When we first moved to Bucks County, I used to go into New York once a week to “get my identity back.” . . .
Abigail L. Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of The City University of New York. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now appearing in an expanded second edition and as audiobooks. Dr. Rosenthal writes a weekly column for “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column,” where she explores the situation of women. She thinks women’s lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. She’s written numerous articles that can be accessed at Academia.edu .
Landscapes of the Heart
I hadn’t been to Manhattan (my home town) in over two years. But last week I went into town to meet my life-long friends, Frank and Ada, at the Neue Gallerie on 86th and Fifth. That’s a combination German Expressionist art gallery and Viennese café. The café is a gustatory tribute to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that did not survive World War I. I can’t judge the Empire but I recommend the menu.
When we first moved to Bucks County, I used to go into New York once a week to “get my identity back.” The last time I glimpsed its skyline punctuated by the Twin Towers, I recall thinking that the city looked like “an artifact.” Don’t know why that word came to mind. But an artifact couldn’t be deeply embedded in the igneous rock grounding the skyscrapers of the New York island.
Then, when lower Manhattan was turned into a graveyard, the artifact lay amidst the rubble of its length.
Afterward, boosters spoke of its “energy,” the city’s “will to live.” But I hadn’t thought the repair process successful. Rich people from abroad were buying up apartments as their pieds à terre. People in cafés talked about their “deals” – not the existential dilemmas that had been worth overhearing. Small shops were closing, drained of customers by the internet, where people were shopping more conveniently. Goodness! What was a city for? With that sense of a wound unhealed, I’d stayed away.
Now back for the first time, I looked at New York from the cab windows. The cab drivers (the first from India, the second from some country in Africa), conspired with me to get to where I was headed, coming and going. The street people looked relaxed and joking with each other. Central Park was sharing its first emblems of spring. Except for the sociopaths, everyone else interacts like floor mates in a big, many-storied dormitory. As my father-in-law said,
“Abigail loves New York like I love Texas.”
A line stretched halfway around the block of the Neue Gallerie. People had come to see the works of Edvard Munch, Norwegian painter of “The Scream.” Expressionism is usually too downbeat for me, but look at the ladies all-bohemian-dressed-up, come out to see the art! The art! How touching! How party-like!
When we parted, Frank and Ada had tickets to see the Munch, and I walked a few blocks south to the Met to see the exhibit of Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Although a woman, she’d elbowed her way into the best society and became court painter to Marie Antoinette, ill-fated Queen of France. I’d been curious about the court life she’d caught on canvass, but it turns out Vigée Le Brun is also a good painter – better than I’d imagined. The gossip is there too, of course. She had a feminine intelligence about the coquettrie of her sex. With the cool but discrete eye of a sympathetic colleague in the same métier, she indicated – subtly but clearly – what went into the recipe of a Famous Beauty. And she was loyal too, as her friends fell from public favor under the ever-lengthening shadow of the guillotine.
On the Transbridge bus headed home, I looked across the river at the skyline, with its new World Trade Center against the blue. It seemed full of light, full of hope made solid, and alight with transcendence.
It’s only my perspective, not to be taken as a finding true for anybody else, but I believe my city is whole again.
With Frank and Ada, friends as life-long as I have, I broached the idea of returning to Maine, where they live, for a few days in spring or summer. I’d inherited my parents’ home and summered there, keeping it in repair, for some years after their deaths. The first time I drove the five hundred miles from Manhattan to meet the van moving the family things from their New York apartment to their Downeast home, I dreaded entering the empty house that faced Narraguagus Bay. I’d be unpacking cartons, opening new accounts and feeling so abandoned and tired. But after a time I noticed, and said to people I knew there, “the silences are friendly.”
Over the years, the house in Maine gave me something no city girl has a right to expect: a small town that was also home. A place where people had known my parents, knew my mother was “almost a saint,” knew that the Rosenthals were “wonderful people,” sent cards at their last illnesses, saw my first marriage, told me — after that broke up — “there’s lots more fish in the sea,” and understood (without my having to explain) my spirit of devotion to those who were gone.
My life at that point was dogged by an abusive relative who spread doubts about my character. In New York, where people meet in restaurants and only see the front side, she was believed. Even by people who personally knew no ill of me. But in the little town in Maine, people see each other in the round. She was not believed.
A friend of mine, of Frank and Ada’s, of Shirley’s, and of others in the town, died this winter. There is an empty space. Sally is missing. It’s one reason I want to go there this spring or summer. No one can fill the space but one can make the gesture.
When Sally was dying (as was told at the memorial meeting that was sent me to watch on video), the woman who cared for her asked the friends gathered round if any of them was a Christian. One said she was a Buddhist. Another said she was a Jew. A third merely said she was not a Christian. When it was evident that the primary care-giver was the only one who could answer “yes,” she belted out an evangelical prayer that held nothing back and saturated the room. Then the one who was Jewish broke into a sad Hebrew song – perhaps a psalm? I don’t recall what the third one said (she did say something to Sally) but finally Ann, her sister, said these words to Sally:
“Everything’s been taken care of.
You can die now.
Just see yourself in your boat on the Bay
and let the waves carry you
toward the horizon.”
So Sally, who looked very young at that point, relaxed and let herself drift out on the bay of life. The goodness of the time she had given to living gathered her up and took her to her next appointment.