Ghosts and Chimeras

New England Review - - Investigations - El­iz­a­beth Kadet­sky

Per­haps be­cause so many things dis­ap­peared in our fam­ily— records, mem­o­ries, the rings from my mother’s two mar­riages, the wed­ding sil­ver—my mother un­der­took many quests for the past. Not her past, or even our fam­ily’s, per se, but past lives, past selves, ge­nealog­i­cal dop­pel­gängers. Be­cause of her quests, I know about sev­eral of these imag­ined pasts, which don’t quite make up for the evanes­cence of our tan­gi­ble one but at least give us a sense of shared history.

For in­stance: we are said to be de­scended from Am­broise Paré. My mother— whose mother was a Paré—al­ways said this was more than co­in­ci­dence. Cousin Regis had us be­lieve that this sup­posed fore­bear—“the doc­tor,” Regis called him—“in­vented” ether, the gas, or rather, dis­cov­ered its use­ful­ness in med­i­cal pro­ce­dures. This fam­ily myth is per­fectly suited to our fam­ily, given that ether is more weight­less than air: misty, ce­les­tial, and smelling of light­head­ed­ness. There is no co­in­ci­dence, my mother also said.

It turns out Paré’s link to ether is prob­a­bly not true, though it is true that be­fore Paré, surg­eries were per­formed with­out anes­thetic. Paré dis­cov­ered the use of lo­cal anes­the­sia for bat­tle­field wounds, which made pos­si­ble the dis­cov­ery three cen­turies later of ether as a gen­eral anes­thetic. In any case, it is said that Paré’s bat­tle­field in­no­va­tions trans­formed medicine and brought it into the mod­ern age. Be­fore Paré, men wounded in bat­tle of­ten died of shock from pain, in part from the cau­ter­iz­ing of lost limbs. Paré also out­moded this prac­tice.

Paré was chief sur­geon to four kings in six­teenth-cen­tury France as well as to Cather­ine de Medici. His other “dis­cov­ery”—hermaphroditism—formed the ba­sis for his opus On Mon­sters and Mar­vels and earned him the moniker “de­mo­nolo­gist.” It was pub­lished in 1575 and reis­sued in the nine­teenth cen­tury—and then by Univer­sity of Chicago Press in 1982 as a touch­stone for sex­u­al­ity stud­ies. His book is of­ten cited in the same breath as Michel Fou­cault’s Ab­nor­mal.

I like to be­lieve there are an­ces­tral teach­ings to be gleaned from our pre­sumed fore­fa­ther’s work on mon­sters as well as on anes­thet­ics. Rather than to hide, or deny, what didn’t be­long, Paré gave it a place in the tax­on­omy of the known:

There are sev­eral things that cause mon­sters. The first is the glory of God. The sec­ond, his wrath. The third, too great a quan­tity of seed.

El­iz­a­beth Kadet­sky

The fourth, too lit­tle a quan­tity. The fifth, the imag­i­na­tion.

Ra­tio­nal­ity and the in­tan­gi­ble play against each other in this pas­sage, as if Paré can as­sure us that the un­com­fort­able or in­ex­pli­ca­ble is ac­tu­ally ac­cept­able, a thing to ob­serve and de­con­struct—which is per­haps my own task. “Do you know who your daugh­ters are, Michele?” The home care aide, Veta, shows my mother two por­traits, of Gina and me. “Do you know their names?”

“No. I don’t know. But don’t worry.” My mother turns to me. She takes my wrist and smiles. “I don’t know my name ei­ther.” “Re­ally?” I ask her. “What is it?” “Mee­phu, some­thing like that. But don’t worry, I won’t—” She cuts off, search­ing for the words. “For­get me?” “For­get you.” She flits off in a dance, hum­ming and pac­ing with a red car­na­tion be­tween her teeth. Her lip­stick is red to match her scarf, which she draws wide across her arm span. Then she shifts to sashay­ing, like she used to do when she was a model on the Sev­enth Av­enue run­ways. She frowns, then bright­ens, then moves back across the apart­ment in a dance-like stride. She was never one to dwell on the neg­a­tive.

Later, out for a stroll in her neigh­bor­hood, we walk arm in arm. She lives in Long Is­land City, in the shadow of the Em­pire State Build­ing. “You’re so pretty,” my mother says, ig­nor­ing my ques­tions, or maybe just hop­ing they’ll dis­si­pate. “I love you. You should be so proud of your­self. Good for you!” she adds, apro­pos of noth­ing. “Don’t ever get old!” She leads me in a skip­ping mo­tion, and then, walk­ing, she says, like she al­ways says, “The beauty of the sit­u­a­tion is—” she di­rects me, but with hes­i­ta­tion now, down her block, “ev­ery­thing is al­ways new. Beethoven’s pi­ano con­cer­tos. A dove on the sill. You can take plea­sure again and again. Ev­ery time is the first.”

And in a cri­sis, I think, all you need to do is pause, un­til the knowl­edge re­turns, of where you are and why. That’s what she was do­ing the time she got lost—ten hours af­ter she went out to the store for milk. She was dis­cov­ered pac­ing back and forth in front of a guard sta­tion at the Queens­bridge hous­ing projects, about two miles from home: wait­ing, wait­ing un­til it might come back to her, what she’d gone to the store for, where the store was, where was home. It was 3 a.m. Am­broise Paré was also a dab­bler in alchemy, a more than pass­ing in­ter­est for my mother over the course of her life. Af­ter she gave up mod­el­ing, my mother

be­came a pro­fes­sional astrologer while also hold­ing a day job at the C. G. Jung In­sti­tute of New York. Un­til about 2005, she coedited and some­times wrote for a jour­nal called Ura­nia: The Jour­nal of the Ura­nian So­ci­ety. One of her publi­ca­tions in the jour­nal was a trans­la­tion from L’astrologie et Les Sciences Oc­cultes, “an ex­am­i­na­tion of early Her­metic works on astrology, magic and alchemy,” ac­cord­ing to my mother’s pref­ace. Other parts of the orig­i­nal, she wrote, treat “the Cor­pus Her­meticum, the re­li­gious and philo­soph­i­cal doc­u­ments of Her­meti­cism.”

Her­meti­cism and the oc­cult sug­gest a sort of a hid­ing that was al­ways in char­ac­ter for my mother ( her­metic: reclu­sive; oc­cult : se­cret), so I’m sur­prised when I re­ceive an e-mail seek­ing fur­ther in­for­ma­tion about her trans­la­tion. The e-mailer at­taches a PDF of my mother’s pub­lished piece from the jour­nal, an act that in it­self seems to defy the very tra­di­tion her trans­la­tion de­scribes. My mother’s now twenty-year-old pref­ace went on to ex­plain that the French text, dated 1942, was a trans­la­tion from the clas­sic Greek, from a larger work fo­cus­ing on the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure Her­mes Tris­megis­tus. “Who was Her­mes . . . this mytho­log­i­cal fig­ure to whom is at­trib­uted the foun­da­tion of Western oc­cultism?” my mother asked, as if to sug­gest things hid­den or kept from light. Ear­lier scholars, she posited, “fastidiously dis­missed the body of Her­metic ‘mag­i­cal’ texts as un­wor­thy of con­sid­er­a­tion.”

Not so any­more. The e-mailer is a pub­lisher of es­o­teric astrology books, and he asks me to pierce my mother’s files seek­ing back­ground on L’astrologie and hope­fully fur­ther trans­la­tions from the French. If I suc­ceed, he will bring forth an edi­tion of the en­tire pro­ject; he will bring it to light ( pub­lished: public).

I agree to help, in part be­cause of what hap­pened over the spring—her get­ting lost. I’ve al­ready shifted my mother’s files to my apart­ment across the East River to pre­pare for her in­evitable, im­mi­nent move to an as­sisted liv­ing with full-time care. The files have pointed me to my own quest of sorts, for a past I per­haps some­how missed. She is los­ing hers, ours; I don’t even know if she had hold of it to be­gin with.

But if a history re­sides in her doc­u­ments, so far they re­veal a mud­dle. Their be­guil­ing sug­ges­tion is that a past is right here for me, so easy to re­con­struct, or that I might, even, lo­cate an ori­gin story for this ill­ness. The very ex­is­tence of these pa­pers be­lies their con­found­ing vague­ness.

The items fall in no par­tic­u­lar or­der: Gina’s and my re­port cards from when I was in first grade and Gina third; photos; note­books and bills; pam­phlets and mimeo­graphs on es­o­teric astrology that are not the sought-for French one; charts with makeshift fi­nan­cial plan­ning. Binder note­books are jammed across the di­ag­o­nals. Snap­shots line the bot­toms.

Pres­ences mask ab­sences. My mother was a col­lec­tor of things that did not re­quire col­lect­ing.

I toss into the dis­card pile credit card of­fers from over a decade ago, one with a Post–it: “New credit cards? Check out”; notes from con­ver­sa­tions with tech sup­port; used en­velopes with in­for­ma­tion scrawled on the out­side about Gina’s

El­iz­a­beth Kadet­sky

health; hand­writ­ten ta­bles track­ing elec­tri­cal use in our mother’s apart­ment in Long Is­land City.

Mod­el­ing shots turn up, talismans for the quest. I cre­ate a makeshift gallery us­ing my book­shelves, floor­boards, kitchen counter. The photos are from six­ties Bos­ton and sev­en­ties and eight­ies New York. I put one on my desk from the early six­ties be­fore Gina and then I came along, in the kitchen a more can­did shot from the era when our mother worked for Pauline Trigère—a sev­en­ties doyenne, my mother’s then-pro­tec­tor and sup­porter.

Snap!— my mother is on a run­way in a satin-crépe and vel­vet evening gown, smooth as cham­pagne. Snap!— she is an Eastern princess in lace ap­pliqué bridal gown be­neath a wed­ding cake chan­de­lier and wa­ter­fall mar­ble stair­way. They are merely records of sin­gle mo­ments. Where are the mo­ments in be­tween?

The clut­ter masks eli­sions. So much miss­ing. On au­topsy, the brain of the Alzheimer’s pa­tient can weigh as lit­tle as 30 per­cent of that of a healthy brain. The tis­sue re­ally does grow por­ous. That brain has been de­scribed as look­ing like a loose, hooked cro­chet. It is a sieve through which the past slips.

Alzheimer’s is about va­cancy. But what ex­cuses these files, which os­ten­si­bly pre­date the Alzheimer’s?

There is lit­tle trace of my fa­ther, only hints. A photo of my mother thin and lanky with a big belly ris­ing out of fash­ion­able capri pants re­veals a per­son care­fully scis­sored along the out­line of her pro­file: nose, chin, gi­gan­tic belly. She is nose rub­bing with that per­son. It looks like a vase, the empty space where my fa­ther should be.

He also ex­ists, through in­di­rec­tion, on a bun­dle of air­mail sleeves to “Mish and Pete” from my mother’s then-best model friend, Marty, in 1962 and 1963. There are hun­dreds of dis­patches from Marty’s life in Italy dur­ing the early days of Mi­lan mod. Marty even­tu­ally be­comes a trav­el­ing model to Emilio Pucci. She por­trays her co­hort like artists in ate­liers. Fash­ion in­génues were treated lav­ishly but earned barely a cent. She was so poor she of­ten couldn’t af­ford a postage stamp. Her em­ploy­ers put her up in the fan­ci­est ho­tels and de­liv­ered gifts of flow­ers and gor­geous de­signer dresses and some­times stalked her and de­manded “Ital­ian mar­riage,” aka sex with no com­mit­ment. Her ac­counts are vivid and alive and lurid with color, thick be­tween the seams. This is a life.

She’s also irate, in­sis­tent. My mother is ab­sent.

Miss you sooo—ache to see you again—let’s hope that it’s soon. I love you all sooo . . . still could mur­der you for not writ­ing—what’s up—don’t you love me any­more??? . . . Please write. Miss you both like mad.

Just re­turned from Torino fash­ion show with all Ro­man de­sign­ers—they flipped—i’m IN!! Hope you’re both okay—how about a let­ter you mis­er­able wretch—love you both.

Have sent you one let­ter & 8 post cards and I’m glad I didn’t hold my breath while wait­ing for an an­swer. Can’t stay an­gry at ei­ther of you for longer than a sec­ond. So now that I’ve blasted off—how the hell are you??

Why was my mother al­ways drop­ping out? No one has ever ex­plained to me ex­actly how Am­broise Paré is re­lated to us. I sus­pect my mother never probed the con­nec­tion, its ap­par­ent right­ness hav­ing ipso facto proved its va­lid­ity for her. This can’t ex­plain the ar­dor of my mother’s cousins—regis and the oth­ers—who drop ref­er­ences to “the doc­tor” at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity and in most cases keep On Mon­sters on the shelf if not the cof­fee ta­ble. It’s nice to have a fa­mous an­ces­tor, one who helped along the evo­lu­tion from dark ages to en­light­en­ment. As for our fam­ily’s pre­cise con­nec­tion to Am­broise Paré, the cousins say, while squint­ing: We are vaguely re­lated . . . We have a dim con­nec­tion ...

My mother’s fam­ily goes back to the set­tlers of Québec, this is more clear. The fam­ily is, as is said in Québec, pure laine, 100 per­cent wool. The line is easily traced on my mother’s ma­ter­nal and pa­ter­nal sides. Be­ing pure wool is a point of pride for many French Cana­di­ans, who boast one of the world’s most ac­tive ge­nealog­i­cal cul­tures and who con­sti­tute one of the earth’s most in­su­lar geno­types. Ac­cord­ing to one ge­netic study, 90 per­cent of Québe­cois peo­ple can trace genes to the sev­en­teenth-cen­tury French founders, a group only about fif­teen hun­dred strong.

One night, pars­ing the doc­u­ments, I dis­cover a fam­ily tree in a file of my mother’s marked paré. This past clearly once meant a lot to her, though I’m not sure ex­actly why. She wasn’t close to her im­me­di­ate fam­ily, so why such pride of place for her an­ces­tral one? It doc­u­ments our Paré line go­ing back to the French set­tlers, orig­i­nat­ing with one Robert Paré of France. I won­der if this Robert was, like Am­broise, sig­nif­i­cant to my mother for a rea­son. But, no, he was not an al­chemist but sim­ply a car­pen­ter. Per­haps his use­ful­ness to my mother was only to con­nect us to Am­broise, so I set about bridg­ing ge­nealo­gies be­tween the two men. Am­broise was ad­mit­ted to the Royal Col­lege of Sur­geons in Paris in 1554. Ac­cord­ing to my ex­ca­va­tions on geni.com, Robert, my great grand­fa­ther to the ninth power, was mar­ried in a chapel in Québec City in 1653, a cen­tury af­ter Am­broise’s ad­mit­tance to the Col­lege. An ob­sta­cle arises: there are five gen­er­a­tions miss­ing be­tween Robert’s first trace and Am­broise’s last.

Am­broise’s On Mon­sters so ar­dently pur­sues other mys­ter­ies that I won­der, fan­ci­fully, if per­haps it can il­lu­mi­nate this one. I reach for my mother’s copy, ex­tracted from one of the boxes. The cover de­picts a one-legged, ostrich-clawed, winged and horned an­gel-like crea­ture with a third eye in its knee and mer­maid­like scales be­deck­ing its torso, a draw­ing of the sort Am­broise com­mis­sioned for his re­search. “Winged mon­ster,” it is la­beled.

Ac­cord­ing to its pref­ace, Am­broise fa­thered nine chil­dren, four of whom died as in­fants. Among five girls and four boys, the fates took all the boys. The long­est sur­viv­ing son lived nine months. Am­broise had no heirs by the name Paré, in other words. His con­nec­tion to our fam­ily is at best . . . ten­u­ous. It is in­tan­gi­ble.

El­iz­a­beth Kadet­sky

Deeper in that same box is a sleeve con­tain­ing my mother’s travel doc­u­ments from a trip to Mexico with Grand­ma­man in 1984, in­clud­ing my mother’s visa, a mimeo­graph of the travel agent’s flight in­for­ma­tion, and a let­ter from Grand­papa. Paid for by Grand­papa, my mother and Grand­ma­man went to Club Med in Aca­pulco. “It will keep [your mother’s] mind oc­cu­pied,” Grand­papa ex­plained to my mother, about his fund­ing the trip.

Oc­cu­pied to avoid what? I won­der. Why this fam­ily habit of se­crets, de­nial, sidestep­ping?

I do re­mem­ber the trip. On her re­turn, my mother told a story of go­ing for a walk in the early morn­ing by the vi­o­lent surf. She tore off her clothes and flung her­self in. She was never a strong swim­mer. A wave pum­meled her to the sand; she couldn’t pull her­self from the wa­ter. She sur­vived. I won­der what tra­jec­tory our lives might have taken had she suc­cumbed, as peo­ple fa­mously do in the Aca­pulco swells. Maybe it was around this time I first no­ticed she seemed ab­sent in other ways. Per­haps she re­turned from the trip a ghost. The story of New France is thick with fairies and an­gels and prophe­cies— per­haps it’s this mag­i­cal com­po­nent that made it res­o­nant for my mother. We know from ge­nealog­i­cal records that Robert Paré, Grand­ma­man’s great grand­fa­ther to the sixth power, joined a slow trickle of pioneers who fol­lowed af­ter Sa­muel de Cham­plain, whose first jour­ney to the New World took place in 1603. The record doc­u­ment­ing the plight of colonists such as Robert tells of much the same war­fare and much the same push and pull as most ev­ery New World set­tle­ment tale: famine in the home­land (failed crops of wheat and other grain) set against com­modi­ties in the promised one (fish, wood, mines, beaver fur, cat­tle, and farm­land), pro­moted by roy­als ea­ger for taxes (the Bour­bons: Henry IV, then Louis XIII and XIV) and na­tional ex­port oper­a­tions ea­ger for lu­cre (Rouen and St. Malo). There is an anointed nav­i­ga­tor (Cham­plain), a man with moxie, mega­lo­ma­nia, and mis­for­tune enough to in­sti­gate sev­eral ship voy­ages and me­dieval-style war­fare with maces and blud­geons to sub­due na­tives (Iro­quois Mo­hawks).

A ge­nealog­i­cal web­site in Mon­treal de­voted to the thou­sands of Québec Parés de­scribes Robert Paré as “enig­matic.” He was one of eleven born to Mathieu Paré in a town in Old France called St. Lau­rent. But, be­cause there are sev­eral St. Lau­rents, no one knows which it is. Sev­eral ge­neal­o­gists on the web­site spec­u­late it is near Or­leans. More easily doc­u­mented is the fact that Robert got on a ship and washed up near the rocky break­front near what is now Québec City some­time around 1650.

The record gives de­tails of another Gen­er­a­tion One an­ces­tor of our fam­ily, from my grande-grand­ma­man Léa’s pa­ter­nal line, born in Cham­bois, Nor­mandy, in 1623. So be­gin another 1,024 ge­neal­ogy sto­ries with the same broad out­lines. For in a well-pre­served set­tlers’ ge­neal­ogy, if ev­ery line is traced the eleven steps

to Gen­er­a­tion One, the yield for one mixed-breed, twelfth-gen­er­a­tion am­a­teur ge­neal­o­gist such as my­self is nec­es­sar­ily 1,024 an­ces­tors. That is sim­ple math.

The pur­pose of ge­neal­ogy may be only to flat­ter one’s mor­tal­ity—or, al­ter­na­tively, to tell our­selves sto­ries with which to dis­tract our­selves from weight­ier prob­lems.

My mother saved acres of ge­neal­ogy files but noth­ing from her own child­hood. I am fond of the fol­low­ing an­ces­tral story for its nu­mi­nous as­pects: François Ler­oux—grande-grand­ma­man Léa’s great grand­fa­ther to the fifth power— sailed into the rocky shoal of Canada’s coast one mid­dle of the night in a cool Septem­ber, 1665, as a con­script for King Louis XIV. A salty mist tan­gles his thick black mane and scrubby sailor’s months-at-sea beard. He is feel­ing a bit ship-sick, but he is bold, trained for com­bat—and don’t for­get love—dressed in sweat-acrid, coarse-wo­ven, blue-white sailor’s naps. He pukes any­way. There is a lusty fu­ture await­ing him on the land side of shore.

The ship is the St. Se­bas­tian. His reg­i­ment is the Carig­nan-sal­ières, and he is a mem­ber of an es­teemed twelve hun­dred dis­patched to give backup to the mis­sions, which have been be­set upon by un­co­op­er­a­tive na­tives. François is among four hun­dred and fifty from this con­tin­gent who will later an­swer a plea from the king to stay on as set­tlers; that the king prom­ises a trans­port of French wives makes this at­trac­tive.

The pur­pose of François’s reg­i­ment was sum­ma­rized in a let­ter by the Ur­su­line nun and mystic Marie de l’in­car­na­tion. “The ships have all ar­rived, bring­ing us the rest of the army, along with the most em­i­nent per­sons whom the king has sent to the aid of the coun­try. They feared they would all per­ish in the storms they braved on their voy­age . . . [W]e are help­ing them to un­der­stand that this is a holy war, where the only things that mat­ter are the glory of God and the sal­va­tion of souls.”

It is true the storms nearly spi­raled those sol­diers to the sea bot­tom. How­ever, cer­tain sailors had a vi­sion on deck: Saint Anne came to them. The sailors begged her for help. Shipwreck, oth­er­wise, was cer­tain. The sailors promised to build a chapel in Saint Anne’s honor should she bless their jour­ney and res­cue them. She com­plied. Magic—the in­tan­gi­ble, the evanes­cent—is in our French-cana­dian blood. An ocean of doc­u­ments—birth cer­tifi­cates, mar­riage li­censes, death cer­tifi­cates, liens, cit­i­zen­ship pa­pers—shows, first, where sex was had; next, whence prog­eny sprang; third, where a grave was dug. But the charts get away from us any­way and trans­form to snarls, like balled up yarn un­done by a cat. Trace two pa­ter­nal lines and there is a co­gent hu­man tale lurk­ing be­neath this timeline, of love and

El­iz­a­beth Kadet­sky

pathos and yearn­ing. Then add one ma­ter­nal line, then a ma­ter­nal line for each ma­ter­nal line. Then cousins marry cousins and nieces un­cles. Two broth­ers Paré marry two sis­ters Les­sard. One of the sis­ters is grande-grand­ma­man Léa. The other is her sis­ter Aurore. The off­spring will be what the fam­ily calls “first-first cousins” or “cousins on both sides.” Two of the Paré first-first cousins marry men with the last name, Roy, so they are Madeleine Paré Roy and Mar­guerite Paré Roy.

Should ge­net­ics have been a field dur­ing the times of Am­broise Paré, such freak­ish in­ter­mar­riage would surely have in­ter­ested that dis­tant re­la­tion and stu­dent of mar­vels. When I look at the names on the charts, though, aber­rance doesn’t come to mind for me, in spite of the pro­lific in­ter­mar­ry­ing. I imag­ine each an­ces­tor a per­fect child, pink and soft and dewy-bright, with the proper num­ber of limbs and fin­gers and a healthy sheen to the skin. Ex­am­in­ing those ar­chives, ev­ery time I dis­cover a re­la­tion I feel a small thrill, a burst of alive­ness. Each af­firms my vi­brant pres­ence in this world. Each name rep­re­sents a hero. The records are silent about ill­ness and other mishaps of the sort doc­u­mented by Am­broise, the “de­mo­nolo­gist.”

Our an­ces­tor Marie Re­naud was great grand­mother to the great great great grand­fa­ther of Marie Jac­ques, my great great grand­mother. From St. Marceau, Or­leans, Marie Re­naud was a mail-or­der bride, though speak­ing more el­e­gantly she was some­thing called a fille du roi— daugh­ter of the king. Louis XIV re­cruited her and 699 oth­ers, women fif­teen to thirty years old, fu­ture wives-of-some­one, some­one not yet known to them. Re­cruit is a eu­phemism for what likely drew Marie, as co­er­cion or des­per­a­tion or force was prob­a­bly part of the tale. Marie was an or­phan, or a widow, or both, we could say. She sailed nau­seous with hunger and long­ing and re­gret. I imag­ine there was a fam­ily back in Or­leans whom she missed—per­haps a man or boy or girl. She ached for the musty scent of dirt and hearth. In the mist out in the open ocean there rose an­gels and the Vir­gin and Saint Anne, speak­ing to that an­ces­tor in tongues, words mys­te­ri­ous and gur­gling like waves slap­ping a ship deck, whis­per­ing salves and word­lessly hum­ming.

We have a high tol­er­ance for con­fu­sion in this fam­ily, for inac­cu­racy and for­get­ting. There is a mir­ror star­ing us down from the ceil­ing re­flect­ing on a glass ta­ble top that is pitched at an an­gle to re­flect both a win­dow and a mir­ror on the wall, which, in turn, re­flect in­side each other. We are in a look­ing-glass tun­nel bor­ing through history. Maybe this is why, in the files, there is a prob­lem not only of eli­sion but of too much in­for­ma­tion. We can’t keep it all in our heads, so it gets twisted and jum­bled and we throw up our hands. We are vaguely re­lated, we say. The lis­tener prob­a­bly has no idea how com­pli­cated this re­ally is. We can’t say ex­actly how we are re­lated, be­cause to do so would give us a headache. But we know things are not en­tirely co­in­ci­den­tal, and that ev­ery­thing hap­pens for a rea­son.

I am back in Long Is­land City with my mother. We have lunch. I ask about the hid­den or lost Her­mes Tris­megis­tus files. I can’t find them. “Yes,” my mother says. “I can’t ex­actly re­call,” she adds, squint­ing. She doesn’t like ques­tions. “I don’t know, honey. You talk.”

I tell her about the sto­ries I’ve un­cov­ered from our ge­neal­ogy, and she nods and says, “Re­ally!” and “Won­der­ful!” and “You’re so good at this!” About the venue, where we eat a meze plat­ter and grilled cala­mari at least weekly, she says, “What a great place. I’ve lived up­stairs all these years and never been.”

I say good­bye and get on my bike and pedal fast to­ward the hous­ing projects where she got lost, then up to the Queens­bor­ough Bridge. Up top I can see across the river to Man­hat­tan. Our old home is vis­i­ble, where I grew up start­ing at age nine, af­ter my mother’s sec­ond di­vorce: a white brick high-rise on East Seventy-sev­enth and the river. I re­mem­ber the night we moved in, and how my mother in­stalled new lamps on the walls with an elec­tric drill. Once the long la­bo­ri­ous process was com­pleted, one of the lamps blew. The lamp rained black soot all along the new wall. I of­fered an il­log­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion to ap­pease my mother—“maybe it didn’t burn?”

“Of course it’s burned! It’s soot!” She’d fritzed, just like the elec­tri­cal ca­ble. She wielded the drill at Gina and me.

“Don’t you threaten me,” Gina gave back. She walked out the front door and slammed it be­hind her.

I stormed af­ter Gina but missed her at the el­e­va­tor, so I went down on my own. I wan­dered through the new neigh­bor­hood and then over to the East River with its ef­flu­vium of sewage and ev­ery­day dis­cards—a Mad mag­a­zine, bub­ble gum wrap­pers, a cot­ton ball with or­ange nail pol­ish, wrap­pers from Stella D’oros and Stouf­fer’s. Walk­ing south along the river drive that night, I’d closed that very same ex­panse be­tween our build­ing on Seventy-sev­enth and the bridge on Fifty-ninth where I am rid­ing now—from our history to our fu­ture, past selves and past lives col­lid­ing with present ones.

As I ride now, a mist rises off the wa­ter and cools my face. I see ghosts of old re­la­tions in that brume. I see my mother and Gina and my­self, our past selves and our cur­rent ones. Each of us is a dop­pel­gänger for an in­vis­i­ble or imag­ined an­ces­tor, and each fore­bear is in turn whole and healthy, with ten fin­gers and ten toes. Am­broise stud­ied aber­ra­tion. Could he have pre­dicted what would be­come of our small fam­ily, what be­came of my mother, her lost mem­ory or the self she per­haps left be­hind in Mexico? How would Am­broise have made sense of this ver­sion of her, the woman me­an­der­ing in the projects? I think of her wan­der­ing her neigh­bor­hood, draw­ing routes and then los­ing them be­fore she can trace them back. Was Am­broise even one of us? Like so much about our fam­ily the an­swer is in­ef­fa­ble, weight­less. We are ether.

El­iz­a­beth Kadet­sky

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