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Or was he brazenly flouting the rule that you should never take the last of anything? We considered our family vastly superior to the Edwardses. They were in the world of money and business and we fancied ourselves in the world of literature and art. In fact, we were an ordinary middle-class, middlebrow family. My parents belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club. My father wrote letters to the Times , and one of them may have made it into print.

After he died, we found in his papers copies of a letter from the nature writer Hal Borland, amiably acknowledging an error in his column that my father had found. In Prague, the claim to artiness had more substance. My father published witty pieces in advanced periodicals.

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His wit was excellent—but it was Czech wit. He wrote perfectly well in English, but he could never be a real writer in the language. He had preposterous ambitions for his daughters. I am writing this in a house in the country with the obligatory box of family letters in the attic that go unread year after year. Yesterday, I brushed the dust and dead flies off the box and began to read. Autobiography is a misnamed genre; memory speaks only some of its lines.

Like biography, it enlists letters and the testimony of contemporaries in its novelistic enterprise. Combing through the box, I soon struck the gold of a letter that confirmed and amplified the portrait of Uncle Paul that I am drawing seventy years later. The letter, dated June 26, , was written by my fifteen-year-old self to my parents, about a car trip I took with my uncle and aunt and cousin Eva to a village in Maine called Vassalboro.

They had rented a house there for the summer and had invited me to join them. Uncle Paul got very excited and said she would have to get out of the car if she told it. But what does it prove? The gold is dross.

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The glitter of memory may be no less deceptive. The past is a country that issues no visas. We can only enter it illegally. She wore long, dark-red print dresses, all of which appeared to be the same dress, and heavy black shoes. She was the teacher of the after-school Czech school in Yorkville that Marie and I attended. The second-generation working-class Czechs in Yorkville sent their children to the school to learn to read and write the native language.

We did sort of learn to read and write Czech, but mostly we fooled around.

She was constantly yelling at them but was unable to control them. The girls disrupted the class in other ways. We whispered and passed notes. One day, a pair of twins named Janice and Rose brought in a pomegranate split in half and dispensed seeds to a favored few. I was not among them. It was understood that she was kindhearted. But we were too young to be kind in return to someone so weak and clinching our hard-heartedness so unattractive.

Teaching reading and writing was not her main task. To raise money for the school, which was free, she was required to write and produce a play or a musical twice a year with a part in it for each of the students, of whom there were about twenty-five.

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The play was staged on the top floor of the building, where there was a proscenium stage and old-fashioned flats depicting forests and gardens and rustic interiors. So, for a large part of each term, instead of learning to read and write, we endlessly, cluelessly rehearsed, first in the classroom and then upstairs on the stage. At the far end of the room, opposite the stage, was a bar where there were always men drinking.

The place smelled of beer and of a kind of evocative staleness perhaps inherent in nineteenth-century New York buildings.


Sites of idleness and wasted time like the Czech school are fertile breeding grounds for the habit many of us form in childhood of always being in love with somebody. The boys were always showing off for her. She had all the mythic attributes of desirability: she was beautiful, vivid, self-contained. I was part of the background of ordinary girls who secretly loved and, unbeknownst to ourselves, were grateful for the safety of not being loved in return.

The pleasure and the terror of that would come later. About twenty years ago, I unexpectedly received a package in the mail containing ten or twelve black-and-white photographs. The return address was the Library of Congress , and the sender was a library employee who had somehow connected me to the family that appeared in the photographs, and had thought that I might like to have them.

I certainly did. The family was my family. The pictures were not snapshots—they were glossy eight-by-ten prints that had a professional, you could even say slick, character, the sort of photographs that appeared in Life and constituted a kind of picture story of harmless everyday existence. They were taken in , by a photographer named Marjory Collins, who worked for the Office of War Information in Washington.

Her boss was Roy Stryker, who, as the head of the photography unit of the Farm Security Administration, had famously elicited—from Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, and Carl Mydans, among others—the images of rural poverty that gave the Depression its unmistakable face. Now America was to be represented as the locus of the struggle of ordinary, decent people against the German and Japanese threats. Pictures of young women on assembly lines making airplane parts and of retired couples tending victory gardens were among the new indelible images.

According to a short biography of Collins written by Beverly W. She must have spent several days with us.

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The photograph of us at dinner shows an empty place at the table where she must have sat after taking her pictures. The images reflect a charming and likable person who made us all seem charming and likable, if a little boring. Sometimes, when something displeased my father, an ugly expression would appear on his face. The expression disappeared in a moment and was related to nothing about him. He was the gentlest of men. He never punished us it was my mother who occasionally spanked us and we never knew him to be unkind to anyone.

But the ugly expression—as though he were flinching from a horror—did appear and was all the more striking because of its incongruity with his usual mild demeanor. Parents have their mythologies. How was a ten-year-old boy able to live alone in a big city? Where had he lived?

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Was he really completely on his own? Well, no, it turned out. He had lived with relatives. The tutoring contributed to, but did not constitute, his upkeep. The story remained obscure—I never learned who the relatives were—but was no longer improbable. He married late—at thirty-two—as men did in those days; Freud , for example, married after a long engagement to Martha, when he could finally afford the furniture, silver, and porcelain for their apartment in Vienna.

By the time I knew my father, he was a bald, slightly flabby, middle-aged doctor on whom a history of girl-chasing had left no visible trace. But the legend of his rakishness persisted, so that Marie and I could not altogether seriously speculate about romantic liaisons between him and women friends of the family.

He sometimes said of himself that he had better relations with women than with men, but this was not to boast about his relations with women so much as to express regret about his relations with men. He had grown up without a father and believed this was at the root of his inability to form strong male friendships. His mother and father had divorced soon after he was born. Details about his father, Moritz Wiener, are elusive, almost nonexistent.

My father told us that an ancestor bought it from a state official. This may be another myth. We know that, in the eighteenth century, laws were passed requiring Eastern European Jews to adopt non-Jewish names; but no record exists of the sale of these names or of price lists set according to their pleasingness. However, the legend of the store-bought name persists and retains its innocent allure.

Some of this idea of my father as a sort of liberated serf must have come from my mother.