Thursday, 2 May 2013

Book of the Month: Sleeping Arrangements (Laura Shaine Cunningham)

‘I began my life waiting for him. When other children asked, “Where is your father?” I had my mother’s answer: “He is fighting in the war.”’ 

Thus starts Laura Shaine Cunningham’s memoir, Sleeping Arrangements.  Shaine Cunningham never knew who her father was. Her mother, Rosie, had told her that her father was a handsome blonde fighter pilot, and his name was Larry Moore. He was fighting in the Second World War, and Laura, or Lily as she was called, was waiting for the war to be over, so that she could at last reunite with him. Until then there was only a black and white, overexposed photograph, taken in an army office, of him and his mother—Lily’s mother would hide it and rotate its hiding place every night—that was the proof that he existed. The trouble was the war was long since over, and Larry was not coming back.  By instinct, young Lily learnt to lie, as the fabric of her mother’s story began to fray, even though she did not (and would never) know the truth.

Lily’s first conscious memories are of her and her mother leading an evanescent, shadowy existence, in the living rooms and kitchens of various relatives, before they move into their own apartment in Bronx, in a building called AnaMor Towers. This building would be her home for the next decade, and it would be a witness to the vicissitudes in young Lily’s life. Lily soon becomes a latch-key kid, learning to cook and keep dinner ready for her mother, before she returns from work, from the age of five. She is also running wild with a couple of neighbourhood girls: Diana, a Catholic, and Susan, who, like Lily, is Jewish. Lily plays truant from school in Diana’s company and worships pagan Gods; and, in the bedroom of Susan’s parents, she plays elaborate sex-games, which these days would get social workers knocking on your door. Then Rosie dies after a brief illness that turns out to be cancer. Lily is eight, and the large extended family—Rosie is one of many siblings—gathers to decide what is to become of the orphaned child. It is expected that her uncle ‘Norm’, who is married and issueless, would take on the responsibility. But ‘Norm’ and his shiksa wife, who live down South, neatly side-step the subject and leave without Lily. It is left to her two bachelor uncles, Gabe and Lane, to raise their niece who never knew her father and now has lost her mother.

Uncles Gabe and Len move into their dead sister’s rented apartment.

What follows is a bitter-sweet, at times comic, at times sad, but ultimately life-affirming tale of how these two bachelors, with absolutely no child-rearing experience, bring up their niece, who grows into, belying the Cassandric predictions of their neighbours, a well-rounded young woman.

Sleeping Arrangements is a coming of age story of a parentless young girl in the 1950s’ Bronx. Shain Cunningham looks back with warmth and affection on the eight years she spent with her two uncles, who gave up their bachelor- lifestyles and took up the challenge of looking after their parentless niece. Although it is not spelled out explicitly, both the uncles give up their own accommodations, and the autonomy that goes with them, and move into the apartment little Lilly has lived in, so that the girl can have a sense of continuity—school, friends, ambiance—in her life. This means that each of them has to make a two hour journey to reach their work-places. They also take turns in returning to the apartment during Lily’s lunch hour—so that on alternate days it is a four hour journey for them—to give her company. At home the two uncles divide the household chores between them. Lane cooks while Gabe cleans. Hard as they try, the two bachelors have very little clue about housekeeping. Uncle Len is the more eccentric of the two, and does not believe in always towing the conventional line (he is also probably not a very good cook); he adheres to no timetable, and serves pop corns or hamburgers for breakfast. He also insists on wearing his ‘uniform’ while cooking: a pith helmet and an apron.  Soon he earns the sobriquet of ‘The King of Pressure Cooker’. The other uncle, Geb, declares war against dirt and attacks grime, a mop and pail in hand, with an enthusiasm that borders on violence. The trouble is Gabe is as clueless about cleaning and the functions of everyday cleaning products as his brother is about cooking, and uses bathroom scouring powder to clean the wooden floor in their living room. The brothers’ solution to the laundry problem is to send their clothes to a professional laundry which sends back the clothes fiercely compressed and full of creases.

‘Uncle Len’ is a private investigator. He is also a giant who wears size 13 shoes and, at six feet four, is a cross between Abraham Lincoln (he is convinced Lincoln had an undiagnosed medical condition that made him so tall) and Sam Spade. Uncle, Gabe, is a librarian. Both the uncles have literary inclinations. Uncle Len has academic ambitions and carries with him massive manuscripts on the Lincoln administration written from the Secretary of War Stanton’s point of view, his, Len’s, aim being to give the unsung hero, Stanton, his due credit. This is Len’s serious work. He also writes short stories ‘to make money’. His stories always include dashing men in trenchcoats who rescue damsels in distress from exotic locations. Uncle Len carries the secrecy that must have been required in his line of working to all aspects of his life. He writes at ‘another location’, which he never discloses. He has a steady girl-friend, with whom he spends most weekends—announcing, as he leaves, that he is going on a secret mission—but the lady is never invited to the apartment and Lily never actually meets her. He bestows an air of mystique and suspense to every day mundane tasks, whether out of habit or eccentricity or a wish to keep his little niece entertained, is not clear. He never raises his voice and is excessively formal in all his addresses. ‘Uncle Gabe’, the librarian, is a song writer in his spare time. A devout Jew, he writes gospel songs and attends shul very regularly. He is less secretive in his romantic liaisons than his brother, but none of them comes to fruition, probably, you suspect, because of his insistence on wrapping up the evenings by singing love songs he has written. He also has a dream of converting nonreligious women to his deep orthodox faith. ‘Uncle Len’ describes Gabe’s courting style as unrealistic.

This is without doubt an odd household. And it gets even odder when Lily’s grandmother—her uncles’ and her mother’s mother—comes to live with them. Her name is ‘Esther in Hebrew’, ‘Edna in English’, and ‘Etka in Russian’. She prefers the Russian name and refers to herself as ‘Etka from Minsk’. It soon dawns upon young Lily that ‘Etka from Minsk’ is, if not entirely out of her mind, not entirely within it either. She sings non-stop in Russian, Hebrew, and German; and chants tunelessly her own praise—she is the most beautiful, the most intelligent, and (above all) has the most perfect legs (she is eighty years old). And this is not her only idiosyncrasy. She insists on covering everything in black, and balances saucers on top of glasses. She goes through periods when she gets obsessed with ideas, and does not let go of them—once, in the grip of a mania for frugality, she cuts everything, including blankets, into half. She steals Lily’s clothes and other trinkets, and wears them herself, insisting that they are her own. ‘Arteriosclerosis’ is the word ‘uncle Len’ conspiratorially mutters into Lily’s ears to explain his mother’s very odd behaviour and habits. Lily realises that ‘Etka from Minsk’, in addition to being deaf in one ear, is also very forgetful. She seems to think at times that she is in a hotel, and does not appear to be aware that her daughter, Rosie, Lily’s mother, is dead. Rosie, according to Etka, got a promotion and is working in Washington. Soon Etka and Lily not only learn to tolerate each other, they also work out a scheme for peaceful co-existence. Lily’s part of the bargain is to edit Etka’s memoirs. Like her two sons—and, we learn later, her late husband—Etka too has literary ambitions, and she is not prepared to let go of them even in her senility. She is writing her memoirs, ‘The Philosophy for Women’, in which most sentences begin with the words ‘I believe’ and which are levered by the tenet, repeated throughout the memoirs (that fill more than hundred spiral pages of a notebook), that she was meant to do ‘brainwork’ and not ‘housework’. The ambition of Etka’s life is to get a college diploma—she has even composed a poem (‘A college diploma beats a lifetime of toil / For every boy and goil’) to express the high premium she puts on these certificates—, and when she attends the graduation ceremony of her son, ‘Uncle Len’—he has been quietly attending a Night School has earned his final credit for his master’s degree—she wants one too. The two brothers and their niece then prepare a fake diploma certificate, and, in a ceremony that seems too surreal to be true, they solemnly present to Etka the diploma certificate one evening in the local public garden, under a statue.

The ingenuity of the uncles is severely put to test as Lily reaches adolescence. Bound by the traditional etiquettes in these matters, common, no doubt, to men of their generation, both Len and Gabe are severely ill at ease in discussing what Len euphemistically refers to as ‘the facts of life’ with their niece. Since ‘Etka from Minsk’ proves to be of little use, they send for her younger sister, the great aunt Dora, whose strategy is to present Lily with a brassiere from the tsarist era and leave it to her to figure out the rest. Her uncles, in an act of utter desperation, slip a copy of ‘Facts of Love and Life for Teenagers’ under her pillow. In the end, Lily learns about ‘the facts of life’ in the same way as many teenagers from her generation: from her friends.

The unlikely happy family continues in this fashion for more than eight years, during which period hey change first apartments and, later, when Bronx becomes too violent, area. The family unit breaks when Lily leaves home to start University. We learn, in the Afterword, that the two brothers carried on looking after their ‘arteriosclerotic’ mother till she died at the great age of eighty eight. After that Uncle Gabe immigrated to Israel and promptly settled into matrimony, while Uncle Len retired to a Southern state; he continued to see his girl-friend of years, but the two did not marry. Shaine Cunningham tried to search for her absentee father off and on for a number of years without getting anywhere, before finally giving up the search. The memoir ends with Shaine Cunningham declaring that she is not his (her birth father’s) child; she is the child of her two uncles who raised her against convention.

Sleeping Arrangement is more than just another coming of age story. It is more than a memoir. It is an ode of love and gratitude to the two men who devoted the best years of their lives, and quietly and uncomplainingly sacrificed their personal interests in order to look after the daughter of their dead sister.  This is a vividly remembered childhood—the details provided of the fierce childhood games and associated activities with playmates are astonishing. Whether the events happened exactly the way they are recounted or whether an artistic license has been taken is beside the point. Shaine Cunningham has successfully portrayed the atmosphere, the ambiance, of the times she grew up in, both within and outside of her home. In simple, direct, and pellucid prose she intensifies the impact of all the things that went on to shape her childhood and, no doubt, contributed to the development of her emerging personality. When Lily begins to avoid school in her fifth grade because of her terror of the new class-teacher, Uncle Lane takes her on a ‘secret mission’ to an island. The island is Cuba, and Castro has usurped power only a few weeks ago. They spend a few days (in a deserted Five Star hotel) on the island that is still in the midst of a revolution. On their way back, Len says to her, ‘Now, doesn’t this give you a perspective on Mrs. Aventuro?’

The writing of Sleeping Arrangements  is very atmospheric. Such is the power of narration that you are instantly transported to Lily’s apartment in Bronx and ‘see’  ‘Uncle Lane’ trying out his recipes in the kitchenette, with a pith helmet on his head, uncle Gabe going over his gospel songs in the dinette, and Etka humming to herself in the bedroom window. This is an affectionate memoir, but at no time does Shaine Cunningham wallows in mawkish sentimentality. The personalities of her two generous-hearted uncles and eccentric grandmother—‘Etka from Minsk’ is one of the most memorable characters to have been depicted, both in fiction and non-fiction—come across very distinctly, as do their love and concern for orphaned niece. Against all odds and conventions they managed to be a happy family. And the warm glow of the felicity stays with you long after you come to its end.

Laura Shaine Cunningham is not a familiar name in Britain, but she is apparently well known in her native America as a writer and play-write of distinction. She has published another book of memoirs (A Place in the Country), several plays and a few novels. Sleeping Arrangements was published in the United States in 1989, and it took another sixteen years for it to be published in the United Kingdom. Judging from this enchanting, tender, warm-hearted, and very moving memoir her reputation ought to cross the Atlantic.