10/30/03 5:12 PM
Bausch and Lomb
When I was seventeen and already living on my own I’d sometimes visit my mother’s house in Acushnet mostly to root around for old clothes: it was my passion. I’d once traded a old ciree leather hunting jacket for a full length double-breasted black leather coat, very storm trooper—she hated it. It was the only time my mother ever hit me. Once I found a little V-necked sweater, khaki, she’d knitted for me when I must’ve been five or six. I don’t recall wearing it to kindergarten but got a lot of wear out of it later—it must’ve been knit from surplus 2nd WW wool—the color, but the fit was sublime, the sleeves three-quarter and so short it didn’t cover my belly button. “Take that off.”
But the best thing I ever found were a pair of sunglasses. I had never seen anything like them, and indeed, at the time nothing like them existed. They had honey color tortoise shell frames and the lenses were cobalt blue. The lenses were tear-shape and the narrow part came to the nose piece. They were a shape that would later be called ‘aviator’ and that famously enhanced the beauty of Robert Redford in the seventies.
I wore them for a couple of years. What happened to them? What happens to anything a teenager prizes; other teenagers steal it.
My mother grew up atop the highest hill in Auburn, Maine. Broad Street was so steep that I still have nightmares about it. The hill was steep and the winters were unbelievably cold. The icicles hang from the third floor to the ground. A boy once got his ears frostbitten walking my mother home from the skating rink down the hill. It was the occasion of an unpleasant nickname for him in later life.
There were three sisters, my mother, Pauline, the eldest a strawberry blond and then Lorraine and Pricilla, the baby, both redheads. The sisters were close in age and all lovely.
They were a close family who loved a joke and were punctilious about proper delivery. As my exact contemporary, Jackie, Lorraine’s daughter, once told me, “Be serious.” In other words don’t telegraph a punch line—be serious.
My sarcastic grandmother was incredibly funny and it ran to my mother—but later; she was a very shy girl. When the grown ups drank they would always, in an old-fashioned way, propose toasts. Here’s one my mother, of course, remembers overhearing.
“Here’s to the girl who lives
On the hill
She won’t do it
But her sister will.
Here’s to her sister.”
The first picture I ever saw of Jimmy Donahugh, he was in a sailor uniform with a buddy in front of a hula girl backdrop in Okinawa. Post card size, it was just another photo in the album. It had written on it “Something, Something, from the Gob who loves you.” I didn’t know what a Gob was, A gob is a sailor, my mother explained.
Through time and the vicissitudes my mother became the repository of a great many photographs of Jimmy Donahugh. An exceptional accumulation. Just the most beautiful photographs and as Mrs. Gaskell once wrote, would not have been so sad if the times they told of hadn’t been so happy. Her light hair parted on the side in a gentle pageboy. My mother at eighteen with Jimmy at the beach, on sail boats, in bathing suits—my mother’s a yellow two-piece, or shorts and sweaters, out hiking. But mostly they seemed to live on skis, in matching reindeer sweaters and stretch pants, or gabardine jackets cinched at the waist, my mother with a bandeau around her ears—Jimmy hatless with light curly hair and so beautiful the two of them in their sunglasses, holding their poles—or my favorite shot of my mother laughing, on her stomach, fallen in the snow, photographed by Jimmy. As I looked at it I could still hear their distant laughter.
This is not Saint Moritz, for the girl who lived on the hill, skiing was a fact of life and some of the shots are from the back yard, as you can tell by the Androscoggin River frozen solid far behind the endless declines of the Hill, then the field, then the trees, the river then the next hill that begins from its far banks.
Once, reading about President Kennedy, I came upon a startling passage, JFK’s sister, nicknamed Kick, had been married to the eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire. Kick Cavendish, I suppose was her new name. She became a young war-widow when the plane he was returning on mysteriously exploded mid-air in an unexplained disaster that “inexplicably bedeviled flights so commonly during the Second World War.”
Mrs. Donahugh and my mother had chosen the date, the church, and the dress, The invitations were sent out. At the last moment plans were altered. Instead of presents the guests sent flowers. Instead of a white muslin dirndl my mother wore a black wool crepe and Jimmy’s funeral was held on the date of the wedding. The honor guard crossed their raised swords over my mother’s head as she left the church, holding the little box covered in a tiny American flag that contained James Michael Donahugh III’s remains, draped in his dog tags.
His plane mysteriously blew up, “as occurred so commonly during the Second World War.” What bits of him that were recovered were scattered somewhere near Worcester, Massachusetts, two days before his wedding day. The honor guard that accompanied his remains crossed their swords over my mother’s young head as she left the funeral mass in a black dress. There is a photograph.
She wore the same dress when she married my father. No photograph.
I was usually the last to hear about family secrets. Conversations would go on and I would become more and more mystified as I, along with everyone else, realized that I was not in possession of an important piece of information that usually served as key to the episode. The entire table would turn to me and gasp “You didn’t know?” Of course not; my mother fought like a demon to keep me ignorant. But she could have prepared me for some of the more amazing history my family delights in creating for itself.
Jimmy, however, she finally regaled me with. The legend of Jimmy was absolute and she wanted me to know it. She wanted me aware of who she’d been, of youth, of promise and of physical beauty that had been his, and possessed by her. The photographs were testimony, their smiles were real. The old stone jug they held to their lips while picturesquely chopping wood held real crystal clear and ice cold Poland water from the pump at the cabin in the chanterelle strewn woods on a pond near Sebago.
I am out of touch with my family for years on end.
At a certain point my mother became the docent of an enormous collection of photos from Maine. Apparently she and Jimmy were everyone’s favorite pin-up couple because there seemed to be an endless amount. No one with such a brief life posed for as many pictures as the sensitive and virile Jimmy. And he was never alone.
Teasing my mother one day about how he obviously had no privacy—she was always on his arm. Laughing through tears is a technique we learned from my mother. Suddenly I was brought, as they say, up short.
The sunglasses she’s wearing with her Lana Turner bandeau and reindeer sweater: They were the ones I’d found so many years before.
“What is it?”
“Ma, those sunglasses! They look just like the ones you gave me when I was young.”
“Jimmy gave them to me.”
“They’re still the nicest glasses I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes they were. Jimmy paid $85 for them. They’re by Bausch and Lomb.”
I couldn’t even begin to imagine how much eighty-five dollars in nineteen forties money was worth, My first New York City rent in 1965 was $45 a month.
“They were made for skiing, The lenses were treated to cut the glare.”
“But how could you ever let me have them?”
Then my mother answered simply; “Because I loved you.”
Rene Ricard October 2003