Madeleine Robins

October 16, 2017

Autre Temps

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

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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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