Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Oracle at Benson

Although I have been acquainted with a number of my husband’s family members for many decades – long before I actually knew even him – it wasn’t until I became a member of the family myself that I began to realize that just as water seeks its own level, the dysfunctional manage to somehow land smack dab among the similarly blessed, despite all clearly illusory attempts to the contrary.

Like many families, his was largely led by a figurehead, in this case a matriarchal font of wisdom – and for some progeny, one of seemingly bottomless pockets -- known as Anna. As my husband’s maternal grandmother, she was always pleasant to me, and I truly enjoyed the times I spent in her expansive and antiques-filled apartment in Brooklyn, a fortress of a building on the corner of Bay 28th Street and Benson Avenue. She raised three daughters – my mother-in-law, along with her twin sister and an older sister – all of whom I had long been familiar with. While their father was an attorney, it seems he wasn’t a particularly successful one due to certain vaguely described aspects of his personality. So Anna always worked, took care of her family, and ran an all-around very tight ship. In her prime, she loved entertaining, and her house (and later, apartment) was always a place where relatives and friends would congregate and enjoy her skillful cooking and baking.

With such a formidable figure at the helm, I suppose it was understandable that she attained something on the order of living-legend status while she was alive, and sainthood (as is usually the case, unfortunately, even with total bastards) when she was no longer. But also as is usually the case, how things appeared weren’t exactly aligned with how things were, and as wonderful as she was, little by little the reality of how she operated was revealed.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing about her; in fact, it was largely good. However, it might have been a case of good gone too far, which further reinforced her matriarchal status, hard-earned as it was. In every family roles are appointed or otherwise settled into and played out, and Anna's was that of both leader and rescuer. She became so accustomed to earning and saving, that she became for some a secondary (or even primary) source of income -- extending even into succeeding generations. My mother-in-law, along with her husband and children, was not among those benefitting from such generosity, which is certainly to her credit. My in-laws were always hard workers, and instilled the same shared ethic in their children. While others were helped along in many ways, from rent paid, to grandchildren’s camp and college tuitions covered or subsidized, to vacations treated to, no such rewards – none at all, in fact -- were accorded to the ones who displayed any measurable amount of independence and success. Although it was clear to those not so munificently anointed, as well as to others (like me) on the outside looking in, her canonization remains intact to this day, a good 16 years after her death.

To those who benefitted from her financial generosity, she cooked enough for an army; according to my husband and his cousin Saul (son of my mother-in-law’s twin sister, unquestionably the most loving and dutiful of daughters), she served a pound of fish for a dozen guests, exclaiming, “Take, take – there’s plenty for everyone!” To those who made unfortunate choices, she was exceedingly unsparing, resulting in subsequent offspring to expect – and receive – the same. Those who ordinarily neither needed nor expected anything of the sort from her were, however, rebuffed when even a short-term loan of relatively small significance was timidly and respectfully requested. Failure, great or small, was amply rewarded; success of any noticeable degree was punished. Her role as leader of the family was, without question, carved in stone.

A few years ago, shortly after Jeff’s cousin Saul bought a house in our town, our family moved in with him for about a month or so until we transitioned to a temporary apartment, due to unexpectedly having to vacate our home during a large-scale renovation. Our children took up residence in a bedroom housing a lovely maple dresser that had originally been in Anna’s bedroom until she passed away. Like most children (and even some adults), they couldn’t resist peeking in closets and opening drawers. It was in that very dresser that they uncovered a small, robin's egg blue plastic box. Excited at the prospect of what they imagined might be a treasure even Saul himself was not aware of, they opened the box – and found inside a set of false teeth, the sight of which immediately elicited from them a very audible, and in unison, sound of disgust.

Repulsed, and at the same time clearly enchanted by the very personal nature of their discovery, they ran to all three of us – Saul, Jeff and me – to show off their find, with which they made sure not to get too up close and personal. “Are these your teeth?” they asked Saul. “Certainly not; mine are all in my mouth,” he answered. “Those are grandma’s teeth – my grandma, who was your great-grandmother.”

It was a shared moment of absurdity, combined with a certain measure of poignancy, and one I could not let pass without comment. Although she was long gone, a strangely important part of her remained, symbolic as it was. When alive, she dispensed not just money, but her own brand of wisdom; dead, a conduit through which that wisdom was transmitted remained, revealed through the surprising disclosure of her dentures.

“Why in hell would you want to keep something like that?” I asked Saul, laughing. “I don’t know,” he answered. “It’s hard to let some things go; I just couldn’t bring myself to throw them out.” My husband chimed in, “Does she talk to you through them? Give you advice? ‘Saul! Why did you need such a big house – it’s a waste of money!’” he mimicked.

And there it was, the greatest treasure of all, somehow discarded by those who in their frantic scramble grabbed whatever appeared most valuable, leaving behind that which continues to represent Anna’s unending source of knowledge and wisdom. Thanks to the goodness and sentiment of Saul, this relic remains, forever to be regarded by our small cabal with much reverence and joy -- an archaeological find we now refer to as The Oracle at Benson.