An Edith Piaf of the Soul; Last Song

“Ginny” was an Edith Piaf of the soul: a sparrow-like body which emits a spirit that envelopes you in charm, kindness, laughter, wisdom, a blanket of human warmth. If I could return to this earth reincarnated as a fine human being and also an ultimate psychoanalyst, I would pray to return as Ginny.

In my youth, we would watch the TV theatrics of wrestling — The Sphinx, Gorgeous George, the Iron Sheik. In a ring full of academic auteurs, light-weights, soul-masqueraders, Ginny is the ultimate smack-down, the Hulk Hogan of the soul.

But her body tries its best to fail her. A Parkensonian blunting, both of body and a damming-up of the spirit stream. A damn challenge. She proclaims, “I shamelessly slurp dopamine wherever I am: diners or subways, museums or the Waldorf Clock.” When I finally visit her on the Upper East Side, after a quarter-decade’s absence, she was heading off to the Stonemountain Center to have her brain mapped and stimulated by a Dr. L. She picked this over deep-brain needle insertion and a pace-maker-like stimulator: magnetic rays, yes; brain needles, no.

We first met in the mid-80’s at the largely named New York Hospital-Cornell
University Medical Center — Westchester Division, more mundanely known
as the Bloomingdale Asylum. Or Bloomingdale’s. This 300 acre, hilly estate
was in Bloomingdale’s backyard, White Plains. Here we few, we happy few faculty lived. The Asylum, founded in the 1700’s at the southern tip of Manhattan, escaping civilization, shifted to 300 acres in White Plains. White Plains was monickered such, because the first white men leveled the trees, turned forests into plains. Frederick Law Olmsted, Central Park’s landscape architect, designed these grounds. He wrote touchingly of how patients should be taken on twice daily carriage rides to heal their spirits, of the softly shifting elevations and valleys most beneficial for the soul. He wrote from within, as he ended his life at a mental institution he designed.

The first medical director of Bloomingdale’s (the madhouse, not the store of perfume spritzers) put out an international request for trees. Now, the grounds are populated by copper beeches, weeping beeches, larches and piney kin. A 100-something year-old Japanese split maple, espaliered on a fence, offers itself to be pet, like some trembling sheep dog.

The Asylum’s entrance sweeps up discreetly from the 287 exit ramp.
Through two brick columns, with a diminutive brass sign bearing the formal moniker, you unknowingly pass a nine-hole golf course on your left, downhill. Our formal gardens were after the York Retreat in England, one of the first humane asylums, the anti-Bedlam. The tennis courts were used (by faculty), including the platform tennis court and squash court. On Campus, we rented a grand three-story, slate-roofed, brick colonial, with sunporch off the salon and above it, a sun-deck off the master bedroom. More rooms than we had budget to furnish; we strode through empty rooms, imagining we were of gentry. The circular drive was plowed in the winter.

Its cellar emptied into an underground tunnel which like some intestinal tract, wended its way to the Hospital, bypassing the eight-minute stroll up hill. As the parking lot paved over the underground Arethusa stream, our cellar became an indoor wading pool at spring thaw. By our circular driveway was an elderly, grand black-limbed magnolia tree that offered one horizontal limb to hold the swing I hung for our first-born, S.

Ginny’s gabled home poised over the hill’s brow. A hexagonal sitting room, placed you amidst the woods; within you bathed in her warmth. In the kitchen, photos of her twins lived: B., dressed in top-hat, tails and black stockings, cane in hand, a a Marlene Dietrich ringer. E. became a chanteur and now awaits his first child. Ginny had moved to Westchester from the Midwest after her husband had gone chick-hunting in a town too small for both chicks and a wife. (How any man could ever leave Ginny, I can only understand by the crotch-baring era of the 60’s; G.D.Searle’s birth control pills led to wide-spread crotch offerings.)

Ginny migrated to White Plains, from the soul-healing center MIdwest. When psychoanalysts made their August migration to the Cape, Nantucket, someone had to stay behind to cover patients whose soul-wings were too clipped to fly far. Ginny volunteered. In August, when we were socked-in with brow-dripping humidity, Ginny appeared on her porch, shook her showered Buster-Brown haircut and announced that five or six showers daily defeats humidity.

Ginny once asked me, just before she was to teach the medical students, if she could start: “The patient’s body as a temple, which physician’s have the privilege to enter, to touch; so too is the patient’s mind or soul. We should be deeply respectful.” I thought students might find that a bit over the top. But she was right about approaching an ailing soul.

Ginny was a soul-spelunker who always find some light, even some dim light, in our darkest regions. She found more in me than I could find in myself; seemed to think I was fairly bright, promising, and a decent chap. Liked my then-wife. Knew my first-born.

Years after leaving New York, my then-wife needed more space — soon took mine — and she took up with a wealthy, nearly dead HIV-infested fellow. He insisted that all his food be white, cut the tan crust off his Wonderbread. But before she made the beast of two backs with Mr. HIV, before she marched to courts and such, my then-wife, “Bea,” agreed to see Ginny in consultation. We now lived some two-three hours drive from Westchester.

Yet, Ginny was the only psychoanalyst in New York and Connecticut whom “Bea” agreed to see. Made the 5-hour round-trip to talk with Ginny. Returned, saying that Ginny cautioned her “Listen to yourself. Think. Reflect, before you take irreversible actions.” Bea was not pleased. Found some psycho-prattler in New Haven. The prattler advised the then-wife, soon-to-be-ex,”Spread your wings, fly free, be unfettered, realize that you’ve had been married to a straw-man of no substance!” So my ex reported. (A few years later, I learned that the prattler had been fired from a research study as untrustworthy. Understatement.)

Decades after the Fall (of my marriage), when I try to reassure Ginny that Bea found some clarity from her comments, Ginny did a sotto voce: “That perhaps, may have been the problem, why your ex leapt into action, devil take the rest.” I was trying to let Ginny off the hook, be polite. She’d have none of this — stayed to the effect upon the patient: Did Ginny help or not. No emollient words for Ginny; soul-truths were her measure.

After two decades, I was ready to realize she would be there at the Meetings. I came to NYC almost annually for the psychoanalytic meetings even when at the Hebrew University. With my former student, Charlie we once trudged through a blanket of snow down Park Avenue, skid to the original Brooks Brothers for me to find fur-lined gloves. This BB to which Charlie went as a sprout, got his first blazer. The elevator operator, whose voice is as creaky as his hand-cranking elevator with its X’s accordian bronze and greased doors, greets Charlie, knows him.

But, something about this year that I could allow myself to see Ginny. My first glimpse was from behind: she standing at the microphone, colorful, angled cane in hand, ready to ask a question from the audience of her husband about his new book, Endings and Beginnings. Cooper, chairperson, says kiddingly, “Now, an in-house question.” It was a smart, dear question, something she learned from supervising a resident who wanted to end all of her patients in June, start anew. I was a bit too aflutter to listen as well as I should; wanted to step up, tap the shoulder, embrace her. (I, a touch German Jew, am not the hugger.)

My turn at the mic, introduced myself as from Jerusalem, but once a
neighbor of Ginny’s in Westchester. She twists about and I see her face light incandescently — — a flash of brightness, LED’s. Over the next few questions, I worked myself around the back, up the left side, edging closer to her front row, but not wanting to interrupt her with my enthusiasm. Near the end, she is phoned and steps out. I wait and then wait a bit more. She proffers a firm handshake, a straight-shot eye-lock and smile. I reach her hand to my lips to kiss it. She’s out with her leather, blue, gilt-edged New Yorker appointment book; wants a firm time. After the meetings, Monday, 1 pm, in her office/home on the Upper East Side. I can’t wait and learn from her answering service that she too is anticipating.

This building has two doormen and a broad, vacant feeling lobby, paved with
divergent, forking carpets. Easterly and Westerly broad mirrors greet you greeting yourself, lonely chairs and some flowery matter sprouting before the mirrors. I am early. I wait. Then, I’m waved silently to the elevator.

These apartments are long, high-ceilinged, oak-beamed, look their creaky age.

To the right, marching to Ginny’s office, which doubles as a guest room, is a long, darkly painted hall lined chock-a-block with exquisite Japanese prints, a la Monet’s home in Giverny. But, no Giverny light here: one must squint, move slowly to see these masterpieces of moments in life; a mother, naked, brushing her long hair forward, as her toddler clambers up her back, over her shoulder; militaristic Samuraish fellows; a landscape of a lone, hill/island with a barren wind-sculpted pine surrounded by watery loneliness.

Ginny pulls out a chair for me, sits briefly in her wheeled typing chair, postured, but rises soon, busying herself. Sometimes standing and talking, and I wonder if it is time to leave. Asked and answered — with Ginny no need for ambiguity. I spy four shots of B. now older, over forty, the Dietrich look-alike is now married to a dear fellow who met her at a poetry “slam” when they were seventeen, then waited patiently, patiently. Ginny sees my gaze and says, “How sweet she is.” This is most important for her. The other twin, E., is expecting a boy or a girl, is nesting out his two-room spread in the Village.

There were moments of Ginny’s tears. She would apologize. When she spoke of her children’s father’s dying and their attempts to come to terms with him, after their anger over his leaving the family, of his self-involvement; when she spoke of her children working at finding themselves and finally doing so. Wonders whether she could have been more helpful to them after the divorce, had she not had such hard feelings towards her husband’s following where his penis led. But, not a tear about herself. Not until later I learn of how her body was defeating her.

Here’s about my tears she doesn’t know; I think not, at least.

At the end — after I walk her to the subway and she is adamant that I am not to walk her down the stairs, as I am to say goodbye, after she embraces me, kisses me on both cheeks, then steps back and proffers that firm hand shake and that eye-lock that seemed to not want to end — after I turn away, I take a few steps, then find my face flooded with tears. On frozen Manhattan, East 86th people bustling past, dog-walkers, I try to hold back. Unseemly to bawl on the Isle of “Manhatto,” where Melville’s Ishmael chose to go to sea rather than drown in sadness. Then I let it hap- pen, the tears, mine. A block or two will be enough to release the feelings. But, not enough distance, not enough time. They keep coming, chesty sobbing, until I ask myself “Why?” And answer: Ginny’s handshake and eye-grip may be her last. This perhaps she knew.

More about the river of feelings before the cataract of tears. After their father’s death, her son, E. composed a song of reconciliation. The twins sang to their brain-struck father, who had stopped his anti-hypertension pills just before he went to high desert to deliver a eulogy; rather than give one, got one.

I want to hear more about Ginny: the cane, the frailty, but she wants more of me. I hold back. The divorce, the loss of children, which has become so commonplace today, like the Black Plague and funeral dirges once were in the Middle Ages: back then, everyone knew someone who was felled; business was good for gravediggers, undertakers. Today’s vultures who wear suits and call themselves “family law.” They stand ready with spade and measure you for the pit, but take organ donations while you still breathe. This I hold back on.

We agree that the lovely woman we knew in Westchester — my once wife — would never have done such a thing to her children. A transformation there was. But, as psychoanalysts (and she, the one who spoke to the lady in consultation and is sworn to the confessional), no light comes forth in understanding. Instead, lament; for the children. If she did enough to keep her anger from her twins.

Her tears came as she is slightly turned profile (like the elegai, profile of the da Vinci woman behind her). She apologizes before they appear, feelings in full. These tears flow as she talks about her children’s wandering in the wilderness. Seeking understanding; offering the brain-attacked father forgiveness. Perhaps never understanding.

She confides that the son got a good “half-analysis” about his father; thinks he would do well to sort out the mother. I think: with such a dear and beautiful and compassionate mother, would be hard to sort out…and, “Why bother?”. I think: idealizing is not such a healthy matter; but a responding thought is — who’s idealizing?

I give her my two books; last year’s co-authored one and we commiserate about co-authors; knowing how to pick them. (Too much like bad ex’s.) My new book on soldiers she packs into her sac to read on the subway to brainland. She gives me her new article, which I consume hungrily over a dish of chestnut soup and Armagnac plum at the Neuegallerie. Such breadth of psychoanalytic knowledge, such clarity of writing, and the humanity is its emotional syntax — built-in, felt, more than stated. I find some comments I can make that are not so much critical, as expansive, glad that I can find something to add.

Before we left her home, she was scissoring some Xeroxed pages, cutting off the black ends, like fall leaves that have a bit of rot. the better to fit into a file
folder. I remember Monet’s cut collages when he was bedridden and admired the leafy Philodendrons surrounding him. I help her fit the folder into the drawer; she proud of her movement towards organization. I give her Piaget’s quip , about his messy office: there is only order in the universe — organic and geometric. His was organic. This she likes.

Before she prepares to leave, she wants to dwell on my daughters. They will come around she insists. Absolutely. (And I think to myself, likely only when I am brain- weak, hospicing somewheres.) She would like to see them, a visit, a connection with their childhood.

Getting going, her exit, is a busy matter. She has a practical sac: nylon, top
zippered and two zippered compartments on the side. She loads her
brain supplements in the top, through the caput, shaking the bottle to
be sure that enough pills rattle. The lower zippered pocket has a
green label with “money” written in large letters. I say,“This is a rip-off magnet.” She comments quite sensibly: “If I’m going to get ripped off, I don’t want them rooting pig-like through my top sac; go for the dough and be off!” I recall in the
1980’s when she rode the subway during woolier Manhattan days —
thuggery was the fashion — in those days, Ginny demonstrated how she, this bird-boned lady, would clear space around her seat on the subway: she imitated a brazenly psychotic loudly mumbling and gesticulating patient. No one bothered her. Now, she merely is practical.

As we exit, we pass a Picasso in the living room above the couch: a mother suckling her child. I slurp in the Japanese prints in the darkness of the passageway. In her kitchen as she tells me about her brain doctor who uses both dopamine and various foods and such. She says of this ailment that the movement stuff she will deal with; the dementia is not acceptable. This old-fashioned psychoanalyst, of the best kind of old-fashioned, as old-fashioned as a fine cognac, tells me a bit about this brain stimulation stuff that she is heading towards, subwaywize; no highfalutin cabs for her. A sophisticated version of biofeedback: reads your waves, stimulates over- or underactive areas. She thinks it helps, but often the following day she has adverse reactions, heads for bed.

Here, on 86th, just before the Lexington Avenue subway descent,
my averted head, I have tears, tears I won’t let her see. Tears I tell myself to hold back, then flow. Tears that come before I know why. To say goodbye to someone dearly loved, whom I have only thought about over years, who brought light into our lives. To say goodbye, not knowing if there will be another hello.

And her descent was forever.

Copyright, Nathan Szajnberg 2020

Written by

Born in a German Displaced Persons' Camp, I grew up in Rochester and attended the University of Chicago College and Med School.

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