Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | June 2019 | 24 minutes (6,524 words)
They say you can’t go home again, but I never stop trying. Sometimes I conjure the scent of jacaranda trees mixed with swimming pool chlorine, the sweet-then-sour first bite of kumquats, the faces of the little foxes in the bushes, the gleam of their eyes in the dark. The longer I live outside of Los Angeles, the more its mysteries call to me, as though the city itself were a piece of unfinished business. Maybe “unfinished business” is the very definition of home.
Because everyone knows that Los Angeles is not a “walking city,” there was something spiritually seismic in bringing my new boyfriend Kerry there for a visit with no car and no plan to rent one. We arrived at LAX in 2005 and my father picked us up. He drove us to his apartment in West Hollywood, and from there we were going to wing it. My mother, a native New Yorker, had raised me with a deep prejudice against L.A. in part because its spread-out topography and winding curves — not to mention its lack of sidewalks — resisted pedestrians. Cars buffer sensory experience, even our perception of how time unfolds. In a car, you don’t hear the mewl of kittens behind a fence, or feel the sudden spray of lawn sprinklers, you don’t hear backyard conversations drifting to the street. To plan to walk in Los Angeles is to violate its terms. Maybe by putting my feet on the ground, I was resolving to tame the untamable — the landscape of my youth.
To plan to walk in Los Angeles is to violate its terms. Maybe by putting my feet on the ground, I was resolving to tame the untamable — the landscape of my youth.
My father’s building sits under palm trees. Flowers bloom on both sides of the lobby’s glass doors. Spanish tile lines the walkway. But the apartment itself is not what you’d expect from its exterior. It looks like a carpeted library, almost a cave of books. At noon, he draws the blinds to shield the volumes from the California sun, creating an interplay of light and shadow that makes art of floating dust particles. Nestled among the books are odd artifacts: a prop alien egg from the set of a science fiction film, a framed note from the bank robber Willy Sutton. On closer inspection, his eccentricity makes perfect sense in the larger weirdness of West Hollywood. He is a stone’s throw from Mystery Pier Books and The Viper Room to the north, and his balcony overlooks the Santa Palm Car Wash to the south. The car wash is known for the hundreds of glossy black-and-white headshots of actors and other celebrities lining its walls, mostly from the ’70s and ’80s, all autographed in silver or black Sharpie. A pantheon of feathered hair and halter tops, cowboy hats, and frosted lipstick.
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My father was raised in Los Angeles, and not only that, he lives (technically) within walking distance of his childhood home. I wanted Kerry to see my grandparents’ old house; I didn’t think I could explain what it meant to me without being there. “How will I see it, though? You mean, just from the outside?” “No,” I said, “we’ll ring the bell.” “And the people who live there now will open the door?” “Why wouldn’t they?” I asked. “I’ll tell them it was my grandmother’s house.”
I could already feel the warm breeze above the pool, smell the fresh dirt in the garden as my grandmother shoveled the earth with her spade.
If you walk west on Sunset Boulevard (part of which is known as the Sunset Strip) from my father’s street, you’ll come to Doheny Drive. This is where the Hamburger Hamlet used to be, where Miles Davis’s ex-wife was the hostess and where Dean Martin nursed a lot of martinis (according to my mother, who knew about these things). Make a right on Doheny and into the Sunset Hills. Soon you’ll arrive at St. Ives Drive. Turn here, and you’ll see an address painted on the curb, and next to it a sloping driveway, lined by a red brick wall, over which looms desert vegetation. Venture down the driveway and you’ll come to a nearly hidden front door underneath an overhang. Past the threshold, the house seems to open on hinges like a multi-level jewelry box. One wall is entirely glass; across it lies a patio that descends toward a small lawn, then a pale blue pool, then a stone staircase leading into another garden. The house itself is five long rooms in one long flow. And the light! Flooding softly, diffuse but insistent — the house is defined as much by its use of Southern California light as by its curves. It blurs the sensations of indoors and out, of architecture and empty space. Harry Harrison built the house in 1948. Harrison also designed Chips Diner and other Los Angeles kitsch oddities that look like furniture from The Jetsons. But the St. Ives house is not a confection, it’s high modernism. It is sinuous and elongated, sensuous in its simplicity, a monument to mid-century modern. It looks futuristic in the way art deco does; it never ages despite becoming elegantly vintage.
Past the threshold, the house seems to open on hinges like a multi-level jewelry box.
The things that happened there feel more important because they happened there. Seven years earlier I’d been living in this house. College was behind me and my life lay ahead. In that odd space where one often falters, in that blink-and-you-miss-it time between childhood and adulthood, I faced a surprise attack. Someone walked right through the front door — someone I loved and trusted — and pillaged irreplaceable treasure. It seemed so important in 1998, when I was 21 and energetic enough to fight back. I am now 43, and Kerry and I have a 7-year-old daughter, and because of her I want to be that energetic still, for things to matter to me now as much as they mattered to me then.
My grandparents, Hyman and Esther Engelberg, worked closely with Harrison on the plans for the house. My father was a young boy, but he remembers many conversations huddled over blueprints: What did they like? How about a partition here? A window there? By 1948, there were three sons, Michael (my dad), Alan, and Lonny. The house was completed that year, and they moved in. Julius Shulman took photos: the boys at play on the shag rug in front of the brick fireplace, the trees on the patio just beyond the glass looking peaceful by day and like a lonely jungle by night, Esther on her chaise longue in the bedroom, all rolled hair and bright lipstick. There was one room in the house that photos did not record — a room that was hidden behind a door camouflaged in a bookshelf at the back of the master bedroom. If you pushed a pencil into a tiny hole in the bookcase, the door’s hinges would swing open. A secret room.
If you pushed a pencil into a tiny hole in the bookcase, the door’s hinges would swing open. A secret room.
There were orange and lemon trees by the pool, kumquat trees as well; when my cousins and my sister and I were children, we’d throw fruit down the mountain toward Sunset, our wastefulness befitting the lush laziness of Los Angeles myth. Strawberries grew wild in the gardens and my grandmother planted tomatoes and peas as well. I have a photo of my grandmother by the pool, reading Ce Que Je Sais. Marcel Marceau sits beside her. My grandfather was collecting a coterie of movie stars as patients, Danny Kaye, Rita Hayworth, Burt Lancaster, and Marilyn Monroe among them. In the 1950s and ’60s, the house and its inhabitants seemed increasingly anointed with glamour.
The day was warm, the sun had burned through the clouds by noon. Kerry and I made it up Doheny, into the hills, and onto St. Ives. As we approached the top of the driveway, the breeze carried the scent of licorice, a wild licorice that grew full and weedy in front of my grandmother’s house. The leaves of the licorice plant smell like the candy that’s named for it, but they don’t taste like it. We chewed the leaves as kids, trying to suck the sinful candy flavor from the plant itself, but, it turns out, most licorice candy isn’t made from the plant at all, it’s made of flavorings and refined sugar in a factory to approximate the taste of the plant — only sweeter. How Hollywood.
Halfway down the driveway, there’s a carport, crawling with bougainvillea. The fuschia flowers clung to the windshield wipers of my grandmother’s car. They were everywhere, scattered down the driveway and drifting up to the front door. They’d fall in your hair, crinkly and distracting.
A car was parked there, which didn’t mean anyone was necessarily home, but seemed to improve the chances.
“Where is the front door?” Kerry asked.
“Keep going, it’s past the curve, to the right,” I said.
“And they’re just going to open the door?”
It never occurred to me that anything else would happen.
I rang. We heard a chime followed by the bark of large dogs.
Kerry looked uneasy. I rang again. Another chime, another chorus of barking.
“They aren’t real dogs,” I said.
“I’m not sure that makes me feel better,” he said. Maybe a recording of vicious dogs barking was a Los Angeles peculiarity and outside Kerry’s experience.
Eventually I realized they weren’t going to open the door.
Whoever they were.
Realization hit like the swing of a fist: This was truly no longer my family’s home. My grandmother was dead, and shortly after she’d died in 1998, the house had been rushed onto the market, in an effort to dispose of — what? Memories? Bad associations? A feeling of unfinished business that clung to the house? Whatever impulse had forced the family remains into the dust bin, it had been powerful.
I sat down on the front step. Drooped my head into Kerry’s.
I’d wanted to show him where I’d slept, where Albert had kept his typewriter, the second office where my cousins and my sister and I wrote up a monthly newspaper that we called The Engelberg Review, the trees on the patio underneath which the foxes scurried at night. In the evening, the line of the pool blended into the horizon, merging with the street lights on Sunset.
It was unlikely we’d be back, unlikely we’d take another flyer and try the house again on a random afternoon. It was forbidden, locked up, gone to me. Disappearing toward the vanishing point, like the infinity pool out back, existing now only in memory.
By the time I was born, in 1975, my grandparents were no longer married. Esther, whom I called “Grandma,” had married again, to Albert Maltz. Albert was a novelist and a screenwriter. He was also a devoted communist and wrote what were considered “proletarian” pieces. But if anyone knew his name, it was because of what happened on November 26th, 1947. On that day, Albert and nine other men were cited with contempt of Congress. In 1950, they were sentenced to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine. They were dubbed “The Hollywood Ten.”
Albert and nine other men were cited with contempt of Congress. In 1950, they were sentenced to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine. They were dubbed ‘The Hollywood Ten.’
A committee had been convened to investigate communist influence in the movie industry. The House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC as it was known, called more than 100 witnesses, asking actors, writers, directors, and others to answer to whether they were members of the Communist Party, and to provide lists of names — anyone in show business with “red” sympathies.
It’s tempting to judge those who came up with names so that they could avoid professional harm. How could they, we ask. Many of them knew the committee was unlawful and undemocratic and fundamentally dangerous.
It is difficult to grasp what this period in time must have felt like, difficult to imagine being targeted by a true “witch hunt” on United States soil. It is nearly impossible to imagine losing your livelihood, losing favor with your industry, your ability to write anything for sale that was under your own name, or perform onstage or on-screen, simply because you were aligned with certain beliefs. But this was about to be the unimaginable fact of life for everyone in the creative class. Anyone who did not cooperate with HUAC was to end up on a Hollywood Blacklist. People like Lena Horne, Orson Welles, and Lillian Helman would have their careers nearly destroyed by their time on this list. Anyone with even a whiff of association with communism was in danger of losing their career and their income. Many artists caved to this pressure and became “friendly witnesses.” For some, this cooperation led to permanent ignominy, but it also preserved their careers.
I am an American and I believe there is no more proud word in the vocabulary of man.
That’s how Albert opened his remarks before HUAC in 1947. If the committee was seeking to identify a subversive bogeyman, a profound threat to American life, surely the man who wrote that was the wrong guy.
He wasn’t finished.
I am a novelist and screenwriter and I have produced a certain body of work in the past 15 years. As with any other writer, what I have written has come from the total fabric of my life — my birth in this land, our schools and games, our atmosphere of freedom, our tradition of inquiry, criticism, discussion, tolerance. Whatever I am, America has made me. And I, in turn, possess no loyalty as great as the one I have to this land, to the economic and social welfare of its people, to the perpetuation and development of its democratic way of life.
I bet you could have heard a pin drop in that committee room.
I maintain that this is an evil and vicious procedure; that it is legally unjust and morally indecent — and that it places in danger every other American, since if the right of any one citizen can be invaded, then the constitutional guaranties of every other American have been subverted and no one is any longer protected from official tyranny.
The difference between the 10 men who spent a year in prison and other witnesses was not only that they refused to name names, but also that they refused on the basis of the First Amendment, which protects the right of free speech. Others had refused based on the Fifth, the right to protect oneself against self-incrimination. Pleading in this way at least tacitly conferred legitimacy on the proceedings. When Albert took the First, he was saying he had a right to hold and discuss any beliefs he chose, and that the government was attempting to subvert that right.
I claim and insist upon my right to think freely and to speak freely; to join the Republican Party or the Communist Party, the Democratic or the Prohibition Party; to publish whatever I please; to fix or change my mind, without dictation from anyone; to offer any criticism I think fitting of any public official or policy. … Above all, I challenge the right of this committee to inquire into my political or religious beliefs.
Albert was, if nothing else, an unequivocal witness.
There are many things I long to know. Where did my grandmother meet Albert? My father says it was from old communist circles, that she attended meetings often in that time. But did they meet at a party? Was it a passionate affair? Was it more a merging of intellects and common values? I remember Albert as a little stodgy, and he was hardly matinee idol material. They married in 1970 and my memories of them together start in the late ’70s, when I was a toddler. Albert had his study in the back of the house, where he would write for much of the day. My grandmother was no longer a 1950s doctor’s wife. I see her in her “Grandma” house dress, tending her garden, proofreading Albert’s novels, frying fish for breakfast. The house was now decorated with Mexican folk art from Albert’s travels, it was less pristine and spare, it looked like a perfectly made hotel bed upon which a tourist had opened and scattered souvenirs.
I knew very little about my paternal grandfather, Hyman. Occasionally he’d stop by our apartment with marble cake from Nate and Al’s. He spoke a lot about his research. His second wife, Miriam, was sleek and beautiful, with gossamer silver hair and a closet full of Adolpho dresses. After Miriam came Colleen. That’s about all I know. Once he forgot my name — I remember that.
Back in my father’s apartment, Kerry and I were looking at photos. Here was my grandmother in white slacks and white shoes. She is holding up a wheelbarrow in her garden, smiling for the camera. Here she was in an elegant dress, her face in a frozen smile, almost a wince. “Why was Grandma so unhappy?” I asked. “According to her,” my father began, “my father was a cheat and a name dropper (and, to HUAC, a name-namer) and finally, a draft dodger.” No one contests that my grandfather had affairs, nor that he loved dropping the names of his movie star patients. “And what did he say about the marriage?” I asked. “He had his version.” My father didn’t elaborate.
I graduated from Columbia University in 1997. I flew back to the West Coast a year later, hoping to pick up where I left off at the age of 17. I’d been a child actor, working sporadically but enough to feel that Los Angeles was fertile soil for a career. In Manhattan, the theater marquees gleamed bright but distant; in L.A. I knew how to find my way along city streets to the casting offices at Warner Brothers and Paramount. In L.A., I had an agent, and I could live with my father.
My mother had sold her West Los Angeles apartment and lived part time in Manhattan herself, but she was at that time staying with her former mother-in-law — Esther — in the St. Ives house. She’d been hired to write a screenplay, and she’d set up shop in the same little office where as children we’d “published” our family newspaper. Not long after my mother moved in, a love affair started between Esther and my mother — they spoke about the Engelberg men in the way that former spouses of the same clan often do. They understood each other and they laughed a lot. Their experiences and recollections were mutually strengthening, validating; each bore witness to the other’s life stories.
But my grandmother was also in decline. Heart disease drove her repeatedly to the hospital, and Alzheimer’s was beginning to claim her memory. That summer, I decided to move in to the St. Ives house also, to be near her. My mother soon flew to New York for work and at some point my grandmother was transferred to hospice care. I became, unexpectedly, the sole guardian of the house for days at a time. I sat on my grandmother’s bed at night, gazing at the dark garden through the glass, feeling a cacophony of conflicting impulses. You can’t go home again. The surroundings were familiar — it was I who was different. I was a New Yorker now, and the stillness of the house no longer felt right. But it was more than that. My grandmother was dying. Only ghosts played in the garden now, hurling oranges toward Sunset. I made my way around the jewel box house, searching for my grandmother, finding her in the scent of musty electric blankets and the sight of half-used tubes of lipstick glistening in her dressing room drawer, in her piles of New Yorkers stacked by the rocking chair, in Albert’s theatre posters and Mexican art.
My grandmother was dying. Only ghosts played in the garden now, hurling oranges toward Sunset.
I took the pencil that sat on the bookshelf by her back wall and inserted it into the tiny hole. Presto! The hinges of the secret room’s door creaked, revealing bottles of Arrowhead drinking water, some dusty old appliances, a metal filing cabinet beneath thick, cottony cobwebs. The air was cold in the secret room, the mustiness so strong it was almost foul.
I slid open the filing cabinet and saw a neat stack of typewritten pages.
“Tin Soldier, by Esther Maltz,” read the title page.
My grandmother had been writing a memoir, mostly about her marriage.
I sat down and read. My grandmother detailed some minor scandals. My grandfather had taken medication to raise his blood pressure to get out of the Army. He’d casually prescribed hundreds of barbiturates to her each month, even after she’d discussed her suicidal depression. Her divorce lawyer had doubted this and so she’d decided to prove it: She filled four prescriptions at four pharmacies and dropped the 400 pills on the lawyer’s desk. In addition, Hy had verbally abused his sons, particularly his youngest, Lonny. He had mocked him at the dinner table, in front of guests. He had also accidentally fastened a diaper pin through my father’s baby flesh and took hours to seek the source of his child’s screams of distress. He had named names in an effort to stay out of trouble with HUAC. There was other stuff in there, too: my grandmother’s frame of mind when she married, her thoughts on her children, on her life in general. She had created a portrait of an unhappy wife inside the idyll of the elegant modern home, a glass cage of sorts. A place where there may have been wine and gay parties with famous faces, but also a place where bad feelings festered and a marriage was disintegrating.
At some point I discovered a photograph of my mother and father in the early 1960s. It is precious because photos of them together are rare, and because in it they look happy. A lot can happen in 23 years of marriage — recriminations fly, lies people tell themselves become cemented when passed on to their children. My mother’s lie was that my father did not really love her or admire her. He thought she was weak, disorganized, melodramatic. The photo suggests otherwise. In it they sit at a round table topped with an elegant tablecloth; there are water glasses and Lenox china coffee cups and saucers scattered about. Esther sits on one side of my father, smiling for the camera, a burnished beauty in pearls. My mother, on the other side, also smiles gaily, her hair falls in glossy waves. My father, in a suit and tie, is the only one not looking at the camera. He is looking at my mother. They are in my grandmother’s house. I framed the photo and it sits in my living room now. Something in it calls to me — some long ago and faraway quality, the kind of thing nostalgia feeds on — a whisper, a hint of a lost era. They look like movie stars, impenetrable, belonging only to themselves and not yet to the next generation.
My mother liked to tell a story about a phone call she’d gotten in the middle of the night. She was newly engaged to my father and still living in New York, dancing in a Broadway show. She would soon be leaving the cast of How to Succeed… to join him in California.
“Ellie? It’s Marilyn.” The phone had rung around 3 a.m. New York time. Of course my mother knew that her future father-in-law was Marilyn Monroe’s doctor. Romy Greenson, her psychiatrist, had referred Marilyn to Hy’s practice, and Romy was a close friend of the Engelbergs. One night they were gathered in Romy’s living room, and my father had mentioned that his fiancée was an actress. Marilyn said she wanted to speak to her.
“I’ve been sitting here telling Michael how important your career should be to him — that you must not be pressured into giving it up just because you’re becoming a wife.”
Marilyn died a few months later. My grandfather had written a lot of prescriptions for sleeping pills for Monroe — which swept his name into the numerous conspiracy theories that flowered in the wake of her death. Had the Kennedys killed her? Had she been killed by her psychiatrist? Had the CIA silenced her? Lots of ink has been spilled on this subject. Marilyn Monroe most likely died because she accidentally — or deliberately — took too many pills. Still, the tragedy established a spot on the margins of fame for my grandfather, for a time.
Marilyn Monroe most likely died because she accidentally — or deliberately — took too many pills. Still, the tragedy established a spot on the margins of fame for my grandfather, for a time.
Why was my grandmother writing about all this stuff — particularly documenting how her husband carelessly prescribed addictive drugs? Was she trying to connect her experience to that of the ill-fated Monroe, to implicate my grandfather?
“She hated my father,” my dad said. “It was the typical stuff of divorce.”
Maybe. But these were my grandmother’s thoughts, her rudimentary memoir — writing she had chosen to preserve.
Her last week was spent in hospice. She flickered in and out of understanding, and then she died. We gathered at my uncle Alan’s house for the wake. It was the summer of 1998. My sister told a story about her. “A few weeks ago, I visited Grandma at the hospital. I told her I was getting married. She said, ‘good.’ Then she asked if he was Jewish. I told her that not only was he Jewish, he was observant. She said, ‘So there can be too much of a good thing.’”
My mother told a story about her. “One night when I was living at St. Ives, I came home from a play and as I opened the front door, I heard Esther call out. ‘Ellie? Is that you?’ ‘Yes, Esther, it’s me!’ I cried, exultant in our mutual affection. ‘Frankly,’ Esther continued, ‘I was hoping for someone else.’”
I did not tell a story. Instead I read a description of her, typed years earlier, on onionskin paper. It chronicled her love of her garden, her love of her grandchildren, her radiance. I’d found the paper in the secret room. Albert had written the words.
By cold censorship, if not legislation, I must not be allowed to write. Will this censorship stop me?
— Albert Maltz, before HUAC
The doorbell rang through the silent morning after my grandmother’s wake. I was sitting at the kitchen table. I walked through the living room and opened the door. My uncle Lonny stood there with his wife Melinda. It happened fast. They had come to take a few things, they said. What things? I asked. Papers. Why? I asked. Suddenly, I was racing after them as they headed for the back of the house. What did they know? How did they know? I sensed in his urgency a potent threat. Did he know about the stacks of pages in the secret room? Maybe he was headed for her desk, which housed a fair amount of documents too, none of which I’d yet inspected. I’d planned a solitary archeological dig in the quiet of her home — now, my uncle was plundering our fortress.
I had lived alone with Esther’s ephemera. I’d planned a solitary archeological dig in the quiet of her home — now, my uncle was plundering our fortress.
We fought — bitterly. I realized that he felt an almost existential threat too — in the papers themselves. It seemed comical that he thought there was any news in my grandmother’s embryonic memoir, or anything at all that needed to be concealed. He seemed to have an inflated sense of his parents’ public standing, a grander sense of how much interest a private remembrance would generate. Still, there was no question he was operating out of something akin to fear. And I knew that if those papers left the house, no one would ever see them again. The fight escalated, and my gentle uncle lost his temper, threatening to call the police if I continued to block his way. I must have left the pages out because he swiftly scooped them up. Boxes — I don’t know what was in them — were carried out of the house, across the threshold and into their permanent silence. And then, as suddenly as they came, they left, leaving me in the vastness of my shock.
I had let my just-dead grandmother down. I didn’t know how he knew about her work, but I kicked myself for not being a more effective spy and archivist, for not getting everything out of view, into another house for safekeeping, before St. Ives was stormed. I could not have foreseen what had just happened; still, I was crushed by the thought that I could have prevented it with some slyness.
People don’t live long enough. I was 10 when Albert died. I’m 43 now, and it’s at this time in my life when I’d most like to talk to him. Funny how we were not related by blood, but now I am a writer too, and I’m recording a bit of his story. Most of Albert’s books are out of print, but I tracked down one still available, a collection of his stories called Afternoon in the Jungle. Two of the stories in it won O.Henry Awards. His screenplay for Broken Arrow, starring Jimmy Stewart, was nominated for an Oscar but he had written it during the Blacklist and asked another writer to front it, and it was this writer who received the credit. Many years later, the error was corrected. But his career had been permanently damaged. He never really recovered after prison. He summoned me into his study once and asked me to explain a Shel Silverstein poem to him: Why did I think it was funny? I don’t know if it genuinely puzzled him — Albert was known more for earnestness than wit — or if he was curious about how a child would see things. I do remember his tenderness. I knew Albert as this other man, this older man, Grandma’s husband, who was very serious and ate fish for breakfast and — I don’t know much more than that. They loved each other. But they died before I was old enough to ask them the right questions.
People don’t stay healthy long enough. In 2009, my mother suffered a sudden and catastrophic brain bleed. In a matter of hours, she lost most of her memories, and her ability to form new ones. People are always silenced too early, of course, death, by my calculation, always arrives too soon. That’s why we cling to the written word — it is someone’s flagpole in the soil. Here I stood, when I stood. We become what we leave behind. Some of us even plan for it. Maybe all of us do. Isn’t that in the back of a memoirist’s mind? I must give the past a shape that will last into the future? The world should look different for my having been here? Survival through the permanence of language?
People are always silenced too early, of course, death, by my calculation, always arrives too soon. That’s why we cling to the written word — it is someone’s flagpole in the soil.
I can’t pretend my grandmother’s papers were of as much importance as Albert’s speech before Congress, or that a son burning his mother’s writing is as serious as a congressional committee censoring and jailing artists. But why can’t I? Who is anyone to discriminate? A life is a life. Silencing is silencing, and whatever the motive, whoever the actor, it’s wrong. It is not for anybody to say that Albert’s speech before HUAC has more value than his wife’s memories of her first marriage. I will say it, but it is not for me to say. You don’t burn people’s papers. Then you don’t have to worry about which has more value. It is not for anyone to remove someone else’s flagpole from the soil.
Is it overblown to suggest gender as a factor? Albert was, it’s true, an “important” person of letters, a minor historical figure, briefly, an actor on the national stage, someone who believed in social revolution and worked for it through his art. All these things make it a given that he “mattered” and that it was a moral and political disgrace, not to mention democracy-threatening, to censor him and those like him, to attempt to obliterate his words by cutting him off from his industry. Esther, on the other hand, had no college education, had been raised on a farm, tended house and garden, raised three boys, stood appealingly on the arms of both her husbands, helping them to achieve success. She prepared Albert’s breakfast every day and she picked her grandchildren up from school; she supervised all four of us as we made castles out of blocks in her living room, taking great care to lift the hem of her sundress and step over the wooden housing developments cluttering her floor. She had no formal education, no real access to a career, and there was no reason for this but her gender — she read all the time and was exceedingly smart.
Why does it seem to me, even now, silly to fuss over a few papers vanishing after Esther’s death? Maybe it was a lot of papers — I never did find out what was in those boxes. Still, I sometimes feel that I raised a ruckus over nothing, that I created melodrama when I threw myself on top of those filing cabinets in defense of what lay inside. I have proudly posted Albert’s HUAC speech to Facebook — multiple times — in response to some politically momentous event. I have held him up as a beacon of true patriotism, enlightened patriotism, humanism. I have done my best to keep him — make him — relevant to the majority of people who have not read about him in history books or if they have, only in a footnote. But why should my grandmother not also have me for a patron? I don’t know that she was a beacon of anything, but she was a woman, a person, and, as such, her distress and dissatisfaction matter. Her art matters. Her portrait of life in a gilded cage is of both personal and historic interest.
Our expedition to St. Ives Drive had failed. The house was shrouded in mystery, suddenly coldly exclusive. It seemed wrong, disloyal for the house to exist without its original occupants, a betrayal of the dramas that had ensued there, as if those dramas were somehow formative for the house itself. I had wanted Kerry to see the way the garden seemed to lurk beyond the glass, as if something were lying in wait behind the trees. I had wanted to bring Kerry into the family by showing him the house, this spot where I had been a child and happy, a grown-up and lonely, and finally, a mourner and angry.
But you can’t go home again. Sometimes, the door is locked, and, at least for a long while, you don’t see another way in.
In May, Manhattan looks like a postcard. Everything that was crummy in February has blossomed into emerald with dashes of white and pink cherry blossoms. On quiet streets like mine, the many-colored brownstones seem to float above the light spring wind, children’s laughter sounds like bells, and birds build tiny nests outside our windows. In May 2013, our daughter Lydia was 20 months old.
I hadn’t seen my uncle in many, many years. Our tussle over the papers had become the stuff of family legend, bigger and smaller because of its status as lore. And then, one day — my heart pinged nervously when I saw it — an email came in. Lonny and Melinda were coming to New York — a week’s stopover en route to Paris. They wanted to see us, to meet Lydia. I agreed, and they arrived at our doorstep in late afternoon. I wore a dress for the occasion; so did Lydia. I lost my breath when the downstairs buzzer rang — what would we say to each other? How would it be? I shook as I opened the door.
Then they were on our couch, smiling, eager, cooing over Lydia, delighted that life had brought them to this moment. I felt a rush of wind, a staccato rhythm in my heart, a ringing in my ears, as though the black box of my memory had recorded the crashing flight at St. Ives Drive in 1998 and was playing it back for me now.
“This,” my uncle was saying, as he took from his bag a nondescript eyeglass case, “requires a word of explanation.”
“These were your grandmother’s,” he said. Then he stopped, overcome. He had opened the case, and taken out a strand of sumptuous pearls.
My aunt took over.
“Esther gave them to me a long time before she died. I promised her that I would give them to one of her granddaughters.” Then: “They’re really very good pearls.”
Wordlessly, I walked to the bookshelf and picked up the photo of my mother and father and Esther, sitting at the table in her living room, all those years ago, behind the impenetrability of history. I handed it to my uncle, to show him my grandmother was wearing these pearls in the photo. It was as though the tableau had come to life in my living room, as though my grandmother had walked in, and, laughing, told me they were only pearls, but that she was something more, something that would last far longer than her physical beauty. And like that, I was not at the threshold of the house; I’d finally been let back in.
And like that, I was not at the threshold of the house; I’d finally been let back in.
I don’t know what allows for forgiveness. Time softens. We need not to be angry. We love those who have made us so. We forget what was troubling us to begin with. We remember, but the hour grows late and we want things tidy before day’s end. We want to move forward. We know that what has been lost can be at least partially retrieved by bearing witness. We gain perspective. As I reflect on the events recorded here, I no longer skip over the little boy who stuttered at the table, who felt at the mercy of a mocking father, who had reasonable motive to detonate records of the past.
Records are easily made and not so easily destroyed these days, and there is burden in that too, and also less magic where the potential for permanent loss is virtually eradicated. Perhaps its violent destruction was the only memorable thing about my grandmother’s writing, and what sought to erase it inadvertently memorialized it. Perhaps this is why I forgive my uncle. What he had failed to pass down with the papers, he had tried to pass down with the pearls. Wordlessly, they formed a link between us.
As for words, I have written here what I remember. If it does not completely restore what was lost, at least it opens the door to the secret room and lets in a little sunshine.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress and freelance writer based in New York City.
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