"Cross Off and Move On" by Deborah Eisenberg Originally published in the July 12, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books.
The New York Review of Books fiction issue is on the stands for a few weeks, and, like last year, they have included a fairly lengthy piece of fiction from the great short story writer Deborah Eisenberg. “Cross Off and Move On” is a slowly paced walk into the past after our narrator, at around 54 years old, happens upon her cousin Morrie’s obituary in The New York Times; had she not happened to register the slightly familiar person in the photograph she “might have gone on for years assuming that my only known remaining relative was out there somewhere.”
The piece begins here:
Adela, Bernice, and Charna, the youngest — all gone for a long time now, blurred into a flock sailing through memory, their long, thin legs streaming out beneath the fluffy domes of their mangy fur coats, their great beaky noses pointing the way.
They come to mind not so often.
These three women are her father’s sisters. It’s been over thirty years since she had much to do with any of them, but her cousin’s obituary brings them to mind. So disoriented is she that she even calls Jake, a man she has been with for most of those thirty years, though they are now separated. When he asks if she’d like him to come over, she says no. “Or, I fiercely wanted him to come by, but only if he was going to be a slightly different person, a person with whom I would be a different person.”
Jake is a scientist, and when the narrator remarks on Morrie’s age at death, he for some reasons takes that moment to say that measuring age by the rotation of the sun and moon is arbitrary. She responds indignantly:
“How do you suggest we measure the life of a human being?” I said. “By weight? Would that be less primitive? By volume? By votes? By distance commuted? By lamentations? By beauty?”
That conversation was one of the only times in the entire story that I felt Eisenberg was forcing something that didn’t quite work naturally, but it does serve to give the remainder of the story some foundation. Every relative the narrator knew as a child — and they have had a strong influence on her life (it’s not only the passage of time that has made it so the narrator things of them not so often) — is dead and “sailing through memory.” Some are more ghostly than others, their weight in this world having dissipated a great deal already, which is the fate of them all.
The story, in a series of nicely crafted episodes, takes us back to the narrator’s childhood. Her aunts are omnipresent, even in their absences. Her mother, you see, deathly unhappy with her life, sees herself in some sort of competition with the three sisters, who “live at a convenient distance from us, close enough so that I can be parked with them whenever my mother is indisposed or out late into the night but far enough away so that we don’t run into them at every turn, as my mother puts it.”
Many of the episodes deal with the narrator’s relationship with her mother, a cranky, sickly, witty woman. One of my favorite passages comes when Jake first meets her. Thoroughly charmed, he takes the time to instruct the narrator.
“Look, I know this is painful. I know that it’s easier just to give over to resentment and to simplify the past by demonizing your mother rather than leaving yourself open to the stress of complex and ambiguous emotions. But you’re an adult now. Your life is your own. Why not accept what a difficult life she had, and leave that all behind. Because even though it was necessary for you at one time, and gratifying, by now this resentment is obsolete, and it’s just stunting you.”
I got myself a separate room for the night, and after I called my mother in the morning to say goodbye, I met with Jake for breakfast and I couldn’t help mentioning to him that she had wished me better luck with him at least than she’d had with my father and said that he seemed like a decent man but a bit self-important, overly susceptible to flattery, and maybe not all that bright.
He took a quick breath in, and of course I was very, very ashamed of myself. “Your mother is as mean as a mace,” he said.
“She’s had a difficult life,” I was evidently not too ashamed to say.
As a young child, much doesn’t make sense. She doesn’t even know she’s Jewish until she’s quite old. The past is a painful one, filled with losses of all sorts. So accustomed is she to the phrase “We mustn’t dwell on it” that it’s a long time before she thinks to question what it means:
What mustn’t we dwell on? Well, everybody knows that, really: we mustn’t dwell on what came before.
And right there we meet a whole host of human lives whose weight in this world is dissipating quickly. No one will talk about them. All around her are absences and the “murmur of indecipherable allusions.” “Cross Off and Move On” itself is filled with intimations of much more, making it, despite its length, one of those great short stories that suggests much more than it reveals, mimiking the childhood of this poor, embittered woman. It leaves its impact slowly and cumulatively.
I loved it.