- From the Albums of Strangers
At Priestly House, a volunteer-the Episcopalpastor's elegant wife-gives a lecture/demonstrationon women's clothing in the eighteenth century.She stands before us in a slip, her bra and pantiesoutlined underneath, and dresses piece by piece:elaborate stiff ritualistic garments worn originally,she tells us, over nothing, no underclothes. Beneaththe ornamented surface, bodies were naked,untrammeled, women's genitals exposed to air.
Visiting my husband's sisters, I'm telling a storyabout myself, use the word "half-assedly." Oneof them feigns shock, they all laugh. The favoriteexpletive of this family of women-sisters, mother,aunts-is shit. They've labored over lifetimescleaning it up, from babies' diapers to the lapsesof the incontinent old. Did women two centuriesago, lifting layers of skirts, underskirts, petticoats,shifts, baring their cheeks, squatting in cold latrines,allow themselves the epithet, relish the word?
My husband comes home from volunteer work,helping the indigent elderly fill out tax forms,with a story: the man he's assisting is so nervousthe papers shake in his hands. He tells Walthe's been this way since he was six or seven;every night he fell asleep crying and terrified: [End Page 50] every night at bedtime his alcoholic fathertold him, "When you're asleep I'm going tocome in here and cut your throat."
Later we're talking about a friend's problemswith an adult child. Not a day goes by, Walt says,when I don't think about D. The adult son ofhis first marriage, who told him years ago, I don'tconsider you my father. His failures as a fatherordinary sins of omission, mistakes of judgment.
My husband's Aunt Frances, eighty-eight, thirdyoungest of Howard and Lovey's fourteen children,eleven survived to adulthood, reminisces aboutthe trouble she and her brother Harvey'd get into:watering the milk after she'd spilled a pail of it;leaving one chicken's eggs beneath the pigpen,uncollected, because neither of them wanted tosqueeze into that small dark hole, till the eggs hatchedand Lovey found out what they hadn't been doing;sneaking in to lift the cloth covering the dead faceof baby Marion, nineteen months-Frances was five,Harvey three-after Lovey warned them that ifthe cloth was touched Marion wouldn't look goodany more. Indelible moments etched in the cellsof an old woman's memory. Fear was the definingforce of that childhood, intimate, crowded, lonelyas hatchlings, vulnerable to whatever diseases spreadthrough the sprawled buildings like winter. [End Page 51]
The grandmothers are talking about what it's liketo read to their grandchildren: the image of theirown children coming back, silky heads heavyagainst their chests, the soft limbs. Does it matterwhose child you are holding-your own, yourchild's child, a stranger's? You possess nothingof them, you breathe in everything.
My husband's grandmother kept an easy chairin her immaculate basement, next to the furnace,for Mary Jane, her big doll. Some morningsshe'd climb down the cellar steps, tell Mary Janeto move, so that she could sit there in the warmbreath, forget the future, dream alive the past.
My sister on the phone sounds cheerful, a tonepatently put on, a proffered mask, arch, wry,unconvincing. What is she trying to conceal?I hang up, my head full of speeches, a litanyI've recited and can't let go. . . . My anger is stale,choking. I wake at just before six, close my eyesand dream that I'm waking, rising to the smallroutines of a morning quirky and engrafted withthe real, the detail of cup and saucer, lip and cup.Then I'm on the phone with her, she asks over andover if the plan for her visit is all right, so hesitantthat finally I ask what's going on, why she's doingthis. There's a long silence-I'm determined notto break it...