Thursday, December 8, 2011
I'm still nowhere with the beginning of the new novel, THE BLUES.
I know my heroine's name -- Anna Blue -- but almost nothing else about
her. I know that she thinks she's better than her husband, that she made a
mistake ("Everybody chooses the wrong person; sometimes it works out.").
I know that she has children, each of them different, maybe three or even
four, and that I want to know more about them, too, and where their lives
take them, and that each of them sees his/her mother differently -- each
seems to have a different mother.
What's missing, then? Events. What happens, and what happens then?
The events in a story are like the cars in a railroad train; they connect; there
are no empties; each is necessary to pull the next one along. So what
happens to Anna Blue and her marriage? And what happens then, and
then, and then?
That's what I don't know yet.
So instead, and thinking of mothers, I turn to an old story about my own
mother that I've been trying to write for years, a true story, at least as I
remember it, called A REAL WOMAN. Maybe I can begin it with the line that
keeps circling in my head these last few months about Anna Blue:
"Everybody chooses the wrong person; sometimes it works out."
It has always been hard for me to write about my family. Isn't it disloyal to
reveal secrets that no one else knows, to write in judgement as an adult
seeing them through the eyes of childhood? I am amazed that writers can
strip their parents bare in memoirs so capricious, so shattering, so cruel. Is
that why it's taken me so long to tell what is essentially a simple story about
my own mother and father?
Why did they marry? I came along eleven months after the wedding. They
hardly had time to know each other. She was round and gentle, like a
feather pillow, and he was a prizefighter, only nineteen the day I was born,
tough and loud and with little schooling ("I went in the front door and out
the back door"; he would say that with pride). She had an innate sense of
how to behave, and he did what he pleased. She was a lady and he was a
ruffian, younger than she was to boot, though he didn't admit that until I
was on the way. What in the world did they see in each other? And why
didn't I ever ask them that?
The story I've been wanting to tell about them happened when I was six or
seven. My mother was keeping house for her father, her sister, my father --
who was sworn by my grandpa not to go back to fighting -- and me. She
had been a crackerjack private secretary to a company head and a bank
president, and could have gotten a job any time. But my father, a hothead
who declared that he'd be damned if he'd work for nothing, had no trade
and no job; my grandpa had "retired" at 65, before Social Security or
Medicare existed, and had pretty much nothing except what his children
would reluctantly give him; my pretty Aunt Rosetta was in love with her
much older boss, who had gone belly-up in the Depression and couldn't
afford to pay her; and my soft, sensitive mother took care of all of them,
cooking and cleaning and comforting everybody but herself.
So, stressed out and exhausted, she went to see the family doctor, old Doc
Amory, my father's friend, who told her she was nervous -- I wonder why! --
and that the cure for that was simple: have another baby.
This was awhile ago, remember, before the pill, or women's lib, or single
mothers, or plastic bottles, or diaper service, or even maternity clothes. My
mother wore a big old housedress, and, when my baby sister appeared in a
merciless November (or so it seemed to me: a miraculous "appearance" like
the toys that Santa Claus left when he shimmied down the chimney -- and
how did he manage to get up again? Life was full of miracles then!), my
mother boiled bottles and washed dirty diapers by hand and hung them
outside in good weather, and on hot water radiators all over the apartment
when it snowed.
Nobody, as I recall, helped.
In those days, too, women nursed, if they could, until the baby could drink
whole milk, sometimes two or three years, and when my mother came home
from the hospital with my baby sister, she sat the family down around the
kitchen table and told them that when she finished nursing she was going
to get a job and go back to work.
This news hit the family like a thunderbolt. Married women didn't work!
Men whose wives worked were shown up and humiliated before the whole
world as layabouts who couldn't support their families! Nevertheless, my
mother was the only one in our family who could make a living, and she
had made up her mind to do just that.
The weeks that followed were very quiet in our house. I, seven now, secretly
read to my mother out of movie magazines so she could brush up her
shorthand. And my father, also in secret, made plans with my grandpa to
-- what else did he know? -- go back into the ring.. While my mother
answered ads and went on interviews, the men in the family took me along
like "little Miss Marker" on visits to gyms and shaky road trips where my
father, in a big white turtleneck sweater, ill nourished and overweight, ran
behind a borrowed car that my grandpa who had no license, drove in wavy
patterns down the street.
My mother got a job. My father secretly got a bout. My mother bought
presents for everyone and took me to the beauty parlor for a "perm" to make
my hopelessly lank and straight brown hair curly. My father. with my
grandpa as his "second," danced around on that first fight so he wouldn't
get marked and my mother wouldn't know, and was jeered and beaten and
limped home still bleeding.
My mother, shocked to see him, turned to my grandfather: "Pop! How could
you let him do it?" and my grandpa shot back, "It's your fault! A real
woman would never shame her man!"
I don't know how that argument was resolved, or if it ever was. My father
vanished for a few days, and when he came back his bruises were yellow,
and he had done what he said he would never do: asked for a no-pay job as a
dry cleaner's apprentice. My grandfather retired to his room and smoked.
My mother went to work every day and loved it, and hired a part-time girl to
cook and clean and look after me and the baby.
At Christmas, my mother got a raise and bought me a doll I desperately
wanted and a blackboard with pictures to copy and, since the perm was a
disappointment, she let me grow my hair into skinny braids. My grandpa,
who had no money except what his kids grumpily gave him, bought me a
copy of the complete plays and poetry of Shakespeare at the Five-and-Ten store for twenty-five cents. Of course I still keep it, in its ivory and red fake leather cover, the edges of the pages shiny with what looks like real gold.
My Aunt Rosetta finally married her boss, and my father came home one
night and plonked a pay envelope on the kitchen table. He had told the dry
cleaner that he was worth something now, and demanded to be paid.
"Esther," he said, "quit your job."
Did my mother say "Not on your life," or "You'll never make as much as I
do," or "I love my job?" No. She gave her notice, folded up her business
clothes and silk stockings, took out her old Mae Moon housedress, and
became again, "a real woman."
They stayed together. My father made a living. Ultimately he became the
owner of a big dry cleaning factory. He was always the boss.
But for me, and my sister Bobbie, too, something was imprinted that day.
For all our lives -- and we both married, both had children -- no man and
no man's paycheck could ever, ever order us to "quit our jobs."
So...what does all that have to do with Anna Blue, and my hopefully new
book about a woman, mother, wife, and her marriage?
Maybe nothing. And if you believe that, I guess you're not a writer.