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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the January 23, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Thoughts from 40+ Years in `A Queen-Sized Bed’

What’s a real (and lasting) marriage like? It hasn’t

the saccharine superficiality of "The Brady Bunch" nor the

excoriating bitterness of "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Seeing the lack in either model, Mimi Schwartz, a veteran of 40 years

of marriage (that’s right "veteran," with all the skirmishes

the word suggests), has written a gem of a book mainly about her own

marriage, "Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed" (University of

Nebraska Press).

Peppered with wit and startling insights, the book, a collection of

36 short essays, vignettes, or memoirs, often unrelated and in no

chronological order, but with a stable cast of characters, is a small

masterpiece. It’s a mixture of tenderness, need, resolve, flashes

of anger, in-depth reflection, understanding, wisdom. "I never

expected `I love you, I hate you’ to get all mixed up," writes

Schwartz. It made this reader smile often and occasionally weep.

Schwartz will be reading from her book at Barnes & Noble on Thursday,

January 24, at 7 p.m., and again on Tuesday, March 12, at the

Princeton

Public Library in its temporary quarters in the Princeton Shopping

Center on North Harrison Street.

"Thoughts from a Queen Sized Bed" is anecdotal, not

sociological,

and touches on the pull in today’s marriages between independence

and togetherness. But the book is far more than a portrait of a

contemporary

American upper-middle class marriage; it’s a courageous, honest,

humorous,

truthful (albeit through the filter of memory) in-depth portrait of

Schwartz’s life. She also uses her pen (read: computer) to skewer

some of the behaviors and obsessions of our time.

Don’t think, from the title, that the book is an

American

Kama-sutra. There’s no explicit sex in the book, unless you consider

"sexy lips" or tender cuddling and reassuring touches. About

the closest look at sex is an occasional "we made passionate

love."

Yes, there’s a consideration of monogamy and open marriage, in the

climate of the times, but nothing about whether either is a good

lover.

The "Queen-Sized Bed" is merely a metaphor for marriage. It’s

also the place where Schwartz awakens at 5 a.m. with ideas that became

essays, which together became this book.

The pieces range from Mimi Schwartz’s childhood to her parents lives,

to her children’s lives, to a reflection about her own death ("If

and When"), to life’s small joys and great sadness (mourning a

beloved mother-in-law) to a piece on the Galapagos Islands where some

of the tour participants find that they can face life, overcoming

risk or fear.

The essays drop advice on what makes a marriage last in our age of

ready divorce. "Don’t go to bed mad," have a sense of humor.

Added to the old shibboleths love and commitment, what seems to make

the Schwartz marriage endure is Mimi and husband Stu’s sense of humor.

"Maybe we stay together because when I see dying grass, he sees

green; when he gets faint at the sight of blood, I get Band-Aids,"

she writes. Later, in mid life, "when our bodies disappoint us,

we who stay together invest in home improvement." And as Stu

observes:

"I’ve been married to 10 wives, all named Mimi."

Mimi Loewengart was born and raised in Queens, the first American-born

child of German-Jewish immigrants. She met Stu Schwartz at Forest

Hills High School in biology lab when she was 15. They married six

years later. Stu’s build was the obvious attraction for Mimi. They

are different types, have different habits and professions. He’s an

engineering professor, she’s a writer and teacher; he’s organized,

she’s not; he’s steady, she’s impulsive; he’s a night person, she’s

a morning person. Often her day begins at 5 a.m. when she awakens

with an idea, wakes up the computer, and begins to tap out these

memoirs.

The essays touch on many aspects of life, each complete in itself,

and range from Schwartz’s early childhood to teenage gropings (out

of bed) "in the age of virginity," to friends’ experiences,

a forgotten map, later middle age, impending grandmotherhood, and

beyond.

For style, take an early, amusing essay on Jimmy Stewart and June

Allyson and the movies of the 1950s: it segues into another’s wedding,

into a domestic scene about creamy macaroni and cheese, to unloading

the dishwasher, and ends with flying dishes, slamming doors. There

are pieces about being a mom, meatloaf, Mimi’s mastectomy, Stu’s heart

attack, comparing her daughter’s and her own life, about throwing

away old clothes (or putting some back in the closet). She looks at

paintings of Rubens’ voluptuous flesh goddesses who "don’t care

Weight Watchers, the cover of Vogue, cellulite … through the

archway,

were the Modiglianis: slim, angled, solemn, and sophisticated..

..women

who never bothered with over-blouses or elastic waistbands."

It’s Schwartz’s witty narrative voice, her humorous insights, that

hold these mini-autobiographies together and captivate the reader.

A few of the essays seem trivial, inconsequential ("The Power

of the Cap," "That’s What You Get for Being Faithful"

to a grocery store, "Alan Should Have Rented a Car") and lack

the emotional depth of the other pieces. Some are almost

overwhelmingly

powerful. "A Night for Haroset" — Schwartz’s insistence

on an elaborate, traditional Passover seder meal a week after her

mastectomy — brought forth tears as Schwartz recalls all the

relatives

who have sat with her at seder meals in past, as the family sings

the traditional songs of Schwartz’s childhood (and mine).

Schwartz’ nature writing is sensuous, poetic: "how the morning

sun lights the stillness and …the breeze blows ripples against the

beach. … the thuds against the dock, the cracking of branches, the

moonlight fading and returning on the whim of clouds."

I caught Mimi Schwartz by phone a half-hour before she was to leave

for her teaching job at Stockton College where she is a professor

of writing. She tells me her father was in the leather skin business.

Her mother, with two children, and her aunts worked at home, knitting,

but her mother gave up knitting when Mimi was born. Schwartz attended

the University of Michigan but graduated from N.Y.U. She received

her masters degree from in English from U.C.L.A in 1962, had two

babies,

went back to school part time in 1974 and received her doctorate from

Rutgers University in 1980.

She has two grown, married children. In the book Julie

is pregnant with what will be the Schwartzs’ first grandchild. It’s

a measure of the glacial pace of the publishing process that, as the

book is launched, there are now three grandchildren; Julie and Doug

have two; Alan and Yuka, one.

Schwartz came to the University of Nebraska Press because the editor

there knew her work and asked if she had a book. She had already

published

about half of the essays in newspapers, magazines, and journals and

had realized, about five years earlier, that "if I filled in

certain

emotional and narrative spaces, I would have a book." Her first

essay, published in Lear’s magazine, titled "Dreaming of

Lace,"

was about her imagining a purple lace undies set after she had had

a mastectomy, and the tenderness of her husband, and remains one of

the most moving in the collection.

Schwartz says she didn’t want the breast cancer and the heart attack

to be the center of the book emotionally, "although it takes over

your life at the time." She organizes the book into three parts.

"The first part is about the small things that seem like they’re

enormous, but the next morning they’re not; the second part is about

things that the next morning still are enormous; the third part is

about getting beyond that and moving on with life."

The last-written essay, about the Galapagos Islands, is about

overcoming

risk and fear. The essays in the book were written over 15 years.

While Stu works at Princeton, Mimi commutes to a job 72 miles from

home. "The emotional landscape," says Schwartz, "is this

commuting, which in many ways I think we all do, between being a

professional

woman and a wife and a mom and a daughter."

Although she could have continued writing these essays (and still

has some that haven’t yet worked out), she deemed the book finished

when she got interested in another project, which she’s working on

now. "It’s about my father’s German village. Everybody says it

was a special place. The Jews remember it that way; so do the Germans

who live there now. It’s a story about how people remember the past,

and how they live with that past, and what it has to do with our lives

now," says Schwartz. In Israel, "I saw a torah, which —

the story was — had been rescued by the Christians of the village,

buried outside the Jewish cemetery, dug up after the war, and mailed

to this moshav in Israel where many villagers now lived. This ran

counter to my view of the Germans during the ’30s," Schwartz says.

Who were these people? She interviewed people in New York, Germany,

and Israel. "That book is a history about the village; it’s also

my coming to terms with the past."

"Thoughts from a Queen Sized Bed" closes with an essay about

"this whole issue of `together.’ Because marriage is about

balancing

the `we’ and the `I,’" says Schwartz. Enjoying being temporarily

alone in a house by the lake, being the "I," she suddenly

wants to be a "we" again.

Balance, humor, commitment (added to love): king-sized keys for a

lasting marriage.

— Joan Crespi

Mimi Schwartz, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, Route

1 South, 609-897-9250. Thursday, January 24, 7 p.m.


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