Материалы к занятию
Evening again, and still I am here. Cocooned in silence, interred by the white hard cold of winter, and unable to move.
I’ve lasted more than a day now. At my age and considering my plight, this should be cause for celebration. But I’m weakening now. Only my pain and thirst seem real. My body is failing, and it is everything I can do to keep my eyes open. They will close again in time, and part of me wonders whether they will ever open again. I stare at Ruth, wondering why she says nothing. She does not look at me. Instead, I see her in profile. With every blink, she seems to be changing. She is young and old and young again, and I wonder what she is thinking with each transformation.
As much as I love her, I admit that she has always remained somewhat of an enigma to me. In the mornings, as we sat at the breakfast table, I would catch her staring out the window. In those moments, she looked the same as she does right now, and my eyes would often follow hers. We would sit in silence, watching the birds as they flitted from one branch to the next, or gaze at the clouds as they slowly gathered shape. Sometimes I would study her, trying to intuit her thoughts, but she would offer only a slight smile, perfectly content to keep me in the dark.
I liked this about her. I liked the mystery she added to my life. I liked the occasional silence between us, for ours was a comfortable silence. It was a passionate silence, one that had its roots in comfort and desire. I have often wondered whether this made us unique or whether it was something that couples often experience. It would sadden me to think that we were an exception, but I’ve lived long enough to conclude that what Ruth and I had was an uncommon blessing.
And still, Ruth says nothing. Perhaps she, too, is reliving the days that we once shared.
After Ruth and I returned from our honeymoon, we began the process of creating a life together. By then, her parents had already moved to Durham, and Ruth and I stayed with my parents while we looked for a home to buy. Though a number of new neighborhoods were springing up in Greensboro, Ruth and I wanted a home with character. We spent most of our time walking through homes in the historic district, and it was there that we found a Queen Anne that had been built in 1886, with a front-facing gable, a round tower, and porches gracing the front and back. My first thought was that it was far too large for us, with more space than we would ever need. It was also desperately in need of renovation. But Ruth loved the moldings and the craftsmanship and I loved her, so when she said she’d leave the decision up to me, I made an offer the following afternoon.
While the paperwork with the bank loan was being finalized —we would move in a month later—I went back to work at the shop while Ruth threw herself into her teaching job. I admit that I was nervous for her. The rural school where she’d been hired largely served students who’d grown up on farms. More than half of them lived in homes without indoor plumbing, and many wore the same clothes day after day. Two arrived in class on the first day without shoes. Only a handful seemed to care about learning, and more than a few were fundamentally illiterate. It was the kind of poverty she’d never before experienced, less about money than a poverty of dreams. In those first few months of teaching, I’d never seen Ruth more frazzled, nor would I ever see her that way again. It takes a teacher both time and experience to formalize lesson plans and to become comfortable in even the best schools, and I often saw Ruth working late into the evenings at our small kitchen table, thinking of new ways to engage her students.
But as harried as she was during that first semester, it became plain that teaching such students, even more than the artwork we eventually collected, was not only her calling, but her true passion. She took to the job with a single-minded intensity that surprised me. She wanted her students to learn, but more than that, she wanted them to treasure education in the same way she did. The challenge she faced with such disadvantaged students only fired her enthusiasm. Over dinner, she would talk to me about her students and would recount to me the “little victories” that could make her smile for days. And that is how she would describe them. Ira, she would tell me, one of my students had a little victory in class today, before she proceeded to tell me exactly what had happened. She would tell me when a child unexpectedly shared a pencil with another, or how much their penmanship had improved, or the pride that a student demonstrated at reading her first book. Beyond that, she cared for them. She would notice when one of them was upset and would speak to them as a mother would; when she learned that a number of her students were too poor to bring lunch to school, she began to make extra sandwiches in the morning. And slowly but surely, her students responded to her nurturing ways, like young plants to sun and water.
She had been worried about whether the children would accept her. Because she was Jewish in a school that was almost exclusively Christian, because she was from Vienna and had a German accent, she wasn’t sure whether they would regard her as alien. She had never said this directly to me, but I knew it for certain one day in December, when I found her sobbing in the kitchen at the end of the day. Her eyes were swollen and raw, frightening me. I imagined that something terrible had happened to her parents or perhaps that she’d been in an accident of some sort. Then I noticed that the table was littered with an assortment of homemade items. She explained that her students—each and every one—had brought her gifts in celebration of Hanukkah. She would never be sure how it had come about; she hadn’t told them about the holiday, nor was it clear that any of the students understood the meaning of the celebration. Later, she would tell me that she heard one of the students explaining to another that “Hanukkah is the way Jews celebrate the birth of Jesus,” but the truth was less important than the meaning of what the children had done for her. Most of the gifts were simple—painted rocks, handmade cards, a bracelet made of seashells—but in every gift there was love, and it was in that moment, I later came to believe, that Ruth finally accepted Greensboro, North Carolina, as her home.
Despite Ruth’s workload, we were slowly able to furnish our home. We spent many weekends during that first year shopping for antiques. In the same way she had an eye for art, she had a gift for selecting the kind of furniture that would make our home not only uniquely beautiful, but welcoming.
The following summer, we would begin renovations. The house needed a new roof, and the kitchen and bathrooms, though functional, were not to Ruth’s liking. The floors needed to be sanded, and many windows had to be replaced. We had decided when purchasing the house to wait until the following summer to begin the repairs, when Ruth would have time to supervise the workers.
I was relieved that she was willing to assume this responsibility. My mother and father had cut back further on the time they spent at work, but the shop had only grown busier in the year that Ruth had begun teaching. As my father had done during the war, I again took over the lease on the space next to ours. I expanded the store and hired three additional employees. Even then, I struggled to keep up. Like Ruth, I often worked late into the evenings.
The renovations on the house took longer, and cost more, than expected, and it went without saying that it was far more inconvenient than either of us imagined the process might be. It was the end of July 1947 before the final worker carried his toolbox to the truck, but the changes—some subtle, others dramatic—made the house finally seem really ours, and I have lived there for over sixty-five years now. Unlike me, the house is still holding up reasonably well. Water flows smoothly through the pipes, the cabinets swing open with ease, and the floors are as flat as a billiard table, whereas I can no longer move from room to room without the use of my walker. If I have one complaint, it’s that the house seems drafty, but then I’ve been cold for so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel warm. To me, the house is still filled with love, and at this point in my life, I could ask for nothing more.
“It is filled, all right,” Ruth snorts. “The house, I mean.”
I detect a note of disapproval in her tone and glance at her. “I like it the way it is.”
“It is dangerous.”
“It’s not dangerous.”
“No? What if there is a fire? How would you get out?”
“If there was a fire, I’d have trouble getting out even if the house stood empty.”
“You are making excuses.”
“I’m old. I might be senile.”
“You are not senile. You are stubborn.”
“I like to remember. There’s a difference.”
“This is not good for you. The memories sometimes make you sad.”
“Maybe,” I say, looking directly at her. “But memories are all that I have left.”
Ruth is right about the memories, of course. But she is also right about the house. It’s filled, not with junk, but with the artwork we collected. For years, we kept the paintings in climate-controlled storage units that I rented by the month. Ruth preferred it that way—she always worried about fires—but after she died, I hired two workers to bring everything back home. Now, every wall is a kaleidoscope of paintings, and paintings fill four of the five bedrooms. Neither the sitting room nor the dining room has been usable for years, because paintings are stacked in every spare inch. While hundreds of pieces were framed, most of them were not. Instead, those are separated by acid-free paper and stored in a number of flat oak boxes labeled by the year that I had them built by a carpenter here in town. I’ll admit that there’s a cluttered extravagance to the house that some might find claustrophobic— the journalist who came to the house wandered from room to room with her mouth agape—but my home is clean. The cleaning service sends a woman to my house twice a week to keep the rooms I still use spotless, and though few, if any, of these women over the years spoke English, I know that Ruth would have been pleased I hired them. Ruth always hated dust or mess of any sort.
The clutter does not bother me. Instead, it reminds me of some of the best days of my marriage, including, and especially, our trips to Black Mountain College. After the renovations were completed, when both of us were in need of a vacation, we spent our first anniversary at the Grove Park Inn, the place we’d honeymooned. Again, we visited the college, but this time we were greeted by friends. Elaine and Willem weren’t there, but Robert and Ken were, and they introduced us to Susan Weil and Pat Passlof, two extraordinary artists whose work also hangs in numerous museums. That year, we came home with fourteen more paintings.
Even then, however, neither of us was thinking of becoming collectors. We were not rich, after all, and the purchase of those paintings had been a stretch, especially after the renovations on the house. Nor did we hang all of them right away. Instead, Ruth would rotate them from room to room, depending on her moods, and more than once I came home to a house that felt both the same and different. In 1948 and 1949, we found ourselves returning yet again to Asheville and Black Mountain College. We purchased even more paintings, and when we returned home, Ruth’s father suggested that we take our hobby more seriously. Like Ruth, he could see the quality in the work we’d purchased, and he planted in us the seed of an idea—to build a true collection, one that might one day be worthy of a museum. I could tell that Ruth was intrigued by the idea. Though we made no official decision one way or the other, we began saving nearly all of Ruth’s salary, and she spent much of the year writing letters to the artists we knew, asking their opinions about other artists they believed we might like. In 1950, after a trip to the Outer Banks, we traveled to New York for the first time.
We spent three weeks visiting every gallery in the city, meeting owners and artists whom our friends had introduced us to. That summer, we laid the groundwork for a network that would continue to grow for the next four decades. At the end of that summer, we returned to the place where it had all begun, almost as though we had no other choice.
I’m not sure when we first began to hear the rumors that Black Mountain College might close—1952 or 1953, I think—but like the artists and the faculty we had come to think of as close friends, we wanted to dismiss them. In 1956, however, our fears came true, and when Ruth heard the news, she wept, recognizing the end of an era for us. That summer, we again traveled throughout the Northeast, and though I knew it wouldn’t be the same, we concluded our travels by returning to Asheville for our anniversary. As always, we drove to the college, but as we stood by the waters of Lake Eden and stared at the now vacant buildings of the college, I couldn’t help wondering whether our idyll at the college had been nothing more than a dream.
In time, we made our way to the spot where those first six paintings had once been displayed. We stood beside the silent blue water and I thought of how appropriate the name of the lake had been. To us, after all, this spot had always been like Eden itself. I knew that no matter where our lives took us, we would never leave this place behind. Surprising Ruth, I offered her a letter I’d written the night before. It was the first letter I’d written to Ruth since I’d been in the war, and after reading it, Ruth took me in her arms. In that moment, I knew what I had to do to keep this place alive in our hearts. The following year, on our eleventh anniversary, I wrote another letter to her, which she read under those very same trees on the shores of Lake Eden. And with that, a new tradition in our marriage began.
In all, Ruth received forty-five letters, and she saved every one. They are stored in a box that she kept atop her chest of drawers. Sometimes I would catch her reading them, and I could tell by her smile that she was reliving something she’d long since forgotten. These letters had become something of a diary to her, and as she grew older, she began to pull them out more frequently, sometimes reading them all in the course of a single afternoon.
The letters seemed to give her peace, and I think this is why much later, she decided to write to me. I did not find this letter until after she was gone, but in many ways, it saved my life. She knew I would need it, for she knew me better than I ever knew myself.
But Ruth has not read all the letters I’ve written to her. She couldn’t. Though I wrote them for her, I also wrote them for me, after all, and after she passed away, I placed another box beside the original. In this box are letters written with a shaking hand, letters marked only by my tears, not hers. They are letters written on what would have been yet another anniversary. Sometimes I think about reading them, just as she used to, but it hurts me to think that she never had the chance. Instead, I simply hold them, and when the ache becomes too great, I’ll wander the house and stare at the paintings. And sometimes, when I do, I like to imagine that Ruth has come to visit me, just as she has come to me in the car, because she knows, even now, that I can’t live without her.