Louis and Suzanne were both 23, and since they were thinking seriously now of marriage, had to meet with his mother Emma [Sinclair]. It was a little difficult.
It couldn’t be at the small apartment he’d shared with her until 1917 when he’d left for the Navy—she swore she was never coming back to that. t couldn’t be at Suzanne’s father’s house outside the city, for three or four reasons. And his mother had no place of her own—she was living and working as a chambermaid in a seedy hotel near the tenderloin district a few blocks from the Capitol when she wasn’t on the streets.
Together, he and Suzanne decided on some place “nice,” hopeful, with
more style than they could afford, but if it didn’t cost anything they could
afford it—a hotel lobby, say, a good hotel. Why not the famous Willard, with
all its politicians? If Emma dressed right, they’d go unnoticed there. He’d tried to help her with money, though he didn’t have much to help with, but she’d say yes today and no tomorrow. “My shoes are in rags,” she’d written two years ago from Philadelphia, “but I’m made a fool of. Men are dirty devils. Suffice I shall have my revenge, if it takes 10,000 years.”
Yes, it would do. They went a week before to make sure, Saturday afternoon after getting off their jobs: a corner of the lobby, quiet, almost
private, a small sofa, two chairs, a low table, under windows overlooking a few early-leafed trees on Pennsylvania Avenue. If that one was taken, the next one down.
It wasn’t for permission, or even acceptance. It was that Suzanne had
to know, then decide.
Emma came in wary, but looked all right in a bluish-purple dress and a
brown sweater-coat that was a little frazzled at the cuffs. Louis was in a dark
suit and tie, Suzanne in a long dark dress and white jacket.
“So. Why here?” Emma said, with a smile that came and went quickly.
“You didn’t have a better idea?”
“We thought—“ Louis started.
“You remember, don’t you? Your father’s name is Willard.”
“Yes, no, I didn’t think of it.”
“He was invited to the White House once, you know. I write and write. I don’t know where he is. Be careful, Miss Kay,” she said without looking at her. “General Delivery, I think.”
But Suzanne was looking at the floor.
“Well, we’re meeting in your father’s mind. Such as it is. All this pretense.”
She waved one hand at the room and turned her blue eyes hard on him.
“No, no, it’s just an accident….”
To fill the silence, they explained what they wanted to do. After the
explanation, Emma said, “Well, Louis, if you’re going to be married, you’ll have to sign a disclaimer.”
He smiled. “A what?”
“Before a Notary. I know my rights. I, Louis etcetera, do hereby give up any claim to any estate of my mother, Emma S. etcetera.”
“There isn’t any estate, Mother.”
“There might be. You never can tell, can you? O wad some gift the giftie gie us to see our sels as ithers see us.”
“All right, of course, Mother, I want to help you.”
“Does Miss Kay want to help me?”
Suzanne looked up. “Yes, yes, I do.”
“Louis, if you marry you’ll leave me flat broke and I’m a semi-invalid, horrid spells of facial neuralgia, painful affection of nerves of the face accomp—by a general upsetting of the entire system. Awful.” She took a lace handkerchief out of her purse. “You know I didn’t want you to bring Miss Kay to this, this—I’m in a terribly distracted and nervous state and do not wish any startling disclosures nor to meet any strangers.”
She got up to go.
“Mother, Mother, let us help you.”
“You two can never help me.”
Squeezing between them, she bumped her leg on the table, took a few
steps and turned. “You see? You know they keep telling me I’ll have to go to
the Government Hospital for the Insane and be incarcerated. But I’ll watch
After she was gone, they looked at each other straight on for the first
time since the meeting had started, Louis with eyes slightly watery, Suzanne
with a look that saw and stayed steady.
“Well?” he said.
“I’m marrying you,” she said, “not your mother.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“No. But it’s what I want.”
In October, about a month after their marriage, she was committed.
There was nothing they could do. He had to identify her at the police station.
It wasn’t the soliciting. It was the rage, the attacks on the police, the threats, the quiet persecution fury that finally got her sent away to St. Elizabeth’s. With few contacts, few letters—“I want you to come immediately and get me out of here”—Louis and Suzanne worked hard in Washington for five more years, then moved to Philadelphia and started a new life. Emma stayed in St. Elizabeth’s for twenty-five years, dying there at last about a year after it was briefly in the news because Ezra Pound had arrived.
When at last I learned these things, I felt cheated and thought my father—mother too—had been cruel all those years almost completely ignoring her existence and, above all, completely hiding her existence from all three children. After his death I found her letters, obsessive, sometimes disordered, but grimly sane—her small requests (Kolynos toothpaste, thread from Woolworth’s, a new scarf), his gifts, her complaints (it’s the wrong size,
why don’t you write more often?), occasionally her loving thanks.
“It’s either her or me,” Primo Levi said at last, toward the end of his life, about his mother. But he was 67 and it turned out to be him. My father had to say it at 23. That secret, and what my mother’d said that day, bound them together with love and gratitude (and who knows? maybe guilt) for life. He kept it all from us and forgot nothing and loved her utterly till he died. Now, years after his death, I’d tell him if I could, You were right.
A farm that wasn’t a farm anymore–
fallow fields of weeds, a patch of woods,
a worn and slightly sagging house (“needs handyman”)
alone at the end of a dirt road, and,
down a short hill, across the road,
a barn weathered black beside a small stream.
They were in their late forties and early fifties then
and came up on summer weekends
to work on it. It wasn’t easy–
6 or 7 hours of driving from Philadelphia
to the small valleys and broken hills
of north central Pennsylvania.
And it wasn’t pretty. When I first saw it,
I put on smiles and nods but felt instantly
an undertow of sadness that wouldn’t go away.
It was a summer place and “our own land”
that had a look of rural poverty. For a vacation
from their vacation house
they’d drive into town and swim in Lake Mokoma
or once in a while to the resort at Eagle’s Mere
to watch the canoes and small sailboats
and eat in the hotel restaurant.
I was only there a couple of times–
kept away by summer work at the shore
or in the city or, later, in the Army–
and I’d pitch in to help fix things up
though the place didn’t seem to change much
no matter what we did. At times, away,
I’d think about those run-down hills
and find it all hard to understand.
Part of it was money—wanting something
not city, not suburb—different from where they were
they could afford. But it wasn’t
until many years later, coming across old snapshots
of their early life together
that I understood: they were trying to live again
the years of their courtship and early marriage
when they spent summer weekends
at a canoe camp on the Potomac
upstream from Washington. It was a kind of club–
a gang of friends, cabins, woods,
the music of ukuleles and guitars, swimming
in the river, dancing at night under paper lanterns,
the photos full of smiles, poses, clowning–
you could hear the laughier. Before children came
and all the rest.
After the Army, I went with my wife and children
to the Midwest for graduate school
on the G. I. Bill, then work, and all the rest.
It seems that gradually
they went less often to the farm
as summers passed and their hair grayed a little,
until in some way (sold, of course, but they never said),
it dropped out of sight, another dream
that fed the heart for a while
then slipped away.