Saturday, October 9, 2021

9 OCTOBER, 2021

Dear Harry,

I know you believed in what the church called “the sanctity of marriage.” I’m assuming that you observed the principle yourself. You belonged to a generation where divorce was still an unconscionable alternative, where it was spoken of amongst respectable people only in hushed whispers, not only a sign of a failure of character but also a family disgrace.

What a bitter, deeply distressing experience for you and Peggy, then, to know that the marriages of both your children ended in divorce.

There are matters too delicate and too hurtful still, after many years, to write about without due compassion and respect, so I want to keep this, insofar as possible, between you and me. I blame no one, and take full responsibility for own my part in these events, no matter how long ago they occurred.

You’ll remember that you came across to Germany, with Peggy of course, to officiate at the church ceremony where Liz and I were married. Flora and her new husband John were there too, as was my old Cambridge friend Hugh Welchman, my best man. It was a moment of mutual commitment, hope, and love. We spent what was, for me—I hope it was, too, for Liz—a wonderful week on honeymoon in Amsterdam. Returning to Düren, we settled into a downtown apartment for the first months of our life together.

Were we ready for the responsibilities or married life and, soon enough, of bringing children into the world? I wasn’t. For now, and for too many years to come, I allowed myself to drift along with little foresight and less planning. We were still in Düren when I first began to realize the need to get a real job and settle down into adult life (as though such a thing were possible for me, Harry!) and, impractically hopeful as ever, I wrote off in response to a three-week old announcement in the “wanted” column of one of the leftist New Statesman weeklies that Peggy used to forward me from England. A private grammar school in Nova Scotia, Canada, was looking for someone to teach English. They were offering a salary of five thousand dollars, wealth I had never dreamed of!

I applied at once. The response came in short order: unsurprisingly the advertised post had been filled already. But the school was now also looking for a French and German teacher. Was I interested?

I telegraphed my assent.

This is how I came to cross the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, Harry, putting an even greater distance between you and me.

We settled in Halifax, Liz and I. And Nova Scotia was good to us. As anyone who has traveled there will tell you, it is a truly lovely province with its wild, rocky coastline and scores of inland lakes where, in winter, I could enjoy the novel spectacle of car races on ice. It was cold, yes—colder by far than anything we’d ever known in Europe. There was real weather, blizzards in winter, hurricanes in the summer, a blaze of color as the seasons changed in the fall. We had a tiny basement apartment with a black and white TV set where we watched ice hockey every Saturday evening. We had a gray cat named Plato. We bought a brand new car—the first I’d ever owned, a tiny powder blue Mini Minor. Liz was seriously pregnant but I insisted foolishly on taking us out for a spin on our new car’s first day, despite weather forecasts predicting the imminent arrival of a hurricane. What did I care about hurricanes? They were only a word to me… (I learned only later that this was Ginny, a Category 2 storm, one of the most destructive to ever hit the Nova Scotia coast). Before we knew it we were in unfamiliar territory, lost in the rocky wilderness on a side road where the tarmac abruptly ended, giving way to a rough dirt surface, and the storm was hurtling all around us. I drove on. What else could I do? I was terrified, yes, by this time, but we were committed. Then suddenly, inexplicably, the road descended to sea level and we found ourselves driving alongside the ocean, dark and angry, with massive waves crashing down across the road. A wrecked cargo ship tilted at an angle on the rocks, not far distant.

We survived. My reckless insistence had exposed not only myself but my wife and our soon-to-be-born child to grievous danger. What saved us I will never know. Your God? More likely it was the little Mini’s front wheel drive, gripping the mud and pulling us valiantly through. When we finally reached the highway back to Halifax, I stopped to check on the car and opened up the hood. The entire engine of my beautiful brand new Mini was coated in a layer of thick, red, salty mud.

Hubris? I learned, at least, to pay attention to storm warnings in the future.

And then to our great joy our first son, Matthew was born.

All of which was fine, except that I had apparently forgotten the lesson learned at Rutlish: I was not cut out to be a teacher, particularly not at a secondary school for boys. It was a lesson I re-learned rather quickly at the Halifax Grammar School. It would be ungracious to complain too loudly. I was fortunate to have a good job. To be earning what seemed to us in those days a fine salary. And the school was a progressive one, with a well-qualified staff of committed colleagues and interesting, socially active parents—all good, compatible, caring people with whom Liz and I would socialize at evening events and on weekends at the shoreline where crabs and lobsters were thrown liberally into pots of boiling water and gobbled down with gusto on warm summer beaches.

We moved. We had no room for a baby in our tiny basement flat, so we found what I recall as a rather bleak modern apartment with an extra bedroom and a shared laundry room that came in handy with the diapers. We had a portable stereo with a collection of classical records that we loved, and French Canadian folks songs. (Ah, si mon moine voulait danser, A la claire fontaine… I remember them). We discovered the lovely, haunting voice of Joan Baez… I think, no, I’m quite sure that we were happy, just the three of us.

And yet, and yet… There was still that poet in me, “yearning to be free”; the one who kept nudging me to write and making me feel empty and unaccomplished when I didn’t. In fact I was writing poems at the time. I had belatedly discovered the work of e.e.cummings and my poems were heavily influenced by his whimsical play with language. Meanwhile, more and more, the hours I spent in the classroom reminded me that teaching was not a passion but a requisite, money-earning chore.

It was at the end of the first school year in Nova Scotia that the son of one of my colleagues arrived with his wife to spend the summer with his parents. We hit it off well. He was a poet, a well-known poet, a successful poet even—a concept I had previously never entertained. In my ignorance, I had not heard of him before; I had been writing poems in my own little backwater, uninformed of the greater world of my contemporaries. What I saw in Mark Strand, a tall, powerful man, confident in himself both as a writer and a man, was everything I longed to be and clearly was not yet. He was kind enough to read my poems, assuring me that he found them to be intelligent, interesting; they showed promise. Nova Scotia was no place for me, he said; I should be at the Poetry Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he had a teaching job.

A poetry workshop! Here was a new concept, Harry! Iowa! Who would have ever dreamed?

Sadly, Mark died before his time, a short while ago. I owe him a debt of gratitude. He recommended me to Paul Engle, the poet, founder and at that time still the man who ran the Writers’ Workshop, and the rest followed with relative ease. I was offered a grant, and a teaching assistant’s job in the French Department which provided me with an adequate income for the family, and a place in the Ph.D. program in Comparative Literature. I was given an on-campus office of my own and low-cost graduate student housing in a Quonset hut just a short walk from the campus… It was everything I could have asked for.

I was thrilled with this unexpected change in my prospects that had fallen from the heavens into my lap. School-teaching was forever behind me, vistas of life as a genuine writer opened up. There were, I soon discovered, more poets per square block in Iowa City than I could have imagined possible. And the Ph.D, my new Comp. Lit. professors assured me, would be a breeze for someone with my language skills and a degree in languages and literature from Cambridge University.

I hope you were proud of your new son, Harry, when all this began to happen. Or did you, in your wisdom, already intuit disaster looming in the years to come? I’d love to have known.

Your all too often deluded son, Peter

Friday, October 8, 2021

8 OCTOBER, 2021

Dear Harry,

You’ll know by now how easily I lost my heart, and how much harm I left in my wake as a result. It would sadly take me many years yet to grow up and come to the understanding that love was something other than the satisfaction of my needs.

There followed many wonderful days and evenings in the new life I was creating for myself. Living in Winden, I was able to spend the better part of the day at my typewriter. I was gaining confidence, feeling more accomplished as a writer. Early evening I would take the bus into Düren, arriving at the Berlitz School in time to meet up with my new colleague for a cup of tea or coffee before classes started. I had not yet summoned the nerve to make my feelings known, nor was I sure of them myself. While I was aware of a familiar, powerfully physical attraction to this petite young woman with green eyes, dark hair, and a sharp and lively mind, I was content for once to take the time needed for us to get to know one another before trying to rush her off to bed. For her part, Liz was perhaps rightly wary of a man who was yet to earn her trust.

Still, we did build a friendship. After class, most often, we would go out to a nearby Taverne for beer and a bite to eat, Brat- or Knackwurst with Sauerkraut, or one of those breaded cutlets that German chefs do so well. I would sometimes order a big bowl of steamed mussels—a specialty at our favorite late-night haunt—until the memorable time when I must have swallowed down a bad one… I was so horribly sick, I scarcely made it home that night; so sick that I have never dared to eat another mussel in more than sixty years.

We had friends in common. There were Willi and Helle, two aspiring young businessmen with each a pretty girlfriend and a brand new car; and Dieter, a slightly older man, forty-ish, old enough to have been a member of the Hitler Jugend. The ravages of war were still a vivid memory in Düren, at the eastern rim of what had been the Battle of the Bulge; there were many people for whom the night of November 16, 1944 was still a recent nightmare, when waves of Allied bombers swarmed in the skies above to unleash a murderous storm of fire and high explosive on the city. Of the 22,000 human beings who once lived there, three thousand died that night, most of them trapped in cellars beneath the burning buildings, where they’d taken shelter.

We became close friends, Liz and I, as well as colleagues. We stood out as the only two young English people, foreigners amongst the natives. There was a mutual respect as well as a tenderness. It took me a good long while, as I recall, to tell her awkwardly that I loved her and soon to ask her if she would consider marrying me. Until that moment we had still done little more than kiss goodnight, but she said, Yes. It was kind and brave of her to agree to take me on, because I was not much of a prospective husband, with only a part-time evening job and vague hopes of eventually gaining recognition as a writer. I was impractical, penniless and—though I may have managed successfully to hide it—emotionally not much past my adolescence. As I look back on it, I wish that I could have been—your phrase, Harry!—more man for her woman. I was not.

She took me on anyway. Now many years later I continue to thank her for the immeasurable gift of love. It saddens me to acknowledge that I was unable to prove myself worthy of the trust that went along with it.

More of that later, Harry.

For now, your son, Peter

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

6 OCTOBER, 2021

Dear Harry,

After that moment of terrible suspicion, finding Marie with Barry at his flat on Rayners Road I never thought of him in the same way again. The long friendship in which I had shared with him the most intimate of secrets of my life, the darkest of my dreams, the most erotic of my desires was now tainted with an edge of distrust from which it never fully recovered.

With Marie, when we resumed our now tenuous relationship after her father’s death, the tables were turned. I became ever more possessive. The more I felt her slipping away from me, the more desperate was my need to keep clinging on. And then one day she told me she was leaving. She had accepted the offer of a job at one of the British military schools in then still-occupied Germany. Devastated, I realized belatedly that I could not conceive of life without her, and it took me only a month or two before I devised a way to follow her. Do you remember how I walked away from my good job in Wimbledon in the middle of the school year, Harry? How I sold that Ford Anglia you had helped me buy and reneged on my share of the lease in the house on Mercier Road? The pretext I offered to anyone who asked was that I needed to test my talents as a writer. I may have convinced even myself that this was true. The part-time evening job I had taken, teaching English to adult students at a language school in Düren, would allow me the time to write all day and every day, I told myself. Besides, I thought, it would be a huge relief to exchange my teenage tormentors at Rutlish for reasonable, grown-up people who signed up for classes because they actually wanted to learn.

I suspect that you and Peggy never knew the real reason for my sudden flight. You may not have been aware that Düren was a mere fifty miles from the military base where Marie was now employed. I could not imagine otherwise than that she would be delighted, impatient as I was to be back (in bed!) together. To my chagrin and surprise, it seemed she wasn’t. Through weeks of increasingly desperate telephone calls there was nothing from the other end of the line but excuses, prevarications, protestations and delays. Eventually I managed to prevail on her to drive down. I couldn’t wait to get her into bed, and made urgent love to her in the single room I had rented—the best I could afford on a part-time teacher’s pittance. As I strove mightily, repeatedly, to satisfy my need, I’m sure I failed to notice that her part in our love-making had turned from desire to tolerance.

Or rather, to be truthful, it was my choice not to notice this; denial was more acceptable to my anguished mind than was acknowledgment.

After that first weekend the length of time between her visits stretched out interminably. She bought herself a steel blue Renault Dauphine, an all too popular model at the time. Every time I saw one on the streets, my heart leapt with anticipation, followed at once by frustration, despair, and jealous rage. I was obsessed with thoughts of her submitting to the bestial attentions of all-too-charming British officers at her army base. On the increasingly rare occasions of her visits, I began to feel more like a supplicant than a lover. Then on one final weekend she told me she was pregnant. And the baby wasn’t mine.

Oh, Harry, believe me, your son had never felt so miserable. There he was, stuck in a tiny room looking out on a bland and frigid street somewhere in Germany, in mid-winter, pounding away on his portable Royal typewriter (a parting gift from Peggy) and churning out dreadful poems that no one would ever read. I had nothing but an immersion heater to make tea or coffee, and an electric hotplate to warm up a bowl of soup or make a melted cheese sandwich on a slice of thick German rye bread topped with a slab of Emmentaler.

I had fallen so far into despair, I could no longer imagine a way up or out.

And then there was Winden. I found a new place to live in a small village at the edge of the Eifel Forest with an endless view out over a long green valley to the edge of the trees, an easy bus ride from my job Düren. Reinvigorated by the springtime sun, I abandoned poetry and started on the novel that was guaranteed to bring me fame and fortune. Frau Hennes, a widow, was my landlady. Her husband was one of those tens of thousands of German soldiers who never returned from the Russian gulags after the war, and she treated me like the son she never had. I loved the meals she cooked, Sauerbraten, Rindfleisch, delicious “Eintopf” stews…

At work there was greater responsibility and better salary when I was made Director as the school expanded to serve more students with more classes and different languages.

And before long there was the arrival of my first new colleague. I fell in love.

Your ever-peripatetic son, Peter  

MLK

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