Three possible ways to begin.
A. Sept. 6, 1953
When I left you on Thursday I was bursting with pride. I never thought I’d see the day that my daughter would be going to a college like Wellesley. A real atmosphere for learning—a peacefulness and serenity. How lovely the campus is—and the girls, the ones I met seemed very high caliber. Have you gotten to know anyone yet? What about Ann Nichols? I got a big kick out of her. Is she always so friendly and outgoing? (Or is she just a loud mouth?)
On the way home I went over in my mind the clothes we unpacked. It seemed to me, Dolly, you had everything you needed and that you and I did a pretty good job in getting your stuff together. Not an excessive amount—but just right. If you find that you need something, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.
The biggest surprise was when I got home. Of course Daddy wanted to hear all about it—what your room was like (I didn’t tell him how much we spent on that blue scatter rug!)—and what the girls were like—but the surprise was . . .a large bouquet of bright yellow chrysanthemums on the lowboy chest in the foyer with a note that said, “Welcome Home from a Job Well Done.” Isn’t that a lovely gesture!
Of course, Dolly, you are the “job well done.” I can’t take all the credit. Daddy and Almighty God helped! But enough such nonsense. I was proud of you on Thursday—your wholesomeness, your calm, and your sense of responsibility. I pray that your first year of college is everything you hope it will be. I’m sure that there is much to be gained there and that you will learn a lot.
I must close and go and visit Grandma.
All my love,
Jeanne rode her bicycle from the library to the dormitory on dark evenings, gulping cold air. At the dorm, girls in plaid shorts and woolen knee socks played bridge for hours at a time, smoking cigarettes. The air smelled stale.
She wore green slacks and spent time in the library, rooted in a carrel in the stacks of the basement mezzanine, behind the dusty volumes of old philosophical journals. She was reading about the Fabian Society, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and “The greatest happiness of the greatest number.” She was reading Stendhal in French. Her renderings of paramecia and amoebae were growing lovelier; she bought colored ink. But something was wrong, some growing pain that made it hard to breathe deeply. Cold air, a draft? What was it? And for the first time in her life, 18 years, she knew she longed for Rita, her mother.
C. Feb. 6, 1954
Needless to say, there is little time to write a long letter. A biology quiz and a French test tomorrow. A long term paper for English is due in three weeks. The weather is freezing and my boots aren’t really that warm. Would it be O. K. if I bought some new ones? My coat is warm enough if I wear my crew sweater under it,
I met with my class advisor, Mrs. Reynolds, the other day. She wanted apparently, just to talk. She said she had spoken to Mr. Lazarus, my English teacher, and that he thought very highly of me. I told her that I disliked French and about my other courses—she was very warm and called me Jeannie—and asked about my family (YOU!) and my summer plans.
The big English paper is getting me down, but I have finally decided on the subject: Thomas Mann and his ideas about the connection of art and illness. Have you ever read anything by him? He wrote The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice which is a novella (a very short novel).
By the way, Mom, I just found out there is a guest room on the first floor of the dorm where visitors can stay for only $3 a night. I would really like you to come up. You seem so curious. We could spend a few days together and you could go to classes with me and eat your meals in the dorm. There probably would be a concert or lecture we could go to together. Please consider it seriously. I checked it out with the house-mother and she says “Fine!”—So when will you arrive?
Now stay well and get some rest—(sound familiar?)
Love and Kisses,
Jeanne describes herself.
A Salinger fan. I read Catcher in the Rye a couple of times, but I don’t believe that in real life a boy of Holden Caufield’s age can be such a big deal personality. My mother buys me a book of T. S. Eliot for my birthday at my request. Want to read Virginia Woolf, especially To the Light-house.
I become friends with an intelligent, loud-mouthed girl from the Bronx—who walks like a bear and is as shaggy as a yak. Her name is Dodo.
I discover that if I listen to the Brandenburg Concerto #5 while watching the leaves of the maple tree outside my window flutter in the breeze—that the leaves will actually dance beautifully and in perfect time to the music. Ann Nichols says, “Oh, you’re nuts, Jeannie!” She speaks with a Maine accent and is second generation Wellesley. Dodo believes me but isn’t impressed. “What’s the big deal about leaves dancing to Bach!” she says. “The question is “Will they dance to Arnold Schönberg?” “”Who’s he?” I ask.
Flexibility is one of my strong points. Teachers have always commented on my cheerful adaptability. In art class I am able to integrate a spilled splotch of ink into my design. My gym teacher calls me “Jeannie Limber Legs.” My American History teacher commends me for my “balanced perspective,” my ability to see all sides of an argument.
My father is quiet, formal. As he drives along the West Side Highway he keeps a record in the back of his mind of which ships are in port and which ones have sailed. He knows how long each ship has been away. He doesn’t know what subjects I’m taking in school. On Valentine’s Day he sends me a corsage of pink tea roses. For my birthday he carefully chooses a greeting card that conveys his deepest feelings. His business is on Seventh Avenue: girls’ coats.
Alan, a boy who was two years ahead of me in high school, comes to visit me from Williams College. Gray eyes, and nice lips and teeth and beautiful hands. A physics major, spends hours explaining how the internal combustion engine works. Then we neck, I like boys, am very horny, but a virgin. Suddenly he gets really passionate and wild. Something happens. He excuses himself and goes to the bathroom. I blush, ashamed of my bungling awkwardness. Afterwards he isn’t friendly. He never writes or calls.
I take a job cleaning the dorm living room and sweeping the hall steps and must get up at 6 a. m. I empty ashtrays, dust, straighten out chairs and tables. Don’t mind the dirty work. Like being the only one awake. Night gives way to day with the exact swiftness as at the Hayden Planetarium, but w/o music. I watch out of the window.
I start reading Thomas Mann and decide to write my English term paper on “The Changing Attitudes of Thomas Mann as shown through his Changing Concepts of Disease and Death.” This is Mr. Lazarus’, my English teacher’s, comment when he returns the paper about Thomas Mann:
Extremely difficult subject—you do amazingly well with it. The first page or so are in need of re-working: after that your presentation is less obtrusive and Mann’s attitudes come through. Your organization is fine. Curiously, main trouble appears to be in the construction of single sentences—often you write with a Germanic structure.
Mr. Lazarus, slightly smashed from drinking beers at the local bar, where he was watching the McCarthy hearings on TV, asks me whether I have any plans for the future. I tell him I’ve thought about becoming a teacher or a lawyer or a journalist. How can I tell him that I alternate between wanting to be a horserider and trainer on an enormous ranch in New Mexico (leather chaps, embossed boots—and I wrangle a wild herd of horses by myself from a distant pasture back to the corral at full gallop) and a scholar or brilliant humanitarian like Albert Schweitzer or Jane Addams? I find that I can’t talk freely about myself to Mr. Lazarus.
In my college room with its blue plaid Bates bedspread, I think of my mother and of home— the smell of pot roast cooking and the taste of potatoes seeped in rich gravy—and her sorting out the laundry on Sunday nights: the sheets and towels, light-colored clothes, dark clothes. So much handling of clothes (sprinkling, folding, ironing), of objects, dishes, food. Women are always touching things: folding, smoothing, paring, dicing. My father watches the ships enter and leave the piers, thinks about missions fulfilled, continents connected—while lightly holding the lacquered steering wheel of his car. He listens to World News on the radio during dinner. My mother holds an onion in one hand and a small knife with a brown wood handle in the other. She peels and slices. Tears run down her face.
Oftentimes she seems preoccupied. I’m not sure why. Of course she worries: about right and wrong and about us (my father, my sister and her husband, about me). For example, when I was late sending my father a card for his birthday, she wrote, “I beseech the Almighty in Heaven to tell me where I have failed as a mother.” She was serious. Her reaction, as far as I’m concerned, was a little extreme. I don’t think she had failed just because a birthday card to my father was a couple of days late.
Jeanne describes her mother.
Rita has violet-blue eyes and dark brows. She walks with sharp, determined steps like a sandpiper at the water’s edge. She dashes here-there, sometimes across the street quickly, sometimes carelessly. Seems to be mumbling and frowning; about what? Perhaps about news or how statesmanship is going downhill. About Eisenhower who may have been a great general during The War but is a lousy president.
Rita’s frowning: Is it “what the world is coming to,” or is it that she never feels she looks as chic and smartly dressed as Aunt Selma, who wears peacock blue silk Shantung dresses on Sunday afternoons when the family gathers in Grandma’s dim living room?
Sometimes Rita’s worried face makes me mad. How to make her happy? Once when I was about 12 (and she was well into her 40’s) she asked me what I would think of her and Dad’s adopting a baby. I was at the kitchen table watching her cut string beans and tried to imagine what it would be like to have a baby brother or sister. Guarding my place as youngest, I said I didn’t think it was such a hot idea. She laughed and said no more about it. Perhaps I should have been enthusiastic. Perhaps she needed another child.
When she and I are edgy with each other, I expect her to reach out and brush the hair off my forehead or criticize my appearance. More often than not, she doesn’t, and it’s just a feeling I get.
On a trip to New Hampshire, the family passes a pony farm with a riding rink. I dare my mother to go on a pony. She does. The pony, with a mouthful of saliva and half-chewed apple, smears the runny mess on Rita’s coat sleeve. That doesn’t stop her. My father, seeing his wife sitting so straight on the pony, calls her “Stonewall Jackson.” Something erect and brave about Rita.
She tries to please. Pleasing parents even when she is herself a parent, an adult, a wife. So many people to do right by: aging parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, her husband, her children; even her oldest daughter’s in-laws; even nieces and nephews, old friends, and so on, and so on.
Once a long time ago she hired a “Home Efficiency Counselor” to come to the house and assist her in working out a daily schedule, or routine, that would help her feel she was getting more accomplished. When the counselor, a neat slim woman with a chignon that looked like a chocolate donut, left the house there was an index card with a weekly timetable on it left on the kitchen counter; for a while it was tacked up on the cupboard door.
I don’t understand where she derived her sense that there was more to education than getting information or status. She had gone to old-fashioned public schools and a commercial high school; however, without financial support from my father or approval from anyone else in the family, she squeezed tuition out of her household allowance (scrimping on her clothes—buying basic black and changing accessories) and sent me to a small progressive school—a la John Dewey. She adored that little progressive school with its trips to the Fulton Fish market and a lighthouse in the bay—and its sanctioned tumult, its affection, its freedom. When I was older and begging to go to public schools like other kids, she explained, “I wanted you to feel like an individual,”
Recently she wrote that she was at a loss to figure out what to do with her time. She was trying a short course in Emergency First Aid and Nursing. Her letter read, “I had to pretend I was the patient. (The others in the class had to make the bed with me in it. ) Of course I wore my underwear underneath my nightgown. I was burning up.”
A letter from Rita:
Feb. 11, 1954
1 was so flattered that you invited me up to college. Are you sure that my presence won’t interfere with you—your classes, studies, etc. ? I would love to witness the “inside story,” 1 think 1 can take the train up there a week from Wednesday. Daddy says I should go and not give it a second thought but I hate leaving him alone. Of course he can have dinner with Aunt Selma and Uncle Max.
Poor Uncle Bert got held up in his store— about ten minutes after Aunt Helen and Ricky walked out to shop at the A & P. When they came back he had been stripped of the beautiful new Benrus watch Helen had given him for their anniversary, his wallet, his papers, some money. Everything happens to them.
Dad says I definitely should take the train and go up to see you. He says he’ll manage. He’s such a generous, good-hearted guy. He doesn’t stand in my way. I’ve even been thinking of taking driving lessons.
Oh yes, Jeanne—I took The Magic Mountain out of the library and started it. Very interesting. I want to read your paper on Thomas Mann—I hope I can understand it. Dolly, it certainly sounds like a big topic. I admire you for taking on such a large subject, but hope you didn’t bite off more than you can chew.
See you soon
Love and Kisses,
P. S. Your comment was well received. It is rather biased of me and uncalled for. Perhaps you are right. I stand corrected.
Jeanne becomes aware during the winter months of an amorphous sense of loss. It dawns on her that she is missing her mother. She invites Rita up to college to visit with her for a few days.
Rita arrives. She does not own slacks but wears a maroon and wool dress and a black coat with velvet trim, black kid gloves, and a light blue gauzy wool scarf instead of a hat, and galoshes, rather dainty ones like a Russian Princess, that are molded for high heels.
Rita has a flair for joining things, enjoying the atmosphere; her eyes sparkle, she smiles a lot; now there is an easy air between J. and R. They avoid inflammatory topics like religion and sex.
Classes. Rita goes to Jeanne’s English class, where Mr. Lazarus is discussing Dickens’ use of imagery in Our Mutual Friend. After class, Rita tells Mr. Lazarus how impressed she is with the high caliber work he gives the class. In turn he tells Rita how well Jeanne is doing. Jeanne, somewhat embarrassed, stands about six feet away from these adults . . .but she is not as embarrassed as she would once have been; her mother’s and teacher’s brief words have resonance for her, tie different parts of her life together.
The same feeling occurs on the way home from Intro. to Music. They are walking up a steep hill; it is night; not a clear, high-ceilinged black night—but rather a deep violet one that hangs close overhead, A light snow is falling. The class had been listening to The Marriage of Figaro. A strong wind is blowing directly at them as they walk back to the dorm after class, and Rita bows her head to it, but speaks, “What a thrill Grandma would have gotten if she knew you were studying opera. She used to insist on Grandpa’s taking her to the Metropolitan even when they had no money. I still remember when Grandma and I went to hear Puccini’s Tosca. We had seats in the top tier.” Rita’s eyes are tearing. She blows her nose. Her eyes always tear in the cold, but this time Jeanne is unsure whether it is the cold or deep feeling; not sure if it is sadness or joy.
C. Dialogue at the Local Rathskellar.
- How was your weekend at Cornell? Did Frank act like a gentleman? (R. knows better than to ask this, but does anyway, coyly, tentatively. )
- What is that supposed to mean, Mother?
- I’ve heard about what goes on at college weekends and fraternity house parties.
- What have you heard?
- That there’s a lot of drinking and sex. Lights-out and carrying-on. I hope you didn’t do anything you’re ashamed of, young lady.
- I try to do what feels right to me, Mother.
- What does that mean exactly?
- It means what it means, J. says, smiling reassuringly; then she changes the subject.
Railroad Station. Jeanne is wearing one of those red slicker raincoats fashionable at that time, with her heavy crew sweater underneath. She has urged her mother to stay for at least one more day: there are still other classes to attend—European history, modern dance, and a biology lab, but Rita is worrying about her husband and also says, “Jeanne, there wasn’t one other parent on the whole campus. Not one.”
J. What difference does that make! Why can’t you stay just one more day?
R. I’d like to stay, I love it here, but I want to be home in time to make Dad dinner. Dolly, these couple of days have been among the happiest in my life.
J. So stay then! Change your plans! Dad will understand, he won’t mind.
R. Dolly, I’d like to stay. In fact, I’d like to go to college with you, but I can’t. That’s impossible.
Here Rita draws the line.
Once the train pulls into the station and her mother boards it, Jeanne must leave immediately, for she finds that she can’t watch the train with her mother on it pull out of the station. She cannot bear the objectivization of that distancing. Moreover, the idea of seeing the bare railroad tracks, where the train had stood, frightens her, seems violent to her. “Why am I living with strangers?” She is surprised by the intensity of her feelings. She takes a cab directly back to the dorm and goes to her room and closes the door. For a short time she avoids her friends.
Later J. is aware of something unfinished, some omission. There was something she didn’t say to her mother—or was it a question she forgot to ask?
Several Days Later. Her mother writes: “When the train was pulling out of the station I looked for you and didn’t see you. What happened? Was something wrong? Where did you disappear to? By the way Jeannie, you didn’t happen to find one of my black leather gloves? I must have dropped it onto the track as I got on the train. Look for it anyway in your room or in the guest room at the dorm.” Jeanne shudders. The glove probably fell onto the track. She pictures her mother searching for the glove, then walking out into New York City wearing only one glove, one hand naked. Five years of trying to escape this connection end in a rush of pain: seeing her mother with her bare palm extended like a hungry beggar.
Jeanne answers the letter: “This may sound really stupid and you may not believe it but I left the station and couldn’t watch the train leave with you in it because I didn’t want you to leave.”
Two Weeks Later. Sixteen days exactly from her mother’s visit, Jeanne calls home collect. It’s 6:05 p. m. Her dad answers, sounds puzzled and doesn’t accept the charges. “Tell her to call in 15 minutes,” he says to the operator. Jeanne puts the call through again in 15 minutes. Still her father refuses to accept the call. Again she waits 15 minutes and then calls. It’s 7 o’clock now. Her father answers, accepts the charges, sounds nervous and tells her that Mommy isn’t home yet. “The supper table is all set but she hasn’t even called. That’s not like Rita,” he says to Jeanne and adds, “I’ll call you as soon as she comes home.”
Jeanne walks up and down the corridor but is unable to put in words what seems to be happening, so she doesn’t tell Dodo anything. In 20 minutes the phone in the dormitory rings. It’s neither her father nor her mother. It’s her aunt, who can barely speak. She mumbles, “Come home quick. Something terrible has happened to your mother.”
Jeanne goes up to her room and packs her charcoal flannel suit. In her drawer she finds a black wool jersey blouse with a Peter Pan collar. The house-mother drives her to the airport. Dodo goes along to help Jeanne. They drive to the airport in the dark, in silence. The weather is still cold but now in March it is also damp. Jeanne is grateful that the housemother is quiet. The housemother knows Rita from when she stayed in the guest room in the dorm just two weeks ago, and likes her very much. Dodo is also silent—but shaking, partly because she has never flown before and is petrified. The plane is small and the trip takes 45 minutes. Jeanne thinks about nothing. A cab takes them through the city to home.
No one tells Jeanne directly but she can see from her father’s and sister’s faces that what she had already guessed from her aunt’s mumbled phone call in the dorm is correct. Only when she goes into the kitchen, which Rita had repapered the year before, and sees the small table carefully set for two, with a few jonquils in the center and green plaid napkins folded in triangles on the plates, does she begin to believe it. She notices the chairs that Rita had recently reupholstered in dark red vinyl according to instructions in her prized book, Handyman’s Guide to Small Home Repairs. In her own room, on her dresser top is a small envelope with two tickets for a Martha Graham concert during spring vacation, undoubtedly a surprise for her from Rita. Should she go?
My aunt told me that the coat my mother wore when she was run over was folded in a paper bag in the bottom of the foyer closet. She suggested that I have it cleaned and put away for the following winter. It was in perfectly good condition. Before I returned to college I took out the coat; it was black with velvet trim. It had a small drop of blood on the collar. I tried it on; it fit. My mother and I were exactly the same size. I noticed that there was another blood stain on the cuff. The stain was shaped like the state of Texas and was the size of a half-dollar. My mother must have raised her hand to her head where the wound was. I took the coat off and rubbed my finger over the blood stain. I shivered. Without the coat around me, I felt cold.
Lying stomach-down on my bed, my head hanging over the side, I stared at the blue shag rug. I thought of the ocean: not blue, but rather a steely gray ocean, rough and swirling. An ocean of broken glass. I was in a small rowboat. Something like the scene towards the end of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf except that I was alone, without my father or sister. The boat was rocking and tossing, rising and falling in the swells; the water was rough; the oars yanked out of my hands. I braced my arms against the sides of the boat. The shore was now out of sight. Mainly, I was alone, alone.
“Where are you now?” turns into “Mother, who were you?” The omission: not having asked the right questions, enough questions. The story—maybe more Rita’s than Jeanne’s. Need more about Rita.