|Time’s Fool (Excerpt) by Terra Diane Ziporyn|
Boston. February 22, 1907
Last night I began reading through Father’s diary. Much of it is dull and lifeless, concerning precisely which concoctions he ate for breakfast and which fruit-picking or canning “bees” he attended that day. From what I could decipher, this dreary artifact consists largely of trifles: observations on the weather, the travels of other community members, and similar drivel. To be fair, the man is an impassioned writer, even when he speaks of the trivial (although, rural Vermonter at heart, he is sadly unschooled in the finer points of grammar and syntax). He writes as if he has been in the habit of documenting his presence on the earth from his earliest days, and I must admit that there is something engaging, almost poignant, in his assumption that these tedious details would actually matter to anyone, anywhere, or any time. Frankly, there is even something inspirational about his ingenuous self-importance, for despite my disparagements, I now find myself embarking on a journal of my own. On a more frustrating note, Father’s handwriting is far from impeccable, and a good deal of his thoughts are recorded in wholly illegible scrawls, or a baffling non-alphanumeric code, of which I can make neither heads nor tails. Fortunately, Alice’s daughter Hope, who plans to make a history out of this opus, is schooled in the code. Presumably she will have better luck finding something of significance in it–should indeed it contain anything of significance.
Hope called on us after supper tonight, and I bestowed upon her the leather-bound diary, still coated with a bit of attic dust and cobweb debris, in spite of my best intentions. Rather than chide me for my neglect of this cherished tome, this remarkable young woman nearly shook with glee as I held it out to her. Indeed, I briefly thought that in her happiness she would throw her arms about my neck, but I found equally gratifying her more proper display–that slightly gap-toothed guileless grin and a toss of curls that put me in mind of her mother so many years ago. How odd to think that the same Alice Johnson is most certainly a graying matron by now. Indeed, she must be safely past fifty, since I remember her as a ripe incarnation of feminine perfection when I was still a raw lad in the East Room, and she occasionally helped care for us. Her daughter, of course, is a young lady herself these days, perhaps as aged as twenty, but even older in visage and seriousness of intent. This mature demeanor, I am convinced, reflects her breeding. She towed me into her gaze with a confidence rarely found in the young women of today and assured me soberly that by giving her the diary I was making a contribution to history. I suspect she is right–and in more ways than one–for had it not been for her original notes explaining the importance of these old diaries, it is doubtful that I would be putting pen to paper myself at this moment, creating my own crude historical record. I am quite sure that it was her visible pleasure and her heroic words that shattered my final piece of resistance. And so it is that I sit here at 2 a.m., broken in spirit and fatigued in body after a day of defeat, but still hunching over a dimly lit desk and neglecting my dear wife Mary Elizabeth who sleeps fitfully across the room, tossing from one side to the other and snorting wantonly at each turn.
However much I will rue this mad scribbling at sunrise, tonight I am determined, determined and glad. I am glad above all to be rebuilding a discipline in myself. This discipline was fostered in me as a youth, and, perhaps too, draws upon that carefully bred character of mine to instill what I now know is a vital habit. Too, I have come to understand that this record-keeping, so routine amongst my predecessors, is what will keep me alive when my physical body is no longer present. It is what will bring a sense of the world I inhabit to the generations to come, and, perhaps even more important, it is what will keep my focus on the fundamental when I feel overwhelmed by the sordidness, brutality, peevishness, misery, and sheer bestiality of my more active, less reflective existence.
Ah, those are strong terms to use, rather arrogant I dare say, but they sadly characterize the scene to which I bore witness earlier this evening, before my happier visit with Hope. Paying a house-call to the South End at the closing of this dark winter afternoon, I was forced to stand by as my patient, poor Mr. L., finally succumbed, delirious and incoherent, to his long illness (my lengthy attendance at such in part excusing my inability to clean up the diary for Hope as intended). To be frank, this man was no more than an animal at the end. We–all of us, and myself no less than the blissfully ignorant family–helplessly watched him slip away, wasted and wracked by this possibly treatable but certainly incurable scourge.
When I witness such misery, I am still sometimes tempted to resort to heroics, if only to fill the family with some small and temporary sense of power. People expect this effort of their physician. My growing years of experience convince me, however, that, most of our well-intentioned efforts–whether they involve cruelly injecting quarts of near boiling water into the poor patient’s sinews or sweating him out with noxious mercury vapors–are “cures” even worse than the disease itself. Our brilliant scientists know now that a germ, a noxious spirochete, lies at the heart of this disease, and that we cannot do anything lasting for the patient until we can destroy that germ. But, ah, how to do so? If I but had the answer, I would be a rich man I’m afraid.
That is not the worst of it. Even more gruesome than the patient’s physical suffering was the lying and pretense that has accompanied the entire illness–and here on the deathbed was the final preposterous conclusion of everybody’s charade. I wanted to puke up my guts when I had to look that pretty and devoted little wife in the eye again and again and tell her that her husband was dying of a rare and incurable blood disease, something like the sleeping sickness of Africa is what I said. Coward that I am, I promised her that her husband was a fine and loyal man, one who had simply been dealt a bad hand by fate. Balderdash! Someday if I develop the guts for it I will write an article for my colleagues denouncing this ridiculous and counterproductive posturing. Of course, I’d have to keep my emotions under control, use the required high faluting language and all that, but I would do whatever was necessary to make my point.
February 24, 1907
Mary Elizabeth insisted that we invite young Hope Wilton for supper tomorrow, as she believes no young lady should have to spend her evenings alone in a strange city. I assured her that Hope was no ordinary lass, but one on a mission, and that surely she had some other engagement. Furthermore, I reminded her that Hope is staying with the Youngs, old family friends who not only return to Kenwood regularly and have thus known her from the cradle, but most certainly are keeping her entertained and occupied. Still, my Mary–who is irrepressibly charitable and also undoubtedly curious about the world I come from–can be just as determined in her own way. Thus, Hope will be joining us tomorrow. I wonder if she has found any items of interest in Father’s journal.
February 25, 1907
Hope came for supper this evening (Hannah served a most fine leg of lamb, one of her better efforts) and told us all about her project. She is helping her mother (who, it seems, has become an accomplished lady of letters, having written several books for children) to compile a history of the Oneida community. This history will essentially tell itself through the diaries and letters of residents. It is a marvelous project, and I applaud her for her role in it. The community was eccentric, there can be no denying, and it apparently brought about great pain and suffering to some individuals (as Mother Lily reminded our family many a time), but it was a remarkable enterprise in its own day, and one which reflected a fineness of the human spirit well worth preserving. As I suspected, Father was hardly alone in keeping a regular record of his activities, although not all of the descendents or former residents are as willing as I was to open up their personal histories–Hope complained bitterly that, even today, the society at large is not fully prepared to hear some of the more intimate details, particularly those involving the peculiar social arrangements of our forebears. I told Hope that she didn’t know how right she was, and how I daily fought the same conspiracy of silence when it came to educating my patients and their families about social diseases, not to mention reaching the young men at large in this city whose escapades today will inevitably wreak havoc on their future wives and babes. Because of this rampant ignorance–and the accompanying self-inflicted blindness to the truth–we cannot instruct the young in how to gratify a controllable desire. Thus, they go blithely out into the world, sowing wild oats and in the process introducing venereal infection into a marriage and polluting the next generation, yea the entire race. I explained to young Hope that we live under a double standard of sexual living to this day that undermines all sense of what is right and just. It is a testament to the Oneida upbringing that an unmarried young woman such as Hope could listen to my rantings with obvious understanding, sympathy, and–most striking of all–not a single blush or other sign of false demureness.
Feb. 28, 1907
Ever since our supper the other night, I find myself thinking of Hope–and thinking of her frequently, perhaps as much as every hour. Not in a carnal sense, I hasten to add, but in a mysterious, somewhat bittersweet sense. I suppose this is because thoughts of her regal long nose, steadfast eyes, and fawn-colored curls (which, despite her modish dress, she keeps clipped just under her chin in the community style) put me back in mind of my childhood, I mean the early part before Father and Mother Lily took me off to Boston. There is something about the gestures and intensity of this woman–the way she punctuates her comments with her chin, the way her eyes seem to light up as she speaks, even the way she pulls herself up to a stand in one fluid swoop–that fill me with longing for the simplicity, yearnings for Mother, of course, and then a return too of those old questions that in my better moments I have learned to put aside.
Something else also occurred to me as I stared upon this wonder of a woman:: Could any of Hope’s documents hold my answer, the answer to the question I have tried so hard and so long to work out of me? I realize that this is juvenile of me, not to mention pointless, for what, after all, does it matter? Am I not who I am no matter what my source? And, indeed, believing Father to be Father–which is nothing more than the official line–is positively beneficial to me, for I am a stirpicult, a racially pure gem, and it befits me to believe that he was my sire. Certainly my suitably distinguished role in the world, my adequate mental power, and my generally strong constitution attest to this breeding. My past relationship, my memories of “Father,” would all be pat and simple if I simply believed what is easiest to believe.
I remind myself of all this, and yet I cannot deny a small burning part of me, impossible to extinguish, that secretly hopes for something more. What was supposed to have happened is all well and good, undoubtedly better than anything I can imagine, and yet that tiny part of me wishes that I came of something other, indeed wishes that I was the product of the purest love rather than the purest science. Mother did not love Father in any but the most religious of senses, that she made abundantly clear to me before I could even read, but she bore me because she was a servant of God, a servant of the community, and had signed a pact to that effect at the request of Mr. Noyes. She told me this with great pride. She hoped I would be as great a servant of the community and of the race as she had been, and what a great reward she had for her service! And yet I know she had other lovers before Father, pure and true lovers, including Uncle Peter who was always so helpful in showing me how to set traps and Uncle Charles who took me on his lap and taught me my letters. Father would always pay my way (even when he was struggling so back in Syracuse) and never shirked from his paternal duty to me, but when he looked at me his eyes never sparkled the way they did when he looked at Natie, Harriet, or his other mongrels. Perhaps it was because they were so much younger than I, so much needier than I, but I always suspected it was because they, unlike me, were products of love. Hope returns to Syracuse early next week, and I think I will call on her just once more before she goes and ask if I might have a look through Father’s diary myself.
March 1, 1907
It is odd that I never once thought to read any of Father’s old papers before Hope contact me, never even thought to search through those boxes I took from their home after Mother Lily passed. I did thumb through a few pages of the diary when I uncovered it at Hope’s request, of course, but so much was in faded pencil or some kind of indecipherable code, that I was more than happy to put it into Hope’s infinitely more competent hands.
Even had I known of the diary’s existence before Hope appeared, too, I doubt I would have had the least degree of interest in reading it. History has never had much of a hold on me–perhaps that is an affliction of the young–and, truly, I never had time for such indulgences. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for Mary Elizabeth’s insistence that housing the whole collection of papers and other rubbish–the two of them having had no fine possessions–was our duty to the future, the whole kit and caboodle would have been burnt long ago. It was clear from the beginning that none of the other surviving offspring would have any interest in such bric-a-brac. Harriet was, and still is, far too overwhelmed by her ramshackle quarters, rambunctious brood, and ever-absent husband to shelter such memorabilia, and there is considerable debate about whether their cherished Nathan ever removed himself from the bottle long enough to comprehend the news of his mother’s demise.
Fortunately, our attic is ample, and it was little problem to haul these boxes up there for the sake of encumbering future generations. But reading the diary? Frankly, I had no idea there was a diary at all, not until Hope asked me to take fifteen minutes to go through the boxes of sheet music and hymnals. She felt there was a good chance of finding some kind of journal–so many of the community members kept them–and of course she proved correct. The sad truth of it is that I never thought of that sad little man as much of a thinker, and even when Hope made me aware that he might have kept a record of his life, my immediate reaction was that it couldn’t possibly be much more than a list of where to buy violin strings at a good cost and the like. When he was living, he was nothing but an annoyance to me, someone to answer quickly and politely–yes, I’m studying this now, no, I do not plan to live at home–and then to escape, on to my own life and own plans. He and Mother Lily were old and set in their ways, caught up in the seamy escapades of their livelihoods and the continual illnesses of their sickly and dwindling brood, pinching pennies at every opportunity, moaning endlessly about their final illnesses and yet refusing the best of care and causing me great embarrassment with colleagues because of their needless parsimony.
Now that he is gone and unapproachable, however, I find myself burning with the desire to know what went through my father’s head, to learn who he was and what made him do what he did, to see if what he suffered can somehow make my own sufferings any easier. What a sad fact of life that such yearnings only seem to arise when the source of their satisfaction has long departed from this world.
March 3, 1907
It occurred to me that Hope could very well have something from Mama too. Many of the community members kept diaries, after all, and Mama was one of the more literate among them from everything I have been told. My thinking is that if Mama did indeed leave a diary, if I could only read her account of what happened in the year before my birth, I could put the nagging question about Father to rest once and for all.
I don’t lay awake nights wondering about this anymore, and, indeed, haven’t done so since the age of fifteen or sixteen. However, during that rather rebellious time in my life, these matters weighed on me heavily, and ever since Hope has joined our life they seem to be returning more and more. In those earlier–and tortured–days, I distinctly remember lying in bed for hours, pondering the unspoken possibilities, imagining the world differently than it had been presented to me, and all the while dreading the six a.m. whoops and cries of Natie, Gert, or one of the babies, dreading too the inevitable scolding from my teachers for drifting off during class and the price to be paid on my examinations. When baby Thomas died, I was certain that my evil-thoughts lay at the root of it. I also was convinced that it was only a matter of time until I myself would be punished by a vengeful God because I wished that the stern and self-righteous man sleeping in the next bedroom was not my true Father and that I could go back to Oneida and reunite with Uncle C. or Uncle P., one of whom would turn out to be my true flesh and blood sire. At the same time, of course, I knew that affiliating myself with these lesser examples of humanity, both of whom had been considered unfit for propagation by Mr. Noyes, would deprive me of my privileged status, a status which I’m ashamed to say I lauded over my half-breed younger siblings at every possible opportunity. But I felt a deep need to know the truth back then–and also, I suppose, carried a secret puerile hankering, idealistic and romantic, to believe that I too was the product of love and passion rather than scientific planning.