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DOC MARTIN & THE STALINGRAD MADONNA

A Christmas Revelation

 

The Stalingrad Madonna stands at the heart of the British television series, Doc Martin. The story of the Stalingrad Madonna, along with the original 1942 drawing, was posted by Anita Mathias on her website just before Christmas. Anita’s story made a powerful impression on me.

As I contemplated the Stalingrad Madonna, I became obsessed with a key moment in Doc Martin’s life and its meaning to the series.  That moment is described in two speeches Martin Clunes makes in Series 1. They describe the seminal moment or, in story language, the inciting incident—that which sets the series in motion.

In this case, the inciting incident occurs off-screen, before the story begins, but it sets the through-line or theme, some call it the “spine” of the series.  It is the moment the brilliant surgeon, Martin Ellingham, is overcome with haemophobia and can no longer operate. As he tells Louisa, “It’s the only thing I was ever any good at.”

And so the story begins, with Martin’s journey— back to the only place he ever felt loved, to Portwenn, home of his Aunt Joan, the only “mother” he ever knew.  He leaves his posh life as a London surgeon and returns to his childhood haunt where he’s thrown into, seemingly beyond his control, a fish-out-of-water story peopled with heartwarming characters and an up-and-down love story that provides endless joy for millions around the world.

Let me return to the Madonna and Martin’s initial fall. The Leningrad Madonna is a powerful image that gave hope at a time of unimaginable horror to 6,000 grown men trapped and dying in the Russian winter.

The image of mother and child is, in fact, one of the oldest in all cultures and the one that shines brightest at the heart of Christianity—an image far older and more compelling than, as Mary Daly, the radical feminist theologian wrote, the image of a “dead man hanging from a dead tree.”  The mother and child—a truer image of God—is an image of life, nurture, safety, comfort and unconditional love.

So what did Martin Ellingham, the great surgeon, see in that hospital room that made it impossible for him to tolerate blood?

He saw a family tableau—in particular, a woman with her family clinging to her—her husband, her son, her sister.  No longer a patient, she became a wife and mother—a flesh and blood Madonna, something he had never had in his life and something he must have unconsciously held in awe; deep inside, he must have been terrified of it while, at the same time, wanting it desperately.

You will notice the woman’s parents were not there, nor did she have a daughter. She had a son.

This inciting incident began a deeply wounded man’s journey to repair his own life and make it whole by creating, virtually from nothing, his own family, his own Madonna and child. 

In Series 1 Episode 2, Martin tells Roger Fenn:

MARTIN: I used to have the Midas touch, you know.  I couldn’t look at a body on the operating table without fixing it.  Really. Then one day in the middle of the most mundane procedure—another set of arteries they got in front of me—it suddenly dawned on me for the first time that this was somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go on. Like I was on a high wire, I made the mistake of looking down. I haven’t operated since. So now I’m your G.P.

In Episode 6 of Series 1, he completes the picture when he tells Louisa:

MARTIN: I was operating on a woman one day. Simple procedure. I went to see her in the ward beforehand and her family were there. Her husband and her sister and her son, they were clinging to her, wouldn’t let go. And the next time I saw her was prepped and laid out in front of me on the operating table. And I couldn’t do it. I haven’t been able to operate since… which is a shame because it’s the only thing I was ever any good at.  

It’s a long journey for Martin. The writer’s pull back on his romance with Louisa every other season both to keep interest up and to keep the series going, but also to be honest to the journey.  They cannot trivialize, with a soap-opera love-story ending—just add water and stir—the complexity of Martin’s damaged childhood, his monster parents, and the real work involved in healing a broken heart so it can love.

This, I see, is the seminal journey in the series, Doc Martin, and the root of it’s great appeal—an appeal as timeless and universal as the image of mother and child carved on bark and stone eons ago and worshiped across the centuries, or hanging in a cold bunker in Stalingrad in 1942.

The heart of everyone is drawn to this timeless symbol and Doc Martin reminds us of it every episode.  In Series 3, Episode 3 he is staring in awe at Louisa, unable to speak. When urged, he finally manages to say, “You’d make a lovely mother.”

And she does. Louisa is the eternal mother, James Henry, the eternal child.  And Martin, too, is an eternal child, drawn like all of us to life, nurture, safety, comfort and unconditional love.

Years ago, Stephen Spielberg’s little alien touched a generation’s heart when he said, “E.T. phone home.” Unlike E.T., Martin isn’t phoning home; instead he’s “making” home.  It’s this desire that threads the series, holds it together, draws us to it and gives it power.

And so those of us who fear for Martin and Louisa can take comfort in the brilliant writers that helm the series, knowing they will remain true to the story’s through-line and take us, ultimately, to a healing end.

With that I rest for now. 

It’s a new year. Be at peace and Godspeed to the Martin in all of us in times to come.  

THE ROAD TO SCARLETT

Someday I’ll be so independent no man will ever leave me

To be Southern is to know what it’s like to be a woman.  To be Southern and a woman is to know too much, to spiral too close to the core.  It is women squared, women damned.

All Southern women of my time who have a sense of themselves as independent, separate from husband, family, place or kin, have taken the Road to Scarlett, a road that must begin in Blanche, then skirt or pass through the realms of Zelda.  For Blanche, Zelda and Scarlett are the three great archetypes underlying the South’s feminine Unconscious, the way-stations in a labyrinth engendered in us from birth.  This three-fold pattern winds back into the farthest reaches of our ancestors, threading the members of our nation and clan like beads on a knotted string, stubborn and strong, but isolated by the knots in between.

This is an untying and an attempt, as Blanche once wrote, to fill in the hole in the center of life through which sorrow threads itself over and over.  I write in the hope that my journey on the submissive treadmill may shed light on much of what has passed, as the merciful extinction of our type coincides with the rise, and fall, of a ruthless world.

In order to do this, it is necessary to go back in time – and back inside – to turn over the particulars in order to reveal the whole, to forget for a moment the sum in order to re-embrace the parts.  Let us begin.  Let us begin with birth.

Southern mothers (both victims and perpetrators) like generals waging war, raise their daughters like electric light bulbs to self-destruct without a man.  This guarantees they’ll marry and, what’s more important, when they do, they’ll stay that way. The alternative is too terrible to comprehend.

As a young girl growing up in Chapel Hill – a flower-laden Eden walled off from the parched red-clay piedmont of the rural South – life for me and my girlfriends was like a well-made bed, richly laid out, secure and comfortable, covers turned down, beckoning; all the years of our life-to-be-lived was spread before us like a bridal pattern on a four-poster bed.  All we had to do was climb in, and climb under.  It was as easy as that.

Everywhere I looked from first grade on, I saw souls staring out at me from through bright eyes and chubby boy faces; every glance provoked the age-old question: Are you my soul-mate?  Will I marry you?  Are you be the one I’ll love forever?

My best friend, Shirley, lived at 511 Senlac Road, an imposing two-story white house with dark green awnings above the Boxwoods that shielded the first floor from the hot sun.  Her father, Fred, the town doctor, was a dark-haired handsome man and descendant of my own ancestor, General William Lenoir, the Revolutionary war hero I’ve always identified with because he was born in Happy Valley and died at Fort Defiance.

At any rate, this lineage meant Shirley and I were distant cousins to some infinitesimal degree and made me a suitable playmate in her mother’s eyes. Her mother, known only by the diminutive nickname “Bootsie,” was a frail brown-haired woman with the quiet beauty of a sparrow, devoted to being a wife and blue-blood mother.

After school, Shirley and I would go home to her house to play. Inside, it was dark, still and peaceful – a good place to dream.  We’d drop our books and rush into the kitchen for a ritual coke and one napkin of potato chips; then Bootsie would gather us up like baby chicks and we’d sit at her feet while she read to us from the “Ladies Home Journal” about how to get, or keep, a man.

On nights when I’d sleep over, we’d sneak out of bed with our pillows and sit at the window, looking out over the tops of the tall pecan trees in the back yard, staring at the full moon, bathed in its light, holding pillows we called our “future husbands” as we dreamed.

*   *   *

When I was twenty-one I left home and moved into a Southern mother’s dream: Cambridge and Boston in the early 60’s when the Boston Strangler was in full swing, strangling hapless women who dared to live alone; his moniker came up at least once in every phone call home.  Mail order cans of mace in plain brown wrappers arrived from Chicago on a regular basis.  Step One on the road to the well-made bed.

I stared enviously out at the long-haired, free-love hippies of the 60’s, their minds honed by Harvard, Henry Miller and Camus, young women who seemed to fall in and out of love so easily.  I wanted to be like them.  I wanted to be independent.  I wanted to be strong.  But inside, in my head, all I could hear was my mother’s voice on the mile-closing telephone, “Oh darling, I know you say you’re staying with Lisa, but I hope you’re really living with him.”

Sweet rebellion nipped in the bud?  Liberal, you say?  Not at all.  Out of the dark fabric of Southern sexual mores, an ancient mandate snaked its way into my life like the decisive thread, binding me to a terrible fate: the way to get a man to marry you is to sleep with him.  Step two on the road to the well-made bed.

My mother, in her daughter-marrying prime in the early 60’s, seemed to spin, like Ariadne, the events of mine and my sisters’ lives – even the times – out of her primal desires.  And so the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy declared married men exempt from the draft.  It was a done deal.  Step three…

I married my “roommate” and best friend during a blizzard just before Christmas in 1964 when the full moon eclipse of the Winter Solstice set in a cold and furious sky.  Our honeymoon was at least as auspicious.  The next day he went north to Maine to be with his mother, so she wouldn’t know.  I went south to be with mine – and deliver the good news.

That year I gift-wrapped my marriage certificate and put it under the tree.  Christmas morning came.  My mother opened it and cried out, “Oh, darling! You’ve given me the best present anyone could ever have!”  Then it was gone, whisked off into a box of mementos.  I never saw it again.  At the time, I was pleased with myself.  It was a relief.  I had fulfilled my mission.

I should have been happy but wasn’t.  Instead, I picked at the tapestry of life.  I wanted to be independent; I wanted to be strong.  And so I set impossible goals for myself, ways to become like the long-haired daughters of the intellectuals.  “Blanche” wrote: “Life doesn’t run for me smooth, like the hair down the backs of the long-haired daughters of the intellectuals; sometimes it hardy runs at all.”

And so I decided that if I could get into Harvard I’d be happy.  My life began to turn on it.  My mother said, “What do you want to go to Harvard for?  Your husband has a Harvard degree?”  But I turned a deaf ear… applied, and got in.  But I still wasn’t what I wanted to be.  Funny how those things work.

Inside, I began to weigh the options:  I could stay in the well-made bed forever and live a lie, or I could unravel the tapestry.  The consequences echoed across a void of time – a void I didn’t didn’t know how deep or how long it would be.

*   *   *

So the years of Zelda began, when you pull the decisive thread to unravel the future.  It should be a slow process but it’s not; at the first unraveling, you see and feel the end, the emptiness, as you stare at the blank walled future, knowing you’ll have to reinvent yourself with nothing but the fragile strands of a defective soul.

My hands shook and I was filled with vague fears, certain I would die.  My husband was kind.  I must be crazy, I told myself. I can never make it on my own.  I cried a lot.  I should try to make it work, I thought.  I had to.

Back and forth, back and forth, I went.  I was admitted to the Infirmary for “exhaustion” – a polite word they used.  In the South I’d have been diagnosed with the ‘vapors.’  While there, I agonized about what to do with the rest of my life.  Then, one morning at breakfast, I saw the answer at the bottom of my coffee cup.  It stared up at me, daring me, beckoning — a sign from God. I stared at it for a long time.  And from that moment on, I knew what I had to do.  I never looked back.

What was it I saw on the bottom of the coffee cup?  Harvard’s motto on the shield: “Veritas.”  Truth.

*   *   *

I was spirited when I was young.  Strong and strong-willed: a leader among little girls.

I lived with my mother and sisters at 524 Hooper Lane, a small wood-frame house at the edge of the UNC campus built by the University for young faculty during the Depression.  The house was one of a series of nine nestled in a ravine that sloped down to Battle Woods – small wooden houses that grew like spindly plantings in the backyard shadow of the grander homes that lined Franklin, Hooper Lane and Senlac Road.

Our house, shingled and painted grey, was surrounded on two sides by a hedge of Wild Honeysuckle that ran along Hooper Lane and Boundary, shielding us from the street.  A Hydrangea dwarfed the front porch.  Beside it, a rotting Apple was being consumed by Trumpet Vine while, over in the corner, a couple created a livelier scene: a sturdy Crepe Myrtle supported a Wisteria Vine so that it became two trees in one.

In early spring, the Wisteria bloomed, forming a thick lavender and green canopy along the bare branches of the Crepe Myrtle, its heady flowers thick and sweet with new life in the humid air; then in August, when the hot sun had parched every blade of grass and the leaves of all the other trees drooped in the dusty air, the Crepe Myrtle would explode into a second life, it’s garish pink flowers mocking the coming fall.

But the most wonderful tree grew on Boundry just outside the honeysuckle fence: a Willow Oak; its branches ran the length of the house and covered the entire side yard; they brushed against the screens of my room, my mother’s room, my two sisters’ room.  The sun, the moon and the stars rose out of Battle Woods through its branches.

My mother, my two sisters and I lived beneath that tree for fifteen years.  On warm nights, when we’d sleep with nothing between us and several thousand freshmen and sophomore boys on the campus but a crooked wire latch and the screen doors that let the night air in, I felt protected in its branches.

Sometimes I’d look out through the branches and see Pete’s black car parked on Boundary beneath the tree, watching the house, engine idling in the winter to keep warm. In my heart, I felt safe from harm.  I was fearless then.

*   *   *

Fearless.  One warm spring night during a slumber party at three in the morning, I and my girlfriends – Marian, Roberta, Kay and Liles – decided to go out and play on the campus.  We were all of sixteen.  I grabbed a carving knife for protection and off we went, chubby and well-endowed, wearing only the diaphanous knee-length gowns that teenage girls wore in the late 50’s – fushia, aqua, lime green, Tuesday Weld pink, and yellow – like fairies out of some madman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, we frolicked past the girls’ dorms, through Coker arboretum, down the dread path of periwinkles where the bodies of coeds were found murdered in the spring… (Any self-respecting attacker in the bushes would have taken one look at us and run!)

…up onto the main campus, past Morehead Planetarium, on to the Old Well at the heart of the campus where we were apprehended by two astonished campus police in a patrol car.  “What do you think you’re doing,” they asked in alarm!?

“Don’t worry, Officer, we’re protected,” I said with authority, whipping out the chuckie-sized carving knife from under the folds of my flimsy nightgown.  The officer’s eyes widened in horror.  Not only were we fugitives from a slumber party, we were carrying a concealed weapon and instrument of our sure destruction.  We were hustled into the patrol car, all five of us, scolded, not cuffed, and lectured to at length about the dangers of men, spring and the night.  We were driven back to my house and ordered not to come out again.  That night, we fell asleep on the floor about dawn, the patrol car still circling the block.

*   *   *

But the incident that best shows how inescapable the consequences of growing up southern and a woman is the following, because even though my girlfriends and I didn’t fit the typical mold, the information we were fed about love and men went in and down and emerged in its own unique, demented fashion in a way more passionate than our proud mothers ever dreamed.

I was in high school.  Shirley had long ago been bundled off to Saint Katherine’s School for proper girls in Richmond and my house had become the favorite gathering place for my less conventional girlfriends.

On many a day, we would arrive after school to indulge our passion for pizza and men.  A favorite pastime was to shut ourselves in the dining room, blinds closed to darken the room.  I’d go into the kitchen and ask Josephine to not come in, then return to the dining room where the record player was on, the record spinning, needle poised…

By now everyone had taken a place.  We littered the room, cross-legged or lying prone across the floor in a dramatic pose. Once settled in and comfortable, we got out the pictures.  I had an 8×10 glossy of the UNC wrestling team.  Joseph Perrini was in the center, his black eyes staring out at me like holes in an eternity of hope.  Marian and Roberta had 8×10 glossy’s of UNC basketball stars, York Laresse and Pete Brennan.  Kay and Liles had snapshots of actual boyfriends.

After the photos came out, we were ready.  Deep sighs were followed by a moment of meditation, then… I’d drop the needle on the record and the room would be filled with Maria Callas singing great arias from Puccini and Verdi – La Boheme, Turandot, Gianni Schicchi’s beautiful “O mio bambino caro” – while we sobbed uncontrollably over the pictures of our “boyfriends” in the darkened room and Callas sang out her beautiful and inscrutable tragedies in Italian.

Lord only knows what Josephine thought, but she probably knew that as “Southerners” and “women” we were “right on schedule.”

*   *   *

And so, years later, I crossed the threshold into Zelda armed with the certainly that there were better times ahead.  How far ahead, I never knew.

*   *   *

After Zelda, there was another Blanche, subdued.  Blanche is the victim, the quiet one.  Blanche would never run wild and half-naked across the UNC campus with a carving knife at three in the morning.

Blanche is the accommodator, always accommodating, appearing to give in so she can get.  Blanche is needy.  Blanche gets by on the kindness of strangers.  Blanche has been disarmed.  She isn’t a threat to anyone but herself.  She won’t talk back, stand up, or sue.  You can do with her what you will.  If you wrong her, it’s your fault; the inexorable laws of Karma will be your undoing, not her.  She will go to her grave smug in the knowledge that no matter what happens, no one will ever be able to say she was mean.

Blanche is a lady; she is nice.  She has her moments, of course, when she is not.  Often these coincide with her time of the month, or year, but with the help of the medical profession, she usually manages to stifle it, hold it in; with the help of her shrinks and the medications, she learns to “sit on it” which is part of “not taking a stand.”

At the root of Blanche’s problem lies an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, a festering, gut feeling.  She wants something she’s not getting, they say.  The truth is, she wants something she isn’t.

This is a subtle difference lost on most people who see only a fluttering of the arms, a hint of what Freud called hysteria.  Blanche is frustrated; she flirts with life.  What does she want, they’ll ask?  Who does she think she is anyway?

A pompous Shrink once scrutinized me.  “Your problem,” he said, sizing me up, “is your sense of entitlement.”  Entitlement, I thought.  Fuck you!  Then Blanche intervened. Is that nice?  No?  Then perish the thought!  And he was right: it was true.  I felt entitled to all sorts of things: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness… just to name a few.

Where does the anger go when it goes away?  It goes down, then comes back up again in more socially acceptable ways.  Blanche is passive in her aggression.  She wheedles, she manipulates, she cajoles.  Anything not to be mean.  Blanche has been reacquainted with mother’s Law of Honey and Vinegar, and she lives by it.

Blanches aren’t born, they’re made: they’re either carefully crafted in early childhood to subdue the male energy of the girl-child or, later on, they’re made out of Zelda’s or near Zelda’s–all who venture out of the well-made bed and set forth on the Road to Scarlett.

*   *   *

I’d like to stop for a moment in order to clarify a point about Southern mothers.

Southern mothers are not the cause of the problem; they are simply the main vehicle through which it passes.  They are partially responsible, not wholly, and they are not to blame.

There are other far more damaging forces.  One is the genetic cell.  It goes something like this: Southern mothers had Southern mothers and they, in turn, had Southern mothers… and so on and so on.

Imagine yourself standing between two mirrors – walls of the genetic cell – seeing your image receding into an infinitely smaller and smaller past and future.  There are mirrored walls on either side, too – your contemporaries, sisters, friends.  After a while, you can’t tell where the images stop and you begin.  You blend in.  You become one with the mirror-women — an army of illusions, marching through you to the strains of “Pretty Girl Station.”

*   *   *

Beyond the genetic cell, larger forces feed the cycle.  In order to fully describe them, I would have to chronicle the entire history of the world since the beginning of time.  In short: let it suffice to say that society is like an elite ark that likes its members to come aboard two-by-two; in particular, they like their women to be escorted; anything less than that makes them uncomfortable.

Women who live alone are women to be feared.  In India, when husbands die, society burns the wife with them; in Europe, women who lived alone were called witches, their lands were confiscated and they were burned.  Such is the fate of widows and orphans.

*   *   *

Widows.  Black widows.  Widow, wide and void.  All come from the same root.  Men are vertical, upright.  The male energy ascends. The woman is prone, horizontal, not of the straight and narrow.  Wide verges to void; it is an undoing of order; it verges to chaos which is disorder.  The feminine principal is dark, moist, mysterious… It is the unknown, the unconscious.

Now it’s been discovered and Science speaks out, amazed:  “Yes, Virginia, there is a chaos.”  Order within chaos.  This is life, this non-linear process.  Soon they’ll be talking about intuition.  The goddess returns and, ah, the cross (the black and white linear cosmos of Paul) – male/female, vertical/horizontal – is undone.  There’s a blending now and with it a hope for the future that this terrible cross-purpose separation may come to an end.  Soon.  In the new century.

It’s all geometry, the genetic cell.  We need a new shape, that’s all.  But what can we do now?  Only fly above it, looking down with love and pity on our infinitesimal selves… as we make our way along the Road to Scarlett.

*   *   *

Pete had one dream – to build a house – and one fear, which was to owe money.  So he needed two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to build his house.  And so he played the stock market and built an estate with the instincts and luck of a gambler and a lot of aluminum foil.  When he got close to his goal, he had plans drawn up; then he bought a lot.

A one-of-a-kind lot just off Franklin Street in an area that skirted Battle Woods – acres and acres of unspoiled wilderness in the heart of Chapel Hill.  Dogwood, Maple and Oak on a hillside that sloped down to a dark ravine where Battle Creek ran through a thick forest.  He paid five thousand dollars for it from the developer, Watts Hill, who also owned the bank.

In June of 1962, when everything was in place: the money, the plans, the aluminum foil trust, the market fell.  Three months later Pete died.  I got his car to compensate me for my grief, the University sent us a conciliatory eviction notice and then, Watts Hill closed in.  His bankers sold the stock at an all time low and shipped the money over to their buddies at a local Savings and Loan; then they sold the lot for the five thousand Pete had paid for it – years before.

I pleaded with them not to sell.  “Land isn’t a sure investment, honey,” they assured me.  I argued – to no avail; Then I drove by the lot and tore the “For Sale” signs off the trees – until they sold the car out from under me.

I dragged my father’s will around with me for years.  During my more lucid moments, I’d consult attorneys.  F. Lee Bailey gave me the most consideration.  After a through study of the document, his trust attorney, Collin Gillis concluded: Ten thousand had been stolen outright; the rest mismanaged; it would cost fifteen thousand to sue,” making it a pyrrhic victory at best.  “If I were you,” he advised, “I’d take that money and buy a feathered dress.  That way, you just might marry one of those bankers or lawyers!”

“I’ll not be damned in a feathered dress,” Stanley shouted. Blanche said nothing.  She just looked at him, wide-eyed.  He smiled.  “Bankers have the hearts of whores,” he said.

*   *   *

These were the warring years of Blanche and Stanley, the years when Scarlett is nowhere to be found.  Where is she when you most need her?  Sleeping.  These were the years when all that is strong and assertive in you is perceived as an aberration, eating away inside — a Stanley.  These were the lost years on the Road to Scarlett.

PETE

An Offering

He was the youngest of so many I don’t remember how many. He was feisty, the runt of the litter; tough, destined to make it. Most of the others died, succumbed to disease, malaria, the great flu epidemic; or died from eating the lead paint that cracked and peeled off the walls and window sills. It was back in the day before there were laws against lead paint. He had an older sister named Margaret who left home, and a brother, Johnny—my Uncle Johnny whom I barely knew. He came by one day and sat on our screened-in front porch, the Trumpet Vine wreathing the dying tree just beyond the screens. I don’t remember what kind of tree it was because it was leafless by the time Uncle Johnny came calling, his gnarled hands folded in his lap, his plain brown suit, shiny and clean. He sat there, proper-like for mama’s sake. He’d spent his life in the army, but finally came by to see us that summer day. I don’t even remember Pete there, and maybe he wasn’t. I imagine mama serving him an iced tea, sweet tea with lots of sugar. But I don’t know for sure if that’s what he drank, sitting there on the porch.

Their father was night watchman at a mill.  Pete was about four when he was murdered, hit over the head one night making rounds. After that, his mother mended clothes for a living and they stayed in the mill village until he was six-years-old and she was killed by a drunken driver crossing Wilshire Boulevard. It was 1921 and there weren’t any laws about that then, or many cars either so the driver had to have been a rich man, above what laws there were anyway. The incident was just an accident, plain and simple. Or maybe it was hit-and-run. Pete didn’t talk much about it but he did talk about how the authorities took him to an orphanage in Monroe where he lived until he was nine; and how, one day, Uncle Johnny showed up at the door, hat in hand. He’s just turned sixteen, the legal age then, so he came for him, took him away, and they lived together at the YMCA in Charlotte. The year was 1924 and that was legal then, too. They shared a room and a suit—one suit between them. The suit was too small for Johnny and too big for Pete, but it was a suit and they were proud to wear it.

Pete sold newspapers on the corner to pay for room and board. He talked about that a lot. I think he also told stories about walking ten miles to school in the snow with holes in his shoes. But I’m not sure if that was true; he may have just made it up, especially the part about the ten miles. But the newspaper story was real. Now the amazing thing about living at the “Y” was that when normal kids come home from school, they play in their backyards with other kids; but when Pete came home, he played in a full-sized swimming pool and a full-sized basketball court; that was his backyard. And the kids that played with him were mostly grown men, older, and some very wealthy. That was how he met Ralph, delicate and prim, who came from a long line of stock brokers in Charlotte.

Before each meal, the butler always served pink curled shrimp on lettuce in ice with a delicate sauce made of ketchup and mayonnaise. And Ralph had sea water in gallon jugs flown in from miles off-shore which he drank as a tonic. His house was grey stone with a long driveway leading in that curved under an arched portico; terraced gardens led down, down to a dark pond, covered in lily pads with large, white flowers and frogs that croaked in the silence of the stone house. Statues of nudes, covered in moss, were half-hidden in gardens around the pond. The first time Pete went to the house, Ralph took him to his closet—a whole room lined with more suits than he had ever seen. And he showed him the suits and said to him: Take any one that you want. That, and basketball, was how their friendship began.

Old Age Set In

Old age set in when Pete was forty-five. His skin had a gray cast. Within the year, he was in a wheelchair and needed oxygen.  In August, I went with him to visit Ralph for the last time. I walked down to the frog pond, brackish and overgrown with lilies, cool in the bamboo-filtered air.

Ralph had hired a young gardener in his early twenties who tended the yard—muscular, fit and lean.  I don’t remember his name but I remember the pain on Pete’s face as he watched him from the ivied terrace. Long shadows fell around us off the trees, heavy with the leaves of late summer.

A heart doctor at Charlottesville had a new procedure to repair the mitral valve. If successful, life expectancy afterwards was nine months.  Pete chose to have it.  His best friend, Mike Ronman, drove me and my sisters up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Charlottesville to see him.

I remember him lying there, white as a ghost in the hospital bed, unable to speak, unable to move.

When we left I lingered by the bed. Mike and my sisters hovered by the door, waiting for me.  I stepped forward and touched him.  He couldn’t say “Simmer down,” and hold me off like he usually did. Then I did something I’d never done before.  I kissed him on the cheek, turned and fled.

Walking down the long hospital corridor, my sisters laughed at me, over and over. “Pete’s favorite,” they taunted sing-song, ridiculing me, skipping ahead.  I didn’t say a word.  I just kept walking.

It was early December.  The next year, in June, he won the handball championship at UNC playing against undergraduate boys less than half his age. He’d turned forty-seven that month but he was young again.

Three months later, in September, he died.  He went into the hospital with pneumonia but the cause of death was listed as mitral stenosis.  The surgery had been a success. He’d made it all nine months—and a few weeks more.

When mama got back from the hospital at four in the morning, she woke me to tell me he’d died. Then she delivered the good news that was supposed to make everything all right. “Darling,” she said, “I just wanted you to know that if he’d lived, I was going to take him back.” Much to her surprise, I flew into a rage and threw her out, shutting myself in the room.  How could I react like that to such good news?  Mystified, she called the priest.

He came by later that morning and I remember him trying to console me with a metaphor for the three stages of life: ice cream, sex and death—something like that. Later, mama gave-up on me and borrowed a black dress from Shirley so I’d have something proper to wear to the funeral. She wanted to take me shopping to buy a dress at the Little Shop, but I refused.

Pete was buried in the old cemetery across the street from the Forest Theater—a mossy amphitheater in the woods where, on many a warm night, the music of the flute from “Peer Gynt” filled the warm air, making its way through the trees and the sheltering willow oak outside my window, floating into my daydreams while I lay awake.

My sister tells me flowers now appear on his grave from time to time. No one knows where they come from or who puts them there. But it’s nice to imagine there’s someone that cares.

 

 

Standing Up To Tyrants

Don’t Ever Steal My Parking Space Again, Fucker!

A True Story

Part 1

It was sometime in the mid 1970s. I was backing into a parking space in Harvard Square. Do you have any idea how difficult it was and still is to find a parking space in Harvard Square? I was in a mid-sized Audi 1000, a sleek Jag knock-off that weighed about 3,000 pounds. All of a sudden I glanced in my side mirror and saw it: a chic little orange Triumph had pulled up and was blocking my parking space. A dapper man sat behind the wheel, arms folded across his chest, smug smile on his face. He shook his head at me and pointed to the parking space. “I’m taking it,” his gesture said.

An intense Rage came over me. It had happened once before and I’d driven away, anger churning inside me all day, doing god knows what to my body and internal organs. All this flooded over me in a slow-motion instant while the man smiled and a crowd gathered on the opposite sidewalk. It was high noon at the O.K. Corral, or the running of the bulls at Pamplona, Cambridge style. Who was going to make the first move?

He did. He pulled into the space, right in from of me and my car which it happens was perfectly angled to pull in. I didn’t hesitate a moment. As he slipped in – a perfect fit – and the crowd watched, I popped the clutch and WHAM! Three tons of Audi hit him smack in the center of his teeny-tiny, very expensive sports car. I’d cracked it in half. A ROAR and APPLAUSE went up from the crowd.

Asshole got out, screaming. I was pleased with myself as the crowd dispersed, knowing he’d have no witnesses to anything except his extreme assholeness. I smiled up at him, not knowing at the time that I’d hit a critical beam and totaled his car. We exchanged information. Then he did an odd thing. He dashed off saying he had to make a phone call, taking my driver’s license with him.

Late for my appointment with my psychiatrist, I parked elsewhere, went into my shrink’s office and calmly announced, “Excuse me. I have to call the police.” I used his phone to call them and report the man for “stealing my driver’s license.” The police sent an officer to my therapy session. He came in and took the report there, writing down the offender’s name and address from the information I’d gotten.

My shrink was highly amused. It turns out this jerk was the head of Mass Mental Health, the largest psychiatric hospital and mental health facility in Massachusetts. Asshole also lived in Gray Gardens East, the most expensive mansion-laden neighborhood in Cambridge. I guess he was home when the police car, blue lights flashing, pulled up in front of his house and the cops got out and knocked on his door. He avoided outright arrest by surrendering my driver’s license.

Later that afternoon I got a call from the police telling me they had the license and I could pick it up at the police station. I was pissed because they were on Green Street… and it wasn’t easy to park on Green Street either.

Part 2

I wasn’t done. I knew I had to cover my ass. I tried to press formal charges against him at the police station but they told me it was a matter for the Registry of Vehicles. Undaunted, I pressed on, filing charges against him for “Aggressive Driving” with the Registry in downtown Boston. The best defense is any offense, I felt, and this one fit. I could defend it. I should mention here that no insurance  company was involved so far and my three ton Audi didn’t have so much as a scratch on it.

Anyway… a hearing date was set for months away. On the day of the hearing Asshole showed up with a handsome man in a three-piece pin-striped suit and perfect Armani shoes—his lawyer. The guy must have cost a fortune. We were shown into a seedy room: metal desk, metal chairs, linoleum floors, no windows, institutional green paint and florescent lighting.

The Examiner, a heavy man nearing retirement sat behind the metal desk with the paperwork in front of him as the three of us filed in, me with long hippy hair and worn blue jeans.

After a while the Examiner looked up and spoke gently to me.

“Young lady,” he said, “If I were your father, I’d tell you to forget about this and go home.” Asshole and his fancy lawyer breathed a sigh of relief as I shot back:

“Well, you aren’t my father, and if I had a father, people wouldn’t take advantage of me the way this man has done.”

The Examiner sighed and shook his head. “What do you want?” he asked at last.

I sat up straight. “I want an apology.”

At this, the Parking-Space Thief got up, walked over to me, and stood before me. With a truly apologetic, even sad look on his face, he said:

“You have no idea how very sorry I am that I stole your parking space.”

I studied him. He meant it. I reached out, took his hand, and we shook.

The examiner beamed and pronounced the case closed.  Then plaintiff, defendant and defendant’s very expensive lawyer thanked him and left the hearing room.

Justice had been served.

Blanche would have been proud.

Remember to be Kind

TENTS AND OCCUPIERS IN DEWEY SQUARE, ROSE KENNEDY GREENWAY, BOSTON, MA. PHOTOS TAKEN OCTOBER 6, 2011.

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