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November 20, 2011
During our years in Jackson Heights, we exchanged Thanksgiving dinners with my parents’ old friends, Joe and Eleanor McMahon, and their expanding family. When it was our turn, we set up a table with extra leaves in the living room, but the McMahons lived in a spacious house in Malverne, Long Island, where children had rooms of their own, so we could spend the weekend. As I moved from five to six, to seven, and on up to ten, I made sure to observe closely and listen intently in order to fathom the inner workings of a family not my own. Jackson Heights mothers were not keen to let neighbors in; children were sent out to play. Standing in the hallway in front of a friend’s door, I had to make do with bad lighting, music from a radio, disembodied voices, cooking smells, not nearly enough to go on.
Eleanor McMahon came from Corning upstate and from money, or at least from people somehow superior to Joe’s who were not talked of. She had thin, fading red hair and a true humpback. This could happen to me if I failed to stand up straight. She was not soft and affectionate like my mother; something had soured her. And yet romance stirred the air, for my parents had known this couple since before either pair was married; Manhattan courtships were sometimes reviewed. While struggling through law school, Joe used to take Eleanor home on the subway, so tired that he often missed his stop to wake up at the end of the line, a long ride back to his own neighborhood in the middle of the night. This touching figure was somehow the same menacing Joe, an attorney for Republic Pictures with a photograph of himself astride Roy Roger’s Trigger, who shouted, “I’m taking off my belt,” at the slightest infraction, sliding the tip slowly back toward the buckle to prove it, who got angry every Thanksgiving because someone, my father perhaps, dared to ask for more turkey before he’d even sat down or carved a slice for himself.
The McMahons had four children: Mary Ellen, Tommy (Thomas), Margy (Margaret), and Kathy (Kathleen). The reason for this was that they were Catholics who practiced something called the rhythm method which evidently didn’t work. I could see that my parents found four children excessive, the rhythm method ridiculous, but I was impressed with the seriousness of Catholic life. Mass was not something that could be skipped as our family might decide to go to Central Park Zoo instead of church, or simply to stay home and read the papers. Being a Catholic required thinking ahead as to who was going to which Mass and whether Tommy was on that Sunday as an altar boy; all four children were named for saints and would later take on another saint’s name; there was Catechism with its easy answers to weighty questions to be learned; Mary Ellen crossed herself and knelt to say her evening prayers, the ceiling in her bedroom dotted with glow-in-the-dark stars. Still, Catholics did not always behave well. Just look at the way they treated Rita Donnelly, a psychiatric social worker and close mutual friend. Rita, so lively, who had set their table on a roar by asking some blind date if he didn’t think the Mexican situation was simply fraught with interest, who was Mary Ellen’s godmother after all. Gone, stricken from their lives and from the sacraments, because she married a divorced man. No amount of hocus-pocus could make this right in my parents’ view. But then, my mother disapproved of Rita too, because she always introduced her child as her adopted daughter, a fact, but why call attention to it? It was bound to make Marjorie feel insecure, my mother thought, and didn’t say much for Rita’s profession.
It seemed to me that parents had more fun than children at these Thanksgivings. Our parents could smoke, drink highballs and Manhattans; I don’t remember wine. They could indulge in sexual innuendo, snide remarks, inside jokes, gossip, religion, politics. Now in their early forties, they had their long-standing friendship and the past to fall back on, while my sister and I were outnumbered extras at best. The McMahon household was at once more chaotic, what with four rambunctious children and Joe’s belt about to come off, and more rigid than ours. Margy fell out a second story window; a large hole had to be cut in the bathroom door when Tommy locked himself in. But although Long Island felt less safe in some ways than Jackson Heights, I chafed under certain family rules to which I was very much unused. Mary Ellen and I stood for hours it seemed washing dishes; the other girls were all too young, and Tommy got away with murder because he was a boy. Exciting TV programs we were allowed to watch in the basement rec room might suddenly be deemed unsuitable, snapped off without warning, no arguments allowed. Orange juice and a bowl of oatmeal came first at breakfast. Only after these had been swallowed could any child have a piece of the round coffee cake with a hole in the middle, or one of the soft sweet buns with crumbs on top steaming in the covered metal warmer. The top was battered and the pastries from Bohak’s were nothing special, but desirous as I was I never tasted any, because I stubbornly refused to eat my, by this time, cold, lumpy, and truly disgusting oatmeal. My mother never rescued me, though she did pick my sister up off the floor when she resorted to the cat’s dish. Muffy was a large tabby with a bell on her collar. No doubt she lived the promiscuous outdoor life our apartment-bound Velvet fancied for himself.
It was at one of these Thanksgivings in 1947 or 1948 that Hamlet buzzed his way into my life. The grown-ups were all agog. The big city beckoned, which was something in itself according to my father, who sometimes grumbled that the McMahons had sold out to suburbia. Though I thought they were crazy, I loved the feeling, the arousal I sensed but couldn’t make sense of. The McMahon living room was alive with anticipation of a ham omelette, and only Melville and Eleanor would partake of this meal. Marguerite and Joe were staying home with the children. That was it. They went, they came back; we were home again the next day. I kept the mystery inside, never asked a question, and soon enough discovered what a fool I had been. In fifth grade, Hamlet was a movie with the handsome young Laurence Olivier, light on his feet in spite of his heavy burdens, and at last in high school a tragedy by Shakespeare. O, that this too, too solid (or was it sullied?) flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, I memorized, thinking that Hamlet was making rather too much fuss. Easy as it was to put aside the embarrassing omelette theory, I never let go of what I had no name for, what I could only call something electric, something else. It had to do with the scene in the living room, with Melville and Eleanor, Marguerite and Joe.
Fast forward to Idlewild airport, 1962. My mother and sister, on their way to El Salvador, flash their shiny black diplomatic passports. My father is waiting for them down there having gone ahead to take up his new post as Commercial Attache for the U.S. Embassy. Here, too, is Joe McMahon, somewhat subdued, bashful even, come to see my mother off.
And here am I, observer and extra once again, not going with them because I have planned a trip around Lake Superior with some Shipley friends, to be followed by a summer waitress job at the Shepherd Tea Room in Providence, not entitled to a diplomatic passport since I am over twenty-one. It’s like old times, they’re drinking Manhattans, and that’s when I see that they were swingers avant la lettre, long, long before the word was coined, before the film Bob and Carol, Ted and Alice in which Ernst and I will see (two scant years after our elopement in 1967, at the end of the Summer of Love) versions of ourselves and our friends, much to chew on at Emilio’s in Los Angeles, on Melrose, in the protagonists’ very booth. What I had detected long ago and still saw flickering in the airport bar was nothing more than a flirtatious undercurrent, an unconsummated sexual attraction and form of love – as good an introduction to Hamlet as any I can think of.
For love and lust, commingled and separate, real and imagined, sanctioned and illicit, in imagery and metaphor, in young and old, are everywhere in Hamlet. Doddering Polonius is possessed by the idea that Ophelia must renounce Hamlet, who as a prince may not carve for himself, but, in sympathy with what he perceives as Hamlet’s mad passion for Ophelia, Polonius remembers crushes in his own youth very near this. He sends Reynaldo to spy on his son Laertes whom he suspects of whoring in Paris; his daughter Ophelia is more, he implies, than a green girl. Where indeed did she learn that filthy song? And why does the Queen give the long purples, which grow along the glassy stream in which Ophelia drowns, a grotesque phallic emphasis? When Ophelia, mindful of warnings from both father and brother that Hamlet is not serious, returns his favors, Hamlet advises her to head for a nunnery (slang word for whore house at the time), lays a terrible curse upon her chastity. In company, before the play within a play begins, he makes obscene cracks at her expense, which the poor girl counters gamely instead of accusing him of sexual harassment.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make love to their sinister employment, old Fortinbras is impotent, Claudius an incestuous beast who finds the Queen, in whom the heyday of the blood is far from tame, so conjunctive to his life and soul that he hesitates to make a move against the son she loves. On top of all this, there’s Hamlet’s so-called Oedipus complex, of which everyone has heard, enacted on the enormous bed which so often appears in the closet scene.
Only Hamlet’s love for his father and his hesitant and tender expression of feeling for his friend and confidant Horatio, whom he wears in his heart of hearts, can be construed as wholesome. Hamlet is the ultimate anti-Thanksgiving drama. Family and friends do not gather in Elsinore to celebrate a national holiday. They are summoned and, in the case of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, paid to attend. Horatio alone makes a free visitation upon learning of Hamlet’s father’s untimely death and the remarriage of his mother to his Uncle Claudius which followed hard upon. Hamlet quickly learns that Claudius, whom his prophetic soul has always distrusted without quite knowing why, has murdered his father and usurped the throne, that Ophelia will have no more of him, that Denmark under Claudius is foul and rotten, a nation of drunkards with stomachs for war. Ungrateful Hamlet refuses the cheer and comfort offered by his mother and Claudius and retires to lament his fate: O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!
Presumably, Claudius, the Queen, and their obsequious flatterers sit down off-stage to banquets, but Hamlet wittily suggests to Horatio that his mother’s hasty hook-up with Claudius was a good excuse thriftily to serve the cold leftover funeral meats at the marriage tables. This is the beginning of a barrage of food imagery, sometimes funny, but negative in the extreme. Hamlet’s father was poisoned during a peaceful siesta in his orchard. The life-giving garden of the earth has gone to seed, things rank and gross in nature possess it merely. A quick thumb-through of the text will uncover garbage, vomit, guts, gall, offal, carrion, a single indigestible nutshell, likewise an eggshell, exhumation through marble jaws, poison, curdled milk, candied tongues, vulgar salads, overfed capons, a surfeit of caviar, unripe fruit. Hamlet’s gorge would certainly rise at the American custom of eating and drinking too much at Thanksgiving. Rich, fatty foods and flab, associated in his mind with the lower animals, as well as with overweening power, greed, and lust, are abhorrent to him; he himself, he informs Claudius, dines not on the exotic crocodile he proposes to Laertes, but on air, the chameleon’s dish. Maggots eat their fill and multiply in Hamlet, as does Death. Polonius, dead, is at supper where a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him, and young Fortinbras, last man standing next to Horatio, noting the pile-up of corpses at his feet, speaks of the feast Death can look forward to later.
I hope I haven’t ruined your Thanksgiving dinner. With luck, it may be fully digested by the time you read this. I do tend to be swept away by the many parallels I find between our age and Hamlet’s; each rereading confirms me in the thought that I am Hamlet, that Hamlet is Everyman (and woman) in a text which contains the riddle of the world complete with answer key. Like Hamlet, we must leave the paradisiacal garden of childhood, separate from our parents, who surprise us with their sexuality, get divorced, remarry someone we don’t like, die and leave us orphans. The world we inherit is corrupt, polluted with toxins, false friends, lovers who betray us, evil heads of state among other villains, and when we look at ourselves we may think as Hamlet does that, since we are the quintessence of dust, it would be better had we not been born.
We howl and complain, quarrel, grow self-absorbed, self-serving, and self-righteous, spy on each other, tell stories (lies). We sink into depression and dementia, seek vengeance, take to drink, run mad, stab wildly in the dark, become the enemy we seek to destroy, make cannon fodder of our children, commit self-slaughter. At Thanksgiving, though, we pull ourselves together to get the dinner on. Under the holiday (originally holy day) spell, we clean the house, buy flowers, bake pies, exchange recipes, invite people without partners or family in town (perhaps a little less than kin, but in spirit more than kind), make provision for food allergies, vegetarians and raw foodists, pretend to like marshmallows on our sweet potatoes, welcome ethnic twists on old traditions, put up with in-laws, bores, and boors. So what if death is common, Thanksgiving seems to say, so what if that first feast with the Indians amid tough alien corn is more myth than history? Let us smoke together a peace pipe at least. Let be, says Hamlet at the end of the play. He says it twice.
Marguerite and Melville, Eleanor and Joe are dead now (Alas, poor Yorick!), their children scattered. As long as they were alive, I had news from time to time of Mary Ellen, who was never quite my friend. We tolerated each other, a good thing to learn how to do. I heard she got divorced and married a second time, which must have been painful to everyone. Mary Ellen was a prickly child; her sash was always dragging because she couldn’t stand to have it tied around her waist. Her father called her a lemon, but I have every confidence that Joe and Eleanor could not have cast her out whatever breach of Catholic doctrine may have been involved, just as I believe with Fortinbras, ascendant to the throne, that Hamlet, had he been put on, would have proved most royal. At those Thanksgivings with the McMahons, adjusting to foreign ways, decoding adult behavior, figuring out that Joe wasn’t really going to beat us, I felt my way forward into a larger philosophy; there were more things in heaven and earth than I could dream of.