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Paris in the Twenties

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She looked hard at me for a few seconds, as though she didn’t recognize me. I didn’t recognize her, her two black eyes filled with what I know now were terror and disappointment. Then she lowered her head and cried, which made me feel pity for her—and more rage, which I had the good sense to keep to myself.

I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to see the squiggles of mascara run for a second time down her cheeks, and because it would help keep me from weeping, which I didn’t do in front of anyone I knew, especially not my parents. I cried only on city buses or in libraries or restaurant bathrooms.

How long did I keep that pose—pissed off and trying not to cry, trying not to be wounded and needy? Ten years, 15, maybe 20? My mother’s behavior that night, and all the others, was not a pose. It was the real thing, and I did not want to be cold or cruel, though I doubt I was a tremendous comfort to her until her final sickness, which lasted for years. When she was well, I rarely asked her for help or advice, even in the raising of my children, though she was always kindly and willing. I tried to be both in return, but it was always an effort for me. I was terrified of getting too close to her weakness for fear it would become my own.

That night in the kitchen she cried on, and I brought her a plate so we could share the spaghetti. We did not embrace, did not promise to take care of each other forever and always. We were characters in a gritty, frayed, unsentimental movie for which the 1970s are celebrated. I didn’t even tell her that Ginger had died. She would have cried more and used it as an excuse to cling to me.

I must have said eventually that I had homework to do and must have gone to my room, smoked cigarettes, and kept reading about the troubles of Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway—financial, mostly—and of Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald—alcohol and madness, mostly—as I buried my fury at the world, and especially at the lawyer. He had given my mother no map, no hope, just his reading of a crystal ball. How dare he not look after us when we needed him so much.

My absence at Ginger’s funeral would have been noticed in a class of 21 girls, or so I feared. And there was my morbid curiosity, ordinary rubbernecking: This is grief, and today it’s not your own.

I was late getting to Frank E. Campbell on Madison, and the chapel was mobbed, standing room only. My classmates took up two rows in the back, and I squeezed in between Donna Robinson and Andi Goldstein. The room buzzed with whispers, coughs, and sniffles, and the air was thick with the scent of clashing perfumes. On the altar were wreaths propped on easels, making a half-circle around Ginger’s coffin, which I was afraid to look at. Made of dark wood, it had scalloped silver handles—and it was closed, thank God.

“Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.” The rabbi’s voice was amplified, but he spoke in almost a whisper. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or even before thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou are God.”

Heidi Stein, at the other end of my row, passed down a stack of tissues. I took the last one and clutched it, felt it grow moist from the sweat of my palm. I should not have sat next to Donna. She wept, and I was afraid that I would too. The rabbi paused frequently, a way to accentuate the depth of the injustice before us, this child struck, it might as well have been, by lightning, and I cry now, all these years later, not for Ginger, but for her parents, because I have two children, one about to leave home the way the other left two years ago, and the way I was determined to leave back then. I think of them—Ginger’s parents, whom I never knew—whenever the phone rings too late at night, too early in the morning.

“‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’”

There was a quick, sharp moan, a whimper, a lull. I looked at my lap and swallowed a stone. A moment later, a couple—who but the parents?—led the way out of the chapel behind the coffin, the father’s arm hard around the mother’s shoulder, her face the color of devastation. Donna Robinson was hysterical beside me.

I did not cry until I reached an entrance to Central Park on 79th Street and headed downtown. I had no destination in mind; I just wanted to keep moving. There were patches of old snow in the distance, bare trees, pigeons everywhere, and I walked with my head down and my hands stuffed into the pockets of my cashmere coat, which was loose and full and had no buttons, only a belt that I’d lost. My eyes overflowed, and the wind blew the tears across my face. I thought that when I got home, I’d tell my mother that Ginger had died, which would make her throw her arms around me, and I would let her, for a minute or two. When my father got home, I’d say that at least the rabbi had gotten Ginger’s name right. Small mercies—did I know that expression back then? And what did it mean that all their money hadn’t been enough to save Ginger?

But I found my parents sitting stiffly in the living room, the sparkling new window spanning the space between them, and felt an eerie, expectant hush as I looked from one to the other. I started to ask what was wrong, but my father said my name, which he hadn’t in months, and then in a lower voice that was kind, sober, and sad, he said there was something they had to tell me.

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