Also, I have the Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick and Jani to consider, which project is what led me to seek out the Bukoskis in the first place. On the other hand, that book may get integrated with this writing somehow, as clearly even the 'grandmother' book is as much about me as them. What I think sometimes when I'm attempting to write in their voices and 'they' start talking back to me (which I record as writing...hard to explain and no I don't think I'm a medium or something, it's just this weird experience I have - have had for a while - where I can somehow communicate with people who are dead - but not in a hooey way - it's quite down to earth...and I know it isn't them but it is them...OK I sound like a lunatic now, but it's the best way I can explain it for now...) is: I don't know what their internal lives were, I can only guess, which is the point of the book...but it may be better to do from another angle...I'm not sure. For now, however, I think the relative impossibility of the task is why it's good for me to do regardless of it's future...
And speaking of dead people I talk to...oh where to start with this...there are so many angles. First, there is the experience of when my grandmother Jani died and I did not know the precise moment, but I was writing a poem - I was at a school retreat - an Emily Dickinson retreat in Amherst, Massachusetts believe it or not - with our amazing long white-haired English teacher Mrs. Talkington. At boarding school on scholarship, I felt socially inept, but I did have and must now honor - some amazing teachers. Mrs. Talkington was one of them - a large woman in every way, body, spirit, personality and generosity. She was the kind of eccentric woman every teenage girl should have the privilege of knowing. Somehow she had wangled it that a few of us could spend the weekend with her in Amherst, Massachusetts under the guise of exploring the life of Emily Dickinson. What we actually did in my recollection - it being the 1970s and everyone not being so hyper about everything - was hang out in folk clubs and get pleasantly soused on red wine. We were the 'good girls' so by that age we could get away with anything. If you looked at us as a group, you would have laughed. We looked like a miniature set of blue-stockings, very pale and earnest, wearing peasant skirts with sensible shoes and giggling non-stop. Mrs. Talkington, not dissimilarly from Jani, also had - much to our intrigued and slightly scandalized surprise - a younger lover who she was meeting up with in Amherst that weekend. He had long blonde hair as I recall, and we all looked on in some kind of mixture of awe and confusion at this pairing. We who were so self-conscious and hyper-critical of our young bodies seeing this large older woman fascinating this attractive younger man...what were we to make of this? But the clear advantage for us was: we could do what we wanted and we did.
At some point however I came down with a fever and wrote a poem, quite quickly. It came out of me automatically and I did not understand it. A few hours later, my mother called and told me Jani had died. I knew she was dying, because it had been the summer before in the cottage in Maine where we had bonded over Roethke, radiation treatments and Vogue magazine (I forgot that part - the day I brought her to Portland for her radiation treatment when we were on the ferry coming back to Peaks Island - I was wearing jeans that were far too large for me as I'd gone on my 99th crash diet and weighed about 100 pounds and Jani was wearing a bright red track suit (old school 70s style) and I think red sneakers (Brits: trainers). I had on an overlarge blue velveteen sweatshirt. Basically, we looked like homeless people who had recently showered. We bought a Vogue magazine on the way back and were entirely engaged in criticizing modern fashion when I realized the boat was leaving the Peaks Island dock for another island and ran down the metal stairs to get them to stop and bring the boat back to the dock, claiming sick grandmother excuses. The ferry men were quite nice about it and did that. We sheepishly, well I was sheepish, Jani probably wasn't, she never was, got off the boat, after they had to lower the plank for us to get off again. We then walked up the short drive to the store (the one that smelled the way the shop in Walthamstow did a couple days ago - see earlier post), and had to wait for the island taxi (there was only one van, which picked up people from the ferry and delivered bread) to come back around. Jani was feeling faint and one of the women from the store - I think it was called Feeney's (but I could be wrong...the only store name I remember for sure is Webber's, the one that was nearer to our cottage, which was on the back shore...which has now closed), but this woman gave Jani a milk crate to sit on and asked if she was pregnant, which made Jani howl with laughter. Pregnant! Hah! I laughed too of course, but I could see it also made her feel good that anyone could think a 62 year old with lung cancer was pregnant...and all of this because we - the feminist and the scholar - were too wrapped up in Vogue to notice the ferry had docked)...but when my mother called in February to tell me that Jani had died, I asked her what time precisely, and it turned out, as I suspected, that it had been precisely when I was writing the fevered poem. I then re-read the poem (which I hope I can eventually dig out of my stuff - I have kept all my old journals - diaries going back to when I was 8 - and writing and drawings...and they even made it to England) and saw that it was about her death. I also watched myself change from that moment on from an almost apoplectically shy and awkward girl into an outspoken pain in the ass teenager, who directed plays, organized sit-ins against registration for the draft, broke rules and - because the matriarchal (and patriarchal) family legacy is what it is - started drinking myself silly. In other words, Jani's soul entered into me. I know this happened. It's not up for debate. It just did happen. Not to say she crowded me out, because she didn't. It's not like that. It's just she was there, too. I was also 16, so this accounts for some of my rapid change, but not all of it. On the other hand, I was still there, too, so it's kind of a mind-meld that works well sometimes and not so well other times. However, when I stopped drinking, which I had to do when I was 23, as I had decided to take the fast rode to alcoholic self-destruction, she was not an impediment. In other words, she has always felt like a benign spirit to me. And this I believe is where my 'speaking to the dead' routine began, btw.
I then had to leave the Emily Dickinson retreat a day early and fly to Milwaukee via O'Hare, where my great uncle Cort, I think his name was, was to meet me. I can't remember now if we drove from Chicago or we took a plane from Chicago together to Milwaukee. All I remember from that day is having a bad cold along with the fever, so my ears were clogged for the descent and I had no idea how to deal with the sharp pain in my ears. I think a stewardess brought me cups for my ears or something. I have since learned the trick of inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your ears, but did not have that ability then. I was just suffering.
I then remember that in the Midwest it was cold and snowy. And the people, starting with Great Uncle Cort were very warm. Especially when we hit Milwaukee. I just felt like I was held in one long warm-hearted embrace, the type of which I had never felt before. There was some kitchen somewhere outside the city, with perhaps a sister of Jani's?, there was my mother's brother Ted and his wife Carole and their four kids, three boys and this amazing young girl, only a few years or maybe only 2 years younger than me, Darcy. She is my cousin and the closest I will ever have to a sister. I was so envious of her because Jani - who lived in Milwaukee - spoke of her often. For some reason the main memory I have is Jani telling me how they used to go pick strawberries together. And so here she was, Darcy. I don't remember much of what we said or did together, but I think I probably slept in her room. I remember a warmth between us, and I imagine there must have been some rivalry too, but it was such a lot in so little time. We have since become quite close and I am visiting her soon, so will write more about her, her fabulous husband James and their two lovely boys, Simon and Leo, soon enough...
Darcy told me many years later that she envied me because I think someone had told her about the Emily Dickinson retreat and so I was this exotic hot-house flower coming from some crazy boarding school in the East. For those of you not from the US, you need to understand: there's a whole thing about the East Coast, and especially the North East. It's the hotbed of that crazy liberalism and those intellectuals, etc. that Republicans especially love to hate. However, if you are smart and intellectual/artistic and come from elsewhere, the North East looms as some intimidating bastion of icy snobbery. As I was raised in New England, and not the tony parts, I never understood all this, but it has been explained to me by many, especially during the years I lived in NYC when my friends from the Midwest, South and West regaled me with their fears, hopes and expectations of living on the Beast Coast....read The Great Gatsby for the origin mythology here. The good and honest people live elsewhere, the corrupt but wealthy, powerful and clever live in the Northeast...etc. (The Northeasterners of course look to the UK and Europe...There's always Somewhere to look to and envy. Here, in London, of course, people say to me: you lived in New York! Why on earth are you here??? Are you mad???)
But my time in the Midwest for Jani's memorial celebration (she refused a funeral - and insisted on an Irish wake where 'people will get drunk and tell funny stories' - that was in her Will I believe - she also insisted on a cardboard coffin and to be cremated as she didn't want to give 'those ghouls in the funeral business any of my money'), that time was filled with warmth. The white Congregational church where we had the memorial celebration was packed. Many people did tell funny stories, I read my poem and I was feeling surprisingly cheerful, which may also been due to the fever, which was putting me in an altered state, not to mention the endless supply of alcohol, which I was cheerfully consuming. But I will never forget this young black girl, she was probably my age, about 16, and she came up to the front, when there was open time to recollect Jani and she just cried and said she didn't know what she would do without her, and I started crying then, too. I realized that for the girls she taught at the Milwaukee public (brits: state) highschool, she was a lifeline and they really didn't have anyone else who would look after them like Jani did.
I remember Jani making me read their essays once, and I was astonished at how badly written they were, that the girls didn't even seem to know how to spell. And Jani said 'yes, see...see what you have and they don't.' I had never thought of myself as privileged, especially given the fact I was surrounded by these very wealthy students for years, but Jani would - rightly - have none of it. She wanted me to be clear that I was in no way deprived. And in that sense, she was absolutely right. My mother did a similar thing, when we lived in rural Maine in the 1960s and we were by most standards fairly poor. But I did not think we were poor, because she brought me to visit the Greenlaws, who lived in a big drafty house, with eight kids, lived on Government surplus food (orange Velveeta cheese, white bread, jello, spam...crap basically) and whose father, Mr. Greenlaw was a lobster fisherman. Mr. Greenlaw's claim to fame was being an excellent shot. He warned anyone who messed with his lobster traps that he would shoot off their thumb. No one messed with them, except some college kid one summer, who thought it would be fun to steal some lobster. Mr. Greenlaw, good to his word, shot off the kid's thumb. And there was no court in all of Maine who would find him guilty. He also imposed order by hitting his children when they were bad with a splintery board.
Therefore, I did not feel deprived, as I had my own room, a Winnie the Pooh lamp, plenty of stuffed animals and food on the table. There was a lot of abuse from step-father number one, George, but I think that was so common at the time, it frankly didn't even rise to noticeable. That's another long story and one that I won't go into here. Maybe later...but with a warning tag.
But the point is, regardless of the abuse, which I imagine this young black girl in Milwaukee had probably seen her share of as well, I did not live in public housing, was not a victim of racism and I had learned enough intellectual skills to get scholarships to fancy schools. Which reminds me of Carol Martin. Carol was also a scholarship student at Choate. She was black, which made her a very distinct minority at CRH at that time. She had come from a public housing project, can't remember which one, had called collect to Choate to ask for an application and they had sent her one. She had 14 brothers and sisters, her father had three jobs and she had to fight for space in front of the oven to do her homework when living at home. She managed to get to Choate, which is a miracle of self-will and tenacity the likes of which are far beyond my comprehension. Not only did she do well there and get a scholarship to an Ivy League College, she worked doing domestic chores for faculty to send money back to her family. Last I heard, she was working to help people even less fortunate than herself in Nigeria and was under personal threat for doing so.
So, let us have a moment for the Carol Martins of the world. Wow. Just wow.
Which brings me to one last meditation, not sure if it will be long or short, but it has to do with Obama, who is only 2 years older than me. My mother, when she was only 16 I believe was involved for a brief time with a young black man, who was beaten up very badly in front of her when they were walking along hand in hand in Southern Maryland in 1961 - not a good plan below the Mason-Dixon line or well anywhere really at that time. He then died later. I remember when my mother first told me that story, it haunted me, because for some reason, I thought: he should have been my father. I don't know why I thought that, but I did. I would ponder if I would still be me if I was the daughter of him and my mother, a thought I found both disturbing and intriguing - it was my first awareness as a child of real contingency I think.
But that was in 1961, which is when Obama was born to a white mother and black father, when in most states mixed race couples were actually illegal. And so I watched his rise and rise with fascination and a kind of personal desire for his success that seemed beyond any logic. I still feel that way, even though I don't agree with a lot of his policies, because as mentioned prior I am a left wing nutter (having converted inexorably at Choate of all places from a Republican into a Commie-pinko-anarchist...go figure...but it all had to do with another excellent history teacher: Mr. Stuart, who said casually - in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis - oh Julia, why don't you look into the US involvement in Iran in 1953 when Mossadegh tried to overthrow the Shah...and I did, and discovered the details, thanks to The Nation and The New Republic, of the first 'successful' CIA undercover operation, run by Kermit Roosevelt - yes his name was Kermit, which as one of the Sesame Street/muppet generation I did find funny - and how we propped up the corrupt Shah and his secret police and how many people died and how we overthrew Mossadegh through undercover operations...etc...and as I wrote this paper - which was yes, you guessed it, a month after Jani died, I changed. I told people with their idiotic Mickey Mouse decals with the middle finger raised and the slogan 'Fuck Iran' - hey, it's only 50 Americans, do you know how many people we've killed over there? I was popular. Oh yeah. This was the spring of 1980. This was leading up to Reagan being president, and I was defending the Ayatollah. Well, not the Ayatollah but the spirit of the revolution. I had football players yell at me, telling to 'leave my country!' and the one female Iranian student come up to me crying and saying I'm so glad you understand. And everything's kind of carried along in that vein ever since.)
But even with that and knowing Obama, like any American president is making all the compromises with global capitalism/military power, etc. that all of them make, I still feel this personal loyalty, like he's some kind of spiritual brother of mine. I know that sounds ludicrous, but it's true. And for all my disagreements with him, the fact that he and Michelle are in the White House still makes me cry in terms of what it means that this boy who was born when his parents' union was illegal in so many states, is now President. That is astonishing, and when that happened, I thought first of my mother, who put her own very young, white self on the line for the civil rights movement, however imperfectly but with such zeal and damn, I was proud, of her and of a country that elected Obama, even if it was mostly because Palin was so scary and the banking system was collapsing and everyone but Obama looked like a collection of deer caught in headlights. Whatever...it worked. He's president...even if Goldman Sachs gave more money to him than anyone else...
oh, oh, oh...see I can't even believe my own happy endings.
Damn. Left wing nutter* to the last.
*nutter: British expression whose meaning is transferable....but my first awareness of it came when Tony Blair said he did not formally convert to Catholicism, his wife's faith, until out of office because he was afraid 'people would think I was a religious nutter.' The biggest knock on him here during the absurd Iraq war being that he prayed with Bush before they spoke. Though there were witnesses, people here would say: no, it can't be true! He's only pretending! Were they ever surprised after he left office. So much so he can't even promote his memoirs here because people show up to pelt him with eggs, and there is a continual underground movement to move his memoirs from the non-fiction to True Crime section of bookstores. It's just different over here.