My father brought me up to be a socialist. Then I found Ayn Rand. On the night of March 6, 1982, I stepped out of my old life and attended Ayn Rand’s wake.
My father brought me up to be a socialist. Then I found Ayn Rand.
On the night of March 6, 1982, I stepped out of my old life and attended Ayn Rand’s wake at the Frank C. Campbell Funeral Home in New York City.
This is the brief personal story of that night.
I got the fire going in the woodstove early in the morning so the kitchen would be warm for the children.
First I smoothed the bed of ashes, then laid down crumpled newspaper, then kindling, then split logs. I adjusted the draft, struck a long wooden match, lit a spill and thrust it up the stovepipe to drive out the heavy cold air. I lit the crumpled paper and closed the door.
The black metal ticked as it heated. In a few minutes the kitchen was warm.
I tuned the radio to WINS, “All news, all the time.” While I fed and dressed my young son and daughter, the newscasters spoke softly in the background.
I heard the report several times before I became aware of it, as though I’d been slowly awakened by someone whispering my name.
Ayn Rand had died.
She would be buried at one o’clock the next day in Valhalla, where my father had been buried eleven years before.
I involuntarily called up images of his funeral. My favorite cousin, looking worn and poor in a black cloth coat. Her mother, my mother’s sister, a retired New York City detective, crying outside the window of the limousine that my mother refused to leave. The gray casket glimpsed behind the rows of folding chairs set up under the marquee. The mound of dirt covered by a tarpaulin.
There was no mention in my local newspaper of whether a service would be held. I phoned the cemetery and a puzzled woman gave me the number of the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home on Madison Avenue and 81st Street. I called and they told me the viewing would be that night.
All day I thought about whether I would go.
I was born in Manhattan but grew up on Long Island. After college I’d lived in Queens and worked in the City, taking the subway in every morning to Penn Station and walking the few blocks west to 34th Street and 10th Avenue, near where my mother’s brother had run with the Irish gangs in the late 1940s.
I’d never attended any of Ayn Rand’s lectures or other activities, which I knew were going on nearby. Much later I learned she’d lived on 34th, a few blocks east of where I’d worked.
I didn’t want to accept Objectivism because I craved another absolute to live by or reacted to it emotionally. I had to learn, dig down and figure out for myself whether it was true, then begin to integrate it into my mind and personality. That took me fifteen years.
My father had brought me up according to the creed, “From you and me according to our abilities… our needs are irrelevant.” He’d followed that creed where it had led him: to Valhalla.
My immediate positive response to Objectivism had made me distrustful. I’d been fooled by my father’s moral system and refused to be fooled again. I didn’t want to accept Objectivism because I craved another absolute to live by or reacted to it emotionally. I had to learn, dig down and figure out for myself whether it was true, then begin to integrate it into my mind and personality.
That took me fifteen years.
The lingering influence of my father’s absolute had led to death again.
I’d never see Ayn Rand alive.
My husband was usually away, traveling on business, but on this Monday he’d gone downtown instead. He came home from the train around seven.
As he ate, I ran upstairs and dressed in a skirt and jacket and boots. I put on my long black quilted coat, handed him our little daughter and said I’d be back soon.
He asked where I was going but I didn’t want to tell him.
I took the Thruway down past the rush of dark trees, the train overpasses, the power lines and the familiar groups of tall brick apartment houses along the Major Deegan to the Triborough Bridge. That was my favorite view of the skyline, with the Manhattan lights on the horizon between the black sky and the black water.
I was agitated, missed the exit and had to turn back. I thought about going home but entered the City instead.
I found a parking space on 81st Street in front of an apartment building with a glass lobby and walked back the half-block to the avenue. The air was cold and dry. No one else was on the street, which had been swept clean by the wind. A few blocks ahead the storefronts were lit but here there were only the streetlamps shining on black asphalt, tan concrete, and the facades of matte gray stone and black glass.
I breathed in the familiar aroma of the way a city should smell, of sewer gas, hot dogs and the North Atlantic Ocean.
There was a line in front of Frank Campbell’s, mostly men but some women, from twenty years old to middle-aged. Most of them were well dressed city people with smooth hair, wearing camel’s-hair overcoats and polished shoes.
They’d come from restaurant dinners after working all day to stand here on the cold pavement beneath the moon.
The full moon was rising above the low brownstone buildings across the street, hanging four stories up, filling the sky and looking down on us. The moon was brighter than the streetlights. We threw double shadows on the sidewalk.
Mourners in twos and threes came out of Frank Campbell’s and passed us, talking, their breath blue-white.
The doorman in a maroon and gold braid uniform held the door as we went into the high-ceilinged lobby, which was yellowish-bright with lamplight. The space had the musty smell of an old, carpeted City room.
The crowd backed up as people signed their names in the register. A young female receptionist in a gray tweed suit, trying to remain expressionless but bemused by this crowd, asked me to go to the other register at an oval Federal desk. I went and signed, the queue broke in half, and some people came to the second register. A group formed in front of the wide elevator.
The elevator doors opened. Most of the people who came out were subdued. A few seemed excited, buttoning their coats and chatting like playgoers leaving the theater after a very good Broadway play.
One pale young man, about twenty-one, in a buff-colored leather jacket and dark corduroy trousers, raised his wire-rimmed glasses to wipe his eyes.
The receptionist took a dozen of us up to the second floor. She let us out into an olive-green anteroom crowded by two or three full coat racks. I thought about hanging up my coat but didn’t expect to stay long.
We moved slowly into the reception room, which was moistly scented with flowers like a summer garden. All the winter air had been left in the anteroom with the coats.
Light, pleasant orchestral music was playing, which I didn’t recognize. The lamp-lit, high-ceilinged room was about twenty by thirty feet with low sofas and tables placed here and there. It was like a rather shabby oversized living room.
Some of the people carried on animated conversations, as though they were at a cocktail party.
I passed a loose phalanx of slim, youngish men, most of them around my height, whom I immediately thought of as the honor guard. They wore suits in muted soft grays and tans, glen plaid and tweed, some with vests. A few stood with their jackets pushed back and hands in pants pockets. They knew each other and conversed quietly, watchful of the people entering. I had the impression that they were standing as they used to stand around her.
I passed a woman of between fifty and sixty, fantastically powdered white, with bright red lipstick and a black cape. She wore a golden dollar sign pin on her breast.
I glanced down away from her and saw a purple satin ribbon discarded next to an ashtray on a side table at the end of a sofa. I wanted to pick the ribbon up but kept my hands in my pockets because they were red and chapped.
Now, instead of wishing I’d hung up my coat, so uncouth here in this flower-scented warmth, I wanted to hide inside it. I felt I didn’t belong to the City anymore, that I’d forgotten a language I once knew and which these people spoke easily.
I saw the flowers. A four-foot-high dollar sign in yellow and white chrysanthemums was most prominent.
It was difficult at first to see where the casket stood because of the pressure of the crowd. Then, as the man in front of me unclenched his right hand at his side, I saw the flowers. A four-foot-high dollar sign in yellow and white chrysanthemums was most prominent. A pot of red roses (from Cleveland, the card said) and lesser floral offerings, mostly red and white, stood around the gleaming dark brown casket. My eyes rested on a silky red amaryllis on a high shelf above her feet.
No one went right up to the casket. People seemed to pretend that they didn’t want to look at her.
My first impulse was to stand over the casket and look straight down into her face. But I stopped about six feet away, aware that I was the only one staring.
I felt that this was a significant moment, that if I lived to be very old someone would want to know how I, with eyes that were alive so many years later, had seen Ayn Rand lying in state.
This is what it was like:
Her body was raised on a white pillow in the half-open box, the hands were hidden by a spray of yellow and white chrysanthemums, and the breast was sheathed in a sweep of woven, sheenless black cloth. The brown hair waved softly back off the very broad forehead. The makeup was ruddy and the wide, thin lips were painted an old-fashioned dark red. Nose and chin were formidable, matched by sharp, wide, jutting cheekbones that supported the whole face. Her eyebrows were dark and clearly marked, yet not heavy. The orbits of her eyes were the largest I’d ever seen and the space between her cheekbones and her brown ridge was wide. Her eyes must have been enormous.
I was startled. She resembled my father’s mother, wife of a sweatshop garment cutter, who’d lived in poverty in the Bronx, crippled by arthritis for thirty-five years and unable to walk without crutches. This was the face full of pain and endurance that my father had seen, closing his eyes and leaning his head against the kitchen wall, when he took the phone call that told him she’d passed away.
Here there was no illusion of life. There was absolute stillness, a clay-like stoppedness, but I thought of the Russian root-word kras-, meaning both red and beautiful. I’d always translated it to myself as life-full, vivid. The impression that this face gave was of strength and vividness.
I didn’t look at her as long as I wanted but turned away and scanned the room once more, the warmly lit room, full of muted greens and yellows and grays and browns, and soft animated talk. I didn’t want to stay. I seemed to be the only one grieving.
Along with my lost City life I felt I’d lost control of my face, so I made my way out past the coat racks and wall sconces.
One of the men of the honor guard was there, seated sideways on a bench against the wall, talking to a cool-eyed young woman who took notes on a pad. One of his hands was in his pants pocket. With the other hand he gestured the way a speaker gestures from a podium.
I went into the elevator, down to the lobby and past the receptionist. The viewing was almost over. No one new was coming in.
The doorman let me out onto the frosty winter street. It was empty. I didn’t look for the moon.
I crossed the avenue and walked toward my car. I had started to weep.
There was another doorman, around 60 years old, standing in the glassed-in lobby of the apartment house near my car. He wore a knee-length charcoal-colored uniform coat and a charcoal cap with a brim. He had a meaty German-Irish face and the quick apprehension of a cop. He saw me wiping my eyes, took his hands out of his pockets and started to the door, then glanced up the street, realized where I’d been and stepped back.
I got in my car and drove out of the City, away up the Hudson toward home.
There was no one now to be the reason or excuse for my action or inaction, no one to revere, no one to blame. There was only a choice.
What my father had taught made life impossible. What she had taught made life possible.
The next day I sat by the fire as one o’clock approached. The sky had darkened and slow single snowflakes floated down through the violet-blue air. I put more wood in the woodstove.
My little son came up to me. “Can I put some in?” he asked.
I moved out of his way. He picked up a small split log, straining, and slid it on top of the fire. He crouched and watched the fire take hold, the flames leaping up.
Did it snow in Valhalla? On that wide high meadow, I imagined the slim men and the well dressed city women walking toward the marquee set up over the grave, the snowflakes settling on the shoulders of their coats, and on their smooth hair.
An earlier version of this work appeared in Reality Magazine in 1992. An earlier version of this work was previously published in e-book form under the titles NEW YORK STORY and GOOD-BYE TO AYN RAND.