Sissie. Happy Birthday. (And more “Libertytown”)

Update: 5:30am.I originally posted this at 2a.m. – just a few — too very few — short hours ago. Then, NOW — me and tenses and tension and — anyway — the fire alarm started chirping, its battery requiring a change, at 5a.m. which might have made Charlie a few years ago furious and victim-y, “WHY ME” weepy but, pshaw!!! I scoff. You see, this Charlie got RIGHT AWAY; it was — is? tenses again — Sissie waking me up because I should spend as much of her birthday awake (albeit, not completely lucid) as possible. So, three hours of sleep will have to do. And replacing that damn 9Volt, this particular alarm placed at the top of a stairwell, me contorted precariously on a chair contending with my bad back and worse attitude, well, Sissie had a bad back, too. And she never complained. So, I WON’T. Dammit. Love and light, kids. Love and freaking light.

December 17. My most important holiday. Her favorite things:

sissie

  • The color red;
  • When the forsythia bloomed yellow, her harbinger of spring;
  • Mary Martin, Barbara Cook, Angela Lansbury;
  • Broadway musicals;
  • Apple crisp;
  • Her nightly Lark cigarette & hot toddy (straight bourbon, mostly, with a splash of water and a suggestion of sugar);
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker, in that order, thank you;
  • Books and people who read them and wrote them;
  • The idea of the Algonquin Hotel and its Round Table;
  • These songs:

  • And she loved me;

And oh, how I loved her.

Sissie 3 Happy Birthday, my dearest. Thank you for the music. Thank you for the words. Thank you for the belief. Thank you for all the things you loved. Thank you for Roald Dahl. Thank you for Helene Hanff. Thank you for Jane and Paul Bowles. Thank you for dinner and my first New York cocktail at the restaurant at Rockefeller Center when I was seventeen. Thank you for making me promise I’d stay at the Algonquin. Thank you for loving and believing in my father. Thank you for never saying anything ugly about all the people I begged you to say ugly things about, thus teaching me about grace and faith and kindness and Light and Love. Thank you for never seeing anything but Perfect Charlie, and really meaning it, really living in that vision – and thinking everyone else, including me, was mistaken about me. Thank you for all the things I never thanked you for. Thank you. I wrote Libertytown for you, about you, although made fiction, but still, I called you Sissie. Here, another piece of it:

Libertytown; from Chapter 6 (and always being revised, even as you read, I am NOT unaware how badly I need editing, leave me alone this morning, okay?)

He’d wanted to know where my Alonquin silver had come from and I had tried to tell him but after hours of digressions and Balzacian asides and Proustian-navel-gazing frame-of-referencing, through which he had pretended fascination — a pose I suspected he felt required to strike as condition of his probation or parole or whatever I was — whatever I was, the thing was, he was there, here, he stayed. But then, he sometimes felt something like guilt. Which I didn’t get, of course.

“I don‘t tell stories like you.” Matthew’s confessional mode.

“I like that you don‘t have stories.”

“I didn’t say I don’t have stories. I said I don’t tell stories.”

“Okay, Matthew, whatever you meant – I mean, I guess, I like that you haven‘t heard mine. I am new to you. I don‘t know. I like being with you.”

“I‘m not who you think I am, you know.”

Perhaps. Therie had back-grounded both of us on the other but she had been unable – or, unwilling – for reasons of professional protocol, to actually share Matthew’s history with me. I really had no idea how he’d landed in trouble with the law, anything about his family, the friends he’d been ordered to leave behind.

So what. Details. I knew his soul. Which I thought I got, of course.

“I know who you are, Matthew.”

“No. You really don’t. But, I’ve warned you.”

“Okay. I’m warned.”

“Sometimes Parker, I pretend I know what you‘re talking about even when I really don‘t.”

“Okay.”

“And sometimes I pretend I don’t know things I do. You know? I mean, sometimes people just – you know – don‘t really like another person as much as they think they do but they’re lonely – or – they need something and so they put up with whatever until someone better comes along. Do you know what I mean?”

I am touched by this. It is, I think, something else we have in common. Already I am worried what will happen when he leaves me. The weight of the deaths of Tom and Vincent, and now, Sissie, is almost lifted in his presence. Matthew keeps me grounded. With him around I am responsible for the this and that which must be done. The burnt out light bulbs and the dirty laundry and the unpacked boxes still mean something to him in a way they do not to me.

He wants to carry things for me. He wants to prove he can carry things for me. Carrying things for me has, somehow, become how how proves he can carry himself. Which is why Therie gave him to me. Brought him to me. Made him, somehow, mine. Or, wait, gave me to him? Something. Which neither of us – any of the three of us – got, of course.

Therie wants me to feel better, wants me to again be the Parker she knew, the Parker who fits into her storyline. Then. But Matthew never knew him. He wants me to be no one but who I am, right now. Now. These tenses; which tense am I in? I get. I got. Present? Past? Whichever, whatever, all imperfect.

Therie goes on about the five stages of grief, to warn me to prepare for the denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, but she is unable to answer me when I ask if I will be going through all those stages for each of the deaths separately, or, all together? I mean, I think with Tom, I may never pass denial as it was the state in which I lived while he was alive, and with Vincent, I think I did a fairly speedy segue to anger the day his unanticipated will was read and I found myself stuck with his damned dinner theatre. However, with Sissie, I spiraled almost immediately into depression, which, combined with the Tom denial and the Vincent anger, pretty much left me a fucked up wad of numbness, my only truly cogent thought, that new mantra, my fervent wish, that which I wish they would say of me, “And then he died.”

Matthew’s concentration on the practical and concrete is a relief from all the existential bullshit threatening to drown me during this mid-life dance with death. He, right now, brings me what happy I have. Whether having given him a mix cd including Kay Thompson’s I Must Have That Man, Mahalia Jackson’s His Eye Is On the Sparrow, and Mable Mercer’s Did You Ever Cross Over To Sneeden’s, adequately conveyed my thanks or meant anything to someone whose freedom is dependent on peeing in a cup, I’ve no idea.

He tolerated my lengthy explanations that Sissie had read me all the Eloise books when I was a child, and I had recognized in a photograph of Kay Thompson wearing black Capri slacks, the soignée style and aura of éclat and élan that, for me, Sissie radiated; that Thompson’s residency at the Plaza conflated in my six year old mind with Sissie’s reign as glamorous doyenne of the Libertytown manse, and that I fully expected Sissie could have – had she had the time – and would have – had I asked her, written a series of books about me and my extravagant adventures in her home. Years later, wondering why Thompson had chosen not to pursue the stardom and worldwide fame I was certain she deserved, but, rather, had served as vocal coach and mentor to the likes of Garland, Lena Horne, and Frank Sinatra, I saw in that a parallel to the way Sissie had sacrificed her career as poet, her rightful place among the New York sophisticates and literati alongside Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker (in that order, thank you, she would insist) that she might care for the rest of us. I explained to Matthew the manufactured memory I experienced as concrete reality of riding in the front seat of my daddy’s pick-up as he, weeping, sang along with Mahalia. But can a nineteen year old in 2004 – when every song is available on demand for download to be carried around on I-Pod – begin to understand the magic and bliss of a Sunday afternoon when Sissie stopped me in the middle of my voracious consumption of the latest book she’d bought me, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, to turn up the radio in the kitchen where she was peeling potatoes for that day’s birthday dinner (I cannot recall the relative, nor even the season, just the book I was reading and the soundtrack of the day) because a song “you must hear – you will never hear a truer song in your lifetime” had come on, and so we listened with such intensity, holding our breath, frozen in supplication as Mercer crooned through Sneeden’s:

Did you ever cross over to Sneeden’s
Where the white houses cling to the hill?
Did you ever cross over to Sneeden’s?
Do you think that you ever will?
Is the past like a dream in remembrance?
Can you see now the frock you wore
On the day that you started for Sneeden’s
From that faraway, strangely still shore?
Long I waited that day by the river;
Long I waited, my heart beat fast;
Long I’d planned what I’d say when you landed,
And I waited till daylight, daylight had passed.
I am still living over at Sneeden’s,
And I still walk along the shore;
And I gaze at the elms across the river,
And I know that I’ll see you no more.
Did you ever cross over to Sneeden’s
Where the white houses cling to the hill?
Did you ever cross over to Sneeden’s?
Do you think that you ever will?”

 

And we had both wept. Sissie, I imagine, because she was moved by the longing of the lyrics and the plangent sonorousness of Miss Mercer’s voice in which, even I, a child, could discern the tangible ache when she lamented, “Long I waited, my heart beat fast;” with the “heart” stretched until it broke, a catch there on that attenuated extended diphthong held until it evanesced, and too, there in the stop and silent gasp of terror between the two “daylight’s“, which seemed like the goodbyes I’d had to say, that hit me like the terrifying emptiness in the middle of an infant’s wail when there is no breath left with which to weep, that unnerving gasp, a moment of near death before the keening begins anew wherein blossoms space enough for a lifetime worth of scars of having not gotten what one wanted, or, worse, gotten and lost it; and I cried because I had never seen Sissie cry before. I would see it only three times more; first, when my grandfather was buried; second, when she defended me against my uncle, her brother, and his vicious tirade concerning my freeloading and useless life when I had returned from California, tail between my legs seeking refuge with her in Libertytown; and finally, on that day she left the just sold and emptied Libertytown for the last time, knowing she would never spend another night there in the home where she’d been born, where she’d at first been held captive by her sense of duty, from which she had never been allowed to escape when she so desired, until, she’d embraced the only home she’d ever known, made of it a world as wide and appealing as any English novel, kept the story going there for all of us, generations of the family who now, betrayed her by forcing her to let it go.

I can never forget her standing there, outside the door of the summer kitchen, now gone, torn away by the first of the invaders, that door that exists now only in my memory, and the look on her face as she walked toward the car, paused, holding her breath, ready I knew to turn and look again, and simply could not, and so, instead, those tears she’d been holding inside since the decision had been made by committee to rid ourselves of the financial burden of the collapsing home finally burst forth from her heart, all the decades of silence, all the unspoken sorrows, the weight of having never said “no” or “what about me” breaking through the wall of her Catholic martyrdom and escaping, cutting down the ridges of time that had riven her worn and suddenly ancient face and finding their way to the ground, for she did nothing to stop them nor wipe them away.

She had earned them.

I wish I had asked her why the lyrics of Sneeden’s had had that same effect on her. I wish I had asked her a million things I never thought to ask or was too afraid or self-centered to ask. Had she ever been in love? Ever made love? Does the loneliness of not having those things ever abate? How did she cope with her solitude? Does the desire to be held or to hold ever cease? And if it didn’t, how did she deal with it? Did she resent the loves, connections, and marriages others had made and feel, somehow, less? Denied? And wonder why that God she worshipped with such faith, such devotion, had condemned her to such solitude? To a place in peoples’ lives where she was the one who did for others, gave to others, where she did the sacrificing, where she loved more than? And when had she stopped writing, and why? And what happened to all the poetry and essays she had already written when she decided she would write no more? Did she ever resent the way in which everyone had come to expect her to be there in the ways we all did; for the dinners and the gifts, and especially for the sanctuary and shelter she provided us when things hadn’t gone our way on our own life journeys, none of us ever taking the time to consider that perhaps she had a journey of her own she might like to take? Did she ever consider putting herself first, doing what she wanted, being who she needed to be, and asking for what she needed instead of always ceding her own desires to serve the dreams and needs of others? What kept her smiling and believing? What held her up? Sustained her? What made her able to see only the Light in me? And why did the lyric of Sneeden’s make her weep? Was there someone, some time, for whom she longed who she knew she’d see no more, or was that someone for whom she wept the self she never got to be?

I will never know the answers to those questions.

I think I can safely say, as I sit here in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel where she never once sat but which feels, to me, as if it belongs to her, where I feel as if she might, at any moment, emerge from one of the two lobby elevators and cross the thickly, roughly textured carpet the color of expensive green olives mixed with a sandy tan, elegantly broken by fleur de lis in shades of burgundy and purples so deep they become blue, then black, all of which perfectly complement the mustards, forest greens, golds, and deep, deep reds of the upholstery. I imagine these fabrics have come from England, and these furnishings have been here since the day the hotel opened; these thirty-two chairs and sofas in this lobby arranged around tables of varying shapes and sizes, some, of course, round, and it is all tastefully tatty, faded, worn, classic, the cushions sunken from use, and Sissie would sit across from me in the gold velvet upholstered wingback chair that matches the one in which I sit, both of us speculating whether Miss Parker had sat in these same spots, here by the grandfather clock that chimes with a sound that is tinny and real, warm, not some digitalized, computerized satellite prompted reminder of the exact moment; this is a clock someone winds, this is real time, because it is all yesterday, before; and she will be here with me, by this ornately carved pillar, the ormolued cherubs keeping watch at its top, and I, with my back to the front desk from which vantage point I am able to see the dining room where Mrs.Parker and Mr. Benchley and the other members of the Round Table gathered, I can safely say that I loved Sissie more than anyone else had ever loved her, that she loved me more than anyone else has ever loved me, and yet, as much as we loved one another, there was so much we did not know; not just details but huge chunks of ourselves to which the other was not privy, and even so, still, somehow, we knew one another completely.

And while the shadows and echoes of this are all, somehow, on Matthew’s mix CD, how will he ever know it? Is this why I answer all the questions for him now, those that he doesn’t ask, pouring out all of myself to him so that there is nothing he will want to ask me later, after whatever happens to part us happens, so he will not then suffer this sort of regret? Can I convince myself I am doing whatever it is I am doing when I bare myself to him for him, and not for me? How to make sense of the Gloria track from Patti Smith’s Horses? How revolutionary it felt when I first heard her croak, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” How her androgynous appearance excited and encouraged me, wrapped in the white men’s oxford shirt she wore on the album cover, her skinny angularity in that Mapplethorpe portrait, her courageous sense of self all reminding me of Sissie – albeit, a spectral, heroin shooting, risk taking, punk rock version, but then, it hadn’t been the details so much as the sense of the iconoclast, which Sissie was in secret.
In those later years, when I had become titularly an adult, our conversations were often peppered with her revelatory, long-withheld opinions. It was during these talks I realized that it wasn’t so much that Sissie disliked my mother, but rather, that she so worshipped my father she needed someone to blame for his absence; and too, that at the same time she thought the Catholic church misogynist, she worried she’d go to hell – or at least purgatory – for thinking so; and that she didn’t think anyone had any business ratifying or condemning anyone else’s behavior, that the definition of sin was a personal pact between a person and their God, and that all Gods were one God – although she did believe the Roman Catholics had the inside track on the truth of Him; and it was during this time that what she called her “hot toddy” became straight whiskey, the water and sugar left out of the mix she poured – night after night – a creature of habit, into her Baltimore Orioles 1970 World Series Champions mug, and her one Lark cigarette a day became five, then ten, and her guilt about giving in to these wants became less powerful than the lifetime of denial eating away at her.

So she had set herself free, rebelled, like Patti Smith whose Horses I had taken one day to Pilgrim High to share in the dressing room during a production of Harvey in which I was miscast as the young, romantic second lead, Dr. Sanderson, in a cast full of crossover jocks and cool kids, one of whom broke into pieces my Patti Smith LP, carefully replacing it in the sleeve for me to find as another reminder that I did not belong, that what I loved was suspect and meant to be destroyed. That day I discovered the vandalism, I lit a cigarette up, right there in that dressing room, hoping to be expelled, but I was not. The teachers and staff understood my plan, and would ignore me as if I were invisible when they made bathroom raids and I stood there, furiously, defiantly smoking away in those places where it was forbidden.

Like it is now forbidden in this lobby, though I note that the coffee table between our chairs – mine and the empty one that waits for Sissie – is stained with decades of over polishing, scratchings, sweat circles from endless cocktails and too, its dark burnished mahogany scarred by the hot ashes of cigarettes from that time before, before we guarded so carefully against every risk.

And the clock strikes again, it is 3:30 p.m. and the chime I’m hearing is the same chime once heard by Dorothy Parker and Helen Hayes and the burgundy jacketed waiter is here to ask me to leave.

“Sir, can I bring you something?”

All this time, these seconds of his nearing, I have been waiting to be found out, excommunicated from this chancel of the literary and theatrical, my and Sissie’s dream world, and instead, he has brought me coffee. It isn’t just coffee, it’s an Algonquin pot of coffee, served in an Algonquin cup, and it tastes exactly like the coffee used to taste at Libertytown, in the winter, when Sissie would leave a pot on the woodstove so there was always warm coffee ready for drinking, a hint of chicory and a breath away from burning your tongue. During the warmer seasons, when the woodstove was not lit, she would pour a bit of coffee from the carafe into the cheap, green enameled sauce pan, its rim chipped in two places, which she used exclusively for heating coffee, as necessary to the ritual as were the paten and chalice to hold the consecrated host and wine for Catholic communion. She required that her coffee be very hot, steam rising from it, but it could not – as her Mother had liked it – be boiled. Sissie was extraordinarily particular about what was and was not good coffee, and though she never complained about bad, when she was served a cup that met her standards, she would wax rhapsodic. She always stopped whatever she was doing to enjoy her coffee; when at home she drank it from a tiny demitasse cup which was a stony gray-blue, close to slate with a border of burgundy-brown and saucer that matched which she had purchased at Gimbels on our first trip together to New York. She rarely bought herself anything, doing so only when she was overtaken by a love so strong it became compulsion. So rare was her purchasing anything of her own that I recall every detail of that cup and saucer’s acquisition.

We had wanted to explore every floor and department of Gimbels, comparing it to our beloved Hutzler’s in Baltimore, where we spent at least two Saturday’s a year gathering gifts of quality enough for me – Sissie having given me the idea that the local stores could not possibly carry clothing suitable for a person of my breeding – and so we were climbing the floors of Gimbels to reach the restaurant where we would order crab cakes, knowing as we did so they would never approach the perfection of those served by the ancient waitresses wearing uniforms the color of the walls in Hutzler’s pink circular dining room . When we arrived by escalator on Gimbels Home Furnishings floor, we were confronted by a pyramid of cups, saucers, plates, and bowls in more colors and patterns in one place than we had ever seen. We could not have been more impressed nor awestruck had we actually been in Giza. Sissie neared the obelisk as if in a trance, and when she reached out to touch the cup she eventually purchased, I whispered in protest, certain the slightest disturbance of the design would cause the entire arrangement to tumble, crashing disastrously to the ground, and we would, like Lucy and Ethel, be forced to slave away in some dark recess of Gimbels to work off the damages. Sissie reassured me, and she held the cup, moving it to her lips as if it were filled with coffee already, sipping so that she left the imprint of her lips in the Chanel Coco Red shade she had always worn, and then turning to me with a look betraying embarrassment at her indiscretion.

“I’ve smudged this beautiful cup,” she said, drawing me into complicity, “I ought to buy it now, don’t you think, Dear?”

Of course I agreed. I had been raised on fairy tales and literary romance, already I made up stories to give validity to the magic I wished to find in life. “Yes, you’ve kissed it, and once you kiss something, it belongs to you forever.”

So carried away did we become in this storyline, that she also purchased the matching bowl, and until the day she could no longer make her own meals, she drank all her coffee from that cup and ate all her soup and cereal from that bowl. I have them now, somewhere in one of the unpacked boxes in Libertytown, the one marked “Heirloom Dishes” that Matthew tried to open as we worked on the kitchen. I stopped him, explaining that those dishes would be put into one of my china cabinets, both of which, the French Display from the 1920’s and the Louis XVI-style mahogany china cabinet handmade in France in the 1940’s, were still wrapped in moving blankets in the room at the west corner of the house where my grandfather had once stored his gladiola bulbs, which too had served as the kitchen when my family stayed after my father‘s death, waiting for our home to be refurbished, a bathroom added with the money from his insurance policy, details I had not told Matthew, with whom I was not yet comfortable enough to tell I had lived in a time where some people still did not have indoor plumbing and that, while Sissie had convinced me I could not wear clothes that were not from Hutzler’s or Hamburger’s or Gimbles or Macy‘s, and I was bred for sojourns at the Algonquin, the conundrum was, indoor plumbing had not been a feature of my first few years and had my father not died, who knows when an indoor, flush toilet would have entered my life?

With Sissie, these things made sense, or rather, were not an issue. She taught me by example to ignore these enigmas, as she had, smiling, pretending not to hear the taunting children who’d called me sissy. She simply didn’t acknowledge the incongruities and difficulties of life, devoting energy instead to the pleasures, making those pleasures into ceremonies, rituals on which she counted to relieve the numbing tedium – or so I imagine – of having always served others.

As she stopped whatever she was doing to perform the coffee rite, so too did Sissie pause for her cigarettes, hot toddies, and conversation with me. In my head – though I know the memory is no more real than the one I have of myself in Daddy’s truck listening to Mahalia – I see Sissie doing all these things at once, as she is saying the nightly rosary with my grandfather and grandmother. I said it too when I would stay there, as a child, part of the Libertytown evening ritual. She would never have been smoking in front of my grandfather, nor drinking while praying, but in my head, all these things converge. Like the coffee cup, and the single published example of her poetry – which is all that is left of all she wrote – why didn’t I ever ask where it was, what she had done with it – there must have been more dammit – but I have these talismans, the cup, the bowl, and her rosary, packed away too, in the box marked “Sissie” which I think I might never open. And while I am here at the Algonquin, in New York, I will have to go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, like I did with Sissie, and perhaps, even, pray.

I am here, I will visit there, because she wanted this for me, of me, and though she never asked, I would please God, please Goddammit, PLEASE like to give her something in return, somehow make all she did have some meaning. Please make life make sense again, with its conundrums and its terrors and its death and all these things I know and shared with Sissie and Tom and Vincent.

Soon there will be no stories I have not told Matthew, and I won’t be able to hide there in him, or he will have peed enough times in a cup to be free of this servitude into which Therie dragged him, and he will move on, happy to escape my incantatory lamenting posed as witty bon mot, a burlesque of which I am sure he has already begun to tire, and so, for that reason, I am rationing these stories because I cannot bear to watch another walk away with parts of me, never to return them. Even though he has promised never to go, not to be like the others, what choice will he have when the stories are told and no new ones are being made? I cannot hide in what Matthew does not know forever. Sooner or later we will run out of excuses to not unpack those boxes, not arrange that furniture. Once it has been done, the stories told, then, what will I do? Who will I be?

There is no one in this lobby who knows who I am. For all I know, I am not even here. For all I know, when I walked through those doors, greeted by that burgundy jacketed, gold epaulette adorned door man, I did, in fact, move back in time, out of time, somehow free of all these stories and things I should have asked and as long as I stay here in this chair, drinking this coffee, waiting for someone to sit in that empty chair across from me, I am safe.

I am heading to St. Patrick’s where I will need to say some sort of penance because I have just stolen another set of silver. In the luggage in my hotel room I now have four complete place settings of Algonquin cutlery. The forks, salad forks, and knives actually say Algonquin, but, alas, the spoons do not. I order room service and tip outrageously and keep one or two of the utensils. I am losing my mind, I think.

 

 

 

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