November 21, 2009
Dear Fellow Spinster:
Here’s a little tale, not about how George and Laura Bush invited me to take an outdoor shower (more on that later) but a real story, the one I’ve been building into a memoir for the last three years: about how a tall blond WASP, Latino-lover and one-time girlfriend to a mountain-climbing, motorcycle-riding Italian photographer became an ex-girlfriend, a solitary Sunday School teacher and librarian in a Christian Science Reading Room, of all places. From Latino-loving biker chick to head librarian. How does that happen?
I have come up with seven possible explanations for this strange trajectory into spinsterhood: varnish, the US Navy, the Sons of Hercules, Cosmopolitan, horses, being raised in a religion most people find weirdly suspect, and John Gotti.
I was born entitled, the descendent of one US president (Ulysses S. Grant) and one pirate (Sir Richard England). My mother provided the blue blood, my father the buccaneer genes. She was a Wellesley girl, he graduated from Duke, Duke law and Harvard business school. What brought them together? Varnish. Paint and varnish, to be exact. My mother’s grandfather made it, sold it and built a nice little fortune off it through a small company he founded in Brooklyn: the Brooklyn Paint and Varnish Company, at 50 Jay Street, in what is now DUMBO.
It’s gone now, bought out in the seventies by a large chemical company, but while it was in my family, the Brooklyn Paint and Varnish Company provided for many perks, among them an Adirondack camp, which my great grandfather built at the turn of the last century. He built it on a mountainside, in the middle of a lake, complete with Adirondack-style cottage with stone pillars and wide front porch, tiny island with gazebo, private bay for swimming and plenty of show girls. While his wife stayed home in Brooklyn, my great grandfather had a fine old time, entertaining young ladies in the fresh air, by the silvered waters of Lake George. One man, many women. What did he do there? What do you think?
My parents met in a swimming race in those same waters, years later, when they were 13. My dad was a camper on a nearby island and my mother beat him. “Your mother was a great swimmer,” he always said, somewhat wistfully. He was a man unused to losing, espeially to women.
My parents did not become an item then; they were just kids. It took another 12 years for them to grow up and come together and the Navy had much to do with it, or rather, the war did. World War II, that is. My father had enlisted, as young men did back then, when he was in his first year of law school at Duke. Both my mother’s younger brother Ben and my dad’s older brother Arnold did too. It was what you did, particularly college-educated young men. Things were different than they are today. Privileged young men didn’t have to defend their country—they wanted to. Being college graduates, they also had an advantage: instead of ending up as enlisted men, they immediately became officers.
That’s how my dad became a commander on the islands of Guam and Saipan throughout the war, where he had the time of his life, according to stories he has shared with me over and over. Having been to bomb and fuse school in Jacksonville, FL, as part of his training, he was put in charge of a bomb dump. Later, he was in charge of collecting and dispensing carbines from officers and sailors as they came and left the island. This put him in the enviable position of being responsible for a lot of firearms. What did he do? He traded them for things a young naval officer needed: like lumber, a fridge and beer. What did he do with those things? What does any guy in the middle of a war do? Build a beach shack for entertaining nurses in. Do you detect a pattern here?
He not only entertained nurses in his beach shack, he dated many of them. I have all his photo albums from back then and they are full of photos of him standing next to the things he loved best in life: one, airplanes and two, ladies, most of whom were photographed wearing bathing suits and sitting on his lap, palm trees and bright Pacific skies in the background.
I needn’t mention it, but my dad was popular with the ladies and good looking: kind of like if Steve McQueen and Charlton Heston had a baby. He was charming, too, affable, and the beach shack didn’t hurt—nor the boat. Yes, he had a boat—doesn’t every guy from Palisades Park New Jersey serving in the middle of a war? He got the hull at the dump and fixed it up. He also got an engine from the dump, painted it and traded it for a brand new engine. So while other navy guys were doing push-ups for recreation, my dad was hanging out in his beach shack and taking the ladies waterskiing. As far as he was concerned, there is nothing like a dame!
When he was transferred from Guam to Saipan, he went out and made what he called a midnight requisition. He stole a trailer, in other words, loaded his boat onto it and took it down to the water. There, he met a guy loading telephone poles onto a carrier that was going to his next port of call. He gave the guy a carbine and in return, the guy loaded his boat onto the carrier. And presto! Upon arriving on Saipan, he found his boat waiting and a new crop of nurses. He had to leave the beach shack behind, alas.
So why didn’t he marry any of the those dames? Varnish. As things would have it, my mother, an English major, wrote him —and many other men—letters throughout the war. That was what women back home did: write to all the boys overseas. Anyway, that was her winning ticket. “Your mother wrote the best letters,” my dad has told me more than once. For proof, I have copies of them, all typewritten, in storage. Yes, he kept hers, she kept his. A paper trail, in other words, was established. She beat out the Navy nurses for his love with the stroke of a pen.
My father served his country and returned home, marrying my mother in 1947. My uncle, the heir apparent to running the Brooklyn Paint and Varnish Company and my mother’s younger brother, however, did not. A co-pilot of a Navy Liberator, he was shot down in a bombing raid over Marcus Island, on May 9, 1945, just before the end of the war. His plane and body were never found.
I remind myself once in a while when I see the headlines about Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan that I am not entirely removed from such losses. I have read and reread the letter that was given to my grandparents when two men showed up at the door of their home at 45 Kilburn Road in Garden City, NY, with the grim news. I can picture how it must have overtaken them, this news, their only son, gone. What did they get? A purple heart. A war hero for a son. For many years, it and Uncle Ben’s photo hung in the library of that very same Adirondack cottage that my sisters and I now own, a reminder of our family’s sacrifice. I may be descended from a pirate, but I have him as a war hero to burnish the family’s respectability, and for that, I am grateful.
My grandmother, the original Christian Scientist in the family, welcomed my dad as a son-in-law with open arms. My grandfather did not. I do know that at the end of the war, he had traveled the country, visiting the families of the other young men in my uncle’s plane. Their squadron had been called the Reluctant Dragons and there were 16 men who were lost in the raid. But apparently, he was turned away. Perhaps the families blamed my uncle, and by extension, my grandfather. Perhaps it was just grief at losing their children. Grief is funny. It will do that to you.
So my grandfather returned home, heartbbroken, my parents married, and settled into what married couples do. My dad became the proverbial son-in-law working for the Brooklyn Paint and Varnish Company, having finished both his law degree and MBA, courtesy of the GI Bill. What else did he do? He and my mother bought two acres on the Tiffany Estate in Oyster Bay, where they built a house that was distinctive for both the neighborhood and the times. Unlike other homes, it was of modern design. Strangely, it wasn’t painted on the outside: it was varnished. And that’s where I came into the world.