One, I am not a joiner.
Two, my “sixer” name meant I was a Pixie. It foreshadowed a lifetime of being referred to diminutively, metaphorically if not always literally being patted on the head. Even at the office I have been referred to as The Little One.
Three, I wasn’t any good at most of things you had to do to earn badges. My mother bought me a cactus so I could earn my horticulture badge. I can still hear her comparing my sewing project, a pin cushion, unfavorably with Miriam Rosenbaum’s. (A Pixie never forgets.) It consisted of two circles of felt, one yellow the other Brownie Brown, stitched together (unevenly in my case) and stuffed. Then you made a face: two stem buttons for eyes, a flat button for a nose, and finished it all with a (crooked) chain stitch smile.
Then came the Brownie Revel in the Downsview Dells and I learned to make French Toast. Could it be simpler or more wonderful? Bread soaked in a custard of egg, milk and vanilla, fried in butter and drenched in maple syrup. Upon my return home, I offered to make this manna for my parents. They bravely agreed. “There is only one problem,” I told them, “I only know how to make it for 40.”
Four, Brownies brought my mathematical inadequacies into sharp focus.
I still make French toast, ideally with my homemade pain de mie, but a good store bought challah does admirably. And I can make it for any number of people, or just myself. I have mastered the concept of scaleability. What a clever Pixie I am. And my mother still has the pin cushion.
What’s a Good Person to Do?
Diana Athill’s work is characterized by a self-awareness that never slops into self-absorption, because she is never seeking to justify herself, rather she wants to understand herself and others.
After a Funeral recounts her relationship with an exiled Egyptian author whom she befriends and ends up sheltering for a number of years. Initially Didi is great fun. Helping him out of various scraps has its rewards: he cooks interesting meals; they enjoy Saturday trips to London’s markets; he charms her friends. But close contact makes Athill gradually aware of Didi’s instability. His gambling and drinking aren’t joie de vivre, they are the veneer of incipient madness. His insanely predictable love affairs have nothing to do with love, everything to do with a hideous self-loathing.
Yet she admits to being “hooked” in the same way that unhappy couples are often unable to part, their “mutual torture” having become a way of life. The passage of time takes her to another, equally uncomfortable place: the realization that she has done all she can do for him, and it is to no avail, as she writes to him, “It’s a nightmare that anyone should suffer as much as you do without someone else being able to take off at least part of it, and I’m ashamed of not being able too.”
I know that shame and the leaden guilt that comes with it. It’s the burden of loving a trouble mind, an addict. If you do to, Athill’s book offers not just insight, but the solace of shared experience that so many troubled minds are unable to access, trapped as they are in tragic isolation.