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August 19, 2012
Key to Family Names:
Rose and Frank Van Dyke, my maternal grandparents
Their children: Marguerite (married to Melville, daughters Marian and Elizabeth/Libby); Howard (married to Margera, son Lester); Bill
Tina, Rose’s sister, daughters Nadine (married to Wilton, daughter Patricia) and Norma
Second Sight, Part I
It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see—this, quoted in a recent New York Times nature article, from another journal keeper, Henry David Thoreau. Stung, I took it as an admonition. It was time to put aside my disappointment in the diary, my critical distance, make what I could of the donnée. And gradually, by letting my own experience, guesses, and family lore invade the text, I did begin to see something of Rose’s mental life, as well as sequences, intersections of action, thought, and feeling, something I might call story, if not quite plot. Some French children’s books I discovered recently, through Leonard’s granddaughter Meline, were another inspiration. They present first a basic outline, followed by a series of transparent overlays, until the reader, knocked out by an encyclopedic naming of parts, holds in her hands, from façade to inner workings, a medieval castle, say, or a pig. With new thoughts in mind, I returned to the diary.
In March, 1944, Rose’s sister Tina makes room in her house for her daughter Nadine and granddaughter Patricia when Nadine’s husband Wilton is drafted. Nadine, who has been living in Oklahoma City, immediately puts in a phone. Nadine is less provincial than her mother—nothing extraordinary about that, but Tina’s new phone offered a clue as to why my grandmother makes no note of my sister’s birth on March 28, 1944, the day after she and Tina threw a surprise party for their sister Sophia’s sixtieth birthday. This rankled on my first reading. Worse, she makes no mention of her new grandchild until May 11 (her own birthday) and then gets her name wrong. Betty, she calls her. I can remember the tossing out of Lizzie, Liz, Eliza, Bess, Bessie, Betsy, and Betty. Libby was always Libby. Betty was a reject. I gave Rose more bad marks for the lightness with which she treated my father’s nearly fatal pneumonia, followed by his and my chicken pox, our apartment dark, my mother and new sister guarded by a grim nurse. Where was Rose’s sympathy, her motherly concern? We didn’t seem like relatives at all, just names, too remote to care about.
But, as I think of it now, Rose may not have known about my sister’s birth for days if not weeks—whenever it was that my mother found time and strength to write her a letter. Then too, there was the family fear of long distance, a paralysis which set in at the thought of anything expensive, frivolous. Marguerite and Rose did not talk on the phone which, like the lawn mower and the automobile, still feels new-fangled in Rose’s account. And I’m sure that when she did write, my mother made light of her troubles.Straighten up, she would have told herself. There was no whining in her, no pouting. Outrage or anger when she found something ridiculous, but complaint had been teased out of her in childhood by her father. Watch that lower lip, he’d say, you might trip on it.Van Dykes, Oklahomans, were tough.
As far as she could, my mother protected her parents. From worry, from jibes my father made. She remained homesick all her life. To find direction north, south, east, west, she put herself on the front porch at 316 Chautauqua. When she described the way her father ran around the house with sleigh bells on Christmas Eve to inspire visions of sugar plums in his children’s heads, or threw his hat into the air as they left Wright’s Ranch at the end of a vacation in the cool mountains of Creede, Colorado, she wept. What was she crying for? I wondered. What need had she of parents when we were right here, my father, my sister, and me? But, guided by her, I soon began to see it: the Model-T, the twists and turns in the road, her brothers spitting peanut shells into the wind, the dark red paint of the ranch house, their breakfasts of expertly gutted pan-fried trout. Grandpa’s gesture was hail and farewell, mute promise to return. Pre-wrapped was how my grandparents came to me, suggesting how little free will we have as children; love itself can never be quite spontaneous. It is conditioned: copied, taught and learned. My grandparents might be tough, tougher than I could ever be, but they were also old and fragile. I think Rose was somehow lame, perhaps from a case of childhood polio. Or from a bad fall she took down the cellar stairs. Not in the diary, but in a letter to my mother from the same year, she tells how she stayed in for days before her fortieth anniversary celebration for fear of icy sidewalks. She had survived, but been weakened by typhoid fever; in later life, she suffered small strokes. So many contradictions to absorb, which only became more snarled as I got older and formed my own idea of family relations.
Listen to the little New Yorkers, someone might say at table. And on the day we had cornmeal mush for supper, I got myself in trouble by declaring, Pigs eat mush! I doubt that I had ever seen a pig. Little New Yorkers are more familiar with zoo than with farm animals. My source was a book, probably an illustrated Little Golden Book, absolute authority in my three-or-four-year-old mind on farms and farmers, cows, pigs, chickens, and what they ate. Pigs ate unappetizing yellow slop from a trough which I would never do. Somehow, it seems to me, my grandparents and I never got past this gaffe of mine which, though amusing, remained an insult. Rose and Frank rejoiced at my birth and came to New York to see me. I was their first grandchild, but I sensed very young that Lester, a boy, had taken my place, as Bill’s son, Frank, or Red, some years later took my sister’s. The boys (Howard and Bill), often referred to as a team, learned to drive; my mother did not. Because she didn’t want to. Didn’t want to back the car out of a long, narrow, gravelly driveway to prove it. Women’s lib may have been a long way off, but I knew this was unfair, this teasing mean. Lester was said to be more Wiles (his mother’s family name) than Van Dyke. Not a good thing. Just as my sister and I might be too much like our father who spoke French, was bookish, and leery of guns. And Norma’s (Tina’s other daughter) girls with their large brown eyes were the pretty ones. Everyone had a tag, an epithet.
Oklahoma had its delights, of course, beginning with the train trip of two days and two nights. Noise of a steam engine (last of its kind) on a platform in Chicago; undressing in the Pullman car behind green curtains, our bunk beds hooked down by the porter; foul smelling lavatories, Passengers will please refrain from flushing while the train is standing in the station. More luxurious, a bedroom with miniature fold-out sink and toilet, tiny cabinets and drawers for our doll clothes, the gong announcing dinner is served in the dining car forward, perilous crossings between cars, doors hissing, gusts of fresh air from whatever state we were passing through, choices on the menu, the silver-plated pots and deferential service of that bygone world. And when we got there, little New Yorkers could run barefoot in the grass, cool off with a squirt of the hose, catch fire flies in the dark and set them free again, watch backyard Roman candles burst on the Fourth of July, learn the names of all the flowers in Grandma’s garden: larkspur, delphiniums, red and yellow canna and spotted tiger lilies along the side of the house, blue hydrangeas, pink peonies, fuzzy, stiff-legged zinnias, sweet peas, pansies with their human faces, petunias, marigolds. And, of course, there were roses. No tomatoes as good as hers; no corn-on-the-cob, no fried okra dipped in cornmeal, no Toll House (chocolate chip) cookies with pecans ever again as good. The swing my grandfather made for me of sanded wooden plank and rough ropes merged with the swing in Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem and stayed there; I cannot think of one without the other. Was not this Paradise enow?
This Wilderness of Oklahoma where, child pioneers with doll children in a cradle, we swept dust off the front porch and down the steps, stored supplies in our tall green kitchen cabinet. Then we were housekeepers. But when I returned to Oklahoma at seventeen, in 1957, after a seven year absence, I had become a graduate of the Shipley School, headed for college on a scholarship, and a thoroughly useless young woman. Rose and Frank by then were 80 and 83, impatient, their teeth were false. We couldn’t get Frank’s midday dinner on the table fast enough, though Grandma pounded her cane, and we stared bleary-eyed through the kitchen window screen to spot his car coming slowly up the driveway which had defeated our mother years ago. It was one of those ill-conceived family plans. What a help we’d be! It would toughen us up. A chance to know each other. A real American life after Haiti and boarding school and debutante parties in Connecticut, which were not real.
In fact, the unreality of that summer in Norman amazes me still. I performed. I cooked (very badly); I will never make good gravy or another minute steak. I put the dirty clothes down the chute, clean ones through the Maytag wringer, scrubbed out stains on a washboard, blued, starched, sprinkled and ironed, while watching Queen for a Day.Defrosted the refrigerator, great hunks of ice, which reformed overnight, falling to the kitchen floor; pulled shades, carried endless pitchers of water to the cooler in the living room; ate Rotary Club pancakes; learned to play 42 (again, badly); made friends with Melody, my age, member of the McFarlin church youth group. She felt de trop in her mother’s kitchen, she told me. Wanted a kitchen of her own, a husband too. Her life stretched out before her here in Norman. A year or so at OU first, of course, however long it took; or she might marry the boy she was going steady with now, anything to get out of the house. I, too, acquired a boyfriend, Wilbur Jones, who had lost part of a finger in a threshing machine, who asked permission to kiss me goodnight. Every time. I had a dizzy spell reaching up to the ceiling from the dining room table to change a light bulb. If only I could do it all once more with feeling. But I was frozen in the Oklahoma heat like the pieces of chicken I began to fry too soon, unthawed. To think that Marguerite had raised this creature: spoiled, scared, snobbish, scornful, shy, stubborn… I was not rude, nor did they scold, but there it lay, unwrapped, the glaring, unpalatable possibility that I did not love my grandparents, nor did they love me.
This must be why I tore into the diary in the first place. To get to the bottom at last. To discover, explore, resolve, explain my mixed-up feelings about Rose and Frank. About Oklahoma altogether, where I never felt right. I think it was a breakdown, on both sides, of theory of mind. This phrase has lately been popping up everywhere. Have you noticed? On Charlie Rose’s brain series, which Leonard insists on watching, in articles in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books (hereinafter NYT and NYRB). Theory of mind is what makes us human, they say, the ability to imagine what another person is thinking, the way I know in conversation where you’re coming from, as the talk show types put it. No doubt I oversimplify, but is this really a new idea? Isn’t the failure of theory of mind what makes us turn to fiction, to soliloquy and interior monologue, where even unreliable narrators, manipulated by their authors, tend to give themselves away? Why do we watch reruns of Law and Order, Criminal Intent except to see detectives speedily unravel the mystery of human motive, including that of psychopaths? Why do we love Dickens who tells us pretty quickly that Gradgrind isn’t such a bad sort, that Bounderby is the one to watch out for? Because we have in life so little access to the minds of others, all of us inveterate liars, forever saying less or more or the opposite of what we mean. As twice-betrayed Duncan in Macbeth must admit:There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. My attempt to apply theory of mind to the dead starts to look crazy. Nevertheless, I have followed love where I found it: in two pounds of butter, a new set of bedroom furniture, and a quilt.
Live birth, pneumonia, fevers and poxes, the lack of an empty hospital bed for my father carry no weight with Rose, but when she learns through Etta Parr, a childhood friend of my mother’s who has seen Marguerite in New York, that her daughter has come away with only a quarter pound of butter after standing in a ration line for an hour, she flies to put two pounds in the mail. This may be my favorite detail from the diary, so absurd, so practical. Though my mind explodes with unanswered questions as to wrapping, possible preservatives, interaction with the postal clerk who accepted the package, its state upon arrival, and Marguerite’s reaction, none of this detracts from Rose’s desire to help in an emergency.
Marguerite’s story, like several others (of the never-identified Miss Oats, of the finished but apparently unused tablecloth, of Tina and Nadine, waiting for Wilton to come home, of the toddler Lester stuck in nursery school), are fragmentary, come to no necessary end. Bill’s story, however, which runs right through, gives the diary shape and meaning. Rose mothers Bill. She scans a recent photograph to assure herself that he looks well and happy. She writes to him constantly, hunts for his Kappa Sig pin, sends him razor blades, and hires a local seamstress to piece him a quilt. Perhaps at an earlier time she would have pieced this quilt herself, or with her sisters, but now she takes great care in selecting remnants, backing, cotton batting. This quilt is better insurance than King G. Price (source of the physical diary) can provide, something to keep the war at bay, quiet her anxiety about her younger son, now twenty-six, who has been in the Navy for four years, on an ammunition ship near Pearl Harbor and in the foreign Territory of Hawai'i.
Behind the busyness of every day lie the missing and the dead Rose reads about in the Norman Transcript. Her hidden fear remains in play until she learns on October 13, that Bill may be coming home in the middle of December. Goody, she writes, and on she rushes (without preliminaries or any suggestion that she has been taken by surprise) to his 1:00 AM phone call from San Francisco (November 23), to his wedding day (November 30), to Mrs. Mortimer, the bride’s mother, who thoughtfully sends Rose a piece of wedding cake along with two carnations from the bouquet. I hope they will be very happy, Rose writes. On December 19, Bill arrives by train (it was late) with Bebe, who gets to work in the kitchen straight away, and Rose is in her element planning a reception with snap dragons for the centerpieces. Just ahead of all this, Rose and Frank purchased a new bedroom set ($149) for the front room. For the comfort of roomers, I supposed, but now the double bed with lovely quilt on top, chest of drawers, dressing table and bench assume positions in a honeymoon suite for Bill and his bride. And as though all this good fortune were not enough, it’s Christmas, and 1944 ends with the last of the pheasants and high 42 scores, with fruit cake, present wrapping, carol singing, visits, and a trip to Skiatook for a family reunion which brings together Frank and Rose, Bill and Bebe, Howard, Margera, and Lester at the Wiles’ (Margera’s parents). Even Marguerite checks in to say that she always gets homesick at this time of year, that Marian is very excited about Christmas. When the family returns from Skiatook, they go to bed, like children, tired but happy.
What is this but the story of the Prodigal Son? I don’t mean prodigal in the Biblical sense of a son who has wasted his talents in riotous living, squandered his inheritance, his father’s investment. Only that Bill has been absent and in danger, that he is young and until now unattached, unsettled. Marguerite, though not forgotten, exists at considerable remove; Rose has long been used to the idea that she is married with children of her own, that she has left Oklahoma for good. Howard is the son to whom the father in the Bible says: Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again, and was lost, and is found.
The story of the prodigal son in the New Testament is a beautiful story, seductively told in its cancelling out of sibling rivalry and parental favoritism. It is also a parable about relations between God and Man, but fully meaningful as a tale of parents and children without a father in heaven. I have felt the anxiety, though mildly and briefly, Rose feels about her son. It came upon me suddenly, in 1990, at a dinner party where I declared myself an instant pacifist to ardent defenders of Bush and was laughed at. All because David received a Selective Service notice during the Gulf War. I, who had lived through World War II, Korea, and Vietnam finally got it, what war is really: the wholesale slaughter of young men. War or no, our desire to keep ‘em down on the farm remains strong, even when our children’s labor is no longer needed. Go not to Wittenberg, the queen begs. And Hamlet in all his best obeys her. Far better for Hamlet had he gone back to school (never mind that his departure would end the play in the first act). Just yesterday, I read of estranged family members who sneak peeks at each other on Facebook. The last thread, one woman called it. Both my children have left California for excellent reasons, which I commend and call them deserters in the same breath. I must conquer my fear of long distance. I think, too, of Ernst who was never truly welcome in his parents’ home after he married me, who never knew what stuff he was made of. Whose grandparents were not even a memory. No stories clung to them, no habits or patterns of speech. They died naked. Their diaries do not survive.
Is this too subjective? Do I see too much? Very likely. It’s a rate, time, distance problem, isn’t it, family algebra? What is the rate of attrition of affection, of memory? How many different people are we over time, and how much of it must pass before we can bear to contemplate our adolescent selves? Is it absence makes the heart grow fonder, or out of sight, out of mind? Both surely, surely both. Then, who is the chip off the old block and who the black sheep? How long to hang on, when to let go? Who will return to pick over the furniture, minister to the dying, arrange the funeral?
Every generation lives out this story, and my grandmother tells it as well as anyone. She writes about what she knows, as creative writing handbooks instruct, selects telling details. Of her ending, at once satisfying and surprising, Aristotle, first among critics, would approve. Like Virginia Woolf at the close of Mrs. Dalloway, she gathers her “characters” together at not one but two parties. And in the comic spirit of Shakespeare and Jane Austen, she arrests them, in full swing, at a wedding which by no means seals their fates. Is all the fun over for Beatrice and Benedick now that they are married? How will Elizabeth Bennett fare as mistress of Pemberly? Though readers continue to speculate and novelists to write sequels, we can never know. I almost wish that Rose would stop here, that tired but happy, she could put down her pen, transcendent. And in hindsight she might say so too, say like Othello, bursting with joy at his conquest of Desdemona: If it were now to die, / ’Twere now to be most happy. Instead, in the fullness of life at 67, she looks forward to the New Year, to 1945. She scratches out another page, though before long Marguerite, pulling further and further away, will leave New York for Haiti and El Salvador. Howard will take that good job he has been offered in Tulsa, and Bill and Bebe will decline to sleep forever in the front room beneath their lovely quilt. Frank will die before her, and Rose herself, left to the care of grasping strangers, will die on Christmas Day in 1961. We foolish mortals have no choice but to keep the wisdom of Thoreau in our back pockets: Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.