Losing Days and Years

Once I asked an E.B. White scholar why White's essay, "Once More to the Lake," is so much anthologized and taught, and he answered: Because it's the best essay in the English language. Or something to that effect. Which may be why I'm calling it to mind. I guess a great piece of writing is one that you call to mind to encapsulate your own experiences, among other things. White writes about going to the lake in the summer as a boy and going back as a father, and that slippage that happens in which everything about the place seems eternal, and he doesn't know any more if he's the boy or the father or what year it is. That same feeling is in Thorton Wilder's "Long Christmas Dinner." It all takes place at, well, a Christmas dinner table, and it's populated by generations of a family. The members grow old and die (walk offstage) and different ones (who look more or less the same) come to the table and grow older. Some repeat the phrases of the elders. When we come together for a holiday, the same place, the same people (more or less), it's like one long event, punctuated by your life outside. Last week I stayed at the preposterously spelled Hilton Lincoln Centre in Dallas, which used to be the Double Tree, just like I've gone for we don't remember how many years. At the gargantuan buffet there was the same ice sculpture of a turkey and the same thawed shrimp and crab claws as in years past, and I remembered my great-aunt E heaping her plate with shrimp, and others remembered our cousin C piling everything on his plate, back before he became glatt kosher and stopped eating *anything* in non-kosher places. It was gradual: He'd just eat vegetables, and then just drink water, and then just come and not ingest anything. Aunt E died several years ago, and, eerily, after she died, I received a new year's card from her. Inside was a note from her daughter explaining that she'd found it on her mother's desk. C is still alive and well, but in Israel this year with his new bride. He called while we were at table, and the phone was passed around. After dinner together Friday night at a place called Celebration, which I claimed never to have set foot in before, and which everyone said I'd been to, some of us went back to the hotel. One of the little cousins, M, said he remembered when the hotel had large ceramic lions. I do, too. The place is decorated now in wavy-line Retro, but used to be Large-Scale Asian, which was rather attractive and plush but absurd. When it was the Double Tree, we used to get a dense chocolate chip cookie at check-in. When we were sitting in the lobby and talking, M and his brothers were telling stories about their father, and they seemed to be the same age their father was when we were sitting downstairs at dinner not that many years ago. But it's not the memories that unnerve me; it's the gaps in memory. I don't have clear memories of the last Thanksgiving I spent in Dallas. Two years ago I went with L to his mother's. The year before that, I spent many fruitless hours at O'Hare waiting and finally took a taxi home at about 4am. My bag, on the other hand, made a round trip to Dallas. The year before that? I must have been in Dallas. Was that when the Hilton was the Double Tree? I don't remember. Or was that the year we met in Houston? That year my little cousin (first cousin once removed) J was a freshman at Harvard. He just graduated in May so that was 2003. My last Dallas Thanksgiving had to have been five years ago. Then there were bar mitzvahs in Dallas, which feel the same, more or less, as the Thanksgivings, same basic players. My father's side of the family meets in Houston on the other feasting holiday, Passover. The memories of those gatherings overlap, too. We take pictures so that we'll remember. Photos as aides-memoires. You always hear statistics like: people only use one-tenth or one-fifth or 2 percent of their brain capacities. Does that mean that we have the capacity to remember more than we do? I used to know everyone in my senior class of about 750. I wonder if I'd looked at our very horizontal class picture every day, would I still recall everyone's name? The real question is, Why would I want to?


I went to Dallas for Thanksgiving, where my great-grandfather settled for reasons lost to the mists of time. He was a blacksmith. There will be a family reunion there around Xmas, and for some reason I can't remember I exhorted all my relatives to attend. Now in order to show good faith, I need to go, too. I tried to recall why I wanted to go, aside from finding out about cancer in the family, but I don't think there's much interest in that. I probably don't need it, since I don't have that gene mutation. Anyway, I realized the reason I want to go is to find out why Great-grandfather Max R ended up in Dallas. There was the very strangely-named Industrial Removal Office, which existed to remove Jews from New York City. It was founded by German Jews who were afraid that if there were too many greenhorn Eastern European Jewish riffraff (such as my ancestors) around the city, speaking Yiddish, gesticulating, and being Orthodox, they would destroy all the hard-won assimilation points that the earlier immigrants had earned. (OK, they also wanted the new immigrants to have jobs.) This is how the removal service worked: Agents of the IRO would travel around the hinterlands and find out what sort of workers were needed in various towns. Maybe Atlanta needed a cobbler and three tailors. The guy would report back to New York, which would send out a new immigrant cobbler and three tailors post-haste. The IRO was founded in 1901, which was after Max R had settled in Dallas, so the records of the IRO won't help us. Maybe the other R relatives at the reunion will know something. My aunt said that she heard that the Rs set out for the Far West from Texas in Conestoga wagons, that the Rs were the scouts at the head of the line. This is laughable, considering that our family motto is Not So Fast. But maybe the ones who went West were fast, and left the cautious ones behind. We shall see. I am more timid than most of my friends, but to my family, I'm Amelia Earhart. I came North at 18, thinking it was East. It took me several years and as many plane rides to realize that Chicago and New York City were not in the same region.

These are the little cousins, the ones a generation in front of (behind?) me. Some of them are ruby- and white-eyed from the flash. Three little cousins weren't there. In the napkin-covered baskets are squares of excellent corn bread--not sweet like the Yankee style.

War Scars/Bartleby and Bontshe

Yesterday I had a meeting with two people whom I knew, but not that well. One of them had had cancer and would always ask me, in routine e-mail correspondence, how I was doing. I would always ask her about her former cancer and she wouldn't answer. But yesterday we started talking about our cancers, comparing acupuncturists and port scars and oncologists. She told me about misdiagnoses and general mishandling of her disease at Central University Hospital, we'll call it. She had a rare form of cancer that only men in their sixties and seventies are supposed to get. She was quite ready to talk about her treatment. Now it's been six years and she's out of the danger zone, apparently. I had a student who had breast cancer, ran a marathon a few years later and then a year later (this year) I heard she was dying. I sent her a card. I was too uneasy to call. I was afraid it would be awkward. I haven't heard how she's doing. I check the obits on line every so often, to see if her name comes up. It hasn't, so far.

So we go on. I went to my acupuncturist today and he did the routine needling and cupping. I taught my last short story class at Intellectual University. We had student reports and student work and didn't have time to talk about Bartleby, the Scrivener. This is something I hadn't thought of: "He just dies ever so passively, ever so politely, passing into the next world leaving no blood on anyone’s hands." He is a gentleman down to the end. I don't think that's the essence of the story, though. I think the essence is how a man can be so beaten down by the system, by the walls (as it has been pointed out) bearing in on his office window, by the impersonality of industrial capitalism (in that way, no blood on any specific person's hands). But if you do examine his politeness and passivity (which is not the same as passive-aggressiveness or passive resistance), you might be reminded of I.L. Peretz' Bontshe the Silent, who asked for nothing on earth, and when he dies and goes to heaven, asks for nothing more than a hot roll and butter every day. The heavenly beings rebuke him for his modest request. In one translation from the Yiddish: "...slowly the judge and the angels bend their heads in shame at this unending meekness they have created on earth."

In one sense, Bartleby wasn't meek. He wanted to be passive, he wanted to do nothing, he wanted to live in his employer's office, he wanted to refuse. He was able to live as he wanted (according to his own narrow concept of desire, or simply his concept of what was possible) up until a point. His employer let him live as he liked, until the employer was embarrassed, until others were outraged. But Bartleby was meek in his desires. He had stopped desiring as others did, and required only the bare necessities. His desire had dried up so much that it could express itself only as a preference "not to." He could only respond. He could not utter that most elemental phrase that babies learn instinctively: "I want."

Return of the Bitch

Cancer Bitch has returned from her Midwestern tour, which began with a midnight ride to Iowa City and then continued with a daytime (mostly) ride to Ripon (pronounced RIPn), Wisconsin, where her visit was announced in the local paper as well as in the larger one in nearby Fond du Lac. Now she is home and complaining. Her hips hurt. A little. She thought a few weeks ago it was from doing lunges but now she believes (having quit doing daily lunges as part of her daily yoga, which she also quit) it has to do with long-term side effects of Terrible Taxol. Her knees hurt a little, too. She has sent a message to the oncology nutritionist and will report on her findings.

In Iowa City, besides her official business at the NonfictioNow conference, she met with old Red (or Pink) friends from the Iowa Socialist Party, S and R. S is a longtime temporary worker in the Iowa City public library, and his house with R is filled with library discards. It is filled with many other books and papers and with cats. There are also more than 50 boxes of tea. There's a little cancer corner, and from there she was offered a number of items. She took Rose Kushner's "Breast Cancer: A Personal History and Investigative Report," which Kushner wrote partly because she couldn't find any books about breast cancer. How times have changed in 30 years, and partly because of Kushner's ground-breaking book. On the one hand, it's sad that the library discarded Kushner's book, but on the other, it must mean that many other books on breast cancer are in the library and seem more relevant to the librarians and patrons.

Kushner was a member of the Ashkenazim (European) Jewish folk, and she died in 1990, of breast cancer that metastasized.

Your Cancer Bitch is way behind in everything because of her trips, and she leaves Thursday for a nearby university, where she will lead a workshop on writing about your cancer. All fun and games, tra-la.