The Singular Sin of the Novelist
Updated: Mar 17
All of us have lives, and people in them who affect us and what we do. And we them. That said, let me tell you about Ethel.
I met Ethel when I was at the far far side of middle age. We lied to each other about how old we were. I hid the fact that I was a physician. Though she didn't disguise that she was an Orthodox Jew, interested only in polite conversation with any other kind of male, I thought that was like sort of like Episcopalians.
We were both walkers: me a stroller; she a strider. She knew I liked biking and allowed as how she liked biking too. (She didn’t).
She liked talking. I liked listening. She’s from Brooklyn and had lived in Manhattan, Hawaii, Canada, Israel, and Belgium. I was raised in Wooster (Ohio, USA), drove a tractor at an early age, and visited Cleveland now and again.
She was a polyglot. For me foreign languages remained…foreign. I was tall and she was short, though I never thought much about that until she gave up high heels.
She was gorgeous, with a smile that would light up a whole room. Aim a camera in her direction, anytime, and you'd get a great photograph. Aim a camera at me you’d get a scowl. “Never show your teeth,” my mom said when time for class pictures rolled around. Back then, orthodontics would have busted our bank.
We both liked tennis, sailing, people watching, reading, plays, movies, concerts, traveling, museums, laughing, Santa Barbara, family dinners, sushi, motorcycle rides, lilies, jokes, lectures, eating al fresco, red wine, learning, Paris, entertaining, kids, views, gossiping, watching the news, Breaking Bad, and of course the beach. We both saw little wrong with the Democrats, and disdained louts, though, unlike Hilary, we kept that to ourselves.
She loved dancing, and I loved watching her dance. She loved parties. I like when no more than four of us can sit and talk. She loved shopping, had great taste, and a style admired from both sides of the mechitzah. My standard attire is a sweatshirt and jeans, preferably big, and old. I did get cleaned up for our wedding in 2006.
I loved dogs and writing. She didn’t. She was a single mom, while I sidestepped my child raising responsibilities from an earlier life. She had a multitude of acquaintances, and a handful of beautifully good friends. Me? Do guys have friends?
Ethel has a large, close, supportive family. My family, almost in its entirety, is my two good looking and brilliant sons and their tolerant and talented spouses. Ethel and I have had the good fortune to age in parallel with her four grandchildren (who are way above average) while they’ve been growing up.
She’s a Jewish aristocrat who loved the life, lore, values, teachings, community, and rituals. Ethel had juice and I was parve. You can tell I married up.
What we have both loved most was attention. (I read this to Ethel and asked if she liked it. “Yeah,” she said).
She was a psychotherapist who could wade into sensitive interpersonal matters with her patients, mainly couples. Her office was in the ground floor of our house, and when she came up for supper one day, she’d said she’d been helping lesbians with sex in the basement. I was a physician. My patients were newborn babies who only communicated with me inarticulately. Anger, even fear, was a normal part of Ethel’s emotional repertoire. If I were aggrieved, I’d let it go. Not Ethel, who could have been a great litigator. I’m an INFP, and she’s sui generis.
I’ve watched Ethel speak to an audience of thirty divorcing couples. The judge mandated that they listen to a talk on shared child raising by this red-haired psychotherapist. Like mandatory Drivers’ School after a speeding ticket. Without notes, Ethel held the surly group’s interest for an hour. I’d tense up before a five-minute presentation at a small committee meeting.
Tough? You can’t imagine. When I got us lost on a rainy night in Budapest, we walked over cobblestones for an hour before I could find our restaurant; Ethel wearing her high heels. The day after four-hour surgery for cancer, she was driving her friend, Sara, around Oakland. And a more recent time: one day every month, she received an IV infusion of an experimental drug for Alzheimer’s. Fifty percent chance of receiving a placebo. Multiple CT’s, EKG’s, MRI’s, PET scans, and blood tests. This went on for 18 months. Maybe it helped a little, gave us hope, but the study was not judged much of a success.
What’s all this got to do with writing? For some obscure reason, which in the past, she may have been able to describe to me, I write most, maybe best, when I feel passionate about stuff. Now I’m attracted to themes of loss, unfairness, and dying. At least four of my few short stories are about her. One of the best is about a Catholic man thanking God for at last sending him a woman to love. It ends, “But Lord, a Jewish grandmother?” Ethel read all my writing and talked it over with me. She taught me about emotional life. She enabled me to get an MFA. I wouldn’t, couldn’t be a writer without her. But my writing, like my earlier medical career, stole time from being with Ethel. And she didn’t like that. Now I get it, and I don’t like it either. Today I have more time for writing because much of her essence has been eroded, though she’s still Ethel, and has more to teach me.