Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lisa Nestle, 1967-2009, and for Robin

Robin and Lisa, c. 1975

Joan and Lisa, 1969

Elliot and Robin, c.1971

My niece Lisa, always the taller one, died last month, a short time after her father, my brother, and her tormentor took his last difficult breath. I asked Robin, the surviving sister, daughter, niece if I could write about Lisa and her--here I cannot find the words--her journey, no, too soon she lost the freedom, the ability to choose her steps, struggles, yes but how little I really know and that is my shame, her life--so short, so at the mercy of neglect and a father's rage--"of course," Robin said, in one of our weekly now, sometimes daily telephone calls, "you can't say anything I don't already know." And her laugh, Robin's brave laugh, saying I have seen it all, felt the exile of it all, the hurt of it all, and here I am. Witness what happened, these lives --what some call affairs of the family. The Nestle family, or at least this shuddering branch of it.

Regina, Lisa, Carol, Robin, c. 1972

Lisa, a three year old little girl, called frizzy head by her mother, a rare visit from her queer aunt and her aunt's then lover, 1971, a bleak landscape in a New Jersey suburb, Carol, the mother who was soon to leave. We go down to the basement to play with Lisa, the girl with the unwanted curls, the Jewish curls, I can't help thinking--all I remember is this little girl putting her dress over her head and running head first into the brick of the basement wall, over and over. We took turns holding onto her, trying to talk her out of her need to run blindly into pain. And through it all, I thought how can I leave her here, how can such damage be already done? I thought--this is what I remember from all those years ago--my brother had made it clear he did not want me near his children-- this society won't let me take her and how would I support her and me. My brother had told me in the past that I had no right to criticize how he raised his child--I was a queer, what did I know?

Regina and Robin and Lisa, New Jersey, 1969

You know, I can't continue here laying out the sadness of these lives; I will leave in my papers the full story as I remember it, the Nestle saga--Regina, Elliot, Joan and now Robin. Know that once there was a young girl named Lisa who loved to draw and put ketchup on her food, who back in the late 70s traveled with Robin and Deborah and me to our yearly two week rental cottage in Truro on the Cape, whose laughter Deborah and I could hear coming over the wood partitions, the girls taking in the sights of Washington D.C. as Deb and I tried to beef up their knowledge of American history, visiting with our friend Judith, the girls swimming in the New Hampshire lake, the photo of Lisa with her head leaning on Deb's shoulder in the small Croydon kitchen, Lisa sleeping under our bed in my New York apartment, not wanting to be in another room. Robin curled up at the end of our bed-- we knew then how badly they had been damaged. Lisa, tall and with a husky voice who tried to make sense of what life had given her, a father who beat her and her sister so badly, they would flee into those same suburban New Jersey streets and hide under the parked cars of their neighbors, the two little girls who told us on that trip, Deborah and I, of how they build a nest for themselves in the garage and invented their own language that only they could understand, the language of the wounded, a created privacy when nothing else was off limits, not their bodies, not the crushing of their joy.

Robin and Lisa and friend, dancing, California, c.1977

Lisa escaping into drugs, from time to time calling me from the West Coast, then silence, then another Lisa voice, a smaller voice saying simple sentences, Lisa, whose brain was damaged from being brought out of a drug induced coma too quickly, now in her 20s but walking her streets as ten year old, yet still taking delight in her job as a returner to the shelves of unwanted supermarket items, the last time I heard her voice, my heart froze, froze with enormity of what had been lost, of what had never been for this young woman named Lisa. She gave birth to a daughter, who someday I hope I will meet, she wants to be an artist and I remember again, her mother, Lisa, the lanky young girl, sitting on the floor of the flight departure lounge, drawing images from the young person's encyclopedia Deb and I had given her, her curly dark hair, her off center careful smile. The plane came and carried both Robin and Lisa back to their lives. I know if somehow Deb and I had managed to keep those children, their lives would have been different and so would we.

Where It All Began, Regina and Jonas on their Wedding Day, The Bronx, NY., 1928

I have been carrying around with me from country to country, from home to home, a small old fashioned cassette tape. On it are the voices of my mother, Regina, and the giggling sounds of Robin and Lisa. My mother, so long gone now, had never been able to mother me--always working, always loosing--money, apartments, lovers--but with these children, and at the mercy of my brother who kept her locked in her bedroom at night so, he said, she would not go out and gamble, in another suburb in Silicon Valley, she was radiant and funny and creative--let's tell a story, she says, let's sing a song, she encourages them, in her own not adult, not child voice, and the love of they for her and she for them raises off the shiny thin magnetic strip. How rare this preserved bit of human voices is--happiness, protected childhood, my mother embracing these young lives, for the short while my brother endured her. Robin tells me she still remembers how happy they were with Regina, how much she loved them. Now Regina is gone, Elliot, the deliverer of the blows, is gone, Lisa, the child woman, is gone. Robin and I are talking, Robin will come here soon and I will hold her. Once after she had heard I had cancer, Lisa sent me a beautiful white basket of flowers all the way from San Francisco--someone had helped her do it. I am the teller of stories, I am the holder of the thread that binds these lives together--how do I explain that the glimmers of love, that even my brother, sad and distraught man that he was, catch my heart, working class we were, Regina, Elliot and Joan, Regina the embezzler, whore, owner of Jonas' Dress Shop in a small town outside of New York in the 1940s for one year before it went bust, the shop named after my father who had died in 1939--perhaps the missing beginning for me is the beginning of the whole story, Jonas Nestle, whose body I have never seen, whose voice I have never heard, but who did hold Regina and Elliot for a short while in his furrier's arms--you see, these stories never end--as yours do not either, some thread will be caught up in another's heart. These sad three and what I made of it all. Dear, dear Robin, you will be the collector of our threads. You who have shown me the grace of your spirit as you nursed your dying father, your dying sister--with all the hardness and lost there but you try so hard to forgive. I, we, await your visit.