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Authors: Doris Grumbach

The Book of Knowledge

The Book of Knowledge

A Novel

Doris Grumbach

For my friends in Maine:

May Sarton

Helen Yglesias

Robert Taylor and Theodore Nowick
.

And for my main friend in all places

and seasons:

Sybil Hillman Pike
.

They say that “time assuages”—

Time never did assuage—

An actual suffering strengthens

As sinews do, with age—

Time is a test of trouble—

But not a remedy—

If such it prove, it prove too

There was no malady—

—Emily Dickinson

1

Far Rockaway

The ceremony of innocence is drowned
…

—W. B. Y
EATS

F
OR MOST PEOPLE
, childhood is remembered as a continuous seam, a long, happy fabric of time, until it is broken by the fierce rips of adolescence. But for the Flowers children, both childhood and early adolescence were Edenic, undisturbed by any familial harshness or by the nation's ruinous financial crash in the fall of 1929. In the summer of that year, they made two friends, Roslyn and Lionel, who were not to be so fortunately spared.

It happened in this way.

The children of the three families came together early that summer. Kate and Caleb Flowers lived in Far Rockaway year-round, a long journey, as they thought of it, from the City. They lived alone with their mother, their father having died in the Great War. Theirs was the largest house on Larch Street. Lionel Schwartz and Roslyn Hellman arrived at the seaside resort in June with their parents, occupying adjoining houses on Linden Street, a block away from the Flowers.

The fathers of the summering families drove to the City every day during the week in a black sedan. Caleb, a close observer of automobiles and knowledgeable about their manufacture and design, identified it as a De Soto Six. The Flowers children stood on the curb with their new friends, watching with admiration its ceremonial morning departure. There had never been a car in their family, for a very good reason, their mother pointed out: they had no need to leave the peninsula on which they lived. They walked or sometimes bicycled to school, to the library, to the beach, to the stores, and to the Gem, the motion picture house on Mott Avenue, all of these places a few blocks from Larch Street.

Warm ceremonies accompanied the City fathers' evening return. Whatever they played together, all the children stopped their game to see the two men, dressed in somber City suits and brown fedoras, step down from the running board and wave to their wives and children. To Caleb they resembled the generals he had seen in newspaper photographs returning for the celebration of a great victory. Even their hats, positioned squarely on their balding heads, seemed akin to officers' headgear. His own father, he had been told by his mother, had worn a private's narrow, boat-shaped cap.

In the evening in the house on Larch Street, their mother, whose hearing was poor, strained to catch Caleb's account of the enthusiastic greetings, the hugs all around, the tousling of their children's heads by the happy fathers. Emma concentrated on the lower tones of Caleb's excited voice, unable to quite catch what Kate was saying. After many repetitions of the narrative about the felicitous homecomings, she began to feel her children must feel deprived of such significant rituals.

So Emma would remind them of her carefully constructed version of their father's death.

‘He was a true hero,' she said.

Caleb was unfailingly polite. He never revealed his boredom with the story. He was twelve and had heard the story many times. Kate was fourteen months younger: she loved the old, heroic tale and did not care how many times Moth, as the children called her ‘for short,' repeated it.

‘He was a true hero,' Emma said again, and waited for their full attention. ‘It was exactly four days before the Armistice was declared. A German sniper hiding in a trench saw him stand up. Your father was under orders to look about on all sides to locate the position of the enemy. So he was shot, through the head.'

At this point in the narrative, in his strong, loud voice, Caleb always asked:

‘But Moth, didn't the American soldiers wear helmets?' He thought all combat soldiers must resemble the ones he had seen in newspaper cartoons of the Beastly Hun who wore a round metal hat covering a large portion of his thick, piggish head. Were not Americans similarly equipped?

‘Oh, no,' Emma said. ‘
Never
. They were too brave. They were given small caps like little folding pouches with pointed ends. They carried them in their belts. Our soldiers wore them to have their pictures taken. And for parades.' By establishing this distinction Emma managed to suggest that only cowards and Huns wore hats of any kind to fight in the trenches.

She would then interrupt her story to take down from the mantel a brown-tinted, wood-framed photograph of an American soldier standing at attention, his fingers touching his cap in a smart salute.

‘This is how they looked.'

As she handed Caleb the picture, Emma never said: ‘This is your father.' The children assumed the noble figure was Private First Class Edmund Flowers. The pictured soldier had light hair like theirs, and he wore the little cap they believed had been taken from his belt when he fell. He was very handsome, as they knew a true hero always was.

The truth was otherwise. Because she no longer wished to look at his face, Emma had destroyed their wedding pictures and the few boardwalk pictures taken on their honeymoon in Atlantic City. No photographs of the fabled father existed. The anonymous one now enshrined on the mantel had been cut from the Sunday section of the
Daily Mirror
on that cold winter day when the soldiers came home in triumph to New York City. She surrounded it with brown velvet matting and placed it in a wide frame to disguise its common rotogravure finish.

Kate enjoyed thinking of herself as the only daughter of a dead war hero; Caleb was uncertain about his feelings. His father's death seemed somewhat precipitate to him, poorly planned in a way he could not define. Why had he died only a few days before the war ended? Could this have been carelessness? Shortsightedness? Bad luck? The presence on the mantel of the photograph and, lying beside it, the European theater medal with its faded ribbon was not, to his mind, sufficient evidence of valor. Still, these apparently concrete reminders of Edmund's existence served as satisfying, if distilled, evidence that he too had a father.

Both children had been so persuaded by their mother's vivid account of their father's heroic death in the war that they were without any sense of paternal deprivation, even when they watched their new friends' fathers come home in seeming triumph from the City. His absence seemed to them to signify a more noble inheritance.

As for Emma: the history she wove about their father was a barren invention. The Army never informed her in detail of the circumstances of Private Flowers' death. His body was never returned to her (buried as he had been with the thousands of other soldiers who died in the Spanish influenza epidemic in the last days of the war). The brown medal arrived at the house on Larch Street by mail, together with his veteran's papers. Emma, a skilled fictionalist on this subject, created a parent (always referred to as ‘your father') who had come home twice from his training at Fort Dix, a leave just before America entered the war, and then again just before his departure for ‘over there.'

The children accepted these meager details without question. From them, Caleb then wove a gratifying story which he told Kate during one of their early make-believe games. It proceeded in this way:

During each of his visits, their father had descended into the Far Rockaway house from what, in Caleb's imagination, seemed a great height. To him New Jersey was situated vertically, high above New York; he was unacquainted with geography beyond the borough of Queens. After coming down he had performed the two mysterious acts that resulted in their births.

Kate saw her father clearly, dressed in his brown, belted uniform and high-laced boots, standing at attention in her mother's bedroom, patiently awaiting the arrival of Caleb, the first baby. But Caleb, claiming to be better informed about such matters, described graphically their blond father lying in their mother's bed, and depositing into her open hand the makings of babies. He saw their parents as wearing no clothes during this exchange, of that he was very sure. The mechanics of the transfer were unclear to him, as well as the nature of the ‘makings.' But he did not communicate his uncertainties to Kate, and she did not think to ask about it.

To hear their mother tell it, their conceptions had been the most significant accomplishments of their father's short life. Having performed these acts, in one flash of enemy fire, in the coda of the saga, he had died and ascended into a special habitation of heaven reserved for war heroes, with space set aside for bereft windows. Satisfied by the glory of this dramatic account, the children lived securely without their father.

‘Someday,' Caleb assured Kate, ‘Moth will join him there.'

Kate looked horrified.

‘But not for a long, long time,' he rushed to assure her.

As Emma pictured him to her children, their father had looked like the slim, blond, handsome, hardworking, dependable young man in the rotogravure. He had made a very good living in the City manufacturing play clothes for children, especially overalls and jumpers. His factory was a series of lofts in the garment district, a place which Caleb, who had never been to the City, imagined to be an immense street fair where his father's products hung on tree branches along the edges of a country lane. This image stemmed from his assumption that his mother, whose poor hearing made her sometimes misspeak words, had meant to say ‘garden' when she said ‘garment.' So he envisioned City children strolling along, pointing out to their parents the knitted coats, or knickers, or bloomers, of their choice.

Emma added a few details to the history. With his profits Edmund Flowers had bought his bride a many-roomed, wideverandaed, comfortable country house two hours by train from the City, in the poetically named seaside village of Far Rockaway. The children believed their father had provided them with the best house in the village. Five blocks from the ocean, it occupied the center of a pleasant quarter-acre of grass edged by very large old oak trees. In winter the house's shutters were closed against the cold and the stiff ocean winds, making a warm cocoon, almost a sheltering hollow, of the downstairs rooms.

In early May a carpenter came to hang fringed, dark green canvas awnings over the veranda and the many windows. Now shielded from the summer sun, the rooms became cool caves into which, Emma's story to the children went, their father hurried after his hot days in the City and his dusty train ride to the country. On Friday nights he was always very late. Sometimes, he said, he had to remain in the City until early Saturday morning because of the pressure of work and his dislike of the overcrowded weekend trains.

At this point Emma's story always ceased. She provided her children with a very sparse autobiography and never hinted at her loneliness and disappointment during the early years of her marriage. Born in a crowded section of Brooklyn, she was the only child of aging parents who feared for her safety on the streets and wanted her with them whenever she was not in school. Although they were Methodists, they sent her to St. Ignatius's high school because it offered her strong discipline, an education in Latin and History, and the appearance of morality.

Emma's few acquaintances in her class admired her good looks and Protestant freedom from the strictures of catechism instruction. They envied her flair for Reading and Latin, but rarely was she invited home to their parties or study sessions. She was an amiable, good-natured girl who taught herself to disguise her hurts at rejection by her classmates because her parents were so clearly pleased always to have her with them.

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