29 December, 2009
a flood of memories
As of tomorrow, that is how long my beloved and I have been married.
I keep trying to picture myself 20 years ago, with no house (much less two, on two different continents), no PhD (however redundant these days), no child - how is that possible?
As if to punctuate this great milestone, yesterday found us all in SoHo to go shopping. SoHo, the place of our first New York home in 1993, where we could stand on our "balcony" (this is what we called our fire escape) and look to the north at the Chrysler Building and to the south at the Woolworth Building. Here we planted our adult lives, made our first New York friends, bought our first important art. And by important I mean...
I had art students. I was the youngest professor at Hunter College and my God, how I LOVED my job. Art students! Those who made art with their hot little hands and those who were training to study it all, and what fun we had. At the end of every semester, I invited my students home to my loft on Broadway to drink wine, eat shrimp butter and show slides of their work. And one of those early semesters, I was lucky enough to find Brenna Beirne, who showed a slide of an installation of sculptures I can only now describe to you, stored as they are in a massive warehouse somewhere in New Jersey until we someday have walls tall and wide enough to hold them.
They are "The Ladies." Five full-scale sculptural casts of Brenna's own form, from the neck down, in five different poses, cast in plaster, brushed with wax and graphite. When I saw the slide of these pieces, I simply could not believe their beauty. "Where are they now?" I asked in wonder, and Brenna answered with youthful carelessness, "Oh, they were stolen from my senior show." "STOLEN?" "Yep."
"Weren't you devastated?" I asked. "Why? I still have my body, I can always make them again." Just then, John walked into the apartment to see the slide on the wall. "WHAT are THOSE?" he demanded, in thrall as I had been.
It was but the work of a moment to commission Brenna to cast her body, one more time.
So she arrived on John's birthday, our friend Christine in tow to steady the ladder, and while John was at work, she installed "The Ladies." Five Ladies all in a row, from full profile to the left, part profile, straight ahead, part profile to the right, full profile to the right. HOW I wish I had a photograph to show you.
And John came home, dropped his briefcase, and was stunned.
These sculptures followed us to yet another loft in Tribeca, and then had a wall designed just for them in our final loft before our move to London. Whereupon, they were wrapped carefully, said a prayer over, and waved goodbye to their storage place far, far away. When will we ever see them again?
Yesterday we stood outside that old loft on Broadway, remembering the deli across the street where I bought our orange juice and "two eggs on a roll," the block-long walk to Dean and Deluca where I bought croissants, and John's mom once snapped a photo of me coming home, buttery paper bag in hand, in a long form-fitting black dress, ready to teach my class... young and hopeful and THIN and full of energy!
From there to one of our favorite shops on West Broadway, where we helped Avery shop tirelessly for clothes (she and her grandmother have an inexhaustible supply of energy for this activity, long after John and I have stopped looking at our watches!). Suddenly John emerged from the back of the shop, saying, "You will NEVER believe who I have run into back here!" And it was... Brenna. My dear girl, who had just peopled our memories ten minutes before!
A long, hugging reunion, exchange of how to get in touch with one another, a bit tearful at her encountering Avery at age 13, my asking after her twins of 9 and a half years... life, in short, surprising us once more.
A big gulp of life.
Off we went to the shop where we, 20 years ago, bought my gorgeous gold wedding ring, now too small (Avery's arrival for some reason made my hands and feet grow!). We dropped it off to see if they could stretch it somehow, as my latest arrangement of it as a pendant on a leather thong is just not quite enough. More memories, of us in the very same place, planning our wedding, deciding we didn't want a diamond, would just move straight to the wedding band, John choosing his own (years later lost in the wild snows of Canada on a skiing trip when he removed his glove with a flourish and...).
John's mom and Avery went off on their Christmas errand of finding Avery's signature fragrance, a perfume she felt really identified her. And after trying on all she wanted to, guess what she chose? Chloe, my own high school fragrance! How the past seemed determined to haunt me yesterday.
In a cab uptown via 6th Avenue, haunting me further with memories of Avery's ballet classes at Joffrey, with the hated "Miss Liz," one of Avery's long string of early-childhood hated female authority figures! No wonder ballet lasted only about a year. But I loved those days, when I'd run her up the three floors of skeevy stairs, drop her off in her pink tutu, then race back downstairs and up the block to Jefferson Market, one of my favorite foodie destinations: the perfect mozzarella, the plumpest pork roasts, a fruit stand to die for. Then back up those three flights of stinky stairs to hear what I came to think of as Avery's "Moan of the Week." How she HATED ballet!
From there past 11th Street, a brief look at the yellow facade of the school where Avery was evacuated after September 11, 2001... terrible memories of September 19, dropping her off into what felt to me the most dangerous of all possible traps... terrible hollow, black memories of dread.
Uptown further to Shun Lee restaurant to meet up with my darling Alyssa and Annabelle! Alyssa and I agreed later that we can survive being 3000 miles apart when we ARE apart, but when we're sitting together at a dinner table, the number of dinners we're missing together suddenly seem overwhelming and we feel quite ferklempt. The girls have become so elegant, so sleek and grownup, that the shimmery vision of their 2-year-old selves together just breaks our hearts. How have the years so dissolved since then?
From dinner, clutching each other in goodbyes, we headed in a tremendous wind across Columbus Avenue to Lincoln Center, and... the Nutcracker!
When Avery was tiny, maybe just past her third birthday, John's mom and dad decided she needed to go to the "Nutcracker." Friends and relatives alike shrank from our plans to spend untold dollars on a late evening of ballet for a tiny child who would probably melt down. I brought along a little plastic bag full of jelly beans, prepared to bribe her with them should her patience flag. My psychologist father objected strongly, saying, "You should not give her a treat to convince her to behave, but rather give her one after she HAS behaved!" This subtlety was entirely lost on me, intent only on three hours of good behavior, no matter what theories I ruined in the doing.
As it was, she was an angel, completely riveted. And John's parents took us to the Nutcracker for all the years to come, until we moved to London. As if we needed one more reason to be sorry to move away.
And even then, when we returned for the holidays to Connecticut, John's dad was too ill for the "Nutcracker" to be part of our plans. And then he was gone. Unbelievably. A stunning gulf of loss where our Christmases, our endless games of the Fabulous Foursome who were John's parents and we, and then the Fivesome when Avery arrived, had played such an enormous and joyous part of our lives.
Here's something strange, something I've learned. When you know you're going to lose something unutterably dear to you, you try to believe that the love you've felt, the appreciation you've always hugged close, will count for something, will give comfort. "At least we never took anything for granted," you say to yourself, trying to believe it. You hold your memories close, you treasure the person.
Then when the loss comes, you feel that all that assurance, all the past appreciation, doesn't count any more. What about now? What about wanting to tell him something now, right now? About Avery's school acceptance, a new dish I know he'd love to share with us, a first look at our new house. There is only sadness at the void.
But what I've found this Christmas is that the memories DO help. The streets of SoHo were filled, yesterday, with images of John's dad, his love of shopping, his careless disregard for how much a dress might cost at Morgane le Faye, if it looked beautiful on Avery. His joy in finding just the right extravagant bottle of Scotch for John (and a secret black sweater for me, most years). His shy pride at meeting our friends, seeing the cool new sculptures hanging on our wall, hearing me tell about teaching, John's reports of exotic business trips, my trying out a new recipe that he'd later report was "a meal to kill for." He was there, with us, all day yesterday, and never more so than at the "Nutcracker," looking back over all the years of tiny Avery, right through the elegant teenager she was last night.
The memories really do help. They do.
Home we came, visions of snowy Sugarplum Fairies dancing in our heads. Christmas trees alight, our cozy house here to welcome us, a day of beloved friendships to pore over.
Twenty years. They couldn't have been more full, which means great joys and great sorrows, putting down roots here, pulling them up and starting again, holding people close and saying goodbye, saying hello again, holding onto images from the past and knowing that yesterday will provide many more for the future.
A huge sigh of thanks for everyone we hold dear.
Most of all, thank you to my husband. Twenty years. Here's to twenty more, at least.