January 18, 2016

How Brassiere Straps Bind

In memory

How Brassiere Straps Bind

An old family story says that my Aunt Libby, whose birthday is today—she would have been 104—and my mother, Freda, who died more than two decades ago on this day, were once so drunk after a family party that they ended up lying down in bed together, that they passed out and that they woke with the back hooks of their brassieres linked inside one another, back to back, connected.
The jokester who did this to them, whoever that may have been, was wise.
Because so it was with them—hooked inside each other’s lives.
My mother went to Libby and Milton’s apartment every day —my mother and her brother Milton had been deeply affectionate siblings; Freda, the youngest of the eight children, and Milton, the next to oldest—she went to help relieve Libby, the registered nurse, from the tedium of caring for Milton after he’d come home from the hospital to die of the cancer in his colon, his liver. That was the way he wanted it, or so I like to think, and, while he starved toward death, getting frailer, thinner every day, Libby and Freda tended him and one another.
I remember standing at the window of our apartment—by then we like them had moved away from the houses where the parties were held, where the young women who never drank got drunk—I remember watching my mother outside the house in her car with her head against the steering wheel. I could see my mother’s arms wrapped around the wheel, could see the sadness in her back, knew that she was weeping. But my mother didn’t talk about her grief. She was like Libby in this way. She simply bore it, composing herself before she came inside to fix our dinner.
Goodness in the face of death, Milton’s, the deaths of all my mother’s brothers and sisters. Libby, the in-law deeply entwined in all their lives, binds me to their generation, the link to them all—the one who was there, saw it all, knows the secrets.
My Aunt Libby and I and her son, Milton’s son, my cousin Mark  have a secret that she never told. But it’s mine so I figure I get to tell.
When I was five and Mark was ten, I had loved him. When I was ten and he, fifteen, when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, when I was nineteen and he was twenty-four, I had loved him. It was a childish love, a crush. But when I was twenty, when he buried his father, when he kissed me on the mouth in the apartment building’s back stairwell during Shiva, told me that he loved me too, I thought he had waited for me, the way no one else would ever do again. The impropriety of the kiss, its urgency, its passion mixed with mourning, made it seem profound. He asked me to marry him. I said, Yes.
The cousin I almost married. We were briefly—over almost before it began—engaged. Libby, the mother-in-law I almost had.
Libby was relieved when it didn’t happen. She told Mark, “Don’t marry Mary. She cries all the time.” And, indeed, I still do. My father, who loved Mark, took him to Colt games in Baltimore before the Colts absconded in the middle of the night one day to Florida. My mother would look at Mark and remember her brother. Mark had Milton’s dark exotic color, and I, when I was young, had my mother’s ivory white skin. She could imagine the grandchildren. But I suppose my parents were relieved, too. Afterwards, we just went on. Never talking about it. Cousins marrying! We put it away like a dirty little secret.
Many years after I’d married and so had he, he came to see me alone. He was short, shorter even than I remembered. He was fifty-five, with graying curly hair. He’d let his hair grow longer than when I’d loved him, when he’d kept it cut close to his scalp to hide the kinky curls that now framed his wizened, yellow face. He’d always looked old to me. Perhaps it was the olive tone of his skin like the grave dark faces of the characters in Lawrence Durrell’s novels of betrayal, characters who uttered wise things ordinary people never said. I remembered a line from one of those novels I’d read when I was in my twenties and still young enough to be mesmerized by the lush philosophical prose: Truth is what most contradicts itself.
He’d saved all the love letters I’d written him after the Shiva, while we were ever so briefly engaged, when he went back to Alaska, a captain in the Airforce, a dentist. The letters, in blue air mail onion skin envelopes with their thin red borders, in his hands. The letters were tied with a piece of string. He laid them on a side table and began to talk. He recalled the time he’d taken me sailing in his tiny Sunfish on the Maggothy River. I was eighteen, a freshman at the University of Maryland. He was in the U. of M.’s dental school. While he talked, my mind drifted to the images from that time before he’d kissed me, before his father died. I remembered how our hands brushed when he pulled the sail to turn about, how with my head bent, I looked up into his face. I thought of all the years I’d done that, when I was smaller than he. I remembered how tongue-tied I’d been the whole trip, how I always feared speaking to him, how my shyness, the shyness that had plagued me since I was little, worsened in his presence.
In the letters I didn’t speak of grief, but we were both in mourning: He, for his father; I, for the uncle I adored. My uncle—he was the one who gave me the first stamps for my album. I said to Mark when he visited that day, “Do you remember how he used to save them up until my mother and father brought me over for a visit? And when he was dying, when he lay there in the den on the old couch, and I would come? It was so hard to look at him—he was so thin. He was all teeth. And he would smile at me.”
In the letters, I wrote about Thoreau and E.M. Forster, about being awake to life, about the things that won’t forsake us. About connecting, paying attention to the details, thinking of life as one critical hour.

One critical hour. One critical hour. A lifetime. I am bound, engaged in that metaphorical hour like my mother and Libby, bound in brassiere straps, in laughter and losses, in secrets kept and revealed.

Freda and Gerson

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