By Natalie Bergman
My wife’s father went to live with four concubines in a hexagonal, wooden house on top of a hill. He left my wife’s mother, a doctor of chemistry—an accomplished, well-spoken lady—for their housekeeper, a woman a decade their senior and almost illiterate. Then, under circumstances that remained shrouded in mystery, three other women joined.
According to many, my father-in-law and his four companions were a sect. We would be visiting (never with our daughter, who wasn’t allowed) and the youngest would be combing his beard, the oldest shining a kettle in one of the hexagon’s corners, and the twin concubines beating pieces of meat in the kitchen—his lunch.
His women all moved like injured animals; the old housekeeper carried an aura of hurt pride, the twins never left each other’s side the way frightened, young siblings might, and the youngest mistress would chew on her hair, bite her nails, and look down at her red-painted toes when spoken to. We thought it likely she may have been a prostitute.
Also, he always said he was holding no one against their will: exactly what sect leaders are supposed to say.
My wife used to get irate during those visits and scream at the twins to stop beating the meat, wave the young girl away from her father’s beard, and angrily ignore her parents’ former housekeeper. At such moments, I could hardly recognize the woman I fell in love with in college: the woman who’d advocated free love with body paint all over her naked breasts and whose fist-waving silhouette cut a passionate black and white figure in photos of demonstrations from the time.
My father-in-law’s women didn’t seem to blame her. They made themselves scarce in the garden for a few hours until our visits were over and then went back to their chores.
Her father’s leaving when my wife was still a teen had badly affected her self-esteem. For many years, she gorged on food, vomiting it secretly; for many more, she could trust no man and so cheated on all her partners. She blamed her father for these problems she’d experienced and credited me with her healing.
My father-in-law had been a university professor of anthropology before retiring into his peculiar living arrangement. During his teaching days, he had developed an affected voice, which rose and fell dramatically and haughtily. Sometimes, when my wife had to smoke a cigarette in the garden in order to calm her nerves, he would turn to me with a wink in his eye that suggested I must envy him. The truth was I did not. The intimacy of our small family was enough for me and the exotic tired me rather quickly, even in my fantasies. “I know Marjorie blames me for many of her bothers,” he said to me on one such occasion, “but come now, surely I am not to blame. All I wanted was more love.” He gestured over to the empty table in front of us, where the extra love supposedly resided. Not wanting to discuss it but obliging him, I asked why Marjorie and her mother had not been enough. “I just wanted more,” said the old man, and he turned his head to the window to watch his daughter blowing smoke.Then, sensing my indignation, he added without looking at me, “You didn’t free her anymore than I trapped her.”
And indeed, when my wife and I fought, she looked at me as if I were her cage: my calm temperament not a home, but a trap. Her raging eyes darted in search of an escape from me: another political cause, a trip abroad on her own; a lover, perhaps. Eventually she always returned, and ultimately I always forgave.
My daughter met her grandfather only once, at her eighteenth birthday party, which he’d insisted on hosting in his garden. She wore a dress that revealed her brittle shoulders, and when he affectionately touched her, both my wife and I moved towards them in a stunted gesture of wanting to make it stop that did not reach full articulation.
During that celebration, everyone took turns standing up to wish my daughter the very best: lots of love, many children, a career that would flourish, and indeed, she had gone on to have a fulfilling life, though not an easy one. There were years of loneliness, of unreliable roommates and travelling alone to Vietnam and Amsterdam, yoga teaching courses half-completed and men who weren’t kind. She seemed to take it in her stride, and often we wondered why it was that she didn’t expect the jobs to offer better contracts, the roommates to be more stable, and the men to be kinder. Sometimes, the image of her grandfather touching her young shoulder hung in my mind, though—of course—it offered no explanation. Instead, it appeared that this was simply the way the world now treated young people.
Years later, when my wife was dying of colon cancer in the hospital, the three remaining women (the old housekeeper long gone by then) would come bearing food. Their skirts handsewn and colourful, they looked like members of a tribe emerging from a forest after years of isolation. My wife and daughter would exchange amused looks, and once they were gone, my wife would say: “Poor creatures. One kookier than the next,” and she would turn her head and look out of the window: a woman not trapped, nor free; a victim and a creator of her biography in equal measures, just like everyone else.