Gerber, Merrill Joan 1938-
GERBER, Merrill Joan 1938-
Born March 15, 1938, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of William (an antique dealer) and Jessie (Sorblum) Gerber; married Joseph Spiro (a college teacher), June 23, 1960; children: Becky Ann, Joanna Emily, Susanna Willa. Education: Attended University of Miami, 1955; University of Florida, B.A., 1959; Brandeis University, graduate study, 1959-60, M.A., 1980. Religion: Jewish.
Pasadena City College, Pasadena, CA, creative writing lecturer, 1980-89; California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, creative writing lecturer, 1989—. Former editor, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA; lecturer writers' conferences, including at University of California, University of Florida, and Pasadena City College; has taught creative writing at California State University at Los Angeles, and University of Redlands.
Wallace Stegner Fiction fellowship, 1962-63; residency grant, Yaddo Writers' Colony, 1981; Andrew Lytle Fiction Prize, Sewanee Review, 1985, for "At the Fence"; short fiction award, Fiction Network, 1985, for "Hairdos"; O. Henry Award, Doubleday and Co., 1986, for "I Don't Believe This"; Pushcart Editors' Book Award for literary distinction, 1990, for King of the World; Harold U. Ribalow Prize, for best English-language book of fiction on a Jewish theme, Hadassah magazine, 1992, for The Kingdom of Brooklyn; named Alumna of Outstanding Achievement, University of Florida, 1997; McGiniss-Ritchie prize from Southwest Review, 2001, for "Anna Passes On"; Anna in the Afterlife chosen as Best Novel of 2002, Los Angeles Times.
An Antique Man, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1967.
Now Molly Knows, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1974.
The Lady with the Moving Parts, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1978.
King of the World, Pushcart (Wainscott, NY), 1990.
The Kingdom of Brooklyn, Longstreet Press (Atlanta, GA), 1992.
Anna in the Afterlife, Syracuse University Press (Syracuse, NY), 2002.
Glimmering Girls: A Novel of the Fifties, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2005.
Stop Here, My Friend, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1965.
Honeymoon, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1985.
Chattering Man: Stories and a Novella, Longstreet Press (Atlanta, GA), 1991.
This Old Heart of Mine: The Best of Merrill Joan Gerber's Redbook Stories, Longstreet Press (Athens, GA), 1993.
Anna in Chains ("Library of Modern Jewish Literature" series), Syracuse University Press (Syracuse, NY), 1998.
This Is a Voice from Your Past: New and Selected Stories, Ontario Review Press (Princeton, NJ), 2005.
Please Don't Kiss Me Now, Dial (New York, NY), 1981.
Name a Star for Me, Viking (New York, NY), 1983.
I'm Kissing as Fast as I Can, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1985.
The Summer of My Indian Prince, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1986.
Also Known as Sadzia! The Belly Dancer!, Harper (New York, NY), 1987.
Marry Me Tomorrow, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1987.
Even Pretty Girls Cry at Night, Crosswinds (Don Mills, Ontario, Canada), 1988.
I'd Rather Think about Robby, Harper (New York, NY), 1988.
Handsome as Anything, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1990.
Old Mother, Little Cat: A Writer's Reflections on Her Kitten, Her Aged Mother … and Life (nonfiction), Longstreet Press (Atlanta, GA), 1995.
Botticelli Blue Skies: An American in Florence, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2002.
Gut Feelings: A Writer's Truths and Minute Inventions, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2003.
Also author of Old Mother, Little Cat (e-book). Contributor to books, including Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards 1986, edited by William Abrahams, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1986, and The Best American Mystery Stories 1998. Also contributor of short stories and essays to periodicals, including American Scholar, Chattahoochee Review, Commentary, Family Circle, Ladies' Home Journal, Mademoiselle, McCall's, New Yorker, Redbook, Salmagundi, Sewanee Review, Southwest Review, and Woman's Day. Contributor of articles on writing to Writer and Writer's Digest.
"Merrill Joan Gerber is not one to be pushed into a corner," wrote Lisa See Kendall in Publishers Weekly. Gerber has published collections of short stories, novels, young adult titles, as well as guides for writers, a travel memoir, and personal essays. She began writing stories and essays when she was seven years old, and her first published piece of work, a poem, appeared in Writer when she was age eighteen. She then began selling stories to magazines such as the New Yorker and Redbook. Over the course of her career, Gerber published more short stories in Redbook than any other contributor to that magazine. However, her publication record has not always won her recognition. Gerber is a "seriously underrated and often-overlooked writer," wrote Booklist reviewer Margaret Flanagan in her review of This Is a Voice from Your Past.
Gerber's early stories and novels describe the daily life of American women who accept their roles as wives and mothers. In 1990 she published King of the World, a book she she called "her best work to date," according to Kendall. "You can only tell some of the story in teen books or Redbook," Gerber told Kendall. "But you get to a point where you say you're going to tell all you know. You're going to reveal certain pains, resentments, and angers." It took Gerber years to find a publisher, but when King of the World was finally published by Pushcart Press, it received the Editor's Book Award. Booklist called it "A powerful, sad, and haunting tale of love and madness."
After King of the World, Gerber published three books with Longstreet Press: The story collections Chattering Man and This Old Heart of Mine and The Kingdom of Brooklyn, a novel that tells the story of Issa, who grows up during and just after World War II. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called The Kingdom of Brooklyn "a brutally candid, semiautobiographical novel" and praised Gerber's writing, noting "Her wry purity of style packs psychological dynamite."
Anna in Chains follows the life of Anna Goldman, an elderly woman who tries to maintain herself first in her own apartment, then a retirement home, and finally in a nursing home. "A wonderfully wry look at the outrageous indignities of old age," said a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Anna in the Afterlife takes place during the four days between Anna's death and her burial, a period that allows her to uncover secrets about her past and gain a deeper understanding of her life before she departs into eternity.
Old Mother, Little Cat: A Writer's Reflections on Her Kitten, Her Aged Mother … and Life is a memoir about Gerber's mother's long stay in a nursing home at the same time that Gerber discovers a kitten under her house. The kitten's energy and love of life stands in contrast to her mother's dying, and the two stories play out against each other. "Gerber has done an excellent job of conveying her mother's strength and humanity," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly.
Botticelli Blue Skies: An American in Florence "presents an absolutely delightful travel memoir," according to Margaret Flanagan in Booklist. The book describes the semester Gerber and her professor husband lived for three months in Florence. Alison Hopkins, writing for Library Journal called the book "an absorbing account of life in another country."
Gerber describes her fiction writing processes in Gut Feelings: A Writer's Truths and Minute Inventions. Denise J. Stankovics, writing in of Library Journal, praised Gerber "who cleverly blends memoir and invention to illustrate how an author's life influences her literary output." A critic for Kirkus Reviews called the entries in the collection "refined, concise, often emotionally wringing vignettes."
Gerber once told CA: "During my fourteenth year, my father gave me a very large bound book, a blank publisher's "dummy' to use as a diary. Its title was nothing less dramatic than Mutiny on the Bounty—on its cover was a sailing vessel, embossed, its sails at full tilt, its hull crashing about on a stormy sea. What better diary imaginable in which to record the passions of the teen years? What metaphor could be better?
"Now that I have survived those years (if one ever does) and have observed and sometimes helped as my three daughters passed through their teen years, I know there is no other time of life when experience is so intense, awareness so piercingly sharp, hope so hopeful, and love so tender. Likewise, never again is pain so painful, or despair so agonizing. Writing YA novels allows me to re-enter, re-create, and fortunately—at this distance of time—reinterpret some of those most significant experiences. Communicating with young readers going through those times, and offering them perhaps some calming reassurance, as well as some perspective on their passage, is one of the great satisfactions of writing YA books."
Merrill Joan Gerber contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
A FEW WORDS
They had lost so many by the time I was born. My mother had lost her father and her brother. My grandmother had lost her first husband, her second husband, and her son. My aunt, who lived with us, had (also) lost her father and her brother. By the time I was five, my mother had, in addition, lost her nephew and her stillborn son; my aunt (if you count the dead baby) had lost two nephews; and my grandmother, likewise, two grandsons. Each counted her own losses fully; the overlap seemed merely to increase the number of snatched-away souls. Their combined ghostly mass in our home was cumulative and oppressive. The women who raised me hovered about me in fear and mourning. The awareness of loss-sustained and loss-yet-to-come was my first impression of the nature of life.
My household was volatile: my mother explosive, my father conciliatory (he had to be), my aunt and grandmother (who lived upstairs while I lived with my parents downstairs) acting as buffers or mediators or simply "flies on the wall." There was no telling what a day would bring. I spent my childhood in a heightened state of awareness, the better to predict when to take cover, or to guess from what quarter the explosion would come. At times I would try to hide from it, at others I would decide how to cause it. I took it all in. I made my judgments, assessments, drew my conclusions. I didn't let down my guard very often—they all depended on me to keep things going. I ran from the downstairs to the upstairs to the downstairs, checking the positions and states of mind of the major players, keeping the house in balance.
I knew I was pivotal, an important property. My aunt, single, childless, wanted me, and perhaps wanted my father, too. My mother, who had me, was gifted with little patience. They all coveted me, fought over me, bargained for me, courted me. My sister wasn't born till I was seven, so I had their undiluted attention for years. And they had mine.
My fiction does, of course, take a good deal of its energy from this early life, but I have worked on my art in my fiction, and here, in these pages, I want to discuss the origins of that life and its surroundings. I have always paid close attention to my family history, absorbed every detail of what happened and to whom it happened and when it happened and why it happened and how each person felt about it. All this was extremely important to me, though I can't say exactly why. I don't think my mother cared two hoots about the "old country." It was better forgotten, as far as she was concerned, but I believe what happened there and how it affected our household is what formed me into the person and writer I became.
My mother had very little use for the immigrant relatives who—with their poor diction, crude thinking, and vulgar behavior—caused her to feel embarrassment and disgust. I don't think my father did much reflecting on the meaning of life (he was too busy trying to earn a living). My grandmother was an uncomplicated, practical woman from Poland, busy cooking and cleaning, and grieving her losses on the bench in front of our house. It may have been my aunt, my mother's younger sister—the one who was the wallflower, the one who never left the house, the one who was too delicate to work out in the world, the one who believed she would meet the love of her life, if she was meant to, while putting out the garbage, the one who said my father should have married her and not my mother—whose influence was so powerful. So little happened to her that she held a magnifying glass to each tiny act that in any way related to her, replayed in her mind every careless remark of a neighbor or relative, relived each gesture of a schoolmate or a girlfriend. She knew all the family tragedies, romances, accidents, suicides, and scandals—and regaled me with their details. She remembered every word some young man or another had ever said to her (or, more to the point, to my mother). She held grudges forever. She remembered slights and rehearsed them every day. She was meticulous in her recollections, particularly if they concerned my mother who always denied, and does to this day, what her sister remembered about her. My aunt saw significance in everything. As did I.
My mother's mother, Beckie Panker Sorblum, had come to America in steerage from Kutno, Poland, at the age of twenty-one. She was courted by her handsome first husband, Davis Josephthal, who told her that he spoke seven languages and had been an aristocrat in Europe. In fact, he had left a wife and daughter behind in Europe, which he neglected to tell her. He soon abandoned my grandmother, too, and she was forced by circumstance to put her two small children, Eva and Sam, into an orphanage. She found work as a midwife during the years she was going through the formal requirements to attain her "get" (Jewish divorce). When she finally did, she learned that her husband had died in a diabetic coma shortly after leaving her.
Through acquaintances, as was the way in those days, she met my grandfather, a tailor eleven years her junior, named Morris Sorblum (although before passing through customs on Ellis Island, his name had been "Sauerbach"). Soon after their marriage they had two children: my mother, Jessie Sorblum, born November 28, 1907, and my aunt, Yetta Sorblum, born June 10, 1910. They lived briefly on the lower east side of New York, then moved to an apartment at 613 East 138th Street in the Bronx where they paid a rent of $38 a month for five rooms. My grandfather's employer, who owned a women's garment factory, also owned the apartment house in which the family lived—so that whatever my grandfather earned at work, he paid back to his boss in rent. The two sisters, Jessie and Yetta, went to PS 9, the school where my mother got her first look at the genteel, cultured life of her (gentile) teachers. She aspired to education, to speaking the English language in beautiful tones. She told me many times of her greatest humiliation: when she met her first-grade teacher in the street, the teacher did not seem to recognize her. My mother said to her: "Oh dear, teacher don't know me." Immediately, she was aware of her grammatical error and was shamed by it. By the passion and frequency with which she told this story, I know she was haunted by this lapse all her life. At graduation from eighth grade, she won the "gold medal for academic excellence." As she stood in the darkened audience to go up to the stage to receive it, the boy who was in competition with her for the medal muttered to her as she passed him by, "Just wait till I get you outside." Many Jewish parents, who had left their homes and families and crossed an ocean to seek education and a better life for their offspring, demanded and expected that their children bring home academic honors. (I don't think this was the case in my mother's home, however. My grandmother, Beckie, was a mild-mannered simple person who had no knowledge of book-learning or desire for it. If anyone yearned for education, it was my mother. At the time I write this, she is eighty-six years old and living, paralyzed, in a nursing home and still she cherishes her gold medal. Last year, when my daughter Joanna passed her orals in comparative literature at Yale, my mother asked me to give it as a gift to her.)
When my mother was seven, her parents noticed that she spent much of her time "playing piano" on the edge of the kitchen table. They arranged to buy her an upright piano and weekly piano lessons. She devoted herself to practicing and was soon playing the music of Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven. When her mother's parents, Fanny (Feygele) and Israel Panker, came to the United States from Poland, they lived for a time with my grandmother's sister, Sarah Panker Weisgrow. When Fanny took ill, she moved into the Bronx apartment to be nursed by my grandmother. Her bed was placed in front of the piano, denying my mother access to her precious hours of practice time. My mother told me she did not have charitable thoughts about the old woman whose smell was unpleasant and whose bed blocked her way to the piano. Not long after that, my mother was at a party and remembers feeling an icy sensation come over her. She knew something dreadful had happened, and when she got home, she learned that her grandmother had died.
Her father's parents, David Ichiel and Elka Hyah Sorblum, came to America, too, when their children could arrange to care for them, but my mother could not speak Yiddish (and refused to learn it) so she had almost no communication with them.
In 1924, when the sisters were fourteen and sixteen, the family moved from the Bronx to Brooklyn. (My aunt told me very recently that the reason for their move was that my mother was ashamed of their living quarters, that after one of her dates took her home and expressed surprise that she "lived in such a dump" she demanded of my grandfather that they move to a classier place. "She always got what she wanted.") The small two-story house they bought (for $9,999) at 405 Avenue O in Brooklyn was hardly a castle (though I grew up there and thought it was. My novel, The Kingdom of Brooklyn, is set there).
My grandfather made his living studying the fashions in windows of department stores, and then copying them in sample patterns he made for his employer. In his nights at home, he sewed stylish clothes for his daughters. My mother was always proud to be well dressed.
He also had a great love for opera, and especially for the singer Enrico Caruso. Buying the cheapest tickets to the Metropolitan Opera House, he frequently took my mother with him, and together they stood in the back of the theater to watch the performances. On his Victrola at home, he played the great operas and instructed her in the highlights of their melodrama.
At some point my mother was faced with the choice of attending one of two high schools: Hunter, which offered an academic program, or Roosevelt, which offered a commercial course. Because she had a girlfriend going to Roosevelt who begged her to go there, my mother agreed—and once there, found herself bored and impatient. (As my aunt made clear not long ago, eager to set the record straight once again, "Your mother thought she knew more than her teachers.")
My mother dropped out of high school and took a brief business course after which she went to work for a law firm. She had gotten the job by stating she'd had previous legal experience. On her first day there, when a man came into the office and asked for "the process server," she commenced to look in the drawers of her desk, thinking it must be something like a cake server. (She told this story without amusement; being humiliated as a result of her ignorance was intolerable to her.)
A year after the family moved to the house in Brooklyn, my mother's half brother, Sam Josephihal, was drowned at sea. He had served in the infantry during World War I, and after the war he lived with the family in the Brooklyn house, contributing not only a thousand dollars of the two-thousand-dollar down payment but also helping with the mortgage payments. Eva was married by then, to Eddie Sherman, a prizefighter. They also lived in a house in Brooklyn with their three sons: my cousins Irving, Henry, and Fred. As the story was told all the years I was growing up, Sam went fishing one stormy Yom Kippur night in 1925—went fishing with a "bad lot" of friends on a night when a good Jewish son should have been in shul—and was lost when his boat sank in the waters off Coney Island.
(Sixty years after his disappearance, my aunt Eva, sitting with me in 1985 on the porch of her retirement hotel in Miami Beach, told me the truth that had never been told to my grandmother or my mother or my aunt. Sam's boat had, in fact, been gunned down by the Coast Guard. On that stormy night in the Prohibition year of 1925, he and his friends had been bootlegging whiskey over the high seas.)
After his disappearance, my mother, only eighteen, was required to take on the grisly job of visiting the morgue to look at the faces of drowned men in the hopes of identifying her brother. (He was never found and, seven years later, the family was allowed to collect on his thousand dollar life insurance policy.)
In 1929, only four years after Sam's drowning, my grandfather, Morris Sorblum, died at the age of forty-eight. His death occurred due to suffocation brought on by the swelling of the floor of his mouth. His severe throat pain had been misdiagnosed over the phone by a neighborhood doctor who dismissed it as "only a sore throat" and refused to make a house call. My mother called him a second time, in desperation, when my grandfather claimed his pain was so severe he was going to throw himself out the window. The doctor said he was "just high-strung and of a nervous temperament" and "tended to exaggerate." My mother finally called for an ambulance. As they carried my grandfather down the stairs, he looked at my mother who was standing at the foot of the stairs just outside the door. As he passed her by he admonished her to "button up your coat." He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
His illness was later identified as Ludwig's angina, a disease that was often fatal before the advent of antibiotics. After his death (on March 15, which would be the date of my birth nine years later) my mother called the local doctor who had refused to come and see her father. She threatened to kill him. Within weeks, he had closed his practice and moved out of the neighborhood.
My grandmother, who had a poor command of English (she spoke mainly Yiddish) was faced with finding a way to pay off the mortgage. My mother was already working. Her sister, Yetta, who in high school had changed her name to Yvonne, Yvette, and finally to Greta, began to bake cookies at home and box them for my mother to take with her to her office building in Manhattan to sell to fellow workers. My mother told me she hated carrying greasy cardboard boxes (the grease stained the fine clothes that her father had sewn for her). My mother by then was earning $41 a week, an unusually high salary for those times, and was working for two New York state senators, Elwood M. Raybenold and Charles E. Scribner. So impressed were they with her competence and intelligence that they offered to send her to law school at night while she continued to work for them during the day. She was flattered and considered the offer seriously, but finally had to decline. There were not enough hours in the day and night to do all she would have had to do.
In 1933, my aunt Greta gave a party at the Brooklyn house, to which my father came along (or more likely was "dragged along") as the buddy of one of my aunt's friends. He was brought, the story goes, as the date for my aunt. Uneasy in the crowd of strangers in the house, he wandered out to the front porch and sat there alone in the dark, smoking his pipe. This is where he first saw my mother, who was coming home from a date with a young lawyer. (I've heard many versions of this meeting and it was one of my earliest inspirations for the use of family history in my fiction.)
My parents married on November 10, 1934, in a wedding that took place in the house on Avenue O. (My father's mother was against this marriage, having the belief that her three sons should not marry before their two sisters were married. Neither of my father's sisters seemed destined to make an early marriage, and eventually all the brothers took wives while "the girls" were still single.)
My mother and father, as newlyweds, lived on in the house with my aunt and grandmother. (They were given the large, upstairs front bedroom, while my grandmother and aunt shared a bed in the back room. It wasn't till my sister was born that the house was converted into an upstairs and a downstairs apartment.) My father took upon himself the duties of supporting my grandmother and aunt (my mother continued to work, as well) and did whatever work came his way. His first job was as a sales clerk in the men's pajama department of Loeser's Department Store.
My father's history—like my mother's—was about struggle and survival. His mother, Fanny Goldstein Gerber, had five children: Lillian, Nat, William (this was my father's American name, but he was called Velvel Gerber in elementary school, and sometimes Meyer Wolf), Mac, and Pauline. Fanny had to accept the charity of her brother, Harry Goldstein, after her husband, my paternal grandfather Abraham Gerber—so the story goes—was hit on the head by a falling hammer while working in the navy yards and wasn't "right in the head" afterward. I never met him, nor did my mother, although she often packed boxes of goodies and sweets for my father and his brothers to take to him when they went off on Sunday afternoons to visit him in what must have been the insane asylum. (None of the brothers and sisters would ever discuss his illness with me, not then and not when I was an adult.)
My grandmother Fanny lived upstairs in her brother Harry Goldstein's house on Eighty-sixth Street in Bensonhurst; Harry ran a profitable neighborhood liquor store with his brothers. Only my father's eldest brother, Nat, was given (or took for himself) the opportunity to go to college. He later became rich and successful in the oil business and moved to Park Avenue in Manhattan, where he and his wife, Bertha, and their children, Iris and Eddie, lived in high style. Each of the other Gerber siblings made his way as best he could. None of them, I think, aside from my Uncle Nat, finished high school.
I know my father did not even finish sixth grade. After he married my mother, he plunged into one business venture after another. In 1956, he traveled to Cleveland with her to look into a business venture he'd heard was promising: servicing crane machines and pinball machines in bars and roadhouses. The crane machine was actually a form of gambling. It had a claw hand which reached into a pile of "prizes" each time a player deposited a coin. Occasionally the claw would grasp a toy, a cheap wristwatch, or some other object, and drop it into a chute, from which it would slide out to the patron. People seemed to love playing them and my father had high hopes for this business. He planned to set up a series of these machines in New York, but they were soon destined to be pronounced illegal by Governor Thomas Dewey, who ordered that all crane machines in the city be dumped in the East River.
My mother wrote letters home from Cleveland, testifying to the rare pleasure of being alone with my father. On November 10, 1936, their second anniversary, she wrote:
Dear Mom and Gretch—
Your lovely card duly arrived … Will brought me a lovely one & a grand corsage of gardenias. We went to see the only show in town, Naughty Marietta—orchestra—tenth row … After we left Will drove home in what seemed a strange direction, and then pulled up in a sinister-looking block with Negroes all over the place. I hadn't expected to be taken anywhere else, but there we were at Cedar Gardens, the Cotton Club of Cleveland. It was a strange and nice experience … a really nice place, all Negro entertainers and mighty good ones. We stayed for two floor shows—both different—and got home at 3 … Anyhow, we had a grand and glorious evening—and I know you'll be glad.
In another letter written home to Brooklyn, February 25, 1937, my mother says:
Maybe I'll do some work on my scrapbook this afternoon. Though I have some silk underwear needs ironing … and Will's shorts need sewing together … Soon my Willyum will be home … so long now while I beautify myself.
This period away was one of the few times my parents had alone together for the next fifteen years. I was conceived in Cleveland and born in Brooklyn on March 15, 1938.
My father, always willing to try again, began to work on a series of inventions. He perfected (or so he thought), among other things, a wooden hockey game with twirling hockey sticks, a plastic device called "Stand-A-Plate" (which didn't stand up—all the plates tipped over and broke), and in the fifties he wanted to take a patent on a Coney Island-type ride called "The Merry-Go-Bob"—named for myself and my sister, Barbara.
In 1943, my father and mother decided to leave my grandmother and aunt in Brooklyn for a few months and take a trip to Miami Beach, a place in which my father had always dreamed of living. It was wartime; soldiers were on the beach and occupying most of the hotels. My father opened a small business cutting records for soldiers who, before they shipped out, wanted to send messages home to their wives and mothers.
My mother found herself pregnant during this time, and it was also in these months in Florida that we learned (from a newspaper my mother opened one morning where she read the "Missing in Action" list) about the disappearance of Henry, my aunt Eva's middle son (who was born exactly—to the day—twenty years earlier than I was, on March 15, 1918). He had always wanted to be a flier and had enlisted in the air corps to train as a pilot. While he was in training, he wrote home often, sending pictures of himself in flight gear to his mother and little presents for me. (I still have his gold Air Corps wings.) One letter from April 27, 1942, reads:
Flew like an angel yesterday. Things are getting tougher. I'm really learning how to twist that plane around the skies … I like flying upside down best of all.
On the sixth of February 1943, he was shot down in a mission over New Guinea. My aunt Eva was sent this letter by her son's commanding officer:
Dear Mrs. Sherman:
How it pains me to write you this, the saddest duty of my life. Your son was a fine young man, a good friend of mine. I knew of his devotion to you… All I can do now is tell you what we know happened on the 6th day of February, 1943. On that day we took a flight of our ships to Uau, New Guinea. Six in all. Over the Uau airport we were attacked by about forty Zeros and some bombers. Henry was flying a ship called Early Delivery. The Zeros came in fast and four were diving at Henry's ship. He went near the port in a turn and from then on—no one is sure. It's not anything to help your feelings, but the Japs lost 26 in this fight to (I am sorry to say) our one. In this land of thousands of miles of jungles, mountains, and God knows what, anything is possible. But all we can do is look and try to find his ship.
My mother, pregnant in Florida at the time of Henry's disappearance, found herself increasingly unable to eat, and was constantly nauseated. In Brooklyn, my aunt Greta received a letter addressed to my father from the government that threatened him with the draft if he didn't get a job in a defense plant. My parents decided to return quickly to Brooklyn. After the long and arduous train ride, my mother—upon arrival home—hemorrhaged and lost the baby who would have been my brother. My father did get a job in a defense plant that manufactured airplane wings, but he was awkward and during some mechanical operation he damaged a number of plane parts. Although he also cut himself badly, he was suspected of sabotage, and the incident was carefully investigated.
Not long after we returned to Brooklyn, my aunt Greta saw an article in the newspaper titled "Lindy over Shangri-La" in which she read that Charles Lindbergh had flown over a mountaintop in New Guinea and had seen three U.S. planes, which had made emergency landings and were stranded there. She wrote a letter to Lindbergh in care of the Ford Motor Company and told him of Henry's disappearance. She expressed the hope that perhaps her nephew was a survivor of one of those forced landings. Could Lindbergh possibly help her?
Lindbergh responded personally. Our family still has the letter. In it, Lindbergh told my aunt that the newspaper report that he had seen an isolated place in New Guinea where several planes had made forced landings was untrue. He offered her his deepest sympathy and concern for her nephew who had been reported missing. He added that he wished he had information that would be of value to her. He signed it personally.
Even so, Henry's mother, my aunt Eva, never gave up hope that Henry would come home. She convinced herself that the term "missing in action" might well mean that Henry had been taken prisoner by natives in the jungles of New Guinea and one day would free himself and come home. She cherished this wish just as my grandmother never gave up hope that her drowned son might not have drowned at all, but would one day come walking home. My grandmother, in the years after Sam's disappearance, consulted fortune-tellers and went to seances to try to contact Sam's spirit. She left the lights burning in our house day and night for years after he was lost at sea.
(My aunt Eva died at the age of ninety-two in 1987, never knowing the fate of her son. Two years after her death, Henry's body was found by gold prospectors in New Guinea who unearthed a transport plane that had crashed into the side of a mountain. Henry was discovered in the pilot's seat with four of his buddies also in the plane, all of them skeletons, all of them still wearing their dog tags. He was buried with military honors, a war hero, at Arlington National Cemetery, attended by his only surviving brother, Fred Sherman.)
At the war's end, my sister, Barbara, was born on February 17, 1945. My father opened an antique shop at 33 Hansen Place, Brooklyn. He stocked it, to begin with, with the contents of a trunk he bought at an auction. He called the store "Gerber's Jewelry Exchange" (later "Gerber's Antiques") and it became the source—under one guise or another—of our family's income from that time on.
In our house on Avenue O, my aunt Greta, who had learned beauty skills by assisting a neighborhood beautician named Edith Lee, opened a small beauty shop in an upstairs bedroom. Women came and went all day. I often sat nearby as she cut hair and filed nails, and I listened to the women tell the stories of their lives.
When I was ten, my grandmother, who was then seventy-seven, seemed to take a sudden turn for the worse. Coming home from school, I would often find a doctor at her side, treating her for spasms of chest pain, for dizziness and shortness of breath. My aunt and mother leaned over her, waiting to see if she would live or die. Their anxiety indicated to me constantly (as if I hadn't already noticed this) that life was a dangerous and ultimately fatal business. Likewise, when my father was late coming home (he often went on "calls" to buy antiques for his store), my mother, aunt, and grandmother watched out the window for his car, conjecturing about whether he'd been shot in a holdup, killed in a car accident on the icy streets, or abducted for ransom. I went to sleep on many nights expecting never to see my father again.
On the other hand, my father had a genial, relaxed nature and a supreme talent for enjoying life. When he wasn't working, he sat in the sun smoking his pipe, or he played with the dog, or went fishing. I was always aware that the women in. my life regarded this playful enjoyment of life as foolish and irresponsible: to be anxious and to be worried were the only important acts of existence; the rest was time wasted.
I am told I rarely smiled as a child. At some point, my mother, who composed coy jingles and rhyming verse nearly every day of her life, wrote a note and left it at my place at the table: "If smiles she won't hoard, I'm pretty sure she'll get a reward!" I was insulted and humiliated by the criticism, and not at all amused.
I discovered early that reading books was the best way to find out what life was really about. Like Saul Bellow, who said that "fiction is news from existence," I found that fiction told me more about truth than truth did. Fiction was the telling of secrets. From fiction I learned about romantic love, about passion, about the details of childbirth. I learned that life was not, for everyone, exactly as it took place in my house. Such revelations gave me hope for my own future. Books also provided a retreat from the noisy, intrusive demands of a crowded household.
The first television set did not arrive in my neighborhood till I was twelve years old—and when I went to a neighbor's house to watch it, most often I saw Milton Berle cavorting about in a dress! I was always glad to return to my books.
My father used to take me to the Brooklyn Public Library every Friday evening, and I'd come home with a huge armful of books. Because he also bought out "estates" for his antique business, he often brought home cartons of books for me, and I'd arrange them in tall piles beside my bed. The "best" books were at the bottom, to be saved for last. These were Nancy Drew mysteries and books about collies. I made a rule for myself that I had to read all the books, even the ones about the Civil War and medical diseases. I didn't have to read all of every book, but I had to give each one a fair chance. I got up an hour early to read before school. Sometimes there were duplicates; my father always urged me to give the extra book away to a friend. He didn't understand that two books were twice the treasure; also that I had no worthy friends.
My mother had an affinity for only one book: the dictionary. She spent hours teaching me to rhyme. Her vocabulary was exceptional, her typing skills superb, and as always she spent hours at the piano. Sometimes she played songs to which my father sang along ("Old Folks at Home," "White Christmas," "Danny Boy") though she generally felt it was beneath her to be an "accompanist" or to play "popular" music. I was not inclined to enjoy piano lessons much myself but found myself fascinated with the typewriter keyboard, and, in fact, won the typing medal at my high school graduation. The pleasure of writing, for me, still includes the pleasure of typing.
The first poems I wrote were about the women who came to my aunt's beauty parlor: My aunt has a customer, her name is Sadie, I like her very very much, for she is a nice lady. In the same series was this poem: I have a friend Allen, scarlet fever he has, he likes music very much, especially jazz. In 1951, when I was thirteen, a boy from my class invited me to the movies, and I still have the manuscript of the story I wrote, called "First Date." One section reads: I was in the middle of my top lip when the doorbell rang. There went my lipstick, down my chin.
Around this time, I (undoubtedly with my mother's help) wrote a jingle that was published in my eighth grade school magazine, at PS 238. It began:
Seven a.m., the alarm starts in beepin'
And I start to think "What a swell day for sleepin'"—
Hurry and eat, get dressed on the double,
If I am late there'll be plenty of trouble.
I don't think my heart was ever in any of these "cute" efforts. My mother, who had a strong penchant for rhyme, oversaw and directed my creative output, which clearly expressed more of my mother's talents than mine. She excelled at singsong rhymes and wrote skits for the PTA, for the Girl Scouts (some of her rhymes were set to music and performed at my school), and she published amusing verse in the local newspapers. I came across one she wrote in 1966 which is titled "Supermarket" and begins:
My confusion is great
I fear for my fate
My marketing's become such a chore,
One needs a degree
At least Ph.D.
To cope with the problems past that door.
I was embarrassed by her flip facility, and besides—I had darker thoughts, more ominous things than she had (or was willing to express) to write about.
In 1952, when I was fourteen and my sister seven, my parents moved to Miami Beach and left my aunt and grandmother behind in the house in Brooklyn. (In 1949, my aunt had married Alex Mitchell, a cabinet-maker, who had three grown children from a previous marriage.) My sister and I had been sick so often during the bitter winters (I had pneumonia four times before I was fourteen) that a doctor recommended to my parents that they consider moving with us to a milder climate. My father, who had always wanted to live in Florida, was eager to move, and my mother finally felt able to break away from her mother and sister. She craved, and was going to get, at long last, some privacy and a life of her own with her family.
I started tenth grade at Miami Beach High School and joined a Young Judea club whose leader made a great impression on me. I had a new nickname now—of all things, "Merry"—and I arrived in Florida ready to live a transformed life. From the gray skies of Brooklyn, I now looked out upon the pastel blues and greens of ocean and palm trees. My parents were in high spirits for a short time, having hopes, once again, for success in business. Miami Beach High School offered a different world from the dangerous high school I'd gone to in ninth grade where so many of the young Italian boys carried switchblades. In the new school, whose students were mostly Jewish, there was an innocence and an air of cheerful trust in the world. Of course, these were the naive fifties—we believed we'd encounter no obstacles as we made our way into the future.
However, almost at once, my father trusted the wrong man and lost our family's fortune. My mother was furious with him; she had to get a job as a typist to keep a roof over our heads. Their hostility did not make life simple, living as we did, the four of us, in a one-bedroom apartment.
I was writing quite a bit then, partly to escape the confines of our small quarters, and partly to explore the new emotions I was feeling. Many of my early stories were deeply romantic, if not totally sentimental. (One story I recall from this period was about two palm trees that grew side by side and which were downed in a hurricane. When the storm subsided, it was discovered that—wonder of wonders—their roots were intertwined!)
In Miami Beach, which my parents felt was a "safe place," I was free to take the bus downtown to the library near the ocean, and there I sometimes met my new classmates from the high school. (It was in the stacks of this library that I encountered my first flasher.) The novels I'd read had taught me that fiction was permitted to contain secrets that could never be spoken of. This freedom, possible only in writing, was, or could be, one of the few freedoms I could claim. I decided I would write my own stories, I would tell the secrets of my heart.
I met my future husband—Joseph Spiro—when I was fifteen. This event is recorded in my diary as follows:
Sunday, March 7, 1954: Today I went on a Young Judea picnic … this one is only a week and a day away from my birthday. I met the leader … and he is as wonderful as Irma says. He makes you like him the minute you meet him. The boys were the same as usual, but I got to talking with Joe Spiro and he is very nice. I had seen him looking in the store window yesterday—but I hadn't even said Hello to him. Anyway he stayed with me most of the time and when they played ball he knew I didn't want to play, so he offered to take a walk with me.
"The store" was the hole-in-the-wall place my father had rented in the lobby of the Roberts Hotel on Flagler Street in downtown Miami and where he conducted (for a time, till some inevitable failure caused him to move on) a watch-repair business. I would sometimes go there with him on Saturdays and help him wind the watches. It was outside this store that Joe Spiro waited each week to take a bus to his piano lesson. (A pianist! How this would please my mother, I thought.) I eventually loaned him a book of duets and suggested that one day we play together. Later I wrote in my diary: What a woman won't do for a man!
The diary was a grand thing my father had given me while we were still in Brooklyn—a book as big in size as the edition of Gone with the Wind I read when I was thirteen—a printer's dummy bound in gray cloth with the title on the spine announcing: The Heritage of the Bounty. On the front of the book was an engraving of an old sailing ship with its sails raised and engorged with wind. Inside my father had written:
"To Merry, a book to enter happy & interesting events, Dad." (In my eighth grade autograph book he had written "Look up, aim high, you'll get there by and by.")
Writing in this diary gave me the sense that I was actually writing a book. On April 24, 1954, I entered this note: Well, at least if I don't ever write a book I can say I did. This could sort of be called my autobiography. On a prior page I had written: I hate Chemistry and Gym. School is getting to be a pain. It's raining now. I wonder if I'm like Emily Dickinson. After I die this whole book may be published. God forbid!! Oh well—back to my term paper.
At some level, I already saw myself as a writer. I filled the whole diary (and spent much of my time hiding it from my sister). The ecstasies and disappointments recorded therein are cause for embarrassment now, but at the time there were matters so serious and private going on that I wrote about them in shorthand (which I was learning then. Every girl of my generation was advised, indeed, commanded, to take typing and shorthand). Of course, I can no longer decipher those entries now.
(The habit of diary writing, which developed into the more serious form of journal keeping, and later included the recording of all my dreams, became a daily habit of my life. To date I have filled fifteen manuscript boxes with typewritten journal entries and have also recorded thousands of dreams, from the early 1950s onward. The comfort of wrapping words around thoughts and images is pleasure, necessity, and sustenance for me.)
When Joe Spiro graduated from high school in 1954, he went on to college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, four hundred miles to the north of Miami. I planned to follow him there the next year when I graduated. Unfortunately, and to my dismay, I won a scholarship to the University of Miami, and found myself—at the beginning of my freshman year—starting college there, miserable about being separated from Joe. College for girls in the mid-fifties was a generally miserable experience, in any case. Though we were not consciously aware of the oppressiveness of the times as we lived through them (it's astonishing now how much abuse one is willing to accept as "necessary"), freshman girls who lived in the dormitories were treated virtually as prison inmates. Girls had to be in by 9 p.m., and a flashlight check was taken every night to certify that each girl was in her proper bed.
I had registered to take a writing class with Fred Shaw, a popular teacher and a columnist for the Miami Herald who held his class in the evening in a local coffee shop. In order for me to get permission to be out after 9 p.m., I had to petition the dean of women students and beg for the privilege to take the class. All freshmen were required to wear little beanies and to obey orders of upperclassmen. Any infraction of their silly rules would bring upon one a summons to "Honor Court." Punishment for breaking a rule required hours of service doing ridiculous things. I had no heart for this, especially when I was stopped and "arrested" for not wearing my beanie and told I had to appear in court for a "trial." I broke down in tears more than once when talking on the phone to my parents. I begged to be allowed to go to the University of Florida. They couldn't fail to recognize how miserable I was, and they did understand how badly I wanted to be with Joe. Finally they agreed that I could transfer to the state college at the end of the term.
In February 1956, I triumphantly took what was called the "milk train" to Ocala, Florida, where Joe Spiro met me at the station. There in Gainesville, in the beautiful, rural environment of the north Florida woods, I had the good fortune to meet the great writing teacher of my life, Andrew Lytle. One of the original Agrarians at Vanderbilt University and a close friend of Allen Tate, Lytle was then just finishing his novel The Velvet Horn. His workshop had (and still has) legendary standing. It was in his class that I first understood I had a serious calling. He taught stories of his favorite writers, among them James Joyce, Flannery O'Connor, and Katherine Anne Porter. Our writing class met at night in a rickety wooden structure. Mr. Lytle would arrive, smiling, his glasses strung around his neck on a black grosgrain ribbon. His colleague and loyal disciple Smith Kirkpatrick (a novelist who also taught a class in writing) always sat in an old armchair at Lytle's left hand.
Before discussing the students' stories, Mr. Lytle liked to read one of his own favorites to us. He was an inspired actor, and any story he read took on the dimension of theater. I can still see his face as he began reading Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." ("The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind…") Mr. Lytle's eyes sparkled with the thrills he knew were coming. Now and then he could not contain himself and would burst out laughing as he read one perfect comic line after another. On other nights he showed a more somber demeanor; when he read James Joyce's "The Dead" in class, Mr. Lytle became very serious, indeed. I still have the notes I took on the night of April 16, 1959 (1 found them in the pages of our textbook, Gordon and Tate's The House of Fiction). Here are a few of the comments I took down that night:
Parts 1 and 2: Gabriel is in his last and sinning state. Part 3: Gabriel is regenerated.
The supernatural appears only through the natural.
The three fates (the three muses) are the three women—virgins—completed—living in death.
Asceticism and debauchery are both forms of death, one by denial, one by excessive use.
Age is dead youth.
The head is the upper phallus.
Trappist monks don't speak.
In the end we all come to earth.
This kind of talk was heady stuff to a girl who, before college, had read widely in Seventeen magazine and thought she aspired to publish there.
Each night when class ended, the women students had to race back to the dorms to get in by curfew, which at Gainesville was an hour later than at the University of Miami. We were aware Mr. Lytle often stayed to talk with the men after class, but the women did not have such privileges. I knew that Mr. Lytle liked to visit the male students in their rooms and talk with them about life and art late into the night. The men in our class boasted of this—and I was jealous.
One day I took courage and asked to have a private conference with Mr. Lytle. I'd been writing a story whose direction and meaning I hadn't the faintest sense of. It seemed sad enough and dense enough to be "artistic"; I thought he and I should talk about it. Mr. Lytle invited me to come to his study at his house in Gainesville; he told me he rose before dawn to work, and asked that I arrive in the early morning, about eight. I distinctly remember walking to his house in the chill woodsy morning. Fall leaves were underfoot, and the sun was newly up. I carried my story under my arm—never before had I felt so serious; I was a serious writer, on my way to have a talk with the great master.
Mr. Lytle showed me the carved wooden chair in his study; he pointed out the ouroboros on it; it was his favorite symbol—the snake eating its own tail. I indicated my story, which Mr. Lytle had already read, and asked him to help me figure out what it was "about."
He thought for a moment. Then he said, "Merrill, there is only one way to write: you must follow the thread back into the labyrinth; there and only there you will find the meaning." (His advice was never less cryptic than this, in all the years I studied with him. Somehow, though, he gave his students reason to believe they had the gifts to conquer the riddle of those labyrinths and come out the other side.)
One afternoon I met Mr. Lytle on campus. "I trust you have a story to read in class tonight," he said. "I'm counting on you."
"Oh yes, I have one," I said.
"Good, I'm looking forward to it." I watched him walk away, feeling extreme panic. It was 2 p.m. I had exactly five hours in which to invent and write a story. I went to my room and began typing. By 6:45 that evening I had written a twelve-page story. Mr. Lytle read it in class that night and it was well received. He told me he was much taken with it, and that the following week, when he was leaving for New York to meet with his editor, he intended to bring this story, himself, directly to the offices of the New Yorker. I cannot recount my state of mind during his absence. I believe I didn't sleep, barely ate. All week I waited for a telegram! None came. And when I saw Mr. Lytle in class after his trip, he seemed to have no special news for me. In fact, he gave me no signal at all. After class I tapped his arm, trembling.
"Mr. Lytle. What did the New Yorker say?"
"The New Yorker ? Oh my! I forgot about that."
During my years in Lytle's class, I had begun sending out stories with great determination and seriousness in the hopes of publication. I sent a great many stories to Seventeen magazine and eventually I no longer received their standard rejection letter but graduated to what was (I suppose) meant to be a more encouraging version: "Your story has passed first reading and we are holding it for further consideration." This kind of reply meant I entered a much higher level of anxiety and hope, and when the final turndown came, which it always did, the blow was fierce. (In fact, Seventeen magazine did not publish a story of mine till I was fifty-four years old!) However, in 1957, they notified me that one of my stories had been chosen as an "honorable mention" in their fiction contest, and they sent me a ten-dollar check and a silver "17" charm, which I still have in my jewel box.
When at the library, where I should have been studying for my classes, I haunted the periodical shelves instead, reading the short stories in every new literary journal as it arrived. I was writing poetry, then, too—and sending it off to magazines. One day, in 1956, when I was eighteen, I arrived in the library and found a poem of mine in Writer magazine, a poem about a squirrel. (I no longer wrote poetry in rhymed stanzas!) I learned my poem had won a prize, a book of poetry by Elizabeth Bishop.
My yearning for publication was powerful; I was indefatigable in sending out my work again and again. These were also the years during which Mademoiselle magazine offered "guest editorships" to young women with writing talent. Sylvia Plath won one of these which took her to New York. Years later, as it turned out, the managing editor with whom she worked at Mademoiselle, Cyrilly Abels (who also figured as a character in her novel The Bell Jar) became my literary agent. Though I never made it as a Mademoiselle guest editor, I did learn that in 1959 I was a runner-up in the Mademoiselle College Fiction Contest, the same year Joyce Carol Oates was named the winner. Any small validation just set me on a more determined path toward my goal. I was busy reading Thomas Wolfe, and books about his great editor Maxwell Perkins. Like me, Thomas Wolfe had lived in Brooklyn (for a time, anyway) and he had died in 1938, the year I was born. I cherished the conceit that I had been born to replace him, and would in time, so to speak, step into his shoes. I, too, would have a Maxwell Perkins for my editor.
After Joe Spiro graduated from the University of Florida, he spent some time at the University of Michigan and a period in the Air Force reserve. He then received a National Defense Education Act fellowship to study history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. More than willing to follow him, I too had applied for a scholarship there, but I hadn't gotten one, so there was nothing for me to do but carry on with my education where I could afford to—which meant staying in Gainesville to pursue a graduate degree in English at the University of Florida.
In the fall of 1960, Joe drove me from Miami Beach to Gainesville and we bid one another good-bye. He drove away on the next leg of his journey to Massachusetts, and I (in a fair state of dejection) began to prepare to teach a freshman class and take my own courses for the M.A. degree. The day after Joe left, my mother phoned me from home to say I had received a telegram from Brandeis: someone had refused a fellowship and funds were now available for me if I still wanted the scholarship. The grant was mine—all I had to do was call Brandeis and accept.
I was beside myself with confusion. I had already committed myself to my rented room and promised my services to the university. I went to Andrew Lytle with my desperate dilemma. He suggested that I search my soul (that cloudy labyrinth) and do what was necessary. When he saw the answer in my face, he led me to his green Cadillac, drove me to his bank, loaned me enough money to buy a plane ticket to Boston, rounded up some students to help me pack and who would drive me to the airport. He kissed me good-bye and wished me Godspeed.
I still have in my bookcase my cherished copy of his novel The Velvet Horn, in which he had written: "To Merrill Joan Gerber—who has great promise as an artist. Andrew Lytle, Christmas, 1957." At this writing, Andrew and I have corresponded for thirty-four years. In the summer of 1992, when I visited him at his log cabin in Monteagle, Tennessee, he (at the age of ninety!) made lunch for me with greens he had grown in his own garden.
By the time I entered Brandeis University as a graduate student, I was certain I would have a life as a writer. Only a few universities at that time actually had departments of creative writing, Stanford and Iowa being the main ones. I had earlier applied to the Iowa Writing Program with a letter of reference from Andrew Lytle, and though I had received an invitation from Paul Engle, his offer ($300) was too small to take me very far. My parents, not wanting me to go to so cold and so faraway a place as Iowa, did not offer any financial help. Besides, Joe Spiro was at Brandeis, and that's where I truly wanted to be.
While a student at Brandeis, I fulfilled the requirements for a master's degree in English, taking courses in Samuel Johnson, in Robert Frost, in Whitman and Dickinson, in D. H. Lawrence. I remember my shock at how backward I seemed and how lacking my education seemed to be when the first professor I encountered asked us to list the names of five well-known literary critics. I didn't know one name. Some of my classmates, having done their undergraduate work at Ivy League colleges, could easily reel off a list. My second major embarrassment concerned the title I gave to the master's paper I wrote on Samuel Johnson: I called it "The Friendly Giant." And, if I am not mistaken, I turned in to Professor Milton Hindus a paper on Emily Dickinson fastened together with a pink ribbon! Even so, he told me then (and affirmed this again just recently) that it was the best paper he had ever received from a graduate student. In like manner, I received considerable praise for my paper on D. H. Lawrence's "The Fox."
Still, I was not really cut out to be a scholar. On the side, so to speak, I was also writing short stories, many of which dealt with my recently completed teenage years (I was twenty-two the year I attended Brandeis). I submitted these stories to popular magazines for young women and to one in particular called Datebook. To my delight, an editor named Art Unger began to buy and publish them. At this time, I also acquired a New York agent, Sterling Lord. One snowy day I went into New York to meet him so we could discuss "my career strategy." He encouraged me to continue writing teen stories, and eventually sold many of these stories to Datebook for $100 each (with a 10 percent commission for himself).
Toward the end of my first year at Brandeis, having completed the course work for the M.A. degree (but not having taken the orals), I applied for a fellowship to go on toward the Ph.D. Irving Howe, then the head of the English department, spoke to me about my application: he told me, in so many words, that I was "only a girl and only a writer" and although I had grades and qualifications good enough to receive one of their fellowships, there were men he felt needed them more than I did. The year was 1960; men were still unselfconscious about making remarks of this kind to women. Howe's clear dismissal (of my sex, of my talent, and of me) took care of my hopes for staying on in graduate school. After my conversation with him, I decided not to take my oral exams. I expected I would fail, and I didn't wish to be further humiliated.
(Twenty years later, in 1981, I appealed to Brandeis University for the opportunity to complete my degree. With the intervention of my professor, Milton Hindus, it was arranged that I would take the M.A. written exam [orals were no longer required for the master's degree] at a college in California where the exam could be monitored. I did, in fact, write a three-hour exam on the subject: "How is To the Lighthouse a book about growing up?" I passed, happily, and received my master's degree.)
In 1961, however, after I left Brandeis, I went in another direction. Since Joe Spiro and I were planning to marry (which we did, on June 23, 1960), I began looking for a job in the Boston environs where we planned to live while he stayed on at Brandeis working on his degree in the history of ideas. (Our first apartment was in an attic at 14 1/2 Prentiss Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.) I was hired as an editorial assistant by Houghton Mifflin Publishers and spent a year working in the educational department on Tremont Street, but I frequently made visits to the trade offices at 2 Park Street, where the "real writing" was being set into print. Philip Roth had just published Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories with Houghton Mifflin, and I read and re-read his collection, marveling at his honesty in writing about family life. I think he gave me courage to take certain risks, although I was already well on my way to alienating my relatives even at that time.
During that year at Houghton Mifflin, I sat at my desk at a window that overlooked the golden dome of the State House and the green expanse of Boston Common, and I imagined the stories I wanted to write. Since my husband was applying to various colleges for a job for the following fall, I also applied for something new and promising: a Wallace Stegner fiction fellowship at Stanford University in California. We had no clear sense of where the future would take us: we were open to all possibilities.
Just as in some of my duller college lecture classes I sometimes started to write stories in my notebook instead of taking class notes, that year at Houghton Mifflin, on lunch hours and on days there was not much work, I managed to make notes for a story or two. I finished one story called "The Cost Depends on What You Reckon It In," which was about an old woman in a Brooklyn nursing home. (My grandmother had been in a home such as this.) Written from the point of view of the old woman's daughter who visits her three times a day, the story (as it has turned out) proved to be an exploration of the subject of old age, which I was to treat extensively in much of my later work.
My agent, Sterling Lord, who had been selling my teen stories to Datebook, wrote me after he read it that I'd best stick to what worked, and urged me not to write this sort of story, which he described to me as "maudlin."
Outraged (an emotion I have experienced a good deal in my many years of having my work rejected), I decided to dismiss my agent. I did so, and went ahead and submitted the story on my own to Mademoiselle magazine. Just at that time, I was called on by my employer to account for some error regarding a piece used in one of their anthologies for which proper acknowledgment had not been made. The anthology, which I had edited, had been previously worked on by a former employee, who, as far as I understood the situation, had made the original error. Still, the repercussions at the publishing house were serious (was there a lawsuit threatened?) and the result was that I was dismissed from a job I didn't care for all that much. As fortune would have it, during my very first week of being out of work, I received a letter from Mademoiselle offering to buy my story "The Cost Depends on What You Reckon It In." Jubilant, I realized that I was the real thing: an unemployed writer. Furthermore, Mademoiselle was famous for publishing the early works of many great writers. I was on my way.
And there was another piece of news, as well. I learned, just about that time, that I was going to be a mother!
In late April of 1962, I was in the ninth month of my first pregnancy. Three days before my baby was due to be born, I received a telegram from Wallace Stegner in California telling me I had been chosen to receive the Stegner fiction fellowship and he looked forward to seeing me at Stanford in the fall. He offered his congratulations to me!
Being big as a battleship and on course for only one destination, I had completely forgotten that I'd applied for the fellowship. The news threw me into a turmoil; while my husband and I folded the newly washed virgin diapers (we had been advised to wash them no less than six times before use), we debated the wild possibility that we might accept my prize and go west. Joe had just been offered his first job, at Boston University, and I had forgotten (I hoped temporarily) in the dizzying demands of the last weeks of pregnancy, that I was (or wanted to be) a writer.
We could not fail to see, however, that an opportunity was upon us; we knew it would never come again. We knew it would change our lives. We decided, in the vernacular of these times, to go for it.
Robert Stone and Ed McClanahan were Stegner fellows with me that year (1962) and we met for the first time at a welcoming reception at Mary and Wallace Stegner's home. I had brought our infant daughter (Becky Ann Spiro, born May 3, 1962) to the party and laid her on the Stegners' bed, surrounded by pillows. When I arrived in the living room, the first thing I saw was a large, framed portrait of Wallace Stegner on the wall, and, an instant later, the man himself moved toward me through the crowd, straight toward me, looking directly at me. Tall, fair-haired, extraordinarily handsome, he extended his hand to me, and greeted me with great warmth and kindness. I went slightly weak in the knees, realizing that I had really come to this place, that I had crossed the country, left family behind, come west with a two-month-old infant and barely any money but the $2,500 which I was to receive from the fellowship and on which our small family would have to survive for the year. Yet—seeing his smile at that moment—I knew this day would mark our lives in some important way.
The fiction workshop became (along with my new baby) the center of my world. I had every hope that the Stegner workshop would stir my energies in new and wondrous ways. We met once a week on the Stanford campus, in the Jones Room of the main library, along with other members of the advanced writing class. Seated around a large oval table, we offered up for criticism the efforts we'd worked on all week. What motivated us as we sat at home trying to write was the knowledge that the others were at their typewriters typing away, and that Wally Stegner would be listening to our words and sometimes reading them aloud so that we could listen to our own rhythms.
Though Stegner could perceive in an instant the flaws in a piece of fiction (the weak link, the parts we'd hurried over, the emotions we didn't understand and tried to sail past, the sloppy construction of a sentence or the misfit of even one word), he preferred to keep silent at first, to remain in the background and allow the class to thrash out their differences. Only when he observed we were not even close, had missed the fatal flaw, did he step forward and offer his advice.
The first story I wrote in his workshop was "about" a young woman who gives birth to a daughter and whose mother comes to stay with her in order to help out ("A Daughter of My Own," in Stop Here, My Friend). The experience turns out to be a nightmare. I felt safe writing this story (a revelation of intimate family dynamics as well as an expose of some dangerously raw hatreds) three thousand miles from my mother, nowhere near the scene of the crime, among supportive strangers. Wally Stegner made it clear that in his workshop we were free of constraints of conscience (not of literary conscience!), and free of the forms that protected us in ordinary society. Good artistic taste was the measure, not good taste. Here, in the workshop, we could let it all out, say it the way we saw it, take great risks as long as we said it well, said it honestly, said it powerfully. And never (he stressed) were we to assume that the narrator or protagonist was one and the same as the author. At least we had that much protection.
Stegner seemed to have an aversion to following (or having us follow) any theoretical or philosophical principles relating to the writing of fiction. He often said "I don't know what I think till I see what I say." He wanted us to sit down and unite—and only afterward turn on our "editing" mind, see what we'd produced, and go about shaping it, ordering it, and refining it.
(Andrew Lytle, by contrast, had taken his position at the head of the workshop table as the acknowledged master of the craft and laid down certain rules he expected us to observe—rules about point of view, about the nature of "enveloping action" as it related to "action proper.")
The story I wrote in Stegner's workshop about the mother and daughter (which was, of course, "fiction") was received in class with enormous enthusiasm and very few criticisms. I remember Wally standing at the side of the room, smiling enigmatically as if he knew all along I was going to pull it off. Buoyed up by my success among my peers, I asked if the story was ready to send off into the great maw of the literary marketplace. We discussed "markets" at that time (Wally knew a fair amount about the "selling" end of the writing business and was willing to share information with us, whereas Andrew Lytle always felt it unseemly to discuss the commercial aspects of writing when "art" should be our primary concern).
I decided to send my story off to Redbook magazine and within days I heard from them that they wanted to buy it! This was triumph, indeed—to be able to walk into class and report to those who had been present at its birth, so to speak, that the creature was not only viable, but salable! (It did not occur to me till much later that eight million copies of it would find its way into drugstores and doctors' waiting rooms, and that my mother would be certain to see it!) Wally was suitably proud of my sale, but cautious. Caution was his byword: "Don't get too puffed up, don't get too confident, don't get too sure of yourself The next story will be just as hard to write, maybe harder. It probably won't sell. You can't keep your eye on the marketplace, you have to keep it on the work. The rest comes, or it doesn't come—but that's not the focus."
Chastened, and fortified for the blow certain to come, I wrote my second story, "We Know That Your Hearts Are Heavy," about the funeral of an uncle. I sent it to the New Yorker and they bought it. By return mail. Those in the workshop looked at me with some suspicion, I felt. But no, I had no agent, I had no connections, I had no reputation. My ship had merely come in. This was easy! All I had to do from now on was type for a few hours a day, and someone would publish it. I was jubilant. Wally Stegner did not caution me again but he made it clear I should restrain myself. He knew the ways of the world. He knew this was like the passing of a comet, it happened only every century or so.
But I was not the only fellow for whom the comet appeared. That year Houghton Mifflin awarded Bob Stone their literary fellowship. Because he had no phone, one of their editors called me. They entrusted me with the news and asked me to get it to Bob. My husband and I hurried over to his little rented house and I fairly banged the door down with excitement. When I told him about his award, we danced around together on the rickety wooden porch in jubilation.
I did my writing in our little Stanford Village two-room apartment (in what used to be an army barracks), on a manual typewriter supported on a plank laid across two tall wooden crates. Joe, who was home-bound and baby-sitting, had decided to build a harpsichord out of a kit. (He deserves special acknowledgment, I think, since this was not yet the era of house-husbands and liberated wives.) While I was writing my stories, he kept the baby's supplemental bottle warming on one burner of the stove, and he melted lead in a tin pot on the other in order to weight the keys on the harpsichord.
We bought an old car and found that we could get free clothes for the baby at the Trading Post—a used clothing exchange near the laundry machines in the center of Stanford Village. We liked living in the converted barracks among other married students, many of whom had babies who became acquainted with our daughter. (I tried to forgive the university for denying us campus housing when we first arrived; the secretary in the housing office had claimed it was the rule to give apartments in Stanford Village only to married male students with families, but after she saw the infant in my arms, and after I said I intended to write an angry letter to the president of the university—for what other power did I have but that in my pen?—she reconsidered, made some phone calls, and allowed that she could stretch the rules and give us space. The rent was $52 a month, including utilities. On that scale, we could just about make ends meet.)
We often gathered at the Stegners' home, which was in a wooded and secluded area of Los Altos Hills. Theirs had been the only house on their road until recently. The Stegners seemed troubled as others gradually built on the neighboring hillsides and crowded the landscape with buildings and visible wires. From their patio, they pointed out to us the growing scars on the landscape.
Illustrious visitors sometimes dropped in. Malcolm Cowley was there one evening and—distracted from his discourse on literature—he got down on the floor to play with my baby daughter, delighting in her resemblance to his own grandchild. Wally was relaxed with us, always cordial and kind. The parties at the Stegners' house were of the classic sort: wonderful food, serious conversation, the sharing of good literature, good music. But I felt his pulling back from what was happening, in a general sense, on campus. The sixties were taking hold in a big way. We knew of other types of parties going on around Palo Alto. Drugs were bursting onto the scene. I had heard the stories about Ken Kesey but hadn't met him yet. There were rumors of amazing and wild goings-on in the vicinity of a street known as Perry Lane. Wally seemed a little uncomfortable with the turn the world was taking. As a man who respected the earth and its natural glories, he also respected and cherished the workings of his mind—he wanted nothing to do with turning on and tuning out. He clearly wished to be present in his unaltered consciousness at all times, to witness the process that went on within; to observe the scenes that took place without, especially in the natural world.
Joe and I let the psychedelic world spin on its merry way, finding our own world colorful enough, with the new baby to keep us delighted and entertained, with my stories falling onto the page in rapid and splendid prose (or so I thought), and with his harpsichord taking shape, slowly, in a corner of the living room, its angular walnut sides gleaming with wood wax, its strings being strung, its plectra being cut and fine-tuned with an X-acto knife.
Even though I was the only female fellow, I made myself available to talk shop with the male fellows at our various social gatherings, but inevitably, given the nature of that era, I would find myself out of the circle and would drift away to talk with the wives of the men; Bob Stone's wife, Janice, had a little girl, and Ed McClanahan's wife, Kit, also had a daughter, and both women (a year or two ahead of me in the raising of children) had much advice for me. The men had other concerns; Bob was writing what was to become his novel A Hall of Mirrors, and Ed was in the process of working on his book about a fatal school bus accident. I was still heady with the success of my two sales, and it seemed the world was getting rosier every day.
One morning we heard a bulletin on the radio that the U.S. government had learned there were missiles sighted in Cuba. Furthermore, many reserve units (and they named them, including Joe's Air Force reserve unit) were being called into service.
War! How could such a threat come into our cozy den, where literature and music and stuffed teddy bears were the gods, and where our golden-haired little daughter had begun to show signs of awareness, language, humor? Within a matter of days, my husband was packed and gone away to Hamilton Air Force Base north of San Francisco, and I was left alone, with a car I couldn't drive, with a little baby for whom I was solely responsible, and with my typewriter on a plank for company and consolation.
Everyone in the writing program heard the news and knew of my plight. Kit and Janice offered to baby-sit for me on the days of the workshop, Mary Stegner called and offered her help; Wally took it in stride. Writers had to face these matters head-on, and with a stoic attitude. Even if my husband were called away to war in Cuba, I'd manage somehow. I had the goods to cope. I had a good mind. I was here at Stanford as proof of that, wasn't I? Negotiating these roadblocks was one of the challenges of life.
Wally's message fortified me, reminded me to try to study every aspect of each experience, to try to make sense of it. I wrote another story, and another. Nothing seemed to lessen my energy for writing that year. Joe, still not knowing if he'd be sent to Cuba, was able to come home on weekends, and take away with him parts of the harpsichord to work on at the base. (He was trained in the operation of the Teletype, but not much was going on in Teletype operations at the time.)
One day I came home from class to find in the mail a letter from a major Boston publisher. It contained an offer for my first book of stories! The terms made me heady with joy: they would give me an advance of $150, on the condition that—after my book was completed and in their hands—if they didn't like it, they could reject it and I would return to them half of the advance.
Given my recent successes, I had no doubt that they would like it and publish it. I could almost feel the book in my hands. I called Wallace Stegner and told him I had to see him, at once, at once. I was levitating. Gravity seemed to have no effect on me. Wally said he would meet me at the library within the hour. I don't remember how I got to campus—I may have flown on my own wings.
Wally greeted me with his wise, patient smile. I always responded to his presence by feeling a burst of inner confidence, and I think the other fellows did, too. Because his standards were so high, for himself and for us, we seemed to be able to call up our deepest resources to satisfy his expectations. I felt certain the news I was flying to tell him would delight him, and I was pleased to demonstrate to him that he had not made a mistake in his judgment by choosing me for the fellowship.
I held out the letter from the publisher. He read it once, twice. He examined it seriously. He rubbed his chin. He looked at the second page of the letter, which was a miniature contract. If I signed on the solid line, we had a deal.
"You just tell them you're sorry," Wally said to me. "You appreciate their interest, but you have other irons in the fire."
"But I don't!" I cried.
"But you will," he said.
"But aren't they a big publishing house? Aren't they respectable?"
"Their offer isn't respectable," Wally said. "They want you to give them half back if they don't like the book? Half of $150?"
"Oh," I said. "I guess that isn't very good then."
"You hold out for what you're worth," Wally instructed me. And in his eyes I could see my worth blooming, like a flower taking on color and beauty.
Before the year was out, I had an offer from another Boston publisher for nearly fifteen times the amount of the first offer—with no conditions and no suggestion that they "might not like it."
Wally and I corresponded for thirty years after those fine days, and, when my second daughter, Joanna, was a student at Stanford, we visited him and Mary at their home. We laughed about my streak of astounding good luck in the early weeks of my fellowship, and I certified that my pile of rejections would now be able to give any writer a run for his money.
When I sent Wally a copy of my fifth novel, The Kingdom of Brooklyn, he wrote these words to me: "You've done it this time.… You've worked very long and hard, and you're a finished artist now. And I don't mean 'done with.' Mary and I both read the book with fascination. So will many others, the more the merrier. We're very happy about this one."
(In April of 1993, Wallace Stegner died at the age of eighty-four from injuries sustained in an auto accident that occurred in New Mexico, where he was driving to receive an honor for his work.)
After our year at Stanford, Joe and I spent two years in Riverside, California, where Joe taught history at the University of California at Riverside. On January 17, 1965, our second daughter, Joanna Emily Spiro, was born. Joe accepted a job teaching history at Pasadena City College, and we moved to Monterey Park, California.
My parents and Joe's parents had moved to California from Florida by then, and it seemed we were situated for life now in the West. In 1965, my first book of stories, Stop Here, My Friend, was published by Houghton Mifflin (the same publishing house that had fired me in 1961), and I was invited to teach writing at the University of Redlands, in Redlands, California, in the fall of the year. In August of 1965, my father was diagnosed with lymphocytic leukemia. In his brief period of remission, because he didn't want me to have to drive a long distance alone, he drove with me once a week from Monterey Park to Redlands, where he waited while I taught my class. My father died at the age of fifty-six on December 7, 1965. (For seventeen years longer, my mother continued to run the antique store, Gerber's Antiques, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, that she and my father had opened in 1963.)
From the time of my first sale to Redbook in 1962, 1 understood that it was possible to write, in many different tones, the family stories which interested me. "A Daughter of My Own," published in 1964, was the first of a series of "lighter" stories that I wrote for Redbook over the next twenty-seven years. In them, Janet and Danny and their three daughters travel through the arc of family life, from the time before the birth of the first child to the day the youngest goes away to college and beyond, when Janet and Danny are once again alone with each other.
After we moved to Monterey Park, my third daughter, Susanna Willa Spiro, was born on May 1, 1967. In the years that I was home with my three little girls, all born within a five-year period, writing these stories kept me sane and challenged. Women of my generation raising children in the sixties did not, in general, go to work. Redbook welcomed my interpretation of American motherhood and paid me generously. A first sale in those days of the early sixties brought a thousand dollars. (I believe that's still their range of payment now, thirty years later.) I stress that the stories were "American"—meaning that any specific rendition of Jewish family life was definitely not welcome. "Ethnic" fiction was not being written (or was, but was not readily published) in those days. Not only did I publish stories in Redbook in the sixties and onward through 1991, but also in the New Yorker (two of my stories were published there in the early sixties, but none were accepted after my editor, Rachel MacKenzie, died), in the Ladies' Home Journal, in Family Circle, in Good Housekeeping, in McCall's, and in Woman's Day. During the same period, my "literary" stories were accepted by the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Sewanee Review, the Atlantic Monthly, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and other quarterlies. A number of these won prizes, including "At the Fence," which won the Andrew Lytle Fiction Prize for the best story in the Sewanee Review in 1985, and "I Don't Believe This," first published in the Atlantic and chosen for Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards 1986.
Eventually, I sold Redbook forty-two stories (I was told I hold the record of having sold more stories to Redbook than any single author) and in 1993, Longstreet Press published a collection of twenty-five of these related stories about Janet and Danny, titled This Old Heart of Mine: The Best of Merrill Joan Gerber's Redbook Stories.
Not until I was described in a review as a "women's magazine" writer did I ever see myself in this light. Just as when I spoke to my children I used a manner of speaking appropriate to their ages, so would I write in a mode appropriate to the level of my purpose and intent. (Cynthia Ozick once remarked of me that I have "many arrows in my quiver.") I have learned, from hard experience, that the literary world does not think well of a writer who publishes in popular magazines. In 1967, when my novel An Antique Man was published by Houghton Mifflin, Time magazine sent a photographer to my home. He stayed all day, had me serve him lunch, asked me to change my clothing three times, and led me to believe Time intended to cover my book in a serious way. Cover it they did (they ran a review, but used no photograph), and the phrase I remember all these years later is the reviewer's remark to the effect that "Gerber, who writes for the women's magazines, makes it all come out right in the end."
For the last twenty-five years I have applied for Guggenheim grants and National Endowment for the Arts grants but have received neither. As an agent once told me, "You fall between the stools," and indeed, I believe that a writer is taken less seriously if she writes in different voices and modes. In the early eighties, my friend and correspondent Norma Klein suggested that I write for young adult readers since I knew intimately the voices and souls of teenagers. In the 1980s I wrote nine novels for teenagers.
From the time of my first published work in 1956, I have written steadily and published stories or books every year. I teach occasionally at writers' conferences, and in 1980 began teaching a class in fiction writing at Pasadena City College, where I taught until 1990. In 1981, I spent a month at Yaddo Writers' Colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1989, I accepted a position as lecturer in creative writing at the California Institute of Technology, where I still teach part-time now in 1994.
In looking back over these years of being a writer, I have a sense that my "formative years" came to a close, in a literal sense, after my years in the Stegner workshop. Before that time, the elements were busy arranging themselves into the formula that was to turn me into a writer. After becoming a "grown-up"—a wife and mother who settled in one place—I simply pursued my calling, continuing to observe, to think, to write. My other literary history, of publishers and agents, of triumphs and disappointments, of acceptances and rejections, is quite another story, perhaps one to be told at another time.
What I do see from this vantage point is that certain patterns have emerged which should not (but sometimes do) seem surprising. Though I always knew I was a Jewish girl from Brooklyn, I never defined myself as "a Jewish writer"—perhaps because I never had a Jewish teacher, mentor, or model who encouraged me to stake my claim, or perhaps because I did not live in any formal Jewish community. Fate conspired to have me study the literature of the South (in the South) with Andrew Lytle, and the literature of the West (in the West) with Wallace Stegner.
However, my sense of myself as a Jewish writer was happily and forcefully confirmed when I received, for my novel The Kingdom of Brooklyn in 1993, the Harold U. Ribalow Prize given by Hadassah magazine "for literary excellence for a work of fiction on a Jewish theme" (and whose judges were Elie Wiesel, Anne Roiphe, and Louis Begley). This prize, and the Editors' Book Award bestowed on King of the World in 1989 by Bill Henderson of Pushcart Press "to celebrate an important and unusual book of literary distinction," have been supports to stand against when the tides of rejection (the given of any writer's life) tend to come in hard and strong.
I have made my home in California; Joe and I live in Sierra Madre in the house we bought twenty-six years ago, near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Our daughters are followers "of the book" (one is a librarian and two are in graduate school studying literature).
I sometimes wonder how our lives would have turned out had Joe and I stayed in New York. (Both of us were born in Brooklyn.) Many of my close friends are writers who live in New York. I have had long and intimate correspondences with New York writers Cynthia Ozick, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and Norma Klein (who died in 1989).
Have I written even a semblance of my autobiography in these pages? As Wallace Stegner suggested in his essay for this series, a writer's autobiography occurs regularly in his fiction. The facts, as we remember them, are not always as they were, and in many cases after we shape them to our artistic ends, we lose the "truth" entirely. I think the advantage is that we may emerge with a greater truth. I have used my own "facts of life" in my work in many ways and I have told many stories in many voices. Which story is the true story? Which voice is the true voice? I don't think the writer could begin to tell you the answer.
Merrill Joan Gerber contributed the following update to CA in 2005:
A FEW MORE WORDS…
ABOUT MY LIFE
"They had lost so many by the time I was born." With these words, I began my autobiographical essay for this series, which was published nearly a dozen years ago. In the intervening years, my models for life, my mother and her sister, the women who introduced me to fear and loss, have been lost to me as well.
I see now, in my sixty-seventh year, how primed I was as a young child to be attentive to loss and death and how my inclination to write about these powerful experiences has continued to expand over the years. When I was not yet twenty-five, I published my first story in Mademoiselle ("The Cost Depends on What You Reckon It In") based on a visit I took to a nursing home in Brooklyn when I was twelve. My aunt Greta took me there to visit my grandmother after she had been paralyzed by a stroke. Before then, my grandmother had lived upstairs with my aunt in our family home. The memory of what I saw that day, in a time when nursing homes were far less regulated than they are now, haunted me all through my childhood. In the story I wrote for Mademoiselle, I took the voice of the woman I imagined my aunt to be. The first lines read:
Three times a day I ran to Sherman's Rest Home on Ocean Parkway where my mother was put away. I brought her whitefish and borscht and pickled herring, foods that would hasten her death, the doctor said, but he didn't know they were the only things that could quicken her into life for a minute.
The story continues to define the old woman's suffering and the indignities she endured. It tells of the refusal of the nursing home owner to call a doctor when she was in severe pain, and the incredible error, after her death, of her almost being buried in the wrong grave.
The old woman's daughter demands that another grave be dug. She returns alone the next day to see that the correct burial takes place.
I picked up a handful of dirt, after the custom, and threw it on my mother's coffin. I heard it land softly on the wood. Then I watched while the men covered the coffin with dirt. When they were through I thanked them and tipped them.
After they left I knelt beside the newly filled grave and placed my hand on the soft mound. Please God, I said to myself, let her rest in peace. And then I surrendered my mother up to the earth, and went home to my children.
Thirty-five years after that story was published, I wrote an essay called "Getting Mother Buried," which appeared in the Chattahoochee Review. The piece ends with these words:
On my mother's simple casket, we had lined up the little statues of the great loves of her life: Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Schubert. At the gravesite, we stood as my daughters and others carried the casket to the grave, where my mother was lowered to rest beside my father who had died thirty-two years before. The sky was just clearing and fog hovered over the distant hills. We all shoveled the traditional three scoops of dirt upon her coffin. A friend recited in Hebrew the Kaddish for the dead. We left my mother there, with my father. My sister took my arm as we walked away from the gravesite. "I hope Mom and Dad go dancing somewhere tonight."
My mother's old age and death possessed my adult imagination, much as I had been obsessed with my grandmother's when I was a child. History, which alarmingly repeated itself, caused not only my grandmother a paralyzing stroke, but also my mother and her sister. The duties of caring for the two women fell to me for more than a decade.
In 1995 I published my first memoir, Old Mother, Little Cat: A Writer's Reflections on Her Kitten, Her Aged Mother … and Life. This book had begun as a journal I kept each day after visiting my mother at the nursing home. Though totally lucid, she was paralyzed and fed by a feeding tube. Each day we talked about her impossible situation ("This is living?" she asked me one day) and each day she told me she wished to die. No matter what I did to encourage her, entertain her, comfort her, hold her and love her, she maintained that her life was essentially over.
At about this same time, a stray Manx kitten appeared under our house and we adopted him into our lives. I began to record his antics, his beauty, and the warmth and fun we experienced in his presence. A metaphoric balance seemed to occur, between his youth and joyful growth into life and my mother's illness and descent toward death. The two tales, intertwined, became the book, Old Mother, Little Cat: A Writer's Reflections on Her Kitten, Her Aged Mother … and Life.
My mother's presence was enormous in my life—not only in her dying years, but also during the years of her widowhood after my father's death from leukemia at the age of fifty-six. In those years, my mother phoned me several times each day and poured her tales of woe—and sometimes her adventures—into my ears. I had begun writing stories about such a bereaved heroine—stories about the life of an old woman living on her own in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles. When my aunt Greta moved from the east coast to California with her second husband, she also called me daily, and insisted on recounting the details and miseries of her life. Both sisters were experts at complaining. Though I was trying to inhabit my own life as a writer, as a wife and mother, and as a teacher of fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology, the agonies of my mother and aunt lived in my mind much of the time.
In 1998 I published Anna in Chains, a series of stories based on a character named Anna whose essence had sprung from my mother but joined up with a spirit who spoke partly in her voice, partly in mine, and with an added tone of irony and wit and sometimes even of humor. Anna's sister, named Gert in the stories, had her say in many of the situations. By the book's end, Anna had been demoted from living independently in an apartment, to living in a retirement home and, finally, at the end of the line, to living in the dreaded nursing home. In the book's last story, "Anna in Chains," she reflects on how to kill herself.
Anna considered her options. Even if she had pills, she couldn't take them by mouth. She would need a mortar and pestle to grind them up and then would have to bribe someone to shoot the mixture into her feeding tube. If she had a gun, even if she knew how to use one, she was right-handed and her right hand was paralyzed. What were the words of that Dorothy Parker poem? Anna had memorized it in her mouth—about how razors pain you, rivers are damp, acids stain you, drugs cause cramp—and the rest of it, gas smelled bad, nooses give, guns aren't lawful, you might as well live.
Anna makes a valiant effort at suicide by wedging herself behind a piano in the nursing home's chapel, hoping to starve herself to death, but she is discovered there and returned to one more long engagement with life. To the psychiatrist who is hired to help her,
… with the goal of getting you back to a place where you can enjoy life again," Anna replies, "Would you really call this life … Tell me the truth, Doctor. I know you're a smart boy, a dummy doesn't go so many years to medical school.… I understand. You have to earn a living … Look, so I'll cooperate, Medicare will pay you. I'll let you come and keep me company and talk till your half-hour or whatever is up. But you should know I don't really believe in this psychology baloney. You talk but I don't have to listen … So if I'm not paying attention, you'll be kind enough not to force yourself on me. Maybe I'll be thinking about how I danced with Abram at my wedding, how the gardenias he gave me smelled like the entire Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in springtime, how the edges of the corsage were already turning brown when we got to Atlantic City for our honeymoon. You can rest assured—I have enough to think about till the end of time.
My own mother died on New Year's Eve in 1997—at the age of ninety. With her passing, I thought my literary connection to my mother had finally ended. It seemed to me that all her stories had been told, both in the real-life memoir Old Mother, Little Cat, and in the fictional leap to a more intense realm in Anna in Chains.
However, I realized I was not yet finished with my subject. After her death, my mother's history came back to me in new guises, in ways that only I knew, or in new perspectives that only I saw. I thought the fictional Anna should be made privy to these insights I was having.
Thus, in 2002, I published Anna in the Afterlife, a group of connected stories that the publisher, Syracuse University Press, called "a novel." Anna is present in this book during the four days between her death and burial—and during this time she reflects on the her children and their fates, on her romance with her beloved husband, on her sister's suicide attempt, on her brother's mysterious disappearance in the 1920s, and she reviews in person the goings-on (with her ironic commentary) of her own death and burial. Anna in the Afterlife was selected as one of the best novels of 2002 by the Los Angeles Times. With this book, my mother's powerful voice ceased speaking to me, or so it seems to me at the time of this writing.
In 1996 I had taken a leave of absence from my care-taking of the old women to accompany my husband to Italy, where he was leading a group of students from Pasadena City College for a three-month period of study in Florence.
I had not wanted to go with him; I had not wanted to leave my mother for that long a time. I went to the nursing home, where she lay paralyzed and on a feeding tube, and asked her what I should do.
"You can't wait for me, I could live to be a hundred. Go and do what you have to do. I'll just be here. And if something happens.… don't come back."
"Meaning if I die, don't come back."
Reluctantly, I traveled to Italy. I suffered severe (but sometimes thrilling) culture shock, which I recorded in daily e-mails home to my three daughters. When I returned home and reread my e-mails, I realized I had written the basic outline for a book about this experience. I had also taken hundreds of photographs during our stay in Italy, each reflecting some event that moved me (and almost none of them taken in churches or museums!). I wrote a travel memoir, Botticelli Blue Skies: An American in Florence, which was published by University of Wisconsin Press in 2002.
In 2003 I attended a reading by Joyce Carol Oates at Occidental College in Los Angeles. We had met briefly, many years before, and, when she saw me there, she mentioned how much she had admired my story "This Is a Voice from Your Past" (first published in the Chattahoochee Review and later in The Best American Mystery Stories 1998).
A month later I received a letter from her, asking if I might be interested in publishing a volume of "new and selected stories" with Ontario Review Press, which Joyce Carol Oates runs with her husband, Ray Smith.
Together she and I chose, from twenty-five stories, thirteen that would be in the book (including a new one I had written, "Dogs Bark," which now is the closing story of the volume). This Is a Voice from Your Past, which became the title of the book, was published in 2005.
In 2004 a university library archivist asked me about my archive and if I might be interested in placing my papers with a library. I began to take stock of the enormous weight of papers in my home—all those filled closets and file cabinets and storage boxes and bookshelves. After I began hauling out my papers (journals, and manuscripts and letters and dreams), I started to sort them. I realized I had everything, including my high school diary. I had every letter I wrote to my mother from Girl Scout camp, every letter she wrote to me, in camp, in college, when I was a young mother at Stanford, and for all the years after, till she moved, with my father and sister, to be near us in California. What's more, she somehow owned every letter she had written to her mother. We each saved everything, and when my mother died, I became keeper of all our written words, including the notebooks of pain and suffering she wrote during her seven years, paralyzed and on a feeding tube, in the nursing home.
In 1961, the year after I was married and living in Boston, she wrote from Florida: "Merrill, we have a few cartons or trunks or tons (sez Daddy) with the Merrill Joan Gerber writings from yesteryear. What shall we do with the stuff? If we only had an attic, a basement, or Madison Square Garden. Dad says if we buy a Greyhound bus we will take them for you to peruse. We love you dearly, but what shall we do with the stuff, moving around as we do???"
Whatever I may have replied, my mother kept every piece of paper, hers, mine and ours, and now they're all here in my house in California—in my office, on tables in my living room, my dining room, and all over the empty bedrooms of my children. The boxes include my piano lesson notebook from 1949, when I was eleven, with my weekly assignments of scales and pieces to practice. I have the program from the Carnegie Chamber Music recital hall where my piano teacher, Miss Gwendlyn Haber, performed on June 12, 1947.
Many of the boxes contain letters from my writer-friends, some now famous, some now dead, some still plying their trade as I am, writing their books, still exchanging news with me of their disappointments, their struggles, and their passion to write. For years, in some cases for decades, we wrote each other often, sometimes once or twice a week, on real paper, and mailed these letters in envelopes, with stamps on them. Now most of us have succumbed to e-mail.
Cynthia Ozick and I have corresponded for twenty-one years. We first met at a reading she did at Claremont in 1983—and had a brief exchange about the first book review she ever did, which happened to be of my first book of stories, Stop Here, My Friend. I reminded her it was a negative review; she protested that it could not have been! She wrote these words to me on February 18, 1983: "I didn't remember anything negative in that long-ago review! Hence my mention of it. I have no copy of it, and wonder what it said. If it said something hurtful, that feels strange: because all these years I have kept your name as a writer of great gifts." I sent her the review from Midstream, June 1965, and we began our long, passionate exchange of letters. On April 22, 1983, she wrote: "Well, I can see that you & I can talk for a lifetime. So let's do that. If I am West, I'll come to see you … If you are East, come to see me." (I have been East to see her, and stayed in her home.) When my novel, The Kingdom of Brooklyn, won the Hadassah Ribalow Prize in 1993, she spoke at the ceremony in New York along with Lynne Sharon Schwartz.
I've had decades-long correspondences with my teachers—with Andrew Lytle, the great writing teacher at the University of Florida, and with Wallace Stegner, who chose me for a Stegner fiction fellowship at Stanford. Both are now dead though their words still reverberate in my mind. Andrew Lytle told me early on that I had "the gift" and reminded me not to worry about a "presumed lightness of appearance on the scene." Wallace Stegner, after he read The Kingdom of Brooklyn in 1992, wrote me that I'd "done it this time" and that "you're a finished artist now." He assured me he didn't mean I was "done with" but that the book was "splendid and painfully honest."
Honesty has always been at the heart of my need to write. When Professor Mario Materassi, whom I met in Florence, interviewed me about my mode of working, I told him that "in polite society we just talk on the surface, and I couldn't live on that surface. So I had to go home and write what I felt and saw." In fact, that is what I have continued to do in all of my work.
We still live in the house we bought in 1968 in Sierra Madre, California. I continue to teach fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology. My husband and I are now grandparents—a new, awesome stage of life that brings more joy, playfulness, and wonder than I could have imagined. We have two grandsons, Joanna's son, Adam, who was born in 1998, and Becky's son, Jacob, who was born in 2000. Our daughter Susanna is expecting a baby boy in July of 2005.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, November 15, 2002, Margaret Flanagan, review of Botticelli Blue Skies: An American in Florence, p. 565; March 1, 2005, Margaret Flanagan, review of This Is a Voice from Your Past: New and Selected Stories, p. 1136.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2003, review of Gut Feelings: A Writer's Truths and Minute Inventions, p. 360; January 15, 2005, review of This Is a Voice from Your Past, p. 71; March 15, 2005, review of Glimmering Girls: A Novel of the Fifties, p. 305.
Library Journal, September 15, 2002, Alison Hopkins, review of Botticelli Blue Skies, p. 83.
Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1988.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 18, 1985.
New York Times Book Review, December 15, 1985.
Publishers Weekly, July 25, 1991, review of Chattering Man: Stories and a Novella, p. 38; August 3, 1992, review of The Kingdom of Brooklyn, p. 61; November 8, 1993, Lisa See Kendall, "Merrill Joan Gerber: A Veteran of the Short Story (and More) Collects Some of Her Strongest Stories," pp. 54-55; September 25, 1995, review of Old Mother, Little Cat: A Writer's Reflections on Her Kitten, Her Aged Mother … and Life, p. 38; November, 25, 2002, review of Botticelli Blue Skies, p. 56.
Shofar, winter, 2003, review of Anna in the Afterlife, p. 202.
Washington Post Book World, November 17, 1985.
Merrill Joan Gerber Web site,http://www.its.caltech.edu/~mjgerber (May 6, 2005).