I don’t know how memory works for most people, but I seem to remember sounds, images, impressions from a freakily early age. You can laugh: My mother had an extremely quick birth with me and I swear I can still feel the spasmodic pressure and squeeze of going down the birth canal. I remember lying in my pram, which was parked outside the kitchen door, and staring up through the netting at the sky. I remember sensing my grandmother nearby. I remember being diaper-changed, powdered and cuddled by my mother, and the odd made-up baby songs she sang. I remember dark things: my sister trying to drown me in the kiddie pool when I was two, and my mother’s gasp when she saw three-year-old Billy from across the street naked in the snow next to our fish pond (Vivi had stripped him and taken his clothes). I remember the moment when it suddenly dawned on me that I was not the center of the universe — that there were other places besides where I was.
My parents often spoke German to each other, partly because it was their mother tongue and partly because they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying. Of course, hearing all that German meant that I understood bits and pieces of it, from tone of voice if nothing else. I’d hear comments, conversations, little snippets of gossip and all that material went into the database of my memory for me to recall and put together later.
Of the early regulars in my parents’ life I remember the Cartier sisters, three extremely beautiful Russian women who’d fled to Paris — I’m guessing — shortly after WWI. They were White Russians. When I asked my mother what that meant, she said members of the aristocracy, but this wasn’t true. What it really meant was they were from what is now Belarus. I don’t know what their name was before Cartier, only that they were Jewish and that their first names were Lisa, Raya and, I believe, Eva. They looked like fashion models, each of them rail-thin and tall, with prominent cheekbones and finely arched brows. And their clothes! Straight from the pages of Vogue, which made sense since they had a small, very elite business selling designer dresses and jewelry.
My father knew them from his boyhood days in Paris. My mother met them through my father. I’m not sure exactly when they arrived in the States, probably the late 1930s, but I remember the elegance of their upper west side Manhattan apartment with its soft couches, big mirrors, and racks of dresses. After the war they took an apartment in Paris, traveling back and forth for their business. Out of the data banks where my memories are stored comes this other odd little piece of information: my father’s relationship with Lisa, the most beautiful of the sisters, was more than friendly. I must have sensed this from body language, from something in their voices. Perhaps they’d been involved before my father ever met my mother and it was no longer important. Or perhaps it was ongoing. Because while my sweet handsome father was not a philanderer, there’s no question in my mind that he was a passionate man who had mistresses.
To be continued…