a while after my mother and Tim Durant were married, and before he bought the tall gray house, we rented a house owned by a family prominent in town, the Mellingers. The house was a replacement for another house that had sat on the same foundation but had burned to the ground. The old house had been three stories, ancient wood, and it went up like a Molotov cocktail. There had been only one person in the house on the night it burned, old Harold Mellinger, or "Grandpa." In the morning, when they searched the rubble, they found his body in the basement-headless. And they never found the head. This is absolutely true. I know it sounds like a rural urban legend, but it's not. It became one of my mother's favorites, and part of our own family lore when we lived in that house. Whenever my brother or I went down the basement stairs, my mother would call after us cheerfully: "Watch out for Grandpa Mellinger's head!"
In the summer of 1955, during one of my mother's many absences during the early years of her marriage to Durant, when my brother and I were farmed out and we both missed her acutely, it rained. And rained. And rained some more. Rain in the summer in Connecticut is as normal as sandstorms in the Sahara, but this was just a little too much rain. The ground was saturated. Brooks and rivers ran high and muddy. Dams bulged.
Our town has high ground and low ground. You travel up a steep, winding road to get to the "better" part of town. At the bottom of the hill, you'll find stores and houses and a river. Not a mighty river, by any means. Not even a river by some standards. A big wide brook, maybe a foot deep at the most. That summer the brook became a furious wild river when the narrow culverts under another bridge ten miles upstream filled with debris, and water backed up behind it, turning the bridge into a dam, which it was not built to be, and it exploded. The wall of raging brown water swept down into our town and devastated it.
My brother and I were staying with friends of my mother's in a neighboring township. We were never in danger. But we were taken to see the aftermath of the flood. Angry rapids rushed over the pavement atop the bridge at the bottom of the hill. Stores and houses stood in brown water up to their second-floor windows. A dozen houses were entirely gone. Amazingly, there were only two deaths: Mr. And Mrs. Benoit (they pronounced it Ben-OYT) and their house had been swept away. The bodies were found downriver, draped in the treetops.
Everyone knew that Mr. And Mrs. Benoit, though they lived under one roof, had not exchanged a word in twenty years. Naturally, everyone wondered: When their house was being carried away by the floodwaters, did they finally speak? Or did they adhere to their vow of silence, and did it cost them their lives? Later, this became a game of conjecture for my mother and brother and me when we rode in the car. If Mr. and Mrs. Benoit spoke to each other that night, what did they say? We'd invent conversations:
"Mildred, there's something I need to tell you."
"Fred, your pajamas are wet."
The town of my mother's lost memories is beautiful. It's in rolling country in the foothills of the Berkshires. Parts of it look like a dreamscape New England, like stepping into a Christmas card, into someone's nostalgic vision. There are hills, rivers, barns, stone walls, fields of hay and flowers in the summer, frozen silent snowy woods in the winter. This was the kingdom of her heart. She saw it for what was almost certainly the last time when she left to come live in California. It's been almost two years since Tom and I were there. And it's entirely possible that neither of us will ever go back again.
There's another cemetery in that town, (Link) a really old one. It's way off by itself along an empty road in the woods. It has graves dating back to the 1600s. Like all old cemeteries, there are a lot of very small tombstones with resting lambs carved on them and dates like: March 27, 1746-April 15, 1747. The last time I was there I went up and down the rows doing the simple arithmetic in my head. Sometimes it was done for me: Wife and mother, Died 1763, aged 32 years, four months, three days. Some of them made me look twice: B. 1632, D. 1729. I imagined the lives. And of course, I found more than one leaning, mossy time-weathered stone rasping at me waggishly in barely legible script, like a rogue lover throwing the bedclothes back enticingly, inviting me to come home, lie down under the green grass and close my eyes: Hear ye friends, as you pass by; as you are now, so once was I