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4.5/5 (3 valutazioni)
367 pagine
6 ore
Aug 5, 2014


A beautifully wrought and sharply detailed story of the intertwining lives of two women: Duse, a strong-willed psychic and Isadora, her daughter, who struggles to find her own identity. A masterful evocation of the complex network of expectation, love, rebellion and need that is at the core of every mother-daughter relationship.
Aug 5, 2014

Informazioni sull'autore

Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of twelve novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Her essays and stories have been included in New York magazine, Psychology Today, More, Parenting, Redbook, and Salon. She’s a book critic for People, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA.

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Anteprima del libro

Lifelines - Caroline Leavitt


Isadora’s Prologue

Long after Daniel had disappeared, Isadora haunted the obituaries. She had to take two different buses to get to the library downtown, and she sat in the reference room through the hot afternoon, going through the dusty stacks of out-of-town newspapers until her spine threatened to give. She scanned every black dot of a letter trying to form a semblance of Daniel’s name, just so she could escape the limbo, just so she could know.

She felt the librarian looking at her. Duse’s old librarian, she thought. That woman remembered Duse coming here—only Duse would have been more efficient, Duse would have homed right in on the names she wanted. When the librarian smiled at Isadora, she looked away. She braced herself against that woman coming over, telling her how much her looks copied her mother’s, how it was like seeing history repeat.

History wasn’t doing any repeating. She was Duse’s daughter all right, but she couldn’t do the things Duse could do, she couldn’t know how death came in threes the way Duse did, and then determine just who those three would be. She couldn’t see her life unravel in the folds of her own hand. Who knew, though, maybe Duse really couldn’t do any of those things, either. Maybe she was just clever, maybe people just needed to believe her so fiercely that they helped to make Duse’s fictions fact. Duse had been named for the greatest actress in the world.

When the librarian came over, it was to tell Isadora that it was closing time. Isadora pushed herself up from the table and shuffled her things together. She dug into her purse for some change to feed the bus, and then she fished out her pocket mirror and squinted at herself, at the raw sleeplessness that blurred her features. Her hair would always be Duse’s, she thought, and her eyes, too, were Duse’s, hopeless reminders of a heritage she didn’t understand, of the things that began with her mother, with Duse.




Duse’s name was a living presence for six months before she herself was. It always bothered her; it never really seemed fair. She told Isadora that she had been labeled rather than named, that her own mother had tried to predetermine the contents, to shape and mold her when she wasn’t even fully formed, when she could have been twins or male or anything really, but who and what she was. That prebirth naming was the first of what Duse called sins against identity, the worst kind of fault because it meant an unfair thwarting of the self, a kind of killing.

It began for Duse in 1929 in Chicago. Her mother, Anna Polov, noticed a piece of newsprint skittering across the road. She was a superstitious woman who saw signs and portents in almost everything, and she stooped to pick up the paper, balancing her swollen stomach with one gloved hand, scooping up the paper with the other. She managed to stand, a little gracelessly, and leaned against a blue Ford parked in the street. The paper was stained with fish and it smelled, but still she smoothed it out, picking off the few shredding pieces of mackerel sticking to the headlines. The whiteness of her gloves was already tinted with fish. On one side of the paper was an advertisement for men’s beaver coats, on the other was a picture of the actress Eleanora Duse and an article about her place in theatrical history. The photo was blurry, but Anna traced the features of that famous face, letting them mark her like a wound. She had never seen a play, had never really cared to, but she knew about Duse, she remembered when Duse had died, just a few years back, and how all the magazines had rushed out articles on her.

Anna liked that face. There was something intangible playing in it, something that she didn’t think could be bitten down or destroyed. Duse, she said aloud, tasting the sound, experimenting with the feel of it in her mouth. Duse. She thought names carried power, that a good name could influence you, could rescue you. She wanted a little girl, she thirsted for a daughter, but she didn’t want her to be tired and married the way she was, she wanted her girl to be special.

She named the baby right then, while it was still growing inside of her and her thoughts were swirling about it, nourishing it. An actress traveled, an actress could escape places as well as gossip.

Anna sliced the photo free of the paper and took it back to her tiny house. That picture would influence the workings of her womb, it would give her a gift of a girl. She put the photo into a long red scarf and knotted it about her belly. She never removed the scarf except when she bathed, and she loosened it as she grew still larger and bulkier with child. It was only when she carelessly tipped over her tin laundry tub, sloshing warm soapy water over her belly, that she undid the scarf for good. She spread the scarf out, shaking, and she could see that the photo was nothing more now than damp shreds of gray papery lint.

Duse might not have had control over her own naming, but she would always tell Isadora that at least she had seemed to choose her own time to make her entrance into the world. Duse was born in the late afternoon, right on Black Tuesday when the stock market crashed. Anna was cooking dinner, rattling the pans along her enamel stove, keeping one hand pressed lightly on her cramping belly, the other fisted about a wood stir spoon.

When Duse started up Anna’s labor, Anna told herself to ignore it, she wasn’t due for another month, and the pains were simply because she had feasted on corned beef for lunch. That was all. There was nothing to be so coltish about. She took a deep breath, she turned the Welsh pudding down, and then the pains were deep and sudden, they folded her right over. The baby was born quickly, almost casually spilling out onto the floor, crying at the smell of dinner blackening and smoking in the pot, at the light, at the ragged terror in Anna’s breathing, at her disbelief.

Duse’s father’s name was Richard. He was a photographer, and, according to Duse, he was responsible for some of her hardesthealing sins of identity. He would never be able to forgive her for being born the same day the market folded, he would always somehow associate her with the Great Depression, and he saw no reason to celebrate either. Any parties, any gifts, were always given to Duse a day late, and there was always an argument with Anna.

But Anna, too, had her own difficulties with Duse. Richard left Duse’s raising to Anna, but Anna never had any idea how to deal with a baby. She had been an only child, unexposed to babies, and she fumbled blindly. She was having a hard enough time with Richard being out of the house so often; there were always things she needed from one of the markets, things she had to run outside for, and she couldn’t afford to hire anyone to watch Duse. So she ended up leaving the baby alone.

At first, she was plagued by guilt. A baby would slow her down, she told herself, it was really better for her to rush like this, to let Duse incubate in the heated house. She carried the plaintive cries of Duse inside her own breath as she pushed down the street; she made it a habit to ask for advice from anyone who was willing to give it—the grocer’s wife in her dotted swiss apron, the woman buying meat from the butcher, another mother wheeling her baby in a covered pram. The grocer’s wife told Anna about scientific childrearing, told Anna that she was being silly to worry. It’s good for babies to cry, she said. It makes them strong. You don’t want them coddled like eggs. That little one will get used to being alone soon enough.

Sometimes, as Anna made her way back to the apartment, she imagined Duse smothered in her baby blankets, broken or bleeding red on the floor. Anna’s breath clamped when she jiggered the key into the front door. But Duse was always lying still, eyes open and blinking, content. The grocer’s wife was right, that baby was growing used to the silence, to the dim light. When Anna cooked, she tried to keep Duse in the kitchen, but even then she worried that the banging of the pots would rupture those tender shell ears, so she plucked the baby up and carried her into the other room. She shut the door, sealing up the cracks at the bottom with some old and fraying dish towels. The kitchen noises wouldn’t get through, but the sharp sudden cries of a baby would.

At first, she was delighted at how good a baby Duse was, how still. But then, with Richard gone until dinner, she began to feel lonely. She wasn’t sure how babies were supposed to act, but she suspected that they might be a comfort, that they might offer company. She began to notice her Duse with a critical, slicing eye. She saw how Duse was neither comfort nor company. Duse hardly seemed to react at all sometimes. Anna would prod her, holding her baby mush too far away, but Duse would play with her fingers, suck on her toes. Anna would take away a bright toy and Duse would spend hours mesmerized by a fleck of dust; she’d pat it from one end of the room to the other. The thing that frightened Anna the most, though, was Duse’s blank staring, almost as if she didn’t acknowledge anyone’s presence but her own.

Her Duse seemed to be living in a separate world, and Anna began to agonize that maybe this strangeness was her fault. She shouldn’t have listened to the damning advice she was given, she should have just taken Duse with her when she went out, or simply not gone out at all. Instead, she had driven a love of solitude into that baby, and now she couldn’t make it connect up with her. Maybe it went even deeper, maybe she hadn’t worn the picture of that actress long enough, maybe it was because she had ruined the photo in the slop of the laundry water. That could have colored her baby, could have made her different. Anna worried that there was something terribly wrong with her child, something that even strangers might pick up, might mark her with. It made Anna distrustful. She didn’t like anyone peering into the pram when she wheeled Duse, and she parried other mothers’ questions. She was curt. She kept a heavy veiling over the pram, she shortened her skirt more than was really decent, but she did it so that she could outdistance anyone’s probing eyes, anyone’s slicing questions.

Anna tried changing Duse. She wouldn’t let her baby sleep her long deathly hours anymore, but would prod her awake, shaking the crib, rattling a spoon along the wooden slats. If she saw Duse dreaming, Anna would clap her hands, would drop a plate, shattering it, startling the baby into activity. She kept the radio booming, she turned the sound of the serials up so that even the static was deafening. She wanted Duse to have voices all around her, to be aware of people, of sound. Anna tried to kiss and cuddle Duse, but Duse, used to silence, to no other touch but the air wafting around her, but her own fingers, never seemed to like affection, never seemed quite comfortable with another’s hands on her. When Anna stooped to pick her up, Duse screamed, she growled, she clung to the tufts on the rug, until Anna, horrified, released her grip and set her down. Anna would weep until Richard came home, but he was always tired; it was all he could do to chuck her under the chin before he slumped to the table, hungry for his meal. He didn’t want to hear problems, and it was not her place to insist.

The Depression changed Richard. It did something to him. The energy and feeling he should have given Duse, he gave, instead, to the times. He watched the Depression grow, not his baby, not his girl, and he was working such long hours that he seldom saw Duse at all. Not that he suffered. He was never one of those men carrying billboards strapped to their backs like extra coats; he never had to jitter and move in a dance of sales. Richard’s job was a necessity. Everyone wanted all the sugar coating they could get, so the government hired Richard for public morale work. He snapped away at all the success stories of the Depression, the beauty contests, the mock food fairs—the ways people pretended that they were doing just fine.

The Depression jinxed his camera. Never again did he feel that old familiar giddiness, that sense of truth when he set up a shot. He saw how the camera lied about everything, how it manipulated; he took to staring at all his old photographs of Anna, to calling her into the room so he could compare the image with the woman before him. He never took pictures of Duse.

Play with the baby, Anna told him. Don’t mope. And he sometimes did try, but as soon as Duse became cranky he would pull himself back, he would deny the contact. He shut himself up in his study a lot, and then, when he felt guilty, he would go and peek in at her while she slept, while she was silent and unmoving.

He wasn’t around much when she started walking. By the time she started school, he had virtually no idea what she did during the day, how she played. At dinner, he hushed her prattle; after dinner, he wanted peace to listen to the radio, to read his paper. It wasn’t until Duse was five that he suddenly noticed the way she sometimes looked at him, the way she would twist away from him. When he grabbed her, when he tried to give her a hug, she peeled his hands away from her, she jerked away. He stopped trying to give her hugs, he told Anna their Duse was an independent little thing, and when Anna agreed, he felt a little less uneasy.

When Duse was six, she suddenly noticed how the photo albums were filled with Anna and were blank of her own face. She wanted to see for herself just what she looked like as a baby. She was tired of riding along on other people’s descriptions. I’ve been cheated, she thought, and she walked right up to Richard, she wanted him to take her picture right then. He held out his arms for her and when she wouldn’t budge, he let them drop back down into his lap. What do you need a picture for? he said. Go look in the mirror.

I’m getting bigger, she said. I need to remember what I look like.

You do, do you, he said. Well let me tell you something, baby, memory’s just a cheat.

I won’t be this size forever, she said.

His face turned suddenly thoughtful. I know, he said. Everything always gets bigger, always needs more space.

She didn’t know what he meant. But she began to think about it, about how he could see her one way while she was seeing herself another. She began watching him, too, seeing how he was. She saw him hanging around the kitchen after dinner, waiting until Anna was fussing in the dishwater before he would poke around in the garbage, bringing up a chipped cup that he claimed was perfectly good, scavenging in the food and demanding to know why Anna threw out a quarter of a pound of good meat. One night, when Duse couldn’t sleep, she peered out her window looking for shooting stars, and saw Richard out there, barefooted, flexing his toes in the grass. He was just standing there, his eyes shut, and then she saw him stoop down by the rock garden. She saw him digging with his hands, then standing and putting those palms up to his face as if he were inhaling the scent of the dirt. She waited until he turned back to the house, and then she went back into her bed; trying to sleep, she put her own hands over her face, she inhaled and wondered.

The next day she asked Anna about it, but Anna said she must have just been dreaming, and when Duse approached Richard, he told her she was being silly. Why would a grown man go out onto the lawn in the middle of the night and put dirty hands up against his nose? Still, she noticed, when she went outside to play, the quick way Richard stalked her if she rambled in the rock garden. Leave that alone— he’d call. He told her he was worried she would get hurt and they couldn’t afford the doctor bills.

There was a lot he said they couldn’t afford because of the Depression. Duse didn’t understand the Depression, didn’t have any real sense of it. Later, of course, she would say that it had nothing to do with the times, that the Depression was simply people’s fate catching up with them, that the lucky were being sifted from the unlucky. There was only one real way Duse suffered in those times, and that had to do with clothing.

Richard wouldn’t allow Anna to buy new clothes or even to buy material to make them herself. Instead, she had to go and get boxes from the church rummage sales, she had to pluck things out for handfuls of the pocket money Richard gave her. She tried. She kept telling Richard how cheap clothing in the stores was, how much more they could get for their money (and there was money coming into that house), but Richard was stubborn, he wouldn’t listen. There was always a slithering of skirts and blouses on the living room floor, always shoes with their laces knotted together, darned woolen stockings, jackets with the names inked right into the collars.

Every month Anna sorted out piles. Come here, she would tell Duse, holding up a green dress. Let me hold this against you. It’s clean and it’s kind of pretty, too, isn’t it? Anna always found things for herself. She could wrap someone’s old fox fur about her, the head on it so mothy that it no longer gripped its own ragged tail, and she could make that piece hers, she could obliterate any past it held. But for Duse, it was different. Right from the start.

She could remember a blue shirt. She was six. Ricky Jones was two years older than she, tall and thin, and the back of his neck and his elbows were mottled, his flesh seemed to be rotting away from him. She recognized the shirt when Anna held it up. The neon blue of it hurt her eyes and she had to blink against it, but she had put it on, stroking the wrinkles flat against her skin. She wore it, the strange blue giddy inside of her, but she felt something taking root. Her elbows began to itch, the nape of her neck heated. She kept lifting her hair, heavy and strong and red, from her back to scratch, but her fingers never found anything but her own pale, smooth skin. When she rolled up her sleeves, her elbows were unblemished. Still, she felt poxed. The swift, clean shame ate at her, and she savagely tugged her sleeves down, buttoning the wrists. All through school, she could smell Ricky, the medication he slabbed on his skin. She had to excuse herself to go to the girl’s room, to stare at her face in the mirror. Her features looked different to her, they seemed to be changing right in front of her. She wanted to jerk that shirt right off her back. Instead, she went back to class, she carefully took up a paintbrush and spattered red paint onto the shirt front. When she came home, Anna took the shirt and scrubbed the front of it with a nailbrush so fiercely that the cloth wore through.

That shirt was thrown out, but there were other things. Duse always held back when she had to try on clothes. She tensed a leg so it wouldn’t slide into a pants opening, she flexed her arm against the open wound of a sleeve. She walked in shoes hesitantly, waiting for a sensation to curve up around her. She never knew what would claim her, what wouldn’t let her alone. Sometimes she felt there was no room for her, and she’d smear ink on the cloth or tear and muddy it until it was unwearable. She told Anna that she felt all the past owners still living in the clothing, that those lives crowded her, but Anna scoffed at her, saying that a joke like that wasn’t funny.

Duse was seven when Richard’s headaches began. He was reading on the couch one day, stretched out, listening to a serial on the radio, when his left eye began streaming. He kept lifting his hand to wipe at the tears, but they wouldn’t be stopped. His head suddenly hurt; it felt too small, the seams of it seemed to be ripping, letting out drifts of pain. The pain snaked deep in his thighs up toward his head and he thought the pressure would kill him. Anna— he shouted, and then he got up and pressed his head into the wall, and when that felt better, he pressed harder, then harder, until he was banging his head into the wall, until he had scraped his skin.

When Anna reached him, she had to pry him back from the wall. She was afraid he would crack his head right open, that he would smear the whole house with his blood, with pieces of his body. She helped him to bed and wrapped a chunk of ice into a rough blue rag and put it to his head. It took the doctor an hour to get there, and then he had to use up more time washing his hands and setting down his black bag, and all the while Richard moaned in the sheets and burrowed his head into the feather pillow. Richard didn’t remember the doctor, but he did hear Duse playing ball outside, bouncing rubber against the wood of the house, and the sound hurt him, for a moment he hated her. The doctor jabbed a needle into him and then he slept, and Anna was told it was migraine, that there was no cure, only pills.

Duse learned to recognize the headache’s approach by her father’s eyes, and she kept free of him. She didn’t like him to lock himself into the bath, she knew he only ran the water to hide the sounds he made when he started banging his head into the wall, trying to bruise out the pain.

He wouldn’t tell Anna until later about the other doctors he went to see. He wouldn’t let either Anna or Duse see more than one doctor when they were sick, and even then they had to be wrenched apart with fever before they could go. He told them that home remedies were better than pills, and so Duse grew up sickened on cod liver oil, chilled by ice packs for fever. Richard paid his doctors with photographic sessions. He posed families, he put hands into hands, and when he sent prints, the best ones framed, he considered his debt paid.

It didn’t matter how good his prints were, the doctors still told him the same things, that no one knew what caused migraines or how to control them, that there was never any cure. He was given syrups, bottles with labels that claimed the liquid inside was a rejuvenator. He kept one of those bottles in his coat, and every once in a while, he would take a long sloppy swig from the bottle, wiping the film from his lips with the back of his hand. It was weeks before he gave up hope on those bottles. One doctor gave him an electric belt to wear about his waist. Your energy is wrong, the doctor told him. He compared it to the faulty wiring of a house. It cost Richard twelve photographs, all of them silver framed, but he wore the belt when he could, when Anna and Duce were out. He hid it in his desk, he locked the drawer. It hummed, it jiggered a little, but it didn’t do anything until it sparked one day and then it brought on another headache.

He hated the pain, he hated being sick, and he began to blame Anna and Duse. He was surly when he came home, he complained that they both made too much noise, that they brought on his headaches with their careless spending, their careless noise. When he screamed and banged with a headache that lasted days, Anna would stuff Duse’s ears with cotton. Richard began warring with Anna. Duse was used to their bickering, but this was something different. She could sense a texture, a kind of nap, that wasn’t there before. Usually they simply shouted at one another until Anna would hide her weepy face in her hands, surrendering. But now they were physical. They lunged at each other, never really making contact. His moves were dodges, dances to keep Anna from striking him. She, in turn, railed at him from a distance, raging until she collapsed, exhausted, into a chair. Richard stood watching her face turn small and tight, and he began rubbing at his forehead, using his two hands like dowsers, searching out the pain.

They never really made up. Things simply settled back down again into an uneasy sort of truce. She cooked his meals, she asked about his work, she shooed and scooted Duse away from him, as if she were a mosquito itching to be slapped.

It bothered Duse. She wouldn’t recognize them when they fought. She would run and get the keys from the desk and sit in the car. Sometimes she would cry, curled up in the front seat with her knees bumping against the wheel. She could hear them, she felt the glassy breaking noises in their voices. She beeped the horn, but all that did was make some of the neighbors peer out at her from behind their curtain shields. She dozed a little when it was silent, curling her back into the seat. Anna always came out to get her, telling Richard that Duse was just outside on the grass.

One time Richard came striding out after a fight. When he passed the car, he saw her, and she shut her eyes.

He was gentle with her. He didn’t ask where she got the key, he didn’t threaten to punish her. Instead he stood her on the ground outside the car and brushed her red hair with his fingers. You don’t want to stay out here alone, he said, glancing toward the house, toward Anna. It’s terrible to be alone. He tried to get her to smile. I’m not very good to you, am I? he said. We don’t know each other very well, do we? She didn’t think that she was supposed to answer, so she kept her body still.

Would you like to come and live with me? he asked. We could start up fresh, you and me.

I don’t know.

Just us, he persisted. You could visit your mother anytime you liked.

She was puzzled. He had never seemed to need her, to connect, and she thought it was probably just another way to hurt Anna, to deny her. No, she said.

But what about some of the time, he said. A vacation, maybe, the ocean. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?

She pushed away from him. She didn’t want any part of him touching her. No, she said. No.

She didn’t realize he was crying. Not at first. But then he was making sounds, coughing, shaking his shoulders. She stood there, waiting, and then she wove herself closer. She picked up his two arms and put them around her, and then she let him rock her back and forth a little, and she saw how his eyes were, how they didn’t focus, how they didn’t see.

During the next weeks, she felt he was watching her, studying Anna, never really coming out and saying anything was wrong. When he left, it was in the middle of the night. Anna thought he had just gone into the kitchen for water. She fell back asleep, and it wasn’t until the morning that she missed him. She walked the rooms. In the living room was his camera, the lens smashed out of it; pieces of his photographs were scattered on the rug. She bent down, not feeling, and started methodically plucking the pieces up, carefully laying one section on top of another in her hand. Duse wandered into the room and squinted away the sleep. She watched, but when she looked down into her mother’s hands, at the pieces of picture, she saw Anna’s printed face, slashed right in half, the eyes staring up at her.

Duse found the note, tacked to the kitchen table, which she gave to Anna. Anna’s face was very quiet when she read, but all she told Duse was that Richard hadn’t been happy, that he had left them, but it was no one’s fault, no one’s.

It has to be someone’s fault, said Duse.

He says he loves you, right here, said Anna, trying to place her finger on the page, to make her hand still. She didn’t weep the whole time she was telling Duse how Richard was hoping to get into the army, to get training for a new career. She didn’t start to cry until she read Duse the part about how Richard had stockpiled sums of money and kept it in three iron boxes that he buried in the back yard in the rock garden—money she hadn’t known about. He had drawn a map for her to dig it out. She could live on that, he said, and he’d send them what he could. He said that money had made him feel secure, and now it would be their security—she and Duse would be all right. He wrote that he might still come back to them, he would have to see.

See what? said Duse. An old image flickered in her head. She saw again Richard in the back yard, his palms covering his face, she saw the way he dug in the rock garden, the secretive way he had just stood there in his bare feet. She remembered, too, how Anna had dismissed the thing she had seen with her own eyes, how Anna had said she was just dreaming and to let it go. She had played right over the spots where the boxes were buried, and Richard had yelled at her, but the only reason he had been able to come up with, the only lie, had been that she might get hurt and that there was no money for doctors.

I’ll never want that money, said Duse. Any of it. Anna, crying, looked up at Duse, but Duse’s face was stone. Duse wouldn’t want that money, either. She later told Isadora that she had never claimed her one box, that for all she knew it was still there buried under the earth. Anna wouldn’t touch the one box she said was Duse’s, and Duse gradually came to like the idea of that box just waiting, staying hidden until someone whose destiny it would be to uncover it dug it out.

Anna began hating. She railed at Richard’s timing. No one wanted to hire a woman when the streets

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  • (4/5)
    I really enjoyed reading your book. I read enthusiastically and understood the story. If you have some great stories like this one, you can publish it on Novel star, just submit your story to or