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Summer 2017

Table Talk

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Lore Segal

My reason for not keeping a journal was the assumption that memory would select what could be useful; what I was going to forget could not have been worth remembering. Useful, I thought, always meant something to some day write about, memory as the artist’s notebook. This proved to have been mistaken, for they all are dead, the grown-ups with whom one could have checked a detail, a date, the location.

Google has retrieved the name of the Raga Schlucht, a spectacular gorge cut into the Corinthian Alps, through which we passed in what must have been our last family holidays. Am I right in remembering that Vienna banks closed for the month of August? My father, chief accountant at Kux Bloch and Co., was fired after Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938. By December, Vati had got me onto the Children’s Transport to England, so our Raga excursion must have taken place the August of ’36 or ’37, when I was eight or nine.

If you looked up on the right, the cliff wall rose sheer toward the blue distance. Dare yourself to look down through the gap between the stone face and the wet boards underfoot and you saw the white-water rapids foaming way below. My left hand grabbed for the rope whenever it came within reach but rope must run straight between any two points at which it is attached and could not follow the walkway trying to hug the natural irregularities of the rock.

I could see my tall Vati in his summer gear—knickerbockers, his alpine hat with the chamois feather—walking with the guide some way ahead. I knew that my Mutti was coming behind me.

Our passage through the Raga Schlucht is some eighty Augusts ago, but the memory recurs every once in a while—is it once a month, once a year? What I recollect is not only, or not mainly, the drama of the natural scene; nor is it possible that I was not afraid for myself, but I don’t remember that I was. What I remember is what I could not have seen—the view of my own back from where my mother, clinging to the rope, set one precarious foot before the other at a distance she could not have crossed if I was going to lose my footing. If I slipped I would plunge into the roaring, spitting water hundreds of feet below.

I don’t know that this was my childhood’s first experience of empathy, but it is the first of which I remember being aware. It interested me to know that my mother was terrified—terrified for me, and there was no turning back. A refinement of her hell of terror was there being no relief in sight. The feather on my father’s hat disappeared where the rock wall took a turn to the right to hide the extent of the passage that lay ahead.

My friend Bessie regrets the word “empathy,” which, she says, has replaced honest “sympathy,” but we agree that the words are not synonymous. Sympathy pities another person’s experience where empathy experiences that experience. Both depend on an awareness of that other reality about which my memory has laid away two usable stories.

First story. It is a midweek afternoon three years after the Raga Schlucht adventure, and I’m walking home from school. Home is the large Victorian house—it is called Belcaro—where I live with Miss Ellis, my elderly foster mother. At the bottom of the hill I pass the postman leaning against the wall. In the U.S. he would be a mailman, but this is Guildford, a country town some half-hour south of London. The postman is taking a breather and I have one of those life-altering insights: the postman has a life outside the times I’m used to seeing him hand the day’s letters to Josie, Miss Ellis’s maid, at Miss Ellis’s kitchen door. The postman, it comes to me, lives in a house which must have a kitchen; he eats his dinner with a wife, maybe, and perhaps his children. Like me, the postman sleeps in a bed.

For decades I congratulated myself on this capacity I diagnosed in myself for human empathy, until the day of a party that I gave on one of New York’s dog days, when the air-conditioner was down. I wore my sleeveless white. As I stood chatting with my friend Jack, I was empathizing with the discomfort of the number of layers of cloth he wore around his throat. Count them: the shirt collar, with a stiffener between its two layers of fabric, folds over on itself, which makes six layers; the tie has a minimum of three layers of cloth; Jack’s jacket collar mimics the collar of the shirt, adding another, thicker six layers, making fifteen layers of fabric! Here came Bessie, who said, “Jack! Chrissake, take off your jacket. And get rid of the stupid tie.”

That Bessie’s sympathy might be of more use in the world than my interesting empathy is the kind of revelation that—if I had kept a journal—I would have noted down for use in concluding the recollection of our family excursion through the Raga Schlucht in August of 1936 or ’37.



Lore Segal's novels include Her First American, Shakespeare's Kitchen, and Half a Kingdom. Her children's book Tell Me a Mitzi will be reissued in September of 2017.
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