Issue 129, Winter 1993
What our grandmother keeps in her walk-in closet: pastel silks in pink and blue and peach, crepe de chine, chiffon, mousseline de soie, tulle, satin ribbons, boleros, corsets, hats with feathers, hats with cloth Rowers, cloches, a beaded cap, tunics, hobble skirts, gray wool suits, evening dresses and dressing gowns.
Lately, Granny Madge has taken to locking herself in her closet. She sits on a metal folding chair for hours, counting aloud in a low, monotonous voice. While she counts we know that she is recalling those important moments that she would rather forget —it is her punishment to remember, she says. St. Paul de Vence, for instance, 1923, a garden party, a stone wall and morning glories wet with dew, slippery slate steps. She remembers exactly what she wore that day: her lemony silk dress and straw hat shaped like a chanterelle. Her husband wore gabardine. Her little boy Lou, our papa, wore knickers and a peasant blouse. Lou, his fists the size of apricots. He insisted on carrying the trifle himself though his arms couldn’t reach entirely around the width of the glass bowl. Layers of wine-soaked sponge biscuits, ratafia cakes, whipped cream, fresh raspberries. He staggered beneath the weight. Still, such challenges are important to children, Madge believed, so she let him carry the bowl, guided him by the shoulders up the steps to the terrace, the brim of her hat covering Lou in shadow, his face pinched in a knot of concentration, reddening as he neared the trellis canopy. His mother didn’t notice his diminishing strength or his gasps, though, because as she climbed the final steps she heard a familiar voice coming from the far corner of the terrace. She couldn’t make out what it was saying but she recognized that voice. Five years had passed since she’d heard it last. If a century had passed she still would have known it instantly.
In an attempt to avoid the meeting she backed down a step, away from the terrace, fell off balance and stumbled. She jostled Lou ever so lightly, reason enough for him to give up his impossible effort. He let his arms go limp as he mounted the top step, and the bowl —a punch bowl that was an heirloom two generations old, glass engraved with an intricate floral design on the island of Murillo —the bowl, the trifle, the candied violets slipped from the little boy’s arms and crashed onto the terrace.
The next awful minutes are like a photograph in our grandmother’s mind, a scene removed from time, coated with resin. She remembers: the embarrassed glances directed at her from three sides, the top of her son’s bowed head, the splattered trifle that looked like the eviscerated carcass of a large rabbit, white fur and bruised, purplish tissue, the puddle of raspberry blood already coagulating. In her memory she stands apart, watches herself as though she were another guest, sees a woman, mesmerized, sees a boy with eyes squeezed shut trying to will away the accident and make time go backward, sees, then, a middle-aged man come toward her.
He’d grown a beard, a black, patchy chin-beard; he’d put on weight so his face had lost its slender, oval shape, and he wore a monocle as though he were an intellectual when in fact he was nothing but a showman, a pretender who flaunted knowledge, exploited knowledge, used knowledge as an alchemist uses chemistry. Perhaps the five years since she’d seen him last, since she’d renounced him in an attempt to claim her self-respect again, had matured her so thoroughly that she could judge with critical detachment the doctor who had once entranced her. Or was it that he had changed, had lost his confident manner, had replaced homeopathic promises with insincerity? The doctor three years earlier had seemed a wise man, almost a prophet; in his place, Madge saw a hypocrite.
He walked across the terrace toward her, the one animated figure in the frozen picture, moved as steadily as a flame burning down the stem of a matchstick. He squatted in front of the shattered bowl and began picking out fragments of glass as though this would somehow help, carefully removed one sliver after another, and arranged the pieces in a pile at his side.
Finally Lou opened his eyes, saw that his wish hadn’t come true, time hadn’t reversed itself, he’d failed miserably, and even worse, no one reproached him. They were too full of pity to reproach him —he may not have understood much about adults but he understood that they were pitying him. And now a bearded man knelt before him, a grown man on his knees; nothing Lou had done had ever produced such dramatic consequences. He looked up at his mother, not quite believing that he was responsible, looked back at the man, looked at his mother, saw an unfamiliar expression (and our grandmother, in her memory, sees everything now through her son’s confusion), looked at the faces of strangers, looked at the man’s hands again, then closed his eyes because he couldn’t bear it anymore and began to scream.
His screams demanded action. There were brooms to be fetched, dustpans to be filled, Madge’s husband, who had dallied at the bottom of the steps with the host and only now appeared, needed an explanation, Madge needed reassurance (“No doubt it would have been delicious, Madame Whitcombe”), the boy needed a biscuit, the doctor needed a towel. For some reason the hostess handed the towel to Madge first,so she was obligated to pass it to the doctor, who deliberately grabbed her hand along with the cloth, held her even when she tried to pull away, held her for so long and gazed at her with such offensive intimacy that for a second time a hush fell across the terrace, the guests stared, our grandmother blushed. It was a more fatal accident than a ruined trifle, this inopportune joining of hands.
Lou had taken refuge by his mother, stood underneath her outstretched arm, and the image of the three —the woman, the doctor, the boy in between — provided all the proof that anyone who ever had suspicions could have wanted. And they did have suspicions, Madge knew. Five years earlier people had whispered about her frequent consultations with the doctor, had wondered why her husband allowed her to go to Nice without an escort. But jealousy was as foreign to her husband as the French language had been to Madge during her first year abroad. She had learned French, though, had been forced to learn it, since her husband’s touring agency kept him away for weeks at a time, and none of her neighbors spoke English. And now her husband would be forced to learn a new language: the language of jealousy. Not because the doctor looked at his wife with such ferocious interest; not because they continued to hold hands long after the interval proper for a greeting. While others saw proof, her husband would have a revelation: the woman, the doctor, the boy. As unarguable as simple addition. The boy, with his coxcomb of black hair and his large, wide-set brown eyes, his low forehead, his impish, pointed chin, was the obvious sum of two parts.
The doctor had damned Madge forever, had intended as much, she believed. Surely he must have known that she and her husband would be at this garden party. Four years ago he’d moved his practice from Nice to London, was now on his way to Lake Como for a holiday, had obviously delayed the last leg of the trip so he could be here, so he could see Madge, lovely Madge, “as beautiful as ever,” he murmured, and finally released her.
She wiped her palm, wet from perspiration, on the side of her dress, gave him a polite if strained nod and pushed her son around the broken bowl and away from the stranger who was his natural father. Though everyone else knew the truth, even her husband —yes, her husband knew best of all —her son must never know.
And with nothing more to watch but much to discuss, the guests regrouped into neat patterns of colors that seemed to Madge both haphazard and carefully designed, like tinted glass in a kaleidoscope. While they didn’t talk about her directly, through the next hour the men smiled at her with oblique amusement, and the women kept glancing from husband to wife to doctor, their eyes drawn by some irresistible force. The force of scandal. In private parlors and bedrooms gossip would flow from these people, her gentle Catholic friends, gossip would take the place of the trifle as their dessert, gossip would enrage, fatten, delight them, would give their insignificant lives meaning. Not only had the doctor calmed Madge’s fraught American nerves five years earlier, not only had he given her back her peace of mind, he’d given her a bastard son as well. Not just a son. A son with Jewish blood. He’d given a Jewish baby to a Protestant adulteress —mixed blood, no good would come of the boy, he’d suffer for his mother’s shame, and wasn’t it more than coincidence that he’d dropped the precious glass bowl, a trial run for future catastrophes, the first act of many acts of violence to follow? Who could blame the doctor? He was just a man, with a man’s instincts, a man’s vulnerabilities.
Other women in the village had traveled to Nice by themselves to consult the famous doctor; other women had let him touch them as no one but their husbands should have touched them. But only Madge had borne his child. She knew what they would say about her behind her back; she knew that these self-proclaimed libertarians made pets of Jews, even on occasion made love to them. They wouldn’t condemn her for love. But there was the question of purity. She had brought an impure child into the world, and though they could forgive him, they would never forgive her. She didn’t have to rely on malicious confidantes to know what her friends were thinking. They would satisfy their hunger, would obscure the actual object of their prejudice by directing their thrilling, rapacious hatred at her.
Was our grandmother making unfair assumptions about these people ? No fingers had been pointed, after all; no accusations had been made. To some observers this gathering might have held no secrets —once the trifle had been cleared up the guests resumed their separate conversations, mingled, told jokes, ate and drank and eventually dispersed. A garden party like any other garden party. This was one interpretation, and probably a few uninformed guests believed it. Maybe most of them believed it and hardly gave Madge a second thought. But the guest with the most at stake learned at this party that he’d been betrayed by his wife. Though her husband would never confront her directly, from that day on he would begin to withdraw behind a silent, brooding mask, would pretend that he no longer cared about her or Lou until he drove himself to despair with the lie.
They forced themselves to linger at the party. Madge’s husband wandered around the rim of the terrace, admired the roses and foxglove and held out his empty glass whenever the waiter came by with an open bottle of champagne. Madge strolled from group to group, nodded politely when opinions were exchanged, brushed her fingers through her son’s hair, caressed his cheek, kept him close to her, ostentatiously displayed her love for her son. Whatever her friends said about her, they couldn’t deny that she loved her son.
After a suitable length of time the family departed, managing a discreet exit. Yet even as they descended the slate steps Madge sensed, and perhaps her husband sensed as well, that they would never appear together in public again.
Our grandmother is sitting in the dark. She used to spend her days in the living room playing solitaire or staring out the window. Now she just sits in the dark in the closet and counts aloud, higher and higher.
Once in a while she stops counting and listens. Or she remembers listening, though it is almost the same thing. She remembers listening for the sounds of footsteps, cowbells, a dog’s bark, anything that would destroy the illusion of solitude. She spent the summer of 1923 roving the hills with her son, gathering dandelion leaves and sorrel for salads that would never be made, nettles for stews, rosehips for syrups. After a rain she would forage in the pine groves for puffballs the size of turnips full of brown, powdery spores. And boleti, Satanic boleti with spongy red caps. She would set the deadly mushrooms on the windowsill out of her son’s reach, and when they had withered and shriveled she would throw them out and pick more. That summer she enjoyed a rare freedom, though at the time such freedom seemed a trap. No matter how far she walked she never reached a place satisfactorily remote, where she could have screamed as loud as she pleased, where she could have spit and danced naked. She was afraid, perpetually afraid of being discovered, afraid most of all of being discovered by the one who always accompanied her: her son.
Our father still speaks of these days as the finest of his childhood. No lessons to study, no obligations, nothing to do but leap over logs and bathe in shallow creeks, throw pebbles at fish, pet the whiskered muzzles of ponies, catch toads and grasshoppers. Ordinarily his mother was a grave and didactic presence, an unrelenting moral supervisor. Energy, application, painstaking patience and persistence. These were the words Madge used to repeat to her son. But that summer she acted as though idleness were the sole objective. The sun burnt Lou until he was “as crisp as a pygmy, and wasn’t he just as illiterate and wild!” or so Aunt Sarah — Madge’s sister— declared when she arrived in St. Paul de Vence to take charge. Someone had to take charge while the man of the house was off charting next year’s tour through Greece, preoccupied with the difficult arrangements to be made, hotels to be booked, coaches to be hired, so busy that he didn’t even have time to write to his wife. In his absence, the usually orderly household deteriorated. Weeks before Aunt Sarah arrived Madge had dismissed the cook, and she didn’t even notice when spiders began spinning their webs across the doorways. Her son’s mop of hair became so dense with tangles that she would simply pat her hands over the top without brushing it, bills remained sealed, and one afternoon she lifted the cloth from the birdcage and discovered her neglected pair of canaries motionless on the floor of the cage. In their nest she found a cluster of speckled eggs.
That same day she wrote a long letter to her husband and addressed it to the pension where he was staying in Athens. She put her son to bed early and prepared supper for herself— a piece of chevre, day-old bread, a fennel bulb, claret and boleti in cream. She ate three poisonous mushroom caps, laid down her spoon, and waited.
Rather, she continued to wait. She had been waiting all summer, and the stomach cramps at first were an exhilarating commencement: something was about to happen. She retired to her bedroom, propped herself up on her pillows and opened a book about gardening. But the drawings on the page made her nauseous, as though the sensation of taste were located in her eyes, the illustrations nothing but wormy, putrid pieces of food. Mushrooms in cream.
She hurried to the toilet, pulled her dress up and her bloomers down, shat a thin, bluish liquid, rolled over onto her knees and vomited. So this was life revealed: filthy, stinking, nothing noble about it, only pain and shit and bile. She retched again. Life leaked out, spilled, dripped, abandoned her. Madge had broken the trust, so life renounced its loyalties, left her hollow, or nearly so, and stuporous, drenched in sweat.
She managed to crawl back to her bed and almost immediately fell into a heavy slumber, only to wake an hour later for the second exodus: pain and shit and bile. But still enough life remained to keep the vital organs working, and though when she returned to bed the second time she felt sure she was dying, she woke at noon the following day to find that she hadn’t died. And it was a good thing, wasn’t it? With the cook gone someone had to prepare meals for her son. Her poor boy. Better for a boy to have an imperfect mama than no mama at all, she told herself as she ran her finger along the curved ridge of his spine. Her sweet child must have crawled into bed with her early in the morning, had forced himself to lie absolutely still so he wouldn’t wake her and had fallen asleep.
Her joints throbbed, her brain seemed squeezed in a vise, but she managed to push herself to her feet. Downstairs in the kitchen she patched together a meal for her son of sliced peaches and eggs. Not until she had set his plate on the table did she notice the leftovers. A skin had formed on the cream; an inky brown leaked from the remaining mushrooms, and the color had spread like cracks in ice. Her son could have climbed up on the chair and helped himself. She might have poisoned her own son, her only child, might have even, in her despair, left the pan of mushrooms out for him —a mad-woman’s attempt to destroy the witness. She was insane, clearly, and if anyone had been checking on her these last weeks they would have surely committed her to an asylum, locked her away out of reach of the boy, restrained her so she could do no harm to anyone.
She let the eggs grow rubbery and cold and her son sleep while she wrote to her sister, who was married to an antique dealer and lived in Sussex, inviting her to visit. Then she poured the mushrooms into a square of cheesecloth folded to triple thickness, dropped the bundle into a burlap sack, and because she couldn’t think how else to get rid of it she buried the sack in the vegetable garden.
Granny Madge didn’t stay in Provence long enough to find out whether new mushrooms ever sprouted; a week after Aunt Sarah arrived Madge’s letter to her husband was returned unopened, along with a note from the owner of the Athens pension informing her that her husband had never arrived, had never even landed in Piraeus. It appeared that Madge’s husband had boarded a ship bound for Greece in Naples but had disappeared en route. Whether he had fallen or had been pushed, no one knew. The captain had filed a report with the police in Piraeus, and he would keep the gentleman’s trunk in his possession until further notice.
Madge traveled with her son to Piraeus to claim her husband’s belongings; from Greece they took a steamer back to New York. She wore black tulle over her head and had her meals delivered to her cabin. She hardly touched the food. By then, a month and a half since she’d last seen her husband, she knew that though she was a widow her family of two would soon be joined by a third: before he had set out for Greece, her husband had made certain that he left something of himself behind.
She gave birth to a second son the following winter. She soon tired of the city and by spring she had made up her mind to move upstate. She chose Spragton as her home simply by closing her eyes and placing her finger on a map.
Our grandmother is sitting in the closet in the dark. She inhales deeply, holds the darkness in her lungs as a child might hold water in his mouth. To us, the closet smells like an elderly woman —a particular combination of perfumes and old fabrics, the smell as unique as a thumbprint, slightly stale but not unpleasant. To Granny Madge, however, the closet smells of money. Whatever she wears, her wealth is obvious, she can’t help it and would prefer to disguise the truth, though that would mean additional purchases, more money spent on new clothes that weren’t so conspicuously dear, more money convened into less distinguished goods. Not that she was ever a spendthrift. Just the opposite. From the start she thought of her wardrobe as an investment — she spared no expense in the early years, and she’s been rewarded with high returns.
Still, she wishes that her affluence weren’t so apparent. Even strangers recognize the smell that clings to her. In the lightless closet she tries to differentiate between the smell of wealth and her own scent, but the air is saturated with purchases, articles that have only increased in value over time and that someday will be dispersed among the rest of us. Yes, she invested wisely —she knows that to her heirs, everything stems from this.
She exhales, inhales through her mouth with short, choppy gulps. She wonders whether she could choose not to breathe, could willfully close out the offensive smell, could hold her breath and still keep counting. It is comforting, but not comforting enough, to follow a sequence.
We are all proud of our grandmother. It wasn’t with money— not entirely — that she gained influence. And her looks didn’t “melt any hearts,” as one ancient and slightly drunken Spragton dignitary had recently said to her in a fit of nostalgia. Her slight, girlish figure and tightly-wound chignon would have served another woman better, a woman who was less severe than our grandmother, less demanding. No, Margaret Whitcombe conquered Spragton by doing what she does so well — by counting aloud one wintry afternoon five decades ago.
Between 1900 and 1930 the population of Spragton increased by seventy percent. Our grandmother was lucky to arrive when the town still welcomed strangers, and if our family would never enjoy the status of families descended from the original settlers. Granny Madge did manage to become one of the town’s most influential leaders. A widow, mother of two small children, a woman of independent means, not nearly as demure as she should have been, even tyrannical at times, without important connections and, evidently, with no intention of remarrying —who would have predicted in those early months that she would rise to such heights?
Of course she didn’t have to start from scratch. On top of her inheritance she had money from her husband’s life insurance policy. She had an original Paul Poiret dress. And she had two disarming sons, Lou a would-be lady’s man even at the age of five, our Uncle Harry a sanguine infant who rarely fussed, a mother’s dream. Whatever doubts the people of Spragton had about our grandmother, her devotion to her sons was undeniable. With a family to support, Madge’s aggressive manner could be excused, could even be admired. Still, she needn’t have been so suspicious, really—no one would have tried to take advantage of her. Spragton was made up of plain, trustworthy people, neighbors who prided themselves on their honesty. Fair and square, no one surreptitiously jacked the price or tried to undersell a competitor, no one disguised terms with legal jargon, no one inflated the worth of services. Naive ethics, perhaps, but intentionally naive — greed was considered not an intrinsic human trait but an aberration: both the cheat and the customer who believed himself cheated were unnatural, especially the latter, since in this economy based on trust no one had to worry. Or so the typical Spragton businessman believed. No one dared to cheat, no one dared to complain. Each small business was like a windmill, an intelligible source of power driven by an unpredictable, external element. Blades turned with an easy whir and hum or did not turn at all, depending on the weather. The essential thing was to invest your money well.
At first the board members of the major bank in town treated our grandmother warily. She had enough money to cause trouble, enough to know the pleasures of wealth, enough to want more. They would, they assumed, have to reckon with her. But once they had decided that her apparent ambition was nothing but pronounced maternal instinct, their doubts gave way to affectionate concern, though not yet to respect. Margaret Whitcombe had to win their respect.
“Affectionately Yours.” With this, Velma Bartholomew, wife of Murrian, Chairman of the Board, signed the invitation. And she meant it, too, for Velma was a woman brimming with affection, a woman so adroitly officious that she gave the impression of belonging to whomever she was addressing, even in conversation poised her body in such a way —her back slightly arched, chin raised, eyes lowered —that she seemed on the verge of falling into the arms of whomever stood opposite.
At the Bartholomew’s home one afternoon over fifty years ago, our grandmother stood opposite Velma, endured the gushing praise of this person she hardly knew, wearing all the while the distracted look of a mother who, with much reluctance, has left her young children in a stranger’s care.
It was a small party, given in honor of those newcomers who hadn’t arrived in Spragton looking for handouts. Among them, Madge was particularly deserving, by common vote the bravest pilgrim of them all — everyone wanted to do something for her, though in the three months since she’d been in town she had made it clear that she would accept nothing for free. Unfortunate, the men agreed, that the widow was so testy.
Since she refused to hire an accountant to manage her finances, Murrian Bartholomew had to deal with her himself, though he relied on his wife to soften her hard edges, and he kept their meetings brief. Along with the others he felt great sympathy for the young widow. But when it came to business she had shown herself to be unyielding and unrelenting, nimble, potentially vicious, “a witch, to tell the truth,” he had confessed to the bank’s vice-president once while Madge sat outside his office. And she had overheard — not every word but enough to understand from then on the precise nature of Spragton’s affection.
Poor widow, devoted mother, witch. Give her a glass of punch and let the wives take charge, let her prove that she can hold her own where she belongs, a lady among ladies. So Murrian privately reasoned that day at his party, and he led the men into his library. Here, away from their wives, the old guard could begin campaigning, which was the purpose of this party or of any of Murrian Bartholomew’s parties. His fellow board members plied new, would-be investors first with bourbon, then with promises, assuring their interested listeners that whatever else was said about this northern outpost, the businessmen of Spragton never ran afoul. Fair and square. If Spragton had a motto, this would have been it: fair and square.