How We Got Alex

Harold Goldstein

When our older daughter, Marni, was ready to go to college she had two choices: the University of Chicago, where I had done graduate work, and Bennington College in Vermont. Chicago was austere; this was the Hutchins period, when Robert Maynard Hutchins, President of the University, led the College in a revival of Aristotelian scholasticism. Bennington, then a girls' school, was more like the Walden School of my youth, or like the Green Acres School to which Marni had gone in her nursery-school-kindergarten years, and which her mother always remembered fondly because she had once gone to the school and come upon Marni caring for a guinea pig with great tenderness. As the time for a decision grew closer, Marni appeared torn, but at last she said, with a shrug of the shoulders, "I'll go to Bennington--so I'll never get married" So the great choice between austere scholarship and caring for guinea pigs was made. .

Bennington was isolated; the nearest men's college, Williams, was 30 miles away, and there was nothing after that. Bennington girls who didn't have a date for the weekend were declasse, and where were the boys going to come from? Actually there were a fair number of boys (where they came from I don't know) who would come into the residence halls and shout up the staircases, "Anyone want a date?" and girls who didn't suffer from too much pride would accept. Many of the girls, Marni among them, did suffer.

One day in the fall of her Freshman year, her mother and I got a letter from her in which she said that two boys had come and shouted up the staircase, "Anyone want to build a shelter on a mountain?" That was up Marni's alley, so she went with the boys, who were brothers, and after their visit to the mountain they took her to their home in the nearby town of Cambridge, NY, where their family lived on an old farm. Marni recounted with relish the kind of family it was: their mother kept cows so she could churn her own butter; she baked her own bread to put the butter on, she kept horses so she could give riding lessons, there was a goat, a pond full of ducks, and 14--yes, fourteen--dogs. The family was of the earth, earthy, and Marni, owing to defects in her upbringing, fell for the whole schmear. She concluded her letter by remarking that one of the boys was sensitive (I guess that's a Bennington girl's word for some sort of superlative) and she then wrote, "I'm swinging from the chandelier!" But the letter ended with a cautious, "I guess I'll never see him again."

She did see him again. The next thing we knew Mr. Sensitive (whose name was Duffy) was having trouble finishing his senior thesis at Wesleyan University, and Marni, feeling a responsibility to rescue him, borrowed from another Bennington girl a Citroen, a French car of that era with a lawn-mower engine, four wheels, a couple of curved pipes on the sides to hold a canvas top in case of rain, and, I believe, a seat and a steering wheel, and drove from southern Vermont to central Connecticut, a journey, to my mind, like crossing the Atlantic in a rowboat. Whether because of Marni's ministrations or not, he was graduated from Wesleyan, and enrolled at Columbia for a graduate program in Russian, an unlikely subject for a boy from Cambridge NY, but he had been attracted to it by the rumor that Russians, unlike materialistic Americans, had souls, which were revealed to readers of Dostoievsky and Tolstoy. Somewhere in this story lurks the figure of a former teacher at Wesleyan, and mentor to many students, Norman O. Brown ("Nobby" Brown to the elect) who has since disappeared into the mists of time, but was a formative figure in Duffy's life.

There was Duffy in New York, and there was Marni, somehow also in New York in the summer of 1962, and one thing led to another, and she announced to her parents that she was pregnant and they wanted to get married. Her parents counseled abortion, fearing that having a child would be the end of her education, but Duffy promised that he'd see that she finished college; his parents were against an abortion. It was a painful period for Marni's mother, and the pain was only partly assuaged by their setting a date for a wedding in December.

Duffy's parents and some other members of his family attended the wedding. My mother came up from Miami. It was hard to get a rabbi to marry a Jew and a non-Jew, so we got a Unitarian minister who had performed similar weddings. The ceremony was held in our living room. The two young people stood in front of the window, before a window wall looking down the hill to snow-covered trees, with snow falling heavily outside, and before their families and friends they were married, Marni, Duffy, and the little extra weight Marni was carrying.

So that's how we got Alex. It's true that Sara had been urging Marni to have an abortion. But when the nurse in the maternity ward held him up to be seen it was love at first sight. Changing his diapers cemented the relationship. And in preparation for the couple's first visit after Alex was old enough to walk, Sara, not a burly, outdoors type, was out raking the lawn, trying to get rid of the burrs dropped by the sweet-gum trees, so Alex could walk on the grass without hurting his tender little feet..