In a Room and a Half

(To L.K.)

The room and a half (if such a unit of space makes any sense in English) in which the three of us lived had a parquet floor, and my mother strongly objected to the men in her family, me in particular, walking around with our socks on. She insisted on our wearing shoes or slippers at all times. Admonishing me about this matter, she would evoke an old Russian superstition; it is an ill omen, she would say, it may bode a death in the family.

Of course, it might be that she simply regarded this habit as uncivilized, as plain bad manners. Men’s feet smell, and that was the pre-deodorant era. Yet I thought that, indeed, one could easily slip and fall on a polished parquet, especially if one wore woolen socks. And that if one were old and frail, the consequences could be disastrous. The parquet’s affinity with wood, earth, etc., thus extended in my mind to any ground under the feet of our close and distant relatives who lived in the same town. No matter what the distance, it was the same ground. Even living on the other side of the river, where I would subsequently rent an apartment or a room of my own, didn’t constitute an excuse, for there were too many rivers and canals in that town. And although some of them were deep enough for the passage of seagoing ships, death, I thought, would find them shallow, or else, in its standard underground fashion, it could creep across under their bottoms.

Now my mother and my father are dead. I stand on the Atlantic seaboard: there is a great deal of water separating me from two surviving aunts and my cousins: a real chasm, big enough to confuse even death. Now I can walk around in my socks to my heart’s content, for I have no relatives on this continent. The only death in the family I can now incur is presumably my own, although that would mean mixing up transmitter with receiver. The odds of that merger are small, and that is what distinguishes electronics from superstition. Still, if I don’t tread these broad Canadian-maple floorboards in my socks, it’s neither because of this certitude nor out of an instinct for self-preservation, but because my mother wouldn’t approve of it. I suppose I want to keep things the way they were in our family, now that I am what’s left of it.

There were three of us in that room and a half of ours: my father, my mother, and I. A family, a typical Russian family of the time. The time was after the war, and very few people could afford more than one child. Some of them couldn’t even afford to have the father alive or present: great terror and war took their toll in big cities, in my home town especially. So we should have considered ourselves …

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