Sunday, March 24, 2013

Outtake: Mrs. Brown (you've got a lovely daughter)

Mrs. Brown (you’ve got a lovely daughter): an Outtake
from Stuck on Replay

Twice I remember sitting on the settee in the living room on a day of celebration, my back to the window, unwitting. A sudden visitation would change everything. In 1991, I was turning forty-two; my birthday was on a Sunday, and there I sat, indulged by my family, ready to receive presents. As I commenced unwrapping my gifts though, the children exclaimed that the sky was turning black. And indeed it was. This was the grim banner of the Oakland Hills Firestorm that would destroy so much property in the Bay Area, and too much life, however statistically insignificant the numbers may have been.

Would the fire reach our home? We were advised that it might. We spent the rest of the afternoon assembling our precious belongings and a survival kit, which we placed by the front door. The birthday celebration was at an end.

They say you can’t go back and retrieve the past. And most of the victims of the fire moved on, either literally moving to safer, less forested, less hilly (and also less beautiful) locations, or moving on by rebuilding on the same spot where their house had burned to the ground, but rebuilding there in a forward-looking way. What forward-looking meant in the aftermath of the Oakland Hills Fire was the construction of homes that were larger than their antecedents. These new homes filled up more space than the destroyed cottages and bungalows that had graced the hills. The new houses sometimes reached nearly to the edges of their lots. They were constructed of concrete and other materials that had the appearance of stone. These homes, inelegant shelters for the traumatized, were fortress-like and forbidding, their small, mean windows winking in the sun.

There was one family, though, that lost their home in the firestorm, yet succeeded in returning to it, and so to the past. How I admired their handsome house, large but not overbuilt, with its generous picture window, as I walked up to their door, ready to interview them about hosting a foreign student. The family consisted of a shy, brainy teen-age boy living with his grandmother. I didn’t inquire as to the whereabouts of the rest of the family and they didn’t tell me. What they did tell me, when I remarked on the lucky chance of their home having been spared––fire can do that, inexplicably leaping over some houses and burning down others––was that this stately home, with its wood paneled walls, bay windows, and sunny rooms, was an exact replica of the house that had burned down. The architect’s plans had been kept in a locked metal box in the basement. After the fire, the molten tin rendered the charred, frangible plans unreadable. So they took the plans in the tin box to the Chemistry Department at UC Berkeley, and had the plans re-hydrated. A modern miracle! The plans were now readable! Scientists had saved the plans, and insurance money rebuilt the house.

The second occasion of sitting unwitting on a day of celebration was Valentine’s Day 2010. Though not black with boiling, billowing smoke, the sky was heavy with molten clouds, the day cold and uninviting. I sat at one end of the settee, my husband sat at the other. Our mood was as heavy as the atmosphere. There wasn’t much to say. Our son had just been admitted to a storied but autocratic hospital in New York. His episodes of severe apathy and disorientation that had begun just days before would later be attributed to a reaction to his medication, but we didn’t yet know that. We had thought of going to New York to visit him, help out, until we learned that we would not be allowed to see him once arrived. It was not a good Valentine’s Day.

Suddenly, someone rattled the locked front gate. Looking out the window, I saw the tall figure of our daughter’s former boyfriend. When I went to the door to tell him she wasn’t there, he handed a large bag over the gate. The bag contained ten or so books she had loaned him in happier days––before the break-up. He wouldn’t come in for tea, he said. He just wanted her to have her books back. We chatted a bit, and I congratulated him on his recent graduation, which had been achieved against considerable odds.

Not long after this visit, the familiar signs of an earworm began to surface. Phrase by musical phrase it haunted me hither and yon, until I began to piece it together. This time it was a familiar song from my teens, and so clearly identifiable from early on in the game.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Herman’s Hermits! rips the Emcee. At which point five impossibly young boys, looking gawky and new-minted in their jackets and trousers, appear on the stage set of a British street on America’s Ed Sullivan Show. The earworm isn’t “Henry the Eighth,” though that’s a good song (“I’m ’er eighth old man named ’enery, ’enery the Eighth I am.”)  The earworm is “Mrs. Brown you’ve got a lovely daughter.” This bittersweet lyric was first performed in 1965:

The song is a dramatic monologue, so it’s a one-sided story. We only hear the boy’s side of things––his thoughts, his feelings. The other side of the conversation is missing. No, I don’t mean the words spoken by Mrs. Brown’s lovely daughter. The lovely daughter is off somewhere with her friends. I’m talking about Mrs. Brown. Did Mrs. B. just stand there, agape, listening? I don’t think so.

How would the conversation have gone if someone had included Mrs. Brown’s part in it?  Oh, I know, it wouldn’t have made as good a song. That song has pathos, especially as performed by the Hermits, grinning at the audience in their unaccustomed jackets; especially as sung by the sweet-looking kid with the overbite. But just for the moment, imagine Mrs. Brown. She’s not at the center of the drama––the boy and the girl are. But she’s the third character in the play, there for confirmation. Confirmation of what?  Mrs. B. is there to give us a few vital clues about who this girl is.

So imagine Mrs. Brown as I would have done, eager as I was to exorcize the earworm, had I known that the insistent quality of this particular haunting was related, somehow, some way, to the meaning that this long-forgotten song had to my present-day life.

Mrs. Brown you’ve got a lovely daughter…

Yes. Yes I do.

Girls as sharp as her are something rare…

            (Yes, she’s sharp. That used to mean ‘smart’ when I was your age: ‘smart’ and
‘cool.’ ) Oh, she’s smart. Did I tell you she won the fifth grade math prize? Oh, I did?

But it’s sad…

Sad, to be sure.

She doesn’t love me now…

(Children move on, don’t they?)
She has to follow her path.

She made it clear enough…

She would––I mean, she has a way of doing that.

It ain’t no good to pine…

(No good. No good at all.)

She wants to return the things I bought her
Tell her she can keep them just the same
Things have changed…

(They certainly have.) She crosses the street by herself now. Makes her own lunch...

...she doesn’t love me now

(Believe me, I know all about it. First it was her father, then a teacher, then a playmate, girlfriends, and just when you least expect it––before you’re ready for it, really—the boyfriends. And then the confidences end. Everything so private all of a sudden. And all you can think, all you can tell yourself is, like you say, “Things have changed.”)

She made it clear enough,

(Yes. Yes. She makes it clear enough.)

It ain’t no good to pine

(You won’t change her mind, if that’s what you’re thinking. Nothing will.)

Walking about, even in a crowd, well
You’ll pick her out

            Yes, she does stand out, doesn’t she? Especially when she wears heels.
            (Mind you it wasn’t always the case.)  Did I ever tell you about the time
            I lost her at the market? (Huge Marks and Sparks it was.) Oh, did I?

Makes a bloke feel so proud

            Yes, (You two always did make a nice-looking couple.)
            (I guess looks isn’t everything, poor lad.)

If she finds that I’ve been round to see you–

Truly. I won’t tell her. (I’ll try not to.)

Tell her that I’m well and feeling fine,

(That’s what I’ll say. And she’ll want to believe me.)
She cares for you, you know–respects you.
(Not what he wants to hear, of course.)

Don’t let on…

(Your secret is safe with me.)

Don’t say she’s broke my heart…

(That’s just between us.)
Love is like that.
(There, now…)
I know her.
She didn’t mean to.

I’d go down on my knees––

            (I know how you’re feeling, but trust me–)
            –It wouldn’t do any good. Not now.
(Not ever.)

 But it’s no use to pine

We know her, don’t we?
She’s honest. Says what she thinks.
And once she makes up her mind…

Mrs. Brown you’ve got a lovely daughter…
Mrs. Brown you’ve got a lovely daughter…

            (Give it time. He’ll be all right.)
            So nice of you to come round.
            (I won’t see him again.)

Here is a classic drama, with its bare bones cast of three––two actually, if you take into account the fact that Lovely Daughter remains off-stage. Yet it is she that they are talking about. And who is she? She’s not the girl next door––she’s the one that got away. Even her mother can’t say where she is, or where she’s going. (Especially her mother.)

There’s always a girl who got away. And when you see her ten or twenty years later, or a lifetime hence, the question you want to ask her is always the same, “How far have you been?” When the music has changed from rock to pop, the songs from sweet lyrics to dark satires, still, the question is the same. Did you get no further than King’s Cross, or did you get as far as the Finland Station? Did you live a life more ordinary? Or did your arrival signal some kind of revolution?  

We've got no future, we've got no past
Here today, built to last
In every city, in every nation
From Lake Geneva to the Finland station
(How far have you been?)

–– “West End Girls,” Neil Tennant

Sometimes when a young man loses his girl there’s sour grapes. Literature is full of derisory sequels presenting the exceptional woman, once lost, as merely ordinary––or worse. And this regardless of how the affair ends. Thus the protagonist (or the author) reminds himself: she didn’t get far, after all. At the high end of the literature of love and loss, Frédéric, hero of Sentimental Education, remarks, years after his affair with the beautiful Rosannette: “I met [her] in a shop the other day…She’s the widow of a certain Monsieur Oudry, and she’s become terribly fat, not to say huge. What a decline! When you recall what a slim waist she had in the old days.” Just so, Herman Wouk imagines the ambitious heroine of his middlebrow novel Marjorie Morningstar at the end of her story as a very ordinary housewife (much as Tolstoy has Natasha waving a diaper at the end of War and Peace). In popular fiction, independent women often inhabit the treacherous terrain of Looking for Mr.Goodbar, eliciting that truism: we know what happens to girls who stray too far from home.

But none of this sour grapes business for Lovelorn Boy (let us call him Herman). He knows Lovely Daughter is out of his league––she’s “sharp” and “rare”––but he isn’t bitter. And he isn’t afraid of admiring her still. Even in a crowd, she’s a standout: makes him feel so proud (as though he had something to do with it, rather like a parent). Does the boy worship her? He says he’d go down on his knees, if only…But Herman is no troubadour, no proselytizer for Mariolatry. He’s’ just the boy-next-door, heartbroken to be sure, but toughing it out like a stalwart.

Herman might have wandered off to a cliff overlooking the crashing waves of the sea. There, on a promontory, he might have bethought him to strike a pose: man against the elements, heartbreak against the drama of nature. But Herman is no Romantic, as we can see from the fact that, barring any evidence of cliffs, he takes his heartbreak straight to Mrs. Brown.

Who then is Mrs. Brown? We have made her up. The Mrs. Brown we have made up is in every sense common. No one would bother to disparage Mrs. Brown for being a housewife or a clerk, for she is, after all, only Mrs. Brown. Nevertheless she has an aura about her. She is the one boys like Herman confide in. Do they speak to her because she is kind? Perhaps. More likely the young, with their heartbreak, speak to her because this common woman has somehow managed to raise Lovely Daughter. Moreover, she “knows” her daughter, and young people generally.

She isn’t much use of course, beyond serving as a sounding board. Mrs. Brown has her own issues, and keeps superimposing them on the dialogue. Sometimes she and Herman are having two separate conversations. When Herman speaks of crushed romantic dreams, Mrs. B. mutters something about crossing the street and a child making her own lunch. At best, what Mrs. B. has to offer is comfort and a few obscure words of wisdom that sound a lot like clichés: “She has to follow her path” and “Love is like that.”

More than a sounding board, that listener, that silent interlocutor, Mrs. Brown, is a kind of mirror, reflecting back Herman’s sadness at being left behind, but also his parent-like pride, and the secret of his continuing love and admiration.

When the Mrs. Brown earworm came upon me I didn’t invent a character called Mrs. Brown, or have any thoughts about the meaning of the song. Why ruin a good song by overthinking it? I had liked listening to the song once, but the intrusiveness of the earworm was getting on my nerves. Now I hummed the song, sang it, watched videos of it on YouTube, and listened to other songs to get rid of it. As usual nothing worked. Then one day it was gone.

They say you can’t go back and retrieve the past. The family that re-hydrated their architectural plans and built a replica of the house that burned down lived in a copy of the original house. Undoubtedly they lived differently in the replica house, because of the intervening fire, than they had lived in the first house––the house that was, till the very end, innocent of disaster. They were pleased with the new house––proud of it––and rightly so. For a long time, every new visitor must have been given the tour, shown how one feature was an exact reproduction of its original counterpart, how another feature made use of newer materials: different tiles, shorter planks––because builders’ materials change, handpainted tiles change, trees are cut down sooner. Yet with every new visitor to the house, with every tour, the family would have the opportunity to reconsolidate the memory of the original home, making its loss a little less unfathomable, and less painful.

Our children, originals all, are also replicas, as are we, of parents and ancestors. We all wear the family face:

                        I am the family face
                        Flesh perishes, I live on
                        Projecting trait and race
                        Through time to times anon
                        And leaping from place to place
                        Over oblivion.

                        The years-heired feature that can
                        In curve and voice and eye
                        Despise the human span
                        Of durance – that is I;
                        The eternal thing in man
                        That heeds no call to die.

                                                - Thomas Hardy

Our loves, too, are replicas, always, of other loves, of loves nearly perfect and of loves less perfect. If you are a Romantic, you will spend your life searching for, or regretting the loss of, the one perfect love. A Platonist, you will seek your missing half. The one perfect love isn’t the same as the one that got away. The girl that got away––Lovely Daughter––belongs to the future. To love her is to let her go, without bitterness or repining. The one perfect love belongs to the ever-inaccessible past. That is why Romantics are always disappointed in the loves life has to offer; to a Romantic, love is always a replica that recalls that absent love: perfectly whole and complete.

If you are, instead of being a Romantic, a Practitioner of love, you will practice it. Practice is what Practitioners do.  Prince Charles famously remarked of the announcement of the marriage of his son William to Kate Middleton, that the couple had certainly had enough practice. Well, yes. They had. We all practice, as Mrs. Brown said, on parents, on playmates, on girlfriends and boyfriends, all the while reconsolidating our memories of the original. What is the original? Is it God? Is it our capacity to love? No matter. Every love that we meet with, every love we practice, though it be a replica of perfection, is precious. Love is our perfectly imperfect, most vital connection to the perfectly imperfect human condition.

So can I get a refill?
Can I get a refill?
Can I get a refill?
Yeah, of your time
Cause you’re intoxicating my mind
Feel like a conversational lush
Cause I don’t know how much is too much, yeah
I feel like the girl at the bar who’s been there too long
Can’t stand up!

                        –– “Refill,” Elle Varner,  Perfectly  Imperfect

No comments: