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Home: The Toast

In the middle years of the 1930s, when everyone was unhappy and the history books have pictures to prove it, my father rode the rails from coast to coast and town to town learning to hate the many and varied relations on whose charity he lived. He started out a boy of eight, holding onto a small sister with one hand and a smaller dog with the other, and ended a boy of twelve, still with a small sister. The dog may not have made it all the way. Not all train conductors were friendly.

They were shipped from relative to relative for this half-decade because my grandmother was busy having tuberculosis in a sanitarium while my grandfather was busy being a traveling salesman and losing their house to gambling debts. This wonderful man’s name was Louis and about him I know not another thing except that in photographs he has the trick of looking up through his lowered eyelashes with a knowing smile, just like a handsome man would who ran away to join the merchant marines in the nineteen-teens and then took a break to be photographed before swindling some women out of their savings and stockings (1). He died well before I was born, probably to keep himself a mystery. I am told he was never a great talker, but a man who is good with cards and charming in the face does not need to have much gift for conversation. None of his or his wife’s extreme good looks have survived down to my generation. I think that they lie dormant in my cell structure and must be activated with a little madness and gambling, just as you can produce heat by adding water to a little powdered magnesium, iron and salt. This is my understanding of recessive genes.

Sometime after his salesman years, Lou ended up in construction in Florida, where he made a killing in trusses (the architectural kind for bridges, not the other kind for portly gentlemen). There are Adele Streets all over Florida and one or another of them is named for my grandmother, the most monstrous Adele of her age. I expect contractors and urban planners of the modern era still know what they knew back then: if you have a wife, name a street after her and install her there, for long-term storage. You won’t forget where you put her, that way. This was an important consideration: Adele spent the great Hurricane of 1938 up in the rafters of a Rhode Island attic pretending, to calm her two children, that they would not be swept out the window and out to sea with the rest of the floating dead, and that tying a white flag to the roof to alert rescuers was a good funny game. When Louis came to find them later among the sheltered refugees, he was given at first to understand they had not survived. He was never easy letting her out of his sight, after, which must have been a hard quality to manage in a husband who was usually several states away on business.

Here is another piece of my grandmother: My father was an only child of nearly four when Adele went off to the hospital to have my aunt removed from her inner works, in this era when the mechanics of child production and the fact of pregnancy were not things you would pour into the tender ears of a small boy. Accordingly, she did not explain her condition to him in just that way. She was going away, she said, to fetch him a pony for his birthday. Did she expect him to believe it? He did believe it. When she returned with only a newborn sister for him, he was polite as he could be for as long as he could manage, and then burst out at last: But where’s the pony? My grandmother was quick to explain to the assembled adults what he meant by this and they all had a good laugh. That’s what you get for believing your mother. That is also how you create a rift between siblings, if you want to take notes. You cannot blame a small girl for not being a pony, but I am sure it is not easy to forgive her either, and I don’t know that he ever did. A little later, he sold my infant aunt for fifty cents to a well-off family down the street, but Adele went and bought her back and passed it off as a joke. My father never got to have his own way.

Adele was mistreated and disappointed in all the ways common to women of her time and a number of extra ways besides, and from what I hear she did not have a lot of what psychologists are pleased to call “congruence” to her personality. In particular she did not see any reason why she ought to love a child at a given moment simply because she had loved it the last time she saw it, any more than the weather knows why it should rain today just because it rained yesterday. By most reports she was a monster, but I have a great liking for her just the same, as to me she is mostly imaginary and imaginary women are best loved of all creatures. I saw her several times in my youth and her extreme age, and she never told me I was doomed to die young or stretched out her bony hand to curse my infant head, so I don’t know what everyone else was so exercised about. It wasn’t my face she scratched out of photographs with pins. There was a dybbuk inside my mother, says my aunt, a sweet-natured woman who knows much more about the subject than I do. How exciting that does sound, to be sure.

But Adele was the reason my father believed nor trusted no woman for the rest of his life, because women were as full of wiles and lies as a hive is full of bees and honey. I know: you are shocked, and so am I, to hear that all of a twentieth-century man’s neuroses and rock-solid prejudices regarding the other sex can be laid at the feet of his mother. But Freud says it; everyone who ever met her believes it; that settles it (2). Adele was the woman my mother blamed for my father’s lifelong hobby of inducing people to like him through undisclosed magical means and then disdaining, ignoring, stonewalling, blankly staring at, retreating from, hiding from, fleeing from, shutting up, and shutting down all the women who dared, in their innocence, to expect human consideration or conversation from him.

*

My mother had a more great and terrible innocence than any woman of her era I have ever met or heard of, like a Kodiak bear rising up from the scrubby plains of Ontario County. For her to face off against my father and all his mighty powers of room-leaving and eye-contact-avoiding must have been like a delicate light-fearing insect confronted by a hundredweight anvil with the ability to have its feelings hurt.

What did he like about my mother? I ask sometimes, and I get one answer back, no one ever falters in this catechism: Your mother never lied.

In context, you might as well say: Your mother was the honest man Diogenes sought after all his life and never found. You might as well say: Your mother was the sole survivor of a forgotten race of noble women who dwelt on a sunken continent lost to the world beneath the waters. Your mother was the light of this world. John Donne would never have been so cranky about women if he had met your mother. I find this all fairly sickening but some find it touching, even romantic. Still, though, to be the only woman who had never lied to a man: what a compliment, what wretchedness.

My mother’s grandfather and grand-uncle were ministers and ministry infested scores more of her male blood relatives going backwards in the generations so far as the eye can see. In tintypes and photographs, you can always tell the ministers by the wild eyes. The farmers have a different misery about them, it is subtle but you get to know it. There was a thing you could be, in their religious atmosphere, called “impressed”: this is an old-fangled term still current in many churches, but I will explain it anyway. When you wish to say something but ought not, you say that you are “impressed” to say it. This means God has put it into your mind and spurred you to open your mouth; of course you do not wish to be cruel, you take no pleasure in the telling, which would be a sin; you are not responsible for the sentiment, which comes from Heaven, but you are pious and brave enough to speak what is sent to and through you and bear the consequences. People in the letters I have read were frequently impressed to tell their neighbors that Hell was keeping a warm place for them. It’s the sort of thing they’d need to know.

This conceit was God’s own gift to the passive-aggressive and, not incidentally, a fine way for women to seize and assert moral authority without the usual patriarchal constraints. Rigorous Protestantism is too boring for most people to pay much attention to the subtleties of female power-seizure within its ranks, but this is how it is done. In a land of taciturn men you can go far by simply speaking for your husband when he is busy counting his goats and apple trees, but if he is difficult or does not exist, speaking as you are impressed to speak is an emergency option always to hand, as one may always pull the emergency cord to stop the bus even if one is a woman. My mother never believed in God a day in her life, but her truth-telling had, at times, a hint of this flavor. Those very few who hated her probably thought her an overbearing moralistic busybody rather than a protecting wall or a lighthouse of truth. Perspective is a funny thing.

*

The idea of a firstborn son being second-best in anything is very shocking, but Adele’s maternal ambitions were not calibrated for a boy and she threw him over as soon as she had a little girl to dote on and dress up and dream feminine dreams for. These dreams had nothing much to do with her daughter’s real qualities or wishes. My aunt was more interested in reading her brother’s Astounding Stories than in cultivating gorgeousness, popularity, and bewitching men to their destruction, and this in spite of looking like a young Elizabeth Taylor. It must have been a hard trial to an already unbalanced mother.

I don’t suppose my father would have admitted to inheriting a trait that made for so many of his childhood troubles, but this quality of his mother’s, whose favorite he was not, this ability to look straight at a girl or woman and see, whether good or evil, what simply was not there, this skill my father learned from her and practiced faithfully through his life in spite of being a scientist with a pretty high regard for his own intelligence. He looked at all women but my mother and saw what worried him extremely, and he looked at her and saw what he wanted most.

And can you blame him? I do blame him, clearly, but people often do stick pretty strongly to what they learn in early life. Just for example, the largest and orangest of the cats in the bookstore I once worked for, a cat like an orange elephant, was the runt of the litter as a kitten and, because she was separated too early from her mother, had to be bottle-fed by my boss. Because she was so young and traumatized it was impossible to get her to eat unless he sang to her, so he had to sing “Joe Hill” to her every time, and in this way and by this tune she learned to feed and thrive. I found this a most unlikely story, for when I knew this cat she had not the least interest in union organizing or in folk singing. Nothing at all in her adult opinions or professional training suggested it. But to prove it to me my boss sang a verse or two of “Joe Hill” and she rolled over on her back easy as anything and just lay there looking happy. This is what I know about behavioral conditioning.

And so whatever he might have thought he thought about womanly artifice and deceit, by the time he was a grown-up nuclear physicist who kept up a rigorous and disciplined schedule of not answering his girlfriends’ letters or returning their phone calls, my father liked his depictions of women a little artificial, a little grotesque, a little fearsome (3). It was in his blood. His art library remained in place after his body departed the house, so in death he had no secrets from me in the aesthetic realm, at least. He also had a strong taste for Jugendstil-ish handcrafted jewelry that you could buy from artisans in the 1970s to approximate the kind of thing you saw on pulp fantasy novel covers, if you had a woman nearby to festoon with topazes.

My mother told me once, wistfully, that she thought when he looked at her he must have seen not her but a Frank Frazetta space princess, to have so persistently tried to decorate her in that style (4). She didn’t wear jewelry when I knew her, but back in prehistory she tolerated it. I like to pretend she was right about his motives: not that he wished to edit or redesign her, but that he really looked squarely at my stubborn, loud, tactless, farm-bred old mother with her head full of programming languages and hands dirty from organic gardening and saw Thuvia, Maid of Mars.

*

Most people with any background in biology or natural history know that a woman is nothing but an ingenious machine for making metaphors. My mother made metaphors which grew more lengthily baroque and labyrinthine and self-referential as she aged until, as I said in desperation the year of her death, she must rein them in when speaking to strangers or the doctors were liable to think she was senile when she was only insane. She also made children, and had trouble noticing anything out of the ordinary about them. either, though doctors and strangers likewise may have their own opinions about that. My mother enjoyed young children, not for their potential or symbolism but for just what they are: for loud, demanding, programmable animals who, like the computers she knew well and handled with equal confidence, can be taught to do tasks of increasing complexity so long as you speak to them in the languages proper to them and whose errors can usually be traced to a flaw in your own input; whose own output can be observed and recorded; whose mental progress can be analyzed; and to whom even affection and loyalty can be taught by the highly skilled operator. I was not a good child, by which I mean I was not much good at being a child, and thus I was hostile to people who “liked children” as a class, much as I am hostile now to men who “like women” as a mass and as a generality: they never mean me and I know it, even if they don’t. My mother liked children, deeply and sincerely.

Here is an actual metaphor she made for me once, when I was a teenager: she said that in my parents’ relationship, she was like one of those metal pin art desk things and, as you may put your face on one of those things and make a perfectly three-dimensional hollow portrait, like a death mask, so did she bear the impression of my father’s personality through her long association with him, without effort and without error. And so even though he was nine years dead by then, she was and had been representing his image to us, his children, she said, with and without meaning to, like the wax mold from a cire-perdu process, that is discarded by the single-minded artisan in pursuit of a bronze casting unless it preserves itself for unknown purposes (5). And in this way we also knew him, whether we knew it or not.

She did not see anything appalling about this image and was most puzzled that I did. I might have harangued her about the politics of her metaphors at great length — why not see herself as a boa constrictor and him the elephant she devoured, so that his shape could be dimly perceived through hers until after much time his substance had been thoroughly incorporated with her own?  — only I could see she was close to sentimental tears even nine years after her husband’s death, and it is always upsetting to me when grown women weep openly like little boys so I retreated from the subject at once.

Years later I wrote a terrible master’s thesis on constructed women, the dreamy literary legacy of Ovid’s Pygmalion and Hesiod’s Pandora and so on and so forth. Woman as art project and perpetual child, always a flawed copy of an unknown original, corrupt and corrupting by design. Man as artist, teacher, God, always ready to pick up a soldering iron and a few screws and have one more try at fixing Nature’s greatest mistake. It wasn’t very good, because it is all but impossible not to say facile and banal things about gender when handed such an exquisite opportunity — entirely impossible for me in particular — but I read a lot about robots and doppelgangers and artificial persons of all types and stored away many interesting facts in my brain-box. Why did you get interested in this topic, people would sometimes ask me. “Who knows!” I would say, and “Just because!” 

Just because. Who knows?

*

I am, or I once was, a bad amateur classicist of a very restricted kind: literature apart, I am an expert only in the small fact-finding field of Did You Know. People belittle facts nowadays but I think they are wrong to do it, there is really nothing like a fact. Here, have some:

DID YOU KNOW: that Hephaistos built mobile maidservants out of gold to serve and assist him in his science lair? Though beautiful, they did toil and would have spun too if he needed them to. They could speak, it says so in the Iliad, but no more than was set down for them. Nothing they said could surprise you. No quotes survive. No inventions are credited to them either, their divine master putting his name and copyright on all that left his workshop like the Dale Chihuly of Greek myth that he was.

Another sullen son of a mean mother pushed beyond the limits of her endurance to punish those closest to her, if not those most deserving, Hephaistos was unlike my father in that he was not even good at making his own wife like him. But he was a great maker of women on his own time:  they went to him to direct Pandora’s construction when they, that is the gods, wanted to make a first Woman as a trap and a doom to punish Man, the way that General Leslie Groves went to Oppenheimer when they needed a fine mind to head the Los Alamos labs. You may suppose that they called on Hephaistos for his engineering skills, his scientific mind and his eye for beauty, but I would say that he was the right man for the job above all others because of his devotion to Resentment, that prince of emotions.

DID YOU KNOW: William Butler Yeats, your friend and mine, once consulted a robot built by  David Wilson, chemist and deranged solicitor (6), that was built to receive voices from the spirit world? This metallic homunculus did all kinds of psychic tricks (with Electricity) and talked to Oscar Wilde and John Dee and oh, just anybody who was anybody until one day it received a spirit message in German, so the police came and took it away. What an elegant solution to the problem of fraudulent mediums, though! Even if you perceive the world beyond the veil you must admit there are fakers at work passing falsehoods to the living, but a machine is incorruptible if you build it right.

(My father came to my mother in a dream a short time after he died; she could say nothing to him because she had so many things to say to him, but he told her it was all right. “It’s all right” did not seem to me like a message worth an apparition’s time in spite of the manifest emotions my mother endured to quote it to me, but I was not up on my family legends at the time so I did not know just what a feat it was for my father to have traveled anywhere for the purpose of telling a woman anything. )

DID YOU KNOW: When you transform some substance, some thing into a woman, it also stays that item that it first was. She stays, if you want to be humane about it, but also it, is the point; a woman’s component parts never lose anything in translation. Consult any Pygmalion story from Ovid to Shaw or anywhere in between, or take my word for it; I am a Master in this area, like I say. Take Christopher Pitt’s instructive Fable of the Young Man and his Cat, too. He prays to Venus, the young man of this poem does, to transform his cat into a girl, wanting to love her in all ways and arguing that what Venus did for Pygmalion in animating his statue into a bride, she can surely do again with these different materials. And so his Young Man’s prayer is answered, Venus says Yes and stretches out this cat into a biped with eyebrows and corsets and conversation and only enough fur to make a muff out of, and he marries her. But her nature is only dressed up, not gone, and just as the bridegroom leads the transformed, so-civilized “Miss Tabby” into the nuptial chamber, a mouse appears — her appetites roused, her instincts take hold — he sees — she pounces — ! 

In the Aesop fable that inspires this poem, the bridegroom’s reaction is entirely absent. (For that matter, in Aesop, the transformation is the cat’s idea.) In Pitt’s 1727 Fable, the touch is light and the tone ironic, but you would have to wait until the next century and Ruskin’s apocryphal wedding horrors to find another such nightmare of finding out that a bride is only as God made her and that a woman is, as the saying once was, no better than she should be.

DID YOU KNOW: that if you sit on a stove over the winter months in your long skirts down to the ground, the warmth will engender a small animal creature the size of a mouse that at length will escape from under your clothes and run out into the world, covered in fur. A sooterkin is what it’s called, and if you look it up in a dictionary you will find some usage examples from men like Alexander Pope who mean by it, approximately, an afterbirth, an abortion, a failed production. They would think that. Animal children are not like animal brides or bridegrooms, they have scarcely any atavistic horror to them at all and many is the woman who would cheerfully give life to a chinchilla or a dormouse with no other parent but the kitchen’s warmth and her own long winter’s sloth and goodwill.

There is not so much of a massive literary legacy for the sooterkin, the animal child, as there is for the robot daughter who can be perfectly reared and educated into a robot wife, so persistent a masculine longing that it makes its way into the popular press in modern sexbot form on a weekly basis. We have historical notes on Mary Toft, very popular figure nowadays, and there are cautionary tales of children who turn into animals and adventures of regular children lucky enough to be raised by animals, but the essential golden animal dream is a curious vacancy. Randall Jarrell’s Animal Family, though perfect, is a prototypical found family and not a begotten one. Stuart Little is no closer.

And it is a curious literary vacancy, because if you divide by gender these efforts of women to bear strange animals from efforts of men to fashion clockwork women, you can lose sight of the fact that both these myths are about the same impulse at the bottom: namely, to have anything in the world at all for a child that is not a human baby.

*

My own mother, who loved human children so sincerely and indiscriminately, was never more maternal or, I dare say, majestic than when she lived alone on the top of a hill in friendly dominion over the beasts of the field, who made every effort to become beasts of the house. Mid-conversation with me on the telephone, she would have to pause to chase a coyote away from a woodchuck sunning itself on the front steps or fish a snake out of the dishwasher (snakes love a dishwasher warm from the drying cycle.) Wild turkeys flew up into her trees and something with claws scratched in the ceilings late at night, busy making nests or friends or plans. When she lay dying, her deer came and went every day, up to the windows before retreating, in groups of three and five and ten. They came through rain and snow. A paramedic who called for her one day had the gall to come back the next day on his own behalf to ask her would she mind, as it was hunting season, if he were to come by sometime and shoot some of God’s creatures, for sport. Just, since she had so many roving over so much land, as he could not help noticing when he was there saving her life the other day.

Over my dead body, she said, and not just to make him uncomfortable.

I am still sorry all this time later that I could not figure a way to make the house and grounds into a free waystation for deer and squirrels and common ground mammals of all types, the way that cats in Rome’s cat sanctuary live free or die on the spot where Caesar was stabbed, by order of law, in memory of him and the great affection all cats bear him. Deer loved my mother like cats love Caesar and I betrayed both them and her memory by selling her property to a human gentleman who will probably murder them if they eat his landscaping. But what could I do? I couldn’t sell it to the deer at below its assessed value because of my fiduciary duties, and the deer couldn’t get a bank loan.

What would you do for your parents, if you could do anything to make them happy and time and space were no hindrance? “Have them marry other people” is a popular answer, I bet, but if I am to believe everyone I’ve ever spoken to over the evidence of my own senses, my own parents were perfect for each other. For my father, perhaps, a new mother: not Lucy Lane Clifford’s New Mother with the glass eyes and wooden tail, whose pale imitation Other Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is still pretty scary. No, I envision something like Thomas Edison’s talking dolls, those imitation little girls made of brass, glass, piano wire and rubber tubing, that came out of his factory howling pre-recorded speeches and songs like so many Belle Epoque Teddy Ruxpins and went into the trash because real little girls ran from them in horror. But a perfected version, I mean: a mother with the scary parts taken out and a golden phonograph welded into her midsection so that she could say the same words to you today that she said yesterday, and say them again tomorrow, and always mean them, and never change. At least she would mean them as much today as she ever had.

For my mother, I can see no way for her to be a human woman born in 1936 that ends well or does not begin badly. Circumstances were to blame for the unfairnesses of her life, but wherever you go in the world, there are circumstances. So to her, I give her to be born a bear. Bears are not more truthful than my mother was, but no one thinks it exceptional in them, no one supposes a bear’s price above rubies because it says what it means and means what it says (7). No bear could protect a man from his female relations more fiercely than did my human mother, but no bear would consent to intercept and answer all his mother’s letters for him. Bears are not more brilliant than my mother was, but imagine Cornell telling a bear it couldn’t get into the Engineering Department, be it ever so good a candidate, just because their bear quota was full. A bear’s admission rep would have to reckon with more than her decision to take her state scholarship somewhere else, I bet (8).

*

The most perfect love story I ever heard is the one between Roy (of Siegfried-and-) and his white tiger, Mantecore, the one who ate him a little bit, but not entirely. Roy would never hear a harsh word against Mantecore until he died. He would not have changed a hair on that tiger’s head, he would not have had that tiger’s teeth and guts replaced with clockworks and sawdust for any price. This is a parable of general application. You know what Baudelaire said about every pair of lovers consisting of one butcher and one victim, but I think we are far enough advanced beyond such pessimism that we need not ask ourselves who of a pair is the lover and who the beloved; who the surgeon, who the patient. But when you find your great love, will you be Roy, or will you be the white tiger? 

The story is short, if you don’t know it: Roy had a stroke from which his mighty magics could not save him, and the tiger took a bite of him, and the order and motivation of the events is not known. I accidentally (“accidentally”) watched the Barbara Walters Siegfried and Roy special back when Roy was still recovering from being half-eaten by the tiger, who definitely did not mean to do it, he said (9), and only ever wanted good things for him, and the camera followed them to their crazy tiger ranch —

and poor Roy with his crushed larynx and his punctured spleen hobbled up to the bars and told the tiger he forgave it and he still loved it, and the tiger did not say anything because the cameras were on it, but it sort of grinned at him with this look, like: When I get out of here I’m going to eat you all over again

and Roy let all the love and tenderness a German magician’s heart can hold well up in his eyes and beam out of them into the tiger’s cage, and the pure light of forgiveness surrounded all, as it were the tiger was the repentant Count Almaviva in the fourth act of Figaro —

but you know what, Roy did not open the cage door.

*

MORALS

A good baby is worth more than fifty cents no matter how bad the economy is.

A woman who will tell the truth to you will someday tell the truth about you.

Don’t open the door.

*

Footnotes:

1. Or their stock certificates. I don’t follow legal documents so closely as I did when I was paid by the hour to read with care and tell the truth.

2. Here is where I would like to say that if you believe it too, I have a bridge I would like to sell you. But I have no bridges and so I cannot say that without becoming a liar like my grandmother.

3. You might say:  “Who doesn’t?” Or, “What other kinds of women do they even make pictures of?” It’s true it was a terrible century he lived in. Thank goodness everything is better now.

4. You must just trust me when I tell you that although you can fiction my mother into a grown-up Dorothy Gale or an iron-jawed Laura Ingalls without doing violence to her fundamentals, on no account could she be represented by a Frazetta or a Boris Vallejo. The sober mind cannot hold this picture.

5. Such as creeping out its daughter a decade later.

6. Foster’s Yeats biography calls Wilson a solicitor and deranged chemist, but I have my own ideas.

7. Who can find a virtuous bear?” said no Bible ever.

8. I mean she would eat him.

9. Roy said. The tiger kept its own counsel and never told its story to the papers or even to Barbara Walters.

*

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Zoe Selengut is a research analyst and editor in Washington, D.C.

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