SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2005        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Shane Fairchild

Virtues of Misfortune

While the gloomy resolution of the Falklands War, or Malvinas War as it may be known by some, was tainting the palate of the Argentineans my own resolve was being tested by a dissimilar, haunting English occupancy. By the usual terms of uncertain coincidence I made the acquaintance of one, Michael Greenberg, whom by his charitable fortitude had the occasion to invite me to his address for an evening repast, which we shared with his mother and maturing older sister. Worthless would be the need to describe my surroundings in detail for memory when taxed by three and twenty years is often romanticized to a point past the credible; however, I will include a few scurrying details that shall position my awareness upon the shelf along side “House of Usher”, “Mysteries of Udolpho” or any similar such work of horror.

Lighting bled a pale yellow illuminating assorted walnut and cherry hand-crafted furnishings set to a comfortable theme of Victorian elegance. Past the looming claret-imbued draperies that shifted within night’s breath I spied the central designation, a grand mahogany dining table, adorned by silver, multi-tiered candlesticks, at which we were soon seated. When I entered the home on this particular evening the usual comfortable atmospheric mood had mutated, leaving me in an unfamiliar air of formality and uncertainty. A self-imposed decorum, however, may have contributed to the conservatism that seemed to emanate from the walls; its effects belittled my usual demeanor with conformity. As evening grew deeper the vivid, warming colors assumed by daylight faded into funereal shades of foreboding gray; the night had begun.

As I walk through the shadowy halls of remembrance a possessive sense of prejudice takes my hand and guides me further into the candlelit reaches of recollection, all the while tempting me with insight learned through surreptitious discovery. I therefore feel compelled during the course of our tale to periodically spill onto the pages before your eyes informative treasures found with the leathery binds of Daughter Greenberg’s journal. As you will soon see, a casual acquaintance is a mere mask in regard to the deeper chasm separating imposed class as well as age-infected adoration that plagues Ms. Greenberg and me.

“I do not know the American gentleman, god forgive me for putting two such words together”, exemplifies, in this quote by Charles Dickens, the assumed superiority by which the English in general perceive Americans. It was an English family of refined manner and taste that had welcomed me into their home without compromise that evening; they embraced me with parity and warmth. Unlike previous occasions of visiting the Greenberg residence my mind was on constant search throughout my being to control and amuse scattered nerves and prying thoughts on how to conduct oneself in the presence of an older, more precise audience. My uncomfortableness did not go unnoticed by Ms. Greenberg: “He seemed a rather well-mannered lad tonight, but why has he fallen prey to pretentiousness? I do say, I hope he loosens his tongue as well as his eyes.”

Night paints with a different brush then that used by Her counterpart, resulting in a shift in paradigms. Perhaps through imagination I conceptualized a surrounding environment mirroring all the insecurities I was suffering on the inside. These elements corresponded with Gothic images engrained by fear onto adolescent consciousness and were further developed by evening shade.  As supper grew closer I gathered suspicion and prepared a plan of extrication just on the occasion I was dragged to the laboratory beneath the house and used in some Jekyll and Hyde-like experiments. I clenched my hands and listened as the stair’s spine cracked. Footfalls echoed through the ill-litten hall and reached us with a light rap-rap-rap.

 Lofty conversation and trivialities were interrupted when Michael and I were summoned to join the ladies of the house in the dinning room. Upon entering I noticed four distinct settings, each separated by room enough for four men and their wives! Flames twitched above the table, engaging the eye with an eerie illusion of possession. As I took my seat center of the long end I felt a hand rest upon my shoulder. I turned, almost expecting a dark, lanky butler, but in his stead, Mother Greenberg was passing to her place at the head of the table to my right. If thunder were to ripple the blackened sky I imagined this to be the appropriate time.

I sat opposite Ms. Greenberg and variably caught a flitting smile. I felt sequestered in my seat and so I glanced to my friend who reassured me with a quizzical grin. I looked forward and waited, trying not to create a habit of catching the sister’s eye. I recall a passage in her writings, “…I would never indulge in such petty conversation with a child whose only ambition is to covet glorious me”, and she continues, “He, captivated by my beauteous glow, sees a woman whose image burns in imagination but befalls reality in an ashen haze.” Was it I who created such an effect on this older woman of pompous aristocracy? Was it not she who said, “Ha! Two and ten his age, whilst I mirror my mother in status and sensibility.” Alight by candles gaze, her image flickered upon the flames.

As each was tending to his or her plate I minded my meal with the same proper etiquette I would if I’d been surrounded by family. I started using my little finger to support fallen grains of rice to my fork, and that is when I noticed the whisper. From across the distance that separated me from Michael’s sister I heard her words, “Mother, he’s using his finger!” “Shh, he doesn’t know…it’s alright,” Mother Greenberg responded. My thoughts froze. I peered over my fork to Michael on my left but his eyes were focused on his plate. I managed the courage to glance across the table to his sister, our eyes meshed for a hair’s width of a second.

“He used his FINGER! I thought he was like us, but I suppose I assumed too much,” wrote the pen inside the leather-bound journal. I read a bit more and I am more confused than enlightened: “Fortnight’s pass and I can count eleven, no, a dozen occasions on which his presence has confronted my patient smile. Perhaps it is I, whose pretentious guise has been adopted by feeble uncertainty.” Was I blind to her advances? My age would dictate that possibility. But, could I ever measure to her standards being she has already been influenced by prosperity and attitude?

On that evening I learned of a disquietude that infested my moral fabric with thoughts of inferiority and introspective self-worth. Opulence and prestigious words are only seen by a light beholden to classification and desirous necessity. Captured by this insightful radiance I reflect upon one of the last items scribbled in that old, tarnished journal: “Desire and fancy appeal to my delicate sense of understanding with hopes of a conditional release, but, to suggest a breach of social boundary requires a pardon from reality that resides outside my shadow.”

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