Sunday, January 10, 2010

About Beauty

In the last two weeks, I found this box of notes, diaries, papers in the attic. Or rather I braved bringing it downstairs and looking at some of the writing. That is because I had taken out a memoir that I'd worked on for years, with all seriousness, pulling in dear friends to read it, to make comments. Oh, I was so determined that it would see the light of day.

I've found a letter from my daughter's father in the box. It sounds like him, a very abstracted fellow who was immersed in the writing by, lives of, European and Russian male painters. He had written me from Europe, a letter I don't remember receiving, but one which must have been thrilling. It was just interesting enough, the names of cities he'd seen, the mention of a dinner he had just eaten, the German Shepherd, Basil, scratching his fleas in a corner. It's written on heavy paper, probably from a drawing tablet, in his distinctive scrawl and ended with the word love.

When he got back from Europe, and moved into my apartment on St. Marks Place after I'd invited him for dinner (that was the old I'll-just-never-leave-after-one-visit-decision-making of those days) and I got pregnant, there was no more signing his letters with love when he first left us when Krissy was less than a year old. (He would leave and return many times before my third and best psychiatrist helped enough for me to withdraw from my obsessive need from what I truly believed was a relationship.)

I would not then have said how entranced I was by his physical presence. He had the body of a dancer, a beautiful smile with a slight gap between his front teeth, high cheek bones (from a Cherokee grandmother) and light tan skin (from a white grandmother), a spread of freckles across his nose. I loved to look at him. I still do, in my mind. We couldn't have been more ill-suited and he couldn't turn into a person who would ever help me and our daughter and my delusion that he would be a successful artist when only Romare Bearden was recognized at that time was so misplaced that it's laughable. (He wasn't the only male artist in my small circle of friends who drifted off rather than provide for a child.)

The daughter is truly beautiful. I catch myself looking at her as she ages, as her face gets more taut, but still alive with a very particular sparkle, the belief that it's all good, an ability to get up when she's knocked down, a gift for being a wonderful teacher.

I don't actually think that physical beauty is all that important. And I think it does a lot of damage. Had Krissy's father been pudgy like his younger brother, had the skin color of both that brother and their father, he might not have been treated so gently at Bard, not have gotten what his father considered were those terrible illusions pressed into his head by that impossible school, gotten so far above himself that he flew off into wherever, breaking contact and breaking hearts.

And my beauty was terribly damaging since I had no ability to say no to anyone man who wanted to sleep with me. In those early days, just before and then as the sexual revolution started, I was vulnerable to demands, unable to set boundaries, giving myself away hopelessly, a problem that so many psychiatrists were slow, very slow, to help me resolve. Though, from all outward appearance, I had come from a privileged background, a large suburban house providing those general comforts, the chaos which my highly educated father created once my mother died, left me without foundation. And the dreadful need to spiral downward. 

Would things have been better if I'd been homely? I think they would have on some level, though my destructiveness would have still been there. And I wouldn't have had that particular daughter with that spectacularly beautiful man and, and, and, and....

The irony of this photo is that it was taken up at Krissy's grandfather's in the Bronx, in his neat living room with plastic on the chairs, next to his Christmas tree. We lived in a loft on the Bowery, cold and dark with low ceilings and wavery floors. Krissy's father had built a cabin in the back out of pallets he'd found on the street, stapled on plastic sheeting, hitched up a wood burning stove, made a bed from an old pullout couch. Krissy slept in my mother's laundry basket set on a small table. When the room got hot, I took my sweater off. The fire was fed by wood he collected from the street and cut up with an electric saw.

The loft was large, the windows were in front. He had about six or ten feet of light and that was where he drew. There was a washing machine where I washed Krissy's diapers and a stove. He often sat on a chair next to it, leaning into the oven for warmth. It was horribly cold that winter after she was born in January. I went back to work after a week or so and he took care of her, though I later found earplugs. She began sleeping in the morning, waking up when I got back from work, falling to sleep late.

I still remember the sound of her feet scuffling in her plastic bottomed sleepers after she was old enough to hold on and walk around the large table, probably our only piece of furniture beside the bed.


  1. oh boy, melissa. so much that resonates. the curse of handsome men...and giving our bodies to whomever asked, never stopping to ask what we wanted. it's a lovely photograph, and you took the cards you were dealt...and played the hand.

  2. Wow, Melissa. Your memoir should see the light of day, judging by this. I could not stop reading.

    You weave through images of a time long gone when life seemed so terribly tough with thoughts on the nature of physical beauty and how much outside appearances can interfere with what goes in inside, thereby damaging relationships. At least that's my take on it. This is beautiful and devastating writing.

    How helpful it must be to get back into reading those old letters. The photo here is amazing, particularly when we learn the back story and see more of how the future, yours and your daughter's has panned out.

    Thank you.