Excerpt: The Imperfect Tense

Excerpt: The Imperfect Tense

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By Liane Kupferberg Carter

“How does staying in an old palace in Paris strike you?” my sister-in-law Jill asked.

“Drafty, but delightful,” I said. “Why?”

Jill told me her daughter was spending a semester in Europe and Jill intended to visit. Jill knew I love all things French. “Why don’t you come with me?”

I sighed. “I wish.”

But the idea gnawed at me. I mentioned it to my husband Marc, trying the idea out on us both. “It’s nice of her to ask, but of course I can’t.”

“Of course you can,” he said. “Don’t you think I can hold down the fort for a week?”

A few days later Jill called and asked again.

“Want to come? We could have such fun,” she wheedled.

“Yes,” I said, surprising us both.

Yes, I would go would go to Paris, because I hadn’t been there since the summer I was sixteen. Yes, although I had never left my children before. Yes, even though the thought made me nervous and giddy.

Jill speaks no French. She told me she was depending on me. Ever the dutiful student, I borrowed my older son Jonathan’s high school French grammar review book, and grappled with conjugations, irregular verbs and the subjunctive. I listened to French radio stations, understanding perhaps every 15th word, and those were only the helper words – avec, avant, apres; nothing substantive. Frustrated, I wanted to beg the radio announcer, Plus lentement, s’il vous plait. Please. Slow. Down. While I struggled to decode one sentence, the radio voice was already two paragraphs ahead. I felt adrift in the sea of language. Reclaiming my high school French was sheer physical exhaustion as I strained to decipher the foreign sounds. I was still floundering with first year phrases like La plume de ma tante est sur la table, while it sounded as if the speakers on the air were parsing Proust.

Laboring to master the rudiments of French all over again, I couldn’t help but wonder: is that what it was like for my autistic son Mickey every day, struggling to make himself understood in English, a language that felt innately foreign to him? The fatigue, the mental strain, the confusion of idioms? I pictured his mind like the old PBX telephone switchboard I manned one summer in college, his brain a bundle of clustered, colored cords, a cerebral scramble as he strained to locate the right plug. “What did you did today?” he often asked me. No wonder he still napped every afternoon. He must be exhausted.

My friend Ellen, a former student at the Sorbonne, tried to help and spoke French to me. When I tried to answer, it felt like striking two keys at once on an old manual typewriter: the keys jammed in mid air, metal trapped over metal. The words stuck; my throat throttled. I could think only in the present tense.

Marc offered to buy me the Rosetta Stone Language learning software program, which I refused. Too expensive. But it occurred to me how aptly it was named. After all, hadn’t I spent the last sixteen years looking for my own personal Rosetta Stone, the key to decoding the mystery of our younger child?


The French grammar book I studied told me the passe simple tense is for actions that have been completed. The passe, compose, though in the past, is still connected to the present and may even still be happening. That was a tense I knew too well, from my endless replay of Mickey’s first few years of life, when it had felt as if Mickey was an ambassador from another world and it was our job to learn each other’s language

The more I studied my French, the more I found myself remembering Mickey’s battles with English. I thought about how at the age of three, he had recognized all the letters of the alphabet, known numbers up to 10, and shown a keen interest in reading signs and license plates. How he had loved to stack alphabet blocks into towers, and knock them over. “More go,” he’d said again and again. How the speech therapist had wondered aloud if he might have hyperlexia, a precocious ability to read words without understanding them. How she’d asked me when he was four to make a list of his words. It had numbered close to a hundred and consisted mostly of nouns he struggled to combine into three-word sentences: “I go home.” “Want more juice.” Verb tenses had been difficult, and pronouns, slippery and situational, had often eluded him. I had waited for a breakthrough, when, miraculously, Mickey would suddenly begin speaking in fluid, full sentences. But just as I would never speak French that way, had it been an unfair expectation of him? Even now, he was still sometimes like a foreigner who spoke laboriously and often ungrammatically as he made his way in a foreign city.

The past few years I’d dreamed repeatedly that the four of us were finally going to Europe. Sometimes it was the hill towns of Umbria, where my college roommate Pat had a home; sometimes the outskirts of London or Rome. But it was always the same dream. I would realize we had been there a week and that it was time to leave but we hadn’t seen or done anything I wanted. I would grow frantic in the dream. I’d embark on a frenzy of sightseeing, only to meet frustration. Mickey would refuse to enter a museum. Gag on new foods. Talk too loudly to himself. Jonathan would be embarrassed and blame me. I’d wake up feeling thwarted. It would hit me: Mickey still couldn’t cross a street unassisted. Would we ever be able to travel as a family?

I bought my ticket. Jill and I made hotel arrangements. I realized I was living too much in the Conditional tense, imagining dire events. What if my plane crashed? The train derailed? A terrorist detonated a bomb in the Metro? I could die. What if Marc had to raise Mickey and Jonathan alone? How could I chance leaving my children without a mother?

I distracted myself with a flurry of housecleaning, file-purging and bill-paying. I unearthed a pile of old love letters I didn’t even remember saving from a college boyfriend and extracted a promise from my friend to toss them out if I should not return from my trip. How dare I take a vacation without my husband? He deserved a respite as much as I did. They say travel broadens; was this still true when it terrified?

The imperfect tense — l’imparfait — is an ongoing state of being. It is hard to accept life in the imperfect tense. And yet, somehow, we do. We must. The imperfect, the present, and the future co-habitate within us.

On some days the tenses loom like landmines: the Future, and the Conditional. But we live, too, in what my French grammar book calls Le Subjonctif, the tense we use to express wishes, emotions, and possibility.

Perhaps Mickey would someday read at 6th grade level. Perhaps he would grow up to have a job that gave him pleasure; friends; a place in a community that welcomed him. Perhaps someday, our family would travel to France, and I would use my grade school French.

More likely, it would be Quebec: closer to home, but still French.

For now, I realized, I needed to stay firmly rooted in the present, and focus on the regular verbs:

Mickey is speaking. He is loving. We have hope.

Liane Book CoverExcerpted from Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism by Liane Kupferberg Carter. (c) 2016 Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.






Someone to Watch Over Me

Someone to Watch Over Me

Mom Dad Me Provincetown 1957 Edited (002)

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

“A tasket, a tisket, Joan will make a brisket.”

My mother’s friends serenaded her with those lyrics at my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary party. Mom was famous throughout Flushing, Queens for her brisket.

As soon as she heard someone was facing illness or surgery, she’d call the butcher. Then she’d cook and deliver that person a braised brisket so delectably tender you barely needed a knife. Easy to freeze, it tasted even better the second day. Her brisket served with mashed potatoes was the ultimate comfort meal. Food is the mamaloshen – the mother tongue – of Jewish families. Mom didn’t speak Yiddish, but she understood it, just as she understood the healing properties of food. When there was a death, my mother took over the job of setting up for shivah. She’d lug out her 50 cup electric coffee pot, hard-boil the eggs and start slicing the bagels.

As a child I thought I lived in a boarding house, because there were always so many people at the table. Cousins, aunts, and uncles spilled in and out the front door in time for meals, and my mother’s friends, many of them elementary school teachers, showed up at 3:30 most afternoons. She served cinnamon coffeecake, cigarettes and conversation. Her phone rang incessantly. There was always the sense of something exciting about to happen: a faraway guest about to arrive unannounced, a meal, a bed, a welcome for anyone who needed it. My mother thought nothing of cooking dinner for twenty. She was less than thrilled, though, when in the midst of frantic Passover preparations, the kitchen steamy with chicken soup and simmering brisket, Great Aunt Rose and Uncle Babe from Brooklyn arrived four hours early and sat expectantly in the living room, waiting for mom to serve them cake and coffee.

There was dancing in that house, and noise. The brown velvet loveseat was pushed aside for a child’s impromptu ballet recital, or for my mother to give a clumsy cousin waltz lessons on the eve of his marriage. Guests revolved through the front door in an ever-changing nightly cast — that same great aunt and uncle from Brooklyn who often showed up uninvited on Sunday just in time for dinner; the former landlady from Provincetown who came for a weekend but stayed six weeks; my pot-head boyfriend my father despised even as my mother kindly welcomed him.

We moved into the Moorish-style brick colonial in Queens in the spring of ’56. The plumbing, circa 1927 was original; the radiators distressingly large and clanky. But the level back yard was just the right size for children’s birthday parties, and the low limbs of the crabapple tree just right for climbing.

And there was music. Show soundtracks on the hi-fi, like Gigi. Camelot. Fiddler on the Roof. My Fair Lady. The musical parodies of Alan Sherman. Benny Good man stomped at the Savoy, and Artie Shaw began his beguine. Best of all, my mother played the piano. She was innately musical, able to play a song after hearing it only once. As a child of the Great Depression, she was entirely self-taught; her parents were too poor to waste money for such frivolities as piano lessons. As an adult, she would sit at the Baldwin spinet that had been her mother’s, an ancient dark wood instrument tucked up against the stuccoed wall of the sun room. Her favorite piece was a wistful bit of music she played for herself. “What’s that called?” I asked once.

“It’s just a little something I wrote for my mother,” she said. “It’s called ‘Liane forever more.'” Her mother had died young; I was named for her. Often she’d segue into a second, hauntingly lovely melody that evoked a yearning sadness in me. She’d sing softly to herself, “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see….” She played it so movingly I thought she’d written that one too. Only years later did I realize it was George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Every evening before my bedtime my mother and I would peer out at the moon through the window on the stair landing. She would sing me a song that years later I sang to my own children: “I see the moon and the moon sees me, the moon sees somebody I want to see. God bless the moon, and God bless me. And God bless the somebody I want to see.” The somebody for her, of course, must have been her mother. As young as I was, somehow I understood that she was sad in a place my kisses could never touch.

That house was my mother’s domain, comforting and safe. I basked in the warmth of her sustaining love.

Still, she was a slapdash housekeeper. Clean, but not neat. She was too busy making books of Braille for the blind, editing newsletters, running the temple bazaar, driving people to doctor appointments or reading to the geriatric residents at the local psychiatric institution. Years later and all grown up, my brother and I would periodically check the back of the kitchen cabinet to see if she’d thrown out the packet of yeast which had expired in the early 1970s. “Still here,” he’d announce with satisfaction.

“You need Carbon 14 to date it,” I said.

But the mess was oddly reassuring. “I wish I could be as sure of other things in this world as the fact that this housework will still be here long after I’m gone,” she often said.

When I moved into my first apartment, she packed me off with a set of Marimekko melamine plates and the Temple Beth Sholom Sisterhood cookbook, Home on the Range. I was single, working, living alone. She didn’t call to check up on me. She never asked when I planned to get married. “Other mothers like to bother their children,” I complained.

“I don’t like to pry,” she said. She especially hated having to disturb me at work. She didn’t want my boss to think I was getting personal phone calls on the company’s dime. If she absolutely needed to telephone me at the office, she’d leave a pseudonym. I’d return to my desk to find such messages as, “Call Margaret Dumont,” or “Maria Ouspenskaya returned your call.” She knew I’d recognize the allusion to our favorite old Marx Brothers and Lon Chaney werewolf movies.

“Mostly I just like saying “Ouspenskaya,” she admitted. “It’s so satisfying.”

She wasn’t the only one with an alias. When I was a high school senior, I answered an ad in the back of a magazine for the Famous Writers School correspondence course. “Do you have a restless urge to write?” it asked. I did. I ordered the free copy of their “revealing” aptitude test, but hesitated to use my real name. Mom and I had recently watched “Citizen Kane” on late night TV, so I said I was “Rosebud Kane.” Months later, a man rang our doorbell. This was still the days of Fuller Brush salesmen and Avon ladies making house calls, so it wasn’t unusual to find a salesman on your doorstep. “I’m from the Famous Writers School,” he said. “Are you Miss Rosebud Kane?” Mom instantly knew. With a straight face, she said, “She’s not available. I’ll tell her you called.”

The cliché has it that some people will give you the shirt off their back. Along with the shirt, Mom gave the skirt, the shoes, the pants, the purse and money for cab fare. I once gave her a beautiful sky blue silk robe she said she loved. She packed it when she flew down to Florida to stay with Aunt Jeanette, who was very ill. When Aunt Jeanette’s nurse admired the robe, Mom gave it to her. I asked her why she had done that. She said, “because I hope she’ll take extra good care of Jeanette.

She took extra good care of everyone, except herself. I was in my late 20s and newly married when she began to have worrisome bouts of coughing. Shortness of breath. Bronchitis that lingered too long. I nagged her to stop smoking. She laughed it off.

The house too showed signs of neglect. The rickety piano bench bulged with tattered sheaves of music she no longer played; issues of National Geographic and The New Yorker magazines piled up, unread. The gold wall-to-wall carpet once so plush it held the trace of her slippered feet each morning oxidized to dirty mustard. Like an aging aristocrat, the house still got by on good bones, increasingly shored up by the scaffolding of my memories.

Eventually that carpet bore the indelible indentation of a tall tank of oxygen. It loomed large against the living room wall, a giant metal canister susurrating ceaselessly. Plastic tubing snaked from room to room, the translucent umbilical cord tethering her to that tank. Increasingly she turned to watching game shows and old Fred Astaire movies.

That Thanksgiving, I cooked the entire meal at my house, packed it all up and brought it to her, but she could only manage a few mouthfuls. “Everything is delicious,” she apologized, “but it’s just too hard to eat and breathe at the same time.”

Cigarettes were her undoing, but that miasma of nicotine also contained the life breath of my mother’s laughter. Ten days after I gave birth to my second child, she was rushed to the hospital. We got a call at 3:00 a.m. to come say goodbye. Gathered around the bed, we held her hands and stared at her, our eyes filled with unshed tears. Finally, she spoke up. “Sorry it’s taking me so long. You shouldn’t=t have rushed. You know I’m always dressed too early to go places.”

She revived. The doctor sent her home with only weeks to live.

“Promise me one thing,” she said. “Don’t let the rabbi do that ‘Woman of Valor’ speech at my funeral.”

I knew what she meant. Every rabbi reads the psalm about “the woman of valor” whose “price is far above rubies.”

Through tears, I said, “I swear.”

Valor. The dictionary says, boldness or determination in facing great danger. See also, courage.

“There’s a song I want you to play at my funeral, she told me. Nothing too sad. It’s from The Fantastiks. It’s called Try to Remember.”

The day after she died, Aunt Adele brought us a brisket. It wasn’t as good as Mom’s.

Mom showed me that making a home is a journey, not a destination. She taught me to love Gershwin, Big Bands, Beethoven and the Marx Brothers; to use clear nail polish to stop a nylon run, to take care of others, and yes, how to braise a brisket.

Author’s Note: Last fall I was asked to contribute to an anthology of essays on women and food, and to include a recipe. I wrote about my mother’s brisket. But when I shared the piece with a colleague, she said, “This isn’t about food. It’s really about your mother. Send them a different piece.” Which I did. I haven’t been able to write much about my mother since her death 19 years ago — until now.

Liane Kupferberg Carter is the author of the memoir Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishers.) Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Parents, Literary Mama, Brevity, The Manifest-Station, and in several anthologies.