My brother and I are talking again. Well, writing actually, but it feels like talking. We go through these long periods of silence and then suddenly, triggered by the need to arrange a nephew’s visit or to announce the marriage or death of a distant cousin, we will start writing to each other, feverishly exchanging long letters almost every day for weeks on end and then just as suddenly lapse back into silence, spent and exhausted. Our correspondence has the feel of a rainstorm in the Maghreb or the lovemaking of sailors on leave.
We never cultivated the art of a more faithful, modest correspondence. Perhaps we’re simply too intense together. He churns up memories, things I haven’t thought about for years, God, even decades, the sting on our tongues left by a great-aunt’s peppery veal stew, the fort we built under a massive thicket in the woods, lying together on a glider on the porch listening to the sounds of a Yankees game on the radio coming from the next room. He remembers all our toys, even more lovingly than I do; he’s even tracked done some on e-bay and unearthed a few more at garage sales. Our correspondence isn’t all that dissimilar, this collecting of clues we find scattered in the dimly lit corners of some labyrinthine archive of memory, clues we use to piece together a clumsy narrative to make sense of our shared childhood.
Sometimes we’ll insert pictures into our emails, images we find on the Internet—our brownstone in the city, a bubble-light tree like the one we lit at Christmas, a grand stone bridge near our summer house that we took to a mountain spring. I found pictures of the summer house on a realtor’s site. There were even interior shots as well, and one of the detached garage that was particularly depressing, shorn of the tomato plants that my grandfather had planted around its perimeter, its wooden doors shut and locked. These are of course strangers’ photographs, not pictures in a family album (our other brother snapped these for himself). Soulless, flat. They are not meant as documentation but as a call to reverie.
It is inevitable that even the most detailed and richly suggestive of photographs would seem flat in light of the memories that my brother’s letters evoke. Memory doesn’t work like photographic plates; images are never remembered as such but are always embedded in a matrix of feelings. It’s not always even an image we remember. Sometimes it’s just a particular quality of light or the sound of the wind or aromas from the kitchen. Like an Easter day we had spent at the summer house. It must have been an early Easter because it was cold, and the windows on the enclosed back porch had steamed up from the heat of the kitchen below and the wood-burning stove. The porch was filled with the sweet smoky aroma of onions caramelizing in the melting fat of a pork roast and the smell of boiled turnips, and we could hear the voices of the women cooking below, purposeful, subdued, almost conspiratorial, the clang of pots and the beating of a whisk as the roux for the gravy was being made, the thump of potatoes being mashed. And we remembered tracing with our fingertips the outlines of trees and hills in the film of steam on the porch windows.
My brother’s letters both exhilarate and sadden me. They so richly evoke the happiest days of my childhood, the ones we spent at our summer house, happy because the presence of my grandparents and grand-uncles and cousins eased the friction between my mother and my father and dispelled the strife that seeped into our life in the city like some noxious fume escaping through ill-fitting pipes. Our remembrances are not always happy, of course, but even in the darker of memories, my father’s slow disengagement from our daily lives or the abuse we both suffered at school (each for a different reason) I am astonished at the intensity and, yes, clarity of feeling that is evoked, the tumultuous ingression of the past into my consciousness. Yet at the same time the stories we share are a memento mori that speak not only of the deaths we have already mourned but also of those yet to come.
I suggested to my brother that we put together an exhibition of sorts, a virtual one which would use these found photographs as an occasion for us to write about our childhood. We would pair each photograph with a text that we could write together as a single narrative or alternately as a conversation. It would be a way of salvaging something of this past for our friends and family, I say. But my brother says we are telling each other these stories as a way of keeping these memories alive for us. He says we are like the guards at the gates of a distant, half abandoned town which the trade routes have long ceased to cross.
There’s one image that’s been haunting me these days, one I haven’t found a photograph of yet. A reproduction of a Victorian painting that hung in our den. I remember it now as something that could have been painted by John Singer Sargent but it probably wasn’t. It showed a young woman in a long cornflower-blue dress with thick black hair that was drawn gently back in a loose bun. She was seated at a piano. She appeared to have just stopped playing, and her head was tilted slightly back to another young woman with braided auburn hair, who stood beside her in a coral-colored dress.
It was the only I evidence of art I remember from the house, but my brother reminded me that my grandmother would listen to recordings of opera, and our granduncle had books like Ivanhoe and The Brothers Karamazov in the single bookcase that stood by his easy chair. He’s acquired a more balanced, comprehensive insight into our shared past, whereas I tend to think in absolutes. I see saints and demons in the menagerie of my childhood, heroes and villains, halves of people, really. I’m like those stroke survivors who can only see the left or right side of what’s before them, though they swear there’s nothing wrong with their vision. They’ll eat half a plate of food and ask for seconds.
The women in the painting could have been sisters. I told my brother how I used to look at it and imagine it was Mom and her sister. There was enough of a resemblance to support the fantasy – the woman at the piano had my mother’s luxuriant black hair and high forehead, the hauteur of prominent cheekbones, the milky iridescence of her complexion. But there the resemblance ended. There was a wonderful softness to the women that was nowhere to be seen in my mother, who had been coarsened by the fear of living with a tyrannical father and the bitterness of living with a husband who ironically could not measure up to the father whose house she had been so desperate to leave. In my imagination I fashioned for my mother and her sister a more genteel history than the one they had lived, a life informed by music and dance and art. The woman in the blue dress, my ersatz mother, was at ease in the world and had interesting friends. She could talk about practically anything and with practically anyone, which included me of course. And she was a woman with a wonderful, warmly resonant laugh. I never remember my mother ever laughing.
When I told my brother of this he wrote back the same day to tell me that as a child he, too, had daydreamed through this picture of a new and different family. How odd that we never talked about this when we were kids. But then there were other things we didn’t tell each other, things we should have. We never told each other of the torment we suffered at school. How odd that we could spend a Sunday together, directing and starring in our own version of Dracula Meets the Wolf-Man and I would not know that the day after he would be taunted at school for his stutter, nor would he know anything of my fear of being cornered in the locker room after gym class by a trio of bullies who had decided I was a “faggot”. My brother hid from me—and from the rest of the family—the bruises he got defending himself at school, and I hid from him the shame I felt at the names I was called.
I’m still looking for the painting. I’ve scoured the Internet and asked friends with a better understanding of the art of this period, but still no luck. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter if I don’t find it. It’s enough that we remembered the painting and talked about it.
This time I don’t want us to stop talking. I need him in my life and I want to be present in his. I realize that these great outpourings of feeling and memory cannot be sustained, but I hope that we can find another way of talking, a way we hadn’t found when younger, a way we still haven’t found, perhaps the kind of unhurried, expansive conversation one has with a good friend over a glass of single malt on a long winter’s night.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Ena And Betty Daughters of Asher And Mrs Wertheimer