"Chosen Girl," Part IV
The Bedouin's gifts to me when I was fifteen, sixteen and seventeen years old, rose and fell like waves. None was given precisely on my birthday. Always a day or two early, brought to my room late at night, as if she'd been lying with her own books and the glass of ginger ale, and could no longer resist sharing her offering. They were all books, prisms for me to see her.
The first gift was written in her own hand. A book of books. This is how she gave it to me: she came late one night and sat in the chair in my room, moving aside my algebra book. She held two notebooks. Shadows fell from her cheeks and hands. Light struck her forehead. "I'd like you to have these. They list all the books I read after high school before you were born." She flipped through the pages. She said, "Lawrence," and smiled, and "Joyce." Because of that evening, I have an adolescent, domestic sense of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and of Molly Bloom. She shifted in her chair and tried to tell me about Fournier's The Wanderer and Knut Hamsun. She told me of a book, The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall, which she thought I should read and, she told me parenthetically, it included what she thought I should know about lesbianism. (It existed and it was an affliction). She recommended Auden and handed the notebooks to me.
I asked the name of the Millay poem she had often read to me, and I wrote "Renascence" on my sketchpad cover as if it were a phone number to be remembered.
In my hands, the books were dusty. Ring binders, their cover boards finished in woven fabric the color of a weathered basket. Each book was labeled "Bibliography" in an unfamiliar cursive on faded labels. One contained books listed by author, the other contained the same books listed by title.
"Whose handwriting?" I asked.
She said, "Mine."
"It doesn't look like yours."
"When I helped you learn to write, my writing changed."
I could tell from her face that she was proud of the pages and that they had taken a lot of work.
The lecture on sex, given skittishly through her blue-black bangs, had been my mother's instruction to me on the subject of power. To her, books constituted the world of love. "An inventory of yourself," I said. She smiled her fleeting Bedouin smile of pleasure. I had learned well. I was expected to do nothing with these notebooks except keep them. I didn't have to retrace the entries and read them myself. I didn't have to start my own bibliography. I was simply to keep these notebooks, declarations of my mother's reading, as any artisan might receive a grandparent’s archaic tools.
Did my mother realize that tucked between the pages of one notebook was a handwritten note from Laurel to her? It said, "Darling, here is a bit of money. Buy yourself the coat you need, and I will make sure Deborah has shoes for the start of school." Note in hand, I entered Laurel's room without knocking. She was listening to a Belafonte record, and pedaling her exercycle.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"I don't know," I ran out of steam.
The room was as peaceful as it ever was. I picked up the nut carved into a woman's face. I tipped her forward, so her eyes shot out on ivory stems. I put her back on the shelf and turned to leave.
"Shut the door behind you," Laurel called from the exercycle which she pedaled with a ball-bearing whirr.
I folded her note to my mother, and put it back in the bibliography. The next time I checked, it was gone.
At my birthday dinner, my mother said, "You're almost raised.” This pleased me.
Laurel took a hasty drink of her Old Fashioned and said, "Our reason for being a household will soon be gone."
The Bedouin said, "I don't think you have to look at it that way."
"How should I look at it?" Laurel asked.
"The ties are there," my mother said.
"But not on paper."
Out of the ether of the night of the fever monkeys, the words, Manumission Papers, blazed in my mind. But the papers Laurel wanted had to do with me.
“Why does that matter, now?” asked my mother.
“It has always mattered.” Laurel emptied her glass.
My grandmother died. The child molester uncle, male head of family, took the three of us out to dinner after the service. At the dinner table, he told us which menu items were "very good."
"If I wanted to arrange for Deborah to be legally recognized as Laurel's child, what could I do?" my mother asked him.
"Darling, don't be absurd," he ordered her, running those blue eyes across my size 34C bosom. "Deborah is about to be too old to be anyone's child."
My mother, his baby sister who had been malnourished by their recently deceased mother, raised her head.
"I want a serious answer."
"Dee Dee, a serious answer is precisely what you do not want. If I take you seriously, I must question your fitness as a mother. Do I make myself clear?"
"You are so goddamned smug.”
He laughed and asked his wife what she thought of the veal.
As we drank coffee he asked, "Dee Dee, do you realize we are orphans?"
She opened her mouth of cheap teeth, but thought better, and did not speak.
After dinner, he put us in a taxi. I sat in the jump seat, facing my elders, as the cab lurched and shot toward the Village. My mother wore an ancient straight coat in the style of Coco Chanel. Laurel wore a black coat with a slight animal glisten, a synthetic fabric called, to my delight, angel cloth.
"What did he mean about fitness as a mother?" I asked. The cab meter ticked. Laurel and my mother exchanged glances.
"He was implying our household is improper for a young girl," my mother said, rocked sideways by the cab.
"As if Laurel and I were ..." Her voice lapsed.
"Queer?" I asked, instantly regretting the word.
"Can you imagine, him thinking that?" Laurel asked, reaching for the strap as the cab veered into our block.
I looked into their faces as they rode forward, and I rode backward crouched on the auxiliary seat. Laurel's lids were puffed as they had been when she returned from burying her sister. "I loved the old woman," she said.
"Imagine that dirty old man calling himself an orphan."
Late that night, I sat up working on a project for art class.
Unable to get started, I picked up a collection of poetry and read Millay. I found myself longing for the simplicity of a world composed of three long hills and a wood. Simple, flowing lines, I imagined. The words about the fires of Hell jumped at me, clean. It would make a good picture. The lines of landscape flowing in ink with slight feathers scaling off the stroke. And Hell, pasted on in taffeta the copper of a new minted penny; pasted on, but seeming to mushroom out of the white paper. I read the poem again and ached with more sweetness than Ethan had ever aroused.
When I came home on my sixteenth birthday wearing a corsage of brightly colored gumdrops (sweet sixteen), the Bedouin hmphed. My friends gave the candy corsage and earrings, which my mother said were "tawdry."
She gave me Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, the trough in the wave of presents for my fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth birthdays.
I took the book to bed with me.
Like my mother, who had wrangled about Dickens so long ago with my father, I was until that night a gullible reader. I followed the baroness, Isak Dinesen, into the immensity, greatness and freedom of her Africa, a noble place. This was the terrain of the Bedouin, who had taught me to find the sunset, and of Laurel, with her vocation to precisely perceive children in time and space.
A few pages later, even before reaching Lulu, the capricious gazelle, Dinesen declared that men are destined to love women and womanliness and that women are destined to love men and that people of the Nordic races are destined to love people of the south. That her world was widened and deepened by the “discovery” of the dark races. I ground my teeth as I read, as if there were dental grit between them. In the same voice that Dinesen described the gazelle Lulu who skittered through the plantation house on thimble-sized hooves, the "baroness" described people: Kikuyu maidens, Masai warriors, Somali. I threw the book on the floor.
With shears, I cut my artwork from the year before into two pieces and crumpled them. I took a magenta pastel, though I hated pastel because it was so messy, and wrote Dickens hates Jews on one half. I was ashamed of this and smeared it off with the heel of my hand. In the magenta haze that dulled the taffeta and softened the white paper, I wrote, Muscilini in pencil, then cross hatched over most of it with a calligraphy pen.
Slow down, Deb. Take it slow. When you polish shoes. There's a proper way.
I don't even know whether I knew the word "racism." My mother and Laurel didn't discuss what happened to us. As if discussing the waitress in the diner, the chalked slogans, or the frightening buzz that erupted in the newsstand when I entered might dignify those events. Might draw attention to us, which was to be avoided. Following suit, I had never even told Ethan of the incidents. Though we had not used the word "racist," I knew what racism was, and I was not prepared to apply it to my mother, she who would not allow me to watch Amos n' Andy or Charlie Chan. I hacked some more at my picture, finished reading Out of Africa, and fell asleep, as exhausted as I had been the afternoon my mother told me my father was leaving.
The next morning, my mother asked, “Did you like the Dinesen?”
“It was all right,” I mumbled, and handed Laurel her cup of coffee.
“Poor baroness,” my mother said, “dying of syphilis.”
“That’s what she gets for her destiny: loving a man.”
“Deborah. Whatever do you mean?”
“And the Nordic races,” I began.
“If you don’t like it, I’ll take it back..”
“It’s your gift to me.”
I put the birthday book on a high shelf beside Lamb's Fairy Tales, Frazier's Golden Bough, and a purple horror called Grandmother’s Piece Book, the shelf of pariah books.
My other mother, Laurel, did not place her trust in literature.
She believed in improvement. And so, the exercycle in her bedroom, the odd diets, the year she paid for me to be fitted with Murray Space shoes. New England practical, she sewed for me, and I still remember some of the garments she made. She took me to concerts and performances: José Limón, Israeli dancers, the Weavers at Carnegie Hall, string quartets, Ravi Shankar. She took me to my first serious play, by Langston Hughes. She and my mother went to movies that I gathered were grim but important: Stalag 17, The Man with the Golden Arm.
As her sweet sixteen birthday present, Laurel took me to a midnight Billie Holiday concert at Loew's Sheridan Square. It was one of Holiday's last concerts. We sat suspended above the stage in the loge. Half an hour before curtain time, the house was full. Laurel waved to friends. There were black people, white people.
From this same spot, my mother, Laurel and I had seen a movie about the Mau Mau. After the movie, the adults had to explain clitoridectomy to me. Anything America spewed out about Africa, from King Solomon's Mines to the humblest documentary, Laurel had seen, a lonely quest in which I was often included. Once, she had bought dried grasshoppers and eaten one or two, because the people of the Kalahari ate them. One happy year, for her birthday, we found a small African thumb piano, a kalimba, in the back of a store on East Eighth Street. Laurel put the kalimba on the shelf beside the mahogany turtle and the nut carved into the face of a woman. At night, sometimes I thought I heard her playing it, rippling trills of music.
Half an hour after the announced curtain, Holiday had not appeared. I was keyed up, wearing a new shirtwaist in a grown-up brown. "Your eyes look gorgeous with that brown," Laurel had said when she held the bolt of fabric against my cheek. I could smell my Tangee lipstick, fruity as the Dots candies I was eating from a box. Laurel pulled the candy from my hand and urged, "Shhh." Behind us, a man said, "I'll tell my grandchildren about this."
Billie Holiday walked on stage with an orchid drooping on her dress. She drew her lips back in a smile. She was so small and the dark bore down on her like an avalanche. She fought back with a thin mean strand of song, begging our indulgence, snarling in case we drew too close.
Laurel's eyes watered.
Billie Holiday was as small as fever monkeys shrunk to the bottom of a kaleidoscope. She maybe could have killed a cat with her hands like a mantis. Like the Dowager, she needed her high heels to walk. Her dress was as fine as I remembered my mother's dresses being when I was a very little girl. And she was as angry as ever an angry mother had been. I imagined that she had gone, unwilling, to night after night of the cocktail parties my father had enjoyed and my mother despised. I had heard her called a dope fiend. A friend of Laurel's had said Holiday was killing herself; it was a matter of time. I sensed something shameful and terrifying about being grown-up and flattened myself away from the dark yawning between me and the singer.
She sang about sweet men, plain gold rings, men she had, men she had lost, men she was damned to have loved, but she loved them still. If she sang of forbidden fruits, I have suppressed it. Her voice was ambered and steely. She blessed the child, malevolently.
I knew that a book yielded meaning. I knew that meaning, the flash which dignified pain, spurred the Bedouin on. This night with Holiday was torture. Did it really mean that all was despair, devastation, and loss? Jump in the river and drown? I squirmed like a four-year-old.
Head spinning, I stepped into the late, late night. 2:00AM. I had been up half the previous night, reading my mother's flawed gift.
"A lot of her songs were love songs, like on the Hit Parade," I said to Laurel by way of conversation.
A man with a mustache gripped Laurel's elbow. "Laurel, how are you?" he asked with intensity.
"Joe, how are you?" she answered and maneuvered me away from him with a hand on my upper arm. The top of her head came just to the earrings which dangled against my neck.
"Those women on Hit Parade," she said, "stole Holiday's songs."
"I know they can't sing as well as Holiday," I said. "Really, I do." Laurel took her hand from my arm. I tried again as we passed the Dowager's building. "Thank you for taking me," I said. In silence, Laurel continued down the cool autumn street and I thought with a pang how separate we were. I saw us reflected in a window -- a high school sophomore in her sophisticated new dress and a woman close to sixty in a flaring skirt and a crazy-quilt jacket her sister had sewn.
The blues might talk about romance but, Laurel warned me as we crossed Greenwich Avenue, they were about much, much more. Our feet clanged on a coal chute. The love stories were a convention, she said, a way to talk about life and death, anger and joy, a way to talk about being human, while seeming to talk about something else.
“Why disguise it?” I asked.
“When you say things straight out, they can be dangerous,” she said.
We walked past the locked dark houses of our neighborhood, past Katya's flower shop, the Parisian Delicatessen, the barred candy store. The smell of the Hudson was palpable. Trucks on their way to New Jersey rumbled on the cobblestones of Hudson Street.
I could hear Holiday's plaintive song and see her tense and fragile figure.
"You know, your mother thinks romantic love is the most important thing in the world," Laurel said. She said it gently. The way she said, Your mother, I knew Laurel was telling me something about herself and I knew enough to remain silent. She had spoken softly, so I would not feel I betrayed my mother in listening. Now I see the lines had been drawn, without consulting me.
I let us into the apartment with my key. She wished me good night and I went to bed. Lying in the dark, I thought about dark sides and symmetry. I got out my painting from the year before -- torn, rumpled, smeared, and crosshatched. I'd raged at that surface. I had cut it jaggedly in two. I took turquoise. With a calligraphy pen, in a delicate, quaint cursive, I wrote, Isak Dinesen, Isak Dinesen, Isak Dinesen, along each twist in the edge. With the same ink, along the symmetrical edge of the opposite piece, I wrote Billie Holiday, Billie Holiday, Billie Holiday, at least fifty times. I put the two pieces, not quite properly aligned, side by side on a blue field. I lapped half the Dinesen edge over the Holiday edge. With the chuckle Laurel used the night she had punched Grandma's chocolates, I tore the Dinesen edge and wove the Holiday on top.
Exhausted, I climbed into bed.
With a rush, I remembered the Black and White Scotties. Tired, I got grandiose about the Scotties and the meaning of opposites attracting, like repelling. Then I thought about Pinny's purse with its mossy perfume, its silky insides, and I cried myself to sleep. A small brown woman hesitated on a river bank before dropping into the water.
I was sixteen-and-a-half when Laurel moved to a garden apartment on West Eleventh Street because, she said, she needed room for a piano.
"You can have a piano here," I said. "I'll be going to college next year. Then you can have my room."
When Laurel didn't respond, I went to my mother. "Make her stay," I implored.
"She knows we want her to," my mother said.
"Have you told her?"
I can still smell my mother's room that night, stale cigarettes and the mint of throat lozenges.
I left her room, resolved to give Laurel a piece of my brave, perceptive and adolescent mind. But my courage failed me. I didn't ask.
My mother called me into her narrow chute of a bedroom (Red Face had died the summer before). She coughed. Recently, her cough had deepened. Coming home with a date just that evening, I had heard her cough floating through her open window and down to the street.
She held a book, the third book, the upsurge. "I want you to have this," she said. It was her Untermeyer collection of American and British poets. "Whitman's here," she said. "And Nathalia Crane. Wordsworth. Of course, Millay." She had read aloud from it the night of the fever monkeys. I bent to kiss her forehead in gratitude. As I reached to pull the door shut behind me, she wiped her eye with a hand on which the knuckles loomed like moonstone rings.
The Untermeyer pages were as lightweight as the woods violets and four-leaf clover I discovered pressed between them. Occasionally in the margin a faint check or single word appeared, more fragile than the rustling pages. Here and there, not only would her initials be penciled lightly in a margin, but my father's also appeared, testament to their early life, during courtship, I fancied. Perhaps violets and clover had come from a picnic at Croton which included Untermeyer. Decades after her death, those checks and stray initials from before my birth persist.
The books in her bedroom came and went after that. She had friends I didn't know well with whom she swapped. She preferred books about animals and communication between species. She'd given up on the rest of us. The only book left on her special bedside shelf was a legacy from her father, Ben. The Shakespeare he had purchased from a bookstall on the installment plan, 25 cents down and 10 cents a week.
In 1961, the spring before high school graduation, my mother and I started looking for a cheaper apartment. We found nothing in the Village, began exploring the upper West Side.
Laurel had been gone six months. She had had a whirlwind flirtation with a drunken minister who, she indignantly told me, said she was nothing but a Sapphic, and then she married a librarian, Mel, who had a small child, a boy, from a previous marriage.
My last year in high school, I won an award for the painting I had begun when I was fifteen. I asked, would Laurel, as well as my mother, please come to the ceremony? And, of course, they both did.
When they entered the small auditorium, I already sat on stage. For the first time, I could appreciate how fundamentally different they were from the prosperous mothers and fathers surrounding them. Laurel was one of only three black adults present. I watched both the Bedouin and Laurel straighten their spines under scrutiny, a realignment of their musculature that had become as habitual as my mother's denture-fractured smile, which she now flashed at me before she coughed her smoker's cough. As on that day in the diner, Laurel wore her hair, no longer straightened, in a circlet on her head. She wore one of Pinny's patchwork jackets. My mother wore a blouse of extraordinary nutmeg colored silk from my childhood. She had taken to cutting her own hair. One of my classmates had told me she admired my mother's bohemian style. From my vantage point on the raised stage, I saw their old clothes and realized the Women of Leisure had lived a life that was too hard.
Looking back, I see myself in the shocking pink dress of that day, sitting high and separate on the stage, while Laurel and my mother are lost in the shadows when the house lights go down. In my ascendant pink, I lifted away from their muted browns and blues. On that day, what I felt with exhilaration was my own power, and the pleasure of being recognized for doing well what I loved, what I had done since I was a small child, the painting and drawing. I had a sense that I knew how to do things, that I would do them better than my mother and Laurel, or my father.
After the awards, Laurel and my mother stood in the center of the lobby, waiting for me. The other families eddied around them, without a word to either woman. Backs straight, their faces composed, they waited, smiling with habitual courtesy at those around them.
My mother and I found an apartment in Brooklyn. Only five or six miles from the Village, Brooklyn was banishment to the Bedouin. Thriftily, we planned to move everything except heavy furniture ourselves. After an arduous day, we filled the car with the last cartons of mahogany bowls, extension cords, waffle iron, and the framed photos of my mother and her siblings. Her fossil pout seemed prompted by the move, Diaspora with nothing but a tulle wrap for comfort.
“Well, that's that,” she said, slamming the trunk.
It was a warm September evening and as we drove down the street for the last time, we lowered our windows. We paused at the corner before turning onto Hudson Street. Two boys walked past. My mother and I said hello. One of the boys leaned over and spit into my mother's face. He said "Nigger lover," and walked off into the dusk. My mother grimaced, wiped her face with her sleeve and put the car in gear.
"That was Jimmie McDougal," I said.
"Was it? No, I don't think so."
"I'm sure it was."
"Deb, it doesn't matter."
"He spit on you."
She signaled and made her turn. "As it stands, we can say we lived here without incident for over ten years."
"But that's not true."
"It's close enough," she said.