Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Deliverance  of a kind came when Bob was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, the equivalent for us of winning the lottery.  Suddenly we had a good year's income in a single check.  I quit my job, and we left for a summer in the south of France.  I was still reeling from the events of the past year, and this seemed like a new beginning.  We stayed in a pension right on the beach, Bob rented a studio where he could paint, and I spent my days lying in the sun, reading and working on my tan.  That was the summer of the moon landing, which we watched on French television.  Our languid days were punctuated by day trips to nearby museums in Vence, Nice, and Antibes, where Picasso had spent one summer in an ancient fortress.  He left behind all the work he did there, a nice little collection of what must by now be nearly priceless objects.  I had not known summer could be so beautiful.  The sea was as blue as I'd been told, there were brilliant flowers everywhere, and we took our meals on the terrace overlooking a small marina.  As darkness fell,  lights on the boats moored offshore were reflected in the water and seemingly in the stars above.  I was in a place I'd never been, surrounded by people I hadn't known existed just a few months before, and I was as dazzled as if I were dreaming.

One of our waitresses at the pension had a little boy about five years old.  He had free run of the place and was often down at the beach, playing with the little daughter of the man who taught sailing lessons.  Every morning a dozen small children set out in their miniature sailboats with brightly colored sails.  The boats were no larger than a bathtub, and watching them cheerfully bobbing in the gentle waves was as cheerful a thing as I have ever done.   One evening during dinner an alarm was raised for the little boy, who had gone missing.  The staff scurried about, trying to keep the uproar to a minimum, but it was a frightening time before the child was found.  I never knew the child's name, or if I did I've forgotten it, but I remember him.  He was a sturdy little boy with black hair, and I imagined that my son might  look something like him when he was five.
When I saw a pregnant woman who was staying at the pension for a week with a group of teachers from Sweden, I felt a kinship I couldn't express.  I wanted to be pregnant again.  


I've learned that after relinquishing a child for adoption many birth mothers never have another child.  Many do go on to raise families, however, and at 23, having recently given birth already, my maternal instincts were in full flood.  Bob and I never discussed the baby I'd given up—I'd learned my lesson about that—but we began talking about having a baby ourselves.  We bought air mattresses and floated out past the swimmers where we would drift and talk and plan our next move.  I wanted a baby, and Bob did too, so the idea took root and grew.  We went to a jewelery store in Antibes and bought a wedding ring, but I wouldn't wear it until we were actually married.  I carried that ring in a box in my purse for a long time.  In fact, I didn't wear it until my son Tanner was five months old.  

The summer in France, followed by several magical days in Holland before our return flight, had seemingly washed the grit out of my mind and heart.  It was as if I now inhabited not only a new world but a new self.   The daughter my parents had raised and known seemed almost a stranger, and I realize now that I was indeed constructing a new persona, a new self-definition.  I knew that I would never be like other young women, not like my old friends from high school and college who were getting married and starting families with respectable husbands and secure futures.  My parents' vision for my life would never take shape.  Everything I did from now on would be colored by my past, even if others were unaware of it.  It was as if I began breathing with only the top part of my lungs, keeping things light, suspended, never letting the world enter me too deeply.  I had to hold my emotional breath, because if I didn't I would surely drown.  

The drive in from the airport through the huge Queens cemetery seemed an omen.  Instead of the summer's warm breezes and soft sounds, we were surrounded by noise and grime and acres of the dead.  I felt like an abandoned car in a compactor, crushed and reduced to insignificance.  It was then I began to get the migraine headaches that would plague me until menopause.  We returned to New York, and my head exploded.  I worried about brain tumors and substituted fear about my health for grief for my lost son.  There was no way I could mourn my loss, no one I could talk to, and no hope of things ever being any different.  My baby was gone forever, but my love for him wasn't.  If I couldn't express my feelings, my feelings would find an outlet in debilitating headaches.  Perhaps a doctor would find no connection between my loss and my physical pain, but it makes sense to me, and what is life but an attempt to make sense of our experiences?  I couldn't grieve openly, but I could take to my bed with a migraine.  Pain became part of my world, along with fear, and a frightening loss of confidence.

I was deeply dependent on Bob and devoted myself to being the supportive helpmeet to his aspiring artist.  Admittedly, I did get a fair education in art history from him, even if it meant subordinating my artistic preferences to his artistic ideology.  When we separated years later, the first two things I did were to remove my wedding ring and order some Impressionist prints from the Metropolitan Museum.  

France had ruined us for the urban challenges of New York, so we fled the city and headed north.  I still had the red VW bug my dad had bought me in Ithaca, and we retrieved it from my brother and began searching for a place to land.  We needed nature and beauty, which the Catskill mountains have in abundance.  We drove from one small town to another, thrilling to mountain vistas and crystalline lakes,  until we arrived in Pine Hill, a hamlet nestled among steep forests and not far from an abandoned ski resort.  There were many deserted hotels in the area, which had a century earlier been the summer refuge for wealthy city dwellers.  The hotels retained a kind of shabby elegance that only increased their desolation, but the landscape was beautiful, no matter what the season.  Few people lived in this part of New York state, and it seemed to me that you had to choose between people and nature, city and country, for where people gather nature retreats.  I'd spent a year and a half living in New York, working, going out at weekends, getting to know Bob's artist friends and their wives and girlfriends.  In short, I'd moved into his life and left my own completely behind.  I badly needed to regroup, and the isolation of the Catskills seemed a continuation of the peace I'd begun to find in France.  Bob rented the basement of a defunct motel near the empty ski resort and set up a studio there.  One wall was mostly glass, and the view across the mountains was breathtaking.  That winter, when the snow was deep on the ground and the branches of trees bent with ice like in the Frost poem, we'd see deer delicately pick their way through the snow, their nostrils quivering in the cold.  We rented a tiny, two-room house from an elderly Jewish couple who became sort of surrogate grandparents to us.  They lived in the city but would come by occasionally to check on their property and take us out to dinner.  By Christmas I was expecting a baby.

Tanner was born in the summer, while my parents were in Germany attending the Olympics.  He was ten days old when they arrived back in the States and came immediately to see us and their new grandson.  They had bought a white Mercedes while in Germany, and my dad loved that car with a special passion.  He drove it for many years, and I always think of him whenever I see a white Mercedes of a certain vintage and remember that the car and Tanner arrived at the same time.  Bob and I were not married, as I had assured my parents we would be, but no one mentioned this awkward topic.  Now, all these many years later, I can only wonder what my parents must have been thinking.  Here was their daughter, having her second child out-of-wedlock.  Were they horrified, delighted with the baby, worried about what their friends at home would think, or were they resigned and numb?  What I do know is that I had constructed a fortress mentality that shut out any compassion I might have felt for them.  For decades I blamed my mother for not standing up for me and keeping a safe distance from my ordeal.  I needed help, and I got none from her.  I found it difficult to reconcile what I knew about her—that she was a kind, gentle lady who valued her good name and community standing—and the fact that when I proved such a disappointment, her love for me couldn't rise to the occasion.  I had always felt loved as a child, but it seemed that love had its limits.  When I was in my thirties, visiting my parents in Indiana, by then the mother of three, I remember her saying to me, “I never know what you’re thinking or what you're feeling.”  I realized that I had closed a door on her, and though I was cordial and attentive in a filial way, she knew it.  Who then was the betrayer, who the betrayed?  When I lost David, I lost a crucial link to my mother and we would never again be able to reach each other across that great divide.  

Tanner was an easy child with a precocious seriousness.  I agree with Wordsworth that “the child is father to the man,” and what a kid is at two or three is predictive of what he'll be at twenty or forty.  People don't change, in my experience, and my grandmother believed that a mother could know her child's personality even before he was born.  Tanner was slow to smile, as if he were considering the kind of world he'd entered into before committing himself.  Always a builder, he constructed “traps” out of whatever he could find around the house and at the age of three could do a better job cleaning his room than I did.  As an adult he would renovate houses and have a keen eye for design.  When his eight-year old nephew, my daughter's son, was learning a new vocabulary word, he was asked to give an example of “taciturn.”  His eyes lit up and he proclaimed, “Uncle Tanner!”  He nailed it.

These were the good years of my marriage to Bob.  Tanner delighted us both, and Bob was actively involved in his care.  The rages of our first year together tapered off, and I believed we'd come through the worst.  Ours was a marriage that would last, of that I was positive.

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