Authors: Hortense Calisher
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs
chuckle,” I said to my kissing cousin, Katie Pyle, although at the moment there wasn’t anybody in my parents’ living room who had been born in the North, except me.
At fifteen, I considered myself to be having a wretched time in a hard-line New York City school whose teachers never laughed, even at us girls. Here at home, everybody in the room was magnetic enough, but so closely related to me that they were half-obligated to misunderstand me. Due to my father’s age, almost all of them were two generations away from me as well, instead of one, and I was their only young.
A kissing cousin, part of the family in every respect except blood, could be more tolerant of flaws to which she wasn’t kin, and Katie besides was only twice my age. Fifteen years older only. Slim in her uniform as a visiting nurse attached to the Henry Street Settlement, Katie had dark circles under her great blue eyes, after a day’s work of whose trials she never spoke. Since she had gone against her family’s wishes in order to nurse, our own family, a clan of Southern émigrés with similar prides and reticences, never spoke of her vocation either, except to remark among themselves that she was too frail for it, and to welcome her extra warmly when she dropped in.
We were a household of droppers-in, related or not.
“A nation of them,” my mother said. Although as a non-Southerner she naturally objected more to those on my father’s side. Yet her own relatives, German émigrés and 1880 arrivals to my paternal side’s 1820s, were not necessarily in her favor.
“Well—you’re all welcome to it,” she sometimes said to the kitchen wall over the cook’s shoulder, as she supervised the comestibles flowing into the dining room. “All this fracas and hullabaloo.”
This was what she had got by marrying into a pack of Southern Jews, who had thereby a double expressiveness, of which one could never be sure which end was up, Jehovah or Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Sometimes they hollered so that until you entered a room you might think it was murder. Or else the many sly spinsters among them were so lah-de-dah over the sherry that you half believed their hair combs were tiaras that had slipped—until they gossiped, when they sputtered like knucklebones frying. “How can they?” she said to the wall, which was used to being so addressed. “How can refined people, who have been here for over a hundred years, still be so
Yet, as a latecomer greenhorn émigré of the early 1900s, dumped penniless on a kindly aunt and uncle in Yorkville—solid sugar-eating burghers whose wives sat in satin and lace for pictures by Sarony and cooked food no different from their Christian neighbors—my mother now suspected she had done better for herself than they could have, even if she had married a charmer too old for her—who she was no longer so sure was the wrong kind of American.
“Why do Germans always enter a room single file?” she would hiss between her teeth as her side of the family tittupped in on the balls of their feet of a ritual Sunday, for except for my great-aunt, who might come by of a weekday for afternoon coffee, they never dropped in—and even then Tante always brought a cake.
“Simple,” my father said. “They have to weigh every word twice.”
From our corner that night, Katie and I watched the crowd, all Southerners, since it wasn’t Sunday and not a day for the Kaffee-Klatsch. By evening there were always at least three or four extra in our apartment, some of whom would stay to dinner—and there were always corners to watch them from. Aunts and uncles always, as sons and daughters of my father’s resident mother, their “Maw.” And cousins of every age except mine, up to and beyond my father’s, who, pushing seventy, was still his mother’s youngest boy. Some relatives had already come and gone during the day; others would arrive after the evening meal. Grandma, who never appeared at table but held court in her own rooms, was of course the reason everybody felt free to come.
It might be noted that Katie had not answered me immediately. In our house people often didn’t, sometimes picking up on a remark even days afterward. You were expected to know what was being referred to, and usually did. If not, a hugely refreshing colloquium might ensue, between you, the original poser of the remark, and any family bystander, after which, everything pertinent and a good deal else having been picked over, we could all return to base.
My image of our house was that it reverberated with sounds that had to be classified, and that this was society. Anything visual about people could come later—and was a coarse kind of fun. But if you listened well enough, in the end you heard everything, remembered most of it, and in the pauses you could think truth.
“No, they cain’t, kin they?” Katie said suddenly. “Never could.”
I heard at once how she had changed my statement. I’d said they didn’t; she’d said they couldn’t: chuckle. A whole history might lie between—and were “they” aware of their incapacity? Meanwhile, I “saw” Katie’s words, spelled out. In our house one had constantly to write dialect in one’s head. Katie and her sister, Rachel, had been born in Richmond, Virginia, like my father’s generation and that of her father, Solomon Pyle, but, brought North early, had spent their later girlhood in Port Washington, Long Island. Always spoken of among the Pyles as “Port,” in my mind it was an estate they had appropriated, which utterly belonged to them and was pronounced Po-ut, much the way some Northerners said “poet”—although in Oral English class at my school our lah-de-dah Miss Cramer encouraged us to make rabbit lips and say “poytry.” Port had clarified Katie’s accent a little, smoothing out the diphthongs and lessening the lovely, liquid Southern “l,” so that while my grown-up cousin Lee, visiting from Richmond, greeted me with a gentle “Hayl-lo, Cudd’n Ho-tay-uns” all in one gentle coo, Katie said “Hot-tense” and put only one “l” in “del-li-cate.” Henry Street duties had quickened her, but would never make her brusque.
Sitting next to me in one of the straight chairs she preferred because of a neck injury suffered when she had served as a nurse with the Allied forces in France, Katie was smiling at the planetary arrangements in our living room. I had begun to think of our small family universe in that way ever since taking Physics at school, a subject that seemed to me as interestingly random and tatty as my family’s furniture—particularly the chairs. Whereas other families had suites they had bought in one swoop, our chairs, pursuing us from many prior residences and ancestors, had then jelled on us here. Just so, Physics seemed to be made up of subjects that had no other place to go at the moment, and even our teachers seemed uncertain when they taught it, as if they had just then studied it up—which was quite probable, since not one of those manic devotees of education had chosen it as her specialty.
I myself knew too well what I felt about Math—an awesome alpine range into whose purity I could never climb. English was meanwhile a kind of woodshed, where I could rummage for words and even turn up other necessaries—like in the back rooms of those odd dealerships that sold both coal and ice.
But Physics was more like our own household, full of closets that scarcely knew any longer what they held, in whose depths I could spend an afternoon with the concrete. One minute you were only learning at what temperature water would boil, like in any kitchen. Then suddenly you were seeing what iron filings did—whang—when you inched a horseshoe magnet too near on their bit of white blotting paper. Then—swoosh—out to astronomy’s heavens, to check on what Miss Yeager, the perennial substitute who got stuck with all the odds and ends, nervously wielding her colored chalks at the blackboard, had called “our planetary family, girls. Man the telescopes!”
Here I was with my telescope at home. Over in one corner my father’s sisters were squabbling in accordance with their time-tried pecking order. Two sisters-in-law, widows of my father’s brothers, held another corner, in clear abstention from them. Soon my father’s sister Aunt Flora would grab him—now visiting his mother down the hall—to suggest a poker game. He had a poker night “outside” once in a while but never liked to have a game in the house, because Flora would join it, whipping toward the table like an iron filing—and Flora crowed when she won.
Once, I had been sent with cigars down a few blocks to the Walter Markens’ house, where my father did play, and had glimpsed that silent male House of Poker Parliament under the hanging lamp of Markens’ dining table. We had a lamp just like it, but it bred only vast dinners, or dress patterns to be cut—for me, until the time when I would gravitate to that dressmaker who, like the cigarmaker, the butcher, and the house superintendent, was one of the satellites who helped our family crew retain its place.
In our dining room at the moment my Uncle Clarence, Flora’s husband, was laying out solitaire, while Harry B., my father’s bookkeeper and courtesy brother-in-law (as brother to one of the widowed sisters-in-law), siphoned his marital troubles into Clarence’s left ear. Harry had cheated my father once but had been taken back into the fold after discovery, his only apparent punishment being that he had lost his name to an initial, and must forever float our cosmos as Harry B.
Uncle Clarence, a sweet man with the large, noble features that seemed to me to be somehow linked with the enormous tolerance of the henpecked—and not too much later with stomach cancer—revolved alone, except for the Sunday walks he took me on when my father was away on business. A couple of the older spinster second cousins from Newark, New Jersey—to me an unknown hutch of a place that sprouted only their ilk and was accessible only by a Tube—fussed around my mother, who never sewed in the evening but had brought out some handiwork to show. One of my father’s five nieces hung by her.
Jessica, a teacher, was a regular here—as she would be to the end of her life. My other first cousins—Amy, Gertrude, Ann, and Grace, all grown women also, out on the fringes studying opera and other glamor pursuits or about to marry men in Wall Street—rarely came.
The two handsomest, Amy and Gertrude, were said to be forbidden here altogether, because their mother, my pretty, white-haired Aunt Belle, widow of my Uncle Nat, though a Jew herself was trying to pass them off as Christians—and they were acceding. I liked Belle for the airy, marquise style with which she already treated me, as the woman I would someday maybe be. I thought I understood her foibles and suspected my father did also, and might even have tolerated these, in a foolish woman who was after all only a sister-in-law and not geared to the austerity that underlay all our rococo appearances, as well as a sister to such as Harry B. But her daughters, my own blood, I could not forgive, approving utterly of my fathers rumored ukase against them, even though I suspected they couldn’t care less and might even be relieved at the excuse to sever ties.
Their own dead father’s Certificate of Merit from the Public Schools of Richmond: “Awarded to Nathan Calisher, a pupil in 34d Primary Central School No. 34, for correct DEPORTMENT and diligent attention to STUDIES for four successive weeks—Session 1875–76”—attested to by a Miss L. M. Hicks in the brown tracery common to so much old document—was in our big leatherbound family Bible, along with, it is only fair to say, a pressed maple leaf that made me sad and a receipt, issued to my grandfather for insurance on a slave, that made me queasy, since according to my father our grandmother had never kept any servants except the freed. Perhaps my grandfather, of whom I knew only the severe space between nose and mouth in his mutton-chopped portrait, had been of another mind.
In any case it was all our heritage, and those girls were burning it behind them. As a boy my Uncle Nat, like my father, must surely have had to attend afternoon Hebrew School, when released by Miss Hicks. He survived, to die as an elder when I was about seven, of what I had always thought to be a young person’s disease—TB. In a large cabinet photograph taken not too long before, he looks appropriately bewildered. We had all long since become only moderately religious to the outward eye, mostly Sunday School and confirmation for me and my brother, and synagogue for my father on the high holy days, plus his occasional reading from the Hebrew, partly to show us how it was done and that he still could, but also to mellow himself in a language whose beauties he wanted made plain. Even in his generation, intermarriages had been made—and ingested into the clan. But on his side (on which I most surely was), none of this had made us feel any less proudly Jewish. What we had kept was a moral severity—some would call it overweening—akin to that unyielding vertical between my grandfather’s mouth and nose. Inside me I had a similar perpendicular, against which I could measure conduct, mine and other peoples, in order to keep us all in line.