Adelaide B. Shaw lives in Millbrook, NY with her husband. She has three children and six grandchildren. Her stories have been published in several literary journals, including By-Line, The Country and Abroad, Bartleby Snopes, Loch Raven Review, American Literary Review, The Writers’ Journal, SN Review, Bewildering Stories, Cyclamens and Swords, and Storyteller. In addition to writing fiction, Adelaide writes haiku and other Japanese poetic forms, such as tanka, haibun, and photo haiga and has been published widely. Her award winning collection of haiku, An Unknown Road is available at ww.modernenglishtankapress.com. Examples of her poetry may be seen at www.adelaide-whitepetals.blogspot.com
A Life Revealed
Today, I fell again into a black hole. Each time this occurs I have clawed my way out, but the intervals of memory loss are becoming more frequent. When I climb out, there is no recollection of the previous few minutes or few hours. It’s as if I’ve been asleep. Soon, there will be only random thoughts and speech, confused memories and my complete disappearance. For this reason, I shall try to define myself to my remaining family which has always conjectured about me. They will wonder about my life in Los Angeles and the small diamond ring they will find in my jewelry case.
I have never shared my troubles, and only once heard the troubles of another–dear Marcel, to whom I was a disappointment. This is but one of my failings.
Some facts are known. Born 1929, the year of the big crash. Perhaps it is symbolic that my life began when the good times ended. I was a somber child, a child well suited to the depression, never demanding much as there wasn’t much to demand. My father worked at odd jobs after losing his position at a bank; my mother cleaned for a few of the lucky families who had retained their wealth. The youngest of five children by six years, I was often left in their care, which was negligent at best. I survived without any serious injury to my health or my psyche, being admirably suited to the single pursuits of reading or drawing under the less than watchful eye of one older sibling or another.
By the time I graduated from high school the Second World War was over, and some semblance of prosperity had returned to our family. I was studious and bright, and thanks to a scholarship, I attended Vassar and graduated in 1951, the only one of the Loring children to attend college.
It was a disappointment to my mother that I did not attend New York University, a subway ride away from our home in The Bronx. I wanted to be independent of my family; I wanted to experience the solitary life, not just in thought, which I had practiced for years, but in my physical life, as well. That I could achieve this while surrounded by hundreds of women did not seem a contradiction to me.
During my years at Vassar I went home infrequently, claiming my job at the college library was necessary to support myself. Acceptance of any help my father would have created an indebtedness that I wished to avoid.
“You’re a good daughter,” my mother frequently said when she bid me good-bye after my rare visits home. “So thoughtful of us and your sister and brothers.” I shrink now to admit my real motives–to be without obligations, to be free of the restraints of family and the giving up of oneself that is expected.
After graduation, I taught English to eighth graders at a school in New York City. I lived at home for almost a year.
My reasons were twofold: to silence the constant pleas of my parents for my return to the homestead and to save enough money for a move to California. At this time my brother Charles was still living at home. My sister and two other brothers were married and living nearby, all within a few blocks of us. Charles, at 37, had acquired the appearance and mannerisms of a much older man, and although he sought the occasional companionship of women, he never married.
In the months during which I remained at home I was aware of his disappointment with his life, the missed chance of a college education, the missed opportunity which I had and he and my other brothers and sister had not. At times, it appeared that he wanted to express this to me, but I did not welcome these disclosures. True to myself, I kept to myself and did not encourage any heart-to-heart talks.
I was as helpful at home as a daughter should be. I was Mary, the good daughter, the accommodating sister, the cheerful aunt. In early August of 1952 I left for Los Angeles.
“Why do you want to go so far away?” This was my mother’s daily cry as I made my preparations for departure. It grated on me, her need for me to remain, and, I sensed, become her confident, her sounding board, the recipient of her stories and dreams. I did not want to be the well into which she poured her hopes and disappointments or her joys. Again, I kept myself to myself, neither giving nor taking. There is no explanation for my aloneness, other than I felt a strong need to create my own life, unburdened by the burdens of others. I now think that I was looking for enlightenment, that impossible condition in which one knows, or thinks one knows, why he is. I did not believe I would find the answer surrounded by family.
The Freedmore Academy, a private girls’ school where I taught freshman English, was planned to resemble an eastern prep school: brick buildings and paths, ivy covered walls, fountain gardens, green lawns, solemnity, subdued grandeur and academic excellence. It was an easy bus ride from my apartment, a small furnished studio near MacArthur Park, once an upscale oasis of tranquility when the city was newer and smaller. In spite of the bodegas and cheap shops, the groups of noisy kids and litter around the park, there was a faded glamour in the art deco apartment buildings.
In my letters home I wrote pages of colorful descriptions of places and people, none of which conveyed the apprehension and uncertainty I felt. I had cut off my lifeline with this move. When I had left home for Vassar I knew that if I failed in my attempt for independence, that financial help and comfort were just a two hour train ride away. That I did not go creeping back home gave me the courage to move to LA, but once there, having spent more of my savings than anticipated on hotel, apartment rent, security deposit, and various incidentals I was walking a very narrow path between solvency and being broke until my first pay check in mid-October.
The staff at the Academy, several of whom were also transplants, was friendly, and I did not feel I was an outsider. My circle of acquaintances was large enough to provide me with diversions. The French teacher, Marcel Laurant, was the one person to whom I was drawn above all others. We began dating, and the attraction became serious. At Christmas, Marcel proposed and presented me with a diamond ring. I was deeply touched and thought I loved him. He professed to love me, and although we were often sleeping together, we had achieved no close intimacy. Marcel was as reserved and private regarding his inner life as I was. We appeared to be suited to each other, yet it would have been a disastrous marriage, a marriage based solely on appearances and surface emotions.
Still young enough to be enthralled by the idea of marriage I failed to give our relationship enough thought. In the end, however, it was not the lack of intimacy that separated us finally, but too much of it for me to accept.
We planned a late summer wedding, small and without family, only a few friends. Not sharing this moment with my family was consistent with my thinking. I shuddered at the expected questions and poking into our relationship, the examination of my life in Los Angeles. Before the school term was over, the women teachers and staff gave me a bridal shower. Amidst the laughter and good wishes I harbored a small doubt about the wisdom of this marriage, but continued to push it aside.
A month before the wedding I suggested attending a local theater which was showing two French films made just after the war about the resistance. Marcel did not want to go. “Too many memories,” he said. I knew he was Jewish and had been sent to a concentration camp along with his family and he alone survived. These bare facts were all he would reveal, and I did not press. I knew about keeping to oneself.
Although we didn’t see the films, their existence prompted the memories Marcel did not want to remember. He became quiet and drew deep within himself. On a Sunday afternoon after making love, he began talking about his experiences. It was sudden and fast, the horrific details piling up as quickly as the bodies at the death camps. The Germans invading France in the spring of 1940, the occupation, the shortages , the resentment and fear, constant fear that he and his family would be rounded up and sent to a concentration camp, a fear that was realized in 1942, the separation of men and boys from women and young children, the immediate death of his mother and grandfather–too frail and too old to be of use,–the suffocating ride in cattle cars, the forcing of his younger sisters to service the guards at the camp until they became too weak and unattractive to appeal to them, the death of his father when he could no longer work, the slow wasting away of himself, the mounting hatred of all things German, the liberation of the camp, his repatriation to an uncle in Los Angeles, his gradual return to a normalcy in appearance and his continuing struggle to accept and forgive.
I could not withhold the tears, tears for the hardships and pain of Marcel’s past and for his continued struggle. I had no words or means to comfort him. I was probably the only person to whom he had confided his experiences, and I failed him. We held each other the entire afternoon and into the night. It was nearly two in the morning when he got up to leave, kissing me gently, but saying nothing.
Marcel was teaching a summer class downtown in Travelers’ French to a group of businessmen, and we did not see each other for a few days. His story repeated itself in my mind without any prompting, stopping me in whatever activity I was performing. I cried again. Is this what it means to be close to someone, to be privy to another person’s fears and sorrows? Overwhelming sadness and frustration rolled over me and nearly flattened me out so that I could not function, could not attend to the last of the wedding arrangements. I did not know how to put his story to one side of my mind and carry on, and I did not know how to help him forgive and accept the past as the past. I was sorry I had allowed him to tell me. In the ten months since we met he had referred to his past once and only briefly with a casual manner as if he had spent those years in a strict boarding school, nothing more. I should have prevented him from revealing the truth.
When we saw each other a few days later and on every subsequent visit our relationship was strained. We both seemed exhausted as if we were recuperating from a long illness and were devoid of strength and will.
“This marriage will not work,” I said, expressing what we were both thinking. I resented having to share this sorrow with him and Marcel sensed this. We both were private persons, but he had begun to open up to me. I was not able to do the same for him.
We were in a rowboat in the lake at MacArthur Park. The silence that Sunday afternoon was broken only by the gentle slap of the oars.
“I can’t give you what you need, Marcel,” I said. “The truth is, I don’t know what you need. I know only what I need, and right now I need a respite from the turmoil I feel within myself.”
“I need your love. Isn’t that enough?”
“My love, such as it is, is not the kind of love that can share the burdens of others. I don’t know how. I don’t want to know how.” I handed him back the engagement ring, but he refused to take it.
“It is your ring to wear or not to wear. I could not give it to another woman or return it to the jewelers’. It would be like asking for a refund on my love. You still have that, even though you can’t return it.”
The wedding plans were canceled, and I did not return to the Freedmore Acadamy. I became a substitute teacher in the Los Angeles school district and prepared for my California teaching credential so as to receive a permanent position. Six years later, when my mother died, I returned home to keep house for my father and brother Charles. When they died, the house was sold and the proceeds divided with my surviving siblings and I moved to an apartment.
All these facts are known. I had no steady male friends and dated rarely. Answers to questions regarding my years in Los Angeles were answered briefly or not at all. Marcel and I did not see each other again. An acquaintance from the Freedmore Academy informed me that he eventually married a widow with two young boys and appeared to be happy.
Someone will most likely say at my funeral service, “Mary Loring was a good woman.” Yes, I was good on the surface, but I was a failure. The enlightenment I had searched for by keeping myself so alone did not come to me until now that I am about to lose myself and be completely alone where no one can find me. Why am I? It’s what I wanted to know. Why is anyone?
I’ve spend years witnessing others survive their grief and increase their joys by not being alone. My son’s support is a great comfort…thank God for friends who listen…my husband is my leaning post and on and on. My choices in life were sterile and the wrong ones. I did not realize this when I was younger and lost the chance to be more than a “good woman,” but a “loving woman.”
Love. A simple word and a complex emotion. I know now that we are here to love, to listen, to share with each other our burdens so that they become lighter. We will not be weighted down by sharing the burdens of others. The more we take on the lighter our own will become. Our capacity for love will increase. That is the great mystery. That is the enlightenment I failed to find.