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The GI's, at this distance in time, all look alike, with the same smiling, intent, confident, innocent expressionsnice-looking young men, though a little thin because they are still recovering from wounds or fevers. Some are in uniform, some are in their pajamas and maroon bathrobes. You can tell by looking at them that they know how to tell jokes and would reach out and be glad to give you a cordial handshake if you were introduced, or offer you one of their precious cigarettes if they took a liking to you.
My father is sitting on a folding chair, leaning forward, looking intently at the woman in the center of the room. His lips are just about to smile as he listens, and I see the same expression of pleasure, an expression of hearing something funny and true, on the faces of the other men who all lean a little toward the woman.
Gertrude Stein is in profile, just raising her hand in a gesture to accompany something she's just said. Her suit jacket looks nubby, like linen, and she's wearing a scarf at her neck. She's taken off her winter coat, and it's spread out on the chair, the satin lining like a shiny pool all around her. At the corner of the photograph, Alice Toklas is just visible. Her face is out of focus, but you can see that she's holding two big purses on her lap, and one of them must be Gertrude Stein's. One black, lace-up shoe, pointing out, shines in the flash that washes out the front of the photograph.
The nurses are standing in the back of the room. My mother, taller and prettier than the others, her blond bangsin a swooping roll above her forehead, is looking at my father. This photograph was taken before he was promoted to lieutenant, and their engagement is still secret. My father, a medic, has recently been transferred from the 16th Station Hospital, where my mother is stationed, to the First General in Paris.
My father met Gertrude Stein at a New Year's Eve party for GI's. She'd come back to Paris after the liberation, and was going around cheering up the American troops. My father, always shrewd and quick-thinking, saw a chance to visit my mother. He talked to his Colonel (later the best man at my parents' wedding) and arranged to drive Gertrude Stein and her friend Alice Toklas out to the 16th Station Hospital in the Château Le Marais to visit the walking wounded.
What did she talk about that day? I can only guess as I sift through the other photographs of my parents' wartime years that my mother has mailed me in a shoe box, fairy-tale views of the Château Le Marais in the snow, with the lake in front and the moat and formal gardens in the back, or the photos of the village of Argentan, bombed into rubble, or the funny pictures of nurses in combat fatigues washing out underwear in helmets, and hanging it to dry on tent ropes. There's a photo of an operating theater divided into cubicles by hanging sheets, and a photo of wounded personnelincluding several womenon stretchers waiting to be shipped home. My mother is moving to a small apartment in a senior citizens' tower, and has been sending me boxes of things she doesn't want to keep but can't bring herself to throw away. She's given me back my baby locket, with my teeth marks in the soft gold, years of homemade, yellowing Christmas cards I made out of construction paper in grade school, my old report cards, a recipe box I painted for her in Girl Scouts, a pair of crystal liqueur glasses I bought her with money from my first job at the department store, my ice skates from college, hardly used, the blades still wrapped in tissue, an antique silver candy dish that belonged to my grandmother, and my father's old twin-lens reflex camera.
When I was growing up, I did not make any distinction between the group photo that included Gertrude Stein and any of the other group photos of people my parents had met in the war. My father's colonel, with his small, stiff mustache, and my mother's best friend with her smooth pageboy, and the knots of young men and women in uniform all seemed equally strange and interesting to me. My mother or my father would point to this person or that person, and I'd learn that this officer was a psychiatrist, and that nurse came from Maine, and this orderly was a flirt, and that orderly had died of cancer in 1953, and that nurse had shared a tent with my mother, and that medic had been a Hollywood photographer before the war, and this old woman with short hair had arranged for my parents' civil marriage by the mayor of Paris, and the church wedding at the Madeleine. The fact that it was Gertrude Stein who had cut through the red tape to facilitate my parents' marriage escaped me for many years. They must have mentioned that she was a writer. But the wartime writer whose book they owned and admired was Ernie Pyle. A battered copy of Here Is Your War had a place of honor in our glass-fronted bookcase, shelved next to Dickens and Walter Scott.
Some curious line seemed to have been crossed forever when my parents returned to America, so that those handsome people who inhabited the black-and-white photos of the war years did not seem to resemble the bright, gaudy young marrieds of the postwar suburbs. I was always more interested in the stories or the details in the pictures than in the real names of the people, though I delighted in knowing that the swan on the lake was called Tallyrand. I asked about the color of the bathrobes worn by the recovering GI's, I dreamed of walking through the glassed-in arcade that connected the château to the servants' quarters where the nurses slept, I made my mother show me how to roll my bangs under like the nurses, and I made her sing me the words to the song, "And the Angels Sing," the tune she had urged wounded soldiers to hum when they were being put under ether in the field hospital after the Normandy invasion. I absorbed the atmosphere of the war.
But only my parents stood out as individuals.
When I was ten or eleven years old, I received a birthday present from my aunt Margie. When I opened the green Marshall Fields' box, I found a dress of polished cotton printed with roses, and around each rose in a circle were the words "a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" that you could keep reading around and around forever. My father, standing behind the hassock where I sat, leaned down and fingered the dress; exclaiming in surprise:
"Why, I know who wrote that!"
"Really?" I said, lifting the dress and shaking away the tissue paper to admire the shirred front. "What's it mean, Dad?"
"No idea," he said. "I don't think she knew either. But while I was wasting time asking her about it, she beat me at Ping-Pong."
"She beat you? I thought nobody ever beat you."
"She did," my father laughed. "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose."
I was delighted to think that somebody who wrote about a rose on my dress had actually beaten my father at somethingno one had ever beaten my father at a game. He never let me win at Hearts or Crazy Eights or chess or Monopoly or badminton and especially Ping-Pong, which we used to play down in the basement, pocking the balls back and forth for a few minutes before he'd start hitting them hard past my head. So while I was growing up I carried around that little nugget of memory, that some woman who said a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose had played Ping-Pong with my father, and won. Later in college, when I discovered that the nugget was pure goldthat my father had been beaten in Ping-Pong by the famous writer, Gertrude Steinit was too late. My father was dead.
"Château Le Marais, March 1945," I read in light pencil on the back of this next photo. My future parents, now that my father's been promoted, are posed in their winter army uniforms on the shore of the lake. Behind them is the swan they have named Tallyrand. My mother is holding up her left hand to show the camera the bright engagement ring that I'll see later on her finger, sparkling in the soapsuds as she does the dishes. The platinum wedding ring (it's impossible to get gold at this point in the war) has been mailed from Chicago, and is wrapped up in a chamois cloth in my father's footlocker in Paris. They hope to be married soon, but it's complicated. Army red tape is doubled by French red tape. But all will soon be well. Miss Stein is going to help.
I peer more closely at the photo. My father's mouth is shaped as if he's talking. Even as they stand there in the snow, my father may be telling my mother not to worry, that Gertrude Stein is talking to some top brass.
How many times, as my divorce was pending, did I go over to the end table in my living room, scarred with white rings from my soon-to-be ex-husband's gin and tonics, and pick up the framed picture of my parents in their army uniforms standing on the steps of the Madeleine on their wedding day? Gertrude Stein wasn't thereshe was off visiting troops in occupied Germanybut according to my mother she'd spoken to this general who'd spoken to that general, she'd spoken to a priest who'd spoken to a bishop, and finally she'd spoken to an old friend in the F.F.I. who'd spoken to the mayor of Paris, and the mayor of Paris had agreed to perform the civil ceremony himself.
* * *
I usually mention this little incident quickly, with irony, but I want to try something different, because the more I think about itand sorting through this box of photos is stirring me upthe irony came later. It wasn't there from the beginning.
So let me step back from myself, and see if I can dredge up my real feelings at the time.
A woman in her midthirtiessomeone with my coloring and height, who might be me but isn't because you can never see yourself objectivelyarrives at Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and passes through the iron gate. It's raining, but she buys the 10 franc map, locates the name Gertrude Stein, and heads up the Avenue Principale, taking long steps over puddles, tilting her umbrella against gusts of spray, holding her cellophane-wrapped bouquet of roses against her chest. What she is doing makes her feel funny and a little ashamed. She hasn't visited her father's grave since his burial in the Fort Snelling Veterans Cemetery years ago, when she handed the folded flag to her mother, took her arm, and steered her back to the car, leaving her father's silver coffin sitting on tresles under a canopy, surrounded by acres of identical small markers. But here she is, hurrying in the rain to visit the grave of the woman who beat him in Ping-Pong.
She's still getting used to being divorced. Her husband, a poet, had an affair last year. She came home early from her job at the art museum, heard the television going in the bedroom, and walked in just in time to see a pair of short, hairy, female legs sticking out of the quilt, and her husband coming out of the bathroom, naked, wiping himself with a towel. What made her really mad was that the girl was one of her husband's graduate students, and only two weeks ago she'd gone with her husband to hear the girl read a bunch of boring, surrealistic poems about the depressed inner lives of cartoon characters, and had even spoken to the girl afterwards, more out of pity than anything, telling her she liked her work.
She'd lost her temper. She'd screamed at the girl, who cowered before her, her sharp, bare shoulder blades almost touching her ears. At the time, the woman felt more upset by the fact that the girl was in her bed than she was by the fact that she'd screwed her husband, and later, after her husband had moved in with the girl, taking nothing but his books and clothes and the big-screen television he'd bought with his grant money, she tried to comfort herself with this notion, that she'd cared more about the violation of her personal space than she'd cared about the affair itself. She'd wadded up the sheets and thrown them in the trash.
But she was devastated. It was a month before she called home to tell her mother, who gasped, then sighed, then said several times, "Thank God your father isn't alive to hear this!" She urged her daughter to try to save her marriage through counseling. The woman listened to her mother's advice, but when she hung up, she just sat there looking at the phone, her hands blocks of ice, wondering how her husband could have preferred a short, dumpy, rat-faced, depressive kid who didn't shave her legs to a tall, blond, cheerful, intelligent woman who worked out every day. She started to shiver, and immediately her throat got sore. By that evening, she had a fever, and the beginning of the worst cold she'd ever had in her life.
It was her husband's moral vacillation that got to her the most. If she'd asserted herself, she could have got him to come home, and they could have resumed their life together, and she might have gotten used to his cool, drifty ways all over again, and learned to exercise more care, so that pushy, star-struck graduate students couldn't get their chewed fingernails into his soft back in the future. But that wasn't the kind of relationship she'd imagined when she was growing up. She'd wanted to fall in love with someone brave and confident and optimistic, a hero like the GI's in the WWII movies, not someone who wore untucked Hawaiian shirts and rubber thongs and sat reading literary magazines on the toilet for an hour every morning.
But back in 1973, when she'd met her husband in graduate school, men weren't like that. The Vietnam War was over, but, just as you get used to a stiff hinge on a door, so that even after you oil it with WD-40, you continue to pull it as hard as you used to, they still sneered at the establishment and baked whole wheat bread and wrote poetry and wore boots without socks and drove battered Volkswagens and kissed your toes when they made love and smiled dreamily when they passed you a joint. In snapshots from those days, she found it hard to distinguish her husband from his friends. They all looked alike, unsmiling behind their rimless glasses and big mustaches, their hair shaggy around their ears.
You didn't marry a man, she decided, you married a generation.
Here in Père-Lachaise she's seen enough pictures in books to know not to expect a fancy monument to Gertrude Stein, like the ones that crowd the avenues where a million people are buried in only 100,000 tombs. As she climbs to the back of the cemetery, leaving the Avenue Saint-Morys and crossing the Avenue Transversale, she passes miniature castles with turrets, tall obelisks, and huge angels, some with uplifted swords, some covering their faces with their wings in grief. Off the Avenue Circulaire she finds a grassy plot edged with limestone and a simple marker with Gertrude Stein's name, and Alice Toklas discreetly behind her. There are already roses on the grave, a dried, dead bouquet still wrapped in cellophane, and some long-stemmed yellow roses, the petals curled and browning, that someone has scattered.
One day, in an English class at the University of Minnesota, a year after her father had died suddenly of a heart attack, her only female professor, going over a list of suggested books for extra-credit reports, had quoted "a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" in a bright, mocking voice when she came to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. It's too bad, the professor went on, but newspapers and jealous critics have reduced the complexity of a great revolutionary writer to a little heading on her stationery.
The woman felt as if she'd been zapped by a volt of electricity. She remembered the words on her pink dress, a dress she had especially loved and worn to several birthday parties, and she remembered the photograph of a stout woman talking to GI's that she'd often studied on rainy days when she went through the albums and boxes of photos stored in the dining-room hutch, and she began to put two and two together. She called home that evening. Her mother confirmed that the writer, Gertrude Stein, had pulled some strings for her marriage, but she'd only met her that one time when she came out to the château. No, she didn't remember what she talked about. It was your father who was friends with her, she told her daughter, who asked about the Ping-Pong game. Her mother knew nothing about it. She could add nothing except to say that there were always Ping-Pong tables at Red Cross clubs, and that the match could have taken place anywhere.
Excerpted from Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling by Maura Stanton. Copyright © 2002 by Maura Stanton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.