I just finished reading Sari Botton’s Letter in the Mail.
Lately I see myself everywhere, which means either that I am drawn to those people and stories I can relate to (ahhh the filter bubble says Mr. Pariser with a tsk tsk), that I far too easily identify with others (which in itself is odd since I always felt so different…) or that I have dopplegängers all over the place, which is kind of creepy. In the end I suppose we all become somewhat of a demographic, unique among thousands.
Ms. Botton wrote her letter about the schism between selves, recounting with heart and poignancy the stories of three generations of women in her family, beginning with her “Nanny Clarisse,” then her mother and then herself. Outside is that proverbial hard protective shell, yet curled within each a core of gentleness and vulnerability that they alone (or a very choice few) seemed able to see, and often with difficulty at that. She spoke of aloofness and introversion and forgiveness and compassion, of messy lives and learning to reconcile who we are destined to become and who we actually are. I loved her letter.
As I read her tale of family I thought about my own, particularly about my stepmother, Alyce. I have no pictures of her but I remember the way her hair poofed up in a way that even when you pressed upon it it just bounced back. I remember her laughter and the smoky rasp in her voice which was sexy and fun. I remember her coughing, a lot, no doubt a sign of the lung cancer which snuck up on her in those days when smoking was oh so glam.
She would make kibbe and fried peppers and would tell the neighborhood kids her name was “Gina Lollobrigida,” enunciating every syllable with a dolce vita accent even though she wasn’t Italian at all. (There was actually a resemblance.) After one visit she sent me back to my mother and our apartment hours away with two baby chicks she’d saved for me which had been left in a field, and she bought me an orange dress with a hat that matched it (maybe it wasn’t her, but that’s the way I remember it, and this is, after all, my little snippet of memoir, is it not?).
She brought such joy to all around her, particularly to a little girl hours away from her mama. Like Sari Botton’s Nanny, she made me feel so very special. She was the only person who dreamed of my wedding, I think, although of course she never saw it (few did… it was a very impromptu affair). I’m not one to believe in ghosts, but somehow I always felt that she was there.
Her family lost all that they had in a fire when she was a child, all the photos from Lebanon and the records of the family’s past just gone in a cloud of smoke. She’d lost her husband too, not long before marrying my father, who knew him well. It was cancer which killed him, in the same way it killed her, barely 80 pounds when she died, her wedding ring wrapped and wrapped with layers of tape to keep it on her finger. I remember how my father took us to her grave and spoke with her as if she were there, a one-sided chat about this and that. He buried her by her first husband’s side, I suppose accepting the fact that he was but a pause in her life, their marriage still new when she got sick.
All this sounds very sad, but she was always vivaciously happy.
There is a picture of me perhaps long gone or which still exists somewhere and will show up fifty years from now on Retronaut or its equivalent. It was the late sixties or early seventies (my memory fails me, and I have no one to ask), and my father had opened up a new office in which to embark upon a career as a stockbroker (short-lived) which we were setting up. It was a cold Vermont night and Alyce gave me her mink coat which I wore despite the fact that it dragged on the ground and made such a small girl look like a big bear. In the photo I am wrapped in mink and carrying two rolls of toilet paper. Maybe there never was a photo and I just remember it like a snapshot in my mind, but I’m quite sure it happened.
I remember how she held me in her lap and rubbed my feet on a train once, the heat not working and my toes aching from the cold. I remember the night she died and how immediately and forever I would regret the fact that I had been remiss in writing to her even though I’d been meaning to, I had—but I was very young. The missing just grew and grew and I miss her still. I have no bad memories of her, a purity that we only have with those whose lives just graze our own.
So I do see pieces of myself in all the letters, in all the stories, in all the memoirs, because we all do… because underneath all the coolness and fear, the artifice and complexity, we are all basically the same. We win and lose, we laugh we ache, we dream and fear. We are born and we die, and in the middle… We love.