Marcia (from "Ribbentrop's Chair")
‘”Where are you riding to, master?” ‘I don’t know’ I said. ‘Only away from here, away from here. Always away from here. Only by doing so can I reach my destination. …’ ‘You have no provisions with you,’ he said. ‘I need none’, I said, …No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.’ ” (Franz Kafka. Machzor p.258)
Marcia roared through the Highgate flat hell-bent on destruction. My American cousin had arrived! A healthy size for her four years, she ploughed through everyone and everything in her path, chestnut curls flying, child face clenched with purpose. Marciaaaaaaaa! Screamed her mother - in hopeless pursuit. Marcia had somehow got hold of one of Grandma Sadie’s kitchen knives – sharpened to a lethal sliver, as they all were. She closed in on Ribbentrop’s Chair and with chubby hands grasping the handle hacked with murderous intent. Leather ripped and horsehair erupted, but the chair refused to die.
Marcia was duly and severely reprimanded, but the more her parents tried to suppress her natural exuberance, the more she played up: always attracting the wrong sort of attention. She terrified and overwhelmed my sister and I, not because she meant to – on the contrary, she had a heart the size of a planet, just longing for expression – but because her reputation had preceded her arrival.
Grandma Sadie used to point to a little French porcelain figurine of the young satyr Pan (she called him Peter Pan) on the dining room window sill and remind us that Marcia had broken his pipes: a crime for which she would never be forgiven. For my grandmother the ornament had been a precious remnant of pre-war, unbroken Paris; a reminder of a time of innocence and romance. For my grandfather the boy who never grew old embodied his own defiance of time and mortality. (When Jackie and I were a little older, he bought me the book Peter Pan, which I treasured, and Jackie a rubber tomahawk and Red Indian dress – to equip her for a trip to Never Never Land). So we had not been predisposed towards Marcia in a positive way when she blew in like a hurricane from the Atlantic. My two-year old sister and I spent most of that first visit hiding behind the couch.
When, seven years later, we were told that Marcia was back in England with her parents and coming up to Leeds to visit us, we were all deeply apprehensive. As compensation, on the morning our visitors were due my sister and I were allowed to unwrap and put on the stiff-skirted lilac dresses bought for the occasion.
While Jackie and I did our best to disarm Marcia with our ballet moves on the back lawn, Mum struggled in the kitchen with a three-course meal for seven (cooking was not her forte) while Dad turned out at least three different salads (which were his forte): French leek and egg vinaigrette, cos lettuce with mustard dressing and sweet home-grown tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and spring onions mixed with cream cheese (a recipe passed down the male line of the Avadis family from Dad's Greek great great grandfather - history on a plate!). The day before we'd watched Mum fill a piece of muslin with sour cream, tie it and suspend it with string from the tap over the kitchen sink until all the whey had drained away, leaving soft curds in the bag.
Although we were the same age, Marcia still towered over me. At eleven she was way ahead in the puberty race but still an awkward little girl at heart. She also wore a party dress, but four sizes larger than ours. (I should mention that Marcia was a normal size for her age; it was Jackie and I who were tiny.)
Rose had brought Jackie and I dolls you could only buy in America. Shirley Temple baby dolls and grown-up Cindy dolls complete with pert boobs, high-heeled shoes and trendy wardrobes: absolutely unheard of in England at that time – and Yorkshire was fifty years behind the times anyway. My sister and I were overwhelmed. After lunch, overcoming my fear of my giant cousin – whom we had witnessed earlier howling like a steam train through the house - I sat with Marcia in my parents’ bed making miniature couture dresses and hats out of scraps of cloth. “Shove over, you two!” said Jackie, demanding a piece of the action. I was jealous of the fact that, apart from differences in scale, she and Marcia looked more like sisters than Jackie and I. It has to be said that of the three of us Jackie had the keenest eye for fashion and was therefore truly our parents’ child. In her teens Jackie sprang up, tall and willowy, and even modelled for a while. However in typical rebellious style she would avoid that career path and become a teacher instead - and a bloody good one at that.
Marcia loved nothing more as a child and later, than running fast and free through houses and fields and cities and countries, away from her parents.
After creating a collection of miniature masterpieces we three ran into the garden and, before he could stop us, picked all the pods off Dad’s tenderly nurtured pea plants and ate their ripe contents (a cute trick repeated by my own daughter, much to my annoyance, in our own garden 25 years later.)
Mum had in the preceding weeks been perfecting her suntan lying on the back lawn as was her custom, wearing a swimsuit (she couldn’t swim) and rubbing oil into her long legs and now sat in the garden in a deckchair with her burnished limbs decorously crossed, looking like a model in her favourite white halter-neck dress splashed with red roses, chatting with her equally glamorous American sister in law; both trying to ignore the children.
The two Bernards were in the front garden, where Dad was showing Uncle Bernard his rockery: a banked terrace shored up by large stones carried home individually from expeditions to the Yorkshire Moors and locations way beyond (Dad was always on the lookout for good rocks) and studded with flowers like an alpine outcrop: button dahlias, aubretia, rock roses, pinks, mesembryanthemums, snap dragons, lobelia, alyssum, saxifrage, African marigolds, violas, geraniums, flocks, night-scented stocks, etc. etc. etc. Dad gave each flower its proper Latin name while, politely bemused, American Bernard listened attentively. Rose and Bernard’s Scarsdale garden contained - if you rotated it clockwise - lawn, lawn, lawn – and a few trees.
Rose and Bernard were amused by our little bungalow, four of which would have comfortably fitted into their prairie-style home in Westchester. Dad took Uncle Bernard into the kitchen, where he brought out and set up (while explaining the technology) the Grundig tape recorder with which he had surprised me for my eleventh birthday. An amazing gift for which I was hugely grateful and which I suspect was as much for him as for me.
Dad called us and one by one we came in and assembled in the kitchen around the tape recorder. My mother cupped Marcia’s face in her hands and whispered “Come in, Darling – it’s alright. Do you know you are beautiful?”
By this time the younger generation – particularly Marcia – were acquiring proper voices, and we still have the old reel-to-reel tape of us all singing – separately and together. Jackie had a high, sweet, pure voice. Marcia’s was already gravelly and mature. Mine was somewhere in the middle. Dad, although self-mocking as ever, sounded like Chaliapin – just like his Dad before him.
What stood out was Rose’s powerful rendition of the Mirror Song from Gounod’s Faust which she would still able to sing well into her seventies, in a vibrant coloratura, when widowed and living in a home for the blind (by which time she had, according to Marcia, developed several personalities – only one of whom was blind), undeterred by vivid late-life recollections of having to sing in the camps to entertain the Nazi officers. “Marguerite – s’est-ne plus toi”: the face I see is no longer me. She was made of stern stuff, my Auntie Rose. When old she even learned to accept, with great stoicism, the cancer that was growing in her bowel and – most courageously of all – allowed her daughter to nurse her through those last months and love her as she had never been allowed to love her before.
Once back in America Marcia grew into a tall, dark beauty endowed with a deep, rich singing voice and great artistic talent. Vivacious – and vulnerable.
Marcia studied art, which saved her life, married too young, had a beautiful daughter and then, at the age of 30 and now happily married to her second husband Mike, requested a birthday gift of a return air ticket to England and came to stay with Grandpa Marcus for a week.
After all the years of separation the two ran together with a laugh of recognition and tears of delight. They toasted their reunion with glasses of port and Marcus lit up the stub of a cigarette in an old pipe he used for the purpose. He could no longer afford Havana cigars. He criticized her handbag, which he said didn’t match her outfit. They watched cartoons – which he loved - on the T.V. together. They ate tinned salmon mashed up with mayonnaise. He sat in Ribbentrop’s battered chair while Marcia told him all about her life.
While staying with him, Marcia drew a fine portrait of Marcus. He cried when he saw it because, he said, he thought it was beautiful - and because he saw himself as an old man for the first time.