Louie's Rose is one of my essays from my book From My Vintage which is a collection of sixteen creative essays, ruminations on love, life and loss told in an unpretentious conversational tone. I hope you enjoy it. Order From My Vintage from Amazon.
I followed the usher down the aisle to my seat in the third row center. In my anxiety to be at the concert on time, I’d arrived twenty minutes early, and to pass the time I turned to watch the audience enter the hall. I find it thrilling to attend a concert at Carnegie Hall. The Isaac Stern auditorium has led the history of great music, great artists, and spectacular events since 1891, and the space contains an indefinable quality I feel in no other concert hall. I used to have season’s tickets, but now I come only if there is a special program I want to see. Tonight’s concert is for me way more than a special event.
I received a letter from my brother, Bob, a few months ago, with a newspaper clipping taped to his letter. When I read the attached clipping I heard myself say aloud, “There really must be a God.”
I passed a newspaper stand here in Los Angeles that carries papers from all over the country and, just for the heck of it, thought I’d pick one up to see what goes on in our home town and came across this notice:
Ronald Booker, conductor of the San Francisco Orchestra, a former Milwaukeean, who has gained prominence throughout Europe as well as America, will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in a Hayden program at Carnegie Hall, in New York City, on March twenty-fifth.
Jeanne, any Booker in Milwaukee must be related to us. Can you recall, it must be near seventy years ago, when we went with Mom and Dad to Aunt Bess and Uncle John’s house to meet Cousin Louie Booker’s new wife? I couldn’t have been more than six, which made you around ten. I remember Mom carrying on, but I don’t remember why? Could this Ronald be a third or fourth cousin? One thing does come back to me - I thought it was awesome when Louis opened his mouth and nothing came out but a stutter. Anyway, all for now – just wanted to send this to you.
Your lovin’ brother.
“Oh my God!” my mother shrieked. “Louis Booker married! Bess, I don’t believe it. It’s not possible. Why would any woman marry him? Did you say she’s a teacher? Maybe she thinks he has rich relatives, or do you think maybe she’s feeble-minded, too?”
I sat still as stone behind the chaise lounge in my parent’s bedroom while my mother listened to my aunt fill her in with the details. I had just come from school and went to Mother’s room to let her know I was home. She was usually on the phone talking to her best friend, Mary, or to my Aunt Bess. I loved listening to their conversations, but if Mother knew I was behind the chaise, she’d have shooed me out. I wasn’t supposed to understand what they were talking about, but the laughs and “Oh, Bess, really,” intrigued me. I don’t know whether or not I was a perceptive kid, but I understood, or maybe just sensed more than she realized. Before my aunt and my mother hung up, I heard Mother say,
“Sunday afternoon will be fine. We’ll bring the children, at least they’ll be a diversion. I can’t imagine – never mind, we’ll learn what it’s all about on Sunday.”
That week my Mother and aunt talked to each two or three times a day. Usually they talked about friends and relatives they didn’t like. But now it was about Louie.
Louie Booker was a second cousin on Mother’s side. Once in a while I’d hear Mother talk to my aunt or to my Father and hear the words “idiot” or “retard.” I don’t think anyone knew if Louie was truly retarded or just slow because of his severe stutter.
I remember seeing Louie at his mother’s funeral. He wore a dark suit and was probably of average height but he looked kind of shrunken in. He appeared surprised when the various aunts and uncles stood around him to shake his hand and extend a few words of sympathy. As young as I was, I remember feeling sorry for him; he was so grateful for the attention and would hold onto their hands until he stuttered out a few words of thank you. Except at family funerals, Louie was not an acknowledged relative.
Whenever Mother took me downtown shopping, and I’d hear her say, “Oh God, let’s cross the street,” I knew she’d seen Louie. Furtively I turned to catch a glimpse of him scraping along, his half bald head bent down as if he were looking for pennies on the sidewalk.
Louie lived with his mother, and when she died, she left him her one asset, the house. Louie worked as a scrubber in a bakery. One time I overheard Dad tell Mother that the manager of Louie’s neighborhood movie house told Louie to leave when he caught him masturbating in the theatre.
Finally Sunday came. After our customary Sunday dinner of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, and ice cream, Dad, Mom, my brother, Bob, and I drove across town to Aunt Bess and Uncle John’s house. The engine was still vibrating when Bob and I scrambled out of the car and flew up the steps to the house. Uncle John opened the door. Aunt Bess stood behind him shaking her head and rolling her eyes upward. Mother strode ahead of us as if she were leading a charge through the entrance hall into the living room.
On the sofa behind the coffee table that held a huge bouquet of chrysanthemums and a plate of cookies, sat Louie and his wife. As we entered the room they stood up to greet us. Louie was wearing a grey suit, a starched white shirt and a navy striped tie. It took him an interminable time to introduce us to his wife, Rose, a singularly unattractive woman of medium height and build, wearing a blue patterned silk dress. She shook hands with Mother and Dad and smiled at Bob and me.
What I remember most is that I liked Rose; her eyes twinkled when she smiled at us - it was not like a grown-up smile that smiles over our heads. She had a soft voice and a determined air about her as if she was no stranger to suffering herself and was not at all shook-up over Louie’s shortcomings.
Aunt Bess gestured to the flowers. “Louie and Rose brought them.” Good wishes were exchanged and Mother suffered a kiss on the cheek from Louie. I remember wishing he would change into a handsome prince like the story books and that Rose would look like a princess, but there was no magic. Rose had huge protruding teeth, bottled blue-black hair, and to my eyes she looked very old.
When the grownups sat down, my brother and I flopped on the floor in front of the fireplace. Aunt Bess brought us each an ice cream cone and a large napkin with a warning not to let the ice cream drip on the carpet. Then Mother turned to Rose.
“Rose, I believe you’re a teacher. What do you teach and where?” Rose smiled when she answered,
“I teach music appreciation and piano at South Jr. High.”
“Oh,” my Mother responded, nodding her head to hide her surprise. “The piano? You’re a musician?”
“Yes,” she said, as she took a cookie from the plate Aunt Bess was passing around. “I graduated from the Chicago Conservatory of Music,” and she went on to say she lived with her mother a block away from Louie and had met him when she went to the bakery to buy bread and pastries “and we’ve known each other for two years,” she added, looking at Louie affectionately. I was glad when Rose appeared comfortable answering Mother’s questions; she didn’t shrink like I did when Mom interrogated me.
There wasn’t much more Mother could ask so she sat back in her chair with a puzzled half smile. Aunt Bess went into the kitchen and brought back a tea tray and passed the cookies around again. While Uncle John and Dad talked to one another and Mom sipped her tea, Louie watched Rose as she questioned Bob and me about school.
“What subject do you like best?’ “Recess,” Bob answered without a pause and she laughed. Then she said Louie told her we lived near Lake Park, and she asked if we skated on the park’s pond and added that she often skated there with her students after school. “I love skating,” I said. “Do you really skate there?” “Sure,” she replied. “Maybe I’ll see you on the pond this coming winter.” Later, when Bob announced he played the harmonica, she exclaimed, “I wish you’d brought it with you. I’d like to hear you play.” “I will next time,” he told her confidently.
When Louie tried to say something his stutter was agonizing, but Rose sat quietly by and in no way showed the embarrassment I felt. In less than an hour the grownups’ conversation flagged, and Dad turned his attention to Rose.
“When I was in high school, I played a violin. I haven’t touched it in years, but I do listen to chamber music. Do you go to concerts often?”
“Oh, yes,” Rose answered. “I have season tickets to the Milwaukee Quartet. Our school gets them for me. If you like, I’ll let you know when a chamber music group comes to town.”
Then Mother reached for her purse and suggested we leave to avoid the Sunday traffic. We stood up. Dad shook hands with Louie and thanked Rose for her offer, while Mother issued a vague invitation to the air.
No sooner had Dad started the motor when Mom began, “Bill, it doesn’t make sense. Why did she marry him? Granted she’s older and certainly unattractive, but she must be intelligent.”
“I like her,” I announced, interrupting my parent’s conversation.
“Me, too,” Bob added. “When they come to our house, I’m going to play my harmonica for her.”
Mother nodded her head and continued talking to Dad. “It’s hard to believe she graduated from the Chicago Conservatory of Music and married a scrubber of pots and pans who can’t complete a sentence. Why? Just tell me why?”
“Maybe they’ll have a baby,” I interjected.
“Oh, Jeanne,” my mother responded without turning around, “that’s ridiculous. You’re too young to talk like that.”
“Ethel, for God’s sake, stop it,” my Father shouted. “For whatever reasons she had, she married him. And I’m stick of hearing about it. Be grateful the poor guy can have a life, and you can stop complaining about Louie disgracing the family.” Dad rarely shouted; he always took peace at any price’ path and so his outburst wrapped up the subject.
Mother’s dinner invitation never took place, but two or three times each winter I’d run into Rose at the pond and we’d skate together holding hands as we circled. Then one winter Rose wasn’t there and over dinner Mother told Dad she’d heard from Aunt Bess that Louie and Rose had a baby.
“It doesn’t seem possible; a baby!” Mother wondered aloud. “Can it be a normal one?” I told Bess to send a gift from the two of us.
I never told Mother that I’d skated with Rose and talked to her about boys and things. After Rose had a baby I didn’t see her again. I graduated from high school, finished college, moved east to work in a art gallery, married a man from New York, and gave birth to my first child.
On one of my semi-annual visits back home, Mother told me she and Dad had to pay a condolence call and would I come along. “It’ll be a short visit, Jeanne, I promise.”
“Sure, I’ll come, but who died?”
“Do you remember Louie Booker, our retarded relative?” I nodded. “Well, you probably don’t remember but he married and his wife’s mother died. Aunt Bess keeps in touch and called to tell me, and I feel we should go. She and Uncle John may be there, and after we pay respects, we’ll go out for coffee.”
“I remember them, Mom, and the kerfuffle in our house before we met her. Whatever happened to them?”
Mother shrugged. “I haven’t seen them since that day, and all I know is they had a baby who must be nine or ten by now. We’ll have an early dinner and save for dessert later. Besides, it will take us a half hour to get there.”
Driving across the viaduct was like entering another city. The modest gray clapboard houses were identical, each with its small patch of grass. We found the address, and since ours was the only car on the block, we parked in front of the house. Apparently my aunt and uncle hadn’t arrived.
We walked up three cement steps to a porch with a child’s bicycle and a beat-up rocking chair. The doorbell was missing; the hole covered with a piece of adhesive tape, and the door was open. We walked into a room that exhaled years of boiled fish and onions. Under the glare of an ancient chandelier the walls took on an ochre hue: the frayed sofa and indeterminate colored rug was barely a tone lighter.
When Louie, his jelly-like skin now a blob under his chin, saw us, he got up from his chair to shake our hands and lead us to Rose, who was sitting on an overstuffed chair. Rose acknowledged our presence, and I recalled the warm soft smile from those many years back when she first met Bob and me. Louie and Dad dragged over some dining room chairs surrounding her.
My parents extended their condolences while Rose told us her mother had been ill for a few years, and although she would miss her, it was a blessing that her suffering was over. “Mother lived with us, and our son loved her very much. She and Ronald listened to music together every evening. He’ll miss her.”
Then she asked me about myself, my family, and I told her I had a two-year old daughter who loved music and dancing. Rose laughed. “It’s all music, and how wonderful for her.
I saw Dad talking with Louie, and although I heard Louie stutter, it seemed to me far less than I remembered.. Mother sat quietly looking towards the door, waiting for Aunt Bess and Uncle John. I could see she was uncomfortable and Rose must have noticed it, too, for she turned from me to Mother.
“Ethel, do you get to New York often to see your granddaughter, your young dancer?” Mother nodded.
“Yes, I’ve been to New York twice this year. Jeanne brings Jenny here in the spring, usually at lilac time. You mentioned your son, Rose. Does he go to public school?”
Rose looked puzzled and I knew what mom was thinking. Since she believed Louis was retarded, she assumed the child was and, therefore, went to a special school. Before Rose could answer, I heard a door behind me open.
“Ronald,” she called, come in and meet your cousins.” A slender boy, with straight black hair almost to his shoulders, wearing jeans and a white tee shirt hesitated before coming into the room to stand beside his mother. He was an attractive child, and except for Louie’s deep set dark eyes, resembled neither of his parents.
“This is your Aunt Ethel, Uncle Bill and their daughter Jeanne. Jeanne lives in New York.” Ronald looked at all of us and murmured, “Hello.” He sat on the arm of his mother’s chair while Dad asked him what grade he was in. “I’m in 5th grade,” he replied.
“Are you in public school here?” my Mother asked. Then Rose spoke.
“Ronald is in a class for gifted children; he’ll be eligible for a scholarship to the Conservatory of Music when he’s sixteen.” She said this quite matter of factly, as if it were natural that their son was exceptional. I looked at my Mother finally stunned into silence. I looked over at my Father and saw him staring at Rose.
“Well,” Dad smiled at the boy. “Congratulations, young man. You’ve done your parents proud.” At that moment I glanced at Louie sitting in his chair, looking at his son with so much love in his eyes that I had to swallow hard to keep back my tears.
Then Mother made a move to stand up saying she was sorry Bess and John hadn’t come but it was time for us to leave. Over her protests, Rose insisted we have a cup of coffee.
Louie got up and went into the kitchen to bring the coffee, and Ronald followed him. When they left the room, Dad said to Rose, “You have a lovely family, Rose.”
She smiled, “Yes, I have, thank you.”
In a few minutes Louie brought out a tray with cups, a pot of coffee, and plates and set it on a table next to Rose while Ronald carried in two cakes and put them on the tray. “This one’s banana and this one is chocolate,” he said pointing to each. “Mama likes banana and I like chocolate. Papa doesn’t eat any.” He looked at his father and grinned. “He says he makes them but he doesn’t have to eat them.”
Dad looked at Louie. “I said to Rose, you have a lovely family, Louie.”
Louie nodded. “I know.”
“My husband is the baker at the shop now. He made this cake,” Rose informed us, while she poured a cup of coffee and handed it to my Mother.
Watching Ronald, I suddenly recalled the pronouncement I made in the car on the way home that Sunday, “Maybe they’ll have a baby.” My eyes skimmed the room and stopped at the upright piano with the reams of sheet music neatly piled on top, and on the wall above the piano hung Rose’s framed diploma from the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Then I knew my pronouncement had become a prophecy.
Rose was an intelligent woman, not merely an unattractive woman looking for a man to marry her, as Mother and Aunt Bess assumed. She knew exactly why she married Louie. When she met him at the bakery and during the two years she knew him she ventured beyond Louie’s stutter and must have found that much of his slowness was not related to retardation but to his wrenching stutter which consequently turned him into a self-conscious, defeated human being.
Rose knew she had been born with a gift, but she also knew she did not have that indefinable quality to become a great pianist, nor did she have the magnetism of beauty, background or money to take her further than a high school music department. Her biological clock was passing, and she wanted a child, so she took the risk of marrying Louie.
I now believed with all my heart that Rose had been willing to take a risk and marry Louie, to have a baby, and possibly pass on her talent to a child. I was convinced that was her story.
There was talk going on in the room, but I was alone. I heard nothing until Mother announced her exit line. “It’s getting late and it’s a long drive across town.”
Rose thanked us for coming and Louie walked us to the door. He and Dad shook hands, and we walked down the steps to the car. No one spoke.
I sat in the back seat, with various tableaus running through my head: I saw Louie sad and grateful to those who were at his mother’s funeral, I recalled my mother ranting over the marriage, I saw Rose in her patterned dress, and now Ronald sitting on the arm of his mother’s chair.
Halfway home I returned to the present and leaned over the front seat. “Mother, isn’t it unbelievable, Rose and Louie and Ronald?” Did you notice Louie doesn’t stutter as badly as before, and Ronald’s a lovely boy.”
“Yes, he is,” Dad added. “It seems like a miracle.”
“He’s very well behaved,” Mother interjected, “and he does seem normal, but Jeanne,” she turned around to look at me, “I shall always wonder why she married Louie.”
Surfacing from my reminiscence, I returned to Carnegie Hall. The concert was about to begin. The rustling of the programs and the whispering had ceased. The audience was quieting, the lights were dimming. The musicians came on stage and took their places in the orchestra. Finally, the conductor, Ronald Booker, came on stage and bowed to the audience before turning to face the orchestra.