by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
April 26, 2001
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- She was English, and her name was Clarice, which she pronounced "Claris," so that it sounded like the name of someone who was very clear on things.
And Clarice was very clear on things. She was a prosperous, intelligent, well-traveled woman of 87, who, although stooped, frail, and walking with a cane, expressed the strongest of opinions.
Among the things she didn't like were: Impressionist paintings ;dinosaurs; the entire Kennedy family ("The father was a rogue, wasn't he?"); the term Ms. ("But it's such an honor to take your husband' \s name."); radios and newspapers ("Don't you find that they take too much of your time?"); wineries ("I don't find them in the least bitinteresting."); eating Mediterranean fish ("It doesn't come from cold water. It's not like Atlantic or North Sea fish,"); and all sorts of foreigners.
If it wasn't for the vagaries of travel, I would never have met Clarice. And I would never have learned that I could have the most tender and affectionate feelings for a bigot. With my 84-year-old mother, I recently spent a few weeks in France, on a hotel barge cruising down the Canal du Midi in the southern wine country. The only other guests on board were Clarice and her close friend Betty, 84.
In her life, Betty, with her fluffy white hair, big laugh, and endless cigarettes, had been a nurse, then the wife of a doctor, then the mother of three boys, then a widow, and then a nurse again. Clarice had never married; she had run her family's furniture business. In Sheffield,the two women played bridge together every week. This was their third trip together. As the cruise was long and leisurely, the food superb, the cheeses ripe and varied, and the wines extravagant, the four of us spent a lot oftime talking at the table.
Clarice's bigotry surfaced early and often.
"I don't like black people," she said over salad the first night. "They have too many children. Don't you notice in America that every time a group of immigrants arrives from abroad, they start breeding?"
Being the descendants of immigrant Jews, my mother and I said nothing. It was a small boat, and there were going to be many meals.
Besides foreigners' breeding habits, which seemed to imply a reliance on state support, Clarice disliked the fact that they kept their native dress, cultural habits, and language.
"At the very least, they should speak English," she said. Betty agreed, but was more practical about the labor market. "I don't like them, but where would we be without them?"
Apart from their bigotry, the two women were good company -- kind and thoughtful, considerate and well-read.
It was astounding to me that women so frail had traveled alone from the north of England to the south of France. They were intrepid and determined. I admired their adventurous spirits.
As our friendship progressed, my mother, who is a dancer, began leading the ladies in morning exercise. She put on a "Best of the Beach Boys" CD that was on the boat, and the three white-haired women waved their arms in the air and twisted their bodies and high-stepped across the floor of the salon.
In exchange, at night Clarice helped my mother with her French.
At breakfast on the third day, as Clarice tried to stand, her chair slipped on the polished teak floor and she went down with a wicked thump to her head. She lay there dazed.
"Don't worry, I'm quite well," she said, refusing any further attention, including an ice pack brought by the purser. The next day I noticed that through wispy white hair, her scalp was black, blue and green. But she insisted firmly that she was well.
My warm feelings for Clarice started there, but they progressed at lunch the next day, when my mother and I were talking about how much we missed our spouses.
"Don't you find," Clarice said disapprovingly, "that you are dependent on them?"
"Yes, in some ways. Why?"
Her eyes were moist with tears.
"But if you love someone, and you are dependent on them, there's always the risk of loss, isn't there?" she said.
Suddenly, my heart went out to her. How sad it would be, I thought, if she had never loved because she was afraid of losing love.
After that, when the topic of "foreigners" came up, as it frequently did, mother or I quickly changed the subject.
The tactic worked well until Clarice leaned over one day and said, "You know, Hitler had some good ideas."
My mother's face blanched. I stared. The conversation moved on.
In the end, Clarice's prejudices left me in a terrible predicament. I felt the warmest and most protective feelings towards this vulnerable and feisty old woman, yet I was repelled by many of the things she said.
How could that be? I tried to find an explanation for her bigotry. Was it was the bump to her head? Finally, I asked Clarice, "Do you think of yourself as perhaps the last of a tribe, or of a culture -- one that you love, and one which will be in danger of disappearing when you go?"
Again her eyes turned misty. She nodded, "Oh yes, that's it, exactly."
That insight, if that is what it was, did not make Clarice's bigotry any easier to take. Who could condone her Hitler remark? Not I, any more than I could condone the religious right's bigotry about race, religion and homosexuality, which infuriates me, or the harm and danger that this kind of bigotry can bring.
"How can we like her?" I asked my mother.
"She's a complex person," my mother said. "People aren't just one way or another, and you have to take them the way you find them."
I must confess that before I met Clarice, I never had any trouble with moral uncertainty. I found it easy to be politically correct, easier to be self-righteous, and even easier to dismiss -- if not demonize -- the people with whom I disagreed. Now I struggle with the puzzle of Clarice.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.