Dark at the Roots

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

When the time came, she often said, when she was older, she would let her hair go gray. But the time never came, and her hair colorist continued to dye her graying roots to match the rich auburn of her younger self.

My mother kept many secrets, and though some of them wounded me and made me hate her at times, on the whole she kept them beautifully. Some had to do with her personal habits, others concerned her actions and interactions, those I witnessed and those that came at me from out of the past.  Still other secrets had been thrust on her beyond her control: names she had to keep hidden to safeguard lives and also her own name, given her before her parents or ancestors or anyone in the world knew that the man’s name hers was derived from would become synonymous with evil on perhaps as great a scale as the devil’s own, because though she was always known as Dolly, they named her Adolfina.

I didn’t know her birth name or her actual age for many years. I learned how old she was on a  day my father’s mother came to visit, a rare occurrence because my mother never cared to entertain her.  My grandmother mentioned that Dolly had me at 31, though I’d thought she was currently 29.  When I later confronted my mother, she explained that she couldn’t tell me the truth because I would have told my schoolmates and then everyone would know.  I nodded sagely, thrilled to be given such an adult (and mysterious) explanation, and never afterwards told anyone her age or – when I learned it – her birth name.

In other ways too, I went on lying for her, because she demanded it. When she was dying of multiple myeloma, cancer in the marrow of her bones, she insisted I tell her friends that she had a “bellyache.” She believed cancer was “psychological” and was ashamed to be caught with it.  But she was also dying quickly, in the hospital and at home with round the clock nurses.  I hated having to lie to people on the phone; I was embarrassed for them, for myself, ashamed of that childish word  “bellyache,” ashamed of the knowledge I had, the dead certainty of what was going on.  I couldn’t tell anyone, and I couldn’t stop what I knew.

Everyone has secrets. I don’t believe, as my mother did, that cancer is a sign of repressed rage or repressed anything else. My cat Corduroy, who was also my best friend, died young of cancer and his rage was never repressed, nor his love either, shown in the way he tried to feed the family, bringing in headless squirrels or birds he’d killed and placing them beneath my seat at the dinner table.  But there are other secrets, so big that people spend their lives and countries go to war protecting them.

America’s secret is racism. It is the darkness at America’s heart.  Though it can be set aside (look at our President!), it continues, since it’s easier to blame whatever’s wrong (in your life, in the country) on others than on yourself.  (This may be one reason to get married, though not a good one.)  If other people don’t look like you, it becomes even easier.  Hitler had to tag the Jews with big yellow stars because they looked (and thought and felt) like other Germans. The star provided a target for German rage, which in truth had little to do with Jews and was mainly caused by devaluation of the currency and loss of jobs.  But an enemy is a handy tool for an aspiring megalomaniac dictator.  Especially for the newly-blond Donald Trump (who is dark-haired in photos of him in youth and middle age, and whose hair resembled an orange dishrag earlier this year), with his family tradition of racial intolerance, a father and grandfather who didn’t like dark people, didn’t rent to them, and who were drawn to the ideology of white supremacists.

Trump picks up on the American secret and adds the terror of the unknown. All murders are now the fault of foreign darkies, whether or not they had anything to do with it, all part of a world-wide conspiracy against blond white (straight) Christian men.  In Trump’s hatred of M folk – Mexicans, Muslims, menstruators, minorities –  he rounds up a lot of dark people.  Women make it into the core of his publically-proclaimed nemeses by being biologically different from other people, in that they ovulate and menstruate, two cycles that Donald Trump would never in his life engage in, and therefore finds disgusting.  Different is the bugaboo, and to Trump there is no reality outside of Trump.

He presents us with a caricature of the two greatest dictators of the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler (né Schicklgruber) and Josef Stalin (born Jughashvili), with an added dose of pure American hucksterism. Like Hitler and Stalin, Trump is his own creation, in his case a blown-up cartoon of The Big Male with scowling face, broad chest, lots of sawbucks, lots of broads and a grunter’s vocabulary.  He’s the entertainer, like Hitler in Brecht’s play Arturo Ui and also like P.T. Barnum, prankster galore, who toured America with his freak show, entered politics in Connecticut, made millions, lost them and then made them back again in the firm belief that, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public” (though the quote varies and is sometimes  attributed to H.L. Mencken).  Barnum said of himself: “I am a showman by profession . . . and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me,” which shows a great deal more insight into his own nature than Trump has ever demonstrated.  His personal aim, said Barnum, was “to put money in my own coffers.”

The huckster, snake oil salesmen, slimy politicos and purveyors of hype that dotted our frontier probably were natural outgrowths of America’s wild Dream: to invent yourself, to become anyone you wanted to be because the old rules no longer applied. It didn’t matter who your parents were, where you went to school (or didn’t) or any of the values that cosseted Europe in its old ways.  Being American was a god-given passport to fun and freedom, to children who refused to eat their spinach because “America’s a free country,” and, on a more deadly note, to the necessity (for keeping the myth alive) of making sure some of the people are not included as people. The secret remained.  Be white, be powerful, and the Dream is yours.

Adolf Hitler said: If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.

Trump also resembles Stalin, particularly in the penchant for putting his name on everything (remember Stalingrad? if things go rotten in November, New York could become Trump City.) To every proposed building during his years as Chairman, he added steeples that transformed them into secular churches erected to the greater glory of himself. Stalin, like his latter day successor Vladimir Putin – a man much admired by Trump – did not believe in negotiating with perceived enemies.  He had a quicker solution. “Death,” he wrote, “is the solution to all problems. No man – no problem.”   Putin seems to agree.

What is great in America is that this country took in my parents when it did; that it welcomed immigrants throughout its history because it is, on a grand scale, a nation made up of immigrants, a tree with many roots that finds its genius in difference. Americans are optimistic and flexible.  We’ll try anything, which is why we’re such rich fodder for entrepreneurs.  (P.T. Barnum: There’s a sucker born every minute.)  But if we screw up in November, we might lose far into the future, with a Trump Supreme Court meting out its justice.

Hitler: The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.

Truth is a moveable concept to Trump, who controls it as he controls everything around him. The Don sees himself as Czar of this country, Czar of czars, which is as czar-y or crazy as it gets.

N.Y. subway: If you see something, say something.

Donald Trump.

[Note: this blog was also published by the Huffington Post]

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-perutz/dark-at-the-roots_b_11173174.html

 

Saturday in Sleepy Hollow

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

Last weekend our son picked us up to drive out to our potential graves. It was a cool day, overcast, the kind of day Michael is most comfortable with, being a Brit, and one I welcome in the New York summertime because it clears the air of the usual snot soup and makes walking along the streets possible.  It was early for us, 10 in the morning, a time when we’re usually still lounging about the bedroom, maybe doing our laughable exercises or chatting about something we never got around to the previous day, or we’re still sleeping or feigning it (one of us anyway), or listening to Brian Lehrer on NPR and doing the deep breathing.

He and I are on a kind of seesaw, if mortality is a playground. Not a slide, neither of us is going downhill that fast, and not a swing either because neither of us has those highs anymore.  He is on oxygen day and night with COPD, and though he has an elegant little carrier with battery attachment that he can take anywhere, it needs to be replaced quite often, and walking tires him out.  So generally we stay home.  I’ve been in the lead in the mortality competition until this year, even though Michael is seriously older than me, already past his 89th birthday and ordinarily that would give him the edge. But I have the Big C, as we used to call it when John Wayne roamed the screens, 23 years of breast cancer, which turned metastatic a while ago, and also lymphoma as an alternate.  When I have chemo I am worn out and liable to onslaughts out of left field, backaches and migraines, “spontaneous” fractures, fainting – a whole panoply, with more assortment than a shady salesman’s wares.

We are lucky, in some ways. Lucky that after nearly 50 years of marriage, of all our fights and rediscoveries of each other, of political crosshairs and cultural misunderstandings, missed cues and betrayals of various kinds, we are still tied to each other, we have each helped the other define her/himself, we have come to a place where our very different lives meet, and for the first time in our long accommodation we share what life we have in the wake of finality.

Last Saturday we rode out to Sleepy Hollow, home of Washington Irving, where a large cemetery holds the remains of many eminent New Yorkers, particularly the rich ones, Rockefeller and Chrysler and Carnegie – oh my!, and Washington Irving too, whose prose I could never properly digest and which, like the driest cakes of Austrian pastry makers, requires a hefty dollop of schlag, of pure whipped cream, to make it go down easier.

We were here, with our son and daughter-in-law, because at a certain point (when we got serious about our Wills), it occurred to me that if I survived Michael I would not know what to do about the funerary arrangements. Nor could I give or leave instructions on what to do with me when I died.  My parents were totally secular; his were part of the church, his father a well-known Anglican priest who died when Michael was 2, leaving behind a legacy that caused Michael later to flee England and choose Mao over the Anglican god.  My parents had come to America when Hitler annexed Austria, but I didn’t discover that I was Jewish until the first grade teacher told us that if we were Jewish we only had to bring in 6¢, but if we weren’t we had to bring in a dime. I had no idea what this meant, and when I asked my mother if we were, her face took on a look of alarm.  But her good friend who’d accompanied her to pick me up after school, a kindly German philosopher, was able to extract the pertinent matter and I was told yes, I was indeed Jewish.  The money referred to milk, 2¢ a day.  Since there were to be Jewish holidays the following week, Jewish children did not have to pay for the days when they would be absent.  To me it was a wonderful turn of events – not only would I be able to drink less milk (which I detested), I could also stay home (though in the event, I didn’t, since the tallest boy in class was a Polish catholic and I adored him.)

Michael and I had no religious affiliations, no family traditions, no particular place where it might be natural for us to end up, either in the form of ashes or in toto corpore.  Whenever M and I brought up the topic of our disposal after life, we ended up saying it didn’t matter.  But I realized it did, or would, to the survivor of us two, and to our son and to Michael’s other children.  Our lawyer for the Wills said it would be a good move to make our wishes known, particularly in Michael’s case, where different offspring (of different mothers) might have differing ideas.

I looked up funeral homes in the neighborhood.  Either they were run by people called O’Connor and Murphy, or by Goldstein and Rosenberg, the first with crosses, the second with stars.  But a third place, in Greenwich Village, had both, the O’Connors and the Rosenbergs, and I figured that was safe.  I searched their site and came upon the term “natural cemetery.”  I followed that – and found a new style of burial, greener pastures you might say.  In a natural cemetery the body is placed in the earth in a shroud made of linen or cotton or silk, only natural materials.  The grass grows over, the wildflowers bloom – and the photographs were gorgeous.  I showed Michael, who became enthusiastic to the point of saying, “I can’t wait to be there.”

Wildflowers, Sleepy Hollow
Wildflowers, Sleepy Hollow

“I can,” I told him drily, and kissed him. The thought of his dying brings a horde of winged things into my stomach, each one with a barb.

However, we’d stumbled on a possible solution. The most beautiful of these cemeteries are upstate, with acres of woodland and streams and rocks.  But that made no sense for us, who live in Manhattan, our son and his family close by, our friends here.

Saturday we toured the grounds with a pretty and capable guide named Christina. She knew her dead, and also the names of trees and other plants.  M & I, former birdwatchers, asked about the birds in spring, the little warblers in their bright colors and funny masks flitting through the branches where perhaps a woodpecker is thrumming and below, a Thrasher may be cleaning away the leaves.  We passed the slim Pocantico, which runs to the Hudson and we saw the big river at a distance.  When we came to the natural part, we got out.  Black-eyed Susans, my mother’s favorite, blooming in profusion with the cone flowers flecking the little meadow in touches of orange and deep pink.  A small, American meadow, perhaps too wild for Monet’s brush, but nevertheless contained, with a wooden fence and a roughly-hewn bench made of logs.

We chose our plots, one for each, at midpoint between the spreading tree and the fence and the road. We agreed that our heads should face out, beyond the fence to the trees and stream below.  And yes, we did want stones (optional).  They would be stones found around the area, not quarried.  We could have our names on them if we wanted (we did) and perhaps a saying or phrase.

present lively, future grave?
present lively, future grave?

 

Our son is listening to us ask our questions and make our choices, and he is smiling in a way that makes my love for him almost unbearable. I know he is thinking ahead, of a time or times when he, alone or with his wife, or with his whole family, will come here and talk or maybe just think of us, of each of us, and I know also that he will then think back on this day, when he and his wife were here with us and we were alive and he was taking pictures of us, me clowning around with arms akimbo, M smiling, wearing the tubes that strangely don’t disturb the beautifully sculpted bone structure of his face.  He is ruddy, in full health except for his breathing and walking.  He is happy.  Our son is happy and so is our daughter-in-law.  I am happy and M and I lean in for a kiss that will be captured on the silly smart phone and one day be the way our grandchildren and their children will remember us, as we were.

 

Note to my readers: This blog was published on July 15, 2016 in the Huffington Post,  without pictures.

 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-perutz/saturday-in-sleepy-hollow_b_10998908.html

 

England Swings

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

England swings like a pendulum do,

Bobbies on bicycles, two by two.

Westminster Abbey, the Tower of Big Ben,

The rosy red cheeks of the little children.

– Roger Miller, 1965

 

“Those rosy red cheeks,” said my friend Sally at the time, “are broken capillaries – from the cold.”  Sally was an American girl (born in Hollywood), living in London at the time.  Her British father had been expelled from the U.S. during the McCarthy era for his questionable politics (he published The National Guardian, a radical newspaper) and the family returned to London.  Sally was my best friend in the way you are best friends with someone when adulthood is very new on you and doesn’t yet fit properly.  We talked on the phone many times a day. We were both blondes, both American girls, both writers.  To the men we sometimes found in our beds, we were hardly distinguishable; they’d call me by her name or her by mine, and neither of us minded.  That’s the kind of girlfriends we were, our link forged by the slightly foreign world around us, whose people had never bitten into a pastrami sandwich or felt the thrill of a BLT whiskey down, heavy on the mayo.   The rosy cheeks, she said, were an illusion, a piece of everyday British hypocrisy (or a simple miscarriage of metaphor) in which a symptom of less than blooming health is taken for its opposite.  Those poor kids were freezing, in a country that hadn’t yet discovered or consented to central heating.

We were freezing too.  Americans in London at the time bravely wore sweater upon sweater, woolies underneath; went to the theatre and sat wrapped in suit-plus-overcoat from beginning to end, with a shot of whiskey at intermission to warm the plumbing; spent the winter months with hacking coughs, sucking on lozenges especially recommended by apothecaries for “bronchitis – the English disease.”  We watched the Thames freeze over, we drank coffee not much better than ink-stained water, we dreamed of radiators.  And yet we remained.  London in the early 60’s was where it was all happening, or so it seemed.  The Beatles, formed in Liverpool in 1960 had become the Fab Four and set loose the British Invasion.  Laura Ashley was dressing us in floral patterns and styles of the 19th century, a paradoxical comment on the Teddy boys of England, mainly young working class men in the industrial centers of the country who wore Edwardian clothes.  Vidal Sassoon, the Cockney lad with a salon in Mayfair, invented a way of cutting hair to make it sleek as seal’s fur, capping the head of  It-girls with geometric precision.  The BBC was opening up in the face of competition from Granada, a private tv company, allowing regional accents to creep into the voices of their announcers.  The Angry Young Men of literature brought John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (and the film made from it) and many new works by the kind of people who hadn’t been published before, on themes of class and social privilege (or lack of it) that hadn’t been raised earlier.

England was changing.  William Burroughs, author of The Naked Lunch, a book considered scurrilous by most people and praised by Mary McCarthy, along with Nabokov’s Pale Fire as one of the two most important international novels of the time, moved to London from Paris where the American-born author had been living.  A big fuss was made by the literati, though when Burroughs was asked by interviewers why he’d moved, his answer was a laconic, “for the food.”

The food, atrocious by most standards, had actually begun to improve.  Though “British cuisine” was still recognized as an oxymoron, it was occasionally possible to find something edible in London.  The new espresso bars had something like coffee, and eventually even croissants were seen in Soho.  English cheeses were excavated from buried memory and Victoria Station actually had a little eatery where British cheeses abounded.  The senses and what they could offer were reviving again, after long hibernation through the reign of Queen Victoria (“close your eyes and think of England”) and her followers, and the sex scandal of 1963 was a real peach, involving Cabinet ministers, Russian spies and some London call girls.  This was the Profumo Affair, starring John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, Stephen Ward, a socialite osteopath (the facilitator), Yevgeny Ivanov, Soviet naval attaché, and the girls – Christine Keeler,

Oh what have you done, said Christine,

You have wrecked the whole party machine.

To lie in the nude

Is not at all rude,

But to lie in the House is obscene.

– Time Magazine, unattributed, reporting on the affair, summer 1963

and Mandy Rice-Davies, who happened to live opposite me when I was staying in the mews house of a friend in Knightsbridge, off the Brompton Road.  Her clients would arrive in Rolls and Bentleys, their owners let off on the other side, away from my window so that I could never see more of them than their bespoke trousers, and then the sleek cars would purr off over the cobblestones until it was time to retrieve the newly-satisfied (one hoped!) politician or other celebrity and whisk him off to dinner.

These doings led to the collapse of Prime Minister MacMillan’s Conservative government in the fall of 1963, at a time when America was recovering from its very different summer, of civil unrest and racial violence before the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington at the end of August, where Martin Luther King gave his “I have A Dream” speech.

Sally and I were back in America for that, but we overstayed and then Kennedy was assassinated in November, and we returned to England in late ’63. My friend Mike was there too, one of my three Michaels and my oldest inhabited pal, as I call him, since I have known him for all these consecutive years.  Mike and I ended up sharing a flat in Fitzrovia, a part of London that was then more mongrel than most, with Belgravia on one side and the Tottenham Court Road and lots of foreigners all around.  We congratulated ourselves that we were in the right place at the right time.  It had been Paris in the 40’s, and earlier; New York in the 50’s (he is a painter) and now it was London.  The older generation still reminisced about the time when  the map was red – when England ruled the waves and held her colonies, or at least some of them – but the younger people were moving forward, recognizing the rest of the world.  I dined at the Café Royal, haunt of Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Shaw and other lights, including royalty, with His Lordship H, father of the man then in my life.  His Lordship was jovial, cordial, but when he asked me what I did all day and I replied that I was a writer, he then asked where I rode.  At the end of the meal, confections were brought out, including peanut brittle, a favorite of mine.  Milord was entranced by the way I mispronounced it, briddle to his ears.  “You Americans,” he said in his jovial way, “you think you’re speaking English.  We ARE English!”  And then he laughed aloud with the sheer joy of it.

But his son had lived in Paris for a time, where I’d met him. Nick had gone to Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, the high road to advancement, but he’d finally balked when he was chosen for the Queen’s Guards (he was 6’3″ or 4″), saying, “I’d rather go to Korea.”  There he was sent, a young officer in the war whose arm was blown off when the grenade he picked up in No Man’s Land exploded in his hand.  Nick was politically left and part of the new culturally diverse England, though he couldn’t shed the markers (accent, bearing, assumptions) that had shaped him.

***

Ultimately the Teddy boys with their long hair and tailored jackets gave way to the Skinheads, neoNazis roving the urban streets of England. As in America, the strains of liberty, libertarianism, xenophobia and racism combined.  The working class Brits, once the salt of the earth and the best of Britain, along with the little shopkeepers and the rest of the struggling middle class became more globalized.  Some bought cheap vacation cottages in places like Céret, where Picasso once lived on the French side of the Costa Brava or condos around Malaga on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where Spanish is rarely heard, and certainly not attempted by the beer-drinking flock that migrates south in summer.

I married an Englishman, Michael, who had fled England more than a decade earlier and was living in New York.  He’d been brought up in the pattern I had learned from my earlier companion.  My Michael didn’t go to war, though he was in the British army for a time (in Intelligence), and he wasn’t the son of a lord.  But he, too, went to a private “public school”, Marlborough, and then, on scholarship to one of the Cambridge colleges named for the Christian savior – either Christ or Jesus.  He left home at 8, and was away at school until he left England for good.  He and I are not Anglophiles, though you can get the boy out of England, as they say,  but you can’t get England out. . .

And for me – my time in England was probably the happiest and most exciting of my life. There I headed after college, and there I stayed for several years, writing books and being well-published and well-reviewed, meeting the kind of people I’d never imagined as anything but stars, going to the theater with Kenneth Tynan on one side of me and Noël Coward on the other, having friends of many nationalities, with a sizable proportion coming from Africa and the Caribbean; and, when I turned 25, on the quayside of the Thames, close by Westminster Abbey with Big Ben tolling the hour and light spangling the river below, I was in my white sharkskin dress, the white Jaguar parked not far away, and as the last of the chimes receded with midnight, I was in the arms of and being kissed by James Bond.  The first James Bond.

England was my Cinderella time, and to some extent England made me. Here I was on my own, finding out who I was and what the world was about through the fine seine of English life and manners, English values and history, as well as being in the ferment of London, of people from all races and cultures coming together to do their work, to make art or love or politics in an atmosphere of extreme tolerance.  With Sally to confide in and change places with, and my aunt and uncle to visit up in Highgate, being able to move up and down the social scale because I was a foreigner and belonged to no particular pigeonhole, except the glamorous world of Upper Bohemia, artists and journalists, painters, film makers, poets, a sprinkling of royalty, a few dabs of working class, gays and straights, black brown and pink.  My world was one of freedom and youth at a time when youth led to love and freedom to compassion.

***

Last week England swung beyond the pendulum’s reach, voting to leave the European Common Market in the ignominious Brexit. It was a tremendous shock, not only to Michael and to me, but to most of the people I know in England, none of whom have casitas in Spain or maisons de campagne in Provence, all of which may eventually crumble from the weightlessness of the pound.  But my friends are in great distress, either climbing the walls or taking to their beds. They are ashamed of what their country has done.  And we are all united in an even greater fear: that xenophobia and racism will prevail over Europe, that elections in France, Germany and other countries (Austria immediately) may turn these nations inward on themselves in petty nationalism and much worse.  And the greatest fear of all is harbored here in the daughter-nation, of this great country of ours with its persistent dream of individual liberty, falling to the hysteria of crowds and the ranting of a charlatan.