I cannot change my mind for you, my dears ….
all the lovely and beautiful times we had — Sappho, trans. M. L. West
Sounds from our life’s first poetry —
like music at night, far off, fading out — Cavafy, trans. Avi Sharon
Friends and readers,
The last few days and evening have passed peacefully and mostly cheerfully.
Izzy has been “let out” of work (like some prisoner whose sentence is briefly commuted) early repeatedly: the 22nd, 4 pm, the 23rd, the same, then the 24th at noon! she betook herself to Old Town on Christmas Eve day, had lunch out, walked (though the wet sky did persist in raining on her) amid the pretty place and got home just as I was leaving. I spent the evening with a new friend, Phyllis: spinach inside some kind of light baked flaky dough; home-made soup, squash (vegetables are such a treat for me nowadays), banana bread, all washed down by wine. We listened to musicals (Weber, Fosse) and women narrators: Lorrie Anderson who conjures up worlds of half-mad Americans, and Nora Ephron’s wry essays from her I Feel Bad About My Neck. She sounded to me just like Laura Linney — one of my favorite actresses.
Christmas Day I slept until nearly 8. Izzy’s custom is to play good Christmas music, and this morning she had the whole of the Christmas Revels. Around 1:30 we began what some and we call (comically meant) a “Jewish Christmas,” out to a Chinese restaurant (good food, warmly lit felt place – since some detail menus, we had peking duck and savory eggplant dish, me Riesling wine). Phyllis met us there because I had forgotten my reading glasses the night before, and then stayed for dinner. Before the hot rain began to pour (the 25th was like a day in May, muggy, heavy, raining dankly like some neglected greenhouse), brief walk for me & Izzy, and then she and I at home watched John and Tony Huston’s moving delicately nuanced sometimes very funny (as when Lady Gregory’s dreadful poem is read aloud and all admire it) film adaptation of Joyce’s culminating Dubliner story, The Dead, starring Donal McCann as Gabriel and Anjelica Huston (this was a family affair) as Gretta. We had together written a paper a few years ago on this story, comparing it to one by Anne Enright. At the close of the movie Huston films older parts of Dublin and then the Irish countryside, a couple of old churches and some very ancient gravestones, and McCann uttering Gabriel’s magnificently melancholy words ….
These latter were acquired on the evening of the 23rd. Caroline came over and we drove about and went shopping to an open group of sidewalks, semi-mall in Arlington. The Apple Store. Izzy did not need an new ipad after all, resident “geniuses” in red t-shirts fixed it for her and improved my access to g-mail on my cell phone. Then we adjourned to a bookstore and bought two books each. We then did our exchange of presents in Caroline’s car. (I forget what books Caroline got, what was Izzy’s second, mine was Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name, the second of her Neapolitan novels as I recently finished her powerful My Brilliant Friend.) We did Christmas in the car.
I do wonder on and off why I just don’t sit and cry, and the answer comes back, it’s useless, plus would ruin what we can have. “Though nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;/We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind…” I had a panic attack one noon, the 22nd: I became convinced my car had been stolen. I went out to my car park and it was not there. It took three hours, frantic phone calls, a police officer coming over and questioning me slowly — and courteously, to awaken the memory I had left it the night before near the Metro because a neighbor offered to drive me home. The sadness is worse at night, sometimes sleep comes hard, at the same time as in one way at least for this yearly event this year I felt freer without him.
You see Jim hated Christmas in his deepest self from bitter memories of childhood as well as times in public school as a day boy. (I’ve met a lot of people who dislike the imposition, find the insistence of others oppressive; cannot ignore family pathologies.) Then I watched the famous BBC documentary from the 1960s, Cathy Come Home. I had been waiting for weeks for it to come from Amazon.uk as I am in the midst of reading an good book on British Television Drama (Lez Cooke) which discuss the very best (also John Caughie’s Television Drama: realism, modernism, British culture). A devastatingly traumatic story about a couple driven into homelessness (he cannot make enough money for rent once he gets into a bad accident and loses physical abilities, once she has children, she makes none), rightly immensely respected: I had not quite realized what it means to say the Wednesday Night plays on the BBC were not presented as plays but as contemporary films, this one with its montage, over-voices, photographed real places, a seeming documentary. The last scene because Cathy has become obstreperous she is evicted from the last shelter, and since she has no hope of anyone who will rent her a place for her meager change, her children are forcibly removed from her in a bus station she has fled to.
It is an unforgettable experience.
Chance turned out to be fitting for me because the film brought home to me one aspect of how & why Jim came to feel about Christmas the way he did. In 1948 to 51, when he was born until age 3 or so, his mother and father lived in condemned housing where they were continually harassed to get out of it, berated for not finding another place, threatened, without being given the slightest help (money, contacts, nothing) — the excuse was that there was no housing and probably just after the war there wasn’t. Unlike Cathy, my mother-in-law remained polite (she had been an under-governess in a great house, a job she hated but taught her silence). They were not evicted. After a futher year of misery (he was 4) Jim’s mother’s best friend managed to get a larger flat where she could invite them to stay with her. Then a year or so after that, with her negotiating skills and a loan on remarkably easy terms (2% interest at first) from a Friendly Society (workman’s loan association), Jim’s parents bought an long old narrow attached house in Southampton. They lived there until Jim’s father died in 1978 and his mother moved to Leeds to be near her daughter (Jim’s sister, now a vicar).
Jim’s first remembered Christmas was hardly any food to eat, much less presents ,and heartless menacing and cold scorn from authorities who came to nag because these people feared for their jobs if people stayed in condemned housing. A first searing experience of individual and community hypocrisy. I had tried until I was 9 to be the child I was supposed to be on Christmas day in myths, but experience and truthfulness began to break this veneer down when I was 11. Over the years he moderated: after 11 years of marriage, when Laura was 2 we had a tree for her sake, and in her and Izzy’s babyhood, I performed the Santa shower of presents, and then my parents started coming over and we’d have the family meal, but suffice to say as time went on, and hard experience intervened, this yearly enforced set of demands became more and more fraught. The imposition, the grating on my worn nerves while I kept trying, a increasing grief to me.
He did break this cycle in 2000. He took Izzy and I to Paris for 2 weeks over Christmas and past New Year’s Day. We all remembered it afterward as a magical time. We saw so many plays: Corneille’s Cinna (slow enough I could understand), Moliere’s Tartuffe (very acrobatic), a dramatization of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Offenbach’s La Perichole (extraordinarily festive operetta), Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (for New Year’s Eve after which we walked to the Eiffel Tower to see the fireworks); we went to fascinating movies, remarkable bookstores, ceaseless museums, to Versailles, on bus tours into the countryside; we even went to the banlieus. We were in an apartment worthy a movie about picturesque Paris (not far from Notre Dame). Christmas Day Jim went to a market and brought home cooked what he said was French Christmas meal — I recall a ham, some yummy vegetable dish, a roll of fancy cake. The best thing about Christmas day in Paris was so much was open; you didn’t have to observe the day if you didn’t want to, and lots of people were going out. We saw some Racine play that day. The last day we were there (January 3rd) Izzy stood on one of the bridges and stared hard to try to keep in her mind all we had experienced.
Then for a couple of years we tried for a new set of customs: the Jewish Christmas, Chinese restaurant and movie and for a couple of years enough of the Paris mood and memories remained. One of these two or three years we happened into a restaurant where the Peking Duck came out with flames and it was carved in front of us. We added on Boxing Day one year: we hadn’t one set of relatives to go to, much less a second, but discovered how all the museums in DC were open and put on special blockbuster shows. So we began to do the second British Christmas day: I remember (and have the books for) The Victorians, John Singer Sergeant, Vuillard; Age of Watteau, Chardin, & Fragonard; an innovative exhibit on the natural landscapes and photographs of the Pre-Raphaelites. I wrote blogs on some of these. But not every year is there is worthwhile exhibit. We also added going to Kennedy Center for New Year’s Eve and the ball there. But by 2010 we had again been thinking, we needed to break away, do it freshly, the three of us, a trip elsewhere for the two weeks — Scotland maybe.
Izzy and I had not planned to do Boxing Day this year: I cannot remember if we did it last. I knew we had had a good day the 25th and I said to her this morning, a little regretfully but thinking this was best to make it explicit, well maybe it’s time to give up this second day. She responded, “At the National Gallery they have a good exhibit on Hellenic Sculpture.” “Would you like to go?” “Yes.” As her present of Mary Beard may suggest, Izzy is into Latin and Roman Culture. She took Latin in school every year from the time she was 11; some years she had Latin two hours a day; she minored in it at Sweet Briar. During the 4 years between getting her librarian job and graduation from Buffalo (MLIS), she took 3 courses in latin and Roman history/culture at Mason (post-graduate, no credit). This exhibit would be part of her thing.
We set forth by 11 am. Pathos and Power one of the more intelligently put together exhibits I’ve seen in a while. the curators reveal an art of true individuality, subjectivity grew up in the ancient Greek empire as artists commemorated heroes, royals and heroines (Athena and Artemis were there; also one Egyptian queen), and some ordinary people in bronze between 300 BC and 100 AD. There are photographs of frescos, paintings of places in Greece and Italy where these were found or temples are or were located. The exhibit includes a room on collectors, what periods this material was gathered in, where; in slightly later centuries (3rd century AD) how they were used, then how copied by the Romans, then the 18th century excavations, 19th. We noticed how much is recently found: since the 20th century maybe it’s been more obvious to fisherman or people living near frozen mud they can get money for these objects? A piquant well-photographed 25 minute film from the Getty narrated by someone Izzy recognized as a fine narrator and scholar. I bought a book of Greek Lyric Poetry — fresh lovely translations with a picture of Sappho by Gustave Moreau on the cover.
Downstairs to the cafeteria for a sit down and lunch. We were game for more and, escalator up, went back to the main galleries and lost ourselves among 19th and early 20th century American impressionist and realistic pictures. I began to feel dizzy and she to have had her full. Christmas Done.
I had so liked the displays of scarlet and pink winter flowers and large green trees with white lights around the garden and fountain areas so we took photos of one another before we left.
By a much later Greek poet than Sappho
In the Evening
It would not have lasted long in any case.
Years of experience taught me that. And yet,
it was rather hasty, the way Fate ended it.
The good times were brief.
Bur how powerful the fragrances;
ow wonderful the bed we lay in;
what pleasure we gave our bodies!
An echo from those days of pleasure,
an echo from those days came near,
an ember from our youth’s fire;
I took one of his letters
and read it over and over until the light faded.
Melancholic, I stepped out on to the balcony –
Stepped out to change my mood by seeing at least
a little of this city that I love,
a little movement in the streets and in the shops.
—C. P. Cavafy, trans. Avi Sharon