Home > Called Out of Darkness(4)

Called Out of Darkness(4)
Author: Anne Rice

Nobody then dreamed of the archival world in which we now live in 2008, a world in which almost any film or book can be retrieved within a matter of hours. Films could be lost in time in those years. Indeed they could be lost forever.

And when precious films returned to the art house theaters for a special run, our mother made sure that we saw them. The Red Shoes directed by Michael Powell with Moira Shearer was perhaps the greatest masterpiece to which she exposed us. But she also took me to see Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Another film which she took us to see was A Song to Remember starring Cornel Wilde as Frederic Chopin, and Merle Oberon as George Sand, his lover. I was so taken by this film, so taken by the emotions of the young Chopin, when he clutched a handful of Polish earth and swore to remember it, that I wanted nothing more than to have such meaning in my own life, something that precious to me, something to which I could give my whole soul.

In later years we went back to that same art house theater for other extraordinary films, like The Tales of Hoffmann or a film of the opera Aida or delightful British comedies about Chesterton's Father Brown and his jewel thief friend Flambeau. This was my mother's doing, this film going, this believing in film as an art form, and seeing it as a door to inspiration and imaginary worlds.

Over and over again, my mother said, "I want to rear four geniuses and four perfectly healthy children." Now, that might frighten a more timid person, but it never frightened me. She told us stories of geniuses of all kinds. She loved describing the vivid social world of Charles Dickens; she recounted to us how the Bronte sisters had written under pen names because they were women and then had taken London by storm as their real selves. She told us the story of the great author George Eliot. She told us about G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc and Oscar Wilde, whose stories for children we loved. She talked about Madame Curie the great scientist, and she passed on to us bits and pieces of information about her own studies, lectures she'd heard, wise people she'd known, and books she'd read.

I would say she was an irresistible talker, and she did something which now seems to me intensely and distinctively Catholic. She addressed a multitude of questions which had never come up. For example, I remember her explaining to me almost casually why there was no conflict between theories of evolution and the words of the Bible.

Genesis tells us God created the world in six days, she would say, but Genesis doesn't tell us how long a day was for God, in God's time. End of conflict.

We were as a family quite interested in evolution, and speculated about it all the time - what had life been like for cavemen? How had they communicated, how had they learned things? My older sister was always finding fossils in the gravel in the backyard. And these were true fossils, some of them, though the stories she told as to what they were had more imagination than scientific preciseness.

There was almost nothing precise about anybody in my childhood.

As the years passed, my older sister brought home fascinating books from the public library, and my mother and my sister read these books together, while I listened to what they said. I remember the whole family becoming enthralled with the life of the ballerina Anna Pavlova. Around that time, we went to see the ballet Giselle.

This was an overwhelming sensuous experience - sitting in the fourth or fifth row of an elegant theater (The Civic on Baronne Street downtown, the very same theater that played all the foreign films or artistic films), and watching the exer-tion and the execution of the dancers at close range.

We also attended a performance of the opera Carmen when we were still in grade school; and we started going to the Municipal Auditorium for concerts when I was still in grade school as well.

This was my education, this world of my sister and my mother talking about books, the world in which the radio continued to pour out suspenseful dramas in the evening, and in which classical music was played all the time on the phonograph because we could rent records from the uptown music library, records which we could never have afforded to own.

This was the place where I learned just about anything of importance that I now know.

I cannot imagine my life without my mother or my father or my sister Alice.

My father took us to the library when we were little, and he introduced us to books, yes, and he was a brilliant man.

But the core experience for me was not reading these books, because I couldn't. But of discovering that while he was in the Redemptorist Seminary, my father had been a writer, and that in his desk was a treasure trove of poems that he'd written and some short stories as well.

Again, I couldn't really read these things; I couldn't make them my own emotionally by reading. Reading was too difficult. My mind wandered too much. But the idea of my father as a writer was something that blazed like the Burning Bush.

My father also wrote a children's novel at this time, called The Impulsive Imp, which he read to us chapter by chapter as he developed it. This novel was never published in my childhood, but my father did seek a publisher for it, and even had a friend do illustrations for it, dark paintings, as I recall, which we liked very much.

I, too, wanted to be a writer and struggled with stories and poems even though I could hardly read. This was the first thing I wanted to do with my whole heart and soul, and the idea that I had to wait to grow up to do it was untenable, and gruesome. Though of course that is what happened.

Let me briefly describe our house. It was a long lower flat in a duplex on the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Philip, and it had two porches on the front, one enclosed by screens, and the other open. French windows opened onto the porches from the living room. Sliding doors divided the living room from my mother's bedroom, and from the main hall. The entrance to the flat was from a side porch, through an alcove that held shelves of books. These books included Chesterton, Dickens, and a row of volumes called the Har-vard Classics which my father one day threw away. There were many other interesting books in that alcove. Since I wasn't a reader I never read a single one.

I think my older sister, Alice, whose IQ was on the genius level, probably read every volume. It was said that she read everything in the Children's Library, and that is why she was sneaking upstairs into the Adult Library before she was old enough to do it. That I can believe, and I snuck up to the Adult Library with her.

The house was peculiar. Most of the floors were painted wood and bare. There was a linoleum carpet on the living room floor with a bright flowered pattern, and there were four antique rocking chairs on the four edges of the carpet, and an old studio couch with a pleasant pattern of ribbons and feathers stood against the closed door to my mother's room. Flowered wallpaper covered the walls, and a lovely white marble fireplace and mantel surrounded the small iron gas heater - like almost all the heaters of the house - on its curled legs.

And there was a constant flow in and out on the screened porch, which was considered as private as a room.

My grandmother sat on the screened porch to shell peas in a colander in the evening. I remember stringing peas with her, and shelling them. I remember painting with an easel on this porch later on. Screened porches are all but lost to the world today, but screened porches were wonderful rooms.

The soft breezes were always moving through them, yet one felt safe and private from the outside world.

Other things I recall mark this as the end of an era. For example, I recall the iceman rushing up the back steps, with the block of ice on his leather-padded shoulder. I remember the first electric refrigerator that actually kept things cold.

Garbage wagons were pulled by mules, and so was the wagon of the "banana man," invariably black, who sang "Bananas" as he passed.

Laundry was done in tubs in the kitchen, and on a wash-board by my grandmother and my mother. I helped lift the twisted sheets out of the wicker basket for my grandmother to hang on the backyard line. There were old clothespins without springs and new clothespins with springs. There were two kinds of soap, Ivory and Octagon.

An old wiggling, shimmying three-legged washing machine with a wringer on it made its way into the house after my grandmother's death. It could waltz out the back door and down the steps if nobody kept watch.

I recall a small portable vacuum cleaner being introduced in later years, but then it was given away to a cousin. The beds had no spreads, only sheets and blankets. They had simple metal headboards. I don't recall anyone ever buying a towel. We had the same towels for fifteen years. I don't recall anyone ever buying a piece of furniture. My mother's wedding china and crystal was broken by us bit by bit as we played with it. We drew on the walls when we wanted to. We cut out paper dolls and pasted them on the walls.

My mother believed in complete creativity; she gave us no chores. She wanted to protect us from chores. My father worked two jobs for months at a stretch, as did most men in those days, and there were long periods when he was seldom there.

Sometime after my grandmother died my mother started to drink in mysterious bouts which involved complete unconsciousness for days. Presumably, she rose in the night, found the liquor she'd stashed away, and drank it until she passed out again.

In between those bouts, she was brilliant and interesting, and for years nothing was said about this "sickness" of hers, except now and then that she was "sick." By the age of eleven or so, I knew she was dying of this, and I knew that the only way to live was to pretend it wasn't happening. But before I came to this conclusion, I had a breakdown which is worth recording.

I took to my bed for days and refused to get up. I was terrified by visions of the house burning down, of my little sisters trapped in the flames, and my mother, drunk, coughing, unable to get them out.

This must have been summertime when I had this breakdown, because I don't recall anyone saying "Get up and go to school." I remember people sitting on the side of the bed, my mother in particular, and trying to assure me that everything was fine, the house wouldn't burn, and my sisters were fine.

Gradually I came back to myself. I stopped shivering in fear.

I picked up a book about Raggedy Ann and Andy that was for children smaller than me. I looked at the pictures because it was pleasant, and I healed somehow looking at or reading that book. No words come back to me from it, only the pictures and a feeling of safety, of simplicity, of pleasant things.

My mother's drinking was a great shadow that slowly and steadily darkened our lives.

But our lives went on.

My sister and I went to the library together all the time.

My experience of picking at books was exhilarating, but I remember just as keenly what it felt like to be in the library, to be sitting at a long wooden table in a vast space filled with such tables, sunlight streaming in the tall windows, the air as always warm and rather motionless, and the whole peaceful and safe.

I also recall sitting in "The Stacks," on the green glass floor, and picking through books I couldn't possibly ever understand. I'd read maybe three or four words of some volume like The Children of Mu, for example, and despair of ever figuring out the context for what the book was seeking to say.

I never discovered books on art in this library. Maybe there were none. When I was grown up I discovered beautiful art books and went mad for looking at pictures of Rembrandt and Caravaggio and Giotto and Fra Angelico. At this point, I knew none of this by book.

I did know the Delgado Museum of Art in City Park, however. I'd discovered an art class there on Saturdays, and for years I went to this class, though I never produced anything worth saving by me or anyone else. We were provided with huge sheets of paper, and with plenty of pastels.

Children from all over the city came to this class, though I remember primarily girls. The teachers were gentle and mild mannered and devoted.

But the real experience for me was the museum itself.

There I saw large replicas of baroque sculptures, some of which were replicas of Roman and Greek sculptures, and all of which involved Greek gods and goddesses or classical themes, Laocoon and Sons and The Rape of Daphne by Apollo and other such wonderful works. The museum also had some fascinating paintings, largely from the Renaissance on, and I recall interesting lectures on these works.

During the time I went there, an Egyptian exhibit came with a small mummy. That was a landmark event.

City Park itself had a dreamy beauty to it, with meander-ing lagoons and oaks even bigger than those at Audubon Park uptown. I spent hours as a child, usually with a friend, roaming safely and happily through this park.

I had uncommon freedom as a child. I went just about anywhere that I wanted. And I saw a version of New Orleans that perhaps other children didn't see. I penetrated poor neighborhoods and walked with complete confidence through places where no one would dare to go walking today.

I didn't feel anything could touch me or hurt me. And actually nothing ever did.

The bus trip to the City Park museum took me through the French Quarter, so, though my family never went there, I experienced it from the bus window as well.

As always I was riveted by the different houses I saw, the iron-lace railings, the elements of Italianate or Greek Revival style, and I was enchanted by color, and New Orleans was and is a city of more colors than one can conceivably name.

Let me repeat: this is the world in which I learned all that I learned. Learning was visual and acoustic but it was not through books. I felt frustrated and shut out of books.

It's important to note that in this world, I did not feel I had any special identity as a child. I did not see my sister as a child, or my younger sisters as children. I moved through this world as a person. We were spoken to by our parents as adults, really, and we called our parents, as they wished it, by their first names.

People were perceived as having distinct personalities and our family was given to labels which could be disruptive and damaging, but essentially it was a world of persons. I wasn't terribly conscious of this, but I know now that I never thought of myself as a child. I will pick up this theme later.

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