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Fundamental Things.



SITTING ACROSS FROM me at our daughter’s kitchen table, a little blinded by the sunshine pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows, she looks at me carefully, squinting, as if to say, “I know you,” tumbled together with “Who are you?”

She is the first person I have been close to who has been stricken by Alzheimer’s. I last saw her three years earlier, at our granddaughter’s eighteenth, when she was only a little thinner than usual but otherwise the woman I had always known, recognizably herself, the same woman I had known across the decades after our divorce in the 1980s.Three years ago, at the time of our granddaughter’s eighteenth, her second husband, an important public figure who adored her and whom she adored, was also afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and had been confined for a year to a care home. Most days, she travelled the two hours it took by train each way to see him, even though he did not know who she was and even though he was often violent. He had taken to barging into other people’s rooms, to throwing himself, literally, on the women. Now, he was dead.

She has not been resident long in the care home our daughter Kelly found for her quite near her own house in North London, and, as Covid restrictions were just being lifted and I happened to be in the country, Kelly seized the occasion to take her out for the first time so we could all have lunch together.

She is wearing a beret, a signature of her style, for she was always a stylish woman, and over the years the berets became her special, her identifying accessory. Her strong hair is braided, and, braided, it still falls to her waist.

“It was a very hard year,” she says to me after sitting quietly for a minute. “But I am much happier now.”

I am stunned with questions, as in Gaugin’s famous painting—What are we? Who are we? Because where exactly is it, in herself, that she keeps my face and name?

This earnest statement is the first and last real thing she says during the hours we spend together. I don’t know if in fact, when she first sat down, she recognized me, put the face together with the name, and put the name together with . . . but here the mystery and terror of the thing blots out every wave of the light, and in the black mid-day I am stunned with questions, as in Gaugin’s famous painting—What are we? Who are we? Because where exactly is it, in herself, that she keeps my face and name? And if I am lost to her, what has happened to all we knew and did, to the events and the possessions we possessed together? What has happened to the past that is my past because Kate remembered it too?

Three years ago, on the rare days when she wasn’t visiting her husband, she took long walks in the city, often wandering for hours. Now she is frail, shuffles, is terribly thin. She likes to burst into song, especially “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” where, as it happens, she was born. She sings the song as though it were an IRA ballad, standing up from her chair, belting out the lyrics, swinging her arms at a marching pace. She is proud of the song, she sings it as though it is a testament to something valorous, to a faith and a spirit that animates her, and should animate us all.

Many years ago, in the 1960s and ’70s, I was head-over-heels in love with her, and, I think, she with me. We married in London—I was working on my Ph.D. thesis—in the fabled year 1968, and, in 1971, we settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But she hated the States, so eventually we moved back to England, living for a time near her family in Southend-on-Sea, a kind of Brighton Beach at the mouth of the Thames, a place with penny arcades and seaside cafés a l’anglaise that once, in the nineteenth century, was a glamorous destination; Queen Victoria liked to spend time there in the summers. We bought a 1920s row house overlooking the river. As we owned just about nothing, one of the delights of that year was setting up house more or less from scratch. In my kitchen cupboard in Brooklyn I have one egg cup in Denby Cottage Blue, the only object I have managed to keep safe with me after all these years from among the many beautiful objects we bought, out of our very modest means, to stock that house.

The Denby pottery dates back to 1809 but the blue stoneware called Cottage Blue was first issued in 1926 . . . and then discontinued, sadly, in 1984. It was, even in 1926, a nostalgic design of substantial dishes, platters, cups, coffee-pots, and more in a country style, meaning slightly squat, rounded, heavy pottery in a mottled navy blue glaze made for the food of the English countryside, sweet and savory puddings, meat and fruit pies, cream scones and fruit cakes, hearty food that I anyway associate with William Cobbett or the prosperous farmers who might have known Tom Jones. And this was the food we baked in these dishes and put on these plates. The plates are all blue; but the cups, baking platters, and the handsome pitchers are dark blue on the outside and pale yellow on the inside.

I have a soft boiled egg in that egg cup most mornings. It is a ritual, and a mooring. It ties me to those years in the damp Southend air, when the electricity of the ’60s was still crackling in our hair and it sometimes seemed we were living not in a slightly down-at-heels seaside town an hour from London but in someplace like the fierce, windhewn house on Wuthering Heights.

But Kate does not remember: and I thought, the blood rushing from my face, if Kate does not remember, then what has happened to what I remember? Abruptly the Denby Cottage Blue seemed to have suffered a kind of primal blow. I happen still to have that egg cup, solid and heavy to hold; until I sat across from Kate on that sunny afternoon, the events, scenes, people, the objects and happenings of my life in those years were also solid and heavy and not just things I held in my mind; no, they were life and therefore objects, happenings, and people I could remember because, until this past summer, Kate remembered them too.

She kept everything. The large, comfortable flat in Southwest London where she had lived with her second husband was crammed with books, dishes, paintings, and who-knows-what-else because Kate kept everything. Or rather, it was “crammed” but as she is no longer there, and Kelly has begun the unbearable task of sorting out what ought to stay and what will have to go, the place is now a chaos of Kate’s past and present.

Among the things she kept are every letter anyone ever sent her, letters typed single-spaced on foolscap sheets of airmail paper, or written in long hand from one edge of the sheet to the other, letters that she had carefully saved in thick 6 X 9 manila envelopes, each labelled, in her distinctive editor’s hand, with the writer’s name.  Some of these are packets of letters addressed to us both, and that begin, I am startled, unnerved to find, “Dearest Kate and Igor. . .” These are mainly letters from the late Sixties and early Seventies, years of great intensity and vividness when, as Wordsworth put it about a similar time, “to be young was very heaven!”

The letters report on politics, work, household news—Ellen asks Kate to send her five bra’s from Marks and Spencers, for her and for her mother, with lace—and then about people and events I haven’t thought about for decades—and then about people and events I can’t remember—yes, that I can’t remember! And I can only with difficulty bring myself to ask: When Kate placed these letters into their appropriate folders, did she remember? Was the task of assembling the letters, orderly and archival, a way of reassuring herself that what she had done and known and the person to whom these letters were addressed—and the other person to whom these letters were addressed—that all of that was still hers, stored securely in herself, and not slipping out of consciousness, vanishing into the oblivion of forgotten things. . . When the fear gripped her, she could say: Oh, of course, I have the envelope right here. . .

I know, naturally I know that a record remains, of personal as well as of collective memory; yes, I know that there are the cultural monuments and the history books; there are the photos of the dead—my parents—on my wall, of the dead and of distant places, and of the old house in the old country where my grandparents lived . . . But all that is just for public consumption: when I turn back to look for myself, to find myself there where I once stood by the stove boiling an egg, what I see now is only a barren field, empty, the light rapidly fading, just as it will on the day the physicists have precisely calculated that the sun too will die . . . and what will it all be, then, that once was?

Briefly, in the early 1980s, Kate and I attended a weekly marriage counselling session. One day the counsellor asked us to say what we would like inscribed on our tombstones. I didn’t know what to say. But Kate did not hesitate and said immediately, “She loved life.”

IGOR WEBB was born in Slovakia and raised in the Inwood section of Manhattan. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in, among others, The New Yorker, Partisan Review, The Hudson Review, The American Scholar, and Notre Dame Review. He is Professor of English at Adelphi University. He is the author of Christopher Smart’s Cat (2018); his most recent book is Buster Brown’s America: Recollections, Reveries, Reflections.

More: his Fortnightly essay ‘On Longinus and Bread and the Sublime’ is here and his essay ‘Matthias’ Laments’ is here.

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