I worked with a wonderful woman once. She would pick at her fingers and sores on her knees and giggle, begin to say something then sigh. She was always looking for her bloomers: in the bread-bin, in the refrigerator, in other people’s wardrobes and treasure boxes. “What are you doing Mrs. Robertson? Where have you put your nightdress?” “I’m looking for my bloomers, I need my bloomers. Turkey lurkey. All the way home all the way home all the way home.”
Another lady, she would howl and roar. “When am I going to die?” she’d demand and she would not be comforted until you abandoned the course of nicer answers and said “tonight Ger, tonight, you’re going to die tonight.” Other questions that demanded very specific answers or all hell break loose were:
“What would a leopard do to you, a leopard? What would a cheetah do to you, a cheetah? What would a chainsaw do to you, a chainsaw?” And on like this incessantly and until she dies. Perhaps she has.
I was eighteen and her questions were disturbing – answers unfathomable until I learned what she sought for by listening to other staff. I’d always eavesdrop on one question in particular, curious to know the answer myself: “Why didn’t God make me a boy? Why am I a girl?” I never found out. Ger’s answers were different to my answers.
Why am I writing about this? How did I come to remember those women so suddenly this morning and can’t now get them out of my mind?
This photograph by Cecil Beaton in Janet Malcolm’s biography Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. Something of the sick-patient in them, or at least it struck me so. The short, tight haircuts. The strong jaws. The striped, amorphous gown of Gertrude’s. Is it me or does Alice look sad and lost?
Gertrude’s language, too. Her way of speaking and writing. I’m reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas for its accessibility – so much of Stein’s writing is bewildering and I admit she baffles and evades my understanding.
Why is a feel oyster an egg stir. Why is it orange centre.
A show at tick and loosen loosen it so to speak sat.
It was an extra leaker with a see spoon, it was an extra licker with a see spoon.
If I heard her speak in the way that she writes, I would probably diagnose her as mad. Anyone who has worked in a psychiatric home has encountered poetry like ‘An Acquaintance With Description’ though they would not call it poetry but insanity:
“Let it be mine when it is mine to be sure let it be when it is mine when it is mine let it be to be sure when it is mine to be sure let it be let it be let it be to be sure let it be to be sure when it is mine…”
I’m not declaring Gertrude Stein mad, by an means. Rather, this morning, I am remembering two women – out of many other women (and men) I’ve worked with – who were perhaps, after all, unrecognized and forgotten geniuses and poets.
“What would a memory do to you, a memory?” It takes you All the way home all the way home all the way home…