Sunday, January 07, 2007

the autobiographical clothes closet, part second

Thinking of the brocade dress and my young would be poet ,who did in fact go on to publish much poetry, and write enormous tomes of cultural history, and appear in Time Magazine years after we parted--a magazine waved in my face by my father, who had not much relished my illicit relationship with the guy, but who did respect the glossy magazines--thinking on this makes me recall another dress of the time, and another encounter with my poet-love and his family.

The dress was pale green slubbed silk, and simply cut. Yes, my mother made this one as well. I wore it to my first Passover seder, an event which that year--the year I was 17--coincided with Good Friday. My love's parent's had invited me. It was the first time we all dined together--my love, his parents, his two younger brothers, and me. I can only recall one other time in all the years we were together that his parents joined us at dinner, and that was in a London restaurant.

His father was a chemist and a brilliant man, with burning dark eyes and a clever, mobile mouth. His mother, a nurse, had the eyes of a wounded fawn and the kindness of--oh, of shade on a summer's day. His mother and I loved each other dearly; his father, alas, did not love me. Not even a little. It was my first experience of being hated impersonally: as the representative of a different culture, a different religion, a different life. Had I been Jewish, his father would say to me years later, he might possibly have liked me a little.
So there we sat, at the beautiful white table, the damask tablecloth spread, the little dishes of what were to me exotic symbolic foods: the haroset made of apples and wine and nuts and raisins--I think there were raisins; the bitter herbs; the shank bone of a lamb; the salt water. And the wine glasses, and the deep red wine.
And we went through the telling of the flight from Egypt, and the family kindly explained everything, and I tried hard to sing the appropriate chants and follow along, much moved by the ceremony and the history behind it.
And reaching for my glass of unaccustomed wine, nervous in my pale dress, I knocked it over.

Well, it wasn't quite as bad as the River Nile turning to blood, but it seemed close. A deep spreading stain over the white expanse. I murmured apologies, I tried to blot it up, I felt tremendous shame.

Across the table my love's younger brother, the middle one, two years his junior, met my eyes and smiled. Holding my gaze he gently pushed his wineglass. "Seems to be a night for clumsiness!" he laughed, as his wine mingled with mine on the white cloth.

It was the purest example of kindness to a guest I've experienced in my life, and I cherish him for it. That brother now lives in Israel, and has taken up some of his father's prejudice, and would probably not speak with me now; but I think of him with great fondness.

As for the dinner in London, yes, I recall what I wore then as well: a gray velour dress with a high collar and pearly buttons, my favorite dress during most of that decade. It was a pleasantly shallow dinner conversation we had--about theatre, as I recall. I remember thinking how well the evening had gone. No one had shouted, no one had cried. I was pleased to see my love's mother, and could not repress the ever hopeful heart that liked his father as well, that thought if we could speak to each other politely we could surely love one another, surely he would see my great virtues and my love of his son and all would be well.

After that meeting the kind brother of the wineglass wrote to report his father had returned full of anger and despair; the hatred he felt towards me having become even more intense, more personalized. I cried then, and wrote and did not send letters, and wrote very bad poems.

I think now I must have had an emotionally sheltered life in many ways, to have imagined all one must do to be loved was to be, to be open, to be oneself--even if one were, as I must have seemed then, an emotional young woman so very focused on her own life. Well, it was the year of my brother's trial. I probably did very well to keep up my end of the conversation, there in my soft gray dress.

What I usually wore in the British years, as I wrote and walked and haunted museums and bookshops, were very American bluejeans, with whatever sweater I managed to pull out of my closet. It was a style of dress that certainly marked me as from over the pond.
And sturdy shoes. I longed to wear the sandals I was accustomed to, but it was much too cold for my Californian feet.

And sheepskin gloves, bought at a fair in...where was it? Some town outside London, where we had journeyed to visit yet another museum and have yet more strong pots of tea and talk about life and love and writing. The nice man selling the gloves looked at my small hands and brought out the children's sizes, which were much less expensive. With the money I saved I bought a huge bunch of daffodils in bud--and surely it was only January then. Daffodils were a life saver.
And the gloves were too, coddling my fingers, keeping all of me a bit warmer.

I don't think I've ever been so cold as I was in England, so perpetually chilled--but I hadn't learned then what I know now about layering, and silk long underwear.

It was the cold that made me make a strange purchase on the docks of a huge and hairy coat. I paid 8 pounds for it, which was a lot for me at that time, the equivalent of, oh, somewhere around 30 dollars when that much money would have gone far. Brown fur, and I was a tender hearted vegetarian (and am still). Brown, unknown fur. I think now--maybe--it was bear. It was an old coat ("antique" claimed the man hawking the vast pile of strange coats and other wares) and bits of the fur were strangely rubbed. It clasped with rusting metal hooks.

At the time it seemed a good idea. It was warm: imagine a large bear wrapped around you. It was heavy: imagine a large bear sitting on your back as you stroll about a huge city. It was a very nice shade of dark brown, like--well, like a bear. I could never wear it long, and I finally gave it away to someone who, for whatever strange reason, thought it was lovely.

(Maybe the bear who visited me this year was simply coming in retribution for his long dead ancestor, like something from a child's campfire story: "where is my coat? WHERE is MY COAT?")

The next major attempt at warmth was a down parka in stunning, screaming blue ordered from a company in...I think..New Zealand. My love ordered a black one at the same time. I wore mine a couple years until it was stolen, with my garnet and opal rings in the pocket, from outside the motel room I was cleaning.

Though before that there was the shawl. I finally threw away the shawl this summer: moths had eaten it, and mice used bits for nesting. But once, long, long ago, it was very beautiful.
It was made in Edinburgh, where I discovered it in a little shop. It was the color of the sky in summer, with weavings of dry-grass gold through it. It was mohair, and softly scratchy. It was expensive. It was my birthday--it would have been my 23rd, I think--and my love of the time offered to foot half the bill. All of the cost would have been excessive, he said. I accepted.
It was a wholly impractical thing to buy; I wore it, awkwardly, two or three times. In various homes it lay beautifully over a chair, or on a sofa, until it was finally stored away--and nibbled, and nested in, and finally thrown away. But it was indeed a thing of beauty, and for a time, after the birth of my first child, I would line it with a soft flannel blanket and use to to keep my little one snug, noting with delight how the blue of the shawl and the blue of his wide eyes matched.


At January 08, 2007 8:09 PM , Blogger marlyat2 said...

Bloody wine spilled on Good Friday . . . perhaps that was a subliminal message. That's a lovely story about the younger brother. And if the older changed, well, we all in our lives live many lives and play different parts!

There you were in slubbed silk, and there you are like Bearskin in the fairy tale--a test. Will the true love find you despite your hairy shell?

And the shawl... No doubt you have other treasure, not eaten by moths.


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