To those who will read it- I am writing a book — a memoir really, of my family and of my life within it. The plan is to put these chapters up as I write them, although I confess I have already written some, which gives me a little leeway as I will try to add to this blog a chapter at least monthly, if not every two weeks. I am not certain of the value of this enterprise, except to say that at this point, all the grownups in the family are dead, and if the story is not told now, it will simply evaporate, with no one else to tell it to those who follow. It is true that my son has heard many of the stories, but out of order and out of context, they lose some of their strength. True too, that a story told to a young man rings differently for him later in life. I write this memoir for him, but to be honest, I write it for myself too. Perhaps I seek vindication, or maybe it is validation… I’m not quite sure. Will it help explain why I dream of this or that? Will it inform my artwork? Will it afford me some cathartic release? Maybe – maybe not. It is hard to say with any real conviction from this end of any endeavor. All I know right now is that I feel the need to do it.
Chapters One, Pop- Goes the Weasel, A Memoir
We were a motley crew- the family and the rogues gallery of satellite personalities that came and went within the Morse universe back then. There were my parents, Joe and Claudia. He was a prominent editor, she, a former burlesque dancer, exactly twenty years his junior. He was jewish, she was catholic, although neither seemed to hold much value in religion. I was born first. Then came my younger sisters, Debbie and Carolyn. Attached to this nuclear group came the governess, Katherine Gregory or Greg, as we called her. Carolyn was the baby, coming a good three years after Debbie, and Debbie and I had only two years between us. Not far from our house lived my two grandmothers, Gertrude Morse and Domenica Speciale, in a house of their own, provided by my father. Then, of course, there was the cook, the maid, the head gardener and his crew, the handyman and the boat captain and his wife, depending on which captain it was at the time. There was also a laundress who came once a week- but she remained a little more mysterious, as she was not a daily presence and didn’t seem to care to socialize. It was enough for her to handle the enormous electric mangle, with the steam heat flooding the back room she worked in, as she fed it pounds of linens one by one. Even with the air conditioning, that room was unbearably hot while she ironed and washed, and we children would make haste to pass through quickly whenever we might find ourselves there by some chance coming into or going out of the back door to the courtyard behind the kitchen.
The small crowd of people who attended my family seemed to come and go, the only constant being the positions themselves. They were people whose lives were as unknown to us as ours were known to them, leaving only one constant, Katherine Gregory, my governess, who came when I was three weeks old and stayed until I was eighteen. The cook and the maid had their own quarters in a separate wing of the house. Greg lived with us kids, separated by some distance from our parents rooms. She had her own bedroom, but we kids were in and out of it as often as she was present in ours. As a result, there was no real separation between the four of us as there was from everyone else in the house.
The only private time Greg had was after we were in bed, and even then, she was on duty, all through the night. Without fail, she would take me into her own twin bed after one of my frequent nightmares. Sometimes, during difficult periods, she allowed me to sleep in her room for months at a time. Chatting with me in the darkened room, while the distant sounds of freight trains traveling the mainland would carry across the dark waterway interrupting our reveries with their haunting call. These were happy times for me, close to her- and safe. She did her best to put the world into perspective for me. She gave to me what my family could not. This was not for a lack of interest on my parents part, so much as an inability to understand or address the basic needs of children. They themselves had grown up abused and neglected and had survived the Great Depression with the corresponding psychic thickness of skin that made them less than sympathetic to children and childhood troubles.
I was what my parents would call the “sensitive child”. This was code for somewhat defective, as my neediness and seeming willingness to cry at a moments notice perplexed them at very least, and angered them at times, as it seemed that I could not begin to take things in my stride. And what was I in need of anyway? I had a roof over my head, food on the table and clothes on my back, not to mention the fact that I was growing up in a home with only the best of things- far more than either of my parents could have ever dreamed of as children. I was reminded that I should be grateful and happy that I had them for parents and that I had so much. And I was- I was a good little girl, with all of my might. I was.
In Mamaroneck, the world was enormous. The grounds of our home spanned some twenty five acres, complete with tennis courts, formal rose gardens with arching arbors, bronze sundial and a lone pillar of marble which had been set with small triangular fragments of ceramic and mirrored glass which sparkled in the sun. There was also an orchard with apple and pear trees, a small field of corn and a chicken coop, still musty and littered with feathers the long gone chickens had left behind. The main house had a long gray gravel circular driveway leading around to the back of the house, where the true front door stood, framed by steps and four massive, towering pillars, like a huge Tara that had been transported directly from the plantation. At either side of the steps lay two marble lions, one watchful, the other asleep, replicas of their famous Canova counterparts crouching at foot of the tomb for Pope Clement the XIII in Rome. The three story structure stood majestically against a backdrop of towering oaks, beeches and chestnut trees with a vista of rolling lawn on two sides all the way to the distant stone wall that encircled the property, ringed inside with enormous azalea bushes, both of which continued uninterrupted around the entire twenty five acres. In the other direction, a gravel path led through the center of the rose garden, past the tennis court, the chicken coop and the orchard, all the way to the other end of the property, where an enormous green barn stood across from a charming smaller house where my grandmothers lived. To one side of their house stood a vegetable garden which my Italian grandmother, Domenica, tended with pride. I will never forget the taste of that carrot she pulled from the garden. It was the first time I had tasted anything from a garden. Washing the dirty thing off under the spigot in the barn, she handed it to me for a bite. I remember well the surprise I felt at how sweet and tender it was.
Domenica was the single source from which all things natural sprang in my young life. She understood how things grew, she spent many hours outside every day tending her garden, and inside her house was something even more amazing. She had raised a little sparrow from infancy and it lived in the house with her as a pet. The tiny thing would flit from chair to chair and settling on the table itself, would hop from plate to plate at mealtimes, sampling the mashed potatoes or rice as happy and tame as any bird might be. With my grandmother’s guidance, it would step onto my small finger and happily perch there, tolerating my attentions and those of any who had an interest. After a while, the little bird would be returned to its small cage up in Domenica’s room.
I remember the house felt so homey and comfortable and I looked forward to the times when we would go there for a visit. When I would arrive, Domenica would go immediately to the candy jar and offer me my choice from the collection of gumdrops inside. It was somehow thrilling to be offered my choice from the pile of pretty pastel and sugared pieces. The violet ones were a favorite, with the intense anise flavor made more wonderful by the sugar crystals which scratched the roof of my mouth and melted down to the smooth chewy thing itself. At grandma’s there seemed to be no rules aside from being polite and obedient, which was easy for a child like me, and it was a wonderful contrast to life at home. There was no maid, no cook and nothing so fancy that anyone seemed to worry about a small child and her honest potential for spills or breakage.
Back at the main house, things were different. Almost everything in the house was child unfriendly- the antiques, the polished woods, the opulent furniture and silk rugs… There was only one place inside where we were able to be children, and that was on the third floor, where there was a play room and the bathroom with a deep old white claw footed tub where we would have our bath time. It was different from the rest of the house, with yellow wallpaper that had couples walking poodles and little Eiffel towers mixed with ladies carrying parasols. Up there, the walls were canted with the roofline and the walls closed around above us leaving the impression of being wrapped inside a children’s book. The small windows under the eaves reached the floor and gave a faraway view of the goings on below from a height that prompted Greg to warn us away from looking out of them. The light fixtures were old fashioned too, and sparsely placed, which made it a relatively dark place to be once the sun had gone down.
The play room was plain, with a table and chairs and the requisite piles of puzzles and books containing fairy tales and nursery rhymes, many of which my mother delighted in hearing me recite. At the table there was a record player that was housed inside a small white suitcase with red leather corners and handle. It was a prized possession and I spent many hours playing records one after another.
I was the first child for my mother. By then, my father’s three girls from another marriage were elsewhere and the eldest two long past their babyhood. The youngest, Maxine, came to be with us in the summers. She was twelve years my senior; a talkative and pixieish girl with shiny dark brown hair, a devilish sense of humor and a classically beautiful face. When she was around, laughter and silliness followed, and I adored her. My earliest memories of her are when she and the neighbor boy, Steve, would read me stories and affectionately tease and joke with me to a general sense of mirth that was contagious. When she came to the house, it seemed to light up from within. Everyone enjoyed her presence. It was not until I was thirteen or so that I learned that she was my sister. The former marriage had been so unhappy for my father that her relation to me was never mentioned. It was not until I was older that I wondered where she had come from, appearing as she did once a year, seemingly out of thin air. I had never questioned it before then. She was so familiar and such a happy occurrence that it never occurred to me to ask.
According to family lore, not long after my parents union, Maxine’s mother arrived at the house in Mamaroneck unannounced. With everyone out at the time, she pushed past the maid and ran to the kitchen to grab a large knife. She then rushed around the house, methodically slashing every painting, while the distraught maid kept her distance, pleading for her to please stop. The house and its contents had been part and parcel of her own married life with my father. The arrival of this new and much younger woman into the house she considered her own, was more than she could bear even though the divorce was complete.
Her name was Vita, and she and my father had been married for twenty five years. It had been an arranged marriage. The parents had known each other from mutual trips to Grossinger’s in the Catskills of New York, a famous summer resort for wealthy jews at the time. He was in his early twenties and working there as the social director. This was nice for his mother surely, as the lack of family wealth was made moot by his employment there. My father was a good looking and ambitious young man and Vita, judging from Maxine’s physical loveliness, must have been a stunner too. By all accounts, Vita was also very bright, and a good match for my father’s intellect. Seeing the two as peers in every way, the two mothers put their heads together and decided marriage was a very good idea. Unfortunately, Vita was less than charmed by my father, and begged not to be married off to him. Her pleas were ignored, and somehow the whole thing went forward, leading to three daughters, years of discord and misery for my father, and surely the same for her as well. It is unclear how or why it is that my father went along with such a bad plan, as it seems impossible that he was not aware of Vita’s feelings on the subject. It is one of those family mysteries that can find no rational explanation, with those involved no longer living and able to shed some light on the subject.
By his account, the union was a series of terrible events which repeated over and over for the length of the marriage. Years later, he described a scene in which he came home form work to discover her in bed with another man. Concurrent with his emotional demands for a divorce, Vita would lock herself in the bathroom and cut her wrists. In a panic, and banging on the door, he would summon the fire department to break it down, and an ambulance would be called to transport her to the hospital. Apparently, scenes like this repeated many times throughout their time together. She was never faithful, and he could never bring himself to leave her with the threat of suicide so clearly on the horizon.
It was a tragedy, and the father I knew never cried. But as he related this story to me so many years later, a single tear rolled down his cheek at the moment in which he pronounced the words, “twenty-five years”. I witnessed his tears only one other time for all the years I knew him.
As the first child of the new union, it fell to me to provide entertainment for my parents- an expectation that was never actually spoken, but was part and parcel of my duties as their obedient little girl. As soon as she was old enough to copy me, my sister Debbie was encouraged to join in. Certainly this is not any different than what transpires in any household where there are small children. But somehow, this was different. I had no real understanding of it then. But with precious little time with our parents, and the corresponding lack of attention paid us by them, it was our opportunity for a glimpse of approval- approval and attention that was very hard to come by. They were always somewhere else; traveling Europe or cruising up and down the east coast on the boat. My father worked in Manhattan and often brought work home with him to go over in his library/office. He worked long hours. While he worked, my mother led the life of a wealthy man’s wife, having her hair done, getting manicures or going into the city for the afternoon to meet him after work for dinner. They were always absent. Our days and nights were spent with Greg walking the grounds, playing in the chicken coop, gathering chestnuts, splashing in an inflatable pool and stopping over at grandma’s now and then. So when it came time to be entertaining for our parents, we were much more than willing. We were starved for their adoring glances, ushered away always sooner than we would like, off to bath time, bed, or simply taken away so the grownups could relax.
By the time I was six, the doctors told my father that he needed to spend his winters in a warmer climate for the sake of his health. He was fifty six by then and he’d had his first heart attack the year I was born, one of the thirteen to come. He had also developed rheumatoid arthritis. The warm weather, they said, would ease his pain and discomfort as there were few other treatments for it at the time. He bought a house for us in Palm Beach, on the north end of the island, where the Catholics and other less desirable bloodlines had moved. The island had been populated from the south end northward, with many of America’s oldest and most socially prominent families inhabiting the older and larger homes at the other end. The plan was for my father to live there in the winters, having his work mailed to him, coming north in the summers when he could commute to work.