from the novella "The Practical Heart"
THE IMPRACTICAL TRUTH
Fact is is is Fable.
I did have a Great-aunt Muriel. Also true how one misguided streetcar stranded her whole family for life. By 1890, Muriel’s dashing father, author of the out-of-print Lotus Images in World Literature: A Reflection, debarred from university library privileges, fired from being “Raffles” of The Racing News, impatient at teaching holy English to mere Asia Minor foreigners, was forced at last to undertake full-frontal “trade.”
In a literary irony no sane writer would go near, he ended his career selling tablecloths and matching napkins at Marshall Field and Co., the very items from the same store that had accessorized his wife’s tragedy. With his groomed white beard and Longfellow grandeur, the man was put to use as a nine-to-five visual aid for women hoping to make their tables appear respectable as he. Ladies naturally gravitated toward a gent almost distinguished-looking enough to pose as some Scottish professor who’d published four books, who’d inherited a nineteen-room freehold house worthy of a name. Donald Fraser appeared, in fact, someone distinguished enough to have lost everything, and survived.
Maybe that—and not a family Sargent—becomes the lasting, ultimate Distinction? To have forfeited all your class trappings, but to remain somewhat standing. Here’s hoping that counts. It might be my own unlucky family’s single chance at amounting to anything, at getting on record. And might that matter? I have no choice, given our history, our story, but to believe it does. —Odd that “History wished” should be so much easier to tell than “History merely if bravely lived.”
In your own life, don’t you find that?
For Donald Fraser’s sixtieth birthday, daughters gave him a pair of lively English water spaniels. Dogs soon accompanied him everywhere except Field’s “Fancy Linen Goods.” The esteemed Professor, long deprived of his property, his classroom audience, finally stopped saying, “No one ever list-ens to me.” Now his dogs did. He named them Sonny and Sadie. Muriel was quiet in noting how much these names, uttered all together, recalled the word “Sunnyside.” He’d say, “Come Sonny/Sadie, my poor landlocked creatures. Shall we stroll our bit o’ lakefront and see what erosion’s left us since last night?” In spaniels’ unwavering respect, the old man seemed to recover some of his sense of home, of honor, even humor. The pretty animals, flanking him, rendered this once-forbidding patriarch picturesque. Fraser became less a skulking fugitive of the lakeside park, more an official greeter on this estate he did not own. He indulged the pets just as his young daughters—without his ever quite suspecting—had shielded him. To Sonny and Sadie, he quoted Gaelic poetry that they alone seemed able to enjoy. Ears perked, heads tilting, they stared up at him with a helpless trust unseen for decades from his kin merely American.
My actual Aunt Muriel wore a pince-nez all her life. She possessed a beautiful contralto speaking voice. It seemed richer than her face and wider than the fragile partridge neck. Her Glasgow accent still lived—a cushy burr—beneath the Midwest’s layered brass. Aunt’s hair went gray when she was twenty-some; she wore it pulled back in a bun to “keep it out of the way.” She had one good friend, named Jewel. A family joke, how Muriel carried a tight-furled black umbrella even on days half sunny. As a child, I recall Aunt Muriel’s always smelling clean yet clerical. It was a minty, neutral scent, like the glue on a good business envelope. If she was agitated, her aroma could upgrade to that of Twining’s English Breakfast Tea steeping after being violently at boil. One personable widower called on her during the entire summer of 1908, but either he was married or lost interest or moved, or all three. His name, it is recalled with a bitter retentiveness peculiar to poor literate families, was “Stan,” “Stan” Something.
After trying, as a young woman, to teach piano, Muriel Fraser found her pupils no more lucrative or socially notable than the twin daughters of a Bengali hemp-importer and the handsome son of her own Presbyterian pastor. Thanks to the secretarial pool of her sister Ethel, she finally took a day job. Quickly accomplished at the new shorthand, being blessed with a most avid intellect, Miss Fraser spent the next forty-seven years serving as executive secretary to a fifth vice-president of the International Harvester Company, the fellow charged with manufacturing bailers and crop-binding twines. —Musical yet hardheaded, trim yet faintly asexual, cheerful if not visibly ecstatic or excessive, blessed with the ripe speaking voice but a thin singing one, Muriel never married, devoting herself to her difficult, wounded, attractive parents.
My question is: Why her? Of all the family members held up to my kid brother and myself as excellent American examples, Miss Muriel Evangeline Kilkairn Fraser was never cited once.
I came of age in eastern North Carolina but often wrote to my favorite of “The Fraser Girls.” Savoring such exclamatory illustrated childhood bulletins, Muriel determined I could draw, or was trying hard. So, in the margins of her own terse letters, she started sketching quarter-notes with faces, wispy stick figures playing drums or horns. She assured me, age eight, that artistic genes coursed, wild, through our family. Muriel prepared me for the onslaught of my own latent brilliance—brilliance at doing what, she didn’t yet say. Maybe she preferred not to limit me? Aunt saw predictive traces of my good mind everywhere; and who was I to contradict her? She foretold Prizes, in much the way my parents hinted at a cruel Puberty waiting dead ahead. I preferred Aunt’s verdict.
Kids along our suburban North Carolina street were force-fed lessons in ballroom dancing, dressage, and piano, even the boys. I endured three years of dreary Czerny exercises. One of Aunt’s notes told me, with what seemed glossy sophistication, “Czerny has few great supporters, no? The very word ‘Czerny’ means, of course, ‘black’ in Czech.” This fact I tried, with uneven success, to wedge into conversations at grammar-school marble games. Nobody had the slightest idea what I meant. Looking back, I see that happened often. It helps explain how much, between trips North, I longed for the snobbish certainties of a brisk, unlikely woman my father called Miss Mouse.
Mother caught me admiring one of Muriel’s little illustrated notes and said, “How dear. She’s like our own Beatrix Potter, isn’t she? Only without the talent.” Christmases, Aunt might send my younger brother a ski sweater or some cowboy wallet—his name burned there in lasso script. But, upon me, Great-aunt Muriel lavished the most exquisite of art supplies. The expensive candy of Winsor Newton tubed watercolors, paper so rich with rag no frame was needed to help it stand. Such supplies were always beautifully gift-wrapped by Marshall Field’s. (Our family’s fate seemed as bound to that emporium as some clans to, say, the Roman Catholic Church.)
In Falls, North Carolina, you could only buy artist’s equipment in one corner of our better hardware store. On sale beside a tray of pink bathtub-plugs, such local paint smacked less of art than carpentry. —Just before Christmas, I would roll the best of my whole year’s work into a brown mailing tube. (She never didn’t like my efforts!) Her gifts led me to check out art books from our local library. I found one, The Underappreciated Singer Sargent, and, applying the idea of being underrated to her and to myself, renewed the book and renewed it. Muriel insured my love with her annual bundle, the finest art supplies mere money could buy. I swear, with those, she half-created me. And this.
I felt related to her. There was something in how Muriel, though cohabiting with family, lived so visibly alone. Something in her own appetite for study, her faith in the “National Geographic Society” (whose expeditions she hinted she helped fund). Something in her morbid breath-mint fear of imposing on others. Something in her gluttonous eyes, her Museum memberships, her relish for facts, her extraordinary memory and its companion, sympathy. All these drew me, like predictions.
Masquerading as a boy, I weakened with gratitude whenever Aunt—recognizing one of my emerging qualities—mailed me some sketch or playbill. My local teachers worried I “exaggerated.” They claimed I was cursed with a “perhaps morbid and surely over-vivid imagination” (a direct quote). Short of driving you to criminal acts, can the Imagination be too vivid? Can a wish have too much ballast, too much invented History? Can a person’s life be over-alive? And to Whom should we apologize for too much Seeing?
My parents fretted: Miss Mouse was overstimulating me. “Something here from one of your more elderly girlfriends,” they held her good blue stationery in their big oily paws. Such jealousy bewildered me. But then I could lock my room’s door, could settle on my bed in stocking feet, could plant the reading glasses on my snub freckled nose, could study both sides of the envelope before tearing into her fresh packet of lore.
Muriel had a nickname for me. It was based on one of my infant mishearings: she’d planted me in her bony lap while perusing pages of the Geographic. At a picture of some jowly black-robed Caribbean judge, she read the caption, “His Honor,” but I somehow heard “His Owl.” This delighted her, not as a lapse, but an invention. She reported this to strangers till my parents began to look at each other.
Soon—inside each Muriel letter—she abbreviated me “H.H. H.O.” “His Honor His Owl.” By the time I was eight, these endearments began to fill me with a strange half-sexual charge. Such intimacy came, after all, from a woman, a grown woman, and one so adult and alone, so marginal to all but me—she seemed either half dead or half invented. I knew I would provide the rest. I volunteered for that, I’d be her sixty-eight-pound avenger. A battle was coming, one I must prepare for. What my parents considered Muriel’s plain sadness, I saw as the Tragedy of Everything Taken from Her, and “Our Line.” Morbid perhaps, I asked Mother many ghoulish questions about her grandmother’s streetcar accident. Did the trolley actually climb actually right on top of her? And just sit there? For how long? To my lurid little mind, the family tragedy had sexual overtones—a pretty woman on her back, pelvis crushed, surrounded by costly gifts still safe in their white tissue paper.
At eight, I ordered encoder rings off the back of cereal boxes (“Boys, Nobody Will Crack YOUR Secret Messages, Ever”). Muriel’s letters seemed encrypted, and sweeter for that. I felt a tenderness whose by-product was a kind of enraged defensiveness. When my parents made jokes about a Northerly nest of chilly Scottish spinsters, I left the room with a silent grandeur so discreet I sometimes wondered if they noticed.
Aunt sent me office gossip and not-that-riveting neighborhood news flashes: “Guess what? Someone at church left ten Presbyterian hymnals outdoors in the bushes last week. Certainly nobody knows why. But, H.O., they were very nearly ruined by the rain!” She wrote explaining about sentences that spelled the same things backwards and forwards. By return mail, I scored: “Madam, I’m Adam.” Aunt retorted: “Eve.” She offered fabric swatches: “Which is best for the parlor’s wingchair, H.H. H.O.?” Magazine articles were marked only “Made Me Think of You, of Course.”
I begged to go visit her. “In six or eight months,” they told me. I saved my dimes. I planned for this one distinguishing thing that set me apart from other routine kids on Country Club Drive.
My parents provided the shelter, the food, and schooling. Taking care of us, they sometimes seemed too busy to note precisely who they’d drawn from the genetic sweepstakes. Mother provided a new set of maroon encyclopedias and the coarse newsprint for Bradley and me to sketch on. Brother and I were expected to be self-sufficient, uncomplaining. To clean up after ourselves regarding both hygiene and emotion. In our lipless Presbyterian realm, grime and emotion were considered equally annoying, similarly susceptible to strong soap, fierce bristles, and “the silent treatment.” My father never once tossed a ball to Brother and me on our two-acre lawn (which appeared designed for exactly that). If we strolled the yard with him, it was to follow his massive back and the faceted arm pointing out some spot we’d missed while trimming the endless hedge, a tourniquet that stanched our unused yard from others adjoining it.
Our parents’ kindnesses seemed present-day precautions against some future litigation. “Don’t ever say you didn’t have the very best encyclopedias, plus the yearbook updates,” Mother encouraged whenever she found us scanning a volume. “I hope you appreciate the steak you boys get every Saturday night. Look at them, wolfing it down, T-bone this tender.” —Appreciation cannot, I think, be actively solicited.
Awaiting the Chicago trip, I remember marking my bedside calendar. Beyond my aunt, there was an added expectation. Since Father liked to “get the jump on” Falls, North Carolina’s 1956 rush hour, he always packed our Buick Super the night before. At dawn, I would hear the dark house come alive with Christmassy draggings and knocks, paper rustlings. Once the car was humming, last thing before leaving, our father would pad into the rooms of his sleeping sons; he always lugged me out first. This meant his lifting me in footed blue pajamas; this meant his carrying me, still feigning weighty dreams; this meant his settling me inside a nest of quilts he’d made for us on the Buick’s back seat of pearl-gray flannel broadcloth. As Dad rushed back indoors for Bradley, I remember scouting through the car window. I’d never been awake this early. Our yard, the neighbor’s roof were wet, all silver-blue and gold, and looked brand-new. When I heard the front door open, I konked over in some faked adorable attitude. Mother brought along our daytime clothes. And only when we got a few miles clear of the city limits, listening to the folks’ usual dull list, “I turned off the stove, didn’t I? We canceled the paper delivery, right,” only then would Brother and I sit up. Pretending to wake, we yawned, “But where ARE we, Daddy?” Like so much in our stiff, attractive lives, all of it was simulated. This little ritual, this being carried—last luggage—to the car, might seem trivial, but it filled us with an unexplainable excitement. All year, we waited. It was the one part of our Chicago treks my kid brother liked. Only later, only recently, did Bradley and I, seated at the end of a dock on his property at Venice, California, figure just why this had always been a favorite memory. Because: only while loading us into his sedan, only then—apart from shaking our hands, or slapping us, or sometimes pulling on our snowsuits—only then did this rangy man feel free to touch us once a year. In our faked sleep, how we curled against him, our arms around his solid neck. —Why this enforced coldness that fathers saw as their job description then? Why were we kids seen as assured slackers, latent beatniks, who must be kept in line like some miniature militia? Why, if you work yourself blind for your own children, should you be scared to squeeze and tousle them with the sweet rough-housing they so crave? Such were the mysteries surrounding that oddly more comprehensible mystery: Muriel’s patronage and fascinated attendance on one bright child. I tell you all this other so you’ll see why I really needed her—Muriel, who couldn’t keep her hands off my brother and myself. And for that, was considered “strange.”
In the usual order of succession, father passes lore to son, mother to daughter. Great-aunt to great-nephew has, I’m told, some precedents in certain Oceanic tribes. But she broke rank, she came at me and barked, “Follow,” and I just did. Muriel had decided that talent skips a generation—which left us both in the clear! And, weary, from the sidelines, my parents watched with equal parts amusement, pity, dread. If Muriel had controlled the family fortune—if we’d had one anymore—my tie with her might have been more seriously promoted. But I’m thankful to my parents. They were social, handsome, well-meaning, exhausted. Unlike Muriel, fifty years their senior, they seemed, as I recall them, always very, very tired. Only in retirement would they find an almost childlike vitality I had never witnessed. But during those gray days of their youths, Muriel came forward, asking, thanking, assuming. And my parents mostly let her have me.
The only time I felt sick with readiness to say, “I do, I do appreciate this,” was on being hand-bundled into our Buick headed North. My parents saw these trips as a duty; my kid brother considered them hell; I literally pined for my great aunt.
Someone should eventually write the truth: there is always something embarrassing about love. All of it. That’s because there’s always something wrong with the beloved. Because one’s motives for loving are never pure as love itself. It’s too good for us. That’s why our hearts stay broken.
Between sightings, my image of Muriel evolved and faltered and improved. She lengthened, stood straighter, dressed better, and took on qualities like Shirley Temple’s stern yet rich step-grandmother seen on the late show (probably Edna Mae Oliver?); this old girl finally revealed her good nature with a game try at doing the Charleston. Sometimes in memory Muriel made atypical hostess-entrances. She acted kindly toward the servants, who, on account of this, did even more for her. And her home’s polished white halls were wider than those in your bigger Yankee hotels. First glimpse of Muriel Actual always shocked me. She’d both shrunk and wizened. I’d forgotten her medicinal bifocals and how she forever appeared faintly powdered, hair and arms and face. (I was already a secret late-show fan, and it seemed strange to me that my Rebecca should be played by Mrs. Danvers.) But as soon as this toothsome hag bent down before me (there wasn’t far to stoop), soon as I smelled her documentary file-drawer scent, soon as she put her knotty hands upon my shoulders and said, “Here His Honor and Owlness is, at last. I have planned it to the minute and all of Chicago knows you’re here,” that pretty much did it.
I don’t think I just imagined that sexual charge. I still own her insinuating, cryptic letters. They are charming. And like so many charming things, they can finally seem pointless. But they do hint: whatever Muriel had saved of her romantic erotic restlessness, she offered me. If my father and mother ASSUMED me, Muriel SAW me—observed me with a lavish spendthrift joy it troubles me a little to recall.
These days, parents would never let their eight-year-old go off on unsupervised day trips alongside an adult so obsessed with such a pretty, pretentious, innocent, and eager child. “I believe that if Miss Mouse told him to jump off a building he would,” my father said. And I sat listening, already choosing which of Sullivan’s Chicago towers Muriel might consider most beautiful...From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Practical Heart by Allan Gurganus. Copyright © 2001 by Allan Gurganus. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.