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May 25, 2015
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.
- William Shakespeare
Reading her letter is like being inside a Shakespeare sonnet, though the voice is very much her own, midwestern (goodness knows, stepping out), informal (hurry it up), rough around the edges, Happy Birthday, Mel, scrawled in pencil, an after-thought. No, it isn’t poetry. It’s the fact that I’ve stumbled into an on-going conversation between her and her brother who is my father. She’s responding to an earlier letter from him to her, talking back, just as Shakespeare is in Sonnet 116 which begins: Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. A powerful statement, adamantine, thoroughly elaborated, supported and defended in a series of mixed metaphors, leaving the reader in no doubt as to the speaker’s firm belief in love as an ever fixed mark, unalterable, death and doomsday notwithstanding.
I believe my father’s love for his sister was of such a kind. Their bond was particular and precious, formed as they approached adolescence, when their father fled their hometown, Fessenden, North Dakota, with a younger woman, and their mother remarried, presenting them with an uncongenial stepfather and rival half-brother. And yet you would never know it from his letter, which I piece together based on the many clues scattered through the letter in my hand: I can’t remember sending your letter airmail, his sister writes; being a case of arrested development is not so bad if the progress of your life has also been arrested; at any rate I would rather have your friendship -- and I mean that of both of you -- than have the money and I certainly do not want to be the cause of any strife between you. He has scolded her for unthriftily sending her letter airmail, for what he has called arrested development (going back to school at 29), and it appears he has refused, or at least asked her to justify, a loan, hinting that it might cause friction between him and his wife of a single year. In other words, he has come on like the big brother he has always been, man of the family for a time after his father deserted, the one who shushed her when he thought she sounded countrified, who commanded her to pull off his boots, who immediately declared that of their identical bubble pipes, hers was the dropped and broken one -- still in the driveway, before they could begin to play with their new toys.
All of this would add up to nothing except for the timing, except for the letter in my other hand written a scant two weeks later. The first letter is dated Missoula, Mont , January 29, 1934. My grandmother, writing from Seattle to her son and daughter-in-law in New York, dates her letter, Friday, 15th, and my father has written 1934 in the upper right hand corner. I know my father’s sister was killed in an automobile accident, in winter, on an icy road. February, then. My grandmother tells of a wire, of the shock she received, of those around her at the YWCA, where she has rented a room for $3.00 a night, who tried to help her, of her unlikely sympathy for her daughter’s former husband, a smart boy, but a dreamer she fears, even of some lovely dishes she would like my father and his wife to have, but would they pay for the shipping? A bit of a dreamer herself, I would say.
Since they became mine at the time of my mother’s death, twenty years after my father’s, in 2003, I have sometimes put these letters away for years, taken them out again, put them away in order take them out. These letters I can hardly bear to read yet cannot stop reading. My sister and I were named for the aunt we never met. I, who came first, have her first name, Marian, my sister, her second, Helen, as her middle name. As children we were taught how clever she was, how pretty. When I tried (unsuccessfully) to teach myself to play the recorder, my father said this was “something Marian would do.” I longed for such comparisons which were rare. I didn’t measure up, I felt. Not as enterprising, not as pretty. But there she was, flitting in and out, Marian Shaw, lugging her secrets, her truncated life forever present in my name. It was not enough that she had been killed in winter on an icy road, frivolously, I got the impression, out joy riding with the college kids she ran with, something she’d missed out on by marrying young, by having two daughters, unmentioned in the letters, Dorothy Ann and Joyce. These cousins I learned had an evil step-mother who kept them in a “back” house, her own child warm by the fire. Their father, Bob Sharples, a randy farmer, divorced their mother to marry an underage girl he got pregnant. A dreamer he may have been, but Marian calls him an infant.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf invents a sister for Shakespeare, as gifted, as intelligent, as eager to succeed as he is. Look now where she ends up: beaten by her father, her every attempt at acting laughed at and rejected, made pregnant by a theater manager, she killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some crossroads. How like this made-up woman my father’s sister, nearly a fictional character herself by now, is. Her talents were not, I can tell, of much interest to anyone. It was my father, the “wicked” boy, actor of his fantasies, who smoked Fatimas, played hookey, flunked algebra, caused worry and expense when he took off across the continent to find his father without a winter coat, couple of dollars stuffed in his shoe. His development was followed by a string of avid women, his grandmother, an unrelated someone named Minnie, and at last his wealthy Aunt Grace who brought him to Minneapolis and saw to his enrollment at the University of Minnesota. He was launched, he was on his way, not to Shakespeare’s immortality of course, but to a happy marriage, well-educated daughters, an international career. He’s the one who had the means, who could afford to remove himself, quit school, jumping from state to state and beyond America’s borders, until, in what seemed an irrevocable break with the past, he shed his skin.
And yet they are alike, these two. Large, loopy handwriting. They are truth-tellers, lacking in calculation. As Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, Laertes of Hamlet, they are by nature free and open. When Marian enumerates her expenses (She washes dishes for her breakfast and lunch, pays 25 cents a day for her dinners, $10 a month for her room), I can hear my mother storming in the background: Did you have to tell them how much we had in the bank down to the last penny? Bright and ambitious, they have come down in the world -- their father was a lawyer and a judge.Their parents’ divorce, at a time and in a place where divorce was unheard of, combined with lack of money, impoverished them permanently, both financially and psychologically. Marian only wants to do what her brother did, but as a girl her choices are more limited. Marriage, embarked on for love, for lust, or just to get out of the house, has produced children, but failed. She now describes herself as not moping, hopeful, properly ashamed, tired from working two jobs while keeping up with assignments in English and creative writing: I have thoroughly decided that the teaching of English is really my work. I want to do it and I’m good at it. There will always be English teachers, even if they have to be paid by the state or Federal government when the districts and counties get too poor. Hard as her life is, the opportunity to study at the University of Montana has invigorated her. She finds her classes fascinating: I never knew going to school could be so interesting.
This is a story about gender, arbitrarily assigned, but just as much, it is a story about money. The strain of the Great Depression is clear in both letters. My grandmother, twice married, twice divorced, who works as a live-in housekeeper, takes a room at the Y between jobs. She can manage only, she says, if she works “steady.” Marian has landed a second job with Missoula County Relief, but has yet to receive her first paycheck of $40. By the time she gets it she will owe $35, pretty good finance after all, she allows. I admire her sense of humor. I will break into the story, wire her the money myself! I hate the way the whole affair must put my father in a bad light, the fact that, though I know he felt guilty, he failed to be generous to his sister, his mother, and his nieces. An image of the poor house hung over him. Fear of being fired when he had a job, of going broke when running his own business. He waited until 1963, back in the States on leave from his post as Commercial Attache at the US Embassy in El Salvador, to contact his sister’s daughters. All these years he’d been afraid for them and of them, afraid they’d been mistreated, afraid they would come after him, expect something from him. But in a trailer park in San Jose, he found nothing to be afraid of. Two women in their thirties, both mothers, both divorced, Dorothy Ann, the matronly remarried one, was Kitty now, Joyce, a stenographer and somewhat cynical, had turned into Toni. He might not have sent them to college, but they were not estranged from their father, the bad guy, the villain, Bob Sharples. I have little idea of what passed between these women and my father, what thoughts and feelings were generated on a pleasant afternoon in summer. Kitty and Toni, so young when she was killed, could hardly be expected to resemble, or even to remember Marian.
Skeletons. Shoved behind the shoes, but still alive and recognizable. In Port-au-Prince, one morning getting dressed, walking back and forth according to his habit between the bedroom and his dressing room, into my room sometimes, and on into my sister’s, all linked. There was a constant awareness of each other in our old wooden house held up, we joked, by termites holding hands, easy to push through the slatted french doors. I wrote her off, he said. I thought she was old, but she wasn’t. Thinking of his mother. He had just turned fifty-five. I know now how blighted dates can converge, how cause for celebration slides into mourning. His birthday, January 31, Marian’s death in between it and his wedding anniversary, February 11. Years later in Los Angeles, he stood by as I changed my daughter’s diaper. Don’t love her too much, he said, something bad might happen.
I return to the sonnet with relief. Comparisons spun out, puns, repetitions, not, not, not. The sonnet is sport, an intellectual exercise. The speaker doesn’t agree with his lover, also his opponent in a game. Don’t lay your philosophy on me, he says, for I will never agree that true love is mutable. The imperative mood could also suggest that the sonnet is a prayer: May I never be among those who think so. I used to think the last two lines were throw aways. Come to the end of his allotted fourteen, Shakespeare’s speaker tosses the whole thing off: If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.This two line pedestal seemed to me too weak to support the column of the sonnet. Now, though I still find the couplet less than perfect, I see how this preposterous hyperbole is yet another argument, another proof, which is what he in turn is asking for. Prove it to me if you can, he says, a challenge to keep the game going.
Why, this is fun. Or is it? In the previous Sonnet 115, the speaker describes love as a babe which can only grow. But between then and now, though buried in abstraction, he has sensed some alteration, something he doesn’t want to hear, but has already heard in all that bending and removing. Whether or not eternal love exists, the fair young man no longer loves him. Stacked up against this sonnet, my letters disturb me less. My father has written out of concern, he wants what he called the blow by blow, and Marian trusts him to view the minutiae of her life with affection and patience. In fact, her letter is evidence of the constancy, even if marred by sore wounds and bitter mistakes, Shakespeare’s speaker requires.