Story – Brain Tumors (2003)

 

Among the things I’ve lost is a photobooth photo of my mother and a friend, both aged about fourteen wearing “Dark Victory” beanies. “Dark Victory” is the movie where Bettie Davis orders, “One prognosis negative.” In the scene she is wearing the beanie, one assumes to cover the shaved head from her failed brain tumor operation. The fashion caught on madly; Seventh Ave. jumped in with both feet, and even in Auburn Maine–about as far as it was then possible to get from Hollywood and still be in the USA–the same year as the movie’s release–bingo: a strip of paper with two little girls immortalized in a life-and-death struggle with their brain surgeon.

 

II

 

But I didn’t lose the photograph of my paternal grandfather in a straw boater and white suit leading a parade in 1915, because my sister has it, along with all the other 19th century photos, the miniatures and documents, documents that outline Napoleon Ricard’s political, business, and personal life. I’ve made her promise not to let anyone, not even the “Standard Times” “borrow” the photographs of old New Bedford. The pictures of me from Warhol days went off in one of her loans to a friend who left town. But stuck there in modern and horrible New Bedford my sister itches for whatever fragment of celebrity she can eke from her grandfather’s brilliant and forgotten career, to make up for the indelible and still remembered blot of my father.

The newspaper has a Sunday page called “New Bedford as it Was.” To be eligible a photo must be of a site that no longer exists and considering the urban ‘renewal’ of the sixties, that includes almost everything.

I was long gratified that the corner of Coggeshall Street and King’s Highway was still in possession of the old factory that once housed Ricard and Caron Coal. This put the old photo of it out of the running for “as it was.”

The photo is not large–a carte de visite format–a “4 x “6 card bevelled and gilt-edged. Unfaded, the image is hard to reconcile with the current state of things. The low building is built up against the embankment of a rail spur that forms a trestle over Coggeshall Street on the right. Over the entire building is a long narrow sign bearing the legend Ricard and Caron Coal. Caron was my grandmother’s maiden name. I guess he married well—so well that his brother married her sister.

It’s a staged shot, like the other “success” pictures in the big art nouveau cracker tin that now houses them.

A train is stopped above the building. A coal car is tipped on its side where two tiny men are guiding with shovels the coal cascading into a huge funnel that leads into the bowels of R & C Coal. In front is a horse drawn wagon full of coal: the entire enterprise in one shot. Whether there are any people in the foreground—grandpa etc. I just don’t remember. It is undated—but it looks like something out of a silent movie—between 1895-1909 I’d guess.

This old photograph was always safe from my sister’s explorations into vicarious fame until two years ago when the building burned down and formally entered the echoing halls of “New Bedford as it Was”. I wouldn’t mind having it reproduced but I know the paper would somehow “lose” it and my sister would look at me with innocent trusting, blue eyes and tell me “they lost it” and “it wasn’t my fault”, the same way she said “She borrowed it and left town,” as if she were somehow unconnected between the “borrow” and the “lost.”

Why should I care? It’s annoying; but I do. Once an editor wrote a bio-blurb for the fly-leaf of one of my books and said that my “origins” were “obscure” and I could hear the voice of my recently dead at 98 year old Aunt
Annina who once said to me “You’re from good stock.”

 

III

 

The reason my namesake grandfather (my middle name, you’re laughing, is Napoleon) is leading a parade is, to me impressive. The year was 1915 and my hawkish grandfather, the alderman of New Bedford’s ward 6, was trying to force an isolationist and pacifist city into the Great War. This was a year before anyone else dared to publicly advocate such an unpopular stand and yet he was re-elected well into the depression.

Napoleon Ricard was one of New Bedford’s Forty Theives. Not very original; but since when is a provincial newspaper expected to be original? But the public loved him.

The parade is high on Mount Pleasant sheet about a block from where they would rip out a swath of city for a highway so that tourists on their way to Cape Cod could more conveniently bypass New Bedford and its “Historical District” they were simultaneously creating at massive expense. The parade is one block past Sacred Heart Home where, at 96, he would die.

It was always family lore that grandpa’s stand on European politics was the reason for the assassination attempt that dispatched a cohort of city policemen to guard his family. Could be. But it was the upshot of police protection that was of more lasting moment to my sister and me. My grandmother’s version was that the cops taught my father to gamble. My father’s version had him organizing friendly games of chance to amuse the kind bored men and divest them of their municipal pay-envelopes. My father was twelve. I believe his side of the story. In any event, it provided him with ready-made protection when he opened Del’s Hideaway, his first illegal gambling joint, nothing hidden about it, in the roaring twenties.

But I do believe my grandmother who was not a four-flusher addicted to adding zeros and commas to her stories like Dad was, when she says that by the time of the Crash he’d gambled away $250,000 of her money. “Good stock.” This is not “obscure.”

 

IV

 

I never lived in New Bedford. I grew up across the river in Acushnet. Our parish was Saint Francis. But I had discovered something that kept me crossing back every Sunday: Saint Kasimir’s, the Polish Church, a tiny gray wooden chapel.

It was important to get there early. Always the last to arrive—did they hold up the mass for them—were five sisters. I will call them the Polish sisters. They would enter in order of age, with the eldest first. Always beautifully dressed with short gloves that held little white prayer books they were like the fairy tale where each one is more beautiful than the next down to the youngest, my age, with a thick platinum blonde braid. With eyes cast down, they would head for their own pew in front.

The Polish sisters lived in a mammoth gray Queen Anne style house surrounded by a lawn studded with copper beech trees. The several acres surrounded by stonewalls on the avenue also contained a stable smack in the middle of ward six. A white horse would flick its blond tail as it nibbled the violets on the lawn. All this on a street with barber shops and drug stores and groceries. It was all as incongruous as…a white horse.

The father was in politics. As I was growing up I would see “Vote for” billboards with his name around town. The church was a street away from their stone wall—so I guess he’d had it built practically in his yard.

One day I was telling my aunt Annina about the Polish sisters. I told her that they never wore the same thing twice and Auntie laughed that decent worldly laugh of hers. She liked anything to do with money: she was wise that way. My Aunt never went to that church, rather to her own parish much farther away. Then I told her that it was peculiar because I’d been going to the Polish Church for some months now and I could not get the longest one to look at me even though I could tell that she wanted to. I was eleven.

My aunt’s expression changed. She looked hard at me and then left the room, returning with a silver framed studio photo. I’d seen the same one in my father’s album; an 8 x 10 head shot of a beautiful woman in a black cloche hat and black scoop necked dress. The only difference is that ours had “All my love, Sugar” written on it in white ink.

“Do you know who this is?”

“No.”

“It was your father’s first wife. You can’t see the beautiful blonde hair under the hat. It’s a very good hat. She was the sister of those girls’ mother. She was Polish. They were the two most beautiful girls in the city.”

“But what happened to her?”

Then auntie said something I know she’d been wanting to say for many years, the kind of bomb she had a nice cool way of dropping:

“Your father killed her.”

Of course I wasn’t shocked. I’d lived with him for eleven years—so I asked almost rhetorically, “How do you know?”

Now the punch line.

“There were handprints around her neck in the coffin. And you know why nothing happened to your father?”

“Grandpa.”

“That’s right.”

But grandpa’s days had long run out.

 

V

 

My grandmother, it follows, was a political hostess and in her salad days much more than the old woman in a white upsweep hairdo in a black dress with white organdy collar who took care of my endlessly rocking grandfather. That I knew. In fact she’d been–in a solid bourgeois way–a hellion. She’d had a lover and it broke my grandfather’s heart, they say. They also say that she went to a cousin’s graduation ceremony drunk.

But first of all she was a political hostess and always gave a big party on New Year’s Day. This tradition went on well into my time in a reduced, just family, way. She’d give the kids, me, sweet Jewish wine in little crystal tumblers.

One New Year’s Day she turned to my grandfather and told him to go down to the cellar for more champagne. This was an important party—they wanted to run him for mayor. He didn’t want to run; but she did. He went out for wine and didn’t return. An hour later my uncle found him in the attic: looking for champagne in a steamer trunk.

My grandfather, the legend goes, had the first successful brain tumor operation in america, but from what I saw it was a qualified success. Occasionally I would sit on his lap and he’d remember things that happened long ago, before politics, before my grandmother, far back. And he’d take out his old railroad watch and listen to the repeater, wondering how long until New Year’s.

After my grandfather’s medical success my father made a dynastic bid for office. In that album was a give-away blotter—a blotter on the business side but turn it over and there was an ad: an oval portrait of my young and still good looking father with the legend: Ricard—Counselor at large

My father—at large. Good stock.

 

 

Rene Ricard

October, 2003