Gift to the World
This is a transcription of Jane’s Memorial Service tribute to Sioma.
One day this last July, my father and I were reading poetry together: Rimbaud, Beaudelaire, Verlaine; and quite suddenly, her wrote in the book: “Je serais ton copain de la magie” (I shall be your companion in magic – or of the magic).
A striking idea, but what did he mean exactly?
The answer came to me several days ago as I searched my heart for the special gifts my father gave me. The most precious of all was the gift of magic.
– that sparkle that made him do things quite differently from other people, that made me always feel that I had a very special father.
The magic of clowning, of punning, or a curious sense of humor; of special insights; of demanding tastefulness in all things, and of the perfectly turned phrases, of course.
Nothing ordinary and nothing thoughtless.
His was a search for the amusing, the perfect, the unforgettable.
How many, many people have been recipients of “the Snow Goose” and how many bemused booksellers have wondered at the elegant gentleman who purchased that beloved story by the dozen?
Who in this room hasn’t received a short story or isolated chapter torn from its covers, separated from its neighboring pages – all because my father decided it deserved special attention. I myself own several of these small treasures.
There was no Papa like mine. None as demanding. None as playful.
He said, “I shall be your companion on magic”. But, my dear Papa, you always were.
The imagination to be different, albeit with style, that is the most precious inheritance my father has given me. And this I shall pass on to my children … Sioma’s gift to the world.
This journey began again when I was trying to remember my father’s voice. Some recess of my mind could still catch the tone, the lilt, the timbre, the accent. But it was so ephemeral that suddenly I realized that I might even lose that last slippery grasp.
I thought of who might have recorded him…ever. He must have been interviewed; but perhaps not. It was Pauline who shone, who was the icon, the star. He had set it up like that and then eventually hated the arrangement. So reticent, so accommodating, so back stage had he played his part in the partnership, that it succeeded all too well. He was not included in the limelight. Oh yes, an occasional toast in his direction, or a nod to his early years getting the business off to a running start. But the maintenance of it all, the steady steerage throughout the years… oh and also the enthusiasm you can count on. That was his job, I guess. He loved to plan. His early letters in France were full of plots and plans, full of energy and optimism. Steady motor, enthusiastic coxswain.
I did not get to see that. When I started to see my father, to look at him in an effort to understand who he was, instead of just having him as a father, instead of simply enjoying his whimsies or dragging along to his next appointment or task…he was already nearly 60. That’s a whole lifetime I did not see. He might as well have been my grandfather.
Once, I tallied up all the months and years I actually spent face-to-face with him. It was a shock and still is today. I figured that between birth and leaving for college, I saw him for 6 years and 10 months. Had those years been full of attentive parenting it might have worked. I think that is another story for another time.
I left NYC with my mother and 2 siblings when I was about 6 months for the south of France. He visited us there for what must have been at most one week. I was three when we left France, stopped in NY on our way to Argentina. My mother had remarried her first husband, the father of the two older children and we were following his job to South America. I assume my nanny and I might have spent 2 months in NY with my father. I have no idea.
And then the next 7 years, I traveled during the southern hemisphere summer break to a wintery NYC to visit my father. I calculated three months per visit. That adds up to 21 months or so. One of those visits must have been longer for reasons that no one, and certainly not me, remembers, because I was enrolled in school. Maybe not. Maybe I just was placed back in school because no one knew what to do with a 9 year old in the middle of the winter. So, let’s be generous and say 2 years.
My siblings were swimming and diving all summer long; I was going from overheated NYC apartment to apartment and to the theater and once to the opera. The owner of beautiful dresses and coats, but never a good swimmer or diver, but I saw My Fair Lady with Julie Andrews on Broadway seven times.
The family returned to the States in 1958, the year I turned 10. Four years in suburban New Jersey with alternate weekends adds up to about 200 days. That’s about 6 and ½ months. And let’s add another 6 months or so for summertime in the city with an aupair. Four years between the ages of 13-17 at the Lycee Francais next door to my father’s apartment, with two summers away—once to Mexico and once to Paris gives a total of 3 years and 6 months. When I add it all up I get, more or less, 6 years and 10 months.
I don’t know why that makes me cry. It does… and I do know. It’s not just because it is so little in an entire lifetime but because the effect is so profound. And the the calculated time does not account for the fact that my father was not there most of the time; he was working and even traveling sometimes. The nanny, Meme was there with me constantly from age one until seven perhaps. After that it was tutors and au pairs. Emma Durrieux, Francoise Duhamel, Margaret Morgenroth, Eliana something from Staten Island, and Jacques Karpo during the later years worked on my literary career.
So, I was talking about his voice. I found an old reel of some joint venture between Trigère, Inc. and an eyeglass frame company. My father is the voice of Trigère and demonstrates the aesthetics of choosing frames for different outfits. What could that have possibly have meant in the early 60’s or late 50’s? Were people supposed to buy many different eyeglasses? Ridiculous. But the more startling aspect is hearing my father’s voice in this old recording. It is high and weird, and of course, in his heavily accented English. My husband was surprised. He had not considered that my father had an accent. And today while we were remembering this incident, he was again surprised when I said that the recording was weird also because it was in English. My father spoke to me in French.
The un-thought of details are what make the stories.
For instance what is the problem with one town having streets named Bellevue and Buena Vista? None, if you are an English only speaker—none at all. But if you are a smart trilingual little girl, it is natural that you would ask why a town has two streets with the same name. And if you are enraptured by the beauty of the sound of the song Silent Night with no understanding of its meaning, you might really want to be selected to be the school solo, and not grasp at all that the school will avoid choosing the only Jewish child for the part.
The poignancy is in the disparity of the levels of understanding—the child’s versus the adult community. Two planes of understanding that do not coexist.
I have watched my grandson learn to understand his world. He is clearly very quick and bright. He grasps the connection between two comments and sees the humor in a joke or exaggeration. It’s remarkable.
I remember myself when I was very young.
Behind the kitchen is the realm for the live-in maid that, in my lifetime, never lived in. behind the kitchen a small room with bath exists in many Manhattan apartments. Sometimes it becomes the eldest child’s after the second bedroom gets filled by the other children.
This space behind the kitchen became my papa’s dressing room and personal refuge for his toilette when he remained. The closets and bathroom off his bedroom became his wife’s and this small space became his haven. The door to this steamy haven were narrow shutters closed by a simple brass latch.
The wall opposite the closet was covered with mirror from ceiling to counter. A shallow counter ran the length of that wall. It sheltered From it hung a curtain that hid a bed, a narrow one that would swing down on an axis that ran its length. Now I see how ingenious it was. An occasional guest could sleep over.
In fact, I now realize that some summers the space was given over entirely to an au-pair. My brother told me he slept there on a visit.
Three closet doors each storing a different kind of clothing. I only remember two of matching trousers. Not pants, nor slacks. My Papa wore only trousers. I don’t mean that you would call what he wore slacks and he would say trousers. I mean that he only wore the trousers part of suits. That is all he owned I think. Certainly that is true in my childhood… before the casualness of the 70’s and the influence of his youthful wife.
The far right closet door was the one I remember best because it was designed with many and various shelves, drawers, nooks and crannies for all the accouterments of an elegant gentleman. Shelves where all those French laundry shirts were freed from their buff blue cardboard boxes. Shelves of thin wood that invited caressing.
Special places for cufflinks, tie clips and tuxedo studs, cups for collar stays. Lots of little hidden spaces all explored by this inquisitive child who wished to understand everything that was beyond understanding and she thought the answers could be found here and in these things…in these mini decouvertes.
Old passports, old business cards from unknown people. Inklings of a past just beyond my reach, hints that had no meaning yet… and now those hints have been swept away with time.
The shaving cup and brush were covered with dried soap foam and the whole stuck to the surface of a small cabinet above the sink. Hanging on two hooks, the whole thing consisted of a shelf above a closed unit that had sliding doors and below a rod for hanging a towel. It nothing really. Plain non-descript wood brown wood.
Brown stained wood.
I painted it white one day. It’s still here in the ground floor bathroom of the Firehouse.
When I came to take things left behind from my home after my father and his wife moved to California… I came to an empty apartment save for a pile of things in the front entry.
Like a detective I walked around the apartment, in and out of rooms and closets looking for my history, my story… all the charm was gone. The marbled pained trim looked forlorn without the atmosphere created by furnishings and books. It was then that I realized that the fabulous closet of my Papa’s the doors were painted with a faux finish. All this had been done during the early years in the apartment when a designer
had been hired to “pull it all together”.
There were two things left that were not attached permanently: a metal beehive like item to store wine bottles and the hanging cabinet above my father’s bathroom sink. Two pieces of that elegant apartment. Well I also got the upright piano that I did not play and a miniature kitchen cabinet that lived in my bathroom. Despite having little intrinsic value they have survived until today. They both had a subtle faux-something painted
finish. They attracted no attention, so only I know their origins and travels.
That’s another story.
Cufflinks come in pairs.
They can be silver, gold or cheap metal that looks like gold or silver. They can be cheap and cheesy or expensive and classy. They can have hinges, chains or be a single solid. They can have shiny semi-precious stones or a pretend family crest or snooty school seal. I have seen so many cufflinks.
My father wore cufflinks with all his shirts. My father’s were all simple, understated, and surely expensive.
The important thing about this piece of information is that he had shirts that required cufflinks! All his shirts required cufflinks. He did not have some shirts of different fabrics and colors and styles. All his shirts were identical and they were all hand-made for him in a downtown shirt factory. They all were made of ever-so-light cotton that was truly easy to iron. I know this only in retrospect. Then, when I lived in his home, we did not iron. The French Laundry ironed all his shirts and folded them and inserted thin cardboard in the last fold…to hold it just so. And then they packed this big stack of shirts into a dark blue cardboard box that was just the size of a folded shirt. The sides of the boxes were high so that they were able to telescope out or in depending on the amount of shirts. The final touch was the twine that held it shut. A perfect package for perfect shirts, that each required elegant cufflinks, for a perfectly elegant gentleman who was my father.
I see him in his white elegance. Thin fabric that flowed as he moved, but the weight of the cufflinks held the sleeves down around the wrists. He wore undershirts; that would have spoiled the look, the style of the shirt. And, yes, he changed his shirts several times a day. Over this came the the jacket of a bespoke suit of a bespoke suit with no equal.
I can see him inserting the cufflinks into the cuffs buttonholes. One arm outstretched and twisted in toward the center as the other arm maneuvers the object through the holes linking the two sides of the cuffs together, and the final flip that secures the link to the cuff. A cuff linked. Success! Success as seen my the make of shirt, the style and weight of the cufflinks and the know-how that pulls it all together elegantly.
That was my father. Elegance personified.
Emotion with no emotion being said.
Silhouette, pt. II
At age 7, I made the trip to the United States alone. From Buenos Aires to Miami took some 30 hours, I believe. I haven’t done the research to confirm that, but that is the figure I remember some adult stating long ago. It was a Pam Am flight and stopped like a milk train at every capital up along the western coast
of South America. After leaving Buenos Aires it came to Santiago, Chile; Lima, Peru with the llamas at the airport; Quito, Ecuador; Bogota, Colombia; and then… I no longer remember. We reached Miami, Florida finally. This was my destination; the flight did not continue to New York City, so my father met
me in Miami. We would spend several days there and then fly to New York together.
But this entry to Miami stays with me. I looked out the small airplane window as we coasted to the gate and searched the roofline of the airport for my father’s silhouette. In those days, safety and terrorism were not issues. Roofs of airport buildings were not off limits. Peering into the dusky distance, I anxiously hoped for my father’s shape, to know that he was there on time, and that I was safe.
Waiting for my father was always a given. The times that I would be left to guard our suitcases in an appropriately named airport waiting room, were so numerous that they all blend into one. He would return with a stuffed animal or with a chocolate bar. But his shoes were suddenly well-shinned and the tell-tale smell of shoe polish told me where he had been. Gifts made it all okay, guess. But I would gaze in every direction waiting and waiting….so patiently. It was the not knowing how long that was the worst.
When he would say that he would be right back…what did that mean to him? To me it made little sense because he never came “Right Back.”
Little girl, so bright and shiny sat on the hard metal bench and swung her legs to and fro. Echo-y messages on the loudspeaker announce far off lands—comings and goings.
So many strangers talking unknown languages rushing by—
Alone, needing to pee; holding it in—and not. Where is he, that roaming Papa?
Here he is. A magazine and gone again. Wheee.
There he is! So far away. Out of reach.
Send her postcards, gifts and custom-made dresses… hire tutors and au-pairs; buy tickets to the theater.
Get the Countess of Tolstoy to inscribe her book for the child.
Giftwrap it in gold paper; no ribbon. Send it to Argentina. It takes months.
Who is keeping track of time?
Thirty hours on an airplane is like a lifetime. It is a lifetime.
Away, away. Alone. A way of life that no one takes note of. Who among the adults knows what her life is like, what she experiences, is fearful of, her hopes, anything. She is a lovely package that goes back and forth. She gets wrapped in gold paper (no ribbon) and fly Pam Am to keep her parents together in her
The little brain makes order of it all. Captures the languages and the meanings or lack thereof and makes it hers alone. A chocolate bar should keep terror at bay. But bitten fingernails betray the misery.
Dusk on Madison Ave. Getting darker. Horns honking, cars swerving, busses gasping. New York City in December. Lights twinkle everywhere. Crispness in the air and people bustling and rushing past. Rushing for bus, hailing taxis, Briskly walking. Home is the goal for most but we, my Papa and I open the taxi door and tumble into Georg Jensen’s for a gift buying session. My father needs to get some gifts; for whom I do not know. I am left gazing intently at very delicate blown glass animals while he finds his prizes and gets them wrapped in Silvery gray paper. Am I right? Is that the color of Jensen’s wrapping paper. What a strange thing to remember. Of course everyone knows that Tiffany has light turquoise boxes and paper and white cloth ribbons. I learned this week that the red star that Macy uses on all their packaging comes from the red star tattoo that the creator and owner sported.
What a scant assortment of things we archive from a lifetime. Can a lifetime amount to so little. I once calculated the amount of time I actually spent with my father. It was pitiful; and yet the impact on me is phenomenal… way out of proportion to the time together.
Milli Baskin comes to mind. I wonder what happened to her. She took me to see the movie Lilli with her daughter when she was 8. I think I was 8 when I first saw it. Why was that something I remember. Now I think that perhaps she, Milli actually may have taken me when I was 8. Oh dear my memory.
Why do I need to remember all this anyway? Why am I writing these fleeting memories. Is it for my children or grandchildren? Do they care?
Will they know me better when I am gone by reading this material?
My Father in Silhouette, pt. I
Like a duckling imprinted on its parent, the image of my father is imprinted in the deepest part of me. I calculated that between the ages of 3 and 8, I saw him two months out of the year, and altogether that makes twelve months. Thereafter, I saw him every other weekend and parts of holidays, until I was 12 – who knows what that amounts to. There was of course my first year of life, until my parents separated, and that one visit to the south of France. That makes three years so far.
At 12, I went to live with him and struggled through my adolescence in his home, with his new wife. I left for college at 17 and never returned. That makes eight years altogether. He died when I was 36, halfway around the planet Earth.