Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Day Nine-The Resort Hotel (My trip to the Soviet Union)


The House of the Benjimins
The Resort Hotel
by Douglas Messerli

As I mentioned in an earlier piece, we took a bus from Vilnius to Riga, traveling along, at some points the Black Sea in ice-cold weather. At one point we stopped by the sea just to watch the winter waves pounding the beach.

Arriving at one of the grandest and oldest hotels in the city, we were told only the jazz performers and their families could stay there. Although reservations had been made, there weren't enough empty rooms. What would the rest of us do?

We were shifted, via the bus, to what was described as a "resort hotel" in Jūrmala, a town between the Gulf of Riga and the Leilupe River about 20 minutes out of town. Certainly there some grumbles about this new development, but we had, apparently, no choice.

The hotel was more like college dorm, clearly built in the Soviet style. The bathrooms had only a drain instead of a contained shower stall, which troubled those of our group who had done little traveling previously. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this isolated spot (although the on-line promotional sites describe it as the fifth largest Latvian city) was its darkness and desolation. A heavy snowfall had just descended upon the region, and as several of us set out to explore the neighborhood, the entire area was so quiet and seemingly bleak that it felt somewhat foreboding, as if we had ended up in a town of the dead. Perhaps in the summer, it was beautiful and bustling, but its small dachas and wooden houses, lovely as they were, did not entice us. We couldn't know that this had been a particularly beloved spot for Communist Party officials such as Brezhnev and Khruschev, and that over 400 wooden houses in the Art Nouveau style had been designated national treasures.

I recall seeing the so-called "House of the Benjamins," one of the favorite of the area structures, built in 1939, set darkly against the night.

When we returned to our concrete bunker of a hotel, however, we not allowed to enter without our room keys and a passport. Like so many buildings in the Soviet Union, one door was closed, while in the other stood a guard. Access even to our beds was controlled.

When one of our group explained that his wife had the key, our friend was refused entry, despite the rest of our proclamations that he was "one of us."

"No. Nyet." repeated the guard.

I was angry. "He has to get in," I argued, "to dress of the evening performance. Can't you comprehend that he is one of us?"

"No," the guard insisted.

"We'd like to speak with your superior," another demanded.

Finally our friend's wife arrived to save the day, and he, with some resentment, was allowed to pass.

The jazz concert at a large hall, the name of which I can't remember, was excellent that evening. And we were all fascinated by the formal stroll of the Latvian audience, arms around each other's waists as they slowly circle the halls. It was like something out of another era, as if it were a formal dance.

But we were frustrated once again when, after the concert, we had no way to return to Jūrmala, since the bus had evidently abandoned us. Our Intourist male guide quickly flagged down several personal cars, asking if, for a few American dollars, they would drive us to the resort. All but one agreed, and we finally reached our destination late that evening. Evidently, that mode of transportation was a fairly common one, for Leslie Scalapino reported to me that on a later trip to Latvia, during which she had also been forced to stay at Jūrmala, they too had had to flag down passenger cars. In 2008 bus service from the airport to the resort town was begun for the first time, and presumably, there is now bus service between Riga and Jūrmala.

By the next morning several inexperienced tourists among are group were boisterously angry, threatening to demand their money back and to cancel the rest of the trip. Those of us who had been in many countries or were simply more able to deal with small inconveniencies, attempted to explain that a shower outside a stall was quite common in many parts of the world, that the guard's stubbornness was based on his attempt to protect us from black market dealers, and the seemingly unusual method of conveyance was not a serious problem; after all we had been returned safely—and at only a cost of five dollars. One had to expect some difficulties when traveling thoughout the Soviet Union. After a long conversation, they admitted that they had not been truly harmed.

The next leg of our trip was a fascinating journey to Estonia, of which I have already written in My Year 2005.

Los Angeles, September 14, 2010

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Glimpse into the Future (Marianne Hauser's Me & My Mom and a visit to my Mother)

My mother and her friend Ann

The twins, Savannah and Maggie, perform

Great-uncle Douglas and Eva
A Glimpse into the Future
by Douglas Messerli
Marianne Hauser Me & My Mom (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993)
My trip to Iowa took place from September 1, 2010 (when I flew from Los Angeles through Dallas-Fort Worth to Cedar Rapids) to September 4th (flying home through Chicago)

On my way to visit my mother—just turned 85 and residing in an assisted living home, Bickford Cottage, in my hometown of Marion, Iowa—I subliminally grabbed a copy of Marianne Hauser’s gentle satire of an aging mother and a mother-daughter relationship, Me & My Mom, published by my Sun & Moon Press in 1993. I should add that I planned to teach this book the following Tuesday in my Otis College M.F.A. course on American Satire.

The big issue of this book is the daughter’s own social and psychological problems, created in part by her mother’s obsessive focus on a dead son (a child, who, evidently, because of numerous birth defects, died in the womb), and the result, more importantly, of her own lack of sensibility and intelligence. The two must now switch roles, the daughter becoming the mother, her mom the overlooked child.

Tucked away at the Bide-a-Wee nursing home, the mother—whom one might describe as an intelligent and sensitive romantic—is bitter to have lost her home, her cats, and, most of all, her personal freedom. She spends much of her time apart from the other nursing home inmates, having learned from her first few months of internment not to cause a ruckus. Indeed, as the daughter describes it, she has slipped off into a private world except for occasional linguistic outbursts that betray her simmering anger.

The daughter, the source of income for her out-of-work, alcoholic husband and her young child, must continue to confront her mother in short visits it is clear she resents having to make. The two confront and console one another with their memories, alternating between anger and simple love.

What is immediately apparent in Hauser’s version of a painful relationship, played out in a hundred ways in millions of lives, is the lack of sensibility in the daughter—and by extension, in the younger generation. The world may have become more “realistic” in the daughter's often course and unimaginative perceptions, but it has lost the wonderment and beauty inherent in the older woman’s memories, one of the richest of which is a breakfast of Eggs Benedict, perfectly cooked, at the beautiful Majestic Grand with a handsome architect, of whom the mother remembers little else. The Majestic Grand has long since become a building inhabited by homeless people, and shortly after its mention in the fiction, it collapses, killing several of its inhabitants. Yet it stands for something that can never be replaced. If the mother cannot remember the name of the man, the meal becomes a motif throughout the book of a world that has disappeared. Throughout Hauser’s short fiction, New York and the remnants of past life are being destroyed, fading and forgotten. A new, less glorious landscape is built up in its absence.

The daughter is without a clue how to rediscover the beauty of that world, and finally, with husband and son, and a new child in her womb, she retreats to an equally run-down country life, which promises an even more dilapidated vision of reality. At least the daughter has no longer to confront her mother, and gradually becomes unable even to write her a note. The old woman has been abandoned, like most of her generation, to their own disappearing memories. And since even the names of presidents as recent as Jimmy Carter are unknown (in what I would argue is a slightly unbelievable premise), evidently, to the daughter and, by extension, to her generation, we can only image a world that is being eaten away from both ends so that by work’s completion, we have only those momentary encounters between the two. When even those confrontations disappear perhaps history ends. A new birth is about to occur, but for what purpose? What meaning might that child discover in a world that no longer holds any significance?

My own mother, Lorna, I reassured myself, was happy in her assisted–living residence, consisting of a two rooms and bathroom. We had attempted to return her to her large suburban house a couple of years after an accident that sent her hurling down the basement stairs, with her right hand permanently damaged. And she seemed eager to return, to give her former life another chance. I particularly had fought hard for that, insisting that we could hire a nurse to stop in for a few hours in order to help her bathe, and that we could provide her with food through deliveries from “Meal-on-Wheels.” On Thanksgiving in 2006, I returned to fix the big meal in her empty house, inviting the whole family to gather round that table once more, partially in the attempt to draw my mother home.

Soon after she returned to the house on Concord Drive, but after one night in the place she had loved so deeply, she called my brother to return her to the Bickford Cottage. “I'm lonely,” she wailed. There was no one there to talk to. She hated her meals-on-wheels, and feared most of all, I presume, the endless silence of the place. Most of her neighbors, although friendly, were younger couples with families. Many of her friends had died or were themselves now in assisted-living homes. My brother helped her move back into Bickford Cottage, and, soon after, sold her home.

Visiting Lorna the day after her 85th birthday, I met her so-called friends. What I wasn’t completely prepared for was the rudeness with which they often treated one another. Like Hauser’s central character, my mother, has remained slightly aloof, a “lady” as the nurses call her, who most of the resident’s love because of her slightly magisterial behavior. Yet as we shuffled down the hall to lunch, a three-pronged, decorative cane at her side, my mother pointed to the woman ahead, and spoke in a voice she might once have used only at a football game, “You see the woman with the scraggly hair? That’s our nurse.”

Another woman was “The one I told you about! Rose, meet my son.” A few feet away my mother continued, “She comes to the table and reads the newspaper every day. Doesn’t say a word!”

I presume the nurses have all grown accustomed to this elderly "honesty," and that many of her friends are so deaf they may not hear what she says “just out of speaking distance,” but the behavior, nonetheless, took me aback.

My mother, however, was not the only seemingly insensitive being in the place. The woman who usually sat next to my mother, Ann, spent the whole lunch telling me that both her former husbands had been secretly—unknown to her at least—gay, that she herself had had a nervous breakdown and “gone in for shock therapy” and that her daughter was in AA, confessions, I presume, brought on by my casually mentioning my “companion.” Perhaps my mother had previously told her I was gay, and she had regaled my mother with these same tales many times; for my somewhat proper mother, didn’t blink an eye, and Lorna later reported that before her shock therapy, Ann had attempted to come to dinner "dressed in her birthday suit."

Rose, the woman who my mother told me read the newspaper throughout the meal, sat at this lunch at another table, but soon came forward to tell Ann to shut up so that my mother and I might talk to one another. Ann didn’t miss a beat, moving on to tell me about all of her “artist friends.” “That’s why I never suspected my husbands,” she declared. “I had so many artist friends.”

Back in my mother’s room I observed that Ann certainly did have a lot to say. “But at least she talks,” my mother snapped back.

What I was also not entirely prepared for was the number of times my mother repeated each piece of information. During our weekly telephone conversations she often repeated news up to three times in each conversation. What I hadn’t imagined is that, if one spent more time with her, that repetition would increase to six, seven times…, occurring endlessly, depending upon how long one had time to speak with her. Reminding her that she had said it before helped not a bit; for she stubbornly repeated every last sentence, refusing to even acknowledge my attempted interruption. At first I simply chalked it up to the fact that she didn’t have a great deal of information to impart, and that she repeated things simply to fill up the conversational space. But I soon realized that it was simply a kind of dementia; she could not help but to repeat herself.

The future was equally open to reiteration. When I mentioned that my brother David and sister-in-law Jill would be visiting just before dinner, she asked me numerous times if I knew whether they might stop by. My sister Pat, who I told her was visiting for lunch the following day, brought forward my mother’s continued resentment, since she never visited. “Why won’t she come by?”

“She plans to tomorrow, Mom.”

“She never visits.”

After spending breakfast and lunch with her and touring her around town to visit the various houses in which we had lived (there are five, she imagines others), I took a short two hours off, returning to the hotel before I stopped back to Bickford Cottage to see David and Jill. They laughingly reported that upon calling her, they asked if I had been there all day. “No, he wasn’t,” she snorted. Jill corrected, “Has he visited today?” “Oh yes, he was here all morning.” Logistically, she was correct: I was not there all day.

“Is Pat going to visit?” my mother plaintively asked.

“Tomorrow,” I laughed.

“Time for dinner!” by mother spoke up.

“All right,” you go ahead, I answered.

“You see that woman with the scraggly hair over there? She’s the nurse,” she proudly pointed.
“Did you meet my son?” she accosted the kindly, “scraggly” haired girl.

Later David, Jill, and I met near the cars to briefly confer about the future. “How many years can we afford to keep her here?” I finally asked.

“About four years,” Jill confided.

“Oh dear, it would be quite devastating if she had to move,” I sighed. “But perhaps, like Howard’s father, when the time comes, she won’t even know it’s happening.” I cringed at the thought.

“That’s, sadly to say, what we’re hoping for,” my brother said.

Yes, we too were now plotting for the past to be gone. Now in our sixties, the three of us realized that we might soon be sitting in similar situations. Dave and Jill, at least, had their children, three loving boys, to turn to. To whom would Howard and I entrust our forgetfulness, to share a past that no longer mattered to anyone?

The next day my sister arrived, the charming two-year old twins, her grandchildren, in tow. They were delighted to see their great-grandmother and to meet a new relative. One of them, Savannah, insisted that I return home with them, crawling into my arms and refusing to let go. Soon after, my nephew Matt’s wife arrived with their new baby, Eva. I held Eva for a long while, the child falling to sleep on my lap. My mother held her for a half hour. The young girls where urged into the front room, where they entertained many of the residents by reciting their numbers and alphabet, dancing across the hearth as they spoke. At once it again became apparent to me, my mother was not all like the poor woman in Hauser’s book.

That evening, at dinner with my mother at Bickford, Ann, the woman who had told me her life story the day before, spoke more quietly, reporting that my mother didn’t truly have a great many people to talk to at the Cottage. “She’s—well how can I say this?—so much better educated and more intelligent than many of our residents. She’s a true lady amidst these rustic folk.”

Cap (whose real name was Casper, oddly enough my mother's maiden name), a former farmer to whom I spoke, couldn't remember where he had farmed or what crops to which he had devoted his life* When I tried to speak to some of the other "ladies," most complacently smiled, one of them giggled. Another woman intermittently hovered over our table to tell me that I reminded her of someone she knew from Grand Rapids who worked at The Journey (presumably a religious publication) "I've never been in Grand Rapids," I apologized.

Finally, I came to realize that, despite these occasional family visits, my mother was not very different at all from the mother in Hauser’s poignant book. She too, although seemingly most open and friendly, was somehow aloof, sitting apart from the other Cottage residents.

Would I too, when the time came, be an old man, reading in the corner in an attempt to escape the fellow lunatics wandering the halls? Yes. I was sure of that. But what if my eyes were no longer strong enough to see the words upon the page, my hands unable to type out the sentences of my personal commentaries? And who would be coming to see me? And when? My mother had generations of family. I would have none.

When I said goodbye that evening, she cried. But the tears where those of joy, not loneliness or fear. She was not being “abandoned” as was the romantic survivor of Hauser’s satire—and, as my glimpse of the future revealed, I might someday be. “I’ll call when I get home. And I’ll be back to visit as soon as I can,” I softly spoke as I bent down to hug her. “I know,” she answered, wiping away the tears. Yet her knowledge sounded somehow distant, inurned to some other reality she might have imagined. Like Hauser’s agèd mother she was preparing herself for disappointment.

Did my mother ever have Eggs Benedict? I order them rather often, but at breakfast with my brother the next morning I confused the poached eggs I wanted—not on the menu—with an omelet. "Do you want cheese with 'em?" asked the waiter. "Oh, no," I blithely complained.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, September 2, 2010 ;revised September 4, 2010

*Cap did, however, tell me a story with startling detail. One day his wife came home, he reported, and suggested that there was a nearby farmhouse for sale that she'd love to see. So that evening he took her out to see the house. She was delighted with everything about it. "It's perfect," she proclaimed. And before he knew it, they had bought the new farm and were moving in. "Only later did she tell me that she'd long had her eye on that place, and she'd seen the inside dozens of times throughout the years." "She knew what she wanted, and how to get it," I joked. "She sure did!" was his response. "We lived in that house the rest of lives."