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April 16, 2012
Poor Stuart Little! A quick snap of the blind has sent it clear to the top and Stuart, crushed inside, is now distinctly uncomfortable, invisible to his parents; the cat Snowball, keeping mum, has helpfully laid out his clothes and walking stick next to the mouse hole in the pantry implying that he has deserted the family to join his own kind. I sympathized. How often had this happened to me when I was dusting. Of course, I was much too big to be lifted off the ground, but I could hear the sound, feel the suddenness and fear of having done irreparable damage, the frustration of being unable to return to the normal peace of a Saturday morning, to being a good girl doing my chores without being asked. If only I could leap for the round pull and yank it down. Stuart’s parents are heartbroken; Snowball paces; what will happen now?
Rereading Stuart Little, mentioned last time, has led me to think of monsters: the child as interloper, aberration, object of ridicule and disgust, like Jane Eyre or Heathcliff. Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel. Regan and Goneril come to mind and with them Lear’s lamentation: how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child. The boy in The Snow Queen who becomes unmanageable when a piece of glass lodges in his eye; Kafka’s Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into some monstrous kind of vermin; a teenage killer in the contemporary film We Need To Talk About Kevin. I’ve put this film on my Netflix list, but will I have the courage to watch it? Mismatched, misplaced, misshapen, born under a caul or malevolent prophecy, bastard, changeling, wild child, step-child, adoptee, neglected orphan, they tumble out, Edmund and Oedipus, bad seed and ugly duckling, as though the writers of these stories have tapped into primal fears best left to myth, to fairy and horror tales.
In the beginning, Stuart, a mouse born into an ordinary New York family, resembles none of these terrifying children. His parents make haste to accommodate him with a bed made from a cigarette box, a doll-size toothbrush and bar of soap, a small hammer with which to whack the bathroom faucet his mouse paw cannot turn. They go so far as to change mouse to louse in The Night Before Christmas to avoid demeaning their son. For his part, Stuart dives down a fetid drain to retrieve his mother’s ring, rolls lost ping pong balls into view and, risking deafness, unsticks a piano key. A bit of a show-off, perhaps, no more. But is there a child who has not been naughty, who has not been bad?There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. And when she was good she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid. In our house, when I was very young, this little girl was called Marian Plumsteel. “What? Is Marian Plumsteel here?” She seemed to come out of nowhere, taking me and my parents by surprise with her crying, whining, sulking and pouting, bouncing a ball when she had been told not to, disturbing the neighbors downstairs, willful, vengeful, mean. Tricks up her sleeve, this thief with my name, a tough customer. I hated her. The truth of original sin crept up on me as I discarded alternatives. She was no sister, or cousin, or friend, or guest of mine, certainly. I was Marian Plumsteel.
I can imagine the raised eyebrows at this child-rearing technique possibly disturbing, even destructive, to a developing psyche. On the other hand, I believe it fits famous child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim’s theory, put forward in The Uses of Enchantment, that fairy tales, though expressive of anger, violence, and cruelty, far from being harmful to a child’s development, are a necessary part of education because they give shape to the child’s own evil thoughts and help him or her imagine a happy ending. I can remember the energy with which I hated Marian Plumsteel, how passionately I wished her gone. How long did it take me, I wonder, to figure out that I alone could make her go away? Thus did autonomy, again essential according to Bettelheim, point the way to a happy denouement: good behavior. Ernst and I, without much thought, introduced David and Sirene Plumsteel to our children with mixed results. David quickly seized power, but Sirene was angry at us. We, her bad parents, were the cause of misery.
Marian Plumsteel was a hand-me-down, a revenant, the ghost of the aunt I was named after, my father’s sister, killed in her late twenties in an automobile accident six years before I was born. She too had been called Marian Plumsteel long ago, in North Dakota far away. There was mitigation in this for me because I was glad to be named after someone my father had loved, and still loved, very much, my mother explained. His sister’s death had upset him like nothing she had seen or known. Marian Plumsteel pulled me closer to my father, but closer, too, to the rumbling associated with his family. By rumbling I mean dissatisfaction, deprivation, discontent. Separation, divorce, alcoholism, abandonment, sorrow, guilt, and shame. Career moves, foolish and erratic, made on impulse. I mean raised voices in the living room, which my sister and I were not supposed to hear because we were supposed to be asleep. Even soft and tender voices coming from my parents’ bedroom across the hall merged into rumbling, suggesting worlds which lay beyond us, world upon world, I should say, of sex and novels and foreign languages and the theater, camembert cheese and cocktails and smoking too much, international commerce and being on the dole, fluctuations in the flour market, the poor house and being your own boss. D.H. Lawrence perfectly captures the continuous whispering heard by all children (see Henry James’ What Masie Knew) and especially by Paul in his short story, The Rocking Horse Winner: There must be more money! There must be more money! Yet nobody ever said it aloud. The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one spoke of it. Just as no one ever says: “We are breathing!” in spite of the fact that breath is coming and going all the time.
In due course, as my mother was fond of saying, Marian Plumsteel, having served her purpose, disappeared. Marian Shaw, both self and ally, model and rival, took hold. On the 90th Street subway platform, in my brown bowler hat and gray spring coat with epaulettes and brass buttons, my sister’s hand in mine, I have an anxious, worried look; my mother, in another photograph, needs a haircut, is no longer stylish as in earlier days of her courtship and marriage. In due course, she had given up her job as a social worker to raise two demanding children. She was our playmate, our plaything. We twisted her head back and forth on the pillow, “Look at me, Mommy, look at me!” There was drudgery in the filthy basement where she did the laundry and on the tarred rooftop where she shoved an apple basket heavy with sodden clothes through a trap door, coming out into a wind swirling with litter and dust. First the depression, then the war. Now, in due course, this: a husband with a troubled past, apprehensive and high strung, who took the phone out to save money, who handed her fifty dollars once and fled down the stairs, who took on the personae of characters in books he read, who came home tight one evening to chase away her sewing circle, who had bounced from J. Berlage and Almendinger, small import-export firms, to Pillsbury Mills, but still wasn’t getting ahead. I don’t know what the matter was exactly, but when people ask me why we moved to Haiti, as they often do, I put it down to rumbling, to restlessness.
While riding his outgrown rocking horse, Paul, in Lawrence’s story, discovers he can predict winning horses at the track; his gift is real, but erratic, and his frenzied zeal to provide for his selfish, unloving parents, kills him. There must be as many stories of bad parents as of bad children and a little of both in each of us, no doubt. Some critics find that Regan and Goneril seek no more than vengeance on a pompous, spoiled, and bossy father, who paid them no attention when they were little. Even Lear’s adored Cordelia will not cater to him, say she loves him outright. I have read that Bruno Bettelheim, too, with all his theories, failed as a father, was accused of child abuse in his practice, died a suicide. In our apartment, the rumbling was no more than a low hum, discontinuous and hard to follow. I felt it here and there, wondered if they were getting a divorce, and fell asleep again. Just as often, I registered the high notes, the lifting of spirits that came with the tutor and red Portuguese grammar books as my father prepared for a trip to South America as interpreter for Philip Pillsbury, president of the company. To us, Phil Pill.
Lace tablecloths, ice cream suits, palm trees and wooden shutters, ice buckets, dark women with shoulder pads and curly hair, and one of the customers is a bit pudgy, and so is Phil Pill, but my father looks handsome, relaxed and smiling, making hand gestures, his long legs stretched out, showing a bit too much sock, perhaps. And from Recife in February, 1948, he writes of touring the red light district in Belem with Phil whom he hasn’t yet dared to call by his first name. They indulged in a beer. An innocent abroad, he notes that Brazil is a man’s country, that American and English girls look pasty; more attractive are those of mixed race to be found, he adds significantly, in all the best hotels. I think back to a time almost before my own when air travel was still unusual for middle class people, when over the airwaves for the first time came mambo and rhumba, Latin songs like Besame Mucho and Perfidia, and everyone knew Carmen Miranda from the movies. Like Fred Astaire, my father was flying down to Rio. To Recife, Belem, Fortaleza, Sao Paulo, Venezuela and Surinam. In photographs, he brought it all back to us, in purple-veined shells and red paper flowers, in dolls with black and brown skin with baskets on their heads, in a lustrous alligator bag for my mother, in the dizziness of pronouncing Parimaribo, treasure spilling out of suitcases into a winter night in Queens. My sister and I, allowed to stay up late to welcome him home, were wearing our quilted bathrobes, new at Christmas I remember. My father returned from South America full of pep, as he liked to say. Our car might be full of pep on a given day. Or not. But pep was in the mix now: in a heap of trinkets, in the power of speaking in foreign tongues, in the glamor of being called Mel, Portuguese for honey, in the good money a Pillsbury agent could make, in a vision of the future somewhere out of this world.
By 1950, we were saying good-bye to the Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty, to the lions in front of the Library. For it was not as though we had not made conquest of East Side, West Side, Battery and Bronx. We got haircuts at Best and Company on Fifth Avenue, picked out dolls we wanted for Christmas at Macy’s on 34thStreet, stood cold in line to see the organ rise from the pit and the Rockettes on stage at Radio City, opened compartments with nickels at the Automat, sampled leaf-shaped, chocolate-covered cookies at Rumplemeyer’s. My father and I, since it was my luck to be the right age when he felt most cooped up in the apartment, had skated on the ice in Central Park and in the shadow of Atlas at Rockefeller Center, ridden a bicycle–built-for-two like Daisy in the song, made a record in Times Square, explored the Museum of Natural History and the Met, where we saw the original of our Renoir copy, Madame Georges Charpentier et Ses Enfants. On the promise of kittens, as many as we wanted, I was willing to throw it all away: sidewalks, bright lights and speed, department stores with whizzing pneumatic message systems, elevators with uniformed operators, going up, going down, my nose pressed against perfumed sable and mink. Without complaint, I gave up pizza and doughnuts, lamb chops and Idaho potatoes, Technicolor and television, hot running water, my winter coat in soft tweed with maroon velvet collar and iridescent lining, my New York accent, my very self.
Kafka and E. B. White persuade us of the intrusion of strangeness into ordinary lives through an even-handed profusion of detail: Gregor Samsa is both cockroach, his plated body and pathetic legs fluttering in the air, who cannot turn over, and middle-European traveling salesman with cloth samples to prove it, parents and sister cowering in the next room, a seductive picture of a young woman on his bedroom wall.
Stuart Little may be tiny and vulnerable, a mouse complete with tail and whiskers, but he is a New Yorker through and through. Dapper, with fine blue suit, pocket handkerchief, and walking stick, he traverses a familiar Manhattan landscape where doormen stand in front of apartments, garbage scows plow the East River, miniature sailboats compete on a lake in the Park. When Gregor can no longer participate in their bourgeois routines, his parents isolate and torment him (his father is particularly brutal) until he weakens and dies. But Stuart, presumed dead, is released from the window shade by his human brother George who piously pulls it down out of respect. Stuart moves on to new adventures, yet he remains in my mind a thankless child who leaves home without a thought for his devoted parents, bound to fret over and miss him. Even Snowball, who refrains from killing Stuart for this reason, calls himself a guest in the Little household. My father, too, was a thankless child. As a teenager and young man, he played his divorced parents off against each other, dropped out of college, ran off to New York and later to Haiti. His father and sister were dead by then; his mother, whom he never saw again, died poor and lonely in Seattle.
My parents were 47 and 44 when we left New York, not young by the standards of the time. They had been married for 17 years when they decided to burn their bridges, as my father puts it, leaving a secure job with a pension plan for the dubious rewards of self-employment in an unstable and mysterious black republic in the Caribbean Sea. From Port-au-Prince where he was looking for a house to rent, swallowing advice from Howat, dour Scotsman and retiring agent who got him down, suffering intestinal upset, worrying about expenses, discovering Haiti’s unique charms, my father sent letter after letter, urgent to the point of hysteria, contradictory as to what documents to secure, what to bring, what not to bring, enough to drive my mother crazy. He tells her he doesn’t know what the temperature is, that thirty-five centimes is seven cents, that she should slip him some sleeping pills. But above all, his letters tell how much he wants and needs her. Park the kids, he writes, concocting a fantasy in which they could spend a month alone together in a hotel making up their minds. Please write me every day or two if you possibly have time, and I will do the same.
Are happy families all alike, as Tolstoy declares in the first sentence of Anna Karenina? Insofar as they are able to tolerate risk, welcome strangers, absorb the natural shocks that flesh is heir to, and create elastic love, I believe they are. My sister and I would live to see the gutted building, now a museum, a crater on the banks of the Mississippi, formerly Pillsbury Mills. But for a brief golden time, we were going to be daughters of its agent in Haiti, ti blancs with freckles, aliens, stingy and ugly; we were going to learn to swim and to speak French. It was going to be a wonderful life.