I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
… a vast body of curious beliefs, customs, and story narratives are handed down by tradition from generation to generation, the origin of which is unknown. They are not supported or recognized by the prevailing religion, nor by the established law, nor by the recorded history of the several countries. They are essentially the property of the unlearned and least advanced portion of the community.
It was noted that wherever any body of individuals, entirely ignorant of the results of science and philosophy to which the advanced portion of the community have attained, habitually believe what their ancestors have taught them, and habitually practice the customs which previous generations have practiced, a state of mind exists which is capable of generating fresh beliefs in explanation of newly observed phenomena, and is peculiarly open to receive fanciful explanations offered by any particular section of the community. Thus, in addition to the traditional belief or custom, there is the acquired belief or custom arising from a mythic interpretation of known historical or natural events.
—The Folk-Lore Society
London, 1908, the year my mother was two years old. Who is in our family the teller of stories. My father, who dominated all conversation, told neither stories nor jokes, and resisted—cross and irritable, not amused—any attempts of ours or mine to pry out his early childhood memories. I fell in a sewer, I think I was seven, he said. That started my memory.
It’s my mother who produced the memory of his rescue from death by diphtheria, when he was, she said, about four. Some sort of horse serum was a last ditch attempt, and sick as he was, she said, he has never forgotten the entrance of the doctor carrying a hypodermic needle, wow, as big as a baseball bat. So we must never think it funny or cowardly that our grown-up father turns white and sweats at the casual suggestion, merest hint, that he might need an injection of some sort. Nor think—for one minute!—that we could use his fear to excuse ourselves from tetanus-typhoid-rocky mountain spotted tick fever inoculations, every relentless summer, christ, no matter how it hurt going in, and for days after: a screaming goose egg right over the bone in your own best arm, bad enough to wake you up in the middle of the night if you rolled on it in deep sleep.
Dad’s aversion was in a different category, kids, but how did she know this story?
If you imagine him grateful for her protection, take care: he is panicked and sere.
She, not he, told us that his grandfather never travelled anywhere without four steamer trunks. Dressing was as mother’s milk to him. The flap is echoing still among the women about his starch, his brushes, the complex logistics of maintaining his sartorial standards no matter how inconvenient doing so might have been.
But he was a salesman, I learned later, this unknown gent who was the grandfather of my father. Eventually prosperous and promoted to management, and here there is evidence because the gold pocket watch my father, unaccountably, gave my husband says so. Your 45 years of faithful service to the Singer Sewing Machine Company, ultimately and notably as manager of the Richmond South Division, etc. Now, do you think a sewing machine drummer on the road on the trains of the post-Civil War South rode with four personal trunks? How innocent is this story, that it should need to be repeated?
Family, Family. I know this isn’t exclusive stuff. In fact, it’s a good thing you can’t get a word in on this page or I might have to shut up and wait for you to tell your tales. That would be impossible—I’d have to wait, quietly—and your stories might be interesting! As it is, though, you can think what you want but as soon as you start reading again, well!
For instance: One day, when my husband was a little boy, he opened the door to the bath to discover his father standing up in the tub.
But why don’t you sit down in the water, he piped, and his father shouted shut, shut, shut up and shut the door. It was his mother who described the brutality of who? coach? camp director? YMCA instructor? But wait, this boy was in London in 1908, in a Jewish neighborhood—forget the YMCA—in the narrow streets of East End. This is barely past the time of the ragged schools, the same poor, cramped, damp, scramble-on-your-own East End that met young Charlie Chaplin, so where did this scene take place: a swimming lesson in which—one by one—thin boys in baggy cotton trunks are pitched headlong into deep water.
Mark sank to the bottom, eyes open, waiting to be folded into the deep blue apron of his unloving mother: water swamped his gag reflex; he pissed, faded, and had to be rescued, a model of the failure of the method, a revenge on his tormentor.
Would you be proud of such a moment? Cold in your thin trunks, facing the rotten British empire?
A singularly listless, gullible, and vindictive man I know has one redeeming feature in my eyes—typically it isn’t really his—: he’s the brother of the only student ever to run away from A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, and make it stick. When found and forgiven he refused to return. O Freiheit, in your beauty!
Walking into Mark’s living room to fetch my children I heard the finale of a talk about their grandfather’s great interest in swimming. His story featured competitions, medals, honor to the community. Lost he said, of the medals, like everything! to the clamoring grandpa let us see, please, please, please.
I liked the other story better; because it was also my husband’s, mixed with the electric memory of his father’s naked penis, the first adult organ he had seen.
We were the first generation to cast aside these lies about the Jews, my father-in-law said. Modern, he said. We broke from the hillbillies, with their stultifying superstition. We showed the bigots we meant business.
It was his story. But it is not innocent. I think of a pit, or a dike he patched regularly.
I’m from a place where hillbillies singing in their clapboard church Wednesday evenings made a raw clanging tattoo on my nerves, speaking of the truth of feelings, from which I was forbidden. Their dense clusters of notes not tidily separated by thirds—their clapping and stomping—their fervor. I was not permitted excess. We were nice people. My longing included fear. From what dangers was I being shielded? Only when I was older was I able to suspect the social use of these divisions.
But, once upon a time, dear reader, I was the hero.
These days, I’m told I never tell a story accurately. Family and friends complain. But I’ve come to bless my traditions: Embellishment. Treachery. Attributes of Saint Scheherazade. Am I saved yet, sister? Is it morning?
Those Chinese pictures I’m so proud of: I have to confess I described them wrong—muddling and combining details—forgetting several of them completely, although I claim to be obsessed with them, as the first works of art I ever came to know.
Ours was a modest home, fervently immodest in its elevation of genteel impoverishment as the highest proof of developed intellect and inner values. My life was in danger. We had antiques of various kinds, exceedingly thin silver spoons, battered silver teapots that wanted mending at their spouts, platters, and copper luster pitchers, and a number of Chinese paintings on silk, fine, fine, “museum-quality art” was my mother’s favorite descriptive term. These possessions unified all our houses. Houses plural because we moved so often. It was serial monogamy, not redundancy. I’m an inch from telling you about war—World War II, this time—and its dislocations to quantify or explain our moves from apartment to apartment and from suburb to suburb. But that’s a myth the father-in-me likes to promote. (Oh how he craves to be linked to the great processes of history.) In fact, my father did badly in the politics of literary publishing in New York, and saw conspiracies, Jewish conspiracies, behind his poor grasp of human character and his deep personal fear of money.
These lovely things, the paintings and soup tureens, my mother loved to explain to us, were ours through luck and tragedy. Her stories. Her parents, her family: a not so subtle stab at our dad’s ineptitude. Her parents amused themselves by buying copper luster, fine china, good silver in second-hand stores and at estate sales. She presented the graceful story of the Chinese paintings: an awful auction in 1917, when a distinguished professor of Asian Art at Columbia University had been forced to leave the country in the maelstrom of anti-German hysteria that accompanied the entrance of the US into the Great War. Wow, the greedy luck of it!
Last summer I looked inside a small window-fronted secretary in my mother’s bedroom—rummaging while gossiping with her—she was in bed recovering from a bout of fibrillation, lousy valves in her 83-year-old heart—and I found a photograph scotch-taped to the inside side wall. She said O Gerhardt. (Did she say Gerhardt?)
It was one of those boyish smooth-skinned Nordic faces that barely merit a razor. Late thirties, perhaps early forties. Blooming round cheeks. Soft hair, thinning on top, brushed back from his brow. Intelligence and ingenuousness in the pale eyes behind studious metal spectacles.
—Those are his pictures, she said, the Chinese pictures. What. Who?
She’s adroit, I’ll say that, fibrillating heart and all, she changed the subject faster than I could pounce. I meant to go back for the picture, but the next time I looked, it wasn’t there. Is my curiosity dangerous? I was relieved to find a fragment of dried scotch tape inside the door. Something to assure me I wasn’t in that old Bull Drummond story about the Paris Exposition and the hotel room that wasn’t. But the story? A dike? A pit?
Is my life saved yet?
When the Yankees took Columbia, South Carolina, who got pregnant?
Who wore the papier-mâché masks of the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Woodsman? They’re too big for children. But surely not these grey and angry adults?
Who lost face in a marriage that turned out to have false premises? The patent, it turned out, had never been filed. The paint turned imperfect and separated.
Who sold off the stocks and who refused to buy a partnership? The brandy had been removed and dirty kerosene put in its place.
Children, don’t mention this in front of Uncle Philip.
The newspaper morgue, my sister discovered, was incomplete.
The only surviving uncles makes it a policy ‘not to discuss the past.’
By constant wringing can the future be remade?
I haven’t forgotten the matter of my grandfather’s silver spoons. I know there are a lot of grandfathers here—mine, his, my old husband’s, my children’s. But it’s only as complicated as what you’re used to.
Once upon a time my maternal grandfather, the one who collected second-hand treasures, was a young lawyer in New York, friendless because his family and university connections were all in the South—in those days thought of contemptuously as remote, and dangerously backward, and thankfully defeated—ambitious because his family had been ruined by the Civil War and he was their collective hope of recuperation. For which he had come North, where the money was.
Yankees ran the world then, proud of their sharp business instincts and their stern Round Head ancestors, still flaunting the burn of a much earlier civil war. Practical to the core, they were willing to use the brains and energy of this Southerner, this outsider, but they were not eager to accept him socially, which might give him access to their marriageable daughters. So the story goes. So it was years before an invitation home was forthcoming, from any of my future grandfather’s employers. Seated at last in a fine family dining room in New York City (and relishing everything the invitation conveyed), he found himself served dessert with his grandmother’s silver spoons. His story: the family crest was unmistakable. His story: raised on the lingering, grief of his grandmother and great aunts over the looting of the family house when the Yankees took Columbia. His story: I now have one on them that they’ll never know. Thieves! Arrivistes!
My story: my grandfather, swallowing dessert (I imagine fruit compote with tapioca), suborned and co-opted, lying then and later, suffering the rage of the raped. It’s a good story. Magical as a crock of gold, practical as the handle of a spoon engraved with an uprooted oak tree, or a centaur, or unmistakable initials in an 18th-century curlicue.
My husband’s story: It’s a piece of smart-lawyer romance. Anything to get one-up. Stuff of dime novels, honey. Cavalier horse manure.
It’s a Family Matter. The Family Romance. Family Therapy. Family Dynamics. The Family Constellation Theory. Family skeleton, style, tree, fare, meeting, name, circle. Listen to Scherazahde. She knows when a person needs another cliff hanger.
Once upon a time, a boy was told his dead grandfather was an ignorant and spiteful tyrant.
Little pigs wriggled in the straw, their round backs the exact color of fresh pork sausage.
The rug sparkled in the dark bedroom. It was snow blown in from the cracked window.
Once upon a time, a girl was told that family tragedy was caused because a woman had hysterics about her daughter’s pregnancy on the front porch.
The denim fly felt thick as cardboard; the fat brass zipper unbearably resistant; her fingers slipping from the metal tab and then—in a blast of salty crotch perfume—his beautiful red dick.
Once upon a time, well inside the Pale, a young woman—barely! she was 13—explained to her rabbi that she had been married much too soon. That she could not serve her husband, who was three times her age, because she had fallen in love with another, much younger man, an unworldly student who loved the getting of knowledge and who needed a willing woman to care for him. She was small-boned, fair-haired, and determined to make her story stick: Reason is sweet. Only a rational divorce would absolve this misery—her husband’s, her beloved’s, and her own. A tiny woman, avid for affection, sexual gratification, and domestic power.
Her story, polished like a silver candlestick, is a family heirloom. So familiar as to invite skepticism. The real candlesticks, beautifully fluted columns set on heavy pedestals, were given away by another mother, deliberately, to spite her son. A tiny great grandmother sparkling in the night sky.
Once upon a time in the city of Philadelphia, a young woman—barely 30!—explained to herself that she could not serve her husband, who was more than twice her age, because she had fallen in love with another, younger man, a brilliant worldly aesthete, who needed a woman willing and able to be his equal. The family story has it that convention is stern; divorce unesthetic; and that at bottom she was a fault, as much for her outspokenness as for her sexual indiscretion. Thus naturally, inevitably, she was found making a fool of herself in the most public way possible, ordering the carriage to drive up and down the street fronting his house. She would do it all night. She would do it until the horse dropped dead. She would refuse to let the moment pass and accept the message that the love affair was ended. She would twist in her fury like the trapped animals who gnaw away their own legs: and poison her children against their father because the life she wanted was beyond her reach. A tiny great-grandmother, avid for scholarship, potency, sexual freedom, and recognition.
Let’s begin again. It’s yet another evening, and we’ve finished supper. Let the dishes sit. Reheat the coffee. Remember when. Wonder why. Did you know. How easily we believe. Once upon a time:
Peculiarly open to receive fanciful explanations, a state of mind generating fresh beliefs, entirely ignorant of the results of science and philosophy, not supported or recognized by prevailing or established or recorded: essentially the property of the unlearned, to which the advanced portion of the community have attained, habitually.
A horror of needles.
An obsession with fashion.
A fear of deep water.
An honor to the community.
A love of modern life.
A longing for intensity.
A story to justify love of possessions.
A story that punctures a family myth.
A story to glorify family ambition.
Two stories that consolidate family pride.
A story to explain family collapse.
There is nothing abstract in this language. My octogenarian mother was two years old.
Martha King lives in Brooklyn; she is the author of Weather (New Rivers Press, 1978).
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee