Skromnost | Janet Malcolm | Granta

THis snapshot is the only momento I have of a girl I was in love with when I was in my late teens. She is the smiling blond near the center of the photograph. When I say I was in love with her, I am speaking from later knowledge. At the time – the late 1940s – girls in love with other girls didn’t recognize what was staring them in the face. They – we – thought you could be in love only with boys. Lesbianism was something you only heard about. There was a book called The Well of Lonelinessa forbidden, rather boring text, from which we formed the idea of ​​lesbians as unhappy jodhpur-wearing daughters of fathers who had wanted sons.

Pat Patrick, as the blond was called, was small and compactly built, a Jean Arthur type, who radiated a kind of self-containment and forthrightness that contrasted sharply with the wobbly unsureness of the rest of us. The group picture was of the participants in a six-week-long summer program for American and foreign college students run by an organization called the Lisle Fellowship, whose purpose was to make the world a better place through vapid discussions in the evenings and volunteer work during the day. How could it not succeed? But, of course, our main interest was in each other, in forming romantic attachments that took hold for a week or so and then petered out. My (unacknowledged) crush on Pat lasted the entire six weeks. I loved the way she strode about the place, as if she were on her way to a meeting of the Council of Landowners. I loved the way she swore. ‘Christ on a crutch!’ ‘Goodness, gracious, goodness, Agnes!’ The word ‘uninhibited’ was in vogue at the time, and I used it in thinking about Pat, envying as well as admiring her for her freedom from the dull conventions by which I was bound. She was nice to me. I was younger than everyone else – I wasn’t in college yet. My mother had learned of the program from one of her friends in the good-doing world, and no one at Lisle seemed to have noticed anything untoward on the application she sent in. I remember Pat counseling me about the boy, Jack, with whom I was going. She didn’t like him and I began to see what she meant. I switched to a nicer boy from South America, named Gilberto. Pat was going with someone from France whose name I don’t remember, who seemed older and was just possibly worthy of her.

After the summer I saw Pat one more time. In my memory of the meeting she is standing on the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue across the street from the Plaza Hotel. There is to be a reunion in the Village with some of the Lisle people. It is early evening in late summer. Pat is wearing an elegant dress of dark blue taffeta with a gathered skirt and cinched waist and suede pumps. Her hair is arranged in a loose chignon at the back of her neck. I had never seen her looking like this before. During the summer she wore shorts and cotton shirts and a ponytail. She looked like everyone else. Now she looks like a socialite, a daughter of wealth and privilege. She is not at ease. She tells me that she has to go to some event with her aunt, with whom she’s staying at the Plaza, and won’t be able to go down to the Village.

What interests me now in thinking about this last glimpse of Pat is my lack of surprise at her transformation. Of course she would be wearing that dress and those pumps and have an aunt who was staying at the Plaza. The shock was of recognition. We know so much that we don’t know we know about each other. We always know each other’s class. On some level I had always known Pat was rich and upper-class. Where I belonged in the money and class divide was equally clear to me.

Our family was ordinary mid-century professional middle-class, neither rich nor poor, with no social pretensions. In Prague my parents had been somewhat better off financially and had ties to an advanced intellectual community. A few of their fellow refugees went back to Czechoslovakia at the end of the war to try to resume their old lives. My parents knew almost from the start that they would stay here. This country is so nonchalantly seductive! There is no escaping its wills. My father was scarcely off the boat when he became a Dodgers fan.

We lived according to our means, on my parents’ salaries, with an easy modesty. The Czech word skromnost means ‘modesty’, but it also carries a mild sense of forelock-tugging humbleness, of knowing one’s place.1 My father worked as a physician and then as a psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration, and my mother worked as an announcer at the Voice of America. We never borrowed money. The idea of ​​’having money’, like rich people did, was alien to us. There was a girl in my class in junior high school named Astrid who lived on Park Avenue and was considered weird because of it. Everyone else lived east of Third Avenue, in what was then working-class Yorkville.

By the same token, I knew that we were a class above the people who lived in the tenements – we lived in a six-story apartment building built just before the war – though this knowledge came to me only gradually. In the earliest years of my childhood in Yorkville, I had a different idea of ​​the divide between us and the other families in the neighborhood: I thought we were inferior. I envied the girls their brightly colored Sunday clothes and their white communion dresses. I was ashamed of my mother when she came to school assemblies in the clothes she had worn as a professional woman in Prague, which I thought dowdy and poor compared with the shiny flower-print dresses of the other mothers. During this period of social misprision, I made a trade with a girl from across the street of a beautifully illustrated book of fairy tales for a comic book. When I proudly showed my parents the comic book, they humiliatingly made me go to the girl across the street and get the fairy-tale book back. The parallel between my trade and the one they had made of Old World culture for New World vitality was not apparent to them and only now comes into view.

But I want to talk more about skromnost, about my family’s practice of it and my nostalgia for it. Today we recycle the things we don’t want. During my childhood and adolescence and young adulthood there wasn’t much we didn’t want. It was a culture of conservation. And one of being satisfied with what came our way. The way we live now would have seemed unimaginably posh to middle-class people in the days of millionaires rather than billionaires. Campbell’s soup was not associated with Andy Warhol. We ate it. Casseroles of noodles and Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup were a kind of national dish to serve to company. Does anyone say ‘casserole’ anymore? Rich people ate the cream-of-mushroom dishes along with the rest of us; I’ve heard of rich old people whose servants still know how to make them. Today, the non-poor eat exquisite food as a matter of course, and four-year-old girls are taken for pedicures. This will be hard for young people today to believe, but no one went for pedicures when I was young. Sometimes for a very special occasion (the end of the world) one had a manicure. It was administered at the hairdresser’s while you were under the dryer.

I think of the skromny vacations we went on with our parents, in the time between the end of camp and the beginning of school. For several years, we stayed at the Andrews farm, in Pownal, Vermont, which took guests during the summer months, and served wonderful food: corn on the cob, cucumbers and green beans and tomatoes and potatoes from the garden, pork chops and steaks and chicken cutlets from their own or neighbors’ animals – what we now call ‘artisanal’ food. We understood its rare deliciousness. It made up for the monotony of the place. Except for one activity, croquet, I don’t know what we did all day. There was a girl named Gwendolyn who cheated at the game: she was always moving her ball or yours. In the evenings we and the four or five other families or couples staying at the farm gathered in the parlor. We played word games or Gwendolyn played the piano. She was pretty in a blond, sugary way. She played well. Marie and I hated her.

There were other summers when my mother couldn’t get away from work and my father took us to New Hampshire, to stay in a roadside cabin, one of about eight, owned by a Mr Hitchcock. Again, I don’t remember much about what we did – I think we toured New Hampshire places of interest like the Flume Gorge and Mt Washington, perhaps we swam in a nearby lake – but I remember the restaurant in a clapboard house across the road From our cabin, a little downhill, that served carefully prepared New England food and gave a special shine to the vacations. We ate breakfast and dinner there and felt fortunate. Here and there you still see collections of cabins on New England roads – I have passed one called Hubby’s Cabins, near Great Barrington, Massachusetts – and I think of Mr Hitchcock and those blurred innocent vacations with my father.

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