Take a piece of chalk and hold it firmly in your dominant hand. Squat down and reach as far away from your body as possible. Put the chalk on the floor and start turning your body. Keep your one foot planted and push off with the other. As you turn, adjust so you do not fall. Keep turning and keep drawing. When you reach the beginning of your line make sure to match the mark so no one can tell where you began and where you ended.
That’s it. You have just drawn a circle around yourself. If you are descended from the Honi the Circle Maker, you probably can do some magic now and get God to bring rain or whatever. If you are not descended from this 1st Cent. BCE Judean, then you probably can’t. But others will not necessarily know that. Others will be impressed with your perfect circle—with no beginning and no ending. They will confer upon you powers of one sort or another. They will want to learn something from you. Get something from you or perhaps just being close to you. At worst they may want to own you, but that’s another story.
Circles, especially chalk ones are fragile. They do not withstand the assault of rain…but they may last centuries in the right environment like wall drawings in a cave that live on through multiple civilizations and upheavals: the 100-year war, the rise & fall of the Roman empire, the British empire, revolutions, new religions and expulsions…and that is certainly quite magical.
I have a piece of chalk. And with it I draw circles around myself and you and every story we have ever told. I want to cover my sidewalk with many circled stories. I come from two distinct circles and I am the resulting intersection. Since I have never been very good at geometry, I cannot tell you how much that intersection amounts too. If I am the center of the story, then that precious space should be quite large. But it isn’t. I have lived in a space that is small and confined even though it has spanned continents and oceans. Few people ever seemed to notice. Have any ever considered what it might be like to be me. “C’est tout petit chez moi”… (My home is very small.) St. Exupery’s Little Prince explained. He lived on a planet where the sunrises and sunsets could be experienced every few hours. The stranded aviator and the Little Prince came from different planets—actually and proverbially; they found it hard to understand each other.
That was me. I was the Little Prince—lost on several foreign planets and looking to tend a flower of my own and also somehow in the mess of lines and arcs and circles I looked for someone to tend to me. “Desine moi un mouton” (Draw me a lamb) he asks of the aviator. No drawing was adequate until in a stroke of genius the aviator drew a box with air holes and announced that the lamb was inside. Perfect. Our imagination is so much better than a finite graphite drawing.
There is a photograph of me at age 8 or so. Prettily dressed, as usual, I am perched on a chair and point to somewhere in the southern hemisphere of a lit globe. The countries on the map are pink and blue and represent the world we knew in the 1950’s. The globe has existed about as long as me. It has always lived in my father’s world in Manhattan, first in his library in the Madison Ave. apartment and eventually as my bedside lamp in our Fifth Ave. apartment. As a teenager I remember meeting a freshly squeezed glass of orange juice under this globe every morning. My father woke early—perhaps he did not sleep at all– and among his morning rituals like making filtered dark coffee in the Chemex, was squeezing orange juice for himself, for me and later also for his second wife. His father had died in his fifties of a heart attack on the streets of Paris, and therefore he attributed his own good health and long life to the fresh juice. He lived to age 82; I will not argue with his “science,” but I know that imagining oranges in Paris during his interwar childhood is a near impossibility. And all that vitamin C did not save him from the appalling endgame of loss of self through Alzheimer’s. I digress.
The globe is the three dimensional version of my world of circles. I point to somewhere, perhaps only as a struck pose. Someone asked me to point and so I pointed. There were many expectations in this northern hemisphere circle. In the southern circle, the one in Buenos Aires, I existed and do not remember that much was asked of me, expected of me… I was left to the care of my nanny. I called her Mémé. She lived in my little world, in the intersection of the circles… until she was sent back to her home in France.
I was 7.
At that time, I began to voyage between my parents on PanAm aircrafts. I think the trip lasted 30 hours. How do I check that piece of information? Was that just a wild exaggeration that has stuck as truth or was that really real? The flight started in Buenos Aires, Argentina and stopped at every capital going up through Chili, Peru, Ecuador and finally Miami Beach, Florida. There my father awaited—I hoped. After hours of sleeping, eating, playing, and of course brushing my teeth in those tight airplane toilets… I stared out the window toward the airport building. I was searching the roofline for my father’s sihouette. That’s where he said he would be and that’s where I looked. Anxiety, fear, and the urge to pee in my pants crowded out any other possible emotions or activities, except the nail biting, of course. That accompanied me everywhere and always and still does.
There! I see him! I know this is true because I feel it in my bones. I was able to identify my Papa simply from his form and movement on the roof of the building. Like a gosling that knows who their parent is among all the similar adult geese. Only then, did my unspoken terror subside, my nail biting moments of self-soothing are easy to explain. In the airplane cabin, with my temporary friends and caretakers, the stewardesses , I was safe. But now there came that chasm between safeties… between this and my father’s enveloping arms. There he was in his long black wool coat. It was winter in Florida. I was to miss yet another summer in Buenos Aires.
What I am reaching for, trying to explore are all those coping mechanisms we create inadvertently? They seem to see us through difficulties and then they become entrenched; the meaning or purpose lost. Why should a well-put-together woman such as I have bitten finger nails? It took years of self reproach to gain compassion and understanding. My fingers and their nails soothed me through many flights between planets, between my circles.
It serves no function now; just habitual nonsense that occasionally can be curbed.
Lainie picked up a large striated rock and lugged it back to our car. This would be the memento of our pilgrimage to Dobbs Ferry and now is a door stop in my home. Andy, Lainie and I went on a journey to our earliest home we shared. They remembered it vividly and I, not at all. I was one or two when we left that idyllic place that never became my home but remained always my place of birth.
For a brief time, I lived within an hour of that house. It must have been at my instigation. When we arrived, my older siblings leaped out of the car in anticipation. Recollections stumbled out of their mouths. Neighborhood kids, a bike, our car, the schools they attended. I was quiet and took it all in.
The grand old fake Tudor stood in the acute angle of South Lawn Ave. and River Street. The garage was under the house and the driveway opened on River Street. But the change of grade was so great that the front door on South Lawn was way down an entire flight of stone steps. The house was poised between two streets at two very different altitudes. We walked around the property and lingered at the meeting of the two streets where we could look through the trees into the garden area. I recognized a doorway—not from actual memory but from photographs taken. There I re-imagined my father holding me in his arms. Who took the picture? In the garden, another photo came to life. I sat in Janet Artel’s lap under that tree.
When we had seen all that we could see and stood looking down at the front door and almost straight into the second story windows, one of us asked, “Should we ring the bell?” “Yes,” the others answered quickly and down the steps we went. Andy rang the bell. A high-pitched older woman’s voice called out, “Hello, who’s there?”
We three looked at each other bewildered. What to say? I took charge and used my full name knowing that if this woman knew the former owners of her house, she might remember my last name. My sibling have a different father and therefore different last names. It worked. “Just a minute,” came the friendly answer.
The front door opened and there stood the current resident of our home. We blurted out the purpose of our expedition. She was amused and graciously invited us in. As we walked around each room, anecdotes spilled forward from Andy’s memory. We ended up in the living room, sitting and talking like grownups. But my brother was eager to be 12 again and my sister was a well-behaved 5 year old. I, the baby, was still and focusing on details. All my first-year-of-life photos were taken in this room and now, I could finally place them… the very wide window sill where my mother’s hands held me as I looked out the window, the built-in bookcases where my sister was posed with her new doll—a reward for losing her place as youngest, the metal garden door with many panes of glass as the background for my father’s stance. There was my past; or at least two-three pages of my oldest photo album.
The woman’s chipper voice suddenly asked, “Do you want to see upstairs?” We all said yes, at once and a bit too loudly, and jumped to our feet. Again, it was my siblings who led the way. I felt more like a tourist in my own story. They could actually remember things. We followed our talkative guide up the staircase. My brother first, then me and then my sister. As we passed a doorway on the landing to the right, my brother, announced over his shoulder to me, “That was your room.” I stood transfixed. My sister pushed past me and added, “Your crib was here” pointing to a cabinet door. I looked at her and said, “Here?” But she was gone. Andy and Lainie were rushing to their childhood bedrooms. I was left to stare and ponder. What was this strange little room—my room?
I took it in very slowly. I opened the cabinet door. It was a linen closet. There was another door on the back wall. This was a linen closet with two doors. A dormer window was in the center of the longest wall. Opposite the closet and my crib, I instantly recognized the tall very narrow door of an old-fashioned built-in ironing board. I was standing in the ironing room of this grand old house.
As I took in the shades of warm light glancing off the various angles of the dormer, the shadows of the window muntons tracing along the wall, I could hear the soothing, repetitive sounds of ironing…the steam escaping as it hit the cloth…the utter peacefulness, as I fell off to sleep. Not now—then.
I had a camera, but forgot to take a picture. But my memory holds that room intensely. When I got home, I drew it in full color– that was not really there. It was the coloring of my child’s memory—of meeting the world and life in my first environment. It was the only time I lived with both my parents. My own Garden of Eden. It deserves magically bright colors.
But when I tell the story of that visit, what I entertain people with is my discovery of why I have always loved ironing. Mysteriously—but no longer—it has always been my meditative activity of choice. The garden of Eden is closed to us but the effects endure
A tell-tale ragged seam of brass:
One artisan’s skill repairing another’s creation.
At first, I was disappointed
But, as time has exposed my ragged seams,
I’ve come to appreciate the artisan who worked in brass.
I shine it regularly now
And turn the vase to show the seam.
As I march into my middle years, stately, firmly
I hear the brass—the trumpets, horns and flutes,
I comb my hair and let the gray strands decorate my years.
I wore my rabbit hand muff around all day today. It just hung around my neck and occasionally I slipped one or both hands into the cozy silk inside. I have always wondered why fur coats had the fur on the outside. Wouldn’t it make more sense to reverse that?
This white muff and the small white leather gloves from Saks Fifth Ave. have been stored together for ever it seems. I wore them when I was about seven…and then? And then they were stored away. First by one of my parents and then I adopted them and they became a link to my past. Perhaps I thought I owed it to them…or to my father who bought them for me and then to whomever saved them for me. The longer one saves something, the more they gain in value. They are valuable because they have been saved even more than because of their active life. And then how does one get rid of them?
It was Halloween. Some 80 kids showed up at my door with their scrappy, stupid and sometimes brilliant costumes. “Is that a muff?!” asked one girl. She was the only one. I asked her how she knew. And then she added something entirely inexplicable: “So&So has one.” Who I asked? So&So, the football player. I was mystified.
This is what is left of my lovely little girl’s white rabbit muff, the kind one might find in a fairy tale in some winter wonderland.
There are other clothes I have saved. Pauline gave me an embroidered black pleated wool skirt with straps… no, we didn’t call them straps…not back then. Suspenders maybe; but not elastic. Heavens, how have I forgotten what these things were called?! Two long straps that start at the waistline in the back, criss-cross across the back and go over each shoulder and button into the waistband in the front. Several button holes allow for tightening or loosening. The button are in the waistband. Quite clever.
The bottom of the skirt has a colorful appliqued scene and characters. And a green band was added at some point as I grew taller. No one loved this skirt in the next generations. Perhaps the wool for too scratchy, the shoulder straps too old-fashioned or unusual. Maybe they did not like ‘ethnic’ stuff. This well-preserved item is from Peru, perhaps of Ecuador…someplace in that part of the world. It was touristic then and even more so now.
The muff now hangs with my scarves on the hat rack. The white leather gloves are momentarily lost, I think. The skirt languishes in my closet. But I still have photographs of little Janie and the muff and Little Janie wearing the black wool skirt with her Grand-mère at La Tortue.
She sat quietly under the table. Her mother and the 3 other female canasta players eventually forgot she was there. She held her breath as long as she could each time, in case they should suddenly glance to see if the children were about. Holding the table leg that was unencumbered by knees and hand bags she followed the curved line to the claw foot. Above, the voices droned on about local gossip interjected by canasta “calls” and she let her mind wander into imagination, into the lion’s cage, no, into the jungle where she lived within the protective warmth of a lion clan. She nuzzled the lion mother and felt safe at last. The purring of many cats filled her head and let her be… without thought, without worry, without words.
“There you are! Oh dear, the child has been under the table this whole time.”
She is pulled out by her arm and made to stand on her two human feet in the full glaring light of amused and reproachful human eyes. The busy chatter of women worried about what they revealed during the last hour catches the wind and seems to float out the window into the streets of Buenos Aires… or New York, or Kansas City.
She hops away to play in her room. Hopping is what is expected of a 4 year old. They will not think twice about her. Their voices return to a rhythm that has forgotten her. She would mull over what she heard and not understood. How did she know she was not supposed to hear certain things?
Holding this peach in my hand today, weighing it, remembering back to a time. To a time
when it sat in my father’s library in Manhattan’s upper east side. When I was a child, the peach used to be fuzzy, but it isn’t anymore. It was always heavy as a stone. It is stone or something quite heavy like marble perhaps. This peach has always lived in this Majolica plate…a wavy curly green leaf of chard. It had suffered a large break and now sported a clumsy glue repair. I could not recall if that repair was part of my memory. So many hands had fondled this nearly perfect object. Just as I had. That peach was worn out. It had lost its fuzz–like old balding men…like my father.
A few years ago, on a visit to California, I saw the plate and the balding peach again in my father’s widow’s home. I saw all my childhood there. I had grown up surrounded by furniture from France; an ornate mirror and writing desk from my grandmother that eventually migrated to my father’s apartment. Two heavy cast iron Charles X chairs, a brass heron standing lamp. Paris, New York and now, Los Angeles. “I have left you all the furniture in my will,” she explains matter-of-factly. That was nice, but she is only 12 years older than I am. Who says I will outlive her? How soon am I likely to get the furniture that holds my entire past?
She did not react to my expression of eagerness about the strange green plate and its old
peach. She did not offer them to me. She didn’t say anything like “Oh, would you like them?” She simply started talking about something else. And so I instinctively stopped hoping and moved on to her next topic. Where did all the fuzz go to?
Several months later, a package arrived and in it I found the plate and the peach.
They have stood sentinel together for decades. Their life together was much older than mine. And now we are all here together one last time.
I weigh the sad peach often in my hand and ponder the lost fuzz. I start this family memoir with a certain wistfulness, a bit of trepidation, unsure of where the journey will take me. Witnesses to the story die and the memories die with them. Objects remain… stubbornly, remarkably. How shall I solve the puzzle?
How shall I glue the story back together?
Recovering memories is like trying to put the fuzz back on a peach.
Artifact by artifact I will meander back in time and place.
Each item sparks a variety of strands of memory.
My father built a collection for me of superbly leather bound books. The selection was beyond the ability of my 6-14 year old mind and most of the titles remained unread…until now.
Why did he choose Theodor Reik’s The Secret Self: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Literature to give to a seven year old? He gave me books by Hersey, Salinger, Saroyan, Katherine Butler Hathaway, Isak Dinesen, Jacques Chardonne, Howard Fast, Max Beerbohm, St. Exupery, and other 20th century writers.
Back in the early 1970’s when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I was a practicing book binder and restorer, I took a bibliography class at Harvard’s Houghton rare book library. Our teacher was William Bond, the head of Houghton. He was of the patrician type one might expect at this formidable university—tall, elegant, gentlemanly from a Protestant stock that formed our nation and its early corporations. Dr. Bond had a rolling cart filled with books he had selected to illustrate his every point. We met in the wood-panelled Keats room, handled rare books, took a short break in the hall to partake of Dr. Bond’s wife’s cookies and then returned with our greasy fingers to handle more books. From him I learned to be a book sleuth.
So, allow me first to report on the visual evidence I found in two books in my collection.
But, I am ready now to decipher this private message my father encoded for me in 1958 when I was ten. I will read his gifts, delve deeper, decode the choices he made, the changes and designs he prompted. I will do this while I translate his letters and diaries; and maybe I will learn something I did not know about him… about me.
The Secret Self by Reik has a copyright from 1952. Included in the binding are the original understated scholarly front and back covers of the original dust jacket. A small ‘–1’ in pencil at the top corner of the first blank page announces insolently that my father purchased it for $1 at a used bookstore. Twenty chapters and an introduction are squeezed into 329 pages. The binder, Gilberte Givel, impressed her name in tiny gold letters on the edge of the inside back cover. At the bottom edge of the inside front cover, my full formal name and the date of the gift are in bold gold capital letters—the accent grave is included, of course: PAULINE JANE TRIGÈRE 1955. The black Morocco leather book has a decorated cover of two onlaid birds—maybe geese—flying off to the right. They are made of various geometric shapes in smooth calf skin—white, gray and black. It begs to be touched, to let one’s fingers graze across the surface. I wonder at the choice of design. Whose? The endpapers are a magnificent shiny dripping of black ink on glistening cream paper stock. And to enclose it all is a box covered in the same paper. Well-made book boxes have this satisfying feeling as one slides the book in or out. The box swallows the book with a barely audible sucking sound. And, pulling the book out feels as if the box is so reluctant to give up it’s precious content.
I must find out why my father chose the book, which chapters captivated him, and also where and what in the text influences those flying geese. It cannot be a random choice.
Without reading an entire book, how does one grasp it’s scope, it’s valued messages, its deep meaning for the writer and also for a particular reader? I searched the table of contents for something that might catch any of my senses. The chapter titles were intriguing, amusing, inviting, but the last chapter, Kleiner Kinder, Grosse Kinder had the strongest pull. It comes from a saying the analyst’s Viennese father used to say: small children, small worries—big children, big worries. I had heard it often before. The author writes of his daughters, then his patients and their children and finally about his own father and that relationship. It is very moving. Since I was only 10 and lived most of the year away from my father, I cannot have been like the problem daughters he describes, but how he views his own father is more to the point. The conflicts that must have evoked something for my father had to do do with his own father—his feeling for that man, his disappointments and how to resolve that. My father was hard on me but even harder on himself. The message I deciphered was his hope that I would use compassion one day to judge him as a father. That was the author’s message. I understood.
Although I cannot yet prove where the design of the two flying geese comes from, I think it may be this last chapter, too. One goose is larger than the other—grosser, kleiner. The smaller one is below and protected by the larger. And perhaps more to the point, their wing tips touch delicately. Parent, child. The smaller one is exactly like the larger one. They are not just black and white; they are gray, as well. It’s not so simple…like our lives.
The luscious blue and green Morocco leather of John Hersey’s A Single Pebble represent water and sky; a small black and gold Chinese junk floats on the front cover horizon. But my father renamed it The Junk, which is also the heading of Part 1. I think I know my father well enough to understand what happened here. He loved to read and he was a serious judge of literature. Clearly, he felt that Part One: The Junk was the best part and boldly edited the author’s title.
All I want to do is hold the book and turn and turn it between my palms. It feels solid, precious and somehow unknowable. Gilberte Givel’s name and mine are gold stamped as, what has become, usual. The dust jacket covers and spine are included. The leather cover design is drawn from the DJ, and this was designed by the remarkable George Salter. Written in 1956 and bound for me in 1958—I was only 10. Could I have predicted that 36 years later, I would marry a man who so admired this refugee book designer that he had created his own impressive collection of George Salter covers?
Two mysteries to decode here. I read all of Part One: The Junk. At first I don’t understand what made my father pick up this book. It is about a young hydraulic engineer (American perhaps) who goes to study the Great Yangtse River. His junk journey into Chinese culture is via the sailors and the captain’s wife. His sense of otherness seen suddenly through their eyes astounds him. He is a stranger learning about his new world, his company and himself. That was my father; he was an immigrant from Europe to America in the late 1930s. He struggled so hard to understand his new world, the people and encountered his continued otherness through their eyes. He wrote to his cousins in Paris that he was marrying America…but by 1958, he had long been divorced from her. Born in Odessa, Russia, he had struggled to become a Frenchman. I am sure they never allowed him that honor entirely and now he was trying again. Of course the book had to be renamed The Junk; that was what was important—this first part. He was reading his own story.
A third immigrant, a refugee from Germany, George Salter also had to make his way into American society. Three strangers meet on one junk on a fearsome river.
I have several sections of paperback books that have been torn through the spine; he would send me what he deemed worthwhile and discard the rest! It wasn’t only me; others have shown me their similar oddly curated collections by Sioma.
Mostly, he would send entire books; innumerable people have come up to me to report on or even show me their copy of The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico.
One might feel miffed to not have been the only recipient of his choice book…or one could be flattered to be among the chosen group he felt compelled to send a copy. He reviewed books with his feet and at the post office.
Gilberte Givel… the binder of all these books. It is because of the books and because of her and my 16th summer which I spent with Gilberte in her magnificent Paris apartment, that I became a book binder.