Monday, November 12, 2018

Margotlog: Memories Like Smoke

Margotlog: Memories Like Smoke

I haven't had many men "friends" in my life probably in part because during my growing up, it was so clear that the boys belonged to one tribe and the girls another. Times have changed. Now among a gaggle of women I trust and adore, there are several gay couples who are as close to my heart as the best of brothers. I especially appreciate this because I had no brothers.

My mother and her twin brother, Maxine and Max, did not remain close in part because of family abuse. This subject is very vivid in my mind right now because I'm writing a memoir that now touches on it. My parents came from quite different ethnic backgrounds: my mother's side of the family was German (her father) and Swedish (her mother); whereas both sides of my father's family were what we'd now call, without hesitation, "Italian." In the days of their immigration, however, they would have been labeled, at least in Italy, Sicilian and Neapolitan. In the generations before widespread railroad travel, crossing mountains or bodies of water, even relatively small ones, set people apart.

In the North Dakota small town of my mother's youth, being either Scandinavian or German was relatively common. It was the distance in age that, in part, prompted what became an ugly episode in my grandparents' lives. My German grandfather's first wife died in childbirth, and the family of the wife, from Milwaukee, took the child to live with them. Then my grandfather's eye fell on a tall, willowy young school teacher at a rural Dakota school. Her parents had died shortly after immigrating, and she had been raised by two older sisters. The photograph/portrait I have seen of her was taken later in life, but despite her gray hair, she was a lovely woman, her face turned slightly aside, her eyes gleaming, her mouth holding a hint of a smile.

When our mother would bring us on the train from Charleston, South Carolina, where my father spent most of his working life teaching at The Citadel, she intended for us to appreciate not only her successful businessman father, but also her "Mama" who loved beautiful things, who took naps (as did my very energetic mother), and who made delicious Swedish pastries. I never knew this grandmother, but my oldest cousin whose family remained in the small North Dakota town, has told me about going with her father to visit "Mama Max." Her father, Buddy, was my mother's twin brother, the one who stayed in the town; whereas my mother, after graduating from the University of Minnesota, went east as fast as she could to a library job in Pittsburgh. There she met smiling, curly-haired Leonard, second son of the Italians. My Italian grandfather had been converted to Protestantism and preached powerfully to a Pittsburgh Italian congregation. Not easy, that business of being Protestant among a community of mostly Catholics. My father used to recount being pelted with rotten eggs when he and his family walked up the hills to their father's church.

 At some point when I was still very young, my North Dakota grandmother developed stomach cancer. I have a hazy memory of tiptoeing across the large parquet floor of the hall to a small door which usually remained half-open. There in a narrow bed, lay a figure who was my grandmother. She did not speak nor raise a hand. I don't remember ever seeing her stand. Slowly over the years, it came out (largely from my cousins who grew up in the town), that "Mama Max" had been abused. When the last of her four children left home for college--the youngest would have been "the twins," my mother and her brother--Mama Max slowly fell into a depression and wept a lot. After his first semester in college, my mother's brother, Buddy, came home to protect her.

My mother spent one summer helping her father repaint the kitchen a sunny yellow, but without fail, she returned to graduate from the University of Minnesota and head east. It has taken me years to piece together this story, and to honor my uncle's dedication to protect his mother. It was only years later, when I was pregnant with my first and only child, that my mother and I took the train from St. Paul/Minneapolis back to North Dakota. There we stayed two nights in a local motel. We called from the motel to see if her brother Buddy was at home. No doubt he was astonished to hear that she was nearby. Years later, wondering why she did not call long distance ahead of time. I think there can be only one answer: she intended to make the trip without the fear, embarrassment, or awkwardness of having already contacted her brother. But he was welcoming and invited us to his family's large lake house just outside of town. My first glimpse of Buddy, sitting in a large family room, immediately told me he was my grandfather's son. They looked very much alike.

Our visit was brief and friendly enough. The big house in town, which my grandfather had expanded when  "the twins" were born, was being fashioned into a bed and breakfast. Though I have seen some of my cousins since, I probably never will visit Hankinson again. This essentially means that my sister is my only relative outside my daughter, and my husband's wide circle of family and friends. Keeping family secrets so long a time can turn confidences into whispers, so soft that they eventually disappear like smoke.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Margotlog: Proust and Colette: Nothing Gold Can Stay

Margotlog: Proust and Colette: Nothing Gold Can Stay

Today with wind in golden leaves, and the sky a brilliant blue, it's as if loss is being transformed into immediate memory. We memorialize the gold even as it mounds the streets.

I pack up three bags of organic compost to recycle. As I finish my work at the compost site, a young man with a fist-full of smallish plastic bags walks past. I call out: "Do you have any larger ones?" He is gone in an instant, and just as leaves fly up in a slant of sun, he hands me two long green bags. The magic of memory: I have been listening to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. It is very very long. In the eight-disc set, I visit over and over the house at Combray where he waits anxiously for his mother to come upstairs and give him a good-night kiss. The beach at Balbec where he goes with his grandmother--her gentle figure leaning over him. The next day at breakfast, intense golden light is smothered by heavy curtains, which let only a sliver fall across the breakfast table.

Finally in the midst of this memory magic, I can't stand my limited knowledge any more and look up Proust in the encyclopedia. I knew that he'd waited until the last decade of his rather short life to retire to a cork-lined room and write. There where he gave memory precedence, he initially wrote only one volume.Others followed, embellishing, recovering, re-inventing. He captured the extraordinarily lush style that neither smothers or impedes the onward flow of narrated memory. In the narrator's voice there is a tinge of irony, as adult Marcel faintly sympathizes with his younger agony when the young woman Albertine, whom he's loved for a long time, now fully reveals her sexual interest in women. 

Yesterday, my husband and I went to Minneapolis to see a movie called "Colette," based on the early years of another French marvel, almost Proust's contemporary.Whatever I'd read about it had completely vanished to be replaced by my much earlier fascination with this true French stylist. Though Colette, like Proust, made marvelous decoys out of her own life, I found that Willie, the much older literateur who seduced young Colette, had initially used the material of her life to boost his own reputation.

When she took leave of him, intending to tell her own stories, not letting Willy subsume her into a charater called Claudine, I urged her on. By then, she had done away with her coil of braids; her hair became an enticingly boyish bob in fasion in the early 20th century. My mother's hair never had the swagger of Kiera Knigthly's Colette, but it fit nicely under a cloche. By this time, Colette had a girl/boy lover. Not so different, I say to myself, from Proust's Albertine who also seduced girl lovers whom she tried to keep from Marcel.

What was it about French culture at the close of Proust's era and the opening of Colette's, that gave these extraordinary stylists such rich aplomb? There is a freedom from niceties or reticence (think Emily Dickinson) which turn many American women's stories away from celebrating the flesh and toward hints of mystery--both powerfully appealing, but unable to capture the body as a free-wheeling ironic entity, worth all its rambunctious license.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Margotlog: First Snow

Margotlog: Snow

Yes, it snowed yesterday in St. Paul, Minnesota. The air swirled with heavy globs and drifty flakes, making me think, for a moment, of recalcitrant students until it dawned on me that I was not teaching undergraduates any more--AND this stuff in the front yard, back yard, and up and down the avenue was enrolled in an eduation system of its own kind.

Item One, Memory: Let's say thirty years ago, THE Halloween blizzard of all blizzards dumped at least three feet of snow on the Twin Cities in twenty-four hours. There we were, Fran and I, driving around in his "superior" Volkswagen. Item: THERE IS NO SUPERIOR VOLKSWAGEN in three feet of wet, heavy snow. We got stuck. Our tires spun. We skidded into snow banks. A big car pushed us out. Somehow we made our goal, whatever it was. That GOAL has melted into memory, but the blizzard itself will always remain frightful and intense--a whoop-de-do.

We were young and foolish.

Yesterday, globs of white stuff plummeted down, driving the squirrels in the backyard frantic. They were very wet, hungry and desperate. Not a one had built a leaf house in the arms of a tree. One, more intrepid than the others, rushed up on the deck and began chewing into the cooler where I'd been directed (by a higher power) to keep chunks of fancy suet cold. In my heavy house slippers, I chased the varmint off, but feeling sorry for the mob of gray desperados in the back yard, I cut several suet cakes into bits, grabbed handfulls of dry cat food, and with my parka flapping, but in my boots, rushed out to succor the mob. Opening the garage door to the metal trash cans that house the various kinds of seeds which I usually sprinkle on the ground, I suddenly found myself fanned by a squirrel rushing OUT of the garage. How it had made its way in, I now refuse to consider.

Let's say that nature has been kind. Outside my window, sun sparkles on the gold and red and green of a lovely fall morning. The light's angle is low which makes the leaves glimmer and shimmer in the light breeze. The temperature is around 45 degrees. It is a lovely fall day. I'll walk the long way, over Hamline Bridge to Fran's old neighborhood where Fran and I were deliriosly happy in first love.

But, I remind myself, it was May when we met. No weather events to mar our giddy delight. More mature and seasoned now, we can still be happy--he'll be home today from playing  Scrabble in Madison. That would be Wisconsin for anyone reading this who isn't from the UPPER Midwest where almost every weather extreme except sand storms have been known to happen.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Margotlog: A Russian Artist Among Us: Alexander Tylevich

Margotlog: A Russian Among Us: Alexander Tylevich

In our own vast country, how many of us can make sense of Russia with its mix of peoples, its peculiar history of enormous change, and its extraordinary artistic heritage?  I have two recent claims: listening for maybe the fourth time to a wonderful translation and reading of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and visiting the Bloomington (Minnesota) Center for the Arts to discover Alexander Tylevich's narrow, see-through mylar/bronze/steel figures frozen in motion--walking, biking, running. Anna Karenina, first published in its entirety in 1878, is set in the mid-to-late 19th century. It is probably the quintessential novel in any language, full full of gentle love, enormous wealth, dreadful sadness, and a sophistication that would put most Americans of any era, except maybe Lincoln, to shame.

Now, into our rather bland midwestern mix comes a contemporary Russian artist. My husband and I discovered Alexander Tylevich's work with the help of a friend. We saw first, Tylevich's huge, spiraling, free-wheeling collage in the "Robert Bruininks" University of Minnesota building just across from the Weisman Art Center. Tylevich's collage sculpture, probably five stories high, rises up and up and up from the ground floor, within its own columnar space, accompanied by its own spiraling stairway as if to help viewers take in the marvels of see-through colored plates cut in unexpected cones, squares, daggers--different yet related not just to each other, but to things scientific and mathematical, for this is a science building. Yet, when we asked the young people at the information desk, none seemed to know anything about the sculpture. We determined to find out what we could about Alexander Tylevich.

Then several months later arrived an announcement that his small sculptures would be on view at the Bloomington, Minnesota, Art Center. Here is what the website of the Art Center says about him:

Alexander Tylevich is an award-winning sculptor and architect born in Minsk, Belarus. His projects range from freestanding site-specific sculptures to a master plan for a metropolitan city. Since immigrating to the United States in 1989, he has realized more than 70 major art commissions and several architectural projects. He often works as a member of a larger team, with architects, landscape architects, and other design professionals. Tylevich’s work always demonstrates a purposeful co-mingling of the two disciplines of architecture and sculpture, and perhaps the best single word to describe his approach is ‘confluence.’ 

This certainly describes the enormous suspended sculpture we discovered in the University of Minnesota Bruininks' building. In fact, our neighbor who introduced us to Tylevich's work, helped install it, and emphasized that the process was rigorous, pains-staking, and frightening

What we saw last week at the Bloomington Art Center certainly had elements in common with the huge suspended spiral. But two things were remarkably different: Though a few of the Tylevich's sculptures in the show are heroic, rising head and shoulders above some sort of crowd, most of the sculptures are small. Not tiny like Thumbelina, but the size of a large hand as they stride along or ride their bikes, in motion even as they themselves are anonymous--perhaps a Russian form of the "common man." Not a single one I saw seemed female. But then, these figures propose change, even revolution. I couldn't help thinking of my young, chain-smoking college literature teacher from Russian who introduced us to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  

The point of the book and perhaps too of Tylevich's small, very active figures is that the common man is made for change, brought about not by long hours at a desk but by odd offerings --a leg ending at the knee, or a face missing an ear, or a body as narrow as a pane of glass, steel, or bronze, somehow peddaling along though missing most of its other half. Yet motion/action never pauses for loss. One may be disfigured, yet one soldiers on.  

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Margotlog: Cerise Chiffon and Medieval Stone: Musing on an Exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art

Margotlog: Cerise Chiffon and Medieval Stone: Musing on an Exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art

Walking up from the cafeteria in the Museum's depths, I stepped into the Medieval galleries, expecting ancient gray stone. A shimmering cerise gown stood in the way. As I moved through the large gallery, I discovered other models wearing rich fabrics. Some suggested medieval styles: high flared collars, tight sleeves with flaring cuffs, and bodices tight to the female form. These were not live models, but "dummies" without heads, except for the sightless eyes and severe lips of those wearing cloches--an odd word I remember my mother using. Cloche: a hat, usually made of felt, fitting tightly to the scalp. Some of these were of the same rich brocade as their heavy gowns.

Yet all around these figures, so dazzling in color and form, remained the mute, gray, ancient bas reliefs, or occasional figures from the medieval period. Many of them were fragments of larger works; many of them had religious meaning. The Virgin Mary is a crucial figure in Christianity. Her son died on the cross for human sins, yet she lived on and became an intercessor for our weak and troubled souls. I find her cowled and praying figure one of the most endearing hopes when I feel the most downcast. She is the mother of us all, quiet, loving, and generous in spirit. She mourns, yet lives.

What point did the museum curators intend when they studded her medieval milieu full of piety and quiet generosity with the dazzling gowns of modern designers? Yes, the gowns were all meant for women. No question about that. So, in their own way, they celebrated women, in figure, and elegance, and lavish richness. I suppose the gowns could be taken as a critique of medieval quietude.
Some of them almost flaunt the female body, like the cerise, strapless chiffon gown.

I propose that we need them all, these images of women, gray and antique, or lavish and modern. As the medieval gongs and viols, sharp cimbals and rat-a-tat drums made their mark, I thought of the centuries of women's presence, whether carved in stone or simply brought to life in contempory rich, elegant and sometimes revealing garments. 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Margotlog: News from China and Iowa of Long Ago

Margotlog: Galts in China And Iowa During World War II and the Vietnam War

 Here is an email I received this morning, out of the blue:

 Dear Ms Galt: I have come into possession of a small notebook once kept by Edith Galt (1917-1961). I would be happy to return the notebook to the Galt family if you would like it back. I traced Edith\'s family via, and Google, and am contacting you because your contact information was the easiest for me to quickly find. The notebook is about 3x4 inches and contains notes and accounts that Edith kept while at Grinnell College and in China. Wedged among the yellowed pages is a small photograph of a young woman. The book was found, years ago, in the attic of farmhouse near Tama, Iowa, which is about 30 miles north of Grinnell. The elderly woman who found it is no longer sure exactly where the house was or if it is still standing. She found the notebook while sorting for her own move. I\'m happy to mail the book to any address you provide.

What a thrill: This is what the internet and email are supposed to provide: surprises, astonishment, and gratitude. Feeling all those lively emotions, I wrote back to this kind, honorable women:

It doesn't surprise me that the notebook was found near Grinnell.
According to my rather sketchy knowledge of the Galt family, my husband Fran's
father Ralph was raised in China by missionary parents, both of whom came
from Iowa. They returned to the U.S. for Ralph to attend Grinnell. 

Once graduated , Ralph married a lovely young woman from New England, Louisa (named for Louisa May Alcott), and the two of them, in their turn, took a ship for missionary work in China.

This brings us up to the outbreak of World War II, during which Louisa and Ralph were exchanged for Japanese prisoners of war and were allowed to return on a slow boat around the tip of South America and through the Port of New York. Once in the U.S. Ralph refused to register for the draft. This was 1942, in the midst of World War II. As  "draft refuser," or conscientious objector, Ralph was imprisoned in a federal prison in West Virginia from September 1942 to early 1944, a total of 21 months. 

When he was incarcerated, his wife Louisa was already pregnant. She gave birth to Fran's brother Lester in 1943 while Ralph was still in prison. Once he was released on parole, the family moved to Shawnee Mission, Oklahoma, where Ralph was state director for the Christian Rural Oversea's Program, or CROP.  The couple's second child, the son Francis, was born in 1947. Francis would eventually become my husband. 

Interestingly enough, Fran himself refused the draft and spent two years, from 1966-68, in Federal prison at Springfield Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, Missouri. He was given the job of typist to two employees: a prison psychologist and a jail inspector. Released in 1968, Fran was later paroled by President Gerald Ford in 1976. 

Grandfather Galt, the original missionary to China, and his wife Alti Cummings, had three children, Ralph, and two sisters, one of whom was Edith, whose diary has been discovered in an attic near Grinnell. It's truly astonishing how in the years before the internet or even transoceanic telephone, so many of my husband's family conducted their lives overseas. Perhaps it's a clue that until he met me, Fran did not cross an ocean, but remained close to the Midwest where his family settled before and after they took the long boat to China.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Margotlog: The Art of Losing

Margotlog: The Art of Losing

Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle, "The Art of Losing" has the command and sheen of great art. It's been one of my favorites for a very long time. Now I think of it after a day of losing first one, then another, then yet another crucial item: my car keys, my bigger cell phone, and almost my mind.

     The art of losing isn't hard to master
     so many things seem filled with the intent
     to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Losing and searching can become an obsession of flitting here, then there. Will the cell phone be hiding in the depths of my purse? Did I put it on the dining room floor as I ate dinner last night?

     Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
     of lost door keys, the hour badly spend.
     The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I call my very put-together friend whose house is just beyond the Ford Bridge i.e. just inside Minneapolis. "Mary," I say with a touch of hysteria in my voice, "I can't seem to find your house. Some nice man with a dress shop pointed me back to the Parkway, but now the numbers on 35th Avenue are totally off, far beyond yours!"

     ....I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster,
     some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
     I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

Plucking up my courage, still unable to find my cell phone. I take a discarded old phone to AT&T where a charming young man sets is up to work again with a new "sym" card. Now it's chirping as it powers up. But will I be able to turn it off once on the plane to Amherst? So far, that hasn't worked. It chirps, and chirps, and chirps.

     practice losing farther, losing faster:
     places, and names, and where it was you meant
     to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

Tomorrow in the dark before dawn, I will fly to visit this dear friend, younger than I am by at least a decade. Seven months ago, his partner of many years died of a cancer that could no longer be kept at bay. "I still weep every day," he tells me on the phone. Now as I turn myself toward the east, I sorrow for the one who is lost, joy for his life we both loved, though in vastly different intensites.

  --Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
     I love), I shan't have lied. It's evident
     the art of losing's not too hard to master
     though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.