"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Youth And The Consequences Of Knowing It Was The Best Time Of Your Life

Eleanor Trowbridge kept scratching her skin until it began to flake and come off on the dining room table. “Stop it, Mother”, said her daughter Leona. “I don’t care how much you itch, it’s disgusting when you shed just as I’m about to put the food on the table.

“I can’t help it.  A hundred spiders are crawling up and down my arms.”

Leona felt – or wanted to believe - that there was nothing seriously wrong with her mother. No schizophrenia or advanced dementia.  She did not scale, peel, or turn blotchy like old ladies did with eczema, nor did she have allergic wheals and welts caused by stress, peanuts, or shrimp. “Mom, we’ve been through this before. There’s nothing organically wrong with you, no allergies, and certainly no psychosomatic immune reactions. You’re fine.”

“I am not fine”, Eleanor shouted. “My skin is crawling”. So off they went to the bathroom where Leona drew a bath full of Epsom salts and bubbles – the first to calm down whatever it was that was irritating her mother’s skin; and the second as a playful ploy to get her mind off her itches and her obsessions.

As she stepped into the bath, Eleanor said, ‘”How did I get so old?  I don’t even remember how I got here.”

Eleanor Trowbridge had been born in the late 20s, and by the time WWII came around, she was considered the most beautiful woman in New Brighton – as beautiful as Betty Grable, Lana Turner, or any of the Hollywood pinup girls GIs carried with them to Europe. She had so many offers of marriage by soldiers off to fight the Nazis that she couldn’t keep them straight; but since most of these boys would never come back alive, she didn’t have the heart to say no. 

Betty Grable


Most of the boys, however, did come back, and Eleanor had a tough time shooing them away from her front porch. “Like bees to a sweet flower”, said Eleanor’s mother, remembering her own youth. “Just pick the one you like, honey; and if none suits you, there will be plenty more.”

Her new standoffishness only riled the boys up even more.  There was nothing more exciting than to pursue a reluctant woman whose charms were somehow made even more desirable by her diffidence.  In a way she liked this phase, and imagined herself courted like a lady by a medieval knight; but there was nothing dashing or chivalrous about her pimply suitors.

Knight and Maiden

“Just don’t wait too long”, said Eleanor’s mother who would never be happy until her only daughter was married and hopefully married well.  As time went on and Eleanor still had found no suitable mate, her mother’s high standards were progressively lowered. “What about the Fletcher boy?”, she asked. “Her family is very well off”.

The ‘Fletcher boy’ was indeed from a family of means.  His father was the son of one of New Brighton’s captains of industry, lived in the fashionable West End, belonged to Green Meadows Country Club, and was the biggest supporter of the New Brighton Museum of American Art.

It was Harold Fletcher, the prospective suitor, who was the problem. Harold had none of the multiple intelligences that one could pick from today. He stumbled over passages from Hemingway, the simplest writer in English, never had gotten beyond sums and simple division, couldn’t remember even the  most celebrated  events of American history. Latin began with sum, es, est and there it remained.

He was unattractive, clumsy, and inept.  He was so bad an athlete that he was never more than water boy or coach’s gofer. Since no 9th-grader could be left out of important school activities, such as publishing The Meadows, the class yearbook, Harold was assigned the job of Business Manager which meant delivering the draft to the printer and picking up the copies when they were ready.

Eleanor’s family insisted that she go away to a New England preparatory school, and she spent three frustrated years at Alford Academy, one of the foremost girl’s school in the region, but one of the strictest. It was about that time, that Eleanor felt like she was coming into her own; and like many girls her age, she fell in love with Emma Bovary  who all her life dreamed of being swept off her feet, dancing until midnight, married in a great cathedral, honeymooning on the Mediterranean, and coming home to a chateau on the Loire; but who quickly found that Charles Bovary was “as flat as a sidewalk”, uninspiring to say the least, and a dull, pedestrian man whose devotion to his rural medical practice kept him away for most of the day, dog-tired at night, and unwilling or unable to move past the confines of their village.  No wonder Emma took a lover.


If there was anyone who lived an F. Scott Fitzgerald life, it was Eleanor.  She was the belle of the Mistletoe Ball, Holly Ball, and Christmas Ball, danced until midnight, drank bourbon in the clubhouse and drunk and happy, whirled and pirouetted until she went home with the handsomest boy at the dance, made out with him in the back seat of his car, and finally, flushed, ecstatic, and feeling finally like a woman, sank into bed and slept until noon.


Once again her parents insisted on propriety, status, and history when choosing a college for Eleanor, and Wellesley was it. Not as feminist and anarchic as Vassar, not so dykey (even then) as Smith, and not so intellectual as Radcliffe.  It was just right.  Rigorous enough for serious academic pursuit, but attentive to the girls social needs.

Eleanor had long ago arranged her priorities.  She knew she was smart enough to get a Gentleman’s C which would leave her more than enough time to step out, be noticed, and have fun.

Unfortunately, Eleanor was bored by Wellesley and even more by Boston.  New York City had always been her cultural pole, and her first choice of schools had been Barnard.  Her parents refused.  New York might well be the artistic, intellectual, and artistic capital of the world, but it was a dangerous environment for young, impressionable girls.  Which, of course, was why Eleanor wanted to go there.

After a year of moaning to her parents about Wellesley, she was able to convince them to allow her to transfer to Barnard; and her life was never the same.  For the first time in her life her character, personality, and energy were in perfect synchrony with her environment.  New York was FAO Schwartz all grown up – dazzle, more toys that anyone could ever imagine, bright lights, Christmas trees, Santa Claus, bows and ribbons, bustle, and excitement.  She was indeed in her element.


Eleanor sampled every morsel of New York.  Through her parents New England connections and the social register, she was invited to formal dinners on Fifth Avenue. By sleeping with Leonard Steinberg, the famous artist-in-residence at Barnard and a world-renowned lithographer, she was introduced to SOHO arts crowd; and through them Off Broadway.  The West Village was still bohemian, artsy, and intellectual; and she felt right at home.  The East Village was just beginning to transition from a hard, tough, and crime-ridden neighborhood  to one which was showing signs of the hip, off-center, and very desirable neighborhood it would soon become; and even in her mid-thirties, Eleanor found a place.  The area was still very sketchy – Indian Country down by the projects and Avenues B and C - but closer to Tompkins Square and 8th Street it was edgy, demanding, and the place to be.  She was never happier.


Halcyon years, salad years, unforgettable years never to be repeated.  Eleanor knew that they would be the happiest years of her life, an insight that doubled and tripled the experience. To be happy and to know that you are at the very zenith of your emotional life is exhilarating, transforming, and permanent.

By the time she was thirty-five, the downside of this unique euphoria hit home.  Since she had been on the top of the highest pinnacle, perched on a steeple like Ibsen’s Master Builder, defying God, but aware that he would fall, she knew that the rest of her life was with the herd below.

“Jesus should have taken Satan’s offer”, she often thought. During her New York years she felt that she could do anything, have anything and be anything. It was a perfect confluence of luck and inspiration.   Not only did nothing go wrong, but everything went right.  The right lover in an unsuspecting corner; the right party; the right, and absolutely most resonant piece of music.  The most perfect Spring, the mildest Winter.

Either because of that one, unique, and particular insight in New York; or because of the inevitability of tarnish and rust  that has to come with age, Eleanor’s life became more and more disappointingly routine.  Nothing seemed to satisfy.  How could after the extravagant life of Broadway, Park Avenue, and the Upper East Side; after acid trips, sex behind meth and Bombay Black, could anything else satisfy?

She had a child by a lover she had handpicked.  She had no interest in him per se, but in his pedigree and genes.  She left him and San Francisco when she found out she was pregnant, moved to Montana in seclusion just like any unwedded mother of Hawthorne of Flaubert; and finally settled in Washington, DC, a city she had always considered dull, prosaic, and stifling; but now a reasonable choice for her and her daughter.  Washington was all about government jobs and good schools and she consigned herself to a phase of life which she hoped would have a quick end.


It did not. After a certain age, change is no longer possible, let alone one which might recapture some of Eleanor’s former confidence and social brilliance.  The sense of consignment passed and was replaced by diffidence, then regret, and finally crotchety, abrasive old age.

“Mother, you simply must stop scratching yourself on the table.  Look at how you have messed up my place-settings, and right on Aunt Julia’s dinner plate!”

Leona took hold of her mother – a firm, purposeful embrace, but softened by her words.  The problem was that not only was she scratching flaky, dry skin, on the holiday place settings, but she had no idea she was doing it. 

This late in her life Eleanor could not even recall New York or  the cotillions in New Brighton, Farmington, and West Hartford.  Fragments of them – a phrase from a Strauss waltz, Bobby Nichols’ bow tie, the Christmas decorations on the green – came to her at odd moments; but just as she started to related them, they were gone.

In one way it was a good thing that Eleanor Trowbridge couldn’t remember the disappointment she felt after ‘the pinnacle’.  Better to forget the years of ‘flat sidewalks’ even if it meant occluding the few bright years of her youth.

The expression of one’s individual will was the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world, said Nietzsche; and Eleanor would have made him proud, for she was an Ubermensch.  Nietzsche never considered the downside of Will and how it erodes and dissipates over time. He never anticipated Eleanor Trowbridge and her descent.  For him Will was a permanent, inherent quality which had no phases of ascendancy and disappearance.  Eleanor Trowbridge, however, was real.  It was not enough to look at her epiphany, but her trajectory.  Like all of us, she started off well enough, but ended up badly.




  1. So the goal to is not to end up poorly! Is that possible? Dust to dust.....

  2. So the goal to is not to end up poorly! Is that possible? Dust to dust.....


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