Chemical

 

Yesterday I was up at the Cloisters looking at a famous painting of the annunciation.  A teeny Jesus is flying in Mary’s window, teeny streaks of light behind him, a toothpick cross on his back.  He reminds me of Tinkerbell.

The tour guide said the announcement, the word of God, impregnated Mary, so Jesus was headed to her ear.

Do you know what’s inside you?  Or how it got in there?

Or do you know what’s inside and what’s outside?  Or what is chemical, what is science, and what is natural, whatever we mean by natural?

It still pisses me off that my anxiety remains relatively untouched by meditating, yoga, a hot bath, a massage.  Those things help keep me going when I’m in the worst of it, but they help only a little.  The itch is so deep in there, I can’t really reach it with anything but chemicals.

What helps is the drug no one actually knows exactly how it works, but perhaps keeps the serotonin in my brain from disappearing, raising my levels of serotonin to where most people’s are normally.  And where mine were until six years ago.  What we know is people can feel better.

When you’ve been having panic attacks and pretty much everything sounds scary to you for no reason, feeling better is a more intense version of when you have a terrible flu, and the first time you leave the house again, you just look out at the world, and your walking and talking and all the stimulation, you’re like, “Awesome!  This is amazing!”  I think, Why would I be afraid of the cafeteria?  Or lunchtime?  Or the bus?  Wow, that’s crazy.

It does take a while, the last week I was deliberately trying to force my brain wrong, to see if I could… could I?  I could work myself up a little, get nervous, that’s as far as it could go.

My sister came to visit, and it turned out to be less a go-save-the-faraway-family-member mission and more of a good time that showed how much better I am.

We walked in circles in Fort Tryon Park, accidentally.  I had never had trouble finding the Cloisters before, but this time, when it was raining and her shoes soaked up puddle after puddle, the curved paths, past scent-glowing lilac bushes and along the cliffs that guard the peaceful Hudson from the city, we somehow made a circle, regrouped, made another circle, whoa.  And only the third time we tried did we get a straight path, we got to where we could see the tower of the Cloisters rising above the trees.

“These trees are taller than in Kansas City,” she said.

“Nah,” I said.

“No, they are,” she said.

“Hm.”

We got wetter, and wetter, in circles, on sidewalks, on gravel, until finally somehow we got in the right line.  I saw the bell tower first, then the driveway.

When we were little girls, our grandparents took us to the Cloisters.  We took a taxi from Penn Station.  I remember someone saying it would be a long ride, and expensive.  We saw the unicorn tapestries.  I bought a flat gold bookmark in the shape of a heart.  Like everything from New York, it was precious to me.

We joined up with a tour at the museum, and the guide explained that a tapestry and two different shades because the bottom was a repair job.  “They did a wonderful job,” she said, “but this part with the color still vivid is plant dyes, and the part done with chemical dyes is the part that is all faded.

“So, go plants!” she said.  The plants in the tapestry were roses, which, in medieval times, had plenty of thorns and were heavily scented, and did not climb.  And lilies of the valley, who hang as jingle bells down stems, we had seen them in Fort Tryon Park, licked with rain.  Lilies of the valley are the flowers our stepmom dug up from her mother’s yard, and planted in her own.

In the center was a tree that isn’t real.  Only the fruits are real, pomegranates, which stretched to show their seeds, and dropped beads of juice.

Image: Detail of “The Unicorn in Captivity,” Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

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Tea

How is the anxiety disorder?  How is the Russian Tea Room?  I prefer the Russian Tea Room.

It took a glass of wine and a call to my mother to get me into Manhattan.  I had successfully passed through lunchtime (for mysterious reasons a great anxiety trigger) and my oh-shit work is over I have nothing to distract me was the next hurdle.

After the wine and the talk, I got myself on the bus, on the subway, no problem.

Then the sidewalk in front of Carnegie Hall didn’t scare me, not the glossy building across the street, waving and dizzying, or the dark.  I waited for my friend, and looked up at the grocery flower display out front of an apartment building I used to visit, twenty years ago.  New York charms: in winter, the Christmas trees out with us, in warm weather, the cut flowers in their bins, waiting.

We had a couple of hours of a string quartet, lost in musing, under the chandelier, at the faces of each player, their bow hands, their shoes, listening for the second violin part, which is the best, their ring fingers, three of four were married, who was a little fat, who was tall, the different browns of their instruments, a bow hair that, loose, caught the light.  The ideas of the music.  Beethoven bridge between old-fashioned and modern, between us and them, right?

We went two doors down to the Russian Tea Room, through their frosted revolving door.

The famous restaurants and bars of New York are the task of my forties.  Sardi’s, Bemelman’s, now the Russian Tea Room.  I have hardly any more money than I had my early trips into the city, but now I have appreciation for a proper drink, properly made.

We ordered caviar and vodka.

The vodka was poured into tall, thin glasses.  The bartender explained how each one was different.  I tasted each one, and each tasted exactly like vodka.

The room was greener than I had imagined.  There was some red, but there was also green.  All restaurants should be red inside, and all other indoor walls should be white or yellow.

I looked over at the booth where Louis CK had sat with F. Murray Abraham, filming a scene for “Louie.”  Certain episodes of “Louie” have made me right again, and “Amadeus” is, of course, everything for us who are mediocre.

On the way home we argued about death and sat opposite two hoodied guys.  One messed with a pill bottle and then both slumped over in reverie, perhaps to ride the 2 all night.

I have never ridden the 2 to the end.

The Russian Tea Room has glass cases of Russian stuff for sale, nesting dolls, glossy, gold and red painted this and thats.  Little price tags.  It enchants me how places Fancy New York in my mind have their own clumsiness and kitsch.

I tasted the orange-pink caviar, bubbles on bread and cream cheese.  The pills of fishiness squished like vitamin E gelcaps.

And that was enough of that.

Six weeks on higher dose of SSRI.  When the antidepressant is working, it shuts a trap door inside my brain, and the room of horrors, I don’t even know if the demons are still down there.   I don’t know, and I don’t think about it, even.  They become like a bad, flat fiction.  I don’t think about how I might need to drug myself, I get to think about how I might want to drug myself.

Last week at church I had a bout of panic, and I decided this week to stay home, sleep in, lounge.  This was totally unlike me, to let myself off the hook this way, although my doctor recommends it.  The first time I went to see her, and talked about the panic, need-to-flee feeling, she said, “Well, then you should go!”

That sounded completely crazy to me.

She has a very nice black dog, though, and I like petting the dog while she writes my prescriptions, and I like that she is 1,000 years old and her home office is in a luxurious doorman building, with a crummy packing-tape-mended chair.

When I finally got up and out today, I ran into my neighbor.  I went a couple of months without seeing him, which was odd.

“So many people in and out of the building!  I’m glad you’re still here,” he said.

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

We passed an old lady he said hi to, I said, “I haven’t met her.”

He said, “She used to watch my daughter.  And she’s known me since I was this high.”

Somehow we were talking about being 25.

“I’m so glad to be older,” I said.

“I’m not, those were great times,” he said.

We talked about these kids today, and about New York, how he wanted to leave, but had deep roots there, and I said I envied his roots here, and I didn’t say, why does anyone want to leave?

Skeletons Warming Themselves

I didn’t know three people who died this week.

On Thursday, my meditation group mourned a parishioner who was shot by the police.  I never met her.

They talked about how okay Ms Danner was when she was okay, how you would never know she was ill.  Someone held a piece of her knitting, just as the priest would at the service the next Sunday, a cloth they use to dry you after baptism, and you get to keep.  It has a cross knitted into it.

Ms Danner wrote of “a strong support system in my church home dealings.”  Churches have plenty, plenty, of problems, but I have seen many mentally ill and disabled people well supported by their churches.

And she wrote, “What if my medication fails me? I ask myself, will I know if it does? Will the illness overpower its effectiveness? When? Where?”

If my medication failed me, I don’t know what I would do.  To even imagine that my SSRI and my rescue meds would stop working makes me imagine I would drink constantly to function.  And all I have is a little anxiety disorder.

In New York City, apparently, there are special officers who are called to help people who seem mentally ill and dangerous.  (I have difficulty separating dangerous people from the mentally ill, wanting to hurt others or yourself seems to me the definition of mental illness, but you know what I mean.)

Sunday morning, the priest spoke about Ms Danner and social justice, and action, and the woman in the pew next to me silently cried and cried.

After church I waited for the subway back to Brooklyn.  I read a book.  I closed my book and walked down the platform, I don’t know why.  Waiting for the train is one of the things that sometimes plunges my brain with anxiety, but I wasn’t anxious, just restless.

“Liz?” someone said.

It was a friend I ran into– just as randomly, far from either of our homes or workplaces– about a month ago.

He was on his way to a funeral.

This death was also brain-related– odd– cancer this time, though.  The father of our mutual friend, who pulled me through many tough spots, long days, mostly with funny stories and playful energy, but also with one enormous cookie I still remember greedily.

The moment you go from being alone to hugging someone in Manhattan is a moment I have always loved.  It’s a tiny salvation that happens again and again.  My sister approaching the Natural History Museum as I ate an apple.  My curly-haired friend and her curls coming up Park Avenue, me going down, the restaurant where we’ll eat in the middle.  Tumbling down my building’s steps to open the door for a beloved face.  Very small salvations that one hopes add to the well of what we can believe in.

At my stop, I said goodbye, the train went on, I climbed up and out, and walked around a beautiful city autumn day with my chest feeling so open and so bruised.

The third: a friend whose sister was mentally ill died.  I had followed this story at a far distance, frustration at lack of help, limits of care.  I knew the facts of it.  It had eerie and terrible inevitability, at my distance.  One day, we both had sisters who were alive, then he had a sister who was dead.

It’s a time of death.  The beautiful autumn day included walking past many brownstones with skeletons hanging out.  We have a festival of death, of winking at it, and it’s here.  People with children think it’s perfectly okay to have representations of dead people dancing across their lawns.  It is.  We need to.

Skeletons have no softness, no soft parts, no brains to misfire, no minds to have or to lose.

At meditation this week, I saw myself floating down a river, a small river, an Ozark river, that is where people float, back home, and it is not athletic in the slightest, it is stepping into the current.  Paddling over to someone you want to talk to, letting yourself drift away from them.  People get so drunk they can hardly stand up, and yet I’ve always been amazed: they rarely drown.  They look after each other, the current is usually slow, manageable, they get wet, break ankles, but stumble out and recover.

Image: a longtime favorite painting of mine, James Ensor’s “Skeletons Warming Themselves,” Kimbell Art Museum.

Very Small Things

As the lesson said, “mustard seed,” I thought there must be smaller things than that, things so small that is the size of the faith that I have, like, perhaps a speck of dust.  Last night I was taking the train home and suddenly realized that I had no money, and would never have any money again.

Then I played this game I like, which is, I need something/what do you need?  Feeling poor (as opposed to actually being poor, which I am not) is about thinking there is something that would make you happy, you just can’t afford it.

This game worked well, as the 4 train stopped and went and stopped and went along back to Brooklyn.  I couldn’t figure out what I wanted that I couldn’t have it seemed like I actually had what I wanted.

I had spent the evening watching a documentary about the New York pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair.  Many people have tried to protect and preserve the flying saucers on sticks that sit in Queens, patiently rotting.

The documentary was shown at City Reliquary, a place that was on my list of spots to visit in the city.  When I walked in, a woman with nicely curled hair said, “Welcome, admission is free,” and I walked through a turnstile for no apparent reason but the love of turnstiles.

Among the incredibly adorable things they have are:

  • a dancing mannequin in tribute to Little Egypt, the famous burlesque dancer, and a (formerly) nearby theater founded by Fanny Brice
  • samples of soil from each of the five boroughs
  • a pretend wedding cake from a beloved Mexican bakery now out of business
  • rocks collected at Rockaway Beach
  • a listening station to hear “The Bridge” by Sonny Rollins, surrounded by information about the Williamsburg Bridge, which inspired the piece
  • pieces of stone from famous building of New York: the Waldorf Astoria, the Guggenheim
  • a hammer labeled “very old hammer”

The hammer was my favorite.

Earlier in the week, I had been to the Met’s exhibit about Jerusalem.  (For the bargain price of $1.)  They had stained glass windows, marble carvings, gold trays, Bibles and prayer books and Korans, it was all beautifully done.  It didn’t move me nearly as much as the grubby City Reliquary, though.

They did have two manuscripts written in Maimonedes’s own hand, as the label said, and that blew my mind.  In one of them, he is raising money to ransom people who have been kidnapped.  In his own hand.

Six years ago, I went into a junk shop in Iowa City and found this little bronze Arab-looking guy sitting cross-legged, and I loved him, and bought him, and took him home, and then I figured out he was Maimonides.  Maimonides is a strange person for me to love, since he is most known for his interest in the law and science, two areas which aren’t exactly my greatest passions.

After church I took the train to coffee, and on the way, I, and many of my fellow New Yorkers, had to walk a million miles under the Fulton Street station because  not only is the 3 train not running today, the A and the C and the 1 are not running, either.

When I finally got on a train, there was this foursome standing next to me, four adults and a baby I was making eyes at, they were trying to figure out how to get to 96th Street, they had taken the train downtown to get uptown, which is the worst thing in the world except taking it from Brooklyn to Manhattan to get to Brooklyn again.  “The weekend train is so awful, especially today,” I said, and then I chatted with one of the ladies.  “You just gotta have patience, what else can you do?”

We chatted a while until the guy with her tried to interrupt, and she said, “Excuse me, I’m talking to this nice lady.”

Then I told her to have a nice afternoon, and I got off at 14th Street, and I felt like I had what I needed.

From the Chair

img_2200“This will hurt some, but it would hurt a lot more if I give you a shot in your gums,” the nice bald Russian man said.

I nodded.  I’d had someone push and trim along my gum line with a hideous instrument before, it had gone fine.  Nerve pain in a tooth is the worst, and my tooth is dead, R.I.P., left lateral incisor.  “Uh-huh-huh,” I said, and gave him the thumbs-up.

In Kansas City, I had a dentist who never gave me a filling, he “helped” me out.  The Russian man, here, is not much on following the spittle on the sides of my mouth.  He’s not much on having an assistant.  He’s done almost everything all by his lonesome.  He does cock his head and look at my tooth like it’s a haute couture piece, though, and I like that.

Two days before, I was sitting with a martini at gold-dipped Bemelman’s bar in the Carlyle Hotel, being served by a man in a white jacket.  We sat behind the piano, where the piano’s glossy back arched away from us, as if it were going to dive back in.  Every song you could call a “standard,” the man played, one by one by one, Old New York, he was hidden behind the piano, by its top up, we were shielded by the piano from the doorway to the lobby, the airlock to the world, if you could call Madison Avenue “the world.”

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  I had lots of time, ideas, a million adventures at my fingertips; I am unemployed and have the money I have to look at and watch trickle.  I needed a root canal and a crown; I asked for help with this and it was kindly granted.  Financial help, that is, in the chair, with my mouthful of drills, I have only the alphabet to imagine places I’m glad I’m not trapped:  A, an attic  B, a basement.  C, a cliff dwelling.  D, a death chamber.  I wasn’t great at this game.

It was the next day that the Bemelman’s day ended– I was with a visiting friend and we, as usual, took everything way too far– I stepped into a train car which had four men in it.  Two of them were passed out, and the other two looked about to pass out.  It was two a.m.  I take the subway whenever I want.  I have never had a bad experience.  As with walking barefoot, I’ll have to have a bad experience to stop doing it, and I’m still walking barefoot all kinds of filthy places.

When I got close to home, I bought chocolate chip cookies and water from the newsstand.  Had to walk a ways.  Down our boulevard, which always has cars.  Which at three a.m., has another couple of guys sleeping on park benches.  I tiptoed past them.

The very next day I walked the same street in the daylight.  Instead of a big moon, the trees were presiding.  Instead of being heavy shadow clouds protecting us, the trees were out and explained by day.

I passed a cardboard box of books on someone’s stoop.  There was a children’s book titled, Squids Will Be Squids.  I took it.

I got to my writing space, and I found a book about an aircraft carrier.  I left the squid book and took the aircraft carrier book.  I think it’s okay to take books from there.  What writer wouldn’t want a book borrowed, to be read?

In the ladies’ room at the Carlyle, I washed my hands and put on lotion because it was fancy Carlyle lotion, and it did smell like rich people.

“Do you have a ponytail holder?” this woman asked me.  I was fumbling through my bag looking for my lipstick.  Having had a martini prevented me from finding the lipstick.

“I don’t, I’m sorry.  They should have a vending machine for those.  I always need one, too.”

She had white grey hair, and a long black dress.  “I just need to pull this up,” she said, and went into a stall.

“Uh,” I said.  “Do you need help?”

“No, no,” she said.  She came out.  “I just think this would be better with hair up.”

“Well, it looks great,” I said.  ‘Those feathers!”  Her necklace was made of feathers and white and grey beads, pointing and fringing away from her face, toward her décolletage.  “They look great with your hair!”

I was free from the worst job I ever had, from the avalanche of need of my students, from the terror of losing my job, from alarm clocks, from what was happening.  I was under the thumb of the calendar, my email inbox, from what I want to write but have to force myself to sit down and write, and from what could happen.

Small Animals

13625378_10208590462653305_9197893018731847063_nI thought Sardi’s was a tourist trap.  And I thought I could not afford it.  My way of going to see Broadway shows has always been to eat a slice of pizza beforehand, because after paying for a ticket that is all that seems prudent.

I happened to be meeting a friend in Times Square, though, it is halfway between us, and I thought of Sardi’s.  It was lunch, maybe we could swing it for lunch.

The waiters had jackets, the walls were the caricatures, and were the red I think a restaurant should be.  All restaurants should have red walls.  Except Greek restaurants, which should have white ones, and Mexican restaurants, which should be yellow.  The ceiling had acoustic tile, which reminded me this was a real place.

Amazing places are also real, hard to absorb, but true.  The pyramids in Egypt are, I guess, a real place.  I know the Louvre is real.  It was hard for me to believe it, though, when I was there.

We ate and had a good chat.  It was a late lunch, and there were only three tables of us left, the place had cleared out from the Wednesday matinee crowd.

“He’s in the bar area,” our waitress said to the couple next to us.

“Excuse me, who were you asking about?” my friend asked, thank God, because I was trying to figure out how to get them talking.

“Her brother, Arthur Miller,” the man said.

Then I had a heart attack and couldn’t think what to say.

For six years, I taught The Crucible.  “Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer,” I thought, rather than “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another!” which would have been cool.

Every time I taught it, with my five sections of juniors– so that is thirty times I read it– I would stop there and say, “Why does he say that?  Does beer not freeze?”

The kids were in chemistry that same year, and usually there would be one kid who would explain, “Alcohol doesn’t freeze.”  It was a test to see who knew about chemistry, or about liquor, as a junior in high school.  “You can put a bottle of vodka in the freezer,” someone might say, and I would think, Well, that tells me something about you.

I did not know about the freezing point of alcohol when I was a junior in high school because I was a nerd.

I wanted desperately for Arthur Miller’s sister to begin telling us her life story and I would have sat rapt the entire time, but I couldn’t think what to ask because I was stuck on, Arthur Miller was a real person, with a sister, and Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer.

For the record, I don’t think anyone would say my justice would freeze beer.  I would say, the quality of mercy is not strained, it drops as the gentle rain from heaven, another dramatic quote that sticks with me, this one from driving past the words engraved in the sign at the public hospital next to where I worked.

Arthur Miller was a real person, not a saint, wait, saints were real people, too.  Once.

Arthur Miller’s sister is not her name.  What was her favorite play?  I managed to ask.  She is an actress.  “Between jobs,” I said; she chuckled.

Death of A Salesman,” she said.

Well, I would have to read that again.  It had been a long time.

My imagined Broadway in New York is the ’40s and ’50s, those shows, their clothes, good wool and high heels and clothes that gave women shape instead of them being expected to provide it, and small drinks, little wine glasses, little martini glasses, automats.  Everything drier and sleeker and smaller.

This isn’t to say I don’t love being here now, a woman who isn’t married and doesn’t have to be, with current Times Square, much more money, much more diverse, less provincial, less formal.  I love the people dressed in cartoon character costumes, now confined to blue-painted patches of the sidewalk so they don’t get in the way of we civilians.  I love the embarrassing capitalist mess of it.

Joan Copeland is her name, and she was one of the first members of the Actors Studio, along with, you know, Elia Kazan.

I’m glad I didn’t know this while chatting with her, I would have lost my shit even more.

I was conscious of not asking her about her brother, being a sibling to someone so famous must be kind of a drag.  “What was your favorite part?” we asked.

She talked about playing parts in soap operas.  Which reminded me of my favorite old man I ever met in New York, a retired violinist for the Met.  I met him at MoMA, and he told me about hanging out with Rothko (who was also a real person, I know), and when I asked him what his favorite opera was, he said, “The shortest ones.”  Work is work.  And I wasn’t sure how clear her thoughts or memories were, she’s of an age to have so many thoughts and memories they could get crowded and jumbled.

“Has Sardi’s changed?” we asked.

“Oh, no,” she said.  “I used to have that corner table every night,” she said.  “They saved it for me.”

“Wow,” I said.  I could also say that.

“When my brother was blacklisted, you couldn’t go eat in the restaurants if you were thought to be a liberal, you know, they said communist then, but a liberal, really.  Vincent not only let Arthur eat here, he would be out in the street and yell down to him, ‘Welcome, come on in.'”

I asked if I could take my picture with her, would she mind, she said no.  I sat next to her and she asked if she needed lipstick.  I said yes.  She pulled out her beautiful black satin clutch, fooled around in it for the lipstick and applied it to her bottom lip perfectly, looking into her palm as if it had a mirror in it but it did not.  Her fingernails were red, her blouse was just the right shape for her figure, her earrings dangled just below the length of her hair.

Someone mentioned men going bald, and she started singing, “A bald man…. don’t kiss a man/whose name you don’t know….  What song is that?”

We didn’t know.

“I usually think it’s a good idea,” I said, “but not always.”

She was in thirteen shows on Broadway, lots of soaps, and had bit parts on television and in movies.  She was an understudy for Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn.  She knew Marilyn Monroe from the Actors Studio, but did not know Monroe was dating her brother.  (“I’m not much up on gossip,” she reportedly said.)

I walked down subway stairs in love with her, “I am in love with her,” I thought, which made me start singing, in my head, “I’m in love/ I’m in love/I’m in love/I’m in love….”  That is maybe my favorite show.

I would rather, actually, meet Joan Copeland than Arthur Miller.  Most of us artists are small animals, the squirrels and sparrows of the art world, not lions like Arthur Miller.  We’re all related, though, all in that family, and it was lovely to meet a grandmother.

Merchant’s House

I turned the hottest corner in the world and almost walked past the 1832 home of only one family, ever: the Tredwells.

I would like to put in, here, that it is the oldest something or other, but that isn’t really the point of the place.  It is very old for a surviving building in Manhattan, and it is preserved with a lot of its original stuff inside it.

There is a buzzer to press, which is your first indication that no one goes there, especially on the hottest days of the year, but probably other days, too.  Someone buzzed me in, and I made that transformation you make from being anyone on the street to someone inside somewhere, accepted and on a mission.  Also it was slightly cooler inside.  Slightly.

I followed the hallway to its other end, and a small room was repurposed to sell tickets and also to house a collection of breakable this and that dishes and figures and a book about opera.  These items were for sale to benefit the house, and it was easy to imagine little old ladies carting them in in cardboard boxes, wrapped in newspaper.

I paid the lady, and the nice man and I agreed that Friday had been the worst of the heat, Saturday was better, and Sunday, that day, was the best, meaning Friday and Saturday had been hellfire punishing, and today was just extremely hot.  The people of New York’s smaller museums are a kind and grateful people.

“So, how did you hear about this place?” the tour guide asked.  She seemed genuinely surprised– maybe even suspicious– that we had all decided to tour a lightly air-conditioned historic house on a Sunday in August.

Two of us explained we had been to the big museums of New York and were working on the small ones.  A couple from Brazil said they had heard about the house on a Brazilian TV show.

“Well, right when everyone is paying attention to Brazil!”

I hoped they were airbnbing the shit out of their place back there.

I took the tour: basement family room and kitchen, main floor parlor and dining room with gorgeous gas chandeliers, upstairs adult bedrooms, and past the floor for childrens’ bedrooms, now the museum offices.

“They wanted to memorialize the merchant class,” our tour guide said, and I couldn’t figure why anyone wanted people to remember their class.  Their class?  Merchants?  New money that either got rich or fell off?

The top floor, the servants’ quarters, was much like the servants’ quarters of my mansion, both in the house, and my own home in the carriage house.  The cut-out windows, slanted ceiling.  It’s my favorite place I’ve lived.

They play up their ghost stories, one of our tour group asked about them.  “I haven’t seen one,” the tour guide said.  “But people see them, especially Hugo.  All the other children got their settlement in the father’s will, but Hugo got his in small payments over many years.”

Understood.

I also liked that the family were loyalists, like my ancestors.  The Tredwells were loyalists and people so attached to the past, so loving of the past, that when other families left the neighborhood, they said no, and stayed and stayed.  Seabury Tredwell, the patriarch, continued to wear his hair in a ponytail long after this was not cool (like an early ’90s ponytail, shiver), and when his commissioned portrait was delivered to his widow, she said, “No, he must have his ponytail,” and the artist painted it in.  You think you’re doing someone a favor.

They kept a lot of their junk, and the tour guide praises this, as historians will.  My mother is currently in the process of cleaning out her basement, and let me tell you, no one praises you for keeping your junk while you are alive.  There is this dark area that is just “old” between “new” and “how interesting.”  The Tredwells left their sewing supplies, so we could see them, their thread, their cases for pins.  No one wants to see mine, which is in a Lancome bag given as a free gift from the Prairie Village Jones Store, okay, Macy’s.  I also like to live in the past.

There was one last Christmas we got presents put in Jones Store shirt boxes.  There must have been a last Christmas people got presents in Harzfeld’s boxes.  My step grandmothers’ hats are still in Herzfeld’s boxes.

“Why did the grown daughter not move out with her husband?” I asked.

“What happened to the merchant class?” I asked.

The tour guide, although kind and well-informed, could not definitively answer either question.

She did, as we two were the last to descend the stairs, say, quietly, “I don’t tell everyone this, but one of the daughters fell down these steps and broke her neck.”

“Whoa,” I said.  And then, “Thank you so much,” and I picked up my bag, and my coffee, from the small back office.

We were new money, my family.  We did not save everything, but we saved some things, and some went to the curb when the basement flooded.  The Tredwell basement, it must never have flooded.  Who would remake our family room, circa 1985, when I had a coat rack with Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo, and footprint outlines and measurements of inches and feet on the back so you could see how you grew?

Merchant’s House Museum