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AUGUST 9, 2010 6:59AM

Tolstoy Read My Mind

Rate: 79 Flag

The Blakes moved into the neighborhood when I was ten. I remember because there was a knock on the door and Mrs. Blake stood in the hallway wearing black Capri pants, a gold turban on her head and a cigarette dangling from her red lips. She explained that she had just moved in and needed some sugar for her coffee. Would my mother like to come over for coffee? 

My mother blinked. She smelled the distinct smell of alcohol wafting in her direction and told her "maybe another time." She did give her the sugar. When I appeared at the door Mrs. Blake asked how old I was. My mother's voice became uncharacteristically chirpy all of a sudden. "She's ten! Double digits! They grow up so fast, don't they?"  She closed the door. "Bye now!" 

Maybe it was my mother's southern upbringing kicking in. Her voice sounded high and unnaturally chipper when she didn't like you. I knew that Mrs Blake didn't stand a chance in hell with my mother. Her flaming red hair from a box plus her red lipstick plus a turban plus being drunk at 11 am? Mrs. Blake would have had a better chance of finding a friend on Mars than at my mother's door.

My mother had had quite enough of drinkers. We had just moved into this new apartment leaving my father and his stash of whiskey bottles behind.   The last thing my mother wanted was a friend who was drunk before noon.

According to Mrs. Blake, her husband had been a famous movie producer. Apparently he'd had some trouble out there in Hollywood and had settled for a little while in our city. A kind of hiatus, she told me. I believed her. I was only ten and  still believed most everything people told me. Besides, Mr. Blake wore an ascot and a silk bathrobe every time I saw him. If that didn't prove he was from Hollywood, I don't know what did.  One day in the laundry room, Mrs. Blake told me it was called a "dressing gown" not a bathrobe.  She also told me that she had been an artist in New York.  That explained the turban. I secretly liked running into Mrs. Blake in the laundry room. I learned about ascots and dressing gowns and Hollywood back-stabbing.

Mr. and Mrs. Blake fascinated me. They had vague British accents that usually became stronger the more they drank. While my mother was fixing dinner we heard them arguing about things like whether real talent was found in New York or Hollywood. According to Mrs. Blake, if you had talent you went to New York. Their arguments always seemed sophisticated and intellectual to me. They were never about money or unpaid bills or the things my parents fought about.

 I never saw Mrs. Blake go out for groceries. Yet she always had a cigarette and a drink in her hand when she came to our door to borrow something. My mother would turn on her chirpy voice, and I knew Mrs. Blake needed a cup of something. Sometimes she would send Barbara or Connie, her two impossibly thin, impossibly sad daughters to ask my mother for whatever it was she needed. Barbara was the older one.  My age actually. I wanted to play with her but I was given strict instructions never to set foot in their apartment. 

Barbara and Connie always looked hungry and a little dirty. My mother would let them come into our apartment when they came to borrow something. She didn't make them stand in the hallway.

They stayed for dinner one evening after mentioning that their mother was still asleep.  My mother put spaghetti and meatballs in front of them.  They ate platefuls of my mother's cooking. Slowly and with impeccably good manners, they filled their stomachs without a word.  I concluded that Hollywood must be a terrible place to make little girls that hungry and that sad.

Months went by and I didn't see them or hear anything from their apartment for awhile. Mrs. Blake returned one day to the apartment by herself. They were moving, she informed us. Mr. Blake had died and she was taking the girls back to California to spread her husband's ashes in the Pacific Ocean.

"In fact, I've got him right here," she told my mother, patting the "Chock Full o' Nuts" (the heavenly coffee) can she was holding. She had been drinking more than usual and braced herself against the entry of our doorway. "Are you sure you won't come over for coffee?"

I remember my mother's horrified look. She politely declined Mrs. Blake's invitation but she never took her eyes off the coffee can.

That was the last day I saw her. My mother told me the girls had been shipped off to live with relatives. I watched the movers load Mrs. Blake's worldly possessions onto their truck. The red velvet couch, the beaded lamps, the boxes and boxes of books. I sat on the front steps and watched them load paintings and sculptures I realized must have been Mrs Blake's art work.

Maybe she really had been a famous artist and he a well-known movie producer in Hollywood at one time. I couldn't say for sure.

At ten, I had no idea who Leo Tolstoy was and had never heard of Anna Karenina. But I did know with absolute certainty that every unhappy family really was unhappy in its own way. 

Our unhappiness looked quite dull next to the unhappiness of our Hollywood neighbors. 



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You're right about Tolstoy. Mrs. Blake sounds like a fascinating character though and your youthful observations pretty much nailed it.
I wonder what would have happened if your mother had gone over for just one cup?... Mrs. Blake kept asking for a reason....
Askme's Q, above, is interesting; at the same time, the woman's appearance and whiff would have been enough to off-put me, too, unless the woman's needinng sugar became persistent. Then my Investigative-Mode wou'd;ve kicked in. Rated for Memory.
@askme, Jonathan, I don't think there was any doubt that Mrs. Blake was an incredibly lonely woman.
Rated for ascot and silk dressing gown. And feeding the girls.
Rated because the whole arguement between California and New York, no contest in that arguement, neither!! NORTH DAKOTA!! ;D
You pack a load of truth, humor, vivid detail and sorrow into this Dagwood sandwich of life slices, Joan. A marvelous piece. I love the way you filter it through the eyes of a 10-year-old with the incipient wisdom of a sage.
It must be hard for people to live on memories. She must of had a hard time when her husband died. The writing was great, as usual!
how wonderfully and facsinatingly told. r
I loved the story Joan and could picture every word in my mind.
This is an EP for sure.
Rated with hugs
Fascinating slice of life and so poignant in comparing sadnesses. I hope the daughters were alright at relatives...
This is a vivid and entertaining (er, except for the "impossibly thin, impossibly sad" daughters...) snapshot. I wonder whatever happened to Mrs. Blake. A gold turban, priceless. Rate from me!
Brava, Joan. You really wrote this wonderful piece with a ten-year-old's perspective.
You tell a story so well: exactly the right balance and choice of detail.
(Chock Full' o Nuts--of course!) You're collecting the words for a wonderful essay of memoir.(r)
I meant to say "collection of memoir essays". I need more 'Chock Full'o Nuts!')
Well written, Joan: You make the Blakes come alive. I sure to feel sorry for those girls . . .
Fascinating story, beautifully told. You capture the viewpoint of a ten-year-old perfectly - the fascination with the exotic. Very nice.
Joan, You really have the ability to transport the reader. You put me in your place so perfectly when you write. This is no exception. There are many lines and attention to detail here where you hit the nail squarely on the head. Bravo.
A sad and yet interesting family. You relayed the perspective you had as a child so well: fascinated, but with a hint of caution.
I wonder how many cigarette ashes were in that coffee can. Life can be overwhelming for some people. Relief comes in many sizes -- pints, quarts, gallons.
This is one of your best, Joan!
I'm a terrible person- I kept thinking at the end, "What a shame you weren't allowed to go into the apartment" It would have been fascinating. Love this post. Neighbors and unhappiness...lots to mine there.
Coffee made from the ashed Mr. Blake - who wouldn't want some?

You were an observant ten-year-old, and I love how you remember your younger self.
Vivid portrait of eccentricity, Joan. Hmm, think I'll have a cup of tea instead of coffee ....
i liked this. i could totally visualize the setting. i wonder what stories you would've written if your mother had allowed you to step foot in the blake's house.
The details couldn't be more perfect . . . a "Chock Full O' Nuts" can? Fascinating!
i love stories that are told from a child's point of did a superb job.
Mrs. Blake is right out of a sixties novel. The turban! The cigarette! The drinking before noon! But I admit I was drawn to her choice of a Chock Full of Nuts container for her husband's ashes--LOL
You deliver well how the Blakes can be fascinating to a child of ten through the latter's voice. Well done, Joan. Congratulations for the EP! R
Another outstanding piece. Mrs Blake was definitely a character. Makes all the characters I grew up with seem pretty boring.
Joan, really well written as usual. Your wrote with many more layers of detail than I think you usually do in your spare style, which really sets the Tolstoy tone in this piece. I wonder what happened to those poor little girls?
Wonderful read. My mother is a southern too and her voice goes uncharacteristically high when she's lying.
isn't it odd, how everyone else's sadness looks more glamorous than yours? the characters that inhabit our lives, that flit in and out, leaving bits and pieces of stories -- you write about them beautifully, joan.
Wow. I'm reading and thinking very conflicting thoughts - I would have found the Blakes fascinating, especially when I was a kid, but as an adult (and a mother) I would have been terribly disturbed by, and worried about their children. That's why this is such a good piece of writing...I'm still thinking......
I really liked this, Joan. Great job. You do a very deft job handling the voice of a younger narrator while incorporating the description and observations of your adult self in your writing.
Incredible memories, details, wisdom of youth, perception of life in the surroundings we have little or no choice in enduring. The waft of alcohol you describe is a sensory reality that is less than welcomed in most circumstances. Does put me off as well and lingers in the mind of lesser fond memories.
Extraordinary character, Mrs. Blake was. At 10, mysteries are good for all. R-
What a great way with storytelling you have...I wonder what happened to those two girls.
Wonderful story Joan. Guess we can add on the Southern connection as well. I keeping thinking I'm going to post about my mother's gentile southern ways. Hasn't come to the surface yet. -r
Your work, regardless of the difficulty of the subject never fails to illuminate and inspire. Many thanks again, Joan. This is endlessly wonderful - Happy EP! r
Very well told! I was riveted from the first word to the last.
Beautiful story, Joan, and well told.
This was a fascinating read. I wonder how the girls fared? I bet the mother was just a fish out of water. R
How many of us understood what Tolstoy knew long before we had ever heard of him. Perhaps he knew it when he was as young as we were and could not let go of what he knew until he wrote of it. I am envisioning the two of you sharing a meal and sharing thoughts about ideas that prompt you to share them in words. What a meal that might be!
I remember a very idealistic friend of mine saying "God has chosen the right person for you" and that he had the right person for everyone. I wondered who got "chosen" for the alcoholics and abusers. I grew up in an enclave of Mr and Mrs Blakes, and I am glad I moved out.
"Our unhappiness looked quite dull next to the unhappiness of our Hollywood neighbors." What a great post, Joan! I love that last line! The Blakes sound like eternal characters! I fell in love with their upscale, somewhat unauthentic pathos, immediately. Tolstoy would certainly have delighted in them! msp
You paint a vivid picture.
Have I mentioned that your writing gets more amazing with each post? Congratulations on a well-deserved EP!!!! rrrrrrrrrrrrr
so true...unhappiness has so many varieties. you never fail to tell a story well.
Such a well written tale.
The way you tell this and reel in Tolstoy and such an acute observation, all with that blissful ability to say so much with so few words, might make many grit teeth in envy.
Oh Joan, dahhhlling! You always know the most colorful people! Even ones heavily steeped in dysfunction have so much to offer and are such a joy to read about. Especially in the wonderful way you present them.
My mind is all giddy now.....and the Oscar goes to.......:) Loved this !
How sad but well written. I feel so bad for those children caught like that...
Holy CRAP! Your mom diss'ed Tolstoy and Anna Karenina?? Wow! Your mom ROCKED! ;~)
The characters that come in and out of our lives tend to leave a lasting impression. Very interesting.
A fascinating story. Isn't it relevatory how eccentric people become less enthralling when you view them through the eyes of their family? I wonder what memories the Blake girls have of you?
Dear reader, as a child I did find her fascinating. Now as a mom, I want to tell her to feed and clean her poor children!

askme, Mrs. Blake was very lonely. And persistent!

Jonathan, thank you for reading.

Kathy, we should have fed them every night...

Tink, I've heard that North Dakota is where the real artistes thrive.

Matt, what a marvelous thing to say! Thank you!

scanner, I have a feeling that losing her husband was the beginning of the end.

Mimetalker, thank you so much.

poorsinner, I thought the same thing. She always looked out of place in the laundry room.

Linda, thank you, I'm so glad you came by.

comfort, I worry about those girls to this day.

Katy, I still wonder.

Lezlie, thanks so much!

LC, It has been 40 years and I do still think of them.

dirndl, mwah! Thank you for saying that.

AHP, me too. I hope I was always nice to them...
What we see from 10 year old eyes are some of our purest memories I think. Old enough to observe and remember, but not experienced enough to know what it is we have seen, memory is unburdened by the weight of interpretation and has a great impact on the mind. You told it exactly from this perspective. Great memory Joan!
Sensitively told as usual, Joan.
A fascinating slice of life. It's wonderful that the enigma remains enigmatic. As in life, not all questions are answered. I like the subtlety. You dispassionately describe the scenes and let the reader's imagination wander. Your style is marvelous: lucid narration (never self-absorbed) with deference to the reader and a penchant for piquing curiosity. Thank goodness you're here.
OMG! Your description of your southern mother....
I have a friend who I noticed was unnaturally friendly with those I knew she didn't care for. Finally, I mentioned it. "Kill 'em with kindness, honey...kill 'me with kindness.", was what she said.
I love your characters!
Well-deserved EP, Joan! (R)ated.
Joan, I read your stories and feel like all I need to say is...of course it's excellent. They always are!
Vivid and descriptive writing. Compelling look at two different families, with perhaps more similarities than either cared to admit. A great piece Joan. Thank you.
Wow, Mrs. Blake was just lonely, a lonely eccentric. My mother would've hid when she rang the bell - but I guess yours was from the South, so she had to open the door.
Great rendering of different shades of unhappiness!
I've never read Anna Karenina; guess it's time. Lovingly and movingly told, Joan.
ladyslipper, I was completely fascinated by this family.

Scarlett, you are too kind, girl. But thank you.

sophieh, They were all so sad, yet so interesting.

K Manky, thank you! Good to see you!

Donna, you said it!

mypsyche, I really appreciate you saying that.

JustJuli, I peeked in every time they opened their door. I feel like I peeked in their windows too...

sixtycandles, yes, and she was constantly offering my mother coffee!

Lea, tea may have been a safer choice in their house.

Tichaona, I would have had some awesome material, don't you think?

Owl, yes, really! Not Maxwell House, not Sanka, "Chock Full o' Nuts!" It doesn't get more perfect than that.

bethybug, many thanks for coming by.
Nikki, I know! I couldn't make this stuff up.

FusunA, thank you for coming by.

kateasley, I knew my family was unhappy, but those girls really had it so rough.

Geraint, I really appreciate you reading and commenting.

Linda, it's been 40 years and I still wonder about them. They were the saddest girls I'd ever met.

Anna, ha! That voice was a dead giveaway.
femme, sadness is never glamorous but the Blakes sure made it look that way!

Annie, even as a kid I knew how neglected they were. They were so sad, so thin. I wish I could go back in time and be an adult in their lives...

Fetlock, I'm so glad you like it. Thank you.

Just Cathy, sometimes the smell of alcohol can bring back less than fond memories for a lot of us. Thank you for coming by.

Dave, yes, and lost, I would say.

Just Thinking, I wonder about them often.

Densie, I hope you do write about your mother. Southern women seem to have many layers.

Persistent Muse, I appreciate your words so much.

bluestocking, thank you!

froggy, thank you, I appreciate you coming by.

Sheila, I think that their mother was just not interested in being a mother.
You're such a great storyteller! I wonder how those girls turned out...
You really brought this family to life for me. You captured this moment in time quite perfectly sad though it was.
What a fascinating set of neighbors to have for a ten-year-old. Sometime I think the memory of my youth is better left unfettered, full of magical hope and good wishes for everyone. That's how I felt this story.