This afternoon I gave my hastily written talk for the ladies’ luncheon in Long Island. I wrote most of it on the plane from Boston. I was supposed to speak about the Jewish family, and so I did. I illustrated my points by reading selections from my fiction in The Family Markowitz. Some of the ladies seemed to find this confusing. They were a group of 200 women, ranging in age from 50 to 80, and their chairwoman looked at me with my book in my hands and said to me dourly before I got up to speak, “I hope you’re not going to give a book review.” Fortunately, as I read, much of the audience laughed heartily, and seemed to enjoy the performance. However, I could see during the question-and-answer period that these women did not want to know about my fictional portrait of a Jewish family. They wanted to know about my family, and my parents. How I grew up, and how I raised my children. It was facts they were after, not imagination. Truth, not fiction. But there was one question about a detail in my book.
“What made you think of using Tilden High School as the school Ed and Henry attended in the 1950s?”
“Well,” I said, “my grandfather taught there a long time ago.”
“What was his name?” the ladies asked me.
A shriek went up from the back of the room. “I had him! I had your grandfather for French!” There was delighted clapping at this. Almost as much applause as there had been when the raffle winner was announced at lunch.
I smiled from the podium, but somehow I felt like crying. My grandfather has been dead for more than 20 years, and his wife, my grandmother, was gone, and–this was what I felt most keenly–his daughter, my mother, died six months ago. I was standing there before 200 women, and one of them remembered my grandfather. And even his house was gone, and all his things long sold and given away. I just laughed with the audience and went on to the next question, but I wanted to sit down. The woman’s shriek of recognition overwhelmed me somehow. Her remembering and my loss.
After a long, hectic day, I am home from New York. I threw my bags inside the door and found that my husband and children had arrived home from the playground just before me. We all looked disheveled. The children were covered with dirt from the playground, and they had that look they always get while I am gone. A perfectly happy look, but somehow uncombed and sticky, with peanut butter on their clothes. The house was disheveled as well. I am the only one in the family who puts things away, and so after my two days’ absence, the forces of inertia had taken hold. Newspapers were piling up, toys strewn across the rug, laundry on the floor in the bedrooms.
I went upstairs to change, tell my husband about my day, and talk to my 4-year-old about preschool and his field trip to see the trains. “Did you hold hands with a buddy?” I asked.
“Of course I did,” he said. “Mommy, don’t ask me questions when you already know the answer.”
My husband, a computer-science professor, told me about the class he is teaching and how his lecture went.
My 18-month-old toddler ran around the room and said “bye bye, bye bye,” because he does not know how to say hello yet.
We all talked as if I had been away for much longer than two days. I had been in such a different place, so far removed from the usual family routine. Instead of packing lunches for my children and wheeling the baby back and forth in the stroller, I walked through the Diamond District and saw diamond necklaces and pearls and rubies. Instead of doing dishes, I was having lunch in the Morgan Library. I was wearing a green spring suit instead of my jeans, T-shirt, and running shoes. I was walking through streams of people on the broad sidewalks of the City.
Now that I was home, we all had to figure out what to make for dinner, and whether there were leftovers. My husband headed for the kitchen, and I started to follow him and realized suddenly that while we had been talking I had been making the bed, automatically, as if it were morning instead of 7:30 at night. I was bustling around straightening the covers without even noticing, as if trying to knit closed the time I had been away.