When my wife left me, I kept looking for ways of retrieving her – in my mind, that is. Of course, this could only be done in my mind – for she not only left me, but she left this world – and without me. It was the finale of her long descent into the black hole of dementia.
The death, therefore, was no surprise. Except for the timing, it was inevitable – ever since the initial diagnosis over six years ago. I thought at the time: well, it looks like I will outlive my wife. Although that was not inevitable either; I could have died at some time in between. Yet you see, I didn’t. And so, here I am trying to retrieve some pieces of her life.
It’s relatively easy to retrieve much of our life together over the last half-century plus. For instance: I can just leaf through our photo albums that preserve probably more occasions than I am able to recall. Additionally, our documents and treasures (both worthwhile and worthless) accumulated in this life together will trigger memories of past trips, events, and such. Truly, this process is and has been comforting – stalling my otherwise probable slide into a deep grief. So you see: this retrieval route sort of keeps her alive in my mind.
Yet, in recent days this process has entered, you might say, another phase. It began when I was browsing through our joint library and came upon a book titled Masters and Masterpieces of the Short Story. It’s a collection of about thirty famous twentieth-century authors. It’s one of her books; and one which, I am sure, was an undergrad text in an English Lit course she took, probably in her first or second year of University.
I don’t know why, but I pulled it off the shelf and started thumbing through it. Immediately I saw and recognised one of her signature ways of reading a book. She always meticulously underlined passages with a pen and ruler. This was in contrast to my sloppy way of marking up a book, at least as I did in those days. From her precise markings, my browsing revealed which stories she had read. I could see that she carefully read nine stories out of the about fifty that were in the book.
As my thumb was leafing through the pages, I had a thought. But before I tell what it was, you must know this: I did not know my wife at that particular time. We only met in grad school, about three or four years later. And so, the thought: the underlined passages could be a way of retrieving a part of her life before we ever met. A sort of journey into her roughly twenty-year-old mind, maybe. Of course, I have pictures of her from birth, but they only give me visual information. I also have a collection of myriad letters she wrote to her family during the year she spent working on a kibbutz in Israel, right after her high school graduation. I have saved these as a treasure for posterity. So, I have some idea of her maturity and such in her late-teens.
Nonetheless, my guess was that these underlined passages might be a window into something deeper in her mind. What she wrote in the letters was what she wanted the readers to know. My rash conjecture, however, was this: that the underlined passages might tap into her unconscious or other secret places in her mental world. At least, that was my fantasy.
I remember cuddling the book in my arms – as if I were still holding her close – and my mind wandering afield. What was she like in the years before we met? Could I know? Is it possible to journey into some secret nooks of her psyche? What gems would I find? Or, at least, I think that’s what I thought.
Then again – and, I must say, frankly – I don’t really remember what I was thinking. Or, perhaps, I’m just too shy to say.
* * *
Nonetheless, not long afterwards, I sat down with the book and began a close reading of the nine stories that she read, looking for, well … God knows what?
I began with a story by D. H. Lawrence, probably because although I’ve heard of him, I’ve never, in fact, read anything by him. I may have seen some of his writings that were made into films, but I never perused any of his actual texts. I also knew that his writings were seen in their time as, you might say, risqué, for being franker on sexual matters than other authors. So, maybe – just maybe – that was a draw for me to him? In any case, there were two stories, the first called “Mother and Daughter,” and I read this first. It was about the bond, and even a spell, between the two – or maybe, more correctly, the spell the mother had over her daughter. It was also about how this duo humiliated and insulted men whom they invited to dinner as possible suitors for the daughter.
I found in the narration an almost relentless tension between the men and women as a result of (say) a missed meaning of words, or an erroneous interpretation of behavior and body language. As well, there was an elemental ambiguity between idealization and reality among the characters. Also, the writing style was captivating. Lawrence would posit one thing in a sentence or two, and then contradict it later in the paragraph. Sometimes the negation even happened in the same sentence. It was maddening, in a way, yet it kept drawing me into his story.
Okay, but what about the markings of my wife? (Of course, that’s years before she was my wife.) Well, there were underlined passages on almost every page, sometimes several in one paragraph. Occasionally there were vertical lines in the margin, marking a paragraph or a long section. Unsurprisingly, they also were done carefully with her ruler.
Yet, unfortunately, the particular passages that she marked – as opposed, obviously, to those she did not mark – did not reveal any insights into her mind, as far as I could see. It seemed to me that she was trying to keep track of the narrative so she could retrace it later without having to reread the entire thing. She also marked passages specifying particulars: such as descriptions of people, their looks or their clothing, or objects in a scene.
One underlined sentence that did strike me however, was this: “Her mother had power over her; a strange female power, nothing to do with parental authority.” I suspected, and still do, that it spoke to her about her relationship with her own mother. Of course, this was no great insight. I got to know her mother – later my mother-in-law – very well over many, many years, until she died just a few years before my wife. This means that her mother died when my wife was deep into dementia; and so, when I told her that her mother had died, she just looked at me, with a blank stare. I purposely peered very, very closely into her eyes as I gave her this news. You see by then she had stopped talking, and I had to look for non-verbal communication clues. I looked and looked – but there was none the day I told her that her mother had just died.
And so it went, story after story, marking after marking. Stories by Conrad, Hemingway, Stephen Crane, Joyce, Frank O’Connor, Irwin Shaw, Mary McCarthy. Lots of markings among a wide variety of tales, most of which I enjoyed reading. And you know, it was especially enjoyable because, in my imagination, I had a fantasy that I was reading these with my late wife, even before I knew her. A journey back in time. It was a sort of communication, even without the insights. And that was good. Yeah, it was. I guess you could say it was comparable to my struggle communicating with her during the depths of dementia. So, maybe, just maybe my failed attempt at retrieving her late-teenage mind was not entirely in vain.
Oh, yes, there was one more thing I found. In that first Lawrence story there was one very brief remark describing one of the suitors that I would interpret as anti-Semitic. It was just in passing and could easily be passed over by most readers. But my wife was Jewish and the remark, I believe, should have popped up off the page for her. Yet there were no markings there or anywhere near the short passage. It’s a puzzle, still, for me.
* * *
I could leave it there, but there’s one marked passage that I don’t want to leave unanalyzed. It’s from a terrific and eerie story by Mary McCarthy called “The Unspoiled Reaction,” about a puppet show for kids and parents, in which the parents were forced to sit on the periphery of the audience, so the puppets could interact more directly with the children in the middle. The idea was that this arrangement would more likely evoke an “unspoiled reaction” from the kids. I will not spoil it for you by giving away the ending, but I do want to quote the following passage in which I reproduce my wife’s underlines. Here it is:
And as for the seating arrangements, perhaps in the modern world
all spontaneity had to be planned; as with crop control and sex, the
“unspoiled reaction” did not come of itself; it was the end-product
of a series of manoeuvres.
Read it again.
Now, I of course, don’t know what my future wife was thinking when she read it and marked it. But I do believe that she missed something, something that popped out at me – or, at least, struck my funny bone. Do you see it? She missed it, for it’s not underlined.
Look: under the theme of planned spontaneity, McCarthy juxtaposes these two: crop control and sex. Not exactly two things I would think of grouping together. I think it is very funny – very, very funny – and makes me want to read more from her. I remember that some of her books were popular many years ago, but I never read them. Probably because I thought they were books for girls and women. It was my loss it seems, but one I can still retrieve and rectify now. Anyway, “crop control and sex,” funny, eh?
In the end, what also then jumped off the page was that in her careful act of underling this passage, my late wife skipped this funny phrase. Why? Pray tell, how did she miss it? I would have circled it, and put a ! in the margin.
Well it’s a puzzle; another puzzle. Knowing what I know about her, at least a few years later in her life, I am surprised she missed it – and I still cannot fathom how she skipped it.
I’ll go no further probing into her psyche – at least, not here. I’ve doubtlessly already revealed too much about her in my retrieval. And surely, I confess, the same about me. Sorry, but it’s time to stop.
David R. Topper writes mainly poetry and short stories (fiction and historical fiction), several of which have been published in on-line journals.