A Tree Leaves the Circle

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A few Saturdays ago, I drove around the circle late in the afternoon and realized, with horror, that our apple tree had been cut down. I had noticed the tree company’s trucks around the school’s campus that Saturday.  They come each year to trim limbs and to check on the health of every tree, but it had never occurred to me that the apple tree would be there in the morning and be gone by afternoon..

 

In its place was a bare clearing, the stump raw.  I parked the car and chastised myself for my quick tears.  I loved that tree, loved how it marked the seasons—tulle pink blossoms the spring, rosy apples in late summer, etched bare branches stretching out against the winter sky.  It had a sense of dignity in its clearing on our circle, an agelessness.

 

Just two weeks ago, a whole herd of deer stood under it in lavender evening—three does and two late-drop fawns, still spotted, all munching apples and gazing, unafraid, as I passed with our three dogs. When they were little, Atticus, our son, and our neighbor, Shea, would gather up the apples—entirely unfertilized—and make apple bread.  As soon as he saw the tree was gone, Atticus texted Shea to share the terrible news. 

 

“Absolutely dead,” my facilities director reported when I asked on Monday.  “Sounded like a bass drum when they tapped on it; it had to come down.”  Of course it did. Safety is the most important thing in a school.  But, a small rebellious voice inside my head wondered—it was set back far from the street; it couldn’t have fallen on anyone.

 

“Did they do an environmental impact study?” my son demanded.  He, too, was bereft at the tree’s sudden disappearance.  “What about all the squirrels and the deer who relied on that tree—and the rabbits?”  His indignation was a thin disguise for grief.

 

“We could plant a new apple tree,” my facilities director suggests.  I nod.  It will be decades before a sapling can grow large enough to fill the empty space, sturdy enough for a child to climb.

 

I remember how much I loathe Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree—that spoiled boy and the selfless martyr mother of a tree, handing herself over bit by bit until she is dead.  Maybe it’s better to have our tree gone all at once, instead of witnessing her slow decline.  But the vacant landscape feels jarring.  I used to tease my son about how much he hated change; we got a new refrigerator and he mourned the old one; he did not want to paint his room or switch his comforter.  He liked things the way they were, predictable. When it comes to disappeared trees, I’m not as adaptable or as willing to embrace change as I pretend I am.

 

That same week, our school celebrated its ninetieth birthday on Lyman Circle.  The original property had been an apple orchard.  I wondered, as I passed the strange new bare spot, if this tree had been one of those original apple orchard’s trees.  In 1926, Sarah Lyman had brought members of her faculty out from Euclid Avenue to see the land.  It was a muddy day.  The teachers saw a sodden orchard, but Sarah Lyman saw a school.  We see what we want to see.  We can’t always see everything. 

 

To my eyes, the tree was healthy, bright green leaves shooting from dignified limbs, apples freely given.  But we cannot always know what’s inside.  As an English teacher, I have taught girls for decades to trace the imagery of appearance versus reality through plays and novels.  Truth isn’t always easy to perceive.  And truth, as an absolute, is elusive.  The tree company assessed the tree’s health and determined it had to go.  I regarded the tree as an old friend, vestige of an earlier era, part of our family’s story here, aging, certainly, but not ready to be chopped down.  Change is hard and takes time to get used to.  I’ll miss the gracious lady and her apples. I think I’m glad I never knew that she was dying. 

 

Tomorrow, Atticus and his dad are going apple picking.  I’m going to be with other heads of school.  We’ll talk about the state of girls’ schools, the opportunities and obligations, the responsibility we feel to nurture girls, to offer sustenance and shade and beauty and all the lessons of the natural and human world.  Tomorrow night, perhaps I’ll make an apple pie—in honor of our lost tree, in honor of what she offered, in honor of all the work yet to be done and the trees yet to plant.

 

The King and I

 

 

My father followed pro sports as if it were his job.  In fact, he often didn't have a job, but income not with standing, he had season tickets to the Phillies, Sixers, Flyers, Eagles. He was a fanatic. My childhood memories of time with my dad include watching him shave—I was afraid of how the shaving cream transformed him--doing errands with him on Saturday mornings—he kept Archway cookies underneath the seat of his car—raisin, which I detested--and driving into Philadelphia, holding Daddy’s hand as we made our way to our seats. I’d try to understand whichever game I was watching, while Dad, listening to his transistor radio, juggled food and his stats sheets and pretty much ignored me.  They were odd evenings.  I remember being cold at football, overwhelmed by noise in arenas, tired at baseball.  By high school, I had stopped going.  I never went to a football game in college and never felt I'd missed out. 

 

The man I married, a mid-westerner raised in Ann Arbor, follows both college and pro basketball and watches football if Michigan is playing. His interest in basketball meant I could sit near him on our fold-out futon in our NYC apartment; I liked how fast moving the sport was, how watching it on TV made it easier to see the plays.  In the 1990’s, we’d watch the Bulls.  I liked Scottie Pippen’s face, was interested in what outrageous thing Dennis Rodman might do next and what color his hair would be.

 

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Now, our son, thirteen, is a Clevelander and one obsessed with basketball.  For the past several years, he has hung out with the older girls on the basketball at the school I lead. He played briefly on his own school’s intramural team, but preferred practicing with the high school girls at my school.  This past year, he was promoted to Manager.  In spending several hours a day with our team—from November to March—he learned the game.  He and his dad watch basketball on TV. The two of them go to games, enjoying a male camaraderie unusual in our female-dominated family on the campus of an all girls’ school. He acquired Cavs jerseys; he gave Cavs jerseys to his sisters one Christmas.  He made a Cavs shrine in his bedroom with photos of LeBron and Kyrie.  These days, dressed in Cavs pajama bottoms, he plays a basketball game continuously on his Switch called NBA2K18.  He watches a funny web series called Game of Zones on his phone.  He quotes stats and trivia about the players, about other players and other teams.  A few weeks ago, we bought a hoop, and my husband put it up outside in the school parking lot, so our son could shoot baskets in the evenings and on weekends.  He is not yet as tall as he wants to be, but he is determined.  I wish he had really known my dad, who died when Atticus was only five.  I think about the pleasure my dad might have taken in a grandson who loved sports. 

 

As I write, it’s Game One of the NBA finals.  The game’s end will be a heartbreaker, but I don’t know that yet.  LeBron James, the King, forward of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is on the floor, bonked into by Draymond Green.  My son, transfixed, is muttering, “I knew it,” in private conversation with the commentators as they ponder the foul against LeBron.  Basketball thrums, the background to my life as the mother of this son.  He is knowledgeable.  He is loyal.  He is interested.  Because it matters to him, my own interest has perked up.   I know the players’ names now; I ask questions, which my boy answers. How old are they?  Where did they grow up?  I feel a surge of pride when the Cavs take the lead, a clench of misery when we give up the ball or when Steph Curry shoots and scores a three at the end of the first quarter. Basketball is part of the rhythm of my daily life—at least post-season. 

 

Two years ago, when we won the championship against our nemesis, the Golden State Warriors, I was in California at a meeting.  In enemy territory, I felt both jubilant and lonely.  No one else was happy that the former steel town we call home had enticed the King to return to his roots to win an NBA championship for us.  Victory is sweet—and it doesn’t happen all that often in our city. We cling to hope.  This year, there are rumors that LeBron will leave again if the Cavs don’t clinch another championship.  The team got rebuilt mid-season, and there has been a lot of grumbling. People don’t seem to like the coach.  Everyone’s a critic.  Billboards on the highway proclaim that the Sixers want LeBron. “Don’t leave us again,” I whimper to myself.  “We need you.  Our whole region needs you. My son needs you.”  I love the huge black and white photo of LeBron that is painted on a building down town, arms spread, clapping up the dust, so his hands don’t lose the ball, 23 blazing.  I like that he is a symbol of hope and possibility and dreams that come true.

 

But what if we can’t beat the Warriors in this series?  What will happen to us? And when did I begin to include myself in the collective WE of the Cleveland Cavaliers?  I worry, sometimes, that LeBron plays alone too much, that he comes alive in the third quarter, that he should pass more, but he also awes me.  He’s remarkable. His wingspan dazzles.  I watch his face, try to read his expressions when the camera zooms in. When one of my students spent weeks in a local hospital rehabilitation center last fall, we hung out in the Cavs lounge—sometimes I wondered if they might show up.  I was sad when Kyrie left the team.  I marvel at J.R.’s tattoos—and now I’m fretting that the team won’t forgive him because of what happened in the last seconds of that first game. I’m glad Kevin Love has completed his concussion protocol.  I like Larry Nance, Jr. because I listened to his sister coach a team my girls played against, and she was kind and tough and tall and had a beautiful speaking voice.  LeBron’s kids go to a nearby private school.  I hear he is a great dad.  I find myself hoping his son will go to my son’s school for high school—if so, maybe I could meet the King. 

 

I struggle with the fact that Steph Curry, point guard for the Warriors, is a great ballplayer.  My husband reminds me of this fact fairly often, but it feels disloyal to acknowledge his prowess. Because he was born in Akron, I want him to be on our side.  Imagine if he and LeBron both played for the Cavs.  My husband explains it doesn’t work that way.  I hate how Steph’s mouth guard hangs from his lip, hate that he sinks every shot he takes, hate that he is as good for his team as LeBron is for ours, hate that he must be pretty smart because he went to Davidson, hate that I can’t just hate him purely…Then I shake my head at myself.  LeBron and Steph are celebrity athletes, demi-gods.  I have relationship with either one of them, no reason to spend so much time thinking about them.  I know almost nothing about basketball.  But I love watching my son watch the games, love the times I have seen him, dancing crazily, on the Jumbo Tron at the Q, thrilled to be part of something larger than himself.  Is that what hooked my dad?  Referred glory?  Maybe. 

 

To my astonishment, somewhere along the line, I have become a fan.  I hope my dad is watching.  Maybe not, though.  In my mind, cheering for our home team is required.  The Sixers are yesterday’s team, Dad.  Whatever it takes, we Cavs fans are all in. 

 

Because It Is My Name

 

There was never any question I would keep my name if I married.  I grew up in the 70’s, an ardent feminist from girlhood, clutching Ms. Magazine and affronted at the very idea of “taking” someone else’s name. The person I loved would never expect me to relinquish a crucial aspect of my identity. And he didn’t, of course.

It’s not that I love Klotz as a mellifluous name.  As a child, I tired of the inevitable “blood clots” teasing and having people call me “Klutz,” but this is part of childhood, part of people looking for our vulnerabilities and torturing us.  But even in the midst of middle school shenanigans, I understood that I’m a John Proctor kind of girl--at the very end of The Crucible, he cannot, even to save his own life, sign his name to a lie. He exclaims:

Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!”

Proctor’s passionate declaration of integrity, his heroism in choosing what is right over what is easy is bound up in his identity.  He dies, of course, but he dies because he will not pretend or live a lie.  His name represents his self.

My father was the only son of an only son.  Our brother was my father’s only son.  Some months after my brother died in 1975, I found my father weeping.  It was a strange moment.  I didn’t want to comfort my dad; I was too too numb with grief myself, but in the conversation, my dad shared how sad he was that his name, his line, would die with him.  I said,  “You have me, Daddy.  I’m a Klotz, too, and I always will be.” 

He smiled, but I knew, even at fifteen, what I offered was insufficient; I was a girl; the name would not continue. 

And it didn’t.  Once married, my husband, Seth, and I flirted briefly with hyphenation, we feared combining Klotz, my surname, with my husband’s surname, Orbach, would result in our children having a name that sounded like Clorox. 

Though I remain committed to my own name, both personally and professionally, when we had children, I wanted them to have my husband’s last name.  I can trace my lineage on both sides back many generations.  In Seth’s family, pogroms and the Holocaust annihilated too many relatives. It seemed right to me that our kids carry his name forward—so many bearing his name, his mother’s family name, had been lost.

Here are the times I’ve regretted or questioned my choice.  In the hospital, when our first daughter was born, the nurse would not allow Seth to bring her to me because her wristband said Baby Klotz, not Baby Orbach.  We had to wait for a patient nurse to retrieve her as I woke, groggy, from anesthesia.  Even half out of it, I was angry—I understood the need for safety and security, but we had filled out millions of forms—couldn’t someone have figured out that Seth really was her father?  I felt indignant that my wristband was an obstacle right at the start of our parenting adventures. 

When we fly as a family, still in 2017, there are snarls because I have a different name. Even recently, I was questioned at the United counter—of course it was United.  The clerk was not so sure I could check in my son since our names were different.  I was wild—tense anyway about missing the flight and furious that my motherhood was insufficient to vouch for my twelve year old son, who does not need his own ID to fly with me.  To my son’s horror, I lost it, offering a feminist diatribe to the clerk who claimed only to be doing his job.  “And that is what I am doing, too,” I fumed, “doing my job, raising my son, keeping my own name, educating you that I have every right to take this child with me wherever I want to go…I want to see your supervisor right now!”  The thing, as we say, may not have been the thing.  In fact, I was spoiling for a fight. I was anxious about not missing the plane and I’ve waited too long for the world to get in line.  Fortunately, the supervisor, alerted by my raised voice, smiled calmly and informed the clerk, “The lady’s right—their names don’t need to match.  Have a nice flight, ma’am.”

As we walked towards the TSA line, I knew I had embarrassed my son; I had made a scene—and it was uncalled for, too dramatic. What exactly unhinged me?  Having my rights as a mother questioned?  Or having to defend my choice, once again, to keep my own name? Or the forces of the patriarchy?  Or a tense afternoon at work followed by air travel?  I did not behave well with the clerk, and I felt ashamed that I wasn’t patient, courteous, calm.  Later, Atticus, my boy, told his father, “Mom was crazy at the United counter, Dad. She really doesn't like when people mess with her about her name being different from ours.”  Busted.  It’s not just my own name; it’s that my name is different from the name that the rest of them carry.  Sometimes, a small angry part of me feels they are wearing matching t-shirts and mine is different.  The Sesame Street lyric:  “One of these things is not like the other.”  No, she isn’t and she doesn’t want to be—most of the time.

Long ago in an English classroom in a girls’ school in NYC, one of my tenth graders asked my why my husband and I had different names.

“Why should we?” I asked, buying time.

“Well, he must not love you very much if he didn’t make you change your name.  My mother has been married three times, and each of her husbands made her change her name.”

“Well—I—um…you know,” I faltered, aware of sixteen sets of eyes fixed on me.  “What’s great is that we can make choices.  I chose to keep my name and my husband never would have considered asking me to change it.  That’s how we love each other.  But some people want to have the whole family have the same name, so the mom—most often it’s the mom, but not always—changes her name.  Some women don’t want to carry their fathers’ names, so they choose a new name all together—like Judy Chicago.  She’s an amazing artist.  Some women prefer the sound of their husbands’ names, so they are happy to change their name—there are lots of possibilities, so be careful not to make assumptions.”

Sermon concluded, we went back to class.  I suspect most of the girls have forgotten my rant, my fierce desire to inspire in them the courage to do what they wanted to do.

I rail at being called Mrs. Orbach.  Our culture insists that women of a certain age accompanied by children be called Mrs. I have never been a Mrs., but once we had children with Orbach as their surname, people assumed I must be Mrs. Orbach. Correcting people sounds pedantic, even righteous, and wearies me. Sometimes, I go with the flow in order not to embarrass my own children and the person choosing convention over my preference, but when I am silent, I feel like an imposter, as if I am passing as something I reject.  I do not want to be Mrs. Orbach.  I want to be who I am with the title I have chosen: Ms. Klotz.

Last week, a former student of mine, newly married and thinking about babies, reached out to me on Facebook: 

Hey AVK, I'm having some serious internal battles with changing my name. My mom never did and she regretted not naming us with her last name. My husband doesn't mind if I change my name- he knows I'm struggling. The newest conversation is around when we have babies, whose name will they take? Mine or his-- assuming I don't change mine?

And suddenly, it all swam up again—that moment in the classroom with the tenth grade girl, the encounter with the airline clerk, my dad crying about his son, my identity as a feminist, my frustration that we have not come very far as a culture. 

Long ago, my mother explained that the polite thing to do is to ask someone what he or she wants to be called.  If an older person says, “Please call me by my first name,” you do it, even if it makes you uncomfortable.  If someone is a doctor, you use his or her title—hard work went into acquiring that degree. A person, in my mother’s worldview, gets to choose his or her article, his or her last name, and you, out of respect and courtesy, ask and then uphold that person’s choice.  When we follow Mom’s protocol, dignity, power and choice remain with person being named.  When we assume, we can make mistakes.

I wrote back to my student and said I needed a little time to think about her questions.  I have no wisdom, but I understand more about my dad’s sorrow.  It is lonesome to be the only one, infuriating not to have people respect my choice.   Culture shifts much more slowly than we hope.

Names matter.  “Call me Ishmael.”  Call me Ms. Klotz.  Call me Ann.  Let me decide. 

Dad: JRK, 1920-2010

 “Do you want that stone?” my sister asked on the telephone. 

“Which stone?”

“The carriage block that used to be at Midland Avenue. The one with KLOTZ engraved in it.” 

“Oh, yeah. Yes, I think I want it.”

“Okay, I’ll take it to Eagles Mere.”  She hung up, efficient.

My sister was selling her home in Delaware, so she would schlep the stone to the summer house we owned together.  

Why did my father’s family have a carriage stone engraved with our surname, anyway?  It seemed a little upscale, a vestige from an era when one needed a lift up into a carriage, but I remember it from our Christmas visits to my father’s home in Montclair, NJ, when we did not need it to ascend into our Volare station wagon.  It sat on the front corner of the driveway.  After Daddy’s parents died, the stone moved to our house in Haverford, set at the end of the stone path that led to a patio in our home on Orchard Lane.

 Here is what I remember about my dad and that stone:

 It was October, still warm enough to walk barefoot on the bricks terrace in front of the front door.  Those held the warmth in the way that the darker stones on the side patio did not; those were cold, damp, slippery with moss, but the bricks were warm.  I could smell dirt; no doubt, my mother had been doing something out front, pulling up pachysandra, planting bulbs, clipping.  An earthy, rooty smell clung to the smoky air—leaves burning in a wire basket at the end of the driveway. I’d come down looking for her, pushing out the open screen door, expecting to find her out front or in the garden at the side of the house, box bushes ready to be draped with burlap before winter.  No Mom.  I heard an odd noise, raspy, unfamiliar.  First, I thought it was the desperate caw of a lost crow.  But, around the side of the house, by the carriage stone, I saw my dad, sobbing. 

 “Daddy?” I asked, tentative. I had rarely seen him so unguarded.

 “Bugs,” he said, taking a handkerchief from his pocket and blowing his nose.

“Not Bugs,” I clarified. “Ann.”  Bugs was his love-name for my older sister.

“Ba’nan,” he corrected.  I stood a distance from him, my tall dad somehow shrunken. 

“You’re crying,” I announced without a lot of warmth or interest.  Crying was our default these days.  I cried plenty.  I knew perfectly well why he was crying, but there wasn’t any room in my own sorrow for his.  

“It’s hard, Ba’nan.  He was the last to carry my name.”

I bristled.  “I’m a Klotz, too, Dad.  I have your last name.”  My heart was as hard as the rock that held my father’s gaze.  I was angry, a good cover for broken.

“You are, Ba’nan.  But, you’re a girl.  When you marry, you’ll have another name.”

“No, I won’t,” I spat though, until this moment, I had looked forward to losing Blood Clots as a nickname.  “No, I won’t.  I’ll always be a Klotz.  I’m a feminist.” 

“You can count on me, Dad, I churned silently.  I won’t die.  I won’t change my name.  I’ll be here.” But not really.  I kept my name, but I hardened my heart.  I moved away.  There was room for my grief, for my mom’s, for my sister’s, even.  But no room for my dad’s.  I could not take care of him, too.  He would have to take care of himself.  Thankfully, my sister loved him hugely, cared for him with devotion until the end of his life, went to Phillies games with him, packed him up from one nursing home and found a bed in another, put up with his outrageousness and never faltered.  The good daughter.   

And a few years before she asked about the stone, she had phoned me in December.

“I think you’d better come,” she said gently.  “He’s pretty bad.   He isn’t waking up.  We think it will be soon.” 

So, full grown now, I flew from Cleveland to Philadelphia, renting a car, using one of those pre-Google map devices to get me to his final nursing home.  Kind nurses signed me in, showed me upstairs, quietly opened the door to his room.

He was in bed, so much smaller than I remembered him, eyes closed, hair mussed, which it never was in real life, unshaven.  My dapper dad enfeebled.

 “Bugs,” he said—my sister’s name again; I felt my irritation rise, suppressed it. 

 “No, Daddy, it’s Ann.”

“Ann?  You can’t be here.  You’re in Ohio.”  He struggled to sit up to see me.

“Well, Daddy, the reports on you weren’t so good in Ohio, so I came to see for myself.”

“I’m fine.  Better than your mother,” he exclaimed, competitive to the last.

 I laughed and pulled up a chair to his bed and we spent the morning telling stories. 

The nurse came in, amazed to see my dad so lively.

My dad, man of mystery.  It was the summer of 1977, and my mom and I had just bought a red plaid midi-kilt in a shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“You’ll have it forever,” Mom declared, and she was right.  I still have it.

We walked towards Harvard and Radcliffe, this college tour of the East Coast that I was trapped on with my parents.  Wellesley, Tufts, now Harvard.  Mostly I was thinking about how I wanted to get home so I didn’t miss Doug’s party before he left for Kenyon.  We were crossing Harvard Yard when my dad pointed, “That’s where I lived.”

 I dropped back to Mom, trailing a few steps behind.

 “I thought Daddy went to Penn,” I hissed, puzzled.

 “After he flunked out of Harvard.”

 Who knew?  How could this part have been left out?  What other secrets did he have?

 My father had been a supply sergeant during the war; afterwards, at Penn, rescued from his Harvard ignominy, he was a jock, playing lacrosse and rowing crew.  He loved his fraternity—St. A’s--and being part of a group.  He was the dapper, debonair older man who met my mother at her debutante party and wooed her.  They were married for 36 years and divorced for 25.  My dad struggled to hold a traditional job; he wanted to be a schoolteacher, but his father didn’t think that was high-status enough.  He worked briefly for a bank, flirted with law school, was self-employed as a manufacturer’s representative much of his professional life.  Mother said she always knew when he appeared down the lane in the middle of the day that he had been fired again.  A personality test he took in college suggested he would have been happiest as a forest ranger. 

 As a little girl, I was afraid of him when he shaved and lonesome when he took me to baseball games because he had to have his earphones in to hear the game, so he couldn’t answer my questions. But some of my happiest memories are of reading with him in the big chair in the living room—Our Island Story was the name of the volume.  I was thrilled by Bodaecia, by the little princes in the tower, by Henry the Eighth and his wives, by Mary, Queen of Scots—no professor in college held a candle to my father’s ability to tell the story of British History. 

 When I read Death of a Salesman at 17, I felt a frisson of recognition; my dad was liked, but he wasn’t well-liked.  I had seen a tightness in people’s greetings at the Club out for dinner—I knew people were polite, but not everybody really liked him.   He never quite found his place. 

 I spent much of my adolescence hating him because he humiliated my mother over and over again. A ladies’ man, he flirted and more—repeatedly—liaisons poorly disguised.  After he retired, he gave himself over entirely to sports—playing tennis and golf, teaching tennis to kids, traveling the world to attend tennis clinics or play golf on other courses…only as an adult did I realize what an odd path he took.  But it was through teaching that I found my way to him again—teaching helped us build the bridge to meet each other. 

 In 2004, he came to Cleveland to see me installed as the Head of Laurel.  A former Laurel headmaster had been daddy’s teacher at prep school—he loved that connection. I was happy to have him with me.  Because after I had been married for a long time, I began to understand that it takes two to make a marriage cool. Perhaps my father wasn’t entirely the villain I had made him out to be.  And I began to do the work of coming to know him all over again, of listening more closely to his story. 

Daddy was chronically late.  Every short cut he insisted on taking got us more lost. He kept Archway cookies under the front seat of his car.  He loved to fly fish and play golf and tennis.  He loved cross word puzzles and ceremonies.  Once, I moved away from home, Daddy cut out articles and sent them to me—Ann Landers columns, anything about Katherine Hepburn or Princess Diana, editorials about education, reviews of books or plays. He never gave up on me, even though I was so hard on him.

When our son, Atticus, was a tiny baby, Daddy visited and remarked that he never knew babies were born with eyebrows—I shook my head—he had had three children and seven grandchildren!  But infants were never on his radar.  He was delighted we had passed his middle name, MacPherson, down on to our baby son, but I almost fell off the rocking chair that summer afternoon when I learned that my dad was no more Scottish than anyone you might meet on the street.  In 1920, he had been named for his father, and his father for his own father, who had been named, curiously, for the Mayor of Newark. That mayor employed my father’s great-grandfather as an engineer to design a water reservoir system in Newark—a crazy scheme in the 1850’s, but the mayor was forward-thinking, and the reservoir system is still in use today.  In gratitude, my great-grandfather named his son for John MacPherson, the mayor, and the name has come down through the generations.  I shook my head and laughed—another secret spilling from my father’s lips.  Of course, I had never asked, had just assumed his Scottish heritage.

 On that wintry afternoon by Daddy’s bedside, we talked about school.  I thanked him for being my dad, for giving me my love of poetry and literature, for being proud of me.  Occasionally, he wandered into a past where I could not follow—he told me all about a date he had had with a pretty girl in the 1930’s.  My father loved pretty women.  Eventually, he fell asleep, and though I sat by his bed for several more hours, knitting and thinking about the stories of my childhood, he didn’t wake again.  A few weeks later, he slipped away, more dignified in death than the colorful escapades that characterized his life would have predicted. 

 So, yes, some years ago, I accepted my sister’s offer.   I set the stone at a jaunty angle in front of our house in Eagles Mere, near the snowball bushes.  I wish I had been kinder to my dad long ago; it takes a long time for adamantine rage to melt.  But I bear the name on that stone, my father’s name, now with more pride than anger.  That hard heart of mine has released its clutched fist, softened, found a way to forgive a man who was, alone, crying, for his lost son.

JRK

Lap of Luxury, London: November 2016

Soon after the election, we head to England. I am attending a conference in Oxford but first a weekend in London to meet the Headmistress of City of London School for girls, to visit with a Laurel alumna, to visit the Churchill War Rooms, to take my god-daughter to high tea, to visit my old friends at the National Portrait Gallery.  I travel with the woman who brought me to Laurel thirteen years ago.  We are excellent travel buddies.  She is intrepid and I am a good reader of signs.  At Kennedy, I buy a massaging neck pillow. Snuggled across my row of seats sporting my new eye mask, I feel like a small purring animal.  It is a pleasant journey. 

 

This visit feels apart from time, as if I am floating—shifting dreamily between the 19th c. and the present, taking in the tiny touches at the Goring that make one feel cared for, transported back to a Downton world, where servants figured out what you needed before you had a chance to even consider what might be required. 

Our beginning is not auspicious.  The taxi driver from Heathrow will not take my credit card; I do not have the requisite PIN.  Then, Dane, in his bowler, sweeps to our rescue, “We’ll just put it on the tab, Mrs. Juster.  Off you go.”  The staff calls both of us Mrs. Juster; I stop trying to correct them; it is lovely that they use any names.  And then we are tucked into club chairs in the lounge, drinking tea and eating toast as our room is readied.  Less than half an hour passes.  We are under-dressed for the lounge, but no one minds.  Before long, we are upstairs in our room, changing our clothes, cooing over the light switches that modulate the lighting—our favorite setting is “Ooh.”  We swoon over the heated bathroom tiles and running lights, the enormous sheep that doubles as an ottoman, every detaBeyond the window, the garden is an emerald square, little houses on the non-Goring side, full of narrow casement windows and slate roofs and tiny chimney tops.  “Where is Bert?” I wonder, in this behind the scenes Mary Poppins view.  A real orchid blooms, white, on the round table by the window.  Our room is shades of beige, soothing, like a cocoon. 

In the public spaces, flower arrangements bloom on every surface, carnations massed so tightly they appear to be a single bloom.  The windowpanes along the stairwell, dating from 1910, we are told by a footman, are textured, opaque and wavy, like wrinkled cloth.  The wallpaper is the same pattern, but on each floor, the large flowers float against a different background.  We know our floor because of the empty picture frames.  “Pink panther,” our porter explains knowingly.  Anne and I exchange a puzzled glance.  In the hallway, even the chairs are inviting, as if you could retreat to the corridor if the room were suddenly too small.  The Goring is populated by footmen and doormen and porters and ladies in long white coats, who seems to manage registration and smile and say “Brilliant,” to every mundane declaration.  There are more attendants than guests it seems. 

We head out to appointments, and then, duties accomplished, retreat back to the Goring for a respite.  Our flight is catching up with us.  At 4 o’clock, we hear a knock at the door. A tiny white china rectangle arrives sporting two stemmed Clementines on a gold dusted surface—we dip our fingers in the gold and spread it on our cheekbones before we head to the theatre.  On the West End, at Half a Sixpence, the illusion of loveliness continues—a nosegay of a musical, bright, lithe and unself-conscious—an Edwardian confection with no hint of war to come. Gold garlands adorn the theatre; gilt angel-muses, in relief, frame the proscenium, one holding a trumpet that reaches out over the audience, the other an olive branch or laurel crown—it is too dim to see up so high.  Four fat cherubim are wrapped in golden cloths, cavorting on the arch.  At the interval, our aisle mates eat ice cream.  We acquire tiny chocolate bars, named for Shakespearean heroines.  I am enchanted.  The leading man, a twenty-two year old phenom recalls the grace of Fred Astaire, leaping and twirling in effortless, elevated choreography. In the second act, he plays a banjo and the entire stuffy musicale crowd joins in, pressing cocktail shakers and end tables into service as instruments.  It is rollicking, ridiculous, joyful.  I eavesdrop on the audience members around us.  I do not hear Donald Trump’s name.  The absence of politics is restful. Afterwards, we are transported home in a taxi, the lights of the city sparkling, Christmasy, though we are not yet finished with November. Lord Nelson atop his arch, commands his lions to sit, stay.  In the lounge, we drink champagne and shamelessly people-watch, nibbling cheddar biscuits, olives, crisps.  Anne eats tiny crab cakes and I indulge in Welsh Rarebit, which appears like cheese toast.  In Room 97, the maid has been back to remake the beds, leaving lip balm on our pillow.  Balm, salve.  Healing.  Under the eiderdown, I sleep deeply, fully, resting, giving myself over to the experience.  In the morning, the bath is deep enough to float in, the light wintry but bright when we pull back the satin drapes.  I run a finger across the silk brocade wallpaper—silk brocade?  In the dining room, where elegant Savorski cherry branches light the space (to the dismay of more traditional guests, our server tells us), egg cups march next to porridge bowls. Breathe it in.  Grace, ease.  A respite. We set out, fortified with porridge, and notice a statue of a young Queen Victoria in a tiny, gated square behind the Goring.  Another hotel is putting up holiday decorations, garlands and greens and red fronds. Strolling down the Birdcage Walk, we admire a pink pelican, notice a heron atop the birdkeeper’s cottage, chuckle at other tourists making friends with a squirrel. Apparently squirrels are never seen in Australia, and these squirrels, demi-celebrities, are happy to cavort with those from down under.  We crunch through fallen leaves, skirting a protest.  Grey-coated guardsmen burst into the unlikely strains of Copa Cabana—the tune stays in my head all day, though Anything Goes, their next tune, vanishes into the autumn air. In Churchill’s War rooms, the destination I was determined to visit on this trip, I imagine London enduring the Blitz; I try to reconcile what I know of that great war with what I’ve known, the bits and pieces that I feel I’ve always known, about Churchill.  Grace and Will, my cousin’s children, are good sports, but eventually, they leave with their dad, the setting not conducive to conversation.  After two hours and a half of wandering, I think of Churchill’s Clementine, not particularly well-liked, I am sad to learn, and of Winston—revered, despised, revered again—what a statesman he was, how he understood the vicissitudes of politics. Where are those statesmen now?  The rooms, underground, are efficient, unexpectedly immediate, as if Churchill, himself, could be lurking around a corner in one of his one-piece velvet rompers.

A spontaneous stop at St. Martin’s in the field yields an orchestra in rehearsal for a Beethoven piece—listening feels a little illicit, like spying, but we stay.  I rest my sore feet in the wooden pew, look up at the intricate carvings, garlands and patterns floating on the ceiling, arches that end with the heads of three baby angels.  The window behind the altar is plain, no stained glass in the whole church, but the mullions look as if they have been bent to make a cross.  The lectern is in the middle of the congregation, not at the front.  I like that. The simplicity of the windows makes the elaborate plaster work all the more whimsical.  I like the combination—contemporary and ancient.  There has been a church on this site since 1222.  America feels like a gangling infant to me today.

We drink mint and pea soup and a ginger/apple concoction at the ubiquitous Prete, gazing out the window at a statue of Edith Cavell.  I remember Daddy telling me  about her heroism, a nurse, who smuggled soldiers into Holland and was executed by a German firing squad. So much atrocity in so short a time—those two great wars.  There are red poppy wreaths at the base of many statues—Remembrance Day in England feels more tangible than Veteran’s Day.  Here, in London, the two wars also feel more recent, as if I have only just missed them.

Next, the National Portrait gallery, where I greet my old friends, the Tudors and the Stuarts, lots of 18th c. actors—Sarah Siddon, Edmund Dean, Charles Kemble—no sign of Fanny but a likeness of Nell Gwynn I do not like as much as the one in my dressing room at home.  My feet give out, burning, aching—I am annoyed. Back to the hotel for a respite before tea at Fortnum and Mason—sumptuous, Tiffany-blue china and towers of tea sandwiches, scones, and sweets.  Bravely, I devour a garish pink rose éclair, even swallowing down the rose petal, because I may never have such an opportunity again.  Grace and I browse after, searching for a gift for her birthday, rejecting a 1000-pound hamper filled with Christmas crackers.  We settle on a kaleidoscope and some candy—big decisions.  And then, in the damp dark again, we find a taxi and make our way back to The Goring, full of London, ready for the jaunt to Oxford. 

I write, my feet resting on a giant ewe, an unlikely ottoman.  I savor being in this lovely spot.  And then, a few weeks after I've returned home to the States, I read that Queen Elizabeth has lunched at the Goring, and Dane, our favorite doorman, Anne and I are sure, had to evict a drunken intruder.  Drama at the Goring and we missed it.  Next time.

Breakfast at the Goring!