St. Valentine Probably Never Existed

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

If it looks like chocolate, smells like chocolate and tastes like chocolate, does that mean it’s chocolate?

Odds are close to even.  A few years ago the European Commission sent shock waves through the entire Western hemisphere by declaring that “chocolate flavor,” Cadbury’s happy circumlocution advertised on the wrapper, did not qualify.  A big kafuffle, Cadbury’s was ousted from the empyrean, and lovers of Swiss chocolate (which I have been since time unremembered, in utero) bared their teeth in grins both lewd and lurid, knowing what we knew, seeing the Anglos brought to their knees once again over a matter of truth and honesty (think: Imperialism, Colonialism, Margaret Thatcher) until everything sort of simmered down, just as things inevitably do no matter how outrageous they appear at the onset (think: – on the other hand, don’t) and a new era in chocolate eating was launched, palm trees and plain wrapping, chocolate for the discriminating, for the connoisseur, chocolate so bitter a sweet child’s mouth could never tolerate it, or so simply odd (eucalyptus? passion fruit? machine oil?) that eating chocolate began to qualify as the next hideous cult foodstuff reserved for the wealthy and educated (those whose instincts were always to reach for the higher priced item, and who could remember that chocolate grew in Madagascar along with lemurs), $10 a bar – hell, why not $100? and what was left for chocolate lovers of the middle class or what used to be called us was the heavily emulsified Hershey or Nestlé bars, loaded with sugar and something called “chocolate flavoring.”

And here we are in our current chocolate realm, not knowing a bit more about this comestible than we did, but becoming slightly afraid of it (is this a health food or a delicious treat? And if the latter, why does it hurt my tongue and send up little puffs of dust from my desiccated mouth?)

 

Chocolate was once a drink, brought over by the Spaniards from the New World (Mexico) to the whole continent of Europe in the form of a hot liquid  served like coffee in special chocolate houses.  For men only.  The drink was considered too strong for ladies, and nobody who could be called a lady would ever be admitted to the chocolate houses.  In London, such places were off-color and frequented by gentlemen whose coachmen were beyond discretion.  Like speakeasies centuries later in the U.S. or other places of offending imbibement, they became clubs to which only members were admitted.

In Vienna, chocolate was the delicious poison until the Ottomans came in 1683, invading the Austrian capital with their own sweet Turkish coffee accompanied by a crescent shaped pastry, the kipferl in Vienna or a few years later in Paris the archetypal croissant, where it was perhaps poured then as it is now in the shadow of Notre Dame, from a copper coffeepot held so high above the cup that it becomes a spectacle and mini drama in itself.

But we are not talking about coffee here. Neither are we talking about chocolate, which was just a come-on. What we are talking about is love. What proportion of cocoa is necessary for chocolate to be chocolate? What percentage of love do you need to call it love? And what are the ingredients?

Sugar of course, that’s number one in either case. The happy feeling, all’s right with the world, he is beautiful, I am beautiful, babies are the most adorable things ever created (if you leave out kittens) and I can’t even get to sleep because everything is so exciting.  Love is the sugar high, the tingly feeling, creaminess, the knowledge that you own the world and have finally found what you had always been looking for but didn’t recognize until now.  The perfect she, the perfect he.  It has something to do with spring, pale green shoots and an olfactory je-ne-sais-quoi in the air that lands in the you-know-where and makes you restless, nostalgic, hopeful, stupid, full of nonsense and poetry, champagne and emeralds.  But we are still not able to swear to a courtroom of peers that this range or rage of sensations is necessarily connected with a certain person.  Love, like spring, can be bustin’ out all over, and you, like a slug, like a fish, like a beautiful Avocet, a Black Swallowtail  or bouncing bunny, move towards it blindly, led by hormones, temperature, touch.  To me in those moments it seemed that I was a barnacle, torn from my moorings, just looking for a place to attach myself to. Barnacle lust, I called it.  Lust has its own domain, and it is vast, vaster than love.  Lust is the sugar, love the cocoa bean.

Ah, but what of the bolt from the blue? “Some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger. . . ” or “You’re the lover I’ve been waiting for/The mate that fate had me created for. . .”  Romeo and Juliet, how often I tumbled (she was 14, I am a whole sheaf of 14-year olds), ending either in a sudden and happily precipitous loss of weight after powerful exercise, or in a long affair, a lifetime marriage.  The coup de foudre of the French, who also formulated, le coeur a ses raisons, “the heart has its reasons,” an oxymoron at first glance and worse at the second, whether we’re talking anatomy, biology, logic or sense.

In fact, love inspires more false truisms than any other subject I can think of, including patriotism, mothers and money. Because love is about everything and nothing: it’s what keeps us, as a species, parents, friends, lovers together.  It evolved through a strictly Darwinian imperative: to protect and preserve the genes of animals who were at great risk of losing theirs.  A salmon mother, for instance, has little use for love.  She will return, when the time is ripe, back upstream to the river where she was born, and there lay her eggs.  Which will then be fertilized though she will be dead.  However, with millions of eggs per mother, her chances of having her genes survive are extremely high.  When you get to humans, however, you need more than just the releasing of eggs or sperm.  It turns out you need care, years of it, for our inefficient offspring to survive on their own.

Here is love at its naked beginning. Love, or what would at a later point in evolution develop into love, begins as dependency. The baby cannot survive without its mother (or in some cases, father, as when male birds or fish are the ones who feed their young). And the mother is dependent too, especially mammals, who become uncomfortable if they can’t nurse, and whose hormones are now delivering urgent instructions to feed their infants from their own bodies. Now we have a unit of two, mother and child, the madonnas of every age and culture.  If they are humans, they gaze at each other during nursing, the infant first discovering vision through its mother’s face, the outline of her jaw, the interruptions of space that a face represents.  And she, peering at the baby for many hours in the course of the day, learns to interpret every movement or gesture.  Communication begins and will lead to language, and eventually to words of love, the Song of Songs and the words spoken by Lorenzo to Jessica on a soft night in Venice:

In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea banks and waft her love
To come again to Carthage.

When our needs come together, it’s love. From dependency to trust through the missing links of our childhood, we will find our friends, companions, become obsessed with lovers both good for us and, especially at the beginning, bad for us; we will discover god because we missed having a father or reject a god for the same reason (gods are never logical and never fair, they just exist to be believed in when the rest of the stagecraft is in danger of falling apart.)

Whether other animals feel love, and to what degree, we can’t know, though dogs who live with humans certainly appear to. A dog needs a master, and here again we have a duo: mother-and-child, man-and-dog.  Other domestic animals might show some of this same attachment, though with a cat it’s often hard to make out.  Though I loved a cat who I know loved me.

When I first brought Corduroy, a ginger cat, home from the lab at Rutgers where I found him, a tiny walking perfection who looked way up at me with his 5 weeks’ face and said, simply “miao,” which I immediately understood to mean, “take me with you,” he slept in my bed, and I was woken by the sound of kissing. At first I couldn’t place the sensation, then realized it was Cord, curled on my pillow, nursing from my earlobes.  From that time on he could never decide whether I was his mother or his girlfriend (a confusion he had in common with males of other species), and in our short but always passionate relationship, he brought me gifts of every kind, beheaded squirrels under my chair at the dinner table, birds in the process of dying, once a still-living snake on my pillow.  Always, he looked embarrassed for me when I began berating him, ashamed of my discourtesy and lack of manners.

But certainly I loved him and I have a perhaps misguided assurance that he loved me too. Now, growing older and older, I find that all love melds and blends: my father is my husband is my son, the living and the dead can be equally present, I am being held in the great sea of whatever this emotion is, call it by any scientific or poetic name.  And I am not talking about love of humanity or all living things or the planet earth.  I mean palpable love, from wherever it comes and however it flows, that holds me and will, I hope, continue to hold me as long as I have life.

The Shadow of Amboise

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

I have been here before. Not in this room of velvet drapes and embroidered furniture, and not with him.  But there is memory floating around here, painful and nearly unreachable.  I don’t remember the castle itself, this famous Chateau of the Loire, all of them beautiful, breath-taking, and this one, I think, more than most.  I will not remember the castle after this time either.  There are more important things to keep in mind, not the monuments – though strangely, bits and pieces of the architecture will take up niches in my memory or imagination, disconnected takes, unlabelled, so that when I see the old winding stairs of a great mansion or palace in a film, I recognize it, never having been there, that curve of the stone stairway, holding on to the wall, watching my step as I go down.

*

I have been here a long time ago, when I was still wobbly, my character not yet stamped, at an age when everyone wants to be like everyone else and because no one is anyone yet (to themselves) it becomes very hard to do. Though I was still safe.  The three of us, Dolly, Tino and I, formed a single unit in many ways.  My parents were inventing the world again after it had been taken from them by the events that followed Hitler’s invasion and assimilation of their countries (Austria and Czechoslovakia) and at times we were like traveling actors, upon whatever stage we found ourselves.  I was the American among us, though Tino had gone to school in New York long enough to know the songs of his era and to be able, after his homeland disappeared, to start a business (import-export) in America and make it profitable. We became wealthier as I grew older, and since we were a small group, a trinity, and Tino was owner and founder of his company, Omni Products, Inc., we traveled first class, with the almighty dollar at that point, so soon after the war, being an Open Sesame to wonders and luxuries formerly reserved for royalty.

*

And here we are again.  A different “we,” just M. and I, grown, married, parents. We love France, Michael partly for its closeness to the ancient world, where he left his heart a long time ago.  A classical scholar (later scientist), he found in the pomp of Paris the resonance of Rome, and thereby of Greece.  Here, to him, lies the foundation of civilization, the cultivated life of beauty and wisdom.  I am far more of a hedonist, I come for the wine.  And for the language, which I love (just speaking it gives pleasure to the mouth, I feel), and the style and aesthetics of everyday life: the way food is presented, the care taken to insure that your cheese is exactly ripe now, not for dinner tonight, but for this moment, when you need it to take down to the river along with the fresh baguette and Côtes de Rhône for your picnic.

We have just had lunch.  A long one, I think, and we are drowsy with the food and the bottle of Loire we drank.  Drowsy and sexy, with nothing to do until dinner except what we dream up in this room with velvet drapes. The sun is still bright outside, we are in late spring when the sun hangs around well past American dinner times to shed an unexpected glint of gold here, a shadow of light behind a pale apéritif or, in the countryside near water, to scatter sequins of orange, green, yellow and violet across the dimming sea or lake.

We are in the country, beside a river, near the castle. I have been unhappy here, but now I am not.  We are taking our clothes off.  It’s warm here, not too warm,  just the right temperature to sprawl on the bed naked, to move slowly, the wine still gently spiraling through our brains, we have all the time in the world, we are figures from the Renaissance, we are Rubens and his wife, we are sleepy and surrounded by familiar lust, low key at the moment, simply a part of the afternoon.

*

When we were here before, the three of us, I was on the cusp of adolescence, 13 maybe, still undeveloped, wrapped in baby fat, clever but frightened of many things, learning about art with great excitement, afraid of boys, still clinging to a world of partly make-believe, trying on personalities and not able to decide on any or knowing that in time I would be forced to. We were here, in Amboise, in the most beautiful room I had even seen.  It was the early 1950’s, the room seemed an extension of the Chateau, long before the luxury chain of Chateaux hotels would be established.  Perhaps it was a hotel attached to the castle, an annex, and perhaps not.  I can’t remember anything about Amboise except stepping into that room with its damask walls, thick embroidered upholstery (bright flowers on a white background, I think), white armchairs, a regal headboard where the king and queen could rest their heads as they talked of state or other state, where Marie Antoinette could nibble her brioche at breakfast time, a grand palatial room – no, a suite, which must have been the only room left available, or perhaps the glint of the great green dollar opened doors that formerly ushered in monarchs.

In any case, I lay on the bed and was transported. Metamorphosed, perhaps, into the princess, child of the great ones, heir to the pomp and beauty, the gold in the headboard, woven into the fabrics, the soft sheets, the proliferation of pillows creating a nimbus of goose down for the royal heads.

But it was not to be. This room was theirs, mine up in the attic, a garret in my mind of rats and mice and other vermin.  I pleaded, begged, wept a thousand tears, and my father almost relented – they could put a cot in, perhaps, surely the hotel could find a place for me to sleep.  But my mother, whose sense of taste was exquisite, knew that such an intrusion would destroy the symmetry of the place, the perfect stage set in which she and Tino were, for this night only, La Reine et le Roi de France.

And so, sobbing, I went up to the attic, Cinderella cast off by step parents, the light of god and beauty no longer shining on me. And of course I survived.  But wiser and stronger?  I doubt it. Somewhere, I still cry for that lost night.

*

And here I am again, with Michael.  From where I lie I can see the street below, I see the bar on the far side of the small street, where some men are forcing another out.  That man is very drunk, and keeps falling down.  They kick at him, they leave him.  I get up and go to the window, framed by velvet curtains.  Michael, from the bed, tells me to draw them closed.  But I watch for a while.  The men come out again and again and kick the man who by now is not moving.  They are vicious, kicking his head, and the man on the ground doesn’t move, doesn’t resist, seems to have run out of life.

And then I close the curtains. I say nothing to M. about what I saw, and lie on the bed beside him. We make sleepy love and fall asleep afterwards.  When we wake I go to the window and open the curtain.  He is gone.  The man is gone, and I will never know if what I saw was a killing, or if the man is dead.

A drunkard is a dead man/And all dead men are drunk. Yeats again, chanting through my thoughts for most of my lifetime.  In another now, I am in New York,  dying, and it is such as easy thing to do.  But making love to a death is something unusual, I know – though I have no feelings about it.  An afternoon in Amboise, that was all.  Next day we went on to another Chateau, to Blois I think, more good cheese and wine and playing at love.

 

The Source

BY KATHY PERUTZ

We were determined to get there – partly because it was a camp thing to do, of course, though for me at any rate, there was real curiosity to see what was going on in this famous or fabled place, combining my long-lost romance with Roman Catholicism (and a golden-haired priest!) and my eagerness to see how it would compare with Graceland. The sublimely ridiculous – I was ready for either, or both.   And then, too,  there was the landscape: the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees, gentle green slopes, bleating lambs and a blue sky, a child’s painting of bucolic paradise. We planned to visit Carcassonne en route, another incitement, driving from Perpignan to Pau.  I knew from a past trip with M, that this part of France was delightful, the wines robust and reliably delicious and the number of tourists limited to a tolerable amount.

So we planned the trip, she in California, I in New York. She would be coming to Perpignan after a tour she was taking (I don’t remember the details, though it was of the culture-vulture variety) and I, after our jaunt, would be joining M in Barcelona after a conference for explorations of our own.

I flew in to Barcelona airport at night and to my amazement found the Hertz counter manned by not a single person who spoke or understood English. The reliably international car rental service had no one on hand who even spoke Spanish. It was after hours and only Catalan was spoken, a bold stand for independence amidst a flurry of tourists from all over the globe, many of whom had no idea of the movement and presumed either that this was authentic Spanish or (for those with a little savvy, that we were the butt of a private and disconcerting joke, a scene from a Bergman film as I wrestled with “car,” “coche,” “automóvil” (in all pronunciations), “voiture” (because we were near the French border), but all in vain. The people at Hertz had absolutely no idea what I could be asking for.  So, waving the confirmation papers at them, I walked out to the parking area and actually found a car with my name on it, even with a key in it, placed my bag inside and took off with a roar in the direction of France and its comforts, not to mention comprehensibility, arriving in the town of Céret very late indeed at a beautiful hotel on top of a mountain with a lush garden and swimming pool, a view (next morning) of the Pyrenees, where I wished I could stay for the next week.  But it was not so ordained; they were closing for the season the following day, and I was due to meet Robbie in Perpignan.

She appeared on the appointed square looking like a large lampshade, black fabric with fringes, one of the costumes of American women abroad who are suddenly self-conscious about their girth and intend to conceal it by wearing garments more suitable for furniture than the female form, in dark colors, usually black: drapery, bedspreads, even rugs, and bewildering the French who are not sure if these people are members of a sect or simply bizarre. But she’d been my best friend in First Grade and we’d continued our friendship in some way through matrimony and now that she was widow there was no way I could disown her.

We grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens and went to P.S.99, our local elementary school with separate entrances marked Girls and Boys on opposite sides of the main entrance, facing onto Kew Gardens Road and the church at the top of Lefferts Boulevard. Behind the school was our concrete play area, a miniature of such assigned enclosures as I had seen in the playing fields of Attica, Dannemora, Auburn and other upstate maximum detention prisons I visited after the Attica uprising.  We had  a witch of an acting principal for the entire time we were there, and our school had the distinction of having been chosen as the worst in the borough or perhaps in all of New York City by Superintendent Jensen or Jansen  for reasons of something that may have had to do with us not getting a real principal, and yet it was a good school all in all because so many of the students were Jewish and therefore motivated by parents, particularly those like mine who had fled Europe in the wake of Hitler, and arrived here with culture intact. I’m not sure how they found this enclave in Queens with a bridge over the railroad that surely reminded them of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence or the Charles bridge in Prague, and with its huddle of small shops along Lefferts Boulevard: the Austrian  pastry shop (Mimi’s, with my “fave” – their word for the pastry I ate every day, a slice of chocolate cake with buttercream layers and a buttercream rosette on top, a maraschino cherry at its center that I threw out every day); the German butcher (Herr Bauer, with Mrs. Bauer permanently encaged as cashier, her pale blue protruding eyes staring out with suspicion, though I never came away from there without my slice of baloney); an Italian fish monger and so forth.

Robbie’s father Bill was a cockney from London’s East End, small and energetic as an elf. He designed lighting, his masterpiece being the chandelier in the Hotel Fontainebleau in Miami. Her mother, the nobly named Augusta, was an actress or longed to be one.  They were politically liberal, possibly Wallace over Roosevelt, and Augusta loved Ashley Montagu, the anthropologist, with whom she agreed that humans were basically altruistic.

My Central European parents were secular and Germanic, though both had spoken four languages by the time they were seven. My mother’s mother was murdered in Aushwitz, as were other family members, and religion of any kind was never mentioned in our house.  It was a topic that caused my father embarrassment, and which my mother considered to have been amply covered by Carl Jung and perhaps African art.

In other words, Robbie and I, two agnostic Jewish girls from Queens, now fully grown and overgrown, were a most unlikely pair to be journeying to the Mecca for Christian healing (if this is not too mangled an allusion).

Lourdes.

I loved it at first sight. The lame, the halt, the blind.  Cripples in Caddies brought across the sea with them by their owners, cripples hobbling along the roadside, men in ten gallon hats or small bérets, nuns everywhere and a sense of festivity, a party going on in every building in the town.  All here to be saved, at every income level.  The lumbering cowboys from Texas with their chauffeurs, the dignified matrons from the Midwest (I recognized many compatriots here) the pale, young faces in wheelchairs, the dying mothers, French charwomen, Italian bakers, Bavarian businessmen.  It was a town bursting with life, in a beautiful setting, the air fresh, people smiling, and I realized in a flash that all of them shared one beautiful thing: faith.  They‘d come here from no matter how far, no matter how hopeless their illness, to be cured by the waters of Lourdes and by the miracles of Saint Bernadette, the young girl to whom the Beautiful Lady came, showing her the spring where curative waters sprang from the ground.  Bernadette was 14, in 1858, the first time she saw the Lady, though she was to receive many more visitations.  A schoolgirl, awkward and simple-minded, unable to read or follow lessons, Bernadette stuck by her story with a strength of character that made the church believe her.  She entered a cloister, and was to die young, at 35, but lived long enough to see a whole industry grown up in her town, the quackery of selling bottled water from Lourdes (the mayor’s brainchild), even though it had been sent for chemical analysis which showed the waters of Lourdes to be no different from any other spring water.)

 

People came. From neighboring villages first, then from Paris and other parts of Europe, then the world.  Hospitals and guest houses were built, clinics and restaurants.  And it was here in Lourdes that the writer Franz Werfel, born in Prague, came seeking asylum in the early part of World War II with his wife Alma Mahler after they had fled to France when the Nazis burned his books in the late 1930’s and then annexed Austria in the Anschluss of 1938.  At first living in a small village near Marseille, Werfel and Alma Mahler were forced to flee again when the Germans occupied France, and it was then that they came to Lourdes.  Perhaps coincidentally, Werfel, a Jew, was educated like many others of his class in a Catholic school, with a rabbi in attendance to teach Jewish children to prepare for their Bar Mitzvahs.  He also was brought up by a Catholic governess.

The townspeople and particularly the clergy of Lourdes hid them and cared for them until the Werfels decided to make a try for America. He vowed to repay his protectors, at least in part, by writing the story of the miracle at Lourdes.  It became The Song of Bernadette, one of the most popular books of the 20th century, and remains one of the most readable of any book.  Fast-paced, full of action, characters, showing the simple faith and the cynical business projects all come together in a novel written largely in the present tense.  It was made into a famous movie starring Jennifer Jones, and the business, and belief of Lourdes have not faltered since that time.

Taking Pascal’s wager as my guide, I went down to where the springs were – represented by a great crowd of faucets. Plastic bottles and buckets stood at the ready for minimum fees, and you could take home enough holy water to extinguish a small fire.  But we were travelers en route, so instead of the buckets, I simply anointed myself from head to toe, washing in the waters, face and hands, arms, legs, any bit of exposed skin were all washed in the blood of the lamb, in the tears of the Virgin, in the faucets of Lourdes.  Bypassing the souvenir shops, we made our way to a small café for coffee and brioche, watching the seekers walk past, their faces bright with pleasure – in the clear day, a recent dousing in holy water or simply the sense of having gotten free of it all, the daily concerns, the making of plans, the farewells to friends and children – looking like people on vacation, relaxed and carefree, wondering perhaps what they’ll have for dinner or what clothes and jewelry they’ll wear this evening.  Happy faces, too, framed in car windows, people returning to hotels somewhere in the vicinity, freshly doused with the curative waters, ready for a drink. A few ride by tooting their horns like soccer fans in sheer exuberance.

And after not knowing what to think, torn between a remembered ghostly passion of many years earlier and the more recent shrieking joys of Graceland, I decided all this was a good thing. The gilded cowboy from Dallas had little other choice. Dying at home or in a hospital wasn’t half the fun of crossing an ocean, being surrounded by French nuns – some young and pretty – who not only were nursing him to possible health in a program of medicine, fresh air and prayer, but also bringing him excellent meals, opening the morning shutters to the benevolent rays of le soleil, and closing them only after a delicious glass of Jurançon doux or a similar après-dîner wine had been consumed. How better to die than full of hope and in the hands of kindly Providence?

At the time, I was in good health and Robbie too, with her determined exercise and dance program, never mind the ghastly lampshade. Now she has dementia and I am dying of cancer after 24 years, at home in hospice, with well-meaning people around me, even with loving people, but without the hope that blooms in Lourdes, where a young girl was taken up into grace one hundred sixty years ago, and where now people convene from all corners of the word to believe in their own powers, assisted by the ineffable, to cure disease and to continue to celebrate life to the last crumb of the brioche, the last sip of the wine.  In New York City, in Trump time, taking morphine, there is something a bit flat about dying, something almost dispiriting.

* * *

 

Note to my readers: this blog will not continue indefinitely for obvious reasons. But to my great joy, a slightly revised and reconsidered version of it is about to be published as a collection called Time for One More: Essays at Midnight.   It will be available on Amazon as an e-book or, with Print on Demand as what I call a “real book.”

In addition to the Essays, six more of my novels will be republished, novels written before the internet, which have now been digitized and will also be available as e-book or Print on Demand. All this has been made possible by my own Beautiful Lady, my friend and agent, Sharon Bowers, who has given new birth, new life and a sprinkling of the miraculous to my books, my essays and me.

He Lies Like An Eye Witness

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

I fell for this line the first time I heard it (supposedly an old Russian saying,) and adopted it with a few others that I keep on hand to ward off false thinking and unhealthy beliefs. It’s a comment on reportage which is the job of a journalist or a novelist, both of which I’ve worked at in my lifetime, probably perpetrating many lies, though not intentionally and perhaps not even harmfully.  Since all writing based on memory is subjective, and all stories about one’s past have been altered by the future of that past, all we writers can do is tell a story and hope it is recognizable enough to create an echo in the reader’s mind.

In this age of sumptuous lying, false facts, moveable truths, lack of conviction and inability to get a narrative straight, my old Russian saying is a quaint relic from days when the greatest lyric poet in English was able to come out with lines like: ‘Beauty is truth, truth Beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Even I feel Keats went a bit potty there (the madness of the Greek dancers?), though we were raised in a world where the existence of god was certainly debatable but the fact of truth was unquestioned.   The New York Times was our Newspaper of Record, Science reigned, and police lineups relied on eye witnesses to point out the perp.

Our new dominion of boutique thinking, each person entitled to a private version of just about everything, from the origin of the earth to its imminent demise, has nothing whatever to do with the mutability of memory or the private truths of each individual that form a pattern that characterizes a particular life.

But back to the Eye Witness: someone who was present at the event, who can testify; who saw the rolled-away stone and met Christ walking in the garden. The person or persons who were watching what happened, like the silent observers behind their 1960’s draperies in Kew Gardens, Queens, as Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death repeatedly (35 times, it would be ascertained – by the coroner, not by the reports.)  Great emotions can surely color the event or even drown it into non-reality, as Freud showed us with “trauma,” the word taken from “dream” (Traum.)  An eye witness knows what he or she saw, but doesn’t thereby know what happened.

The key is in the word eye/I, the center of it all, the one who tells the story, narrates the novel, creates the history. The one to whom it happened, as The Great Gatsby happened to  Nick Carraway, as Moby Dick happened to Ishmael, as my life happened to me and yours to you.

Except, says the wise old saying, it didn’t. Not that way, not really.  Ask someone else.  Your mother if you can, your brother, your best friend from first grade.  It never happened at all, or if it did, if some vestige of your witnessing falls on receptive ears, then maybe it did happen, but not in the way you remember.  It was winter, not summer, the ground was covered with frost, not the petals of pear blossoms, and no one ever said what you thought they said, or what you reconstructed them as saying out of your wish to make a story where there is none, to wrest meaning from the cold dry ground because such memories convince you of your own importance or relevance. You were there, you SAW it.

But maybe it was only that someone described it for you and you appropriated it, and later told someone you’d been there, at that play, at the time. And then you told other people the same thing, and you could see yourself there, wearing that green silk (your favorite at the time), and now you begin to have a clearer view, you can remember what you thought of the play, where you went afterwards. . .  and soon the incident has become fact, something no one could have told you about because the details you remember are so clear that you had to have been there, you had to have experienced the play, the silk against your skin, the first shocking sip of an old malt whiskey, the bartender’s bald head and your companion’s knowing smile when you asked for another.  No one could make that up.

But they did. It’s all made up.  The truths about me are little stories, anecdotes, incidents, verses, memorized lines I’ve collected over a lifetime to describe myself to others and myself.  These are the memories, the scraps, the bits of clothing for the emperor who is trying to convince the people that he is fully dressed.  We start the process as children, when we really don’t know who we are (and don’t bother to think about it), but are improvising all the while, trying out this and that, putting ourselves in fairy stories, in the pictures we attempt to draw, in everything we encounter because becoming human is the process of acquiring an identity. “Once upon a time. . . ” there lived a little girl with my name and my thick braids who did all sorts of things, who became transformed into different people or animals, a fluid entity who could walk into paintings or sail like Thumbelina across the air on the back of a bird.  So it began.

I became my version of myself, and since then have been adding new versions, altering, refining, elaborating, editing version after version throughout my life and still now, still changing daily in some regard, making full use of language to clothe me in costumes to give me courage or make me beautiful or invisible.

But I could never – and neither can you – control the other versions, the tens of hundreds of versions created by others, versions of myself in relation to them or to someone else or simply their impressions, hastily drawn but fervently believed until I cease being what or who they believed I was at the time when they believed it.

Pirandello played with some of these concepts, Six Characters in Search of an Author; Virginia Wolf’s characters lived on the current of their consciousness, drifting off the page or into each other; the flowing river of time is ancient, repeated in every generation, the river of Heraclitus in which we cannot step a second time, the inevitability of change, mutability, transformation, desiccation, time and the bell, time and the river, time itself, so fragile a concept that a moment’s reflection changes it, and we can’t tell the passing minute from the passing hour, nor separate the living from the dead when they crowd our dreams.

I lie with passion and confidence, in the belief that my memory holds, that the people I cared about and loved existed in the way that I remember, down to the Yardley’s lavender sprinkled on my father’s white handkerchief that rose up like a small Alpine peak from his left breast pocket. I will forever remember my friend Connie, in Austin, sitting at her short wave radio early in the morning, listening to the BBC news with a can of beer in her hand – and then later, in Graceland with my son and two close friends, discovering with joy the t-shirt that said: Beer – It’s not just for Breakfast Anymore.

These incidents multiply, join, reflect from one to the other. Many people appear and for the moment I see them they are alive and we are the people we were then, or at least as seen by me, as seen by the I who was carried along the river of her life, noticing some things and oblivious to others, elaborating or simplifying, mixing up when what happened, but holding the memory (my own!) tight and complete, memories that expand into slides or action, others like snow domes, holding forever a scene that may have been influenced by what I read as much as by what I saw, but so real to me that I can smell the flowers of the Alpine meadow, the little brown chocolate flowers growing above the town of Lech in the Vorarlberg; or the vertigo that seized me at dinner in Mexico when I was 18 and I felt it was the Aztec gods, not the thin air of the high altitude, that played with my mind and brought me strange ancient shapes.

So much has happened, so much remembered and far more forgotten.  But what we hold on to, however we shape it, is the person we are, or at least the person we think we are and in either case, a quite different person from any other who ever lived.

 

Through a Glass Darkly

BY KATHY PERUTZ

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child . . . . .                                                     I Corinthians, 13:11

“It’s D again,” I whispered to my mother when she came up to my bedroom. Just “D” because I couldn’t say the word, it scared me too much.  Witches’ heads were pouring out from the bottom of my bed and death was near.  Like the young Tahitian girl lying on her stomach in Gauguin’s beautiful and terrifying painting, “Spirit of the Dead Watching,” I was rigid with fear.  An only child, and often alone, I probably feared death as not-being, and not-being meant I wasn’t part of my mother, who was my shelter.  I was young enough to have recently emerged from the glue of symbiosis, still clinging to the host (her body) where I had incubated for 9 months to emerge as a creature unable to do anything but suck and cry, with a head still not completely formed.

A charming 5-year old of my acquaintance, also an only child, is very aware of death. His mother tells me he regularly checks up on her: “When are you going to die?” he asks, and says that when she does, he will too.  I’m not sure he’s made the kind of deal I tried to foist on the Almighty, but he might still do so.  I put it to god that, if I refrained from saying “Jesus Christ” forever, he would let my mother and me (my father would automatically come along, I suppose: it was not specified) live for another 500 years.  That would have made me 506.

But there was a problem (which had nothing to do with the fact that I was Jewish, something I hadn’t yet learned, and which would mean little to me then beyond the ability to stay home on certain days in early autumn). It was that, since god knows everything, he would know if I ever thought the words “Jesus Christ,” or just “Jesus” or “Christ” on their own.  And that would invalidate the whole agreement.  But how to stop thinking?  The more I thought about it, the more those two words beat a tattoo in my mind, a constant presence. And so it turned out that my mother died at 70, my father at 88, and I am now close to it, and a long way from being 506 years old.

Death, to the very young, is something that happens inexplicably. It happens to people because they’re old or because they live down the street or because they’re on television. It means you’re not there anymore, and not to be there is as terrifying a thing as can be imagined, as readers of A.A. Milne well know:

James James/MorrisonMorrison/Weatherby George Dupree/

 Took great/Care of his mother/ Though he was only three.

James James said to his Mother: “Mother,” he said, said he.

“Don’t ever go down to the end of the town if you don’t go down with me.”

But of course she did. She went down to the end of the town all by herself.  And she hasn’t been heard of since.

Death is absence. Solitude, abandonment (our latest psychological jargon), the fears of being alone or left alone, unable to cope.

***

After puberty, death becomes something palpable and near.  Certain actions and situations, you learn, can lead to death.  Daredevil stunts, poisonous mushrooms, snakes, tarantulas, mass murderers, aliens, war, bad grownups, gangs, or your own feelings that you are worth nothing and can do nothing. Death becomes a choice, or at least a possibility.

When I was fifteen, we moved from Kew Gardens, Queens – where I was the oldest on the block and still friends with Dukey (a.k.a.The Duke), across the street, whom I’d met when she was 18 months and I two years older, at a time when she was curly haired and cherubic and had not yet decided to be a lady wrestler when she grew up – to a beautiful old house in Kings Point, New York (a part of Great Neck), built in 1638 by British pirates, its entrance facing the sea above our private beach.  A more beautiful house I have not seen in this country, with its wine cellar below the trap door of the dining room, its artificial mound (to protect the house from other pirates) in which we found arrowheads; the old locust trees where a family of raccoons made their home, the unfaced wooden beams of the living room and the tilt of all the rooms; the fireplaces, the historic items scattered through the attic of a house that once served as the school for the surrounding area; the simplicity and authority of the oldest inhabited house on Long Island, with us being only the 4th owners in all that time. It was here that I felt more alone and forsaken than I could handle, knowing no one my age, hating the new, upscale school where all the girls, it seemed, wore cashmere sweater sets and pearls. I developed a fever every day when the school bus unloaded me at the high school, and my mother was called to the nurse’s office to take me home.  It was not far from that to wanting to be dead, and since the wish is father to the act, I was scary enough to myself as well as to my mother that I told her, “If you don’t get me to analysis tomorrow, I don’t know what I’ll do.”  At which point, I put my hand through the glass window of the kitchen door and cut my wrist.

Fifteen and precocious, I’d read my Freud, I knew about libido and thanatos, and every day, after a session at home with a white-haired and kind-hearted retired teacher sent by the Board of Education because I was adjudged emotionally incapable of attending school, I made my way into Manhattan to the office of Larry Kaufman on Lexington Avenue, on whose couch I spoke aloud my dreams and whom I considered beneath contempt because he had a very bad reproduction of an awful Rouault print on his wall, hung askance.

Suicide is the main cause of death among teenagers. It is almost always an apology, an admission of failure – “I was not what you (my parents) thought I was;” or some variation of A.E. Housman’s echoing lines: I, a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made.  A few years later I read in Albert Camus’ long essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”: In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.  

At seventeen I became a freshman in college, and my close friend in the room directly opposite mine killed herself. I found her, lying blue on her pillow, an overdose of sleeping pills.  Her mother, a stage-mother type, had been taking her to auditions for Broadway plays and musicals over our Thanksgiving break; she was also a debutante, and much was expected of her.  She was very pretty, wide-set blue eyes, a love of Botticelli and escargots.

***

Death changes as we near it.  My mother died, and my world ended in many ways. My father died.  My aunts and uncles, and then my friends. Michael, my husband of 50 years, died this year.  My metastatic cancer continues its determined hold; I am now in the 24th year of its habitation.  What I fear now is not death so much as disfiguration, and by that I don’t just mean physically.  I mean the suffering that flesh is heir to, the bones of the spine crumbling onto the nerves, as happened last year; the cancer in pancreas or liver making itself felt   Suffering is of no possible use, in my opinion.  It makes no one better or wiser or nobler; quite the contrary.  The suffering of Jesus is a source of fascination to many, not only Christians. But it’s not for me.  I have decided that instead of letting “nature” (in this instance “cruel nature” might be allowable) take its course and transform me from who I am into a thing of pain, I want to be able to die as myself.  This means suicide, of course.  A chosen death instead of one imposed, which would inevitably include torture; just as, in the early war years, people killed themselves to avoid the boxcars taking them to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  In the state of New York, doctor-assisted suicide is not legal.  Other states offer it, but to residents only.  I have little time.  I am making plans to go to central Europe to a place that offers what I seek.  It’s tricky: I have to be well enough to get there – transatlantic flight and all – and to be fully conscious when I arrive.  It’s hard to choose the right moment.  When I’m with friends, or even now, at my desk, writing, I feel the whole scheme is absurd.  I love life, I want to go on living.

Razors pain you;/Rivers are damp;/Acids stain you;/And drugs case cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;/Nooses give;/Gas smells awful;/You might as well live.

– Dorothy Parker, “Resumé”

And then I remember some of the deaths of friends, and I do not want to descend into that chaos, the loss of clarity and humor and self that has been all I know of the world. I realize that each of us knows the universe only through his or her consciousness, and that each of us inhabits (creates?) a slightly different universe from anyone else’s.  It is a great pity that these universes must die.  But to paraphrase Pascal, Man is nothing but a reed, the weakest thing in nature.  But it is a thinking reed. . . and the advantage that man has over the entire universe is that he knows he will die, while the universe knows nothing.  Or, in Saul Bellow’s words: Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.

Death gives us life. Mortality is the source of time, and only in time do we live, love, create – or take our fate into our own hands.

American Girl

BY KATHY PERUTZ

Riding on my father’s shoulders, a fat little curlytop of three, I waved at the man in the convertible moving towards us on Queens Boulevard as the crowd roared and the President waved back at me.  FDR, I could tell, liked me very much.

I don’t remember his death or his succession by Harry Truman, only that shining moment in a past so ancient to me now it might have happened in the days of heraldry or in a  poem of Jacques Villon, emerging from the Middle Ages: Où sont les Neiges d’antan? where are the snows of yesteryear?

That’s the way with memories, I find: fat beads like pills in capsule form to be swallowed whole, without reference to anything else.  Memory, to me, never has a narrative, not an ongoing story but simply a clip taken from context, or a slide projected on the mind’s screen, to fade and return, but not in any clear sequence, not like a film.  Which is why I can’t write a true memoir, and don’t believe anyone can.

Franklin Roosevelt was my first president.  My parents had emigrated from Central Europe in 1938 after the Nazis entered Austria.  At first they lived in a rooming house in Manhattan – that is, mainly my mother did, with her friend Kitty, an actress from Vienna, a comedienne whose specialty was simply laughter, unending, until everyone in the club was laughing with her as young girls laugh, infectious, contagious, about nothing at all.  And after all, what was there to laugh about?

The two young women shared the apartment, my father then back in Prague (where my parents had lived) trying to get relatives out at the last minute.  When I was born, we moved to a semi-detached house in Forest Hills, Queens, with a German-speaking grandfather belonging to the other half.  That, and the rocking chair on their porch, is all I remember of the house, though later I learned that we lived very close to the famous tennis courts, and sometimes went to the Forest Hills Inn for orange juice.

When I was about three (that’s the age I see myself astride my tall father’s not very broad shoulders), we moved to nearby Kew Gardens, to a semi or mock Tudor (it was in fact both semi and mock in the way a turtleneck sweater that’s not really a turtleneck is called mock or partial or some other qualifying adjective that tells you it’s not the real stuff), a white house with dark red shutters, a Victory garden on the side where the lilac trees grew and beyond them, further back, bushes of mountain laurel with their blossoms like stars. In the backyard itself, I had a small log cabin just like Abe Lincoln’s (or so I believed), where I used to serve my dolls tea, and a large sandbox which was later removed, but the earth beneath it had been made sterile, and in the end the sand was replaced by pebbles, pretty little stones through which small steams formed whenever it rained, and sometimes I floated chocolate candy on the waters, calling to the younger kids to come see the miracle.

They believed me.  I was the oldest kid on the block and so I ran it, my sense of leadership coming to me naturally (though otherwise I was quite shy) partly because I was an only child, but mainly I think because my mother’s English was often tentative and she relied on me, the native American, to interpret for her.  When I started going to school, she was never to set foot in the building or to speak to any of my teachers because she was afraid of being mocked for her accent.  Besides, she didn’t understand about “those things,” which included anything to do with officialdom,  So it was (and I report from what I heard later, not what I remembered), that she went to get ration cards for us during the war years.  When asked how tall my father was she, who thought in meters and grams for all her life, replied, “5 feet.”  Herself she put at “4 feet,” and I, she estimated, was “2 feet.”  The woman at the desk looked up then, to see a large hefty child who was probably (as all photographs show) holding tight to the hand of her mother.  “That child is not two feet,” the woman pronounced.  But she must have taken pity on us, because eventually we did get the cards.

By the time my first Presidential election came round, in 1948, I was ready for it.  Thomas E. Dewey, Republican and former Governor of New York, was the clear favorite over the incumbent, Harry S. Truman, the haberdasher from Missouri.  The other candidates with following included Strom Thurmond of the Dixiecrat ticket (Southern Democrats, all of them crackers), and Harry Wallace of the Progressive Party.  My mother voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist, as she did in every election (he ran for President six times.)

The rest of us were for Truman.  By “us” I mean the block, known as Newbold Place when we moved there and afterwards for some obscure reason, as 82nd Road, although there was already an 82nd Street and an 82nd Avenue.  I was old enough by then to know how to influence people, especially The Duke (originally Dorelle), who lived opposite, was 2 years younger than me and wanted to be a lady wrestler when she grew up. We’d first met up on Kew Gardens Road, when she was about 18 months, my father and I coming back from the florist, where we went every Sunday, and she peering up from her stroller with a chubby angelic face and a head of blond ringlets.  I was smitten, and although she soon cast off her doll-like cuteness, we became a team, me tall, she squat, me the ringleader, Dukey the tough guy.  Her sister Holly, two years younger than herself, was my new animated doll, and I loved to take her into the house and put her on the toilet for a pee.  (That was about the extent of my ability at child-rearing, but I did it with such devotion that I think Holly rarely peed at home, but came running over whenever she felt the urge, to have me ceremonially seat her.)  Both of them were staunchly behind me, backing Truman with all their might, and telling their parents (as I advised them) to be sure to vote for Truman.  The Wolf boys, down the block, also agreed.  And what Billy Blake did was of course of no concern.  She lived next door to me on the left and went to Catholic school.  She was a year younger than The Duke and her name was Mary.  We called her Billy and we couldn’t stand her.  Every now and then we’d make half-hearted attempts to kill her (by making her eat the red berries on the bushes lining the entrance walk to my house, for instance), but she never cooperated and so confirmed our belief that she was stupid.

The main reason for us all to be voting for Truman was not politics or principles. It was that my father said we would move to South America if Dewey won.

I wasn’t allowed to stay up election night, and when I went to bed the outcome wasn’t known. I asked my father to wake me as soon as the results were in.

As it happened, he didn’t have to. That election became the biggest upset in U.S. history. DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN appeared in bold headlines in an early edition of the Chicago Tribune, and a famous photograph shows Truman holding it up with a grin on his face.  He had won.  By 11:15 in the morning after the election, Dewey conceded.  We were safe.  We could stay home.

***

I didn’t meet another president until I was in my late teens, and he was only a vice-president then, Richard Milhous Nixon, in Moscow at the time of the Kitchen Debate with Nikita Sergeyevitch Khrushchev.  After that, not again until Bill Clinton, walking out of a meeting at a Chase building on Park Avenue.  A small crowd had gathered and he came up and shook my hand.  He saw through me, those blue eyes of his, and for a moment we were joined.  Then he reached behind me to shake hands with a young man as I very lightly stroked his sleeve and whispered, “Take me with you.”  Then he was gone, and I floated home on clouds to meet the laughter of my husband, who knew my propensity for theatrics.

He is dead now, and my parents long before him. If the man who won the presidency wins the presidency, I might have said to my son and grandchild last year, we’re moving – anyplace but here.  But it was already too late.  America fell to the barbarians, just as my parents’ home had fallen.  From Hitler to Trump: as first-generation American, I loved my country and criticized it fiercely, as we do with our parents.  But now I am orphaned, and my country, the country that was backward in many ways but always striving, and was also magnanimous, kind, humorous – has been hijacked by the very worst kind of hooligans, who bring not only despair but possible annihilation.

The Mind

BY KATHY PERUTZ

as Satan observed, “is its own place and of it self/ can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.   Here is where madness resides, where Blake and Bosch hung out and confusion reigns, sometimes interrupted by sudden illuminations of joy.

It’s partly due to medications. The chemo that’s infused into me, which my blue-eyed Michael friend (part Pan, part Hermes) calls “pouring a bottle of Clorox into your system,” and the pills against pain which must compete with the ones meant to bring on sleep.  Hell is a cocktail of pain and panic, terrible twins like Scylla and Charybdis, disease and cure.

Cure.  The word takes me past curare, the ancient poison of the Amazon, used to coat the tips of arrows for killing large mammals and introduced  to civilization (England) in the late 16th century by Sir Walter Raleigh: and then on to fish, fresh salmon from the North Sea cured with brandy or Armagnac, a light vegetable oil, salt, pepper, a touch of sugar and bunches of fresh dill, laid down for a week or more, turned twice a day until the back complains or a day slips past.  I made my gravlax at Christmas time for the party we’d have on Boxing Day or sometimes closer to the new year, when the oddest people showed up, the tree was shimmering and the cats sat under it, purring loudly, blinking into the fire, proud of the warmth and what their home had to offer.  They didn’t touch the gravlax but everyone else did and no matter how much I had made and  sliced paper-thin on small triangles of hard brown bread with the mustard dill sauce, (a bottle of Aquavit standing nearby), it was all consumed.

Cured fish is cooked by marination just as we burn out the cancer by radiation, not fire. Clorox in your veins, Joan of Arc in the brain cells. ( Rouen, Rouen, Est-ce qu’ici que je doive mourir? were her last words.)

And following gravlax my mind takes another turn, to my friend Eli from Finland and the summer I met her in Grenoble, when we both going to summer school at the university to improve our French and lived as paying guests with a family named Perret whose daughters had beautiful names, Monique and Genevieve. The six of us regularly ate together, a meal that inevitably included a jug of really abominable wine, a jug of water and a bowl of sugar, these three ingredients to be combined in our separate glasses according to taste.

Eli had a broad, pretty face, hair the color of wheat and eyes of blue. We became instant friends; she told me many stories about her country, about the crayfish festival at midsummer and the white nights, and the following year I visited her out in the country beyond Helsinki in Kallvik, in her dacha with sauna in the woods.  She was nine months pregnant then and walked barefoot amidst the trees to the lake, where she hauled out a rowboat and rowed us both across, pulling the oars and quoting passages from Joyce as she did.  When we came back to the house she showed me her jars of fil, the yoghurt she made and lined up on the inner windowsill of the kitchen.  When a thunderstorm threatens, she said, all the fil of Finland turns.   She had married a wealthy Swedish-Finn like herself, a man I have never met who seemed wildly eccentric.  Among his habits were traveling to little known places in order to learn their languages.  In winter, in their dacha, he would chop down a tree and drag it into the living room to feed the fire, letting it consume itself at considerable risk to the entire building, not to mention the surrounding forest.

I remember Eli from that time, a young wife, freckled in the sunlight – and then after a hiatus of many decades, when we found each other again through an extraordinary coincidence.   The terrible French teacher at the Alliance Française where I was taking a course didn’t show up one day and we students introduced ourselves to each other.  One of them was Finnish and I asked the question that idiots have asked forever, expecting the only person they know in all of America (or even limiting it to the West Coast, say) to be known to the American they happen to be speaking to.  But this time, of course, it did work.  My classmate turned out to be the best friend of Eli’s sister, and so we took up again, Eli and I, and flew across the ocean several times over the years to renew and maintain our friendship.

The mind skips and jumps. Cure, fish, Eli, France.  Back to the high meadows of Grenoble where I, then 18, liked to wander alone, with my Camus or Baudelaire or Corneille (not in any way a linked trinity, but all decidedly French), feeling very free, liberée and existentialiste.  I took the bus up to the woods and meadows of Prémol and there wandered, and read and stumbled upon a farm where I stopped for fresh cheese and coffee.   Back in Grenoble, France’s glove-making capital,  I looked out from my balcony at the people moving below and saw them as targets, moving pieces of a pattern, any of which could be eliminated.  It was not a very thorough understanding of freedom or philosophy, but it did make me feel sophisticated and alive.

And back again it goes, tense and spiraling, ribboning out to this moment here, in New York, where I am unslept and thinking that maybe it should all stop, not the people walking on the streets of Grenoble in the late 1950’s, but me, the seeing eye, this place from which it all proceeds. The medications, the chemo, the radiation to follow, resistance against the inevitable.  Mainly I am feeling that my mind is a strange thing, that it exists apart from me just as much as it is nearly all of me. It does what it does, goes where it goes – in a flash.  The great hurricane bearing down on Florida where an old school friend lives alone swept me up and I transferred my fear to her because I am vain and it suits me to think that I am not simply concerned for myself.  I am afraid of tomorrow, of the radiation oncologist, and then on to another test of my brain, making this the 7th or 8th of these procedures (MRI’s, CT scans, Pet scan) I have undergone over the last weeks.

            The mind is its own place. . .

But perhaps the strangest aspect of the mind, as it appears to me now, is its quicksilver tossing, rearing from sudden exhilaration to terror, as if someone turned a switch. Last Thursday, accompanied by a good friend, I saw the neurosurgeon and her nurse practitioner, remarkable women both, who decided to “manage” my care, and set up something like a swat team – the two of them, the Greek spinal surgeon who had operated on me some months back, my oncologist, the radiation oncologist, an internist (at last!), a neuropsychiatrist (to deal with medications) and a social worker.  I left there slightly delirious with joy, as if, instead of having just discussed whether the first priority was the cancer in my spine or the lesions in my brain, we had come to a joyful resolution.  The euphoria remained for a long time, and even though I felt it was unseemly, I couldn’t get rid of it.  Floating on air until the crash came and took with it not only the joy but all calm, all control.  From order to chaos, heaven to hell.

I exchanged emails with the neurosurgeon and her nurse practitioner, who wrote, in response to my enthusiasm: Great things happen when strong women come together in one small exam room!  I was feeling it, disembodied joy, like Blake’s.  Like the joy of Keats’, bursting against his palate fine.  Joy like laughter, because life was funny and meeting someone you liked and admired, someone who clicked, was about the best that could happen.  Or for no reason at all.

Keats wrote his “Ode on Melancholy” shortly before his death at 25.   What we are made of is illusion; the world is a reflection of the mind, and the mind is a giddy thing.

 

Ripe

BY KATHY PERUTZ

The summer of 2003 produced a heat wave like none the Parisians had ever known. Though as it happens (as it did every year) few of them were around when the heat rolled in.  It was August, the dead month of the year, Fermeture Annuelle posted on the shuttered shops and the only people left in the quartiers were a scruffy sort , tourists mainly, Americans who didn’t give a second thought to the prevalence of English everywhere, on the streets and in the restaurants in this month when they were given reprieve from having to say so much as “Bonjour” or “Merci.”  They were handling the heat pretty well, despite the lack of air conditioning, the New Yorkers who, according to one of their mayors were “practical people, they only believe in air they can see,” and those from the hot spots of Florida or Texas, where summer flings her wildflowers across the state in April and doesn’t decamp for the next several months as the earth grows bare, thirsty and piercingly hot.

On the streets a few clochards, perhaps, were bedding down by the Seine in hopes of catching a breeze, a spray or even a shower of mist as the bateaux mouches sailed around the islands in the river, past Notre Dame and the Île St. Louis (“where you can find Bertillon,” the tour guide informs the passengers, ” the famous ice cream”).  As night falls, the spotlights of the cruise ships light up the apartments along the banks, but no one rails against this imposition; the drapes are secured, no light enters.  No one is home in such a tony part of Paris in the month of August.  An impossibility, a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron like a wise old Texas saying or British cuisine.   The residents of the city once known as Lutetia take refuge in their summer homes or travel to exotic places in the South Pacific, to trendy “finds” of the tourist industry, previously unknown island paradises or decaying huts pitched along the steeps of the Himalayas, with all necessary luxuries assured and of course, an excellent chef.  The French have always been adventurous in their hedonism, though they are not a people who admire excess, as in August heat or winter blizzards, unless it is happening somewhere else and leads to an international emergency.

In the summer of 2003 the heat was on all over Europe, though France had the worst of it. 15,000 dead.  The temperature reached the heat of blood and went higher.  100 degrees, 103.5 for the record.  On upper floors all over France, in the garrets and attics even up in the north the heat continued to rise and the old people, condemned to stay home because of their fragility or stubbornness or because the young folks wanted time out, found they couldn’t survive this blast from hell.  Air conditioning was not a French sort of solution, not traditional – who had even heard of it a few generations past? – and since France rarely became uncomfortably hot (records kept since 1540 showed nothing to compare to the inferno of 2003) the old folks persisted as they always had, the morning’s dunked croissant or petit pain, the lunchtime meal with wine and a nap, and no one told them to drink water (water?!) or to remain still, lie in cool baths, and so this extraordinary death march continued unimpeded, neither the city nor the towns taking action, the middle-agers with their young off to their accustomed pleasures while the old people burned.

That is no country for old men. The young/In one another’s arms, birds in the trees/–Those dying generations! — at their song. . .                                                                – “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats

Maman is dead. The wine is good.

In the vineyards, the grapes ripened so quickly that the annual récolte, the harvest, began weeks earlier than usual; so early that most of it was in before the advent of the traditional return to Paris, known as the Rentrée, a word used for theatergoers returning to their seats after intermission.

***

Paris is living theater, the cafés and boulevards, the young girls and young men wearing the look of those who know they are being looked at; the peanut vendor shouting his wares, the intellectual who happens to look up from his tome at the instant when a babe walks past his table, the book dropping to the ground with just a split second for his hand to reach down and graze her naked legs (pardon, Mademoiselle!) as she passes, giving him a haughty look but not an unfriendly one.

Paris is and was the city of now, the heat of the moment, youth and impetuosity, a meeting of eyes across the sidewalk tables, followed by a stroll, a kiss, the parting of ways, the moment seized and released, life is a river and that river is the Seine, caressing the City of light, love, of bookstores and oculists, perfumers, hairdressers, wines.

The wine was good. Corpses aside, the vintners gathered their grapes, got rid of the raisins (so soon ripe, these grapes, but not with the sweetness of those gathered after first frost, the grapes of ice wine); and by the time we were back in Burgundy two years later, along the route between Macon and Dijon, where we poured new love into an old marriage, the wines of 2003 were ready for drinking.  Not one of the great years of course, not one of those vintages that get memorized by generations to come, but in a small restaurant in Savigny-lès-Beaune the wine was delicious, the young pinot noir having no aspirations to royalty, but so pleasing, so happy that we held hands across the table as we had on our honeymoon (in the photograph that remained on my mother’s desk until she died) and looked deeply into each other’s faces we felt the heat.

* * *

When Germans want to describe how happy they are, how sublimely happy, they say they are “Glücklich wie der Herrgott in Frankreich” – happy as the good Lord in France.

I picture this god as a giant walking astride the vineyards, so tall and so wide that he is everywhere you look, but he is translucent, you see the vineyard through him, a kind of Johnny Appleseed, not sowing seeds but blessing the vines by his presence, blessing them because it is here that he feels at home.

And so do I. And so did Michael.  (So did my mother for that matter, not among the vines so much as in Paris, where she exhibited her graphics – she was a good artist – and at the age of 42 took a lover of 21.)   We traveled through every part of France, Provence to Picardie, Alsace and Lorraine to the breakers of Brittany, and down among the Pyrenees.

* * *

I’ve often said that the first 40 years of marriage are the toughest; after that, it’s all gravy. It’s only a small exaggeration.  Once we had Paris together the “managing” part of marriage gave way to a new sensuous way of being.  It wasn’t so much that sex had changed (though of course it had, ça va sans dire, that goes without saying), but that our lives expanded to a broader sensuousness, especially of food and wine, in a country seeped in the traditions of what makes life pleasurable – the senses of touch and smell, beauty in moments captured by the click! of instant memory like a photograph taken but not developed, as I would often do, saying to Michael: look, that old man, the window sill, the cat: a picture! and he nodded and there it was between us, our invisible photo; and also with the persisting assurance that something happy awaited us, a freshly baked baguette, still warm; the sun hitting his glass of Kir on the marble table top and casting an orange shadow beyond it; baby clothes in a shop window, foie gras at Monoprix, le menu (the prix fixe) at one of the great old brasseries along the Boulevard Montparnasse.

We had that together, and then we entered the late summer of our lives, the late summer that is worse than winter because it brings awareness within a happy time of death just outside.  It’s the summer that Rilke wrote about in one of his sonnets, saying that when summer ends whoever is alone will always remain so, wandering fitfully through the paths as the leaves churn.

We both became very ill. He died.  I continue.  It is nearing the end of summer, the world is a hotter place now than it was in 2003, than it was at any time in recorded history.  I can no longer bear to see or read the news (the Times gets delivered, but if The Blob is on the front page I turn the paper inside out or just throw away the first section), and the murderous lunacy that brought my parents to America in 1938 has returned, and that “rough beast” of Yeats is slouching towards the unthinkable.

Getting Old is Like Feeling Fat

 

BY KATHY PERUTZ

It turns you into something that isn’t you, never was, couldn’t possibly be you, though some people out there and a chorus of inner voices continue to insist this IS you, all right, you (fat) (old) (thing).

Feeling fat doesn’t have to mean you actually are fat, of course – just as not feeling fat doesn’t guarantee that you’re not.  But the feeling, as of dirty laundry being mulched in your mouth, is unmistakable.  It’s a mood or emotion and also a new viewpoint, a rearrangement of your vision, the crunching of your posture, of the way you move, the inability of your feet to stop shuffling.  In the dressing room, you turn slowly – this beautiful outfit, so absolutely YOU a few minutes ago when it was hanging on the store mannequin, has turned into a torture device.  You must weigh at least 350 pounds, an unkind voice barks at you, and even though you know it’s one of your own voices, kept in that box where you have a teacher voice, mother voice, bitsy girl and tough businesswoman voices, along with the alluring, the suspecting and the altogether too glamorous for-you voices, still this unkind voice of your own is now barking like a rabid hound saying Take it Off, take it OFF because there in front of you, plain as the nose on the face in the mirror, you have added 200 pounds in one slow revolution of your extraordinarily elephantine body tightly wrapped in cruel gingham.

You run out of the store, you have a coffee to calm your nerves, you tell yourself that you are suffering from delusion, from heat, from anything you can think of, and you reason with yourself that it is impossible for anyone to gain that much weight that quickly. You have always been a touch on the not-altogether slender side, but then, you never expected to make your living as a fashion model.  Your bones alone would be too heavy.  And people haven’t complained, have they? they seemed to like the breasts and hips and all the contouring that makes the silhouette of a woman different from that of a man.  People have even loved you, you think miserably, knowing that they were all tricked, it was a bad show, and now it was over and time for them to claim their money back.

But a day later, a week later, one afternoon after a lunch you failed to eat in order to tame the calories already raging in your system, someone tries to pick you up (at your age!) and your indignation is as nothing compared to your pleasure, to the relief of having landed back, safely, on the island of the well-shaped, the young, healthy, the sexually desirable.

You will feel too fat again, and then you will have days of feeling slim and fashionable, and so you see-saw through life, never quite at ease with what you have, your senses at the ready to change your perception of yourself in an instant.

 

Getting old is like that. Comes and goes in spells and aches.  It may be that you’re past 80 and still see yourself, as my husband Michael did, as the same lad who could easily carry a clutch of suitcases down the stairs or run for the bus just taking off across the street.  And one day, boom! “I feel today I have gotten old,” he announces, as he has on other days, and will on many more.  Because on this day the joints ache or the eyes strain while reading.  Because he can’t be bothered by the folderol of news that is churned out every day, every minute, disturbing our universe. Or it will be before a surgery that he, that I, may not survive.  Or looking at the photos on a grandchild’s smartphone showing the passing of years, the hollowed cheeks, the skin that once was rose now closer to pea green.

 

Most of the time what we’re feeling when we feel old is a sense of dislocation: we are not who we were and the world has shifted, along with word usage, grammar and of course to us now, the preposterous invention of the internet that simply begs people to become illiterates so they will never be alone. But then, the old ways are not worth keeping up.  It’s become too tiresome to again have a dinner party and have to plan it, shop for it, prepare it, cook it, serve it, clean up after it. . . . Just too much effort.  A wild expense of energy that will not benefit us or our offspring one bit in the grand scheme of survival.  And we know it’s ebbing away, that life has not a long way to run; and as we become aware of that, everything seems to fall inward like Alice’s playing cards: we are not physically strong enough to do this or that, our body has betrayed us once more; our thoughts are fleeting, they start as strong distinct streams and not long after peter out in a dry ditch.  Our friends are dying.  Simple colds turn into pneumonia.  Childhood moves closer, dead friends reappear and yes, even heaven awaits the atheist because of a small cat who might, just might, be dwelling there.

And then you become afraid – of the next diagnosis, of the “cure,” with all its side effects and consequences; of the need to cancel plans, of your inability creeping up on you – do you dare to drive? can you drink the way you did? Why is his touch so boney, her lips so cold?

Because you are old, says the voice, because you are old.

And the night comes and in it you fear desiccation and negation, life is not tolerable, and you drift off and re-enter in the morning to soft light spilling out from the sides of the blinds, and something stirs in your chest, a small flutter or a gentle breeze and you realize you are alive, you will get well, you are not lost, not over, you will rise again, your phoenix self, as bouncy and funny as ever you were.

And you realize it wasn’t age at all that had you in its maw, but illness, something very different, though as much a concomitant of age as slenderness of youth. But we can be young and plump and middle-aged and slim, and we can be old with no plaints or aches, and in that way we can be free of age because we have conquered it through spirit.  Just as John Donne tells the specter: “Death, thou shalt die,” so we now, getting older, are just a little smarter than others, know just a bit more, have been round the block (and peered in all the windows) and know what we know.  Let the world see us how it will, and let the dumb mimicking voices repeat what the chattering world is saying, but I am not feeling fat, I am feeling fine.  And I am not getting old, just biding my time.

 

Philip Roth, The New Yorker and Me

 

A few weeks ago The New Yorker published an essay by Philip Roth in which the last paragraph, a long one, begins: “A Newark Jew – why not?  But an American Jew?  A Jewish American. . .”  He ends the paragraph and the piece by saying, “As a novelist, I think of myself. . . as a free American . . .writing in the rich native tongue by which I am possessed.”

I was thrilled to read this, to have the imprimatur of as great a writer as Roth on what I myself believe, and in gratitude wrote a Letter to the Editor, presenting myself as an unmodified American writer.

My letter, when it appeared in the June 26th issue, was considerably shortened and though it contained the nut of what I was saying, there wasn’t space enough to amplify my point, or points.

Here is the original:

Philip Roth’s essay on “American Names” ends on a small note, how you call yourself, and by this reminds us how far afield we are from the time when we were all unhyphenated Americans. My parents came from Central Europe in 1938, but I was simply American.  In the early ‘sixties I went to England, a young writer, and met other writers who, to my amazement, defined themselves as Jews.  Brian Glanville, writer of tough football novels.  Harold Pinter.  I went to a party and a woman named Miranda Rothschild ran over to embrace me and call me “sister.”   I thought they were all nuts.  A close friend, Errol John, a Trinidadian actor (Othello at the Old Vic) and playwright, winner of the Observer Prize for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, walked off a BBC panel that demanded to know his views on racism in the U.S. “I am a writer, not a politician,” he said. Brigid Brophy, a well-regarded critic, reviewed a book of mine for The New Statesman, (later reprinted in a book collection of what were considered seminal essays), saying that if my photo hadn’t been on the jacket and my first name only an initial, no one could have told my age or sex. That’s what we were aiming for, we writers, and it was the highest praise: to be indistinguishable from the worlds we made and lived in.  The current practice of qualifying “American” by race, background, sex or anything else, growing ever more divisive under our present government, takes away our wholeness and leaves us (almost) as empty as our leaders.

You can google the shorter version published in the magazine. Basically, I was trying to make two points, about the unhyphenated American and the unhyphenated writer.  Writers of Roth’s generation, those born in and just after the Second World War, took two things for granted: 1) the American dream (we are all Americans, no matter what we look like, where we came from and all that rot) and 2) the belief that a work of art is a thing in itself, not to be explained or approached as an artifact produced by such and such a member of such and such a sub group at a particular time or location.  A novel, if it succeeds, reminds us of no one so much as ourselves: we learn from it, and sometimes understand ourselves better.  Reading is a way of traveling though both inner and outer space.  It doesn’t matter a damn if we share the same sexual orientation or racial characteristics, hair color or nose shape; whether we do or don’t believe in anything beyond or within ourselves; what matters is that the work of art leads us somewhere new, gives a fresh perspective, entertains, enlightens or perhaps transforms us.

I was having this conversation last week at Pete’s Tavern over a couple of great and greasy burgers with a brilliant literary agent. “Most authors now want that,” she said, “they want to be identified as women or Jews or addicts or whatever the main selling point is.”

I was aghast. “You’re kidding.”

She shook her head. “No. Yes.  It’s what the writers want, and the publishers want, and the sales reps want.  It’s what people buy.”

Everything is about sales. It’s always been about sales to those in the business of publishing and selling books.  And even writers want to make money.  But to many authors the act of writing – which is discovery as well as invention – often serves as its own reward.  I have writer friends who say (as I do), I can’t believe anyone would actually PAY me for doing this, because writing is living and we can’t think of anything we’d rather do.

Gathering information is one thing, but it isn’t literature and it doesn’t provide you with a new frame of reference or reality. Read everything you can find about whales, but you won’t find Ahab or Starbuck or Moby Dick; you won’t have the adventure of a lifetime in the contest between good and evil.  Study intellectual trends of the early 20th century, illness, the Alpine air of Switzerland, but you will not be transformed by Hans Castorp as you ascend The Magic Mountain.  Yet readers and (if my agent friend is right, even writers) now regard a book, any book, as simply a form of processing information, and the industry responds to the book buyer’s supposed pursuit: because I am a lesbian, I want or read about lesbians by a lesbian, or: because I am fat, I want to read about fat people by a fat person.

When Philip Roth says I am an American, or I am a writer, the nearly boundless category gives him all the freedom in the world. He defines himself as American writer because the language he uses to write is American – not French or Chinese or even British – just as a painter in oils will define herself as that, and not a watercolorist.  It’s a description of the medium or the materials used in composing the piece.  A Jewish writer, a Jewish-American writer (or a woman writer) –  these are caricatures, stereotypes.  They claim to define but instead mislead, because though a writer’s life may provide material for the work, it isn’t the particulars of that life that matters, it’s the work.  And the work succeeds through its universality.  Ever since Cervantes blended into Don Quixote, writers have created worlds shaped out of their own experience, other people’s stories and thin air, their selfhood on hold as they become the conduit that brings the book into being.