Autres Temps, Autres Moeurs: From my Grandmother to my Granddaughter

My grandmother Helene was always old.  In the photos I have of her she’s peering cautiously into my baby carriage as if unsure whether a python or small tiger might not be wrapped inside.  Her hair is white or gray hair (the photos are tiny, shiny, black and white), and she’s wearing a dark dress with sleeves going down well past her wrists, her collar rising halfway up her neck to end, reluctantly, in a rim of lace or chiffon from the dickey inside her dress.  In memory I see her pale blue eyes, long nose, her unyielding expression of – what? something between disapproval and indifference.  But on her wedding picture she’s something else, blonde and wasp-waisted, as was the fashion in Austria, the legacy of Empress Elisabeth, known as Sissi, whose waist measured 16 inches and who was the best horsewoman in Europe, not to mention a Shakespeare scholar.

Oma, as I called her, was no Sissi. But she could speak French and play the piano, two requisites for a marriageable young lady in late nineteenth-century Vienna.  Her marriage was arranged, she the daughter of a wealthy bourgeois family, Jewish but non-observant; her husband, considerably older, an industrialist who had attained the point in life when a man seeks a wife.  Leopold was Herr Direktor of the Austro-Americana steamship line, which sounds like an oxymoron since Austria is a landlocked country, except that it was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a port in Trieste, where his ships regularly plied freight and passengers to and from New York.

“Love?” Oma said to me on a weekend in the late 1950’s when I was home from college, “What is all this ‘love?’ I never was in love in my life.”

I looked at her in amazement. Incredulity actually.  I was 18 and this was simply not possible: to say you had never loved was an admission that you’d failed Life.  No one confessed to such a thing.

And yet I admired her hard honesty. She was without guile, like a child to whom no one has yet explained how things work.  Not to have loved!  That was something to be hidden away and never revealed to anyone. Certainly not to your granddaughter.  And despite my fondness for nihilism at the time, despite the Existentialists I loved as a French major, despite everything, I was shocked.  The ultimate meaning of life had to be love, didn’t it?

She did not love, though she depended on my father and preferred him to anyone, much to the annoyance (a mild word for it) of her daughter. And she didn’t feel slighted by the gods.  Life was like that.  She had her piano, she loved Chopin, she wasn’t very bright, but she dunked her lady fingers in her coffee like everyone else, and she brought out little curios from her vitrine, souvenirs her husband had brought back from his trips – a row of tiny ivory elephants holding one another trunk to tail; the three monkeys, See No, Hear No and Speak No Evil – and we played with them when I came to visit, or we turned apples into “cakes”by cutting horizontal slices and ornamenting them with little bits of fruit, raisons, chocolate, nuts, which we then ate at the marble side table with its bowed legs, holding up our pinkies like elegant ladies.

“Why are they smiling?” Oma asked, frowning at the TV in the guest room. “What is so funny?”

The American part of me wanted to say, because it’s more pleasant, but the other me, who’d grown up speaking German along with English, suddenly agreed with her. They did look ridiculous.  They were smiling in the ads, I told her, only for the money.

Helene was born in 1874. Her eldest son was killed in the first World War at the age of 18.  After her husband died, after Hitler came to Europe, her life was without expectations. A walk-up apartment in Washington Heights, the figures in her vitrine, her music, a sense of propriety and her refusal to kiss or be kissed, based on her always-repeated assertion that she’d had tuberculosis when she was young and didn’t want anyone to catch it.  She lived to the age of 93.  I would take an oath that she never enjoyed sex, no matter how accidental, in her life.


Dolly, my mother, was born into a wealthy family in Beroun, a suburb of Prague where her father Otto had a textile factory. She had the sort of growing up I recognized from Russian novels: the Kindermädchen (nanny) gave way to the governess, the French tutor, the tennis coach (the Hellmanns had their own court); food was elegant (game in season; marmalade on toast for my Anglophile grandfather’s breakfast) and at the same time rustic, gathered locally (wild mushrooms) or grown on their own land, the prized white asparagus carefully nurtured under its cover so no trace of sunlight could enable the formation of chlorophyll to turn the spears green.

Though her brothers and sister went to university and received doctorates, Dolly (the “pretty one”) never went to school at all, but was tutored at home through high school. This became her Achilles heel.  Though she was certainly intelligent, intuitive and a gifted artist, she struggled with words, sentences, the patterns of thought that formal education maps in the brains of students whether or not they notice.

Dolly was relegated to her prettiness, thick auburn hair piled on her head, an elegant profile and the high cheekbones of Queen Nefertiti. She stole the boyfriends of her sister Eva, a year and a half older, intense, an intellectual.  Dolly married my father Tino in 1933 when she was 24 and not a virgin, although he was.

Six years into their marriage, at last in America, they had me. We lived in Queens in a semi-detached house in Forest Hills for the first two years of my life and then Kew Gardens, in a house of our own with white mountain laurel and purple lilacs in the backyard.

We each had a bedroom on the second floor opposite the bathroom.  I thought nothing of my parents’ sleeping arrangements of course, children never think other lives are different from their own, just as it didn’t occur to me that not every kid in Queens had old ladies in her attic (after the war, refugees stayed with us; I remember none of them individually but they all wore black and I was told to address them as “Tante,” Auntie.)

Dolly had the big room facing the street with a tiny dressing room attached; then came Tino’s room, then mine. We were three people after all, of course we would have three rooms.  Just look at the Three Bears, or the Three Little Pigs, or – anybody.  (In this same spirit, a generation later, our son ran home one day with the astonishing news that the parents of his best friend down the street had the same name, both of them!  Mr. T met Mrs. T and they got married!  Wasn’t that amazing?   Since my husband and I were different people with different last names, our son naturally assumed the world was like that.)

I must have been a very slow learner.  It wasn’t until Junior High that a friend of mine commented on the separate bedrooms.  Instantly, I was on the defensive.  But in the next few weeks I paid attention when I was over at a friend’s house and realized that all of their parents shared a room, if not actually a bed.  I didn’t know what to make of this but felt an indefinable shame.  My parents were not like other parents.  At that age I needed them to be, but there was no way I could tell them (something vast and mysterious was behind all of this, I felt) and there wasn’t a chance in the world they would have listened.  That their choice of sleeping quarters was common among the bourgeoisie of Central Europe, as of France, I had no idea.

Later, my parents’ infidelities (especially my father’s) were to cause me a lot of grief. Enough to act as catalyst for what would become a year-long “nervous breakdown,” a popular concept in the 1950’s and something many people had, or at least alluded to.  But I was fifteen, and it incapacitated me.  I adored my father and somehow felt the indiscretion that I had uncovered (through letters) was directed at me.  It involved a much younger woman.

Perhaps they were never sexually compatible, my parents.  I think that for my father the bond that made them (and us) a family created something of an incest taboo; he was unmanned by family.  Many years later, after Dolly had died and I became friends with Tino’s girlfriend, he found it difficult to continue his affair.  But he was not looking for permanence in any case.  For him it was the game and not the candle.  He was Viennese; he waltzed, skied, told wonderful stories and adored women.  They responded in measure.  For him an affair was more opera than Hollywood.  Love was something rare and fleeting, woven together by charm.  Once consummated, an affair would begin to fade, the passions of courtship evaporating into the atmosphere of everyday living like letters written on the sky, though many of the women remained lifetime friends.

My mother, too, had lovers – including a young man in Paris when she had an exhibition in the Galerie du Dragon on the left bank, she in her early forties, he in his mid-twenties. Dolly was more discrete than Tino (or maybe women simply know how to hide things better), but in the end neither of them would have considered these affairs as anything other than the lagniappe life has to offer, caviar by the spoonful. Together they were a wonderful pair, their looks, their taste, their marvelous dinners, beautiful clothes; they performed together as a couple, the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of their circle, “perfect for each other,” as I would be told again and again, the most charming duo to set foot in the New World.

My parents told me not to marry the first man I went to bed with and as corollary, either do or don’t, but don’t play around.  This was unnecessary advice during my high school years since I didn’t know any boys.  (My psychoanalyst told me when I was 15 that at my age I should be necking at the back of movie theaters.  I told him he was trying to make me a well-adjusted member of a crazy society.)

In college, a virgin among virgins, I didn’t have much conflict with the differing values of my parents and my peers at Connecticut College for Women (formerly “for Females” and later to turn coed.)  It was on my final night there, end of sophomore year when I knew I’d be transferring to Barnard that I asked a handsome young layabout who spent his time trolling the colleges of the daisy chain and crooning songs from Pal Joey, to please help me get rid of my virginity.  I was eighteen, and it was simply an embarrassment.

He said ok, we went back to his place, the deed was done (we’d both had a lot to drink) and when I asked him if that was all, he replied, “Some people seem to like it.”

I was skeptical. “Not what it’s cracked up to be, is it?” I said and put my clothes back on.

He drove me back to the dorm. Next day my father picked me up and we went to visit to a factory, where I was beside myself with joy, all those people and I was just like them: a grown up, no longer a virgin!


In May of 2003, nearly 130 years after my grandmother Helena was born, my son’s daughter was placed in my arms.   She’s fourteen now, lithe and perky, a virgin like me at that age, like her great-grandmother and her great-great grandmother.  But around her the internet beckons, offering the greatest freedom (if that’s really the word for it) that mass society has ever known.  Social media can apparently undo centuries of moralizing; and modern birth control, coupled with anti-AIDS pills give dispensation to everyone of any gender to do anything at all with no consequences.

But there are always consequences. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell offered two views of the future: in Orwell’s, a totalitarian government represses the people, giving them no access to pleasure.  In Huxley’s Brave New World everything goes, and because nothing is proscribed or even limited, value ekes out. My grandmother lived in the former: duty was the supreme virtue of the Empire.  My granddaughter in modern America faces a world of surplus, with no limitations, and nothing (theoretically) beyond her reach.

My grandmother wasn’t conscious of loving anyone; my granddaughter, like most of the people around her, says “I love you” all the day long.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;/ Present mirth hath present laughter;/ What’s to come is still unsure:/In delay there lies no plenty;/Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty;/Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

In and Out the Window



The rest is silence. 

– Hamlet, Act V

Last lines are a joy forever: perfect codas to lives of the great. The quintessential period at the end of the long sentence.  Gertrude Stein, lying on her bed, eyes closed, about to expire. She opens them, sits up and  asks, “What is the Answer?” and falls back on her pillow.  Silence. The camera waits.  Again she rises from the pillow and speaks: “Never mind that.  What is the question?”  Finis.

Or, going one better perhaps, Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher: “Why are we always in the dark?”

And beyond him, the great German genius, majestic Goethe, whose last words, perhaps whispered gutturally in his bedchamber in Weimar have resounded through the ages: Mehr Licht! (more light!), leaving to posterity the question of whether he, than whom there was no one of  nobler mind or wider range of thought, was still, at the very end of consciousness, seeking further enlightenment; or if, as some cynics have suggested, he was simply asking the nurse to raise the shade.

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