September 28, 2005


One of the more amazing things to come out of my grandfather’s recent passing was the discovery of some letters that my grandmother wrote to my grandfather in 1938. My grandmother, Peggy, my father’s mother, was always a kind of mystery. She was an admitted agoraphobe who was addicted to amphetamines for much of her life--prescribed by my grandfather, a doctor. She said the pills didn’t make her speedy but just brought her to a normal level. My grandfather was a commanding, opinionated presence and Peggy always hung silently in the background, an old woman all her life.

In these letters she reveals that she wanted to be a writer--a complete revelation to my father, who’s a writer, and never knew this. He was judged harshly for becoming a writer rather than a doctor like my grandfather. My father dropped out of medical school to write his first novel. The letters are written over only a month--they include a short story, a character portrait of my grandfather, her thoughts on being a writer, and some hints of the anxieties she would feel deeply throughout her life.

To me, the letters read something like The Bell Jar--a woman of intense intellectual spirit and optimism in the early pages, yet you know that the story is going to end up badly. It seems she censored the writer inside her. She mentions how she’s terrified of passing on her anxieties to her children, and she may just have repressed herself into oblivion. But also, my grandfather didn’t seem to help her much. Actually, there’s a theme throughout where she seems to be testing the waters with my grandfather: "This is what I’m like. Is that OK?" In some way, they read like blog entries--an obsessively honest self-examination with the slim hope that it might have an audience. The letters don’t reflect very well on my grandfather who comes across as domineering, censoring the writerly, artistic side of Peggy instead of encouraging it. Scoffing at her insecurity.

The letters are nicely written--kind of like Thomas Wolfe. A lot of three-syllable adjectives that are sort of turgid but still very precise. She had such an intellectual fire that nobody knew she had. I’m proud to have this woman in my bloodstream.

Later in life, she started painting--she had to do something with that creative energy. I’ve always wanted to post her paintings. I’ve hung them up in many places I’ve lived through the years. These paintings are in my living room.

Here’s New York City, from New Jersey. All of my grandparents lived in New Jersey. Both my parents grew up in South Orange, NJ, Philip Roth territory.


I think this is Picasso in his studio. She painted a lot from photographs:


This one is my favorite. I’ve always wanted to use it for a book cover--a book I have yet to write. Maybe if I ever get a collection of stories together. I even have a title for the book: "Suffer Fools." A nod to Richard Yates’ Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.



Gone Away said...

A touching story and, perhaps, a lesson to us all: don't let life slip through your fingers. I'm glad you found this evidence of a life hidden and yet preserved.

Spiral Stairs said...

Criminy, Henry, there's a lot here. Your grandmother sounds like a very rare character.

What have we lost, as a generation, by giving up on letters and making everything electronic (with corresponding ephemerality and nonchalance about words)? One thing we've lost is the chance for our successors to make discoveries like this.

She was a terrific painter too. I'd gladly hang any of them -- though the third is my favorite too.

Henry Baum said...

I've thought that blogging is a good replacement for letter writing. At least for me. I used to have a great epistolary correspondance with someone. We had a falling out and so I put that energy into this blog. Email too. I spend a stupid amount of time writing email, even if it's only one sentence long. I think a lot of people are writing who may not have been before the www.

Spiral Stairs said...

You're right, of course: Thanks to the internet, there is much more writing in the world. And there is probably more good writing in the world.

However, I think the culture of electronic communications encourages people to take less care with their words. Perhaps some people who don't take care with their electronic words would take more care on paper -- like write letters worth saving. It's just so easy to type crap in.

Your blog is worth saving. And you've attracted a quality contingent of bloggers. Their blogs are also worth saving. But the rest of the blog world -- hit "Next Blog" a few times -- is ... um ... spotty.

I'm no luddite, believe me. I was dialing into BBS's maintained on home phone lines with my 300-baud modem in the 1980s. I just wonder ...

gaijin said...

i love the first one and the last one. i'm so envious, i wish i had a family tree.

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