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  allegra goodman: Retrospective

Henny's just hung up the phone when she sees it in the paper. And it's not the best time, to begin with, because she's worrying about Annette alone with three sick kids on her hands in the dead of winter in Michigan, and Jacob says another trip to the mainland is out of the question. So it's not the best time when she sees her sister's name in the "Arts Spectrum." It jumps out at her the way names do when you know them. Lillian Pressman. And she only passed away one month ago.

"Jacob." She gasps. "The University of Hawaii is having a retrospective show of Lillian!"

"Let me see that." Jack folds back the newspaper and creases it in half. "They can't do that," he pronounces.

"But they are," she says. "Is it legal? Don't they need my permission or something, as her only surviving sister?"

Jack leans back in his chair and doesn't answer.

The fact is, Lillian wasn't an artist, though she worked in the Art Department at UH. Henny never really told people more specifically what her sister did. She didn't lie about it; she just chose to put it very vaguely. That her sister assisted art professors. That she worked as a civil servant, which was perfectly true, because she worked for the state university and had the same medical plan as any secretary. It's just that Henny never mentioned Lillian was an artist's model. It's one of those jobs that never come up by themselves in conversation. The vocation is honest, but a little awkward.

"'In the retrospective,'" Jack reads from the paper, "'the university will honor the contribution of a model who posed for generations of life drawing classes. Over one hundred studies of Lillian Pressman will be displayed at the Campus Center Gallery.'"

"Don't cry, Henny." Jack takes her hand. "I'm going to raise hell about this Monday morning. I'll call every office at the university. They can't do this to our family."

Henny looks at him for a moment. "They will," she says. "Just like the Helga pictures."

"Not like the Helga pictures," he reasons. "That was a great artist. No student ever did work like that. That was a sixty-dollar book."

But Henny shakes her head and clears the breakfast dishes. She half expects the phone to ring, with one of her friends asking questions. Honolulu is a small town when you've lived here as long as Henny. She and Jack moved to Hawaii just after the war. They've been at the temple from the beginning, and on the board. Two children through Oahu Prep. And Jack is Leading Knight at the Elks Club. Hundreds of people knew Lillian through Henny. She lived with them almost thirty years; she was part of every party, every function. Everyone will know. And they'll talk about it. Henny couldn't bear that. To have it reflected back on her. It's a position you have in the community. After all, she and Jacob were the first kosher family in Hawaii. They made the first arrangements with the butcher in Long Beach. You have a kind of pride built up over the years. When you've lived here longer than everyone you know who wasn't born here. When you saw statehood.When you remember exactly where you were on Kalakaua, 1959, with the newsboys screaming and the traffic stopped. Even the tourists rising up on their elbows on the sand, forgetting about their own pupiks for a minute. When you've lived here that long, people will talk about your sister. The only person Henny knows who came before she did is the old lawyer Farber, who came out to settle the water rights case fifty-two years ago, and he's still working on it in his eighties--"I'll lick it before it licks me!" he yelled when they toasted him at the Elks testimonial. And what will they say, the Elks, when they find out about Henny's sister? You work up to knowing everyone in the lodge. Your husband is the Leading Knight. And then that such a revelation should appear! They'll never let her hear the end of it. It's their motto: An Elk is never forsaken, never forgotten. They remember everything about everybody. It's their creed.

She marches through the house, collecting the wastebaskets from each room. It's a small house with small rooms. She wouldn't take Lillian's money for rent when she moved from Detroit. Not after she'd cared for their parents for so long. Lillian was in her forties by the time she came to Henny, and she never again took up with men. She earned extra money as an Avon Lady. She gave away her samples to Henny's grandchildren.

Picking up the blue plastic wastebasket, Henny pauses in the front bathroom. The cabinets are still full of Lillian's Avon inventory. Rosebud soap and sample perfumes and air fresheners in little Hummel-figure pumps. Would the company want these back? Henny wonders. She's packed up her sister's clothes and given them away, as Lillian would have wanted. But everywhere she looks, more of her sister's things appear. Peklach you don't even notice after so many years. There is a crocheted doll, for example, that stands on the lid of the toilet tank. It's got a blue crocheted skirt designed to fit over an extra roll of toilet paper. And there are little things like Lillian's cotton makeup applicators. Hundreds of them. She loved makeup. She had a complete Clairol display with a three-way mirror you could light up for daytime, night, and fluorescent office light. Henny should clear out the cabinets; she should do it today. On the middle shelf Lillian left bottles of nail polish, maybe fifty, in every shade. And a pink flowered traveling case with unbreakable containers for hair spray, powders, perfumes, eye shadows, rouges. Henny shudders. She must have brought that along to work.

Why did Lillian choose that profession? Henny has asked herself the question hundreds of times. What is a professional model, after all? A kind of exhibitionist. Henny has always thought that. But her sister was no exhibitionist. Not Lillian. You would think, really, that the models would be the young ones, the pretty ones, with smooth skin, taut bodies. That's what the artists want, isn't it? They want to make something ideal. And Lillian modeled when she was old. When she was sick with cancer. It breaks Henny's heart to think of that. Lillian almost seventy and cancerous inside, though it wasn't diagnosed yet. Her sister with her creased face and breasts hanging. And still under scrutiny. Still ruthlessly looked at, without a robe to cover her. With age should come a little dignity! Henny even asked Lillian to stop. "I don't understand," she told her sister. "Why do you model like this? Why did you even get started with this? And now when you're so old?"

Lillian smiled at this and said, "It's what I do." In Detroit she lived with an artist. He taught her how--started her off. And then when she came to Hawaii and Henny wanted her to settle down, it was too late. Lillian just said, "It's good work. You never get too old. The artists like the older bodies. They're much more interesting. If you asked a life-drawing teacher, he would tell you. They don't want Greek gods in their classrooms."

Henny was appalled by this. She had known vaguely that her sister lived with a painter, but studiously, for thirty years, she'd chosen to forget it. It's what you owe your sister. To think of her at her best. To try to ignore the times she acted reprehensibly. And Lillian herself helped maintain that better image in Henny's mind. In Hawaii she acted as sedate as anyone could have asked. The fact of her profession was the only vestige of her wilder youth, her love affair--the only one in their family, to Henny's knowledge. In her years in Henny's house, Lillian never once spoke about her work. She was the shyest, most discreet person in the world. She was a respectable woman.

The exhibit, of course, cannot be forgotten. There it is in the newspaper. Lillian on the walls for the neighbors. After all the years Henny and Jacob worked and entertained, became public figures in the community. Now the tables turn; now all the people they befriended will stop and look at them. It's like a magnifying glass that turns on you. It's no good imagining it can reverse. No one forgets humiliations in Honolulu. They remember clear as day, sometimes better. It's because the more people you know, the more witnesses. There were a thousand witnesses on Rosh Hashanah, 1970, when Rabbi Braverman, the stand-in, forgot to turn off his cordless microphone for his trip to the bathroom during silent meditation. There isn't a child who doesn't know about Steven Gottlieb and the imaginary condominium. And such glee, the way they tell it! Henny clenches her fist. When it comes to Lillian, she won't give them a chance.

* * *

She leans over Jack as he phones the university, Office of the President. "Is it ringing?" she asks.

"They put me on hold." He rattles the box of paper clips on his desk. The desk is at the back of the store, where they sell wallpapers. Jack used to do installation work as well, but now it's too hard on his back. Anxiously Henny watches his face. He has a terrible temper. He'll bawl out anyone on the phone; he doesn't care two bits for their feelings on the other end. And she can see he's in that kind of mood, pacing around with his fingers hooked under the body of the old black phone as if it were a bowling ball.A short man, but he never seems that way. He thrusts out his chin, and in arguments he rocks forward on the balls of his feet, hands clasped behind him.

"Did they answer it yet?" she asks.

"If they answered, wouldn't I be talking to them?" he snaps. They wait a little longer, and then he slams down the phone and tries again.

The door jangles and Henny runs to the front to help a young couple, the Chongs. She generally does the customer side, matching colors and explaining about the pastes. The Chongs want to cover only one wall of their kitchen. They're painting the rest, they tell her. And she sighs because she and Jacob haven't had a whole house or a restaurant since the Clambaker, three months ago, and that was only a neutral grass-weave matting. She and Jack had three years when they made real money. The first was 1952, when they got the contract for the Royal Hawaiian. That was the house. The second was 1972, when the Japanese Kikaida Robot TV shows first came to Hawaii, and she and Jack were the first to bring in the Kikaida Action Wallpaper series. That was the new car. Then the other year was 1979, with the foil, mirror-inset, wallpaper. That was the refrigerator and the enclosed lanai, and that was the trip to Europe without Lillian. And even on that trip Henny would have taken her, except Jack said it was going to be their second honeymoon.

"The president is in conference," Jack announces after the Chongs leave. "I left my number with the secretary, and in the meantime I spoke to the Art Department. We have an appointment tomorrow with Mohanty."

* * *

Krishna Mohanty is a stocky Indian professor with a beaming face. He shakes hands jovially with Henny and Jack Seligman as if nothing were wrong and ushers them into his gray office on the eighth floor of Porteus Hall. "They say in the administration these save electricity," he tells them, pointing to the flat ceiling fixture flickering above. Leaning back in his swivel chair, he clasps his hands over his stomach.

"Dr. Mohanty," Jacob says sharply. "I'll get right to the point. We want this exhibit canceled."

"But why?" asks Mohanty with his gentle accent. "It's beautiful, these works of art."

"That is my sister!" Henny blurts out. She hadn't meant to be so direct. "My sister, who passed away one month ago in pain, suffering with cancer of the stomach!"

"We planned the show one year ago, with her full knowledge," Mohanty answers serenely.

This stuns the Seligmans for a second. "I need written proof of that--that she would consent," Jack says finally.

"It's all in her release papers in Personnel. Please don't be upset," says Mohanty. "My idea is perhaps we could go look at the studies together."

"I will not go see pinups of my sister-in-law!" Jack explodes.

But Krishna continues, unperturbed. "It was really a notion of my students, not mine. They revered Lillian; I am not exaggerating. She practiced meditation when she posed; she never spoke. It was a very mystical body she had. Especially as she got older. There was a yoga instructor in the class who said she had the most complete inner focus he'd ever seen in a mainland haole. You see, she brought much to the department, and we want to pay tribute to her. Lillian was the perfect illustration of the mind at rest. It was her gift to stand or sit for hours, relaxed and yet centered in her pose. Her face became so impassive, so clear, you would hardly notice that she, a person, was there at all. She was like those horoscopes in the newspaper--for each artist she could mean a different thing. For me, she was the best model I ever had. She illustrated every lesson I had to teach. Look, I would tell my advanced students, this is a woman who has erased all the noise from her mind. Draw her and try to become like her so that no noise comes in your mind. Just the line and your paper. That's all I need. And for my intermediate class, I said, Look at the whole body and the way no one part calls attention. And now draw the whole body as a whole so no one part stands out. And for my beginners, I said, Look at the stillness of the model and try to capture that stillness in you, so all your lines are clear without erasing."

Henny looks at her husband. What is the man talking about?

"Her gift was she was so unexpressive," Mohanty muses. "She was a blank sign, open for interpretation."

"She wasn't any signpost for you to hang your pictures on," cries Jack, his face reddening. "Come on, Henny. We're wasting our time."

"Come see the exhibit!" Jack fumes in the elevator. "I'd tear every last one of them off the wall."

Henny puts a restraining hand on his arm, but all the same she asks fiercely, "Can we fight it, Jacob?"

He looks at her. "I'm sorry, honey; I don't see how. Here we are Tuesday, and the show opens Friday."

And Henny feels it now: They have lost. If Jacob gives up, there's good reason. Henny's husband can get all his money back in cash on refunds; he can spot a false ad a mile away. He's won two small-claims suits. He even won against the city when Henny broke the axle of the old car, driving over a pothole. The corporation counsel of Honolulu himself said Jack put together the best pothole suit he'd ever seen--that no one else had thought to photograph the pothole with a yardstick in it. So if Jacob can't go on against the university, there isn't any way to go. Besides, Henny realizes despairingly, the damage is already done, what with the newspaper article. Everyone in Honolulu reads the joint Sunday issue, the Advertiser and Star-Bulletin combined. Even the ones who would never attend a nude picture show would have seen the article, with "Lillian Pressman" in boldface.

Just as she knew and feared, Betsy Sugarman accosts her that night, shopping in Foodland. "Oh, hello, Henny," says Betsy. "Did you see that article about Lillian in the paper Sunday? The doctor and I were so surprised and interested...." She lets her voice trail off, all innocence, while Henny wheels her shopping cart away, unable to reply. She doesn't know what to say, she feels so humiliated. The cereal boxes on the shelves blur together, and she has to force herself to push on toward the liquid detergent, and even there she can only stare at the bottles arrayed by size, from pint samples on the top shelf to the Survivor Specials on the bottom. Every brand in columns: Cheer, Bold, Surf, Tide. And as the colors surge before her, all she can think of is Lillian hung up in different sizes on the wall. Her naked body reproduced small, medium, and large.

In the shopping center outside, wheeling past the liquor store, she stares at the magazine racks with half-naked women on the covers, glimpses of black lace and cleavage and even worse. And to think Lillian should be displayed like this, and when she covered herself in long bathrobes at the beach and bathing suits with skirts. Henny has to catch her breath. And then she has an idea. She will go for help to Rabbi Siegel.

She doesn't tell Jacob, because he hasn't gotten along at the temple in recent years. He served as treasurer two terms, and then when Steven Gottlieb first appeared and everyone thought the Meshiach had come, they told Jacob his time was up, without so much as a thank you. Just because Gottlieb was the big developer come to town and remodeled the old religious-school buildings--guilt money for his shady dealings, Henny believed even then. Of course, when Gottlieb absconded in the middle of the night, the board at MBT changed its tune. But the damage was done. Jacob told Henny he wouldn't volunteer anymore, even if they asked him. He'd come to services, and he would leave. That's all. He'd have nothing to do with the president and the rabbis; they knew what he thought of them already.

But Henny can't forget Siegel's goodness about the funeral. She went to him distraught because Lillian had told her she wanted cremation and the ashes scattered out to sea from a catamaran. Henny couldn't bear that. Her parents would suffer in their graves at the thought of such a hurban. Henny herself had been to one of those nonburials, and it was a disgrace, a trauma. They stood on the boat with the urn to scatter poor Samuel Miller out to sea, but the wind was blowing the wrong way and the ashes blew back in their faces, as if the Pacific was spitting him back. And it made you shiver there in the catamaran to feel Samuel floating in the air around you, drifting into your hair. So she went to Siegel, guilty that she wanted to deny Lillian's wish, not knowing what to do. Though Jacob denies it, there are some moments when Siegel reaches a very high plane of insight. He told Henny, "You know, in this day and age, Jewish law is not something to cling to. But I will say this about cremation. There were enough Jews burned in the Holocaust." Because of that, Lillian got a proper burial. That comment of Siegel's is what she thinks of now. That despite Jacob's opinions about the temple, Siegel has some moments on a very high plane. So the next day Henny goes to see Rabbi Siegel herself.

* * *

Everett Siegel's office is much smaller now that he is an emeritus rabbi. His books crowd the shelves, and there is less space between the photos on the wall behind his desk. In the center, black and white, the rabbi shakes hands with JFK. In other photos, Siegel meets with Senators Matsunaga, Hiram Fong, Daniel Inouye. Siegel looks up after Henny tells him about Lillian. "I'm sorry," he tells her. "I can't think of a way to block this, even under Jewish law."

Henny protests. "But I thought there must be some ordinance in the laws about the dead. If it was only a month ago that she died." Her voice trembles. "Aren't there rules concerning the treatment of the body after death?"

"Yes, there are," answers Siegel. "But they have to do with burial. You are talking about the body in a more philosophical sense."

Henny looks down at the white wicker purse on her lap.

"The truth is," Siegel tells her, "we try to preserve a bit of dignity during our lifetime, and the jackals strip it away after death. This is what it comes to."

Henny nods fervently, feeling this is exactly what she has been thinking.

* * *

"This is what it comes to," she murmurs that night, sorting through the bathroom cabinets, opening Lillian's desk drawers. You try to earn a living, support your temple, entertain your friends, and finally what's left? Some talcum powder, some envelopes, a booklet of eighteen-cent stamps. There was a time when she and Lillian would entertain--fifty people at a dinner. They would really serve. None of this pot luck. They made roasts and capons. It was all kosher, from California. Once Henny bought smoked salmon mail order from Scotland. They had kugels, two kinds, and potatoes--no mashed-potato mix. They would work a whole day. They would spend their money on it, because that was what was important to them--to make for the community. To gather together. They remembered their parents' house in Detroit. That was what they tried to create in Hawaii. Of course, no one under Henny's age cooks like that. They get the catering service with the little white dresses and the bite-size food--filler for drinks. Or they go spend on themselves at John Dominis or Bagwells or the Third Floor. They go the two of them and leave the kids. Henny had a children's table at every dinner party; they set up the card table at Pesach, and at Rosh Hashanah, so the children were included. They're big now, some of them. Geoffrey and Alyssa Fifer--must be twenty, twenty-three. Or they were, last time she had the Fifers. It was surprising when they sat down at the card table and it lifted up on Geoffrey's knees. She hasn't seen them in a while. It's been some years, because Lillian was ill, and Henny had a harder time alone.

Not that Lillian ever cooked like Henny, but she would sit in the kitchen and peel the potatoes like a sous-chef. And she was patient, more than Henny ever was. So that for the twelve-egg sponge cake Henny made on Pesach, it was Lillian who sat whipping the egg whites until they stood up in the bowl--up to the rim. When Henny brought out that cake, standing ten inches high, there was a gasp. "Not since Mama Linzer was there such a cake in Honolulu." And that was the highest praise. After all, Mama Linzer founded the Sisterhood with her bare hands when she came during the war and made dinner for the servicemen.

You try to entertain and give your sister a chance to meet people, and in the end she's up on the gallery walls for ogling. Never once did Lillian try to get married, Henny thinks, rattling the desk drawers. Never once did she try to leave Henny's house. True, she was six years older than Henny and thirty-four when she first visited Hawaii, but thirty-four is not so old if you make some effort. Rochelle Lazar married for the first time at thirty-eight--with her shrieking voice and her purse full of Mace. There would have been more chances for Lillian in Detroit; she could have married there. Maybe she was worried about her reputation after living with the artist. She said she was depressed by the weather. But who knows? She was depressed sometimes in Honolulu too. It was, Henny thinks, because she didn't have a family of her own. That was the tragedy. That she never had children. Her life would have been different. She would have gone into a different line of work. She did take courses at the university. But only painting and pottery.

Henny opens the bottom drawer and shakes out some empty penny rolls. She feels as if there ought to be a diary or love letters. Some happier or at least more noble secret about her sister. She did read Harlequin romances, but she checked them out from Aina Haina Library and always returned them on time. She never bought them. Apart from those books, she didn't do anything romantic. She wouldn't leave a will. In the hospital, Lillian would only tell Henny, "When I'm gone, I'm leaving the insurance policies to the girls"--she called Henny's grandchildren the girls. "And the rest," she would say, "I'm leaving to the temple. Except I want to give twenty-five dollars to Hadassah." And then the next time Henny visited, she would say "And I'd like to leave fifty dollars for trees in Israel." Henny begged her to write it down, but she wouldn't do it. Even now, Henny can't remember if it was fifty dollars for the Humane Society or for the Elks Piggy Bank Fund.

* * *

Henny sings in the choir Friday nights at the temple. Jacob says he wouldn't go at all on Friday nights if Henny didn't sing. There was a time when the choir was Jewish, and now Henny's is the only Jewish voice left. The board hires the rest--ringers from the Honolulu Opera chorus. Henny helps the conductor teach the Hebrew pronunciation. On the night of Lillian's opening, she sits stiffly during Rabbi Liebowitz's sermon, tense under her white billowing robe. Let them stare at her. She'll stare them back. Her friends and supposed friends. Let them dare confront her or sidle up with snide questions. Betsy Sugarman is beneath contempt in her pink double-knit suit and her colored hair. At least Lillian's hair was originally auburn. More than Betsy could say for herself. And Grete Siegel in her reserved chair at the back: Well, let her look. She isn't worthy of her husband. She doesn't have half the mind of the rabbi.

And Hermione Gross, with her long press-on nails, as if she were half her seventy years. As if she were slender instead of only skeletal, with her leathery tanned skin. What could she give the temple that Lillian didn't give in her life? She saw with her own eyes when the rabbi recognized Lillian and Henny for donating the Torah. That was Lillian's idea. She told Henny during Yizkoron Yom Kippur, "I want to give a Torah to the temple in memory of Mama and Papa." Henny never understood why Lillian called their parents Mama and Papa. She started doing it when she was about forty-eight years old. That was also when she began going to Saturday-morning services as well as Friday night. Often she just stood with her book open to one page and read it aloud to herself over and over--in English. This distracted Henny, but Lillian said she liked to pray one page at a time; she didn't like rushing through the book. They bought the Torah, and as Hermione Gross can see, it's embroidered with Lillian and Henny's names--though naturally Henny and Jacob gave the bulk of the money and Lillian gave what she could afford. Lillian also embroidered the curtain for the ark, and everyone knows full well who did the work when Hadassah installed the needlepoint miniatures of Chagall's twelve windows. Lillian did Reuven and Dan, and Hermione did only half of Levi.

Henny sighs, exhausted with ignoring these people. There is no escaping it. The civil ones, the more refined, will make a point of not saying anything. But they know. They know. Even Evelyn in her fawn silk dress. Evelyn would never say an unkind word, but she thinks them all the time.

The worst comes when Henny turns to her prayer book, and it opens to one of the places Lillian marked. The temple is full of prayer books Lillian kissed open-faced. Over the years she used nearly every book. Her lipstick stain appears in each of them. And now it makes Henny shiver to think of her sister's lips kissing all those pages during her long illness. It's morbid; it's like kissing some relic. And what good did it do? What sacred words rubbed off on Lillian? It was Lillian who rubbed off. In pinks and reds, rose blushes, sugared oranges.

In the social hall after services, Henny makes Jack wait and take some kiddush. She won't run away. She strides through the hall, where the congregation gathers for lemon squares under the mural of Solomon's judgment. French doors open to the front courtyard, where a fountain flickers orange in the night. The blue light Ephie Tawil installed is broken. It's supposed to look Mediterranean, but all Henny can see is a big cement planter sprouting water, aspergeni trailing down the sides. Hermione and her newly married niece pour at either end of the long table. They sit before the silver tea and coffee urns with stacks of gold-rimmed cups and saucers. "Oh, hello, dear," says Hermione. "Isn't that lovely about Lillian. Such a tribute to her." Henny steadies her cup and glares, but the line surges forward and Hermione is already pouring for Irene. That is the only comment anyone makes all evening.

Henny admits it to herself that night. She's disappointed. Brushing her teeth, she feels disappointed she didn't have a chance to defend her sister. They acted as if they knew about Lillian's work all along. She stops brushing, with her mouth full of toothpaste, and gasps at herself in the mirror, blurred with mascara and frosted hair. Quickly she finishes washing up. "Jacob," she calls. He's already reading Wanderings in bed. "Jacob, she must have told them all behind my back."

"Lillian?" he asks vaguely. "Why would she do that?"

"I don't know why," Henny snaps. "But she must have. I could see they all knew about it."

"It was in the paper."

"No." Henny gets into bed and sits there propped up on her pillow. "They all knew except for Betsy Sugarman." She sits silently for several minutes, fingering the long satin bow on the front of her nightgown. She tried to shield her sister so Lillian could hold up her head in the community. She tried to protect her memory. And Lillian hadn't cared at all. She'd gone off and told them--God knows what. "Well," Henny says finally, "she did what she wanted." Then Henny turns over and falls asleep.
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    Excerpted from Total Immersion by Allegra Goodman. Copyright © 1998 by Allegra Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Dell Publishing, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.