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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Notes from the Cottage: My Mother's Memories

Note: In case you haven't seen my other headings, this blog is no longer devoted to my frugal adventures (though I am still frugal), but serves simply as a site for my musings and memories, meant for my family.

Comments are neither expected nor solicited, but I am grateful for the many kind ones I have received.

My mother's memories

My mother's usual response to questions about her past: "I don't remember." She gets rather agitated. There seem to be a lot of painful things she doesn't want to bring to the surface.  Every now and again, she says something about her childhood and youth.

I mentioned that I had looked up the ship manifest for her family's journey from Belgrade to the US in 1938.  I did this because her cousin Herbert (now dead one year, a loss to his family and many others) told me a few years ago that his family sailed from Trieste on the Normandie. He was only 4, so he must have known this from his parents. My mother, who emigrated when she was 8, said she knew she had come on the Queen Mary but didn't know from what port. The manifest (via Ellis Island records, fascinating) listed the port (Cherbourg).  When I told her this, she said, "I knew it was France. I remember seeing the Eiffel Tower, but knew we didn't sail from Paris."  So my information brought out a tiny memory.

As we were driving back from a concert at Tanglewood, where her uncle had been principal clarinetist, we passed the cottage of a principal string player. She said, "Musicians aren't normal. They are high-strung. They think they are better than you." Then she mentioned the musician whose house we passed.

She went on, "He is a snob, but a good bridge player. My uncle was a good bridge player. They had big bridge parties. Koussevitzky would come. My aunt would cook and serve. I did the dishes. Maybe that's why I hate doing dishes."

To Tom: "Bert didn't know how to listen to classical music. It was very hard for him."

Interestingly, Bert (my father) was obsessed with Victor Polatschek and talked about him constantly, even though he died shortly before my mother went to college, where my parents met.

To us: "When I was a kid, I went from concert to concert [and, of course, my mother and her parents lived in an apartment with her aunt and uncle, so music must have been emanating from his practice room]. Everyone was playing music. All i wanted to do was go out and play."

Interesting too: perhaps this explains why I grew up in a house almost completely devoid of music. We didn't even have a radio on, except when we went on long car trips. I have been trying to compensate for my lack of exposure to music for most of my life.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

King Lear and the Cottage: Nothing

I asked my mother recently if I could take some of the furniture from the cottage. Nothing is good or fine, but it is for me imbued with memories and feelings. This is something discussed both by Marcel Proust in his magnum opus and by Marie Kondo in her decluttering masterpiece. These two writers are definitely a pair of incongruous bedfellows. But there they are in the same sentence.

I asked my mother what she wanted from the house.
Answer: "Nothing."

"And your brother doesn't want anything either."

Here we are back in King Lear. After asking his daughters to perform and say which one loves him most, Lear is treated to extravagant declarations of absolute love by the two bad daughters. By the time Cordelia's turn comes, the connection between words and meaning has been so violated that she replies 


"Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again."


Monday, May 16, 2016

Learning from King Lear: The Cottage

As a lifelong lover of books, I often--no, always--find something to provide not just intellectual satisfaction but emotional comfort. There is truly nothing new under the sun.

As I was teaching King Lear last semester, I was struck by how much in that play--which deals with old age, loss of power, and the love of children for difficult parents--resonates with my own life. I say to my students, whose faces show disbelief, that they won't really GET the play until they have aging parents or ARE the aging parent themselves. It is true.

As I get closer to retirement, I identify with Lear, who gives away his power and property only to discover that two of his children do not love him, and, in fact, "desire his death." The good child, Cordelia, has been banished. Also banished is his serving man Kent, who returns in disguise to serve his master. When Lear asks Kent what he sees in him, Kent replies "authority." That is precisely what I have as a teacher that might be lost in retirement. 

Now, facing my mother's decision to sell the cottage, I find myself learning from the daughters,  TRYING to act like the good daughter, but sometimes veering to the cruel daughters, whose thoughts are matched with actions of shocking cruelty. They, after all, have the power. Still, even though my fleeting thoughts will never be matched with action, it's often hard to work on one's thoughts.

Like my mother, King Lear is miserable in his old age and occasionally flies into fits of anger and tears. Like King Lear, my mother has made her decision to sell the cottage to "prevent future strife" between her children. She says she will "feel better" when the house is gone. This is the opposite of what Lear does, but the root is the same: to try to keep control over things when one doesn't have that much control in other aspects of life. 

I am trying to prepare myself for the sale. I feel tremendous grief in anticipation. Tom says that is understandable: selling the house will be like a death for me. 

When Lear is reunited with Cordelia late in the play, he tells her "I know you do not love me." He says that she has cause not to love him, though her sisters do not.

She replies (in perhaps the most moving lines in all of literature, at least as I know it) "No cause, no cause."

Needless to say, I don't expect my mother to say anything like what Lear says, nor have I been banished and disinherited like Cordelia. The situation is different. People are more important than things. Love, even when it doesn't "work," is the answer. (A famous essay on Lear is by Stanley Cavell: "The Avoidance of Love.")

But--in my anticipation--I expect my mother to ask me if I am angry with her for her decision. She might not. Or she might say something else.

But I am nonetheless practicing: "No cause, no cause." 

PS: The wonderful Ian McKellen Lear is no longer available free on "Great Performances." But if you have Amazon Prime, you can watch it for free.

Friday, May 13, 2016

A Cottage of the Mind

It occurs to me that like most beloved places, the cottage in Stockbridge is as much a place of the mind as a place in reality. Why does it occupy such a  place in my mind?

It is not simply, I don't think, that it is a beautiful place, though it is. In the Berkshires, on a lake, with a community beach. It is that my beloved relatives lived there: my Aunt Fritzi, my grandparents Emma and Leo. They represented Vienna to me. They lived the life I felt happiest in: very cultured, as people from that time and place tended to be. They loved music and art. My grandmother often sent me cards that she wrote while in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. 

My own life in suburbia on Long Island was--even when I was a child--a place that I did not find beautiful. (It wasn't--and isn't.)  My parents did not listen to music. When I was old enough to take the train to New York City, I got a student membership to the Museum of Modern Art and spent many hours wandering through the collections. I wanted to be an artist then.

It strikes me that the cottage--as a place of the mind--is connected to my love of reading. I was--as a girl--always lost in a book. My best friend for many years (till her family moved and I received a returned letter stamped "Address Unknown") loved reading too: we would read together and swap books. I am the only reader in my family. It is not that my parents weren't intelligent: both were college educated. My father had a PhD in the days when that degree was rare. But they did not read. So I always felt somewhat alien in my family and in the town where I grew up.

Perhaps I read to draw a world closed around me. 

A pastoral world. An enclosed world of art and imagination.

Is it any wonder that when I was in college I wrote my thesis on pastoral poetry?

Or that when I went to graduate school, I ended up doing my thesis on The Faerie Queene and some plays by Shakespeare-- that represented, explored, or WERE enclosed spaces of art and imagination?

So I am somewhat comforted by the thought that--even when the cottage is no longer accessible to me or to my children as a real place that we can visit--I can recreate it by thinking about it, and perhaps by writing about it.

My Proust-loving husband reminds me of a famous quotation by his favorite author.

The only true paradise is a paradise we have lost.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tom's Gift to Me: Reading Proust

Tom's birthday was Monday. I am uncertain what gifts I have brought to his life, but he has brought me many. I began to be smitten when the person who introduced us remarked "He spent the summer in the woods reading Proust. In French."

And so it began. Tom rescued me from my loneliness. I am a moody person: he continues to put up with that and to soothe me through my many insecurities.

He still reads Proust all the time. After you've read it once, you can dip in anywhere, at any time. You only know that when you're finished though.

I probably would not have had the discipline to read all of Proust on my own. I am an extremely fast reader of prose, probably why I ended up studying poetry, which forces one to slow down. Proust requires verrrry slow reading. Even a slow reader can advance through a two page sentence, get lost, and have to start over again.

I finally read all the volumes two or so years ago. It took me fourteen months. While the madeleine episode is the most famous (it occurs in the first volume, thereby, perhaps, relieving many of the need to labor though the rest) the true great moment of the book is in the last few pages of the last volume, "Time Regained."

There, he says that Gilberte, now grown up, is "like one of those star-shaped crossroads in a forest as in our lives, from the most diverse quarters? Numerous for me were the roads which led to Mlle. de Saint-Loup and which radiated around her."

Then, a few pages later, the end of that paragraph: "But the truth, even more, is that life is perpetually weaving fresh threads which link one individual and one event to another, and that these threads are crossed and recrossed, doubled and redoubled to thicken the web, so that between any slightest point of our past and all the others a rich network of memories gives us an almost infinite variety of communicating paths to choose from." (These are from pages 502-504 in Modern Library translation).

Of course, I don't--or really can't--aspire to anything like Proust's grand cathedral. And I am not writing about my own memories, really. I would like to create a bit of a record for my children (who may not even be interested) of people who died before they were born. I have a few letters, the guestbook, a few photographs, a few documents. Too few.  But I am trying to get a sense of the web. For me, it always centered on the cottage in Stockbridge.

It is interesting that I started writing these little musings right before a realtor came to my mother with a "rich doctor" who wanted to buy the cottage.

Happy Birthday Tom. Thanks for the gift.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Why was a portion of the cottage in my name?

A few years ago my mother called with great urgency in her voice. There was a mistake in the trust. You and Steve are part-owners of the cottage! This will cost you a lot of money in taxes when you inherit it! Your father paid a lawyer a lot of money to draw up the trust and he must have made a mistake. Thank God I noticed it.

Upshot: sign our portions of the cottage over to my mother. Which we did. With a lawyer in Florida. At separate times. 

I had some misgivings (my mother and father had talked about selling the cottage many times) but knew I had to do it. Otherwise, my already fraught relationship with my mother would be destroyed. She would be angry with me for the rest of her life. I thought of having her sign something saying  but I knew that would also be a problem.

My mother declared that the cottage would remain in the trust and that (and this is a quote; she often says terrible things like this and later says she didn't mean them): "You and your brother will have it and then you can kill each other."

It was depressing but I did it. My brother did it too at another time, but I have no idea how he felt about it. He's fine with the house being sold in any event.

I asked my mother how I came to own a fraction of the cottage--or why a fraction was in my name. She had no idea. I thought my father must have done it, but he was very possessive about the house and I couldn't imagine it. 

Well, of course my mother has now decided to sell the property. She will have large capital gains on it. She has no immediate need of the money. She signed some very disadvantageous contracts with the realtor. I told her she should hold on to the cottage and sell it when she needed the money. That it was an insurance policy of a sort. She said "That's what your father said." (He was smart about money).  But the realtor approached her with a buyer--and so she put the house up for sale. The buyer seems to have evaporated--but perhaps not. The realtor had my mother sign a dual agency contract, whereby the realtor represents both seller and buyer--very bad for the seller. 

Last night I had a lightbulb moment. When my Aunt Fritizi died, she left her estate (small, sadly. She had a long widowhood) in thirds to her siblings (I believe her older sister Julchi pre-deceased her, so that portion went to her descendants). The cottage was at the time worth about 25,000. My parents bought out the shares of the relatives in Yugoslavia and Hans, Fritzi's brother. My grandparents--or perhaps just my grandmother--retained a share. They spent every summer there until they died--first my grandfather and then my grandmother. 

I think that my brother and I may have been left my grandmother's share. I think that together we owned a third. They may have wanted it to go to us and not to my father if my mother died before him (????). Of course, owing to the communications difficulties between my brother and me, I can't ask him--he wouldn't tell me his feelings in any case. 

I want to find a copy of my grandmother's will. My mother was an only child. 

I was almost 30 when my grandmother died. I hadn't seen much of her since I was going rather crazy in grad school--I say this to my shame. There was not much focus on having grandchildren see their grandparents in those days (this is something Tom and I were aware of and we have funded our children's trips to both families). Luckily, I sent her a letter a bit before she died--I had seen a greeting card of a girl lost in a book. That was me. She sent back a letter in reply thanking me for the letter with the exclamation "And what a beautiful card." Thank heavens I did even that, a very small thing and not enough.

Is it strange that I want to know if my grandmother left her share of the cottage to my brother and me? Since my share is signed over I am not a part-owner any more. 

But I am touched at the thought that my grandmother might have been thinking of me. I would like to know. I miss her so much. There is so much I want to ask her, so much I want to tell her.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The House in Belgrade

Note: I mentioned a few weeks ago that this space is now a holding place for various musings about my family history, about which I know very little. My writings--occasional pieces in many senses--are  in no particular order. I have been grateful for the kind comments I have received. They were totally unexpected. I'm still frugal, but I won't be writing on that topic anymore. Thanks again to my past readers.

Emma was a superstar student and was encouraged to apply for various fellowships, the most prestigious being the Rhodes. She worked and reworked her essay, gathered numerous letters of recommendation, and made it to the final competition in Houston. She did not get the Rhodes, which surely would have propelled her along the academic track she was being groomed for. She now says she is grateful that she didn't get it.

She also applied for a Fulbright to teach English in Serbia. That took a good deal of strategizing. Many of the countries required fluency or near fluency in the language. Her friend A, another superstar student, did not get a Fulbright to France, perhaps because she was not fluent in the language. 

Serbia did not require applicants to have the language. And she had a good story for Serbia, a reason to go: my mother and her family passed through the country as they escaped from the Nazi regime in Austria.This was a route taken by many Austrian Jews. One of my grandmother's sisters --Julia--had married a Serb, a very successful man named Nikolai Petrovic. 

My mother, who remembers very little, does remember a beautiful house with a swimming pool. Emma wrote a beautiful essay recounting what she knew of the family history, a story of a Serb saving a family of seven from genocide. Added to that: Emma had become very interested in icons and learned that Serbian churches were full of some of the beautiful images she had been studying.

Amazingly, the house was still in the possession of the family. It had been divided in two. The bottom floor was occupied by Emmi, Julia's daughter, and her family. Her one child, Marina, had just sold the bottom floor to a wealthy family.

The upper floor was occupied by Julia's son George, a chemist, and his wife Ilde. Julia lived with them till she died. My great-grandmother Minna lived there too. George died some time ago, so the upper floor was--and is--occupied by his widow Ilde, who had a distinguished career as a journalist. 

Emma contacted Ilde before she went to Serbia and boldly asked Ilde if she could stay with her for a few days. Ilde declared that she didn't like people, but that Emma could stay. What a gift for them both. Emma became quite close to Ilde. 

When Tom and I went to Serbia two summers ago, we got to meet Ilde and to see the house. Ilde was very frail. The house,which I will write more about later, was filled with pieces of her past--photos of her parents, both doctors, who were killed by the Nazis. Ilde herself was in two concentration camps and somehow survived. Even though there was something of a Miss Havisham sense of decrepitide, the house remains elegant. And the pool is still there.

Ilde is dying now, so I don't suppose I will get to see her again. Meeting her--and seeing the house--were among the most moving experiences of my life. I only wish I had been able to meet George, my mother's first cousin.