Fishy all right. A weakling in a collection of weaklings, nothing but down from a promising opening paragraph: “He had not been near the place for thirteen years. All gone now, the boys. Kelly dead. His son dead. Denny, that waiter fellow dead too, he supposed. The good old days dead. Above all, credit dead, strangled by tightening purse-strings—and tightening heartstrings too, for that matter. That was the worst of all. Ireland had hardened. In the old days now, if you hadn’t the money in your pocket, sure any day would do.…” Then it’s all about the old days, booze and oysters in a haze of weak similes and metaphors in a dialogue at an Irish pub: “Heffernan winced in the alcoholic mist which hung over him like a cloud over a mountain, but the sight of those oysters gave him confidence.” There’s a theme of loss lost somewhere in there.
An old man, Mo-Sae, a Korean War survivor (he was 10 when it started) and dementia victim, left home alone his wife Young-ja who’s “coming up with errands that were really excuses to leave,” though she doesn’t need to: shes’s ill, too. He’s losing his memory, and she’d rather not always be near him to witness it. A young boy at his stoop, “appearing also in Mo-Sae’s cognition.” Not a very good sign, this Cognition. The boy is his grandson, Jonathan. Young-Ja has atrial fibrillation. Her husband was at that stage where he would come up “with likely versions of the past that became fixed in his memory.” But the story loses itself in memories of Young-ja, her violence toward her sister, “her need to connect again and again with something solid, resistant, and alive—shoulder, cheekbone, the open mouth that housed the teeth,” an image As convincing, poetic or otherwise, as a closed-mouthed metaphor. It’s about filling in the past in Korea, before hands-off America, where there was no hitting. Then back to facing a hisband’s dementia. Sundowning. And the bullshit of doctors’ advice: “She had been told to expect increased confusion, even agitation. She had been told that the only way to respond was with patience and kindness. Patience. Kindness. What did they really mean between husband and wife? Sometimes she felt that patience and kindness could be stretched so far in a marriage as to become their opposites.”
And this, of course:
Did he know?
She could never directly ask him, never actually say the word Alzheimer’s, chimae, in English or Korean. She would rather pacify, indulge, work around his nonsense. Perhaps this was patience and kindness. Or perhaps it was the worst possible way to be unkind.
Sometimes she wondered. Was it all an act? Would nothing really remain? In the middle of the night, did a dawning horror sometimes spread over his soul? Or did he really think, as it seemed when his defenses were up, that all the world was in error and he was its lone sentinel of truth and fact?
Those thoughts we’ve always had caring (if caring it was) for an Alzheimer’s torture victim. But now the church is asking his wife whether he’d consider returning to the church choir for a Messiah
Reformable after quitting out if dissatisfaction with the previous conductor. His wife would rather he not be found out. But he accepts. And makes a spectacle of himself, sidling up to the soloist’s part during the performance. The secret was out. “Thus she was free from the burden of his reputation.” But not the burden of responsibility. Her children broach the inevitable: “Something had to be done about Dad… but what?”
But this: the twist is that it’s young-ja whose illness collapses everything, herself included. Mo-Sae can only make sense of fragments, and not of her absence as he watches the boy, remembering memories near and far, keeping vigil over the sleeping boy, waiting for his wife to return, as she will not. It’s a searingly true story, calmly told, its tragedy a surprise, but not a surprise, unless you read it cynically, though no less realistically, if not justifiably: Young-Ja’s illness was not unwilled.
New England Review, vol. 38, Nr. 2, 2017.
The story was titled “Cold House” when it ran in The New Yorker, which summarized it this way: “Mrs. Carnavon drove several miles to visit her summer home in the middle of the winter. When she arrived she didn’t know why she had come. She climbed the stairs to her son’s room; she had thought of leaving that room the way it was. Looking at the objects that had belonged to her son; a diamond-shaped plaque, with the clasped hands and the Greek letters; a photograph of a baseball team, a magazine that he may have read, she realized how little she had known her son and that by keeping his things, she would end by hating a memory that she only knew how to love.”
We don’t know how he died. He was 24. Nor do we know how her husband died, though her husband died a long time before. The war seems too long ago or not yet (there’s an allusion to fascism in Europe). Maybe he died in Spain.
Of course it’s more powerful than that:
The New Yorker, April 2, 1938
Deborah is the not-quite 3-year-old daughter of Katheryn and Robert Tennyson. Her parents party and get drunk so much that “She made Martinis in the sand pile and thought all the illustrations of cups, goblets, and glasses in her nursery books were filled with Old-Fashioneds.” She is mostly cared for by a nanny, Mrs. Hartley, with whom she quarrels as if the two were an old couple. At one of her parents’ parties, they entertain a woman called Renee Hall, an actress, about 35, “dissipated and gentle,” who saw her life disappearing and her wish for a child unfulfilled. She takes to Deborah, but has a falling out with the Tennysons when she becomes too attached to the little girl, lavishes her with too many gifts and even ventures to question her parents’ style:
But eventually Mrs. Hartley hands off Deborah to Renee to look after for a few hours a week, especially when Mrs. Hartley goes to church. One of those days, right after Deborah tells renee that she has a friend called Martha and is dismissed “of course you do”) Deborah disappears. Her parents are in a panic. The search is on. Police finally find her in front of an antique store on Third Avenue. She tells her father she had to find her friend Martha.
The story recall Flannery O’Connor’s “The River,” where of course the boy, also surrounded by drunkard and somewhat more indifferent parents, isn’t found but drowns, looking for his own version of Martha.
[Missing children, panic, loss, unfulfilled life, projection, parenting, drinking]
The New Yorker, June 29, 1946