BY KATHY PERUTZ
In this time of Terrible Men, terrible in a way we’ve always known but never seen in such abundance, such confluence, every day more and still more until it has become a typhoon, maelstrom, churning and dragging us down to the baseness of all things; in this time of terror and men who are mad with fury at everything they don’t have and don’t deserve and who possess a blindness towards fellow creatures that is almost impossible to achieve in the natural course of things, humans having evolved the ability to see another as themselves to be able to work together in such essential tasks as getting food and protecting the young; in this terrible time I’m not sure how any of us can stay afloat, never mind sane, but last night, waking from a trumphitlerian nightmare, I was rescued by images that came unbidden, like good angels – images and wisps of remembrance from other times, of gentle men and gentlemen, of my father with his big hands and his love and generosity and magic.
He was a charmer, Tino (diminutive of Constantine), Viennese, handsome, tall and dark with a flair for languages who told jokes that were not jokes so much as encapsulated stories, miniature plays, often with a philosophical tail and they were always funny. He adored women of any persuasion, childhood, adulthood and age. My little girlfriends adored him back and when they grew older they had crushes on him. He loved having fun (his childhood in Vienna not having supplied a hell of a lot of that, especially when other boys would gang up on him and pull down his pants to see if he was circumcised) and was constantly inventive. The summer we rented a house in Weston, Connecticut he and my mother and two friends set up a orange traffic sign on which my mother Dolly, an artist, had painted SLOW. Beneath that she painted a black snail and below that the word CROSSING. A few hundred yards beyond, on the opposite side of the road they put up a restaurant sign: Á l’Escargot Bienvenu. (At the Welcome Snail.)
That was the summer of his chamber music festival, with young musicians from all around the area and a fat magician named Dr. Stanley Jaks, whom we had met on a ship sailing from New York to Buenos Aires in the winter of 1948-49 and he remained a friend, a refugee himself, like my parents. His pinky nail extended for several inches and he treated it with great respect. He was a member of the Society of 13, the world’s greatest magicians. He had performed in the White House for President Truman and General MacArthur, setting it up and finally laying out cards for the finale. He offered the General a choice of bibelots from his collection, a metsuke perhaps, a tiny jade Buddha or a turquoise elephant and asked him to place the trinket on the card he’d first selected. When MacArthur had done so Jaks asked him, “Are you sure? You wouldn’t prefer a different card?”
To which Douglas MacArthur, from the battlefields of Korea, replied, “A general never changes his mind!”
Harry Truman reached out for the trinket and moved it to another card. “But a president does,” he said.
At the music festival Stanley Jaks presided as King in a rented monarchial outfit, ermine tails and all and I, twelve or thirteen at the time, was outfitted as the court jester, bells on cap (“I AM the royal jester/ My name is Peter Chester./This glorious person THAT you see/ Is his Royal Majesty.”) I led the way, the King behind me, followed by the rest of the procession which included my mother as a lion, a very perfect lion with a large mane (she was a Leo and prided herself on that), into the house where the music would be played, different groups in different rooms and on the porch and grounds of the rambling farmhouse. That was the summer of the snails, and their friend Tom Hollyman, a well-known photographer who played the bagpipe with a vacuum cleaner and had a dog named Flugelhorn.
By then I was on the cusp of some form of incipient maturity that has never found a correct appellation because how this maturity happens and when depend on the society and circumstances a child grows up in, and I had developed a new self-consciousness with accompanying irony. In other words, though magic was all around me I did not believe in magic.
But when I was younger, how could I help it? Those very early memories came to me last night as my mind skittered away from the Terrible Men that are beyond the thinking of. It was summer, we were at a place with a hill, a tent, a car. . . I had trouble sifting through indistinct images and then realized that very early memories are not actually of place in the sense of rooms or settings or landscapes; they are much smaller than that, outlines or suggestions of something – a barn door, the edge of a table, the rumble seat in the old car where we kids (what kids?) sat squashed together. It was probably New England – where else would we have gone? Rumble seat! Holding on and screaming in fear we’d fall out (though I don’t believe the car, rumbling on the dirt road, ever went faster than 5 miles an hour.) One day my father put on a magic show for us, but the rain came splashing down, a storm was gathering and we all went into the tent. Though maybe not a tent. Now I am writing this down new images are popping up, or most likely ancient nearly-obliterated images at last resurfacing in the developing fluid of my brain’s darkroom. It was something more like a garage, roomy. My daddy performing hocus-pocus. All of us enthralled. And then came a flash of lightning and we screamed, huddling together as the thunder came crashing after, the garage no longer safe. And my father raised his hand (or wand or finger) and we all fell silent. He called out to the rain and told it STOP! which it did instantly. We all filed out, the sun was shining, the grass smelled fresh and green and on the hill there were horsies – I mean, horses – and maybe other animals too.
He was a magician who could make things turn out the way I wanted, my Zauber-König in a Mozartian vein (which was very much my father’s vein, Viennese vein, little Wolfgang Amadeus having come to the palace of Schönbrunn when he was 6, in the little gala outfit given him by the Empress and Emperor, still sitting there now among the royalty at the banquet table in the painting that hangs in a Rococo room where little cherubs climb out from the ceiling feet first.)
At night, on the rare nights when he was home and could put me to bed, he didn’t read to me. Instead he told me wonderful stories that he probably made up as he went along. Lovely little animals, each of whom was a character, a personality (sometimes with an accent) – the oyster (called Oystraka) defending his pearl; the two sheep, Wooly, who was white, and Tar who was black, best friends. But Wooly was a good student and Tar could never learn to count beyond 3. This was because he was lame in one foot and when he walked he went thump-thump-hoppeta-thump, counting only the thumps. And so Tar couldn’t get promoted to the next grade. But one day when Wooly was missing and no one could find him, Tar went looking everywhere, high and low, calling his name. At last he came to a little patch of clover, and there was Wooly, and Tar bounded over so fast he didn’t even limp. “I came for you!” he cried. “Wooly, I came for you!”
“Four!” said Wooly. “You just said four!” The friends embraced, and soon they went back together and Tar made his way in school alongside Wooly and they were inseparable for the rest of their lives.
I loved all the stories, though admittedly my favorite was about a little girl called Kathy who had braids, just as I did, and who climbed up over the back of the armchair into a painting that hung on the wall above it. She took the little path through the high meadow and walked towards the house far in back. Everything was beautiful. She looked out the window at flowers blooming and birds flitting in the trees, and in the kitchen where there were wonderful things to eat. When she had her fill Kathy walked out the door, back along the path, through the meadow and out by the frame, my daddy sitting on my bed, my head on my pillow, traveling thorough paintings..
But the most forceful magic happened during a hike. My parents were very fond of mountains, and though my mother didn’t share my father’s love of or ability in skiing, she did like to hike (“marschieren,” she called it). On Sundays they often went to Bear Mountain and I had to come along, though I hated exercise in any form at all, and especially having to climb up stupid, fall-down paths with grownups (their friends Pepik and Olga often came along) all talking in grown-up, sometimes even in Czech, and me feeling so sorry for myself that it became difficult to propel my body forward even a few inches.
My father would drop back every few minutes to encourage me, and though I complained and maybe even cried, I did finally make it to the very top. And when I got there I saw a perfect little conifer tree no bigger than I was and its branches were hung with chocolate.
I am now a long way from cynical youth and deep into furious age. But now I do believe in magic. There are moments that simply arrive or descend, engulfing you with pleasure for no reason, making you see how good people can be and how beautiful, or catching up your breath when you notice the sun’s rays falling on the trees just before sundown on 17th Street, turning their green to gold; or the rush of gratitude when a doctor finally diagnoses what is ailing you, speaking to you with compassion and intelligence. Words of all shapes. The magic of friends – Eli, already near 80, flying in from Finland to visit me for a couple of days in my illness or the unexpected delivery of luxuriant food ordered by another darling; the flowers from David, reuniting with two Lindas; the kindness of Michaels.
I think of my father often these days. I have a loving husband and loving son and loving male friends but they are here with me now, in this toxic swill that seeps into every conversation. I can’t understand anyone who can’t understand what is happening. So I turn to the past (civilization) instead of the future (chaos) and try to believe there is something beyond the present madness where:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats went on, in probably his most-quoted poem, “The Second Coming,” to ask:
What rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
“Rough beast” is good. I take refuge in lost worlds and gardens of the mind where things can still grow. I hope every woman on earth can summon up in memory or at least imagination some gentle men she has known or loved, great good men like Pope Francis or an uncle, a neighbor, the mailman, someone with whom she felt happy and safe and who brought magic with him. Of course it’s not only women who are suffering in all this, but we are the majority of people in the world and have been treated abominably by terrible men for a long time all over the globe. What we must do now is to recognize the clear and present danger of the most terrible man of all, heir to Hitler and Stalin, ally of Putin, racist, hater of women and everyone who doesn’t worship him; a man who steals from the poor, an ugly old fat man who attempts to shame others for one goal only: to crown himself god. We must defeat him as surely as if the Black Death had returned that decimated most of Europe’s population before there was an America to which survivors (immigrants) came. Defeat him in the polls of course, but also by returning to our true concerns and values, to lightness, logic and imagination, reclaiming our country and our lives, ourselves.