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from CAFE MONDEGAR – A Novel

Tess and her daughter got out from the Aston Martin on Michigan Avenue outside the eleven-hundred-and-twenty-seven-foot Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, John Hancock Center, and after the valet had taken the car, they began walking along the Magnificent Mile as this beautiful stretch spanning the distance between the Chicago River and Lincoln Park is called.  With its upscale boutiques and department stores and the Water Tower designed by William Boyington, which was completed one hundred years before Big John, as the Hancock tower is locally and affectionately known.

The mother and daughter loved to take in this mid-western metropolis’s beautiful lakefront and eat lunch overlooking Lake Michigan from The Drake hotel; and then wander among the shops of Michigan Avenue and Oak Street.  Now that Tess had moved back to Chicago she realised just how much she had missed returning to this awesome stretch of oppidan splendour, and how she especially enjoyed having Monica with her.

Tess had been lonely when Monica had decided to seek dramatic prospects in Old Albion, but, as her father had mentioned, neither of the Baums would have tried to dissuade their only child from following her heart, even had they thought it was misdirected.

Moving back to Chicago from Virginia, Max had accepted positions on the boards of directors of some ten or twelve different companies and Tess had once again enjoyed the domesticity of preening and ordering the Kenilworth residence.  The home they had bought twenty-five years before and to which they had returned frequently during Max’s time in the Senate.

Tess was a daughter of Chicago’s north shore.  She had grown up in great affluence in Northbrook, the daughter of one of the city’s most redoubtable lawyers, and the relationship Monica shared with her parents was almost borrowed from the one Tess had enjoyed with hers, till their deaths, three years apart.

She had met Maxfield while they were at the University taking a Philosophy class together.  Her Kantian maturity and grace and carriage, all elements of that aristocracy, which America in its obsession with its færy-tale and delusional equality—except for that one allowance made for the Kennedy’s’ Camelot—has tried to deny the existence of.  But there was no mistaking the breeding and the refinement of Teresa Reiss, who unmistakably belonged to those rarefied beings of America’s intellectually and financially driven upper classes.  Her whole life she had been one of those people whose loveliness, like the duped British Princess’s, reached some way beyond grace’s dominion itself.  It was something even the coarsest of men, would be hard pressed not to respect or to harm.

She had fallen in love with Max, in whose brand of cleverness, in whose ambition, and his absolute conviction that he would, that he must, make a mark, bequeath a legacy, make more than a slight difference in the world, she had discerned echoes of her father.  The father whom most daughters will end up wanting to marry.  They were one of those couples, the sublimity of whose beings and depth of whose love would see them through to greatness, both personal and public and many of those moments when each would irrevocably feel that all was right with their world.

The day was beautiful.  One of those uninterruptedly bright Chicago spring days, when the air was sharp and the sun hung high in an errorless sky and the lake gleamed like a sheet of glass.  Only here at The Drake would Monica sit by the window and there, eating salads and drinking the sparkling Perugina, these two wonderful feminine creatures chatted on about things that we shall out of the fondest deference try not to overhear till we must.

—Where did Dad go?

—Do you remember his friend from Oxford, Ian Locketter?

—The mathematician?

—Yes.  Well, he’s in town for a few days and your father wanted to go and spend some time with him.  They were great friends and he only saw him briefly the other evening at the party.  They haven’t seen each other for at least ten years.

—Why didn’t you go?

—I just didn’t feel like it.  I hardly know the man.  I’ve only met him once and as charming as he was, this is your last day here.  With all that’s been going on with the anniversary we hadn’t even come down here yet.  So I decided in favour of The Drake and you.

—Is it lonely without me here?

—Yes.  And no.

—Tess!

—Oh!  Be quiet!  Of course I miss you.

—I should hope so.

—Your father is wonderful company, though.  Has always been.  You know so many of our friends here and in D.C. are divorced or are getting divorced—  The marital cycle is beginning again.  Anew.

—It’s amazing how you and Dad have been together so long.  I don’t think you were even with anyone before him, were you?

—Yes, there were men before him, better looking men, more romantic men, even more intelligent men, believe it or not, but I honestly couldn’t conceive of my life with anyone else.  I’ve loved him most of my life.  From the very moment I first saw him I knew completely that he was it and that’s never changed.  And not a day goes by that I don’t consider how lucky I am that he felt the same way when he first saw me.

—So was it just lucky then?  I mean to know you loved each other.  With such certainty.

—Yes I think it was.  And you will too.  When it happens.  And your father is a hard man to love, but I’ve never wanted a man who was easy to love.

—I wonder.  It seems weird.  To be that certain.  To have no questions.

—Oh, of course we had questions.  Tons of them.  But we were also able to answer them.  Even when we didn’t like the answers, at least we were sure that they were there.  I think that’s when you know you’re certain.  When you can answer them without reservations and still look at a man and love him deeply.  Accept him for what he is and what he isn’t and most importantly for what he’ll never be.  Even accept that he is not all the things you thought you wanted in a man.  I even say that about your father.

—So questions are good?

—You cannot love without questions, Monica.  You cannot love without tests.  Love deepens on the other side of every test you come through together.  And the bigger the test, the deeper the love.

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from MY MOTHER – A Novel

There were also usually steps that led down from the pavement outside these Edwardian houses, through a little wrought iron gate, to a garden apartment. I recall that the prostitutes of west London usually worked out of some of these garden apartments. My father had owned the entire house my mother now lived in and so there was no garden apartment, only a bottom floor that was full of disused and dusty furniture and relics of a not unhappy, forty-year-old marriage. My mother never went down there anymore. She lived primarily on the first floor of the house, in the kitchen where she would sit drinking hourly cups of tea and reading an increasingly large stack of weekly tabloid magazines or editions of Reader’s Digest. Sometimes she would talk on the phone to her sister who lived in Walsingham where she worked at the Roman Catholic National Shrine of Our Lady. In time I found out that these phone calls were becoming less frequent and shorter even when they did occur. My mother had a few old friends with whom she kept in touch regularly over the phone, though she always declined invitations to visit them and she did not have any of them over. Or she would sometimes sit in the front room on a large reclining chair watching soap operas or reality shows or CNN. She watched CNN because it was her way of keeping in touch with America where my brother and I had both lived for over fifteen years.
My mother kept very good health for a person her age, but suffered from typical bourgeois accidie. If she could muster up the little energy she needed to climb to the first floor to her bedroom, she would sleep in her bed at night, but most often she slept in the reclining chair in front of the television. She washed in the bathroom that was opposite the entrance to the kitchen. If she wanted a bath, she would climb to the first floor.
I was not overly particular about what I ate, but being immersed for a number of years now in the green and environmentally conscious popular culture which America had assiduously taken on and which by extension the rest of the world had also now been driven to do, couldn’t find much to eat during my stays at my mother’s house. There was nothing organic or healthy which she could offer me, other than fruit, which I ate in copious amounts when I stayed with her. For both lunch and dinner she ate mostly Cup-A-Soups and ham sandwiches on white bread. Maybe an orange or a few grapes after her sandwich if she felt like eating something sweet. She ate no breakfast.
Her house was kept for her by a Polish woman who also did her shopping and ran whatever errands needed to be done. It was my brother who continued to pay the wages of this woman and it was he who also paid whatever bills my mother needed paid. My mother seldom left her house. If she needed anything or happened to run out of supplies, she went to the shop at the end of Finborough Road. This was the only place she visited with any regularity and whenever there was a need for her to go there she would buy herself a packet of Benson & Hedges. She was not an habitual smoker.
For many years now to prepare for my short stays with her, she drove her 1994, blue Peugeot to the Sainsbury’s on Fulham Road to “shop” for me as she called it. As she had done every Saturday when my brother and I were growing up. My concerns about eating boxed foods loaded with preservatives which I constantly reminded her about, did not prevent her from stocking her fridge with fish fingers and Aunt Bessie’s frozen Yorkshire Puddings and the other food I had liked to eat as a boy. To my mother, my brother and I were always her boys. Abel’s numerous successes and even his Emmy were not able to extricate him from my mother’s conception of him as the small boy who loved to sit on her knee and eat Angel’s Delight. Those were the happiest days of my mother’s life and she clung to them, through us, with a tenacity which evidenced itself in nothing else she had done then or since, except maybe her surrender to the life she now led. It mattered little to her that Abel was rich with several homes or that the lost innocences of childhood had left me with a failed marriage and little ambition other than to use whatever money I made from my insurance job in Chicago to wander aimlessly around the world. It is not implausible to think that had Abel or I wanted to sit on her knee even now and eat Angel’s Delight, she would have allowed it and thought nothing about the absurdity of that type of behaviour. She would have smiled and fed us. Whenever I voiced my opposition to the boxed and frozen food she now bought for me, she said, “I don’t understand what’s wrong with it. You loved it as a boy. You ate it all those years and I don’t recall any of it ever bothering you then. How can something you get at Sainsbury’s be bad for you?”

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