Saturday, March 8, 2008

Long Ago And Far Away

When I was about eleven or so, I flew to the East Coast to visit my mother's family. I stayed a few days in New York City with my Great Aunt Caroline, who had a lovely two bedroom apartment on West End Avenue. To her the nondescript tower in a utilitarian park setting she inhabited was "penitentiary living" with "Salvation Army furniture" compared to her previous apartment on Central Park South. And even though there was only space in the living room for an upright piano, she accepted her reduced lot late in life with equanimity and her familiar blend of cheerfulness and unflagging optimism, great dignity with never a hint of pretense. After all, there was still a piano where party guests could gather around, belting out off-key standards filled with laughter and joy.

Caroline was more Tallulah Bankhead than Auntie Mame, her refined MGM-inspired cadence straight out of a lavish 1930s Manhattan comedy, always in a smart suit from Lord & Taylor and never out of doors without a hat. To her, everyone was "Darling" and sexual matters were always discussed with the casual candor of one poring over a shopping list. It is impossible for me to sum her up in a paragraph or two because to me she was so singular, so much greater than a pile of words. It reminds me of the line late in "Touch Of Evil" when Marlene Dietrich says of Orson Welles, "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?" She was some kind of a woman. There isn't anything more you can say.

We hopped on a Greyhound Bus and took the long trip out to West Hartford, Connecticut to visit her younger brother (and my grandfather) Justin and his wife Laura. Where Caroline was the eternal ingenue, Justin was the sly character actor, an inveterate storyteller filled with Will Rogers hominess and smiling charm. He was so beguiling and had he had even a whit of wickedness in him, Justin would have made one hell of a con man. As always Laura was the villain of the piece, a severe dyke haircut with attitude to match, Mercedes McCambridge inside and out. My mother always said that Laura never believed in anything she couldn't put her fist through and I don't doubt it.

Laura and Justin (she always came first) lived in a comfortable white house on a cul-de-sac, buried so deeply in the suburbs that their house was virtually impossible to find without a guide and I think that is just the way they liked it. As a kid I was in awe of this bucolic life with the small stream that ran through the backyard and the ducks that would wander in from the wooded water looking for bugs to eat. "Don't feed the ducks. They shit on the lawn." Laura yelled after me as I ran off to the backyard to see them, while inside the house Caroline played Carole Lombard, Justin politely watched from a wingback chair and in the kitchen Laura disassembled all of the groceries into a phalanx of unmarked Tupperware containers to which only she had the secret combination.

I think I have always been torn deeply between these two fantasy worlds. Caroline's life made me want to live in Manhattan and Justin's made me yearn for a quiet suburban existence. When I first moved to NYC, I had to have a two bedroom apartment, so that I could have a guest room. Caroline's wise father always insisted that an extra room in Manhattan was a necessity because it is the kind of place people want to come to and you need to always be ready to accommodate a guest. But last year, the other side of me won out and I bought a house as close as I could get to the life Laura and Justin had. And that all came to the fore for me today on this very rainy day as my dream of a stream came true in the backyard.

It is just pouring here and the gentle slope in my yard has formed an impromptu river that is now casually pooling in my neighbor Junior's yard. I woke up around noon and equal to the weather built a huge roaring fire in the fireplace, cooked up some pancakes and bacon and settled into a chair in the living room with the real estate section of the New York Times. It is my favorite section of the paper because it always has a "hero" story in it about someone who found a charming, undiscovered corner of the city and with far less money than effort turned it into their dream. How fitting then that I should follow that up with a viewing of the new TV movie version of "A Raisin In The Sun."

I am just amazed at how well that fifty year old play has held up and how deeply moved I was by the power that comes with personal ownership, not just of a home but also of your own life. Of course, everyone in it is going to win an Emmy, but more importantly it was a great story of standing up for what you believe in even as everything around you falls apart, even when the road to what is right is the hardest. It is so easy to just give up and fall in line with the decay of life, to accept a smaller piece of the pie than you deserve, and ultimately a smaller version of yourself. Life has stages, as Caroline knew, and there are times of monetary excess, but real richness comes from inside you and the people in your life, not from having a room with a view or a grand piano.

Near the end of Gore Vidal's tremendous essay "Remembering Orson Welles," he writes of his friend: "I have a recurring fantasy that if one were to dial the telephone number of someone in the past, one would hear again a familiar voice, and time would instantly rewind from now to then. I still have Orson's telephone number in my book (213-851-8458). Do I dare ring him and talk to him back in 1982?" Caroline's number (212-877-8916) is the only one I still have memorized even though she and her telephone are both long gone. It is rare when a day passes that I don't want to pick up the phone and see if she will answer. I miss her loud inimitable greeting, booming "Well hello darling, so good to hear your voice!"

I miss Justin and his mad scientist logic. I even miss Laura and her brusque dismissal of everyone's bullshit but her own. But it is impossible to go back in time for one last visit. And now Caroline's voice echoes only inside my own head. I work in Manhattan and live in the suburbs, and like the rivulet in my yard, I know how fleeting it all is. Life is too important to miss out on all the small joys, to separate ourselves out one from another over pettiness, to accept defeat just because the things we once cherished are no longer there, or are hard to attain. "How did we get to a place where we're scared to talk softness to each other? What gets into people who ought to be close?" Walter intones to his wife in "A Raisin In The Sun." Nothing truly permanent can get between people except the quickness of time. The water in the yard recedes, the memories fade, but the emotions remain as sharp as ever. Standing up for what you want and know is right often means no simple solution, perhaps not even a happy ending, but that struggle is better than the soft easy existence of accepting less than you deserve.

Before she died, I visited Caroline one last time. She was bedridden and in her 90s by then but still cheerful, filled as always with wonderful stories and memories. Even though she stopped believing in God when she was six years old, her fascination with the Bible never ceased and at the end, the trials of Job were much on her mind. Like him, I think she also wondered why an all powerful God would give you everything and then take it all away, piece by piece, reducing life to nothing more than a simple test of faith and emotional strength.

It made me sad at first to see inside her hall closet as I grabbed my coat to leave. There they were. All of her soft felt hats with the long dangerous hat pins jammed into the sides, never to be worn again, suitcases that had been around the world a dozen times, never again to see foreign shores. But as I walked down the hallway, I realized that it was so Caroline. There was no reason to believe she would ever travel out of that apartment in style again, but that was no reason not to be ready for it at all times.In the moment, there is nothing to do but enjoy this stage to the fullest until the next one comes along. Enjoy the friends and family you have while you still have them. Accept the realities at hand and not worry about the dreams. But always be ready for what's next.


Anonymous said...

You are an amazing writer! I laugh - I cry - I look forward to where your thoughts will take me. Thanks!

Jamal said...

My God. You have truly entered another dimension in your writing. Superb!!

Bart said...

You have the gift of gab on the radio, the gift of a literary character right out of "The Great Gatsby" in your blog and the ability to do both superbly. You really conveyed the essence of your Great Aunt Caroline in just a few paragraphs. She lives on. I can picture the felt hats and the hat pins in the closet. Thank you for sharing your eloquence with a mere mortal.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, Derek. Thanks for sharing with us.

Kirbylu said...

You nailed it right on the head. Superbly done. It's that nearing 40's, life realization, shit life goes too fast thing. Best blog post ever.