“What are you looking for, Mama?” Summer Diary, continued

A man’s voice interrupts my reverie with the inquiry, as I stand surveying the salad on offer at the local West Side Market. Proof that I’m back in the city from vacation, back to grocery shopping. I can’t bring myself to sign on to Fresh Direct, and besides, I like to pick my own produce.

What am I looking for? I refrain from my knee-jerk reaction―“I’m not your Mama,” or anyone else’s for that matter―instead, I answer the employee in the vegetable aisle, who is only trying to be helpful, as if I were a normal person, and not an Upper West Side crazy lady (though I believe I’m in the zone). I skip the rant and answer the question. The frisee I’m looking for is not on the counter because it’s not in the store. It hasn’t sold well. I shake my head in disbelief. The man shrugs. What can you do, he seems to be suggesting. People don’t know what’s good. “Come back, Tuesday,” he says. I will, I say, since frisee is my favorite kind of greens.

marche263When I was newly married (the first time), and shopping in France, I always hoped the vegetable seller would notice my ring and call me Madame and not Mademoiselle. Sometimes he did. Would Madame like a little parsley to go with the lettuce, she would. Does Madame know how to make a vinaigrette? She does, but do tell her again, if that means she’s really Madame.
Now, all these years later, I’d give a lot to hear Mademoiselle again, but alas, Mama, c’est moi.

Cancer Gadfly: What’s God Got To Do With It?

I was mulling over Oliver Sacks’s mellow meditation on his terminal cancer diagnosis, when Jimmy Carter came out with his cancer story. (Curiously, both illnesses caused by melanoma.)
The one, a secular Jew from an Orthodox Jewish background, the other a born-again Christian, both look serenely on how cancer will―or may―end their lives. Carter, at 90, is explicit about his fearless attitude toward death: “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes. I do have a deep religious faith, which I’m very grateful for.”

Sacks, 82, equally at ease, references what religious feeling means to him by invoking his memories of the Sabbath, though not as a matter of belief.

I envy their serenity, notably Sacks’s by virtue of common ancestral roots, though as a woman with cancer but no nostalgia about the Jewish Sabbath, I can’t go there. Celebration of the day of rest ended with my grandparents, and I have put nothing in its place.

Cancer makes me mad, and God is no help at all.
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On the same page as the coverage of Jimmy Carter’s cancer diagnosis, a devastating article reports on the now debatable merits of mastectomy for women diagnosed with D.C.I.S. breast cancer. “It now appears that treatment [surgery] may make no difference in their outcomes.” Wow. The findings of the study are subject to debate, but treatment through surgery, now common, may well end up being rethought to dramatic conclusions.

I do not envy the women who have undergone the surgery, perhaps needlessly, it now appears. If I had, I’m not sure I could have waded through the waffling in the report without exploding with rage. But even minus the personal experience, there’s plenty of bad news about the disease and how it affects women for me to be riled about.

In The New York Times of Sunday August 23, 2015: I read the obituaries of three notable women, including the brilliant Svetlana Boym, whom I knew slightly, dead of cancer at 56. The other women, equally accomplished in their fields, also died of cancer at relatively young ages―young relative to me, at my ever-advancing age―and the ripe old ages of Sacks and Carter.

Too many women, some friends, some unmet, are dying of cancer. The attitude toward death from cancer (and other life-annihilating diseases) I admire has best been expressed by Simone de Beauvoir. It comes at the end of her memoir, A Very Easy Death, perhaps the first memoir to deal with witnessing the death of a loved one from cancer. Beauvoir writes after witnessing her mother’s death at almost 80:

Cancer, thrombosis, pneumonia: it is as violent and unforeseen as an engine stopping in the middle of the sky. All of us must die: but for each death is an accident and, even if we know it and consent to it, an unjustifiable violation.

I know it and I do not consent.

“Where are you trying to go?” London, Summer Diary, 2015, continued

I turn to see a tiny woman about my age, dressed like me, sporting large sunglasses and clunky sneakers. Since I am a short person to begin with, you have to imagine that this woman was positively elfin: Charlotte Brontë measurements. I startle easily, and must have looked alarmed, since she went on to ask: “Am I such a monster?” Not a monster, but still, remarkably small. “Of course, not.”

Pelham_CrescentI was standing at the intersection of Pelham Street and Pelham Place, wondering whether I dare turn into Pelham Place on the chance that it might turn out to be a short cut to the Kings Road. I had walked from South Kensington to Chelsea several times in the past, but I have walked in London enough times to know that a shortcut usually means a good way for me to get lost. Getting lost is something I do on a regular basis, even with a map, even more often with a map. That day, I was already lost in thought.

“I’ll show you,” the woman said, leading me into Pelham Place, when I told her my destination, “it’s a short cut.” It was as though a human GPS had just emerged full blown from the fog of my anxiety.

I was pleased to learn that my Pelham Place hunch was correct, though as we wove our way through a neighborhood I had never seen, I realized that minus my self-appointed cicerone the short cut would have led me away from my destination, rather than to it. My guide masterfully steered me across heavily trafficked streets―she would just put her tiny hand up with the authority of a traffic cop, a gesture that stopped cars from advancing any further in our direction―and hurried us along.

“I’m good at instructions,” my companion explained, “because I’m a teacher.” She taught languages, she said, another commonality. “I used to teach French,” I said. “Ooh, la, la,” the guide exclaimed (that seemed a false note, but then clichés about the French die hard). I can’t quite retrieve the thread of conversation that led to and then from languages to Dreiser―an argument about whether Dreiser’s novels showed social violence, “not really,” she demurred, compared to Zola (she pronounced Zola as the English do, putting the accent on the first syllable, so French was not one of her languages, unless maybe that was an English affectation), and then we suddenly entered the zone of gorgeous Georgian townhouses in Pelham Crescent. “You see,” she said, slowing down, “the buildings are white and the doors are black.” She liked, she said, to imagine the inhabitants exiting from their elegant houses, headed for a ball.

As we approached the place my guide had chosen for our parting–“you’ll be fine if you just carry on from here”–she suddenly said, without looking at me: “You know, in the end, all of us are alone.” “Yes, I know,” I replied, as somberly, wondering what had triggered her existential pronouncement. Did I look that lonely?

And then I was, alone.
When I was young in London, or any foreign city, the encounters that mattered to me were always with men: romance! But now, I appeal to old ladies like me who worry whether I know where I’m going.