Mastering The Art of Emotional Corseting: Living Rooms and Closed Doors

Dear friend,

After reading your letter about your grandmother, I’ve thought a lot about how “repression” and closed doors have gone out of fashion. Good things open doors, bad things close them (unless God opens a window). In our metaphors, anyway, we’re against keeping the private thing out of the shared space. I think all this is just a little bit wrong. When Julia Child in Julie and Julia (which I watched for the first time tonight) gets the letter from Knopf, she glances at her husband inside, takes several deep whooping breaths and steps out onto the porch for privacy. She actually leaves the house. That scene reminded me of what you said about crying your bathroom or on the street—anywhere but in the living room. Brute emotion, you called it. Whether it’s excitement or grief, does it demand total privacy because, like other completely private things, you can’t really blunt the edges so they don’t hurt or alarm the people around you? (And give them ammo too?)

I thought about this while watching Julie and Julia because Julie keeps having “meltdowns” in front of her husband that result in him calling her a narcissist (which she is—brute emotion is narcissistic) and leaving her. (For a night or two, anyway.) Meanwhile, in total and telling contrast, Julia writes her friend Avis that it’s becoming harder and harder to conceal from her husband how heartbroken she is about leaving Paris. Julia corsets her sad emotions; Julie blogs them.

It reminded me of your idea about how shared lives are half-lives, and how the things that make us tick are also the things that can make us explode. Julie and Julia shows two pretty convincing  happy, well-suited couples.  To the extent that there’s romantic crisis, it’s over how the two Julias’ search for a passionate direction leads us to look at what careerist passion can mean to a domestic relationship (basically, absorption in the work and neglect of the partner). The movie’s challenge—and I’m not sure it bones this particular duck—is figuring out how to make the weird and private “half-life” of well-loved work gel with the other weird and private “half-life” that is a couple’s world. Those two halves don’t always talk to each other, right?

You and I tend, I think, to let the latter half-life trump the first. I bet a lot of women do. Maybe a lot of people do, though in my limited experience (hello dad!) men fall into work-world and ignore the social noise around them better than women. My dad can sit in his open-plan office and ignore anyone coming up the stairs, even if they’re talking directly to him. My mom, to claim time to herself, has to close a door. Even that isn’t enough sometimes. One door in my parents’ house actually has a sign taped to it that says “PLEASE DO NOT KNOCK UNLESS IT IS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH. THANK YOU.”

That door leads to the bathroom. And it has butterflies drawn on it to soften the blow.

There’s a formal desperation to that sign, I think; it exists because otherwise she would give into us all. My dad won’t, because he’s absorbed, so he never has to make the choice. He doesn’t actually realize that we’re there, and it doesn’t occur to him that we might be hurt. And so, by and large, we aren’t.

When work is like yours and mine and gets mainly done from home (and your partner’s does too), it’s that much harder to pick up the work-world because it feels antisocial. It feels—and Julie and Julia deals with the fineness of this line outright—not just absorbed but self-absorbed. It feels selfish and like a rejection of the couple-world, and who wants that?

This is why I think doors are important. Like my dad’s focus which protects him, doors protect us from having to make a choice between the work-world and the couple-world. Thanks to them, or something like them, we can fully occupy one half-life before returning fully to the next, instead of living in the liminal space between the two like one of those optical illusions that are either two faces or a vase but never actually kiss or hold flowers.

(If we could close those doors in our brains instead of relying on architecture, it would be much easier, of course.)

Remember our intense virginal past, full of (sexually frustrated) inspiration and achievement? The thing about being virginal is that (whether you want it or not) you do have a door to close.

I started this letter meaning to talk about grief, not work, and I seem to have lost my way. But I think something similar applies—shared space can almost equal shared everything else, and that’s weird when you’re dealing with an unshared loss. Mr. Carla Fran, in all his wonder, can’t overcome the fact that your grandmother was not his. You have a long past that doesn’t include him, and you will have feelings about it that he can’t feel. Your childhood, your feelings about your mother and grandmother from when you were five… those doors are closed to him, which has to be part of what makes crying in the living room so awkward. One of my dad’s favorite truisms is that when you’re born and you take your first breath, it contains so many atoms that when you die, you’ll have at least one of those atoms with you. When you have to take a breath that comes from an older story than the one you’re in (and what are grandparents but older stories?), the living room—where you do your present living with Mr. Carla Fran—might not be the place to feel an older story dying.

As I write this I wonder: besides the fact that another person doesn’t share your past, could the difficulty also be partly about the room? Parlors and studies and foyers and billiard rooms are conceptually marvelous because they suggest (rightly or wrongly) that there are right rooms for things. The living room, where you couldn’t do your crying, is a special case, partly because it’s in a thirty years’ war against the Family Room for supremacy. (Is it telling that the American family home wants to dedicate one room to Family and another to Living?) When all you have is a Living Room, a shared bedroom, a kitchen and an office, where do you cry? Your solution seems right. At least the bathroom is built to withstand water.

When my grandma died I lived alone, so there was no corseting of the kind you describe, but my living room wasn’t much comfort to me either.  I drifted to a running track that has a big hillside with little trails. I walked up the steepest one and when I was winded (a whole three minutes in), it gave me something to do with the explosive throat-knot. Those old atoms wanted out, but I couldn’t let them out in a Living Room, which suddenly seemed frivolous and dingy and small. How dare sofa cushions exist in a world where my grandmother doesn’t?

Once the big emotion passed and I got myself down the hill and home, I realized I wanted some corseting. Not for me, not exactly. I wanted (here’s a sentence I never thought I’d say or see) to be a corset for my mom. I wrote then that I wanted to be down the hallway and that still seems right. If there’s a hallway, a door’s implied. I worried about her. My mom always holds it together, but this seemed like the exceptional case: she might fall apart utterly. I worried (weirdly) about her dignity. To think of her stripped of it—to think of her, for example, sitting on a trail by a track sobbing—seemed like the worst thing in the world.

Did you have this feeling too? Mothers and grandmothers. Oof. Very hard to imagine them as elemental selves and not our structures.

Corseting is tough, as Julie and Julia acknowledges, with its triumphal last meal in which Julie successfully bones a duck. (Telling, right, that Julia is an excellent duck-boner? She’s very good at keeping her sadness in.) When my grandma died, since I couldn’t be there for my mom (she was in Chile), I drove to my Tia’s house and kept her company on her first night without her sister. I did my best. When I got there her eyes were red from crying. We didn’t cry in front of each other, although I spent most of that night awake and she did too. All in all, I think we were pretty good corsets for each other. Of course, there was a built-in pressure-valve: we weren’t sharing a room. We could keep up the decorous facade up and save the waterworks for bed. That made our corseting easier.

It’s harder to corset if you’re Mr. Carla Fran—both distant (not a direct relative) and living inside the closed door, but I think it can be done. Do you remember the scene in Julie and Julia when Julia Child, who has concealed her devastation at leaving Paris and tried to wave away the fact that her 8 years of work will go unpublished and turned out to be “just something for her to do,”  reads in a letter that her sister Dorothy is pregnant? Paul is standing there when she gets the news, and she breaks down. When she sobs “I’m so happy” into his shirt, he says, “I know.” Good corseting, Paul.

My point, insofar as I have one, is that whatever her reasons were for “repressing” her sadness and reading her letter from Knopf on the porch, Paul’s insufficiency wasn’t one of them. When her corset fails, he’s there. Her reasons have everything to do, I think, with the basic privacy we all need, whatever our sex our age or time—the space for an unfiltered reaction that doesn’t jeopardize the things we most value.

Dear friend, I’ve blathered on about this and that and the other and I haven’t said the really important thing, which is how sorry I am, and how much I wish I could be down the hall from you right now.

Fondly,

Millicent

P.S.–Speaking of hallways, Easter, mothers and Julia Child, I poached my first ever egg.

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Midniiiiight, Not a Sound on the Paaaavement

Carlita Fran,

Concerning the insult of being forgotten by the senex we love: could it be that, in addition to selfishness, it might just hurt that the project of family-building unravels some when its oldest members stop knitting?

In one way your grandmother and her unrecognized recipe is an old and terrible story. Everyone forgets. But the particulars just can’t be leapfrogged. Thirty questions in an hour until you answer correctly! The walks through parking lots! What scares me most about old age is how it X-rays your psyche and hands your relations the skeleton keys to your soul.

I last visited my paternal grandparents with my dad when I was fifteen years old. They were old and confused. My Depression-era grandfather had taken to washing his used Depends and stringing them up on clothesline in the house to dry and burning garbage in the living-room wood stove. He dumped the remains out front. The lawn was a mess of charred chicken-bones and ash.

My grandmother knew I wasn’t my mother. And I wasn’t quite the squeaky granddaughter she knew. She concluded that my father had smuggled his new lover into her home, and she did not approve. She never stated this outright, but she kept trying to catch the so-called “daughter” in a lie, slunk around the house at night in the dark, and peppered my poor dad with knowing looks. It was awkward.

Because of that visit I know them both better than I ever could have had they died with everything intact. It’s an icky kind of knowledge. I feel like I have seen them naked.

I will now remark (originally) that my maternal grandmother, the one who died in October, was a terrific knitter in her day. The sort who watches soap operas unblinkingly while her hands flutter the needles into surprising sweaters. (I think yours did this too.) They were wonders, and they took imagination. It was interesting, horrifically interesting, to watch her ambitions for her yarn thicken and slow as her mind deteriorated. We know that memory goes, but it seems like the same circuits that let old people recite the poems of their childhoods long after they’ve forgotten their children’s names should govern something as repetitive, as oddly and oldly elemental, as knitting.

And in a sense they do: for my grandmother those patterned membranes were still possible, but the projects were simpler. She’d knit a onesie in afternoon as an afterthought with the same purely mechanical attention she brought to a crossword puzzle or a round of canasta. She used to make not just sassy sweaters, but wool paintings of churches and trees and people. Many of them for me. Now she didn’t seem to want to knit much of anything.

It might not seem it, but this was at least as disconcerting to me as my paternal grandma’s suspicion that I was my dad’s mistress. It was personal.  Knitting had been her way of inserting herself symbolically into my life. She knitted red-and-white diamond-pattern sweaters with misshapen necks and expressed continual surprise that I wore them. But it mattered that I didn’t wear them charitably. They were a little crazy and I liked that, and them.

So when she didn’t want to knit, it surprised me that she didn’t want that validation from me anymore. I don’t know that it hurt my feelings exactly, but it was a small death. Something I had counted on growing forever had stopped and it was my turn to be the grown-up. Suddenly, her pleasure in our apparent sameness (one of my grandma’s favorite themes) had stopped mattering; she just wasn’t that interested any more in how her legacy was playing out. All she cared about now was her past. I felt a little like I’d been kicked out of the family story.

Being forgotten by a grandmother isn’t the same as being stricken out of the family Bible, but it’s not so far from that either. And the sting of your unrecognized recipe isn’t (I humbly offer) merely selfish. The Grandmothers are the closest thing to a record of our particular clutch of Buendías in Macondo, and they’re basically generative whether they’re making casseroles or cardigans. They’re why we’re even around. When they go, it falls to us to become memory-makers of a sadly yearbookish bent: we’re curators, archivists, executors. But we’re not knitters.

This weekend I will go to another city to celebrate my grandmother’s sister’s 92nd birthday. I made a recipe of hers tonight. I should probably tell her that.

Fondly,

M

Memory Part 1

Dear Millicent,

I have been thinking about my grandmother’s memory.  On a recent visit home, my mom made a famous dish in the family, one that we love to love out of reverence for joint comfort and an agreed upon proof that there were joys in their family.  When we cook this recipe, it’s to honor to my grandmother. This last visit, she didn’t recognize the dish.

She also doesn’t recognize me if I am with children (I think, because I am supposed to be one of the children).  She has waking dreams where she walks in parking lots looking for her dead husband.  She will ask you the same question 30 times in an hour.  She will stop asking the question if you tell her the answer she wants to hear.

This part of age is now encountered regularly enough that “She didn’t even know who I was,” has become part of our script (in both television melodrama and sympathetic conversation).  My father mentioned his disorientation in visiting his grandmother as a boy, with her talking to him as if he were his own father, but at his age.  There is an idea that the person has left: “she’s gone, there’s nobody home.” What I find fascinating is that the absence is about us.  They are still there, it’s us, actually, who have left the picture.   My grandmother enjoyed her meal, just not the sentiment of the family tradition.  My great grandmother pinched the cheek of a little boy who looked exactly like her son, and in that view, my father was erased.

I have noticed that I am less keen on visiting now, both because I am afraid of seeing more deterioration, and because it seems trivial if every two minutes the present is forgotten.  This sounds ugly.  It is.  It’s also because, in some stupid way, I feel like if I don’t exist in her psyche then I am released.  The epitome of the spoiled grandchild—-if you stop thinking about me, I go blind.  I don’t think this is uncommon.  It might be a small relief (a hard relief) to a family that when they move a parent to a nursing home they are out of it and not full witness to the loss and change.

It does bring up an interesting question, one that we have talked about here in regard to love, family, and friendship.  Ultimately, is our main connection and tenderness to another person rooted in the image they hold of us?

Yours,

CF

Lights

Dear Millicent,

It took me awhile to write back because your essay was just so durn lovely.  Isn’t it fitting that eggs are the food returned to? If your life were a novel, it would all be a delicate nod to the connections between mothers and children, continuance and nourishment.  Like how in Billy Elliot (lord knows why that movie has remained in my easy-reach library), he is drinking a glass of milk when he sees the ghost of his mum.  Also, I very much like your description of being down the hall, and want to say how honest and comforting and all around lovely it is. Lovely is a word that is appearing a lot in this paragraph, probs for good reason.

Architecture? Halls, doorways, well-lit paths? I am listening to a song at the moment called “Good Houses” that relates domesticity to “sweet cages.” And, with my friend who recently miscarried, the phrase that kept appearing in our conversation was “that door had been opened” for her, and that the room beyond was to be explored.  She is considering adoption.

Sometimes when I think about birth and death, particularly among female generational lines, I get spooked by thinking of us all as a series of husks (my grandmother the husk of my mother, my mum the husk of me, and me the kernel of the next husk).   We are Russian nesting dolls, all containing the younger, smaller, next things (I know this image is problematic, but it remains for me).  And, what seems a terrifying part of a grandparent’s death (especially the maternal grandmother), is that we get promoted to the next size up, and our parent gets bumped to the front line.

Both my father’s parents have died, his father with a surprise of cancer, and his mother after years of decline and saving graces (including a new kidney!).  It felt at about the right speed of what happens with grandparents.  My mother’s father died the year I was born (and she was on bed rest with me and couldn’t go to his funeral).  Her mother is alive, but her mortality is present, and when my mom calls and I don’t answer, I am afraid that the message will be the inevitable sad news about my grandmother.  I am afraid for my mother when her mother dies.  I think it will shatter something in her, maybe that teenage idea that mothers are silly neurotic creatures, and the loss will be its full weight.  I am also probably afraid for her because I am afraid for my own future moment of the same pang and pain, felt nakedly when the opportunity to give her honor has passed.  Our mothers alone, in the emotional hard parts, is tough, maybe because even our presence wouldn’t give them the balm needed?

I don’t know, dear friend, but I think being down the hall, as you have described it here, will be part of my definition for what real love is.  I can see the thought in my own brain in sixty years.

Besties,  and yes, chirpier things tomorrow,

CF