Madeleine Robins

July 3, 2018

I Was Raised in a Barn: Cars

Filed under: Family,Life,Memory — madeleinerobins @ 10:22 AM

I was thirteen when we moved from New York City to Sheffield, Massachusetts. There were many striking differences, but one of the big ones? Transportation. Unbeknownst to my mother, I had been secretly taking the subway to school in the mornings (this meant an additional 15 minutes of sleep, for the bargain price of ten cents a day…yeah, it was a while ago). In the mornings I would run to the IRT station and jam myself and my armload of textbooks in among a zillion of my fellow citizens (this was also before backpacks became something for persons other than mountaineers). I loved the subway.

And then we moved full time to the barn my parents had been converting into a home for the last dozen years, where I had to walk a mile to get to the school bus pick-up point, and it was five miles to either of the libraries I had cards for. And I was thirteen and wouldn’t have a driver’s license for another three years. That was a long three years. I could ride my bicycle, and did, of course, but this being the Berkshire mountains in southeast Massachusetts, three months a year or so, bicycling was inadvisable-bordering-on-suicidal: snow and ice made it dangerous, and cold made cold.

In Massachusetts, getting your Learner’s Permit, and then your driver’s license, was a rite of passage. Forget Bar Mitzvah: walking out of the DMV with your pink slip (temporary license) was the “today I am a woman!” moment. So there was driver’s ed, and the eye test (which is how I found out just how nearsighted I was: two out of 18 figures wrong, and my next stop was the eye doctor), and the driving test, and at last the pink temporary license and then the permanent license. Rumors flew among my peers that if you were pulled over for any reason while you were still holding the pink slip the cops would simply tear it up.

Once there were three drivers in the house, my mother retired from the field, which meant that most of the week, when my father was out of town working, I was the chauffeur. And in short order, my father decided we needed a second car. A specific second car: a third-hand Triumph rag-top that, in a pinch, was considered a four-seater (the back seat was a bench, but large enough that one could sit on it. If one didn’t mind resting one’s chin on one’s knees). Theoretically he and I shared the car. Let’s be real. I loved that car with a deep, abiding, love. It wasn’t just freedom: it was fun freedom. I was able to stay late at school for rehearsals and school paper deadlines. My dog and I could tool around the countryside with the top down (Fio with his ears waving, me with my hair rigorously tied down, lest it become hopelessly knotted). When my boyfriend had his license suspended for six months, I became the provider of rides: this was a little dicey, as he had a big car and kept offering rides as if that was what I was driving. On one notable evening I recall we had nine people stacked like cordwood in the car, with just enough room for me to shift.

There are various responsibilities that come with having a car. My drivers’ ed teacher, Mr. Menin, insisted that every girl in the class be able to diagram an engine, check the oil, and change a tire. None of us would ever be scammed by some guy at the garage telling us that our Fromiztistat had to be replaced. He also imparted some other bits of arcane information that came in handy. Notably: if your fan belt breaks, he said, a girl could use a nylon or the leg of a pair of pantyhose to make a field repair.

So one afternoon I was driving along Route 7 when I noticed that the engine was running very very hot. I pulled over, and sure enough: no fan belt. It hadn’t just broken, it had dropped off somewhere. So I acted on Mr. Menin’s advice, cut off a leg from my pantyhose, tied it on, and drove off to our usual garage in town. Where, as it transpired, a guy I knew from school was working. The conversation that followed was something like this;

Me: Hi, my fan belt is broken.

Him: It can’t be.

Me: Yeah, it really is.

Him: No, cause if it were, you couldn’t have driv (sic) in.

Me: Well, yeah, but I made a temporary fix.

At which point he opened the hood, saw what could broadly be considered a woman’s undergarment tied in place of the fan belt, and turned a deep, cherry red. And changed the fan belt.

Having a car meant I could hang out with friends, do school activities, go to concerts–all the things I could not do on my own in the days before I got my license. My mother was not always sanguine about this: the trade-off for me being driver and errand-girl was me being out of the house more. A town like ours had rituals around teens in cars. Like going to Friendly’s for ice cream (if you’re not a New Englander: Friendly’s is a chain of sandwich shops with good ice cream). The town where I went to school did not have a Friendly’s, but the town next up Route 7, which was home to our “rival” high school, did. And I’ll tell you: taking a tiny little Triumph with a Mt. Everett Regional parking permit into Monument Mountain territory had its hazards. This is a kind of tribalism I don’t get, but recognized that it existed and tried not to get snarled up in it.

But one night my friends and I went to get ice cream and I–rather than wait at the very crowded window–sat in the car. Which was spotted by a phalanx of large football-player-looking guys wearing Monument Mountain sweaters, who decided to go make a point about the interloper in their territory (me and my tiny car). Four of them picked up the car–with me in it–and carried it across the parking lot to an empty space and put it down there. And walked away.

My tiny car recovered faster from this than I did. The next time I went to Friendly’s I considered putting masking tapes over my parking permit beforehand. In the end I decided to let it be–and in the end so did the guys from Monument Mountain.

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December 31, 2017

Choosing to be Merry, _ammit

Filed under: Family,Life — madeleinerobins @ 12:46 PM
Tags: ,

brokentreeThe _ key on my laptop is not working.

This has been a trying year. A year ago in November there was the election, about which, perhaps, the less spoken, the better.  48 hours after the election my lovely Uncle Carmine passed away; about a week later, my Father-in-law followe_. Also, my older girl’s appendix helpfully rupture_, with all the merriment that create_. She’s fine. Now.

There’s been all the interesting public trauma of life in the new regime. Then, two weeks ago, my Mother-in-Law passed away (I should a__ that I _islike “passed away” an_ would prefer to use _ie_, but my _ key, as I note above, is not working.

So it’s been a year full of occurrence, an_ anxiety, an_ loss, an_ … well, it’s just been busy. In the mi_st of all this I have been keeping the _oors open at the museum, trying to get some work _one on the book, an_ being as supportive as possible to those closest to all these losses (which would be my husband_ an his family, an_ my aunt). For this reason the holiday season feels like it’s more than usually scattered this year: presents, foo_ (oy, foo_: between us we have one vegan, two who are gluten-sensitive, three who are allergic to nuts–which are a staple of vegan cookery–an one who loathes chocolate. The whole thing makes me want to lie _own… or make chocolate croissants as a reaction formation). I should be _ecorating the Christmas tree. I should be making holi_ay cookies. I should be watching Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.

I have come to the conclusion that this year is simply going to have to be an outlier as far as the tra_itional observances are concerne_. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a time of goo_ cheer. I spent this weekend with my aunt in LA. She is closing in on 92, an_ in the wake of her husban_’s _eath all the physical ailments an_ problems she _in’t have time to _eal with before have come rattling _own upon her. An_ yet, most of what we _o when I’m _own here is laugh. Tell stories. After years I think I finally have straight which set of silver originally belonged to whom (an_ why my gran_mother only owne_ a gran_ total of one piece of her china pattern). I tease her. She teases me. She is annoyed but funny about the in_ignities of aging. She’s sharp (an_ snarky) about the current political situation. She loves chocolate. It is a treat to be with her.

Tomorrow I go back to San Francisco, where the _og an the family await. The Christmas tree will be _ecorate_. I may even make cookies (vegan, gluten-free, chocolate an_ nut free). There will be sa_ patches, an_ squabbles. But one thing I am pretty certain about: there will be laughter, an_ a goo_ _eal of it.

An_ then I’ll get my _ key fixe_. Happy holidays, an_ joyous feast of the sun’s return. _on’t forget to laugh.

October 16, 2017

Autre Temps

Filed under: Being a Woman,Family — madeleinerobins @ 11:11 AM
Tags: ,

The photo below is from the Spring, 1957 issue of Bride and Home. The three players are me (in the vermillion romper), my mother (in the jumpsuit, in the middle, and my brother Clem (in the white footie pajamas). I would be, by the date, about three and a half.

Bride and home

“Handcrafts add a new dimension to the family life of Mrs. Seymour Robbins of New York City. The bead screen was her first project. Here she is working on a hooked rug. Even the children share the atmosphere of quiet relaxation this kind of activity generates.”

A few immediate thoughts: you’ll note that (aside from mis-spelling our last name) my mother has no actual name of her own. According to the mode of the time, she is Mrs. Seymour Robins, an appendage of Mr. Seymour Robins who, as it happened was her husband and my father. So there’s that. I don’t miss that.

And that atmosphere of quiet relaxation? I recall it more as an atmosphere of benign neglect: if grownups were doing some other thing, you amused yourself. I suspect we would have been a little startled by being included in the shoot. My brother and I, even at this age, were used to being photographed. My father actually used us at least twice, if I recall correctly, for packages he was designing: for Colorforms and for a pasta company (I was on the box for cavatelli). I wish we had out takes for this shoot, but it wouldn’t have been in my father’s control.

My mother disliked things like sewing and knitting–too ordinary–but more esoteric crafts she enjoyed. She made the beaded curtain in the background (my father’s design) out of approximately two billion 1/4″ colored wooded beads. The curtain made a lovely clacking sound when you went through it–and let me tell you, as the threads got older and frailer and a kid going the curtain at speed could easily break them, the sound of a couple of hundred wooden beads spraying the floor is memorable.

My father also designed the two rugs mom hooked–although I have no memory of them being so brightly colored. One was mine, one was my brother’s, each with our stylized initials. Eventually they both faded into soft gray obscurity. Mom’s last collaborative craft effort was the needlepointed covers for the seat, seat back, and reverse of the seat back of an old wooden rocking chair that was an heirloom in the family. As craft projects will, this took over a part of the real estate of our household, and I remember skeins of brightly colored yarn everywhere. The chair (which is highly uncomfortable to sit on, and in any case is of the vintage where if you attempt to sit on it people around you scream “DON’T SIT THERE!”) now resides at my aunt’s house. I have no idea where the rugs went. As for the lobster curtain? Too many threads snapped. When I was emptying my father’s house I came upon a cache of the beads folded up in newsprint paper, waiting for some crafter to generate an atmosphere of quiet relaxation.

December 21, 2016

The Milestone I Didn’t See Coming

Filed under: Family,Life — madeleinerobins @ 11:53 PM
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I have two daughters, and one is an actress Because of this, she and her sweetie have worked at the Great Dickens Fair in San Francisco for… five? No, six years. First as scum (the local color who give the joint color); then last year Julie got taken off to be one of the singing barmaids at Mad Sal’s gin palace. And a couple of years in, Julie’s Beau Joe, whose character is the Reverend Mr. John Thomas Palmer, defrocked vicar, started doing a Sunday morning service for the cast which was successful enough that it became part of the publicly scheduled shows.

These days Cockney Church is a well-attended event with players and patrons mingling to hear Rev. Palmer’s patented Lord’s Prayer (“‘Ullo, Dad, up there in good ol’ ‘Eaven! Your naim is great and ‘oly, and and we respec’ you, Guv…”) and his meticulously researched, hilarious sermons. And the last Sunday of the five weeks is the blowout Church, with carols sung by doxies, a Christmas Can-Can, and a Nativity scene that features… well, it’s pretty amazing. The Rev. is aided and abetted by his helpmeet, the ditzy Fanny Palmer, his common-law wife (played by Julie, of course), who manages to get herself cast as the “Wirgin Mary.”

nativity

Note above: the Infant Jesus swaddled in a blue shawl, the Wirgin right behind him, and a couple of questionable Can-Can girl sheep (plus some Magi drawn from the brothel clientele…)

So, on the final Sunday, dressed in my Victorian outfit and prepared to demonstrate bookbinding techniques (something I did for five weeks in support of my day job), I got my sewing frame set up and ready–then took myself off to Church. There was merriment and singing, and, of course, the Nativity. There had already been one homily, but following the Nativity it appeared there was going to be another, delivered by Mad Sal herself. Backstory: a month ago, when Julie’s appendix ruptured, Joe was the Man On Hand who represented her (and us) at the hospital and took the full brunt of the anxiety. The following weekend, at Dickens without Julie, he delivered a homily about Joseph and Juliana as a way of praising the doctors who had taken care of Julie, and as a way of putting in a plug for the Affordable Care Act. So this past Sunday Joe returned to the story of Joseph and Juliana–and Julie, not having a clue what was in store, played along (Mad Sal: “And Juliahner woz wery ill…” Julie: **cough cough**). What was in store:

I, in my Annie-the-Bookbinder outfit, was sitting in the back of the auditorium having a full-body flush of incredulity, like “Is this really happening?” I was so startled that, a few minutes later when my younger daughter stood right in front of me after giving her sister a big hug, I was so focused on the newly affianced Julie that I did not recognize Becca.

What made it the more magical was how many people at the Dickens Fair know and love both Joe and Julie, and were cheering and weeping at the little drama playing out in front of them. They were surrounded by their friends, their peers, their family.

When you have a kid you’re handed a bunch of milestones: first step, first word, first “NO!”, first day of school. You see those coming: many of them are on a timeline. But once the child becomes an adult–maybe at the point when she graduates from high school or college–you sort of stop seeing them coming. Until one happens right in front of you, ushering a vista of potential milestones. It’s breathtaking for a lot of reasons.

July 11, 2016

Parallax Views

Filed under: Family,Memory,Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:54 AM

speedometerThere’s a lovely moment in The Avengers (the movie, not the TV series of blessed memory) where Black Widow and Hawkeye are on Park Avenue just below Grand Central Station, fighting off hordes of scary aliens on flying Jet-Skis. They’re just about overwhelmed, but fighting gamely on, and Widow says, “This is just like Budapest all over again.” Hawkeyes quirks an eyebrow: “You and I remember Budapest very differently.”

That’s families right there.

My brother and I had different families. We grew up in the same household, had the same parents, shared many of the same incidents, and yet our memories, and the emphases of those memories, are very different. I was the older, the girl, shy and anxious, early on coopted to be my mother’s support and caretaker. My brother, the younger, the boy, the artist. My father, if you had asked him, was equally delighted to have a daughter as a son–but he wanted to teach my brother all the boy things (many of which I really wanted to learn myself). Without thinking about it, my parents fell into many of the ways of thinking about gender that their generation (and my own) accepted. We were, without malice, treated differently, occupied different ecological niches. Different families.

This meant that each of us missed things the other thought were pivotal.  He has whole bundles of memories that I only very slightly remember (there’s almost a joke-book’s worth of my father’s jokes that I cannot recall at all). On the other hand, he did not realize that my mother was drinking until I left for college, because that hadn’t been what he saw from his vantage point. We would have grown up to be very different humans anyway, but the divergent narrative threads is something that surprised me deeply when I first noticed it as an adult.

For a long time I thought my family was weird this way, that other families had a single track of programming. But the older I get, the more see this is the case with everyone’s families. A friend of mine, eldest of three kids, had a very different childhood, and a way different relationship with her parents, than the two younger. Even the perspective of adulthood hasn’t kept them from some very Rashomon-like conversations.

Parallax is the difference, or apparent displacement, of something, depending upon the viewer’s position relative to the seen thing. Per Wikipedia, “A simple everyday example of parallax can be seen in the dashboard of motor vehicles that use a needle-style speedometer gauge. When viewed from directly in front, the speed may show exactly 60; but when viewed from the passenger seat the needle may appear to show a slightly different speed, due to the angle of viewing.” Rashomon, cited above, is a good example of parallax memories: a Kurosawa film in which four different people tell their version of the same incident. Each one is telling their truth, as they know and believe it.

My brother and I have reached a point where we accept that the other had a different experience of our lives growing up. Still, it’s disquieting to find that something that loomed really large in his past was barely a speed bump in mine.

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