The nurse sent me to a large room, essentially a holding pen, filled with men and women of all ages and all sizes. Each patient would be evaluated eventually and treatment—drugs and/or therapy—would begin. Being a well-bred Southerner, I attempted to make polite conversation with a muscular man, Douglas, a paranoid schizophrenic, who had just been shipped over from a psycho ward in Connecticut.
He started talking about Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in “Midnight Cowboy“… what a cool bus ride they had together.
Five minutes later, I was lying on the cold linoleum floor spitting out large chips of teeth and lots of blood. Several of the male patients came to my rescue; they pulled Douglas off of me and held him until a doctor appeared.
He injected Douglas with a powerful drug and escorted him into a room with a solid, gray metal door.
After Douglas’s door was bolted, his bloodcurdling, scathing denunciations of me penetrated almost every room of that hospital.
Someone gave me an ice bag to hold on my throbbing cheek.
I was eighteen years old and a college freshman before I was allowed to select my
own clothes. My mother “owned” me; I was not a human being but her personal property.
There was a small shop in the “ville,” as we college students called it.
I purchased a blue-and-white polished cotton long-sleeved blouse with white pearl buttons in October of my freshman year.
It should have been framed in ornate gold and hung on the wall for posterity, as though it were an expensive handmade kimono from Kyoto.
“It is, after all, not necessary to fly right into the middle of the sun, but it is necessary to crawl to a clean little spot on earth where the sun sometimes shines and one can warm oneself a little.”
My parents were a lifelong mystery to me. Whenever I was alone in their house, I would go through their chests of drawers in hopes of finding clues to their behavior, which seemed so alien compared with the love and affection I witnessed among my friends’ parents.
In my father’s bureau, I found pills in a small, metal container for treating venereal disease. In his bookcase, he kept several novels by Gore Vidal and a copy of Great Cases in Psychoanalysis, which I found fascinating because of the kinky sexual case histories.
I believe that my father was trying to understand himself and come to terms with his homosexuality. Our WASP culture harshly frowned on the psychiatric profession. Our culture said: Fix yourself. Self-reliance above all.
Many years later, I saw the extraordinary Richard Kiley in “Man of La Mancha,” based on Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” at an outdoor theater-in-the-round in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. I will never forget the lyrics, and in a strange way, how I identified with Dulcinea emotionally; she accepted cruelty with equanimity, but tenderness she could not bear.
The musical affected me like no other…the cynic/romantic always tilting at windmills and dreaming and hoping for the impossible with a perseverance and determination unrecognized by others.
Years later, she and my father boycotted my wedding and sent a neatly typed note on engraved eggshell stationery: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert R. Smith, Jr., will not attend.”
I waited for an explanation for their absence. I waited for decades, but it never came.
My mother and I were master/slave; Hitler/Jew; shark/bloody leg; Mr. Murdstone/David Copperfield; Johan/Henrik in Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband.
Whenever someone asked about my “Mom,” my gut reaction would have been to answer, Mom? I don’t know anyone like that. Nancy, my biological mother, the popinjay, the vituperative termagant, was certainly no Stella Dallas.
To my mother, every aspect of life was categorized as a bargain or overpriced.
That included me: poor Return On Investment.
I had no siblings. To visit her after I left home for college, a formal invitation was required. Christmas was the only time that I was permitted to return to my parents’ house.
I told my father that I was thinking about marrying The Greek and moving to Athens.
In a disembodied voice, he replied, “I guess we’ll see you once every ten years.”
He turned his back on me, and walked away.
Had lunch–turkey sandwiches–at Viand coffee shop on Madison with Marilyn and Helen from work. Said they really admired me for surviving so long working for my boss, Beatrice, editor-in-chief of DR. Magazine.
Everyone else quits after three months. Beatrice is cold, ruthless, demanding. Always has her underlings in tears. Marilyn said that I was a “very cool lady.” Enjoyed their company and their compliments, of course.
Ah, the advantages given by Southern repression.
For French author Madame de Girardin:
“To love one who loves you, to admire one who admires you, in a word, to be the idol of one’s idol, is exceeding the limit of human joy; it is stealing fire from heaven.”
That perfectly describes what I am looking for!
Work is easy. Love is hard.
Robert calmly told his wife, Nancy, that if Gerhard, his male lover and draughtsman, abandoned him, he would commit suicide.
Nancy told me this when I was a teenager. No one ever told her that children were supposed to be protected from the cruelties of life in order to have some optimism and hope for the future.
It was an idea that she was incapable of forming on her own.
There was no FUN in our dysfunctional family.
Neither humor nor love or compassion touched us.
The phone call came about eight in the evening. The caller introduced himself as a friend of my father. He got my telephone number from Robert’s handsome, German, blue-eyed, blond draftsman.
Henry lived in Dell, Arkansas, and was a gentleman farmer. He wanted to talk with me because he was about to die (congestive heart failure) and missed my father terribly.
“Robert taught me how to look at the world,” Henry explained.
“I learned so much from him,” he said. “I remember looking at photographs of Russian cemeteries in a book that he gave me. When I was in New York, I spent hours at the Frick and Metropolitan Museum looking at paintings that your father told me to visit.
And he did so much for our little town; the downtown area is lovely because of the plantings and fountains that your father suggested for the town square.”
My father gave to his male lovers everything that he denied from me. Robert never ever had such conversations with me.
Then Henry proceeded to describe in intricate detail the interior decoration of our house in Frenchtown.
Spooky! How much time had he spent there?
“Is your mother still alive?” he asked.
“She was really scary,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“Still alive. Yes, she is really scary,” I agreed.
We talked about forty-five minutes.
I never heard from him again.
A jewel that grew out of the darkness of these times. It is a children’s book with hidden sophistication. It is a book the child may read. It’s a book you may read to the child. It’s also a book you may wrestle from the child, curl up in a cozy corner and read to yourself. And lastly, it’s a book you don’t need to read, but slowly turn the pages from one treasured drawing to another.
Elliot Rais – Author of Stealing the Borders
5.0 out of 5 stars This book will appeal to children and adults.
Reviewed in the United States on November 6, 2020
This timely publication is packed with imaginative characters and memorable illustrations, which appeal to all ages.
Readers enter creative pandemic vignettes inhabited by an array of amusingly named creatures going about their daily lives with masks in hand, or dutifully worn on beak, mouth, or muzzle.
You’ll wonder about the contents of Balkan Bat’s inky drink, admire a Wolverine wary Alaskan rabbit, who has landed a lacy mask, also some loving ladybugs inspired to go to extremes for fashion, and be happy for some naked crayons acquiring winter knits.
My mother’s bedroom consisted of a narrow, single bed covered in a chocolate-brown and tan bedspread, a long, folding table for her adding machine, and gray metal filing cabinets that ferociously lined the walls. The venetian blinds were never opened. That room was a precise reflection of her hardened soul.
In my parents’ house, nothing was traditional.
For Christmas, sometimes, my father created a tree from small green umbrellas sprouting up like giant cattails from a New Jersey swamp. Other times, Robert sprayed enormous magnolia leaves gold and bound them together like large fans used to cool off a surly pasha.
In those politically incorrect days, there was an institution in Memphis called Home for the Incurables. Nancy briefly belonged to some women’s organization that visited the patients, all of whom could have appeared in a Flannery O’Connor novel. I accompanied her there once.
I had never seen so many helpless, hopeless, and deformed people, and I began to cry.
A nurse softly said to my mother, “You really shouldn’t bring a young child to a place like this.”
Nancy did not respond.
When we were inside her Chevrolet station wagon with the batlike fins over the rear lights, she screamed, “Stop it with the crocodile tears! That’s life. Get used to it!”