See Ben's Family

See Ben now, browsing The Family of Man, nestled on his mother’s couch under an afghan (his sister’s got the A/C on full blast). What a hopeful title: The Family of Man. Did many households like theirs own the book? If not, what possessed them—his parents—to buy the catalog of a photography exhibition and keep it on their coffee table, permanently? In Ben’s memory it’s as prominent as the Bibles were in his Christian friends’ houses. His family must have had one of those, too, an Old Testament, maybe even a New for reference, somewhere in the house, but it wasn’t on the coffee table, nor under it where a shelf held other books that were too big and, Ben the boy perhaps thought, too canonical to be consigned to an ordinary bookshelf. Of those coffee table books, only the collection of New Yorker drawings occupied as many hours of a contemplative boyhood as this one did. The two books together, he supposes, constitute his intellectual parentage. He’s the product of Edward Steichen’s photographic choices and the cynical commentary of an elite coterie of cartoonists.

The corners of the room are in darkness, his face in shadow as the lamp above his head illuminates little more than those black and white pages and the blanket’s knit pattern of blue and gray waves. He recollects most of those pages as he turns to them; many he could have described without opening the book. Before asking what he’s doing here, awake in Mom’s apartment at 3:49 in the morning, two thousand miles from home, take a moment, if you will. See Ben at the age of nine or eleven or thirteen, in the fortress-like cubic armchair or sprawled on the floor of the four-bedroom house in Rogers Park, the northeast corner of the city of Chicago, half a mile from Lake Michigan, continent of North America, turning the same pages and contemplating these same pictures. What’s going on here? Could the several images of Ben span time, in some way akin to that in which the photographs were/are linked across six continents? Where is the wool that knits those images into the patterned fabric of a man? It might be true that the family of Ben, which is to say the person of Ben, the man himself, consists of snapshots from different ages, each equally a moment in the making of him. One could even say that the middle-aged sociologist whom we “now” see reading the Prologue by Steichen’s brother-in-law Carl Sandburg, reviewing this textbook of human connections, rediscovering the old young men women children like long lost friends, one could say that this adult shaped the boy Ben’s experience with the either widely or distinctively owned treasured book as much as did the hours of boyhood exposure, maybe alone in that living room, or while one of his sisters practiced the piano, or when relatives visited and he had to sit there because it would be rude to go upstairs and watch TV. Yes, the man-to-be could have shaped the boy. The photojournalists’ images (and the cartoons, too, and the television of course) told what growing up would entail, signposts for the kid’s journey to manhood. The photographer for the high school paper. The college student who switched from pre-med into sociology. First job: a teacher of all grade levels in a boys’ detention center. Graduate school at Berkeley. Junior faculty appointment at San Jose State. Marriage. Tenure. One child, Eliza, now twenty. Family encounters with sisters and their boyfriends, husbands, children. Illness and deaths of in-laws, then father. Now, mother. All prefigured in this book that’s lived in his parents’ living room for nearly fifty years.

Ben’s going to sleep on the couch because his sister Sharon is in the guest room. She offered to help him change the rumpled sheets on Mom’s bed, but it didn’t seem right to sleep there while their mother’s cooling her heels in the hospital morgue. So he tucked a sheet around the cushions, and he’ll try to get a few hours’ sleep here before Rebecca (winging her way on the red-eye from Portland) shows up to complete what his wife calls the four ring circus.

His other sisters’ tears—Ann’s and Sharon’s—seemed excessive. Mom would have been 87 next month; it’s not as if she were in the prime of life, or as if they were children. He wanted to tell them, be realistic. Ben’s wife, Carolyn, lost her mother thirty years ago, to breast cancer at 53. And they’ve all been through their father’s slower, painful death. Sure, Mom’s death was a surprise; but she’d had a full life. Ann and Sharon acted like it was a tragedy.

Ann, who lives nearby, in Wilmette, was the one who ten days ago took Mom to the doctor complaining of shortness of breath. Sharon came in from Minneapolis a few days later. After a week in the hospital, efforts to stabilize her heart having failed, Mom contracted pneumonia. When Ben flew in yesterday, his appearance at the bedside elicited her last words: “Oh for God’s sake.” Then she closed her eyes. For hours Ann and Sharon kept saying, “Open your eyes, Mom,” and “Can you hear us, Mom?” as her breathing slowed and the cardio monitor above their heads took its determined course from erratic, to weak and slow, to the unambiguous flat line. At the end, it was Ben who removed the plastic mask from over her nose and mouth, releasing her face from the strain of living.

His eyes won’t close.

The Family of Man tells a story, scenes flowing from sex to pregnancy to birth to childhood, work, play, religion, aging, death. A full page shows a boy in an ill-fitting suit standing on a fallen tombstone in an old cemetery. On the next page, among funerals in Mexico, New Guinea, Korea, a younger boy looks up at the weeping faces of three Austrian women in black.

Ann and Sharon seemed okay with each other tonight. He imagines the craziness once Rebecca hits town and the three of them start pushing one another’s buttons. There’s danger that these next few days could become more of an unearthing than a burial. After Dad’s funeral, he can’t remember what it was Sharon said that made Rebecca start screaming at her, “You’ve been killing him for twenty years! You’re the cancer in this family!”—until Ben pushed her out of the room and Ann went in the bathroom with Sharon and didn’t reappear until Rebecca was gone. Rebecca and Sharon didn’t communicate for a few years, but eventually, for Mom’s sake, they resumed their former relationship—adolescent sniping.

Rebecca’s 56, three years older than Ben. Ann, next in line, refers to Rebecca as “the law” (she’s a labor lawyer). Sharon calls her “the control freak.” Rebecca does tend to be the self-appointed circuit judge of the family, riding into town. Ben doesn’t think she’s all that bad. The time Rebecca visited his family in San Jose, she busted them for improper recycling. He said, “I think we’d know better than you what our town’s requirements are.” Later she made a point of lecturing Carolyn, his wife, why they should have a separate category for plastic bags and if the city doesn’t require it, you should call someone and get it looked into. Alone with Ben later, Carolyn laughed it off; one needn’t take it personally. But it’s not so easy for Ann. When their mother had the heart attack a year and a half ago, Rebecca didn’t fly in until after Mom got home from the hospital. Then she was full of ideas how they should have handled it differently, what Mom should tell (not ask) her doctor, how much help she needed in the apartment. Last night, by the bedside, Ann was already planning what she’d say when Becca starts issuing orders. Ann takes it personally, because she’s the one who does the most for Mom. Did the most.

Ann quit teaching high school in her first pregnancy and never resumed, even after her kids grew up and her husband left. She’s the insecure one, whose life hasn’t reinvented itself after divorce. She lacks both their older sister’s imperious rigidity and Sharon’s provocative flakiness. Not long ago, Ben’s wife remarked, “Ann’s investing too much of herself in your mother. Mom’s not going to be around forever.”

Both of them, Rebecca and Ann, have been divorced for years. Mom’s death has spared Ben from having to break the news that he and Carolyn separated. Then there’s the youngest, Sharon, with a string of men in her wake, two of whom she briefly married. She calls herself “Your crazy sister,” waggling her hands above her head (or, to her niece and nephews, “your Auntie Mame,” a reference lost on them). She thinks she’s crazy in a fun way. She left for New Mexico twenty years ago on the back seat of a Harley. Somewhere between Santa Fe and St. Paul she lost the biker and found the Lord. Ben had no problem with her professed Christianity, nor with the Buddhism she claims now; he understands the need for community, wherever it’s found. But she wears it as an element of her quirkiness. She’s not crazy funny, she’s crazy annoying. When she called from Puerto Rico last year “on a retreat” to ask him for an emergency payment on her credit card—only a loan, she’d pay him back—he refused. It sounded fishy; she may or may not have been in Puerto Rico, but if she was, he doubted that the word retreat properly applied. Later Ann told him she responded to the plea and loaned Sharon five hundred dollars. She’ll never see it.

The other problem with Sharon is, she’s paranoid; Ben is more or less professionally qualified to use that term, though the rest of the family does too. She’s convinced they conspire to avoid her. This is true. She’s told them, “I’m not paranoid, you do leave me out of things.” “That doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.” “If I am, that doesn’t make it okay to be mean to me.” Then she laughs, as if she weren’t serious. Sharon can get the rest of them fighting with each other when they don’t even know why. A harsh reaction to her shenanigans by either of her sisters, or Mom, would lead one of the others to counterattack on Sharon’s behalf. She’s impossible, but they tend to make allowances, thinking she really is crazy. Which, as she says, “is more than I can say for the rest of you.”

Ben has invested many an hour with therapists discussing the psychodynamic history of his family. How did they turn out so different? The Family of Man book, hymnal to universality and diversity, offers no clues tonight. The bossy one, the insecure one, the sensible one (how he sees himself) and the crazy one, all from the same parents. Parents who were solid citizens, married over fifty years. All but Sharon got college and higher degrees: a lawyer, a teacher, a college professor. Why, then, the lingering feeling that Mom, Dad, or the family itself held them all back in some inchoate way?

Thoughts about tomorrow intrude into his nostalgic book-browsing: Should I tell them we’re separated before Carolyn gets here? Now I’m like her in having both my parents gone. Should I change my return flight from Friday to Sunday?

How she looked: toothless, irritated, wired to a computer, tubes dripping from the clear plastic bag above her bed and out between her legs into the dark amber bag below. Her hair, always clean and brushed in elegant white waves, was matted in gray curls against her scalp. He has barely admitted this once in a lifetime snapshot into his mental album.

This is the place for a portrait of his mother: Not to speak ill of the dead, let’s say she was difficult to communicate with. She didn’t listen. Conversation with her consisted of you starting to say something and being interrupted by whatever association your first words triggered. If Ben reported that he just sent his new book off to the publisher, she’d start talking about a lady in her building who used to work at Barnes and Noble. This conversational trumping had nothing to do with being old—she’d done it all their lives. Consequently, she was oblivious to what concerned them, but that was no bar to her giving advice. On his last visit, he witnessed this exchange about Ann’s ex-husband, Howard:

Mom: “How are the boys?”

Ann: “I just had a letter from Danny, he ...”

Mom: “Howard wrote me a lovely letter.”

“You told me. A birthday card, three weeks ago.”

“Well, all I have to say …”

“You don’t have to say anything. I’ve asked you—repeatedly—to stop bringing him up.”

“Maybe he realizes he made a mistake. Do you ever think he might want another chance?”

“Goddamn it! Don’t you ever think about how you make me feel when you …”

“It should make you feel I care about you.”

“You don’t! It shows me that I don’t matter to you at all, if you …”

“Why do you bother to come visit me when you’re in a bad mood? If you’re going to yell at me in front of your brother, you’d better leave.” Turning to Ben: “She’s sick of me still hanging around, with the rest of you too far away to help.”

He believes that he, unlike his sisters, immunized himself with a healthy sense of humor about Jewish mothers. Long ago he gave up hoping for any validation from her. He learned not to agitate for what she’d never deliver; nothing expected, nothing lost.

In hopes that the book will settle him for sleep, he’s thumbing through it as he did decades ago, transfixed by its paean to the life cycle. The boy pored over the photographs until he could tell each person’s story. He made up what they’d been saying just before the camera caught them, and how the people in each frame felt about each other. Where the couples in the courtships and weddings first met. What circumstances weighed on the lives of the poor or lonely; how the well off made their money. Here is the section on childhood. A two page spread of boys playing is captioned by a Kwakiutl chant:

When I am a man, then I shall be a hunter,
When I am a man, then I shall be a harpooner,
When I am a man, then I shall be a canoe-builder,
When I am a man, then I shall be a carpenter,
When I am a man, then I shall be an artisan,
O Father! ya ha ha ha.

So what did he grow up to be? A college professor. When he was a boy, did he think he’d be a salesman like his father? He told Dad once, at ten or twelve, that he was going to be a Congressman like Jimmy Stewart. He had barely heard of sociology before he found himself majoring in it. O Father! Ya ha ha ha.

Ben asleep: He’s back in Mom’s hospital room with his sisters. It was like a logistics command center, with the calls to Rebecca, to various children and friends and cousins, to his wife. Talking about Mom as if she weren’t there.

When he hears Rebecca let herself in, he starts to open his eyes, but they rebel against the first light of dawn. His sister goes to survey the bedrooms, then returns for her bags. She says, “Thanks for leaving the bed for me—would it have killed you to change the sheets?” He hears her luggage roll over the carpeting into Mom’s room.

Later, the sun still low in the sky, beams of gold fill the high rise apartment and shimmer off the case of a clock that presided over the mantelpiece of their old house; a brass wall fixture; the glass on a framed print Ben doesn’t recognize. Near his head, studio pictures of himself and his sisters stand on the end table. He reaches for the one they’re all in, nested one two three four like bobsled racers, Rebecca’s hands gripping little Sharon’s shoulders. Was it like that? Were they a team, barreling through life? At ten, did they rely on Becca? Pamper Sharon? Or was he the pampered one, the boy? Did he wear that merry gleam every day? And was Ann’s brow once wrinkle free, or did the airbrush lie?

Sitting up, he stands the portrait back in its place, retrieves the book from the floor and slides it into his suitcase, under his clothing.

The little bottles on Mom’s bathtub shelf—hotel souvenir shampoos, conditioners, body lotions—appear unused. It seems she made do with an economy sized bottle of shampoo and a jar of bubble bath, on the floor beside the tub. Think of Mom luxuriating in a bubble bath, like Eliza, his child, when she was little. Ann had sent her handyman to install grab bars on the walls. Mom’s only other accommodation to age was an emergency call button she wore around her neck, when she remembered to. She didn’t use a walker, or a cane. As he showers, he pictures her as if through frosted glass—stepping into the tub with one hand on the grab bar, lowering herself into the bubbles. Afterward she’d have to stand and rinse under the showerhead, climb out of the tub and dry herself.

Shaved, he comes out dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt: San Jose Girls Softball 1999. Sharon’s door is still closed but Rebecca is up, in Mom’s room, looking older than he remembers her. She’s going through the drawers of Dad’s old desk. She stands up perfunctorily to accept his hug. He asks what she’s doing.

“Starting to get organized. I’m the executor, you know.”

“Mom’s not even …”

“I’ve got to go home in two days, Ben. I have a job. Not that you don’t, but I know you can take off whenever you want. I’m just saying. We’ve got the funeral tomorrow.” Her white jeans don’t flatter her. She’s put on weight around her belly and butt—as has he. Her hair is pulled back in a scrunchy like his daughter used to wear in middle school. “I’ll probably have to come back at least once but I want to take Mom’s will with me, and a list of her assets so I can get started with …”

“I think it can wait, Rebecca.”

“I don’t.” Her tone recognizes his objection and overrules it. “If you want to be helpful, figure out which of these is her current policy.” She hands him the folder marked health insurance in Dad’s rounded block letters. “Throw out everything that doesn’t pertain to her current HMO and major medical. There’s old dental bills and all kinds of irrelevant stuff in there.” She pulls out another thick folder: taurus. They sold Mom’s car two years ago. “Just make sure nothing important got stuck in here. Then toss it.” She’s already filling a second waste basket, setting some kind of record for efficient executorship.

Ben and Rebecca at the kitchen table. He’s made coffee; she has tea. His sister says she’s too jet lagged to eat anything. He pours himself a bowl of Cheerios. She says, “I would have been here two days ago, you know.”

“If … what?”

“If they’d have told me the truth.”

“Come on, Rebecca. Don’t start blaming …”

“It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Sharon gets here, you get here, but Ann doesn’t manage to tell me how serious it is until it’s too late for me to get a flight out.”

“Believe me. There was no conspiracy. I didn’t know, Ann didn’t know Mom was going to die. It’s just I was able to get away, so I wanted to come and help.”

“And see Mom before she died.”

“I told you … no one expected her to die. This wasn’t …”

“All I know is she had everybody there except me. Did she ask where I was, even?”

“You sound like Sharon. Mom didn’t ask where anybody was. You know what she said when I walked in? ‘Oh for God’s sake.’”

“That’s great,” she laughs, the outburst of a jumble of emotions. “I can just hear her saying that.”

He thinks, the whole day was bizarre. He was awake for twenty-four hours: rose before dawn in his not yet furnished studio apartment, flew across the country, watched his mother die, and curled up on her couch amid the furnishings and books of his childhood.

Rebecca is looking past him, out of the kitchen, at the dining table eight feet away. “That’s odd.”

He turns to follow her gaze. “What’s odd?” Something has changed, though he wouldn’t be able to say what.

“Where’s the fruit bowl?” Mom kept a large ceramic bowl full of ceramic fruit; ugly semblances of fruit, in dull shades that clashed with the deep blue glazed bowl she bought at the art fair. (She used to say “I bought it at the Old Town Art Fair” as one might say “I bought it in Paris.”) Almost fifty years ago, Ann and Rebecca laughed at Ben’s thinking it must be terribly old because of the crackles in the glaze. He doesn’t remember Mom ever using the big bowl for anything but decoration. He does remember her getting mad one time when she found it on the floor in front of the TV, with potato chip crumbs.

The bowl’s gone, but the fruit isn’t. A few pieces, a banana, peach, and a bunch of grapes form a centerpiece on a straw placemat. Beyond the table, the rest of the ersatz fruit is arranged along the sideboard.

Rebecca says, “Ann took it, I bet.”

“Naw, it must be around somewhere.”

“I wonder what else she’s helped herself to.” She opens the doors of the sideboard. It’s empty except for a folded tablecloth and set of napkins. “The Passover dishes,” she says. Not being kosher, Mom used them for all holiday meals, but they always called them the Passover dishes. Gone. Now Rebecca’s fuming. In the corner cabinet, only a pair of silver candle holders stand, one framed in each glass door. Even Ben knows those two top shelves held matched sets of rose-colored champagne glasses, wine glasses, and water goblets. Eight or ten of each, delicate, with twisted stems. More special than the Passover dishes, they must have been a hundred years old, because they belonged to grandparents—Dad’s mother gave them to Mom as a wedding present. He doesn’t recall the glasses being used, ever.

“Fuck,” his sister hisses.

That shot of Ben and Rebecca in the recessed dining area is snapped from the perspective of the living room, where Sharon comments, “Nice language for a lawyer.” She appears in a tank top and a pair of men’s boxer shorts; whose, he wonders. She comes around the dining table to hug Rebecca—holding her long enough for Ben to see, over Sharon’s shoulder, the storm brewing in their older sister’s face.

From Sharon’s face, the puffiness and smeared eye shadow are gone. That was yesterday; this is today. She says, “You missed all the drama yesterday. Just came for the fun part, eh?”

“I came when I got through to the doctor and he told me what was going on. Did you take my Passover dishes?”

“Whose Passover dishes?”

“The Passover dishes Mom was giving me. Did you take them?”

“Noo-o.”

Although the tone sounds so much like an offended teen that Ben thinks Sharon’s probably guilty, Rebecca says, “I didn’t think so. It’s obvious who did. What about the stemware?” She nods toward the corner cabinet.

“No-o,” says Sharon, catching Ben’s eye.

“And the bowl?”

“What bowl? The fruit bowl? Mom gave it to me. Hey, I noticed the bedroom, Becca. What’s going on with Mom’s desk? Are you ransacking the place?”

Rebecca retreats to the bedroom, ignoring the question. Sharon shakes her head. “We’re looking at some serious OCD there. You think she’ll make it through the next few days?”

“I don’t know,” Ben says, as if agreeing that it’s touch and go.

“I need thirty minutes of quiet time out here, okay?” She has to perform her twice-a-day yoga/meditation ritual.

The picture in the living room, when Ben goes in to get his cell phone, is of tranquility itself: his sister, cross-legged in front of the window. It faces the lake, across which the morning sun shimmers, backlighting Sharon’s loose, golden hair.

Last night, as Ann drove them here from the hospital, Sharon reminded them that she’s Buddhist. “Couple years ago, I’d have said Mom was going to burn for all eternity. She wasn’t saved. Now I know we only change forms. I don’t believe in hell.”

When neither Ann nor Ben responded, she added, “Aren’t you glad I saved your parents from the fires of everlasting hell by converting to Buddhism?”

Back at the kitchen table, he calls his colleague about a research meeting he forgot to cancel. “How’s your mother?” the man asks.

“She died last night.” He’s impressed with how dispassionately he can say that, and accept condolences.

Next he dials Carolyn to find out when she and their daughter are coming. Their flights will arrive at around the same time, Carolyn’s from San Francisco and Eliza’s from Newark. “Don’t worry about it,” she says, “we’ll get a cab. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine,” he says, with a defensive edge for no reason. “How are you doing?”

“I’m sad about Mom. I’m thinking you are, too.”

“Of course.” It was easier with the colleague.

She asks, “How are your sisters?”

“Rebecca got in this morning and went right to work in Mom’s files. Sharon’s meditating in an unspecified man’s boxers. I’m expecting sparks when Ann gets here.” In a low voice, he tells how Rebecca found the bowl and dishes missing, suspecting Ann, but then Sharon owned up to taking the bowl.

“Look,” she says, “make it easy on yourself. Keep your mouth shut.”

“I am.” He wonders whether she means he shouldn’t let them draw him in to their sparring, or shouldn’t say anything about himself and Carolyn. Or both.

She adds, “I’m glad I’m not there. I could skip it, couldn’t I?” He knows she wouldn’t; his family is part of her, too, notwithstanding what’s dying between them. “Did you tell them about us?”

“No.”

“It doesn’t actually have to come up at all, if you want to hold off …”

“Yeah, let’s.”

“Rebecca’s taken her share of stuff, too, you know. She took all those old framed pictures of your Mom’s and Dad’s families.”

He didn’t step all the way into the bedroom before, or he’d have noticed them missing. They’re half a dozen formal family photographs, some from nineteenth-century Russia, which he hung for Mom when they moved her here from the house after Dad died. Those, too, were formative images in his childhood: the men’s trim beards and stiff collars distinguishing them (perhaps falsely) as men of business rather than peasants; the toddler standing in the ankle-length white dress, identified as his grandfather. “Wait a minute,” he says. “How do you know they’re not there?”

“I saw them when I was in Portland in April.”

“You didn’t mention it.”

“I forgot. Or maybe I thought you’d be better off not getting involved.”

The picture of Eliza in his wallet is of the two of them, father and daughter, in her prom dress, in a playful tango dip. Eliza, his best hope, chose to stay in Princeton as a professor’s summer nanny instead of coming home. Her parents’ marriage breakup news must have prompted that decision, though she didn’t say so. Ben and Eliza have talked by phone more these past few months than during the five years before that. She told him she felt bad for his having stayed with her mother so long, unhappily, for her sake. He should have assured her it wasn’t like that, she shouldn’t feel responsible. Yet her saying it meant so much to him that he let it stand.

Who might his other daughters have been, the ones he didn’t have? By the time Carolyn accepted the fact that she couldn’t get pregnant again, Eliza had started school and Carolyn was more interested in the challenges of a new career than those of adoption. Luckily, as they used to tell Eliza, they hit the jackpot the first time.

Ann arriving, not the oldest but the largest, filling the narrow hallway to the living room. Sharon has disappeared into her room, maybe to put on some pants, maybe to go back to sleep. Ann is dressed for a hot day in a cotton skirt, lime-colored Polo shirt, and sandals. Despite the cool attire she looks haggard; she’s had a long ten days, or is she always haggard? Except for her reddish blonde hair like Sharon’s, she is the sister who most resembles Ben, round-eyed and round-faced. Before she can plop herself in an armchair, Rebecca charges in like a prizefighter from her corner.

“You took the Passover dishes, didn’t you? And the antique glasses.”

“Hello, Becca.” But Rebecca shows no sign of submitting to a normal greeting. Ben feels he’s seen this picture before. Finally Ann responds, “I didn’t take anything. I was given them.”

“I told you Mom said I could have those. I’m the only one who has a seder.”

“You’re not the only one who has Thanksgiving, are you. She didn’t say anything about promising them to you, when she gave them to me. But if you want them that much, ...”

“I do. And the matching glasses.”

“They’re not matching glasses.” He can tell Ann’s determined not to raise her voice. “It’s a whole different pattern. I’d really like to have those. And they may be antiques, but they’re not worth a fraction of that china. Plus you’ve already taken the old family pictures …”

“It sure as hell is worth as much, or more than the china. If it’s not, why do you want it?”

“Because I like it. Shall we get everything appraised, including the jewelry? I knew you’d nickel and dime me, Becca, so I already took the glasses in to find out what they’re worth—about two hundred bucks, total.”

“No way.” They’re in high school, Ben in eighth or ninth grade, Mom pleading Don’t you three ever have anything nice to say to each other? Rebecca says, “I’ve seen wine glasses like those going for thirty or forty bucks apiece. There’s how many—the wine, champagne and water glasses—five or six dozen pieces?”

“You better come over and count them, if you think so. They didn’t all survive the last fifty years.”

“All right, why don’t we just split them between us?”

“Between you?” Ben hears himself speak up, though he doesn’t even care about the glasses.

“Four ways, then, if you want.”

“You going to do that with the Passover dishes?” Ann challenges her.

“No. Of course not. They’re a set.”

“And the glasses aren’t?”

“We’ll talk about it later. We have a lot to do now.”

Good, he thinks. Let’s just do it.

Ann and Rebecca in Mom’s room, choosing what she’ll wear to her funeral. In sisterly accord, they’re pulling a plastic garbage bag down over a hanger holding a blue dress. In Rebecca’s hand are a bra, underpants, and panty hose.

“Does she need underwear where she’s going?” Ben asks. “Not to mention panty hose?”

“Of course,” Ann says. She sounds giddy. “You think Mom would go out without underwear?”

“Is it like the Egyptian kings needed to take their thrones and beds and stuff?” They ignore this. He remembers Carolyn’s advice: keep his mouth shut. When Ann takes the dress bag, Rebecca hands her the underwear and then a pair of navy blue pumps and a red and white silk scarf. Mom was famous for her scarves. He wonders how many her daughters filched over the years.

“Make sure you get at least ten copies of the death certificate,” Rebecca says. “They’re supposed to give you as many as you need. They can copy them right there.”

Ann says, “I think I can handle it,” throwing him a look that says their eldest sister is impossible. “Quit bossing us around.”

“I’m not bossing anybody. Ben, go with her.”

Outside, it’s scorching—and humid, with barely a breeze. She drives with all the windows open until the A/C gets cool. Ben says, “I hope they have her in the icebox.”

She whacks him playfully on the leg, laughing, “That’s awful.”

“I’m surprised Becca didn’t put that on the list of things for you to remind them.”

“She probably told them, herself, when she called them this morning.”

He shakes his head, bonding with this sister over what a piece of work the other is.

“Like I told you yesterday, I’m not taking any of her crap this time.”

“Okay,” he says. “So you’ll ignore her when she says you deliberately didn’t tell her Mom was going to die.”

“No, I’ll tell her ‘Fuck you.’”

“Oo-kay …”

Sharon, too. She’s driven me up the wall this past week. Like she’s the patient. She insisted on staying here instead of my house, so I’d have to come out of my way to pick her up and bring her back every day. So she can sit there and hold Mom’s hand. What a good daughter. Meanwhile I’m chasing after the doctors, …”

“I should have come back sooner. I’m sorry.”

“Do you have any idea how much of Mom’s jewelry she’s taken in the last couple of years?”

Sharon? No idea.”

“Most of it. You know the antique stuff Mom inherited from Grandma? Every time Sharon left after a visit, Mom went right to her jewelry case to see what left with her.”

“Is it valuable?”

“I don’t think so, not in dollars. She just wanted to make sure she’d get more of it than me or Becca. Or Carolyn, or Eliza. It’s not enough that Dad supported her for thirty years.”

“He did?”

“Where have you been? How do you suppose she lives? Alimony, like me?”

Neither of Sharon’s husbands was ever in a position to support anyone. “I thought maybe from you lending her money.”

“Very funny. Anyway, how are you?”

“You mean, other than being an orphan?” Has she sensed something about his marriage?

“Yeah, other than this—how’s life? Do you still like lecturing?”

“Yeah.” He hardly ever lectures; he teaches seminars, directs research, writes and edits; but no one in his family has the remotest idea of his work. “How are you?”

“Mixed. I got too caught up with her needs, the last few years. It should be a relief, in some ways, but it doesn’t feel like that right now.” She shakes her head.

“You were doing a lot for her, weren’t you?”

“Is there such a thing as a love-hate-guilt relationship? Where you hate your mother only because you’re knocking yourself out for her, so then you feel so guilty about that, you knock yourself out even more? I told my therapist she was a loyal, good, person and I loved her but if she didn’t kick the bucket this week I just might strangle her myself.” After a moment she adds, “He gave me permission.”

It’s his turn to laugh. “Your therapist gave you permission to strangle her.”

“Yeah, he said when you’ve had a reciprocal kind of adult relationship, you don’t resent having to be their parents at the end of their lives. But if you never …” She trailed off.

Ben says, “I know what you mean.” But what he thinks is, we know Mom was a pain, there’s no point dwelling on that. As he learned when Dad died: Try to hold onto the affectionate memories, let the frustrations go. He was a good man who did his best. Mom was a good woman who did her best. She loved us. We loved her. That should be it, period.

In Pizer’s parking lot, he waits—his Grateful Dead t-shirt deemed by Ann inappropriate for a funeral parlor—while she delivers the final outfit. She’s taking longer than expected. Rebecca wrote out the vital newspaper facts for them to give the funeral director, as if he and Ann wouldn’t have known them: date and place of birth, maiden name, deceased spouse, children, number of grandchildren. But Rebecca omitted Mom’s one distinction, which he added: she studied at Hunter in New York City, the only one of her brothers and sisters to go to college. He’s not sure she graduated, so he wrote “attended”.

Apparently Ann has more to do inside than just dropping off the stuff. Insulated by the Toyota’s purring engine and air conditioning, he watches two men arrive for a funeral. Tomorrow, that will be him, in the suit Carolyn reminded him to bring. He needs to polish his shoes this afternoon. The men are carrying their jackets, too hot to wear outside. The bereaved must be inside already. These tricklers in are the bereaved’s friends or co-workers, attending as a courtesy. Last to come is a couple in a Lexus. Striding quickly through the parking lot, as they pass Ben the woman—the wife—says something that makes the man turn on her angrily. His lips form the words “Stop it! I’m not” … telling you again, or something.

Ann back at the wheel, they’re five minutes from the apartment when she asks, “Everything okay with you and Carolyn?”

“What makes you ask that, out of the clear blue sky?”

“When we talked on the phone yesterday, she didn’t sound … I don’t know.”

So he tells her—“just between us”—about the separation.

“That’s terrible.” She’s at a loss for words, obviously. “Is it a bad one?”

“Not really. We’re very civilized.”

“Were you seeing someone else?”

“What?” The question astonishes him, until he realizes it’s just what his sisters would think. Not that he’s the type, but that’s how they explain their own husbands leaving. He recently became involved with a graduate student who has a four-year-old child, but Carolyn doesn’t know about her and it’s not why he moved out. He doesn’t share this detail, saying only, “We came to the decision mutually, as a result of counseling. Our therapist gave us permission.”

From the apartment door, the view he sees is Sharon in a black kimono, with her foot in the bathroom sink. He and Ann stopped at Subway for sandwiches, after phoning home to ascertain each sister’s requirements. (Vegetarian for Sharon, turkey for Rebecca.) His first thought: Sharon is limber for a 49-year-old. His second thought: she’s posing. Ann takes the Subway bag to the kitchen because Sharon has a request for Ben: “Will you run out to White Hen and get me a razor? I think Mom’s been using this one for twenty years. Ouch.” She has nicked herself in a couple of places. Notwithstanding the request for a new razor, she presses a Kleenex on the blood and goes on nicking. He won’t respond. See, he’s keeping his mouth shut.

Actually, Sharon’s got something more urgent to discuss with him. She pulls him into the bathroom and closes the door. Her breasts sag under the kimono—his wife’s don’t, though she’s older. Is it Sharon’s genetic bad luck, or is she paying a price for all those years not wearing a bra? “Listen,” she says. “This is confidential, okay?”

He should say no before letting her go on, but he’s rattled by this tête à tête in the bathroom. For all she ostensibly distanced herself from the family, Sharon’s never been one for boundaries. He has no idea what secret she’s about to lay on him.

Outside the door, his older sisters’ voices are raised—he’s half listening for the promised fuck you. Sharon confides, “Mom had a few necklaces and bracelets, and a couple of pins, that are really old but still fashionable? She gave them to me for safekeeping because she didn’t trust Maria or Ann.” Maria’s the lady who comes—came—for half a day on Tuesdays and Fridays. Ben is sure Mom would have trusted her or Ann before Sharon any day of the week. Mom was no fool. Catching himself and his sister in profile in one of the mirrored medicine cabinet doors, he can’t believe she doesn’t see the skepticism on his face, but she hasn’t paused. “I know she’d want Carolyn and Eliza to have some things. So I’m going to take them aside when I get a chance tomorrow or whenever, and find out what pieces they want, okay? I just don’t think it would be smart to leave it up to certain other members of the family, right? Enough said?”

“I’m not going there, Sharon. I didn’t hear that, and I’m not getting involved between you and Ann and Becca, in any way.”

“You always take their side,” she says, turning back to work on her legs.

Rebecca looks somber. “Come here, I need to ask you something.” Is this about Sharon, the missing jewelry? Or what she and Ann were shouting about? She leads him into the bedroom and closes the door. “You’re getting divorced?”

“Jesus! She told you?” He makes a face toward the absent Ann. “Carolyn and I wanted to wait until … with everything else …”

“Just tell me this. Did you cheat on her?”

“Rebecca ...”

“Did you?”

“How would that be your business?”

Now, on her face he does see something like genuine concern. As though it’s crossed her mind that she shouldn’t sit in judgment, she manages to express the appropriate feeling. “Sorry to hear about it,” she says.

“Thank you, Rebecca. Let’s not tell anybody else, okay?”

As he says this, Ann is opening the door. Sharon’s in the hall behind her. Ann says, “Come and have lunch.”

Sharon says, “What aren’t you telling anybody else?”

“He’s getting divorced,” Rebecca says.

“Omigod! You’re kidding! What happened?”

He looks from one sister to another, shaking his head. “Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you, Ann. And thank you Sharon for not asking me if I was cheating on Carolyn.”

“You’re welcome,” Sharon says. “Were you?”

He groans. “Wouldn’t that be a simple explanation?”

In the kitchen, unwrapping the sandwiches. Rebecca cross-examining Ann about her trip to Pizer’s. “Did you tell them we might be as many as fifty? Did you show them how she’d wear the scarf?”

“I told them tie it like a babushka.”

“What?” Rebecca jumps out of her skin.

Ann giggles delightedly. “What do you think, I’m an idiot?”

“I won’t answer that.”

“They asked me where to announce we’re sitting shiva. I told them only the one night, tomorrow night, at my house.”

“No,” Rebecca says. “Too hard to give everyone directions. I get lost every time, the way those streets curve around.” That’s not it, of course. She just doesn’t want Ann to look like the lead daughter. As if having the cousins and Mom’s few surviving friends come by your house to pay condolences is a status thing. “We’ll do it here. The turkey’s mine.” Ben’s stomach is too tight to eat anything; he feels like it’s tied in a knot. He thinks Ann deserves to have them sit shiva at her house if that’s what she wants. But she doesn’t press it.

In Mom’s room, the wall that held their ancestors’ portraits is, as Carolyn reported, bare. He can visualize where each picture hung: there, the great-great-grandparents in Russia; here, Mom’s mother’s large family; to the left, Dad’s young grandparents with their three daughters in matching ruffled dresses. The newest photograph, taken eighty or ninety years ago, was of a big family reunion at the side of a lake somewhere in New Jersey. Their father appeared in the front row, in knee pants.

Ben peers at the ghosts of those ghosts and sees what the photographs never showed. It was missing from the Family of Man pictures, too: the domestic struggles that are the real stuff of human development. A posed family group is a lie—a good lie, full of hope. Steichen chose lies for his postwar exhibition of global hope, showing brothers and sisters and parents and spouses making common cause against nature, weather, economics, racial and ethnic subjugation, foreign wars. As though they didn’t aggravate the hell out of each other on a daily basis. Literature tells us of family feuds, but in photographs couples and families appear as solid bulwarks against the world. As the cameras flatten the noses and distort the perspectives, they crop conflict out of the frame.

“Where’s The Family of Man?” Sharon calls from the living room. “Did one of you take it?” His sisters ignore her, so Ben does, too.

Ann’s sitting on the edge of Mom’s bed, picking through the wastebasket to sample the papers Rebecca discarded. “What are you doing? Throwing away every record of Mom’s existence?”

“Bickering as usual,” Sharon observes, joining the crowd in the bedroom. To herself or an invisible companion, she mutters, “What else is new?” Then, to Rebecca, “Did you take my Family of Man? To go with our grandparents’ portraits and our Passover dishes?”

“ ‘Your’ Family of Man,” Rebecca says. “Excuse me, but we had it before you were born.”

“So what? I loved that book. It’s why I took up photography in high school. As a little kid I used to read that book for hours. I made up stories for every picture.”

“It’s a book, for God’s sake,” Ben says. “I’ll buy you a copy.”

“It must be out of print,” Ann says.

Sharon says, “That’s not the point. The one I want is the dog-eared, soft-covered copy that used to be on the underneath shelf of the coffee table when we were little. Last time I was here it was in the living room, middle of the second shelf, next to the ...”

“I have it,” he confesses, like an idiot. “You got the fruit bowl, dishes, jewelry, whatever. I got the Family of Man.

Suddenly all three of them want the book. “It has special meaning for me,” Rebecca claims. “I was with Dad when he bought it.”

“Bullshit,” Ann remarks.

Sharon insists, “Mom always said I could have it.”

“No, actually,” Ann says, “Mom promised it to Danny”—her son—“who’s feeling bad enough because he can’t make the funeral.”

“Actually,” he says, “It’s the only thing you guys haven’t already cleaned her out of that I would really like to have.”

“Shut up, Ben,” Rebecca says. “You got Dad’s Army medals and his watch.”

“Only because you all said I ...”

Sharon says, “Ann, you take the Atlas. You like to travel. Becca can have Dad’s joke books. Ben take any other books you want, but I want that one.”

“Bloody hell.” He should have kept his mouth shut. He goes out to the living room to get the book out of his suitcase. This cramp in his abdomen is grief. The more he fights it, the more it’s there, screaming to be heard. There’s a lump in his throat, too. Not that he’s about to cry if he can’t have the book, but it’s just too much. When he comes back, though, they’re already arguing about something else. Rebecca is saying, “You can’t not tell him. At least make sure the boys tell him.”

Sharon reaches toward the book in his hand. Rebecca appeals to Ben, “Ann isn’t planning to tell Howard. I’m sure he’d want to come tomorrow.”

“He might, that’s why I’m not telling him,” Ann says. “He’s not a member of this family, hasn’t been for six years.”

“Eddie’s flying in all the way from Los Angeles,” Rebecca retorts. “Carolyn’s on her way.”

“Well, that’s your business,” Ann says. “In my case, if the boys happen to tell Howard, that’s between them. It’s not my responsibility to call him. And it certainly isn’t yours.”

This is it—one squabble too many. So suddenly that he surprises himself as much as them, Ben erupts. He hasn’t relinquished The Family of Man to Sharon’s outstretched hand. “Look at this!” his voice breaks as he brandishes it in his sisters’ faces, open at the middle of the book. “Satisfied?” He tears it apart through what happens to be a two-page procession of African women with baskets on their heads. He throws the second half on the floor and rips the first half into two quarters, throws them down and picks up the other half and rips that apart. The book lies in four pieces at their feet. “Take your share,” he says.

His sisters look at him, speechless. Ben returns their stares, torn between laughing and crying. Both his parents are dead. Gone. In their place, out of the past, a hundred episodes come swirling around him and the girls like a covey of dead ancestors. Do his sisters feel their presence, too? Fiercely trying to exact from their mother’s treasury what they never got from her mouth, don’t they see how the room is filled with holographic snapshots of themselves at eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, twenty, thirty, forty—the family they were, and are, and are doomed to be, into eternity?

2 comments:

Bonnie and Mike Hartley said...

I remember the Family of Man book well. It sat on my family's coffee table too. You've captured the essence of a photograph's impact. I also remember sleeping in my grandmother's apartment the night she died and noticing all the little things that were visual memory triggers of decades of encounters with her.
Thanks!

Gardner Powell said...

Though I didn't grow up with Origins of Man, the story seemed so real to me. My mother and Aunt have been wrangling over their uncle's estate, and I felt like I got inside their heads...