Straying Home: A Memoir of Changing in Place

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Perhaps it’s not quite accurate to say that the 1960s passed me entirely by. Maybe its more accurate to say that the ‘60s passed over me like weather passes over water, creating a little turbulence and a little warmth on the surface but leaving the depths of my life largely untouched. I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling. Growing up and groping one’s way towards some sort of definition of oneself is powerfully absorbing work, and that’s what most of us who were coming of age during those years were doing, with or without the ‘60s.

It’s been sad to watch the 1960s, particularly the last half of the decade, grow shopworn and dog-eared in the hands of collective memory, to watch it shrink from three to two and finally to one dimension, reduced to a single word that reads something like psychedilcvietnamgrannyglasseshellnoblackpowerwoodstock. No syllable of the word is untrue, but taken together they have all the cultural validity of a Made-in-Taiwan Navajo blanket. Life is a lot more complicated than that.

Which is why I don’t very often tell people that I spent every possible moment of my senior year at Smith hitchhiking to Montreal to visit my army deserter boyfriend. Watching their faces as they build a picture in their mind is like watching a bowling ball swerve toward the gutter.

I met Edward the spring of my freshman year. He was a junior at Amherst, nine miles away. A friend who was dating another Amherst boy invited me to come eat with them in the dining hall. Edward had said he had wanted to meet a girl. The dining hall was large and noisy and smelled of gravy and grease, resounding with boy talk and boy laughter and the scrape of boy chairs against boy linoleum. After the niceties of Smith it was intimidating.

I picked out some things at random from the line and put my tray down on the table. “This is Edward,” Helena said. Edward half rose from his chair and nodded in my direction, then went on talking to the boy next to him. He was the only person in the entire dining hall wearing a tie—not just a tie, but a tie, white button-down shirt, plaid sports jacket, khaki pants, and loafers. I silently pushed my creamed corn and meatloaf around on my plate.

“This is Liz,” Helena said. Edward turned back to look at me.

“Ah,” he said. “May I call you Elizabeth?”

“Yes.”

“Like Elizabeth the First? Or are you more like Isabel Archer?” He stopped. “Do you know Isabel Archer?”

“Yes,” I said. “Portrait of a Lady.” Edward’s eyebrows rose. He turned to the dark-haired boy next to him. “Albert, don’t you think Elizabeth is like Isabel Archer?”

Albert shrugged and looked kindly at me. “Don’t worry about him,” he said.

“Are you…English?” I asked Edward. The accent was not easy to identify.

“No,” Edward said brushing the question away with his hand. “Just terribly affected.”

And that’s how I fell for Edward.

Edward was a Classics major, but his real love was the novels of Henry James. He was the first person I had ever met who appeared to have so thoroughly invented himself, to have chosen not just to read books, but live like a character in a book. It was from Edward that I first heard the word lifestyle. It was thrilling to learn that you could have not just a life but a life so stylishly crafted that it required a new noun to describe it.

I soon discovered that Edward was not only not English, but he was not even the American aristocrat I had at first taken him to be. He had grown up in the beautiful part of New Jersey near Princeton, it was true; and he had attended Lawrenceville, that was also true (I realized when I got to know him better that all of Edward’s clothes were a little shabby and a little too small for him—carry-overs from his prep school days). His father, however, was a German immigrant who owned a string of plant nurseries and went to work every morning in heavy boots and coveralls, and his mother was a forthright woman with a genius for finagling a bargain.

That’s more or less where I came in. Edward’s mother had found an old mansion, a perfect imitation of an English country house, for lease somewhere near Bernardsville. It was set back in the trees at the end of a long drive, built of pale sandstone with leaded Gothic windows, grassy terrace, a wide oak staircase and a great baronial fireplace. The owner, a descendant of the Roebling who built the Brooklyn Bridge, lived in the gatehouse and rented the main house to Edward’s mother for the cost of the property taxes. Edward wanted to have an old-fashioned weekend country house party there with his friends and he needed a date. I was being auditioned for the date.

I was surprised to discover when the six of us pulled up to the lighted façade and passed through the carved oak doors that Edward was Eddie at home. “I’m always glad to meet Eddie’s friends,” his mother said as she headed back to the kitchen. “Make yourselves at home. Eddie, put out some guest towels in the downstairs bathroom, will you? The embroidered ones.”

Edward looked remote and bowed slightly in the direction of the kitchen, but I noticed that he didn’t make any move to put out the towels.

I don’t remember much else about the weekend, except sitting with Edward on the fireplace’s broad raised hearth sipping Courvoisier while the rest of the guests made out in the shadowy corners of the enormous living room. Edward and I didn’t make out, but it seemed to be understood after the weekend was over that we were boyfriend and girlfriend.

Spring on those beautiful old New England campuses is scented with dogwood and viburnum and exhalations of lilac. Long evening shadows run down the lawns like a deeper kind of light, pooling in the hollows and gathering under the trees. Men were still allowed only limited access upstairs in the Smith houses, so more often than not I would board the free bus that ran back and forth between the campuses and go up to Edward’s tidy room, where he would pour us out little glasses of sherry and put on the Brandenburg concertos or Aretha Franklin, and friends would come in and talk about how tiresome Picasso was or make fun of the poetry of Emily Dickinson. It only enhanced Edward’s glamour for me that he also and regularly dropped prodigious amounts of acid, though I was relieved that he never asked me to join him. I was sure that Henry James would have dropped acid too if he’d had the opportunity.

The excitement of spending time with Edward was heightened by a tension that could turn into terror at any moment. Edward had a way of ignoring me for long stretches of conversation and then suddenly asking me to deliver an opinion, almost always on something I had no opinion about at all. “Elizabeth,” he would say turning, pointing at me. “When do you think Lambert Strether knew about Chad and Mme. de Vionnet?”, and everyone would stop and look at me as though something important were about to be illuminated. Or, equally likely, “Elizabeth, do you think ’96 Teardrops’ is a good song?” or “Can one drink brandy out of anything but a snifter? Albert thinks a big snifter is vulgar. What would your grandmother say?”

Alice had a campus job working in the Northrop House kitchen washing dishes and she had become friends with all the women on the kitchen staff, a hard-working crew of women in orthopedic shoes and hairnets. I didn’t realize until Alice started working there how much of an interest they took in the lives of the girls who lived in Northrop House.

“Rose asked me the other day if you were seeing someone,” she said.

“She did?”

“She says you look different. She says you look good.”

Written by lizseymour

March 15, 2008 at 3:41 pm

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