After my daddy’s funeral, after my mother sat shiva for the ritual week with the mirrors covered and the radio turned off; after receiving streams of visitors with their murmured condolences and suffering the presence of the Rabbi at her side who smelled of something sour, like pickles, she closed and locked the door to the last visitor. Then she threw out the vases of dying flowers and baskets of uneaten, decaying fruit that had begun to smell of rot. Shedding her black dress, she gave her veiled hat to the maid, bobbed her hair and started running so fast and far it was as if she didn’t want to know what had already happened. She never returned to her husband’s sad, fresh grave, letting it get sunken and untended over the years, unvisited, shaggy with weeds.
My mother went downtown and came home with a red dress, high-heeled rhinestone and satin shoes, a flirtatious red hat, and two evening gowns in clinging fabrics. Opening the boxes on the couch, she shook out the tissue paper, lifted the fringed red dress to her chin and twirled around the living room. She was so abruptly transformed from the grieving widow of only hours ago it was as if she had sipped some kind of magic potion that buried Lou Rosen’s mourning wife along with him. Her soft mouth hardened, her brows lifted as if in surprise, her face slipped from mournful to provocative, her body from its defeated slump to defiant flesh. She even smelled different; like musk, like sex. People--the maid, my aunts--whispered.
Disappearing in unpredictable spurts, she sent Kenny and me separately to a series of aunts and uncles: Aunt Mabel and Uncle Red (for his red hair), Aunt Lill and Uncle Sanford, Aunt Sally and Uncle Sid, Aunt Linda and Uncle Marvin, Aunt Milly and Uncle Doc (a veterinarian ), Aunt Goldie and Uncle Myron.
Aunt Goldie was always cleaning her house. People, even grown-ups, had to take off their shoes to come in. Her preoccupation with dirt added to my humiliation the mornings I woke up in a wet bed and had to watch her wrinkle her nose as she whipped off the sheets. I wanted to help in my shame, but she waved me away and dashed from the room holding the sheets at arms length as if they were on fire. It was an exercise poor Aunt Goldie had to endure often; away from my mother I was a bed wetter. I sat on the floor at the foot of my stripped-down bed in my wet pajamas and embarrassment, shut my eyes, and pretended that my mother was downstairs waiting to take me home.
I remember wonderful food at Aunt Milly’s, who, demonstrating that my memory of her table is no mere fantasy, later actually opened a restaurant. But I loved the food at my other aunts’ too, even when I didn’t, even when it wasn’t good. I accepted seconds and asked politely for thirds. Then I finished the meal with three slices of bread swathed with butter, while my cousins stared at me and squirmed in their chairs, their carrots and hamburgers and mashed potatoes scarcely touched. (I had all I could do not to clean up their plates, too.) Watching me approvingly, my aunts thought they were great cooks. They didn’t know that every time my mother left me, I felt hollowed out with a huge cavity I couldn’t fill.
Uncle Red built a thrilling puppet stage for my cousin Judy and me that had real curtains you could close with a string. But Aunt Mabel, who was excitable and angry, often flew into terrifying rages. Once when she screamed at Kenny for something or other, he ran away. He took me with him. I was four years old and he was nine. We hid in the woods. All I remember is my feeling of pride being pulled along by my big brother. And my fear. I have no idea how long we were in the woods, it could have been an hour or a day, but I seem to see a chalk-white sky slowly turning darker and thick trees casting ominous shadows, scaring me. Kenny was holding my hand but I began to cry anyway, which may be how we were finally found.
My aunts were friendly enough, although somewhat falsely friendly, I thought, with a child’s canny perception. Still, they were friendlier than their children, my cousins, who were expected to play with the well-behaved interloper that I was. Look at Babbie’s clean plate, my aunts said to their children. See her nice manners; look how quietly she plays, how she minds without back-talk and sass; see how she eats her vegetables and notice that she doesn’t leave a mess. Why can’t you be like that? No wonder my cousins didn’t like me. But it was better than getting on a grown-up’s nerves and thrown out. My mother seemed as remote and sparkling and mysterious as the night sky and I didn’t know if she would come back for me. Waiting, I felt disconnected, in space, somewhere outside the world; in my mother’s sweet-smelling fleshy presence I was grounded again, saved. Nights in my aunts’ houses, in their beds, I still smelled her, felt her breath. She seemed to reside in my brain and lurk in the air. I wanted to disappear into her rustling clothes, I wanted to vanish into her body, into her womb again; I wanted to become her.
Summers she took me to Aunt Mabel’s in Rye, New York, or Aunt Lill’s in Boston, driving the five hundred miles over unpaved roads, gunning the accelerator with her high heeled sandal as if the future stretched ahead as free and open-ended as the road, and the past, receding in our rear view mirror, gone forever.
I caught the way the highway whispered to her of promise, and feeling blissful, feeling the warmth of her body, the vibration of the motor and my own utter contentment, I was saved. My mother was mine now, not mysteriously away somewhere, the two of us comrades of the road. Wrapped together in our little car, we were insulated and safe because my mother was brave and strong and my father was watching out for us from the black sky overhead.
She would stop for coffee at some all night diner or truck stop, a bright oasis of light in the dark, and I’d wake and stumble in with her, proud to be up so late with my mom in this grown-up night. There would be a few men scattered on the counter stools and she’d gulp the coffee from a thick white cup and hug her purse as if someone was about to snatch it away. Back in the car, riding with my head in her lap, she stroked my hair and sang to me in a thin soprano. “Mighty like a Rose,” “Sleep Kentucky Babe,” “Sweet and Low.” Later, I wondered how she had learned lullabies in an orphanage.
As she sings to me, the car floats along the road and then it goes up up up into the sky. We are going to my daddy. It isn’t night any more up there, the air is all pink, and I see a huge pointy castle drifting in the wind. I order my mom to take me to the castle because my daddy is in there and he’s a king. She does what I say because I’m the boss and because she’s my twin and we’re holding hands. We leave our car with a clown and she carries me over a bridge into the castle. I see a king with a diamond crown on his head and gold robes. That’s not your daddy, she says. I order her to put me down and I run to him. He has a bushy beard and mean eyes and he scares me. My mother hits him with a stick. I cry because he isn’t my daddy. We look in all the rooms of the castle and then we see him. My daddy is in bed. He is very sick. My mother and I stay with him a long time until it gets dark and he falls asleep and the mean king comes into the room. When my mother sees him she grabs me and we run to the car. We leave the sky and go back to the ground. We’re still holding hands. It’s us against the mean king, us against the world.
As we drove, beams of light headed toward us and then vanished like the strange prehistoric creatures in my picture book. We slept in tourist homes, an adventure with the smiling host and strange bedroom, and arrived at my aunt’s the next evening, stiff and happy. My mother and her sister drank coffee at the kitchen table and talked; I’d hear their voices while my cousin Judy and I played. But she always left two or three days later without me, and it always broke my heart. I would grow distracted, half there in my play, as if she had taken part of me away with her.
Still, she could turn up as suddenly as she had disappeared, and she came back, swooping me up in her arms, returning me to life with her smell, her musical voice, the feel of her body. She had rented another apartment, one of the fourteen we were to occupy during my childhood. I attended six different schools; three elementary: Fairfax, Prospect and Roxboro; two junior high: Roxboro and Roosevelt; and Heights High. Kenny, four-and-a-half-years older and starting earlier, attended ten.
This apartment was half way up a hill nestled in a row of other brick buildings just like it, with a string of garages along the back and a gas station on the corner. The rooms were on the third floor and sort of shadowy.
When my mother and I arrived home after our two-day trip, Kenny was just back from somewhere, too, playing outside. I dashed downstairs to see him. He grinned and waved as if he was glad to see me and I sat down on the stoop feeling content; my mother was upstairs in our apartment unpacking suitcases, Kenny was right here in front of me, our family was together again. It must have been summer because I was wearing shorts; I remember feeling the stoop’s cold concrete on the back of my legs, and the thick smell of the honeysuckle vine that grew along the garage wall. I sat there watching Kenny play with Tommy Aspin.
I thought it was a game of cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers, until I saw Kenny point his squirt gun at Tommy, yelling, “I’m my daddy and I’m gonna get you!”
He lowered his gun. “Tommy,” he said with great disgust, “just shoot me. I told you, I’m my daddy. I get murdered. You have to shoot me.”
Tommy squirted Kenny with his gun, shouting, “Bang bang!”
“They got me!” Kenny hollered, staggering around clutching his chest. He threw himself on the ground. “I’m dead!” he yelled.
“You boys stop that!” I yelled in my mother’s voice from my perch on the stoop. “My daddy was not murdered!” Tommy looked at me, his face getting red. But my brother lay motionless on the ground with his eyes squeezed shut and his arms across his chest. I stared down at him. My daddy dead of murder? Not just plain dead like my friend Beverly’s grandmother? Our kindergarten class had written a letter to Beverly’s family and when she came back to school after the funeral she drew a picture of her mother with fat tears on her face and a turned-down mouth. Then her own eyes got all teary and she started to cry. Miss Bailey pulled Beverly on her lap and said it was okay to feel sad and cry when someone died. But I never saw my mother cry about my daddy. I never saw anyone even feel sad. Beverly said her grandmother was up in heaven, so I guessed my daddy was up there, too, with all the other dead people.
But maybe Kenny knew more than I did--he was, after all, almost 10. Suddenly I felt the same way I did the night I saw a bad man in my closet and woke screaming. My mother had come running. She said it was just a nightmare. But I couldn’t fall back asleep until she stayed with me and kept a light on in my room.
I raced up the stairs. “Mommy! Kenny said Daddy was murdered!” I think I was crying.
She was unpacking a large suitcase. Putting an armload of clothes on the bed she sat down and pulled me onto her lap. “No no, Babbie. Kenny was just playing. Your father died of pneumonia.”
I think I knew even then that Kenny was acting out the truth with a child’s unblinking accuracy. But I swallowed my mother’s story whole, and with relief.
I imagined her at my daddy’s bedside, sponging his young, hot face, a good and devoted wife, taking his temperature, giving him pink baby aspirins and orange juice with one of those crooked straws I sucked on when I had the measles. He asked if he could see me -- he wanted me to come and make him better because he loved me the best. But they wouldn’t let me. I had my magic medicine all ready but they wouldn’t let me give it to him. So he died while I was taking a special bath that he had gotten out of bed to make for me; it had big puffy bubbles like white balloons. Before, I was playing bridge with the colored lady because I was a very smart baby. My daddy knew I was. He didn’t want to die and leave us but he had to. He had to go be the king.
My mother cried because she loved him and couldn’t save him. Murder is just in storybooks. My father died of pneumonia. My mother said so.
And soon she was disappearing to mysterious places again, running again, as if she felt her husband’s public shame stick to her like flypaper. Or maybe now that Lou was gone, now that the worst had happened, she felt an odd letdown. Wasn’t it anticlimactic to dwell in ordinary life without the old heart-stopping fear and excitement? Wasn’t it more interesting to live on the edge or in flight? Her newly bobbed hair cupped her head like a helmet, she was as slender as a boy and as glamorous as a movie star. All she had to do now was dress up in beaded chiffon and swinging ropes of pearls and keep moving. All she had to remember now was how to do the Charleston and the Black Bottom and flirt and hold her scotch.
If I squint my eyes I can see her in her bedroom of pale satins and shimmering silks. After growing up in a dormitory that slept 100 orphans, she is Cinderella; bewitched, I watch her slip into a glittering dress, step into her satin slippers, spray her slender neck with perfume, drape her shoulders in mink. She kisses me goodbye, scratching my cheek with her earring, and is gone. Proud and sad, I stare at the closed door feeling a sudden emptiness where she had stood, sparkling, only moments before.
She was in such a good mood every time she left and so quiet and sad at home, I started to worry. So the next time I saw her with her hat and suitcase, I grabbed her sleeve. I was crying. She told me to let go; she said she’d be home soon. But I knew I’d never see her again and I hung on. She pulled my hands off, hurting my fingers. A quick hug and she was gone.
The next time I saw her getting ready to leave I slipped outside, opened the back door of her car, and curled up on the floor. After a while I heard her get in and slam the door. She started the motor. I held my breath. I didn’t breathe. We began to move. We were moving. I felt the vibration and heat of the motor through the floor. My foot fell asleep. We drove and drove for such a long time I had to go to the bathroom. I was afraid I’d wet my pants. I wet my pants.
She didn’t find me until she stopped at a gas station and the man pumping gas asked her if the kid on the floor in the back was sick. She wheeled around and hollered, My God what are you doing here! She was really upset. She was really mad. She yanked me out, put me in front, turned the car around and drove me home in my wet pants. She was so mad she wouldn’t talk--just yelled that I ruined everything. I didn’t care. I was glad I ruined everything. I was hungry and thirsty but she wouldn’t stop--not even for a soda. But I didn’t care about that, either. I was going home in the front seat with my mom.
But the Depression was waiting like a mean-eyed snake and when it hit, my mother had to put away her sparkling dresses and dancing shoes and stay home with Kenny and me. Still, everyone else was broke too; even men, even husbands and fathers, even the guiltless. The entire country had been on a binge, drunk on money and bootleg booze and the fantasy that it would never end and for once she was part of the mainstream, living not in orphanhood or gangsterhood or flapperhood but merely as one of millions who had lost everything and was suffering from a hangover of excess. And I had my mom back. The Great Depression had saved me. I was part of something now, a family, a community, a country.
We set up housekeeping. Sort of. Her raging claustrophobia kept us in constant motion. After the barred windows of the orphanage, after never being allowed outside the compound, movement anywhere -- to the park, to the road, to another apartment or a different job or a new man -- cheered her for a while. Unmoored, she moved us from apartment to apartment, often suffering with one of her asthma attacks, as unaware of her impulses as a feather in the wind. The moving van would take us to “better” rooms, a brighter future.
But when we arrived at the new apartment all we found was a place and a life just like the one we had left behind. It was as if the more she tried to escape the past, the more it confronted her, and then we were off again, running in place again. Each new apartment seemed as forlorn and hopeless as the last, smelling of cigarette smoke from a previous tenant’s habit, or the fresh paint my mother had managed to negotiate with the landlord, or cooking smells, thick as wet wool; sausage, garlic, cabbage, that made my stomach turn with nausea and envy. Our window view was always the same, too, as if we had brought along the brick wall facing us from our last place. Inside, the rooms were shadowy, or seemed to be, as if meant just for sleeping or death.
The moving vans and packing boxes were as familiar to me as my mother’s face. And so were her books. Every time we moved, her books were the first thing she unpacked -- before the dishes or coffee pot, or ironing board (which was not taken down until the next move). Even before making up the beds. She went about her unpacking cheerfully, humming, fondling her books. Moving always put her in a good mood, as if the mere act of packing and unpacking would change her destiny.
She always kept her books nearby, like a lover. I stared at the dogeared volumes and held them because she loved them so much. Das Kapital by Karl Marx, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and I remember two by Kafka--The Castle and The Trial. There was a play by Eugene O’Neill -- I don’t remember the name, but I do recall Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, open on her nightstand -- probably because even then I liked its lovely elegiac title and the smooth feel of the cover.
After my daddy died we settled into an apartment on Euclid Heights Boulevard. There were many rooms and a huge kitchen and an endlessly long hall that disappeared into the mysteries of my mother’s bedroom.
“Smoke!” my mother screamed.
I was two and a half years old and the next thing I remember is being on the street in the bitter cold night. The building burned to the ground and since this was our first home after the murders, my mother could be forgiven if she wondered what evil forces were out there still knocking her around. Neighbors took us in. It was warm inside. I was fed milk and cookies. Kenny tells me that Uncle Marvin came and got us.
After the fire we moved to the Hotel Sovereign, then to successive apartments on Lakeview, Meadowbrook, Chapman. We lived on Lenox Road the time I got scarlet fever, and Hampshire where the landlady’s fat son jumped me.
Then my mother sent me to live with Aunt Jane as a paying border while she went off to a hotel. I had to take two streetcars to get to school that bitter cold winter, and my cousin, a year older than I, wasn’t thrilled with my presence. Too angry to feel my anger, I didn’t tell my mother I wouldn’t go. I didn’t say: “Why are you doing this?” She volunteered a reason, something vague, but I didn’t listen. I didn’t hear it.
I was afraid she was having sex in a hotel--probably with someone married, probably Jack O’Brian, one of the engineers where she worked. The few times he had dinner with the three of us at the deli, she looked at him a way she never looked at me. Although he tried to be nice, putting on an Irish brogue and telling jokes, making my mother laugh, I hated him. I wanted him to go away. I knew with a child’s canny instinct that he was married. Why else didn’t he come over? Or take my mother out on a proper date like Milt Strauss? Why did she whisper into the phone every time he called and then get ready to go out? Her excitement getting dressed and the way she looked and smelled when she came home -- a little mussed, a little sweaty, kind of lit up -- worried me. It scared me.
What was having sex, exactly? What were she and Jack doing? In the movies the couple kiss and go into the bedroom. But then they shut the door. My best friend Phyllis said the man gets on top of the woman and pushes his seed with his thing into where she pees. Did Jack O’Brian push his seed into my mother? Did he hurt her? The next time he calls I’m going to hang up. The next time he calls I’ll hide her car keys so she can’t go out. I don’t want him to get on top of my mother so she can hardly breathe. My daddy in heaven could stop all this stuff, this sex. He could make her stink. He could make Jack O’Brian get killed in a car wreck. He could do anything because he’s a king and he’s coming back to us.
“When I grow up and have a daughter I’m going to stay home,” I told her.
She looked at me, amused. “Oh? And what if you can’t? What if you’re alone so you have to go out to have friends?”
“I won’t be all alone,” I said. “I’ll have a real husband to stay home with.” (Years later, stuck in misery with a real husband, I longed for my mother’s life.)
Aunt Jane was cold and bossy and I didn’t like her. I didn’t like that my mother had to pay for my staying there, either, and my cousin had a mean streak a mile wide. We carried my two suitcases inside, my mother helped me unpack, and then she was gone. Gone. Her absence echoed in the apartment, reverberating in my ears. I felt defenseless, disposed of. Discarded.
That night I dream I’m in a hotel corridor, sitting on the floor, my back to the wall. I listen to the elevator doors open and close. I listen to my own heart pulse in my ears. I am waiting for my mother to come out of the room. The door finally opens but it is not my mother. It is someone else, a strange woman in a black veiled hat, and I weep in relief and disappointment. She doesn’t see me because I am invisible to everyone but my mother. I look up and down the long dark corridor trying to figure out which door she is behind. Then Jack O’Brian comes out of a room. He is smiling. I get up and run away.
Aunt Jane’s apartment had carpeting and heavy furniture and regular meals. I tried to focus on the luxury of having a bedroom all to myself. And the nice hot sit-down dinners she served. I sat at the table with my cousin and the other borders, a couple who had the big bedroom off the living room. But I didn’t like them, either.
I missed my mother. I missed our screwed-up life. I missed the moving vans and packing boxes and the familiar ratty books that followed us from place to place. I missed my brother and the little white cartons of chop suey that my mother picked up on her way home from work, and our last apartment and the one before that. And I missed my father. Not the king in the sky of my fantasies -- what I longed for was a flesh and blood dad -- the kind that everyone else seemed to have, the kind that would get me out of here. Furious, sad, I sobbed silently into my pillow into the night.
When my mother finally came back for me, she seemed so quiet and sad, I wondered if she and Jack broke up. Or if maybe he refused to leave his wife and marry her. I didn’t think she was the one who fell out of love because of the way she lunged for the phone every time it rang and the way her eyes got wet when it wasn’t Jack. Then I‘d hear her cry in the bedroom, as if I wasn’t there, worrying, as if only Jack O’Brian mattered in the world. I wished I could get her back to the time before Jack O’Brian, to the way she was before love or passion or whatever it was stole her away.
I think maybe my daddy fixed Jack O’Brian good. He made him love his wife. He made her more beautiful than my mom.
I knew I would never figure out what really happened. I didn’t care. I had my mom back and we moved into a basement apartment on Overlook Drive with an iron-gridded window-view of wheels and feet. It was like existing below sea level. Then we lived in two different apartments on Cedar Road, six months and a block apart. Don’t ask me why. The last place was on North Moreland, from where I got married. That was when my mother had to get all her teeth pulled even though she was only 44. When she got her new teeth she cried because they changed the shape of her mouth. With her teeth in she still looked good, but at night when she took them out her face got so crumpled I was afraid to look at her.
We moved so often that one neighborhood has melded into another in my memory; a kind of generic arrangement of Depression-era grocery stores, with their scrubbed wooden counters and penny candy in tall glass jars and good coffee smells and the long wand with its fascinating grippers the grocer used to pull cans down from the top shelf. I remember the drug store where I would sometimes spend the fifty cents my mother left me for dinner on a banana split. I’d sit on the stool at the soda fountain, eating slowly, trying to make my ice cream last long enough to get the attention of the handsome soda jerk who was always busy waiting on customers or flirting with some other older girl. Finally, I’d pay my check and go home.
But sometimes I’d eat at Hull Dobbs, a diner that had wonderful potatoes called butter fries. Often I’d see Patsy Rose there, who was a year or two older, and alone, too.
“Poor Patsy,” my mother said. “Her mother sends her to eat alone at Hull Dobbs.”
“But I was there, too! On the next stool!” I cried.
“Listen, Patsy’s mother plays bridge. I have to go to work,” she said proudly, as if she’d just been anointed Mother of the Year.
There was a deli on the corner where my mother and I would eat sometimes, also a dark shoe repair shop that smelled of leather, whose owner had blackened fingernails and a dark, glowering face when he turned from his machines to wait on you. There was a library within walking distance and, next to the shoemaker’s, a Woolworths from which I stole, with a pounding heart, an all-day sucker decorated with a face. The bar in the neighborhood had a mysterious, darkened, faintly dangerous facade that speeded up my heart as I walked past, street smart enough to carefully avoid eye contact with the men sitting inside on stools or coming out unsteadily, blinking in the light.
I passed a mother pushing her baby in a stroller; a man in a coat and fedora with a newspaper tucked under his arm; a couple holding hands; a guy in overalls. Standing at the traffic light, they seemed to be connected horizontally to each other and vertically to sturdy roots, and who knows? maybe upwards to God. Standing outside their magic grid waiting for the light to change I imagined the fortified linkages of their lives, while I had nothing but the time and space to drift around like smoke, unconnected, being only who I was.
The first thing I did when I got home from school was call my mother at work. I loved her office telephone voice. She sounded like a real mom then, performing the role, I now know, for Jack O’Brian and her other office mates. Her telephone voice was different; calm, motherly. She asked about school, she laughed often, her laughter musical, thrilling me. She told me to meet her at the corner deli after work, or to come downtown on the streetcar to her office and we’d go to Mills Cafeteria. But later, at home, all that professional motherhood and cheerfulness and interest in me slipped away like a second skin. Turning inward she wilted in front of my eyes; I watched her alive downtown face change into something as listless and deadened as a wounded animal’s in the road. And I was alone again.
I heard the voices of our next-door neighbors, their comings and goings, their radio: Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Amos ‘n Andy. As the smell of meat loaf wafted out into the hall, I pictured their tidy rooms and busy, fragrant kitchen. Ours was bare, as if we were just passing through. Which I guess we were.
Monday, February 27, 2012
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
“Aren’t you that Rosen girl?” Mary Ann’s mother said. Mary Ann Halloway was my new best friend in second grade and we were sitting in her kitchen drinking milk and eating coconut cookies. The cookies were delicious and something nice-smelling was cooking away on the stove. It was Saturday afternoon and her father was there, too. “The one whose father got murdered?”
“No,” I said, chewing. “My daddy died of pneumonia.”
“It was about five years ago,” she went on, “some kind of bootlegging business. Let me think.” She narrowed her eyes. “His name was Lester. Or
. No, wait a minute. Louis. That’s it, Louis. Louis Rosen. And there was another one murdered -- a brother, I think. It was in all the papers.” Leon
She turned to her husband. “I remember the name because it’s Jewish. Most of those people who go around killing each other are Italian, but this was a Jew.” She looked at me, got hold of her husband’s hand, and pulled herself back as if I had the measles or something.
The coconut cookies on my stomach were suddenly on the way up. I stood, knocking over my milk. “I have to go home now.”
“Yes, run along,” Mrs. Halloway said, handing me my coat.
I got out of there just in time to throw up on Mrs. Halloway’s azaleas.
I was not invited there again.
Which was OK by me. Mrs. Halloway made me mad; she made my heart bang. I wouldn’t want her to be my mother even if all she did was make coconut cookies. Even if I could eat a million coconut cookies. People who were bootleggers and Jews sounded bad coming out of her mouth. But I had no idea what bootleggers did. Or Jews, either, for that matter. My mother’s life had hardly turned her into a believer, and she didn’t send me to Sunday school, a foreign destination reserved for other kids. All I understood about being Jewish was that our family didn’t go to church. But we didn’t go to temple either.
I started to run home but my feet seemed stuck as if I were running in place in a dream. I had believed Mrs. Halloway when she said the murdered Louis Rosen in the newspapers was my daddy, and I felt a wave of disloyalty to my mother that made my throat hurt; and in the next instant a shiver of pride that my daddy had done something so exciting and daring it was in the newspapers that he got killed.
But I felt ashamed, too, and I needed to talk to someone. When I got home, Kenny was out somewhere and my mother wasn’t home from work yet, so I went back outside. It was almost six and the other kids had been called in to dinner. I played jacks by myself on the apartment stoop for a while and then hopscotch on the sidewalk. Then I discovered a nickel in my pocket and decided to walk over to Peterson’s Drug Store for some candy. I liked it in there. Mr. Peterson always gave me a licorice stick when I bought a candy bar and let me hang around eating my candy and reading comics. Looking back, I think he felt sorry for me, but I liked my wanderings; it helped ease my loneliness. It comforted and consoled me. It made me feel free. It took my mind off home.
I went outside with my licorice stick and sat down on the curb. Mr. Peterson was nice but he was always busy unpacking boxes or waiting on customers and I needed someone to talk to. I needed to talk to my daddy. I shut my eyes tight and took a deep breath. Then I put my hands together like people do when they pray and looked up at the sky. Daddy? Are you up there? Can you hear me? See, other kids have real dads to talk to about stuff, but you’re in a place I can’t see. So I have to ask. Here’s what I want to know. You heard what Mrs. Halloway said. So is it true? I think I know you aren’t a king with pneumonia, but are you a Jew bootlegger who got murdered? If you can hear me send something through the air. Make your hanky fall in front of me on
Euclid Avenue when I’m walking. Okay?
I got up and walked home on
Euclid Avenue watching for my daddy’s hanky but it didn’t come down, so I guessed he was too busy or something. And by the time I got home that night Mrs. Halloway and Jew bootleggers had slipped back into the secrets and out of my mind.
I would often drift around like that, the days without beginnings or ends, skipping school with the sun on my back like a warm hand, riding streetcars, reading in the library, staying too long in a friend’s house until the mother sent me home. My friends were fascinated and envious of my roaming ways and their parents wide-eyed with concern. But as if surviving murder means you’ve used up your lifetime’s share of danger, I felt safe. I wasn’t, of course, but I thought I was. Walking home from the library at night under an umbrella of stars, or wandering in the park, I thought my father was watching out for me from heaven with his gun. I really did. He would never let anything bad happen to me because he was powerful and dangerous and he loved me. And although I had obscene proposals shouted (and whispered) to me, innocently made friends at the age of nine with a fifteen-year-old prostitute, observed masturbators in the park, and once on the streetcar (they didn’t scare me because they seemed to be intent on the business at hand) I wasn’t raped or murdered.
But just in case my daddy was distracted or busy doing something else up there in heaven, I was careful. I became my own parent. I crossed streets with the light, made no eye contact with strangers, watched out for stray dogs. I took a sweater along in the summer heat and mittens and a scarf on mild winter days. And for emergencies I carried a stone. I understood the violence in the air.
One day my friend Helene tagged along when I skipped school. She talked all through the movie and on the way home I had to snatch her back to the curb when she was almost run over. Another time she ate so much candy from Woolworths, she threw up in the Ladies. Walking home that day it turned cold and she shivered so hard I had to give her my sweater.
I got tired of taking care of Helene and wouldn’t let her go with me again unless she let me ride her bike after school for a week. The only thing I really liked about her anyway was that she could walk backward without looking, which I found thrilling. One day after school she tagged along home with me because I had gone to her house so often to play with her doll house. But when we got to our apartment building I was too ashamed of our messy place to let her come upstairs. I told her that my brother had scarlet fever.
So we played jacks on our apartment stoop. Suddenly I burst into tears, surprising both of us. She called me a poor loser, but that wasn’t it. I had just started to feel sad. I didn’t know why. It was as if something bad had happened that I couldn’t remember.
“Your nose is running,” Helene said with great disgust.
I wiped the snot on my sleeve. Watching, she pretended to throw up.
Helene, like Nancy and Mary Ann and my other school friends, was chaperoned, supervised, fed milk and cookies. Taken to ballet lessons, piano lessons, Sunday School. Made to do homework, clean up their rooms, eat their vegetables. Their mothers said how was school; they asked if there was still a substitute teacher in geography and if they needed milk-money. They said don’t you dare go out without your galoshes. They said a penny for your thoughts. I heard them. My mother never said those things to me or asked questions. It was as if I existed merely as her shadow or forgotten appendage.
I was the one with the curiosity. I wanted to know everything about my mother; what she whispered about on the telephone, where she went with her hat and earrings, what she talked about with her girlfriends, what she did on her dates. I wondered, worried, if she felt sad, if she would get one of her asthma attacks, if she was lonely. If she was afraid. Looking back I think worrying about her was easier than feeling my own sorrow and abandonment. And anger. Feeling her feelings was easier than feeling mine.
Sometimes I pretended she would come into my room after one of her dates and sit on my bed. “Babbie, I’m scared,” she’d say.
“Well, coming home I thought I was getting an asthma attack, but now that I’m with you I’m feeling a lot better.”
“Okay, Mom,” I’d say. “Take a deep breath and count to ten. Then I want you to go into the bathroom and run the hot water and when the room fills with steam take ten more deep breaths. Okay? Meanwhile I’ll get the vaporizer ready.”
“Oh, Babbie, you always help me so much. Thank you, dear. I’m ready to go to bed now,” she’d say, giving me a big hug. “Good night, honey.”
We envied each other--my friends and I; they envied my freedom, I envied their aproned, hovering mothers, their sheltered, defended days. Walking home with
from school one day I bopped her one on the head. She ran home bawling and then I felt like crying. Another time in the playground I put my foot out and tripped Alice McCoy while she was running a relay race. She went sliding on the gravel and the principal had to take her to the emergency room to get her bloody knee stitched up. I was kept after school to clean blackboards and erasers for three weeks after that. Nancy
The teacher called my mother to come in for a conference about my bad behavior and poor attendance. So she got herself up in an outfit from her high-flying flapper days and made a grand entrance into the classroom, causing a definite buzz. “Is that your mother?” my classmates whispered, pointing as she stood like a movie star in her veiled hat and gloves and the fur scarf with the mean little animal face draped over her shoulder.
That night when I asked her about the conference, she said, What do those stupid teachers know, and went back to her book.
But maybe my mother thought I would be all right wandering around alone out there; life was considered so safe no one locked their doors, and on hot nights in those days before air conditioning my mother and I would actually sleep in the park. We’d find an empty spot among the other families in makeshift beds, spread out newspapers, arrange our pillows and stretch out. It was like being at the beach except that instead of the blazing sun there was a dark sky and moon overhead and a few blessed random breezes. There would be the aroma of something sweet, like a honeysuckle vine growing somewhere, or someone’s perfume, and you’d hear the murmur of voices and a radio playing softly. One night the couple next to us had their radio turned on to “Fibber McGee and Molly”-- a program my mother hated. After lying with her eyes closed and mouth clinched she suddenly reared up as if stung by a bee and told them to shut that damn thing off. Which they promptly did. My mother had that effect on people.
Actually, the only time I was accosted was at home. My mother had rented rooms in some woman’s apartment on
Hampshire Road that smelled of the old orange cat that took possession of the only comfortable chair in the living room. The landlady had tight red curls, a double chin, and wore dangling earrings and those flowing muumuus that fat people dress in. Her son, Frankie, gave me the creeps. He was fifteen and I’d catch him spying on me while he lurked around the apartment. The rooms were small and dark; they had a musty smell and I hated it there.
I am home alone with a cold. Frankie suddenly grabs me from nowhere, shoves me down on the floor, gets on top of me in his clothes, holds my arms down and starts pumping away. I press my legs together from my ankles to my thighs. I stop breathing. My middle region turns to water. Fear shuts me down so I feel nothing--not even his hard-on. My head, my entire body has stopped itself and I cannot move or get out from under this heavy, gasping mass of flesh. I want to scream but no one is home, and anyway, if I’m found here under him they’ll think it’s my fault, that I’d asked for it, like people say about girls who get into trouble. His breathing is wet and fast. Tears stream down my face, and my dress is wet with something else. I think he peed in his pants. I feel the wind slammed out of me and then a sudden awareness of the disarray and menace of the world.
When he lets go of my arms, I sock him, knocking off his eyeglasses. He rolls off me and starts feeling around like a blind person. I jump up and stomp on his spectacles so hard you can hear the crunch as they break into a million splinters.
“Hey! Whad’ja do! I can’t see!” he hollers.
“I’m telling!” I scream, as he feels his way down the hall. I am so mad I am crying. And when I finally see what had made my dress wet I kick on his door until my foot hurts so bad I think it’s broken. I go to my room, change my clothes, and worry that I’ll get pregnant when I start menstruating. I am ten years old.
I knew I hadn’t invited this--I really hated that boy on sight. But maybe I had. Sex scared me but it fascinated me, too, and maybe that boy read my mind when I thought about what men and women did together.
The only information I had about sex was what my friend, Gloria, had told me. She was sixteen. Gloria and I went to the movies together on Friday nights after she got off work at Grant’s Cafe. She had pulled-back mousy brown hair, pale skin, and a dancer’s nervy carriage that would have pleased even Miss Brumelmeyer, my gym teacher who socked me on the back when I slouched, shouting posture!!
One night as the usher showed Gloria and me to seats in the dark theater, her knees suddenly buckled under her and she fainted dead away. The usher picked her up off the floor and carried her back up the aisle. Alarmed, I followed him to an office in the back. It smelled of stale popcorn. He laid her down on the couch.
“Water,” Gloria whispered.
As soon as the usher ran out, she sat up and winked at me. By the time I had recovered enough from amazement to speak, he had dashed back in with a paper cup of water and Gloria had collapsed back on the couch. When he held the cup to her lips she stroked his hand with her fingertips.
“Babbie, go on home,” she said in her weak voice. “Danny here will take care of me.”
But I had already got the picture and I don’t mean the one on the movie screen. It didn’t occur to me until I found myself outside that I could have sat down and watched the movie. It was one of those Myrna Loy, William Powell mysteries. The one after “The Thin Man.”
After that night she told me all about her sex life. How she brought Johnny Spango home, who was a regular at the cafe. Speaking with pride as if she were powerful, she said they had sex on the couch while her mother was passed out in the bedroom, and that Danny, the usher, had simply unbuttoned his fly and got on top of her. On Saturdays after the restaurant closed, she said she had sex with her boss, Mr. Grant, sitting on the edge of the sink in the basement bathroom with her uniform pulled up and her legs on his shoulders. She dismissed Oscar, the cook, as being too grumpy. “So far,” she added, grinning. “Although he could be one of those queers.” She never wore panties, she told me, although as a matter of pride, she never took her clothes off, nor would she permit her boyfriends to do more than unbutton their pants.
All this sex talk scared and excited me. It made me want to cover my ears. My mother never brought a man home like Gloria did, or even mentioned sex. All I really knew about sex was that it was how you got pregnant.
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll get a baby?” I asked her.
“I guess I’m just a damn fool,” Gloria said, proudly.
When she told me that she was through with Danny the usher I agreed to go to the movies with her the following Friday night. “Some men are pests afterwards,” she said, “but Danny’ll be easy to get rid of.”
She had me come to the restaurant to wait for her. I sat at the counter drinking the cherry coke she gave me, and watched her dash around waiting on customers in her crisp pink uniform and white nurse’s shoes. She was all business. She didn’t even flirt. “You don’t mix business with pleasure,” she told me as we walked to the theater. “If I pick someone it’s my choice,” she said, “not theirs.” Going into the theater, she was true to her word, turning her back on Danny’s shiny-eyed greeting.
Walking home after the movie, Gloria told me about her father. “My daddy was a minister. He told me I was going straight to hell. I ran away.”
“Your ran away? Where to?”
“He wanted to fuck me,” she said, cracking her gum.
“Where was your mother?”
“He said I was wild but all I was doing was riding around with boys drinking beer. I hadn’t even screwed anyone yet and I sure as hell wasn’t about to start with my own daddy.”
After Frankie jumped me I didn’t want to see Gloria any more and I didn’t answer the doorbell when she came over. I wanted to get out of that apartment, away from Frankie, away from Gloria. I wanted to be ten years old.
If I was ten the right way I would have a white room, like cream. There are eight pillows on my bed. Sometimes I put them in a circle and sit in the middle with my doll. I read her
’s Web. My daddy always brings me a teddy bear when he comes home from a business trip and they’re all lined up on the shelves with my dolls. There’s a window seat with a cushion on it like Helene has in her room, only mine is bigger and has a view of a real apple tree. My mom buys me too many dresses so the closet’s a mess and I have a new record player like I saw in Jayson’s Hardware. Charlotte
When my mother came home from work I raised hell until she promised we would move. And the next morning at breakfast with Frankie and his mother and Kenny and my mother, I asked him sweetly what had happened to his glasses and watched his stupid fat face get red.
Years later I wondered why Gloria wanted to hang out with a ten- year-old. Or why my mother let me spend Friday nights with a sixteen-year-old waitress. Had she handed me over to Gloria for my sex education? Was that it? After all, the only information she ever gave me was in the two library books about the birds and bees she silently handed over before dashing from the room. They had nothing in them about menstruation because when I got my first period while in the hospital with scarlet fever, a nurse tossed a Kotex and strips of gauze on my bed and kept on walking. In my embarrassing, appalling ignorance, I didn’t know what to do with them. As the sheet grew sticky and wet under me, another nurse finally put me out of my misery and strapped and swaddled me in.
“The scarlet fever brought it on,” my mother said when I told her, as if menstruation was a side effect of disease. I got no beaming lecture on the body becoming ready for the joys of motherhood. For sex and love. Or a brisk reminder of the dangers of fooling around. There was no acknowledgement of a feminine milestone, or sentimental watershed. Not that I expected it. But I did.
But my mother was raised in a Victorian orphanage and would actually color and leave the room if anyone told a risque joke or uttered a four-letter word. Still, in her usual confusing tangle of contradictions, I saw how sexy, shined up and flirtatious she was around Milt and Jack, and later, even my dates.
“Well, hello!” she would sing, coming into the living room, batting her eyes like one of those silent movie stars. Sometimes she would stand in the doorway, smiling with her head raised as if someone was taking her picture. If we were playing records and she was in a good mood she’d actually start dancing, swishing her skirt from side to side like a Busby Berkeley girl. I couldn’t look at her, but my dates raved. They had never seen a mother like her.
After Frankie, I felt safer on the streets than in our apartment and kept to my wandering ways. But I hurried past the houses on the tree-shaded streets lest I start howling with envy over the families gathered behind the forbidden yellow glow of their windows.
I went to the library. The books on the shelves were my friends, their stories waiting to take me out of my life. I loved the long shiny tables. I loved pulling down one of the lined-up encyclopedias and the way its weighty pages would transform my confusing, baffling world into the wonder of an orderly alphabetized universe. The walls of soft-colored volumes were windows of stained glass, and the reverent hush of the people around me worshipers in the church I never got into. Miss Allen, the librarian, was my mother handing me a book she thought I’d like, or telling me to lower my voice, or that my books were overdue, or to go home because the library was closing. I liked Miss Allen. I loved Miss Allen. When she put on her coat and turned out the lights I wanted to go with her.
Walking home one night, a man pulled his car over to the curb and said I’ll put my tongue in your hole. Shaking, I ran in terror to a nearby apartment foyer, rang all the bells, shut my eyes and crouched in the corner. Two or three buzzers sounded in response, but half paralyzed with fear I didn’t get to the doorknob in time and it locked again. After a while I peered through the glass door. His car was gone. I came out with shaking knees and went home.
My mother was there but I kept quiet about the tongue man, the way I had about Frankie. The thing about my mother was you never knew what she would do when you told her something -- collapse into hysteria (as she did when a policeman caught Kenny joy-riding in her car), or hardly look up from her newspaper (like the time I confessed to skipping school). Or maybe say it was my fault and send me away to that vague, terrible place she came from. Orphanages were supposed to stay safely in stories and comic strips, they weren’t meant to lurk menacingly on the edges of your own life as history, as threat. But in our family “orphanage” had the sad wail of reality, and if you don’t know if your mother will collapse, ignore you, or send you away when you tell her something, you tend to keep your mouth shut around the house. I didn’t mind. My mother may have been mercurial, but my phantom father watched over me and was as constant and steady as the sky.
But he couldn’t seem to keep me from getting lost. He was busy. In my wanderings around town I lost my way so often it was as if my secret daddy had blindfolded me, twirled me round and round in a grotesque pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game, and then turned me loose in the world. To this day maps depress me and I am defeated by addresses; dogs and small children have a far better sense of direction and place-memory than I do, finding their way with ease while I wind up on the other side of town. Leaving a hotel room I walk the wrong way in the corridor, and the diabolically slanted streets in
that angle crazily off circles have brought me to tears behind the wheel and in dangerous neighborhoods. I stick carefully to the interstates with their signs, exit numbers and arrows, and the labeled streets of geometric grids, as if such landmarks could steer me away from my father’s killing streets. Washington DC
Monday, February 13, 2012
I am thirty-three years old and I am sitting in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, wondering what I’m doing here. I am a good suburban wife. I have three children, a beautiful home, a rich husband. I am fortunate. So why am I waiting for a psychiatrist with a Time magazine in my wet palms that I’m too nervous to read? I do not know. Or I do know. It is my baffling misery. It is my confusion. It is because my husband tells me frequently that I’m stupid. Also crazy. It is because I believe him.
I open the magazine on my lap. There is a full-page ad for a Chrysler, the same color and model as ours. It reminds me of the night Nate pushed me out of it on our way home from a party.
As soon as we got in the car that night I saw he was furious about something. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“What’s wrong?” he imitated in a singsong.
“What did I do?”
“You’re so stupid I have to tell you what you did? I told you not to wear that dress!”
“I told you not to wear it and you snuck out with it under your coat. Then you act like a dumb jackass, talking to Chuck Stern who you know I can’t stand. Don’t think I didn’t see you flirting with him. And with Al Whatshisname, hanging on his every word like he’s the Messiah or something.” He turned to me with the same self-righteous look on his face as the night we first met at Lenny Adelson’s party, when he slipped my date a Mickey and made Bob so dizzy and sick he had to pull over to the side of the road on the way home and throw up out the window. “Then you go and let that idiot Arnie put on your boots!” he went on. “I saw him
looking down your dress. I saw him. I told you not to wear that goddamn thing.”
I was beginning to understand. I hadn’t spent enough time at his side. Or worn that damn tweed suit. Unable somehow to defend myself, choking with unexpressed protest, sick of his accusations, sick of his rage, sick of him, all I wanted was to get away. “Let me out of here!” I yelled.
He reached across, opened the door and pushed me out of the car. I landed in a snow bank. The car hadn’t been going very fast and I got up, brushed off the snow and looked around. We were on our street. I could see him pulling into our driveway.
I walked home. Inside, Nate was sitting in the family room. “I want a divorce,” I said.
“What is it with you? Every time we have a fight you want a
I went to a lawyer the next day, a different one this time. He successfully discouraged me the way the last one had, which, thinking of my children, was easy to do. So once again, I knuckled under. Besides, Nate usually behaved better for awhile after I threatened divorce, and I always made myself believe the change would last.
But just this morning he stormed into the kitchen and shook the
bill in my face. “I make the money and you spend it? Is that how it works?” Halle
I took the bill from his fist and looked at it. “Nate, a pair of shoes.”
“Yeah, shoes. Last month, a dress. What the hell do you do with the money I give you?”
“Groceries and--” I stopped. I was guilty. I slipped my mother money from my household allowance.
“Take the shoes back,” he ordered.
It was my fault. I forgot to ask his permission before I bought them. He was actually generous. Very generous. He bought me jewels --diamonds, emeralds, real pearls. He liked to go shopping with me, he liked to pick out my clothes. But he didn’t like my buying anything without his okay.
I didn’t protest. How could I? He was generous, I was guilty; I even felt guilty for my misery, as if I was being punished for committing some unknown crime in a dream. I observed myself with curiosity, perfectly aware that this wasn’t normal. I should fight back, defend myself, point out that he didn’t need my permission for his cashmere jackets and custom made suits; his expensive cameras and golf clubs and tennis rackets. Antiques and paintings. (Our art collection was written up in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.) The 55 foot yacht and the captain he kept year round on full salary in Ft. Lauderdale, the first class travel to four star hotels and world class restaurants. I should scream, throw things, weep. I wondered, is this how people go crazy? Calmly, quietly, going numb?
The next time I went to the supermarket I wrote down the cost of everything I bought; milk, eggs, coffee, bread, pot roast, bananas, apples, lettuce, cereal, tea, ham, bacon, peanut butter, canned soup, hamburger, carrots, potatoes. But that night when I showed it to him with each price neatly itemized, he waved it away without looking, like a king irritated with his subject’s pathetic efforts to please.
So I figured if I were only smarter or nicer or more careful; if I could somehow become a better wife, mother, person; if I could figure out what I was doing wrong instead of always being blind-sided, Nate wouldn’t have such shouting scorn for me. Clearly, I had to change. So when I asked my doctor to recommend a psychiatrist, all I wanted was to become a woman who didn’t fill her husband with contempt.
“Good afternoon,” Dr. Herman says, startling me. He holds the door open. “Please come in.”
I get up and enter his office. Following me, he shuts the door and walks around to his chair behind the desk. I stand in the middle of the room. I hear the radiator hiss. I eye the couch. Am I supposed to lie down? I want to run out of there.
“Please,” he says, indicating the chair facing his desk. He has dark hair, eyeglasses, and looks to be in his mid-fifties. I think I had been expecting someone more exotic, maybe with a beard, maybe a Viennese accent, because I am faintly surprised to be looking at the mild even-featured face of a man you’d see on the bus or working in a bank. Even the room has an anonymous look with its leather couch, ordinary desk and chair. The light is muted, the pictures on the wall unobtrusive, dull even (a pastoral scene of sky and barn, a seascape, a still life of fruit and flowers) as if nothing is permitted to distract from whatever it is that goes on in here.
He looks at me, waiting.
I sit down. But I don’t know what to say. How can this stranger help me when I don’t even know what’s wrong? I decide to escape this shadowy, barren room. I’ll tell him I’ve made a mistake coming here and leave so he can treat someone who needs him.
“What can I do for you?” he asks.
Uttered by a psychoanalyst the cliche suddenly takes on weight. What can he do for me? What can he do for me? Was someone actually offering help who maybe even knows how? And to my astonishment and chagrin I start to cry, the tears beginning somewhere way behind my eyes, my soul, stored up like heat in some deep unknown region of my being, mysteriously released by this quiet, calm stranger in this unknown room. Tears fall down my face in a torrent. I weep in embarrassment and relief. He hands me the box of Kleenex from his desk and sits silently while I blow my nose and mop up my face.
“What made you sad?” he asks.
I shrug. I am afraid I’ll start crying again.
He asks a few questions -- ordinary questions that anyone might ask, except his are quieter, almost gentle, like a doctor probing a sore abdomen: Does this hurt? Does this? This? Answering, I find myself talking about my misery and confusion.
“Our time’s almost up,” he says, “and we need to discuss your treatment -- what kind, when, the fees, and so forth.”
“I think you would profit more from analysis than therapy.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, therapy is a narrower approach, sessions are once or twice a week usually for a limited period. Analysis goes far deeper, with sessions every day. It takes much longer, too -- usually no less than three years and often more. Also, analysts are medical doctors who have had to be analyzed themselves. They then go through two additional years of training and another period of supervised work with patients.”
“What do you do?” I am beginning to like this guy.
“I do both.”
“Okay, analysis then.”
He leans back in his chair. “How do you feel about a daily commitment?”
I don’t know how I feel about anything. “Okay.”
“My fee is $25 a session. How do you feel about that?”
$125 a week was a lot of money back then. But I know how I feel about that. “It’s only money,” I say.
He opens his appointment book. “Can you come from 5 to 5:50?”
I nod. My housekeeper always cooked dinner anyway. Still, I didn’t like the idea of being away from the children after school. “Is there any other time?”
He shakes his head. “As it is I’m lengthening my day. I usually quit at five.”
“Will you move me if another time opens up?”
“Certainly,” he says, getting up. “See you tomorrow.” We shake hands and I leave.
Driving home I feel a wave of something like release. Dr. Herman is an utter stranger; I have no idea how this analysis works or even if it works; but for the first time in my life I don’t feel all alone.
When I told Nate I had decided to go into analysis I expected a fight, but he surprised me. “Go ahead and waste your time if you want.” He narrowed his eyes; “Just get this straight. I’m not paying for it.”
“Okay,” I said. I’d manage from my household allowance.
No one I knew or heard of back then was seeing a psychiatrist, or if they were -- as I discovered years later -- like me, they didn’t confess. Besides, seeing a psychiatrist was another sign of my failure to be like other people, a secret mysteriously connected to the murders, and it made me ashamed. So I didn’t tell anyone else except my mother. She answered with a comment I’ve remembered all of my life. “Let me know when you find out what a son of a bitch I was.”
The next day I find myself standing uncertainly in the middle of Dr. Herman’s office. The room with its couch along the wall now seems as familiar and strange as a place you see in a dream. I watch him settle himself in a chair behind the couch. (Why hadn’t I noticed the chair there before?) He sits, waiting. I get the idea and gingerly lie down on the couch, carefully tucking my skirt under my knees.
He is behind me now, out of my vision. The room fills with silence. It is in an old building with high ceilings, wood floors, radiators. I can hear the creaky elevator. I smell his piny aftershave. Overhead, someone in high heels walks briskly across a bare floor. I stare at the ceiling. I don’t know what to say. I lie there feeling ridiculous.
“Just relax and say whatever comes to mind,” Dr. Herman prompts.
But I lie there, mute. He sits behind me, making me nervous. I want to escape this room, this silent, waiting stranger.
“I don’t think I know how to do this,” I finally say, thinking Nate’s right, this is a waste of time. I have nothing to say to this person I hear breathing behind me.
“What are you thinking?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I lie.
I need him to say something. Anything. “Am I supposed to tell you my dreams?”
“Dreams are helpful,” he says.
“I don’t remember my dreams,” I say. Another lie. I’ve got to get out of here.
“Well then, tell me about your family.”
“My mother’s a secretary, my brother’s vice president of sales for a paper company in
. I have three children, two boys, Lewis and Andrew, and a baby girl.” New York
“What about your father?“
“I told you about him yesterday.”
He sits in his chair diabolically waiting for me to stir up buried skeletons and banished ghosts. But I joined my mother in silence about my father years ago.
“I don’t want to talk about him,” I finally say.
“Okay, what about your husband?”
“Well, you mentioned your mother, father, brother and children, but not your husband.”
“His name’s Nate.”
“What’s he like?”
“Nate? Oh, Nate’s very talented -- he’s won prizes for his photography, you know. He’s a city councilman and he runs one of the biggest auto agencies in
and he’s an expert gardener -- all our friends come to him for advice -- oh, and he’s a gourmet cook. He has a great sense of humor, too -- he likes to play practical jokes on people. (I don’t tell him how mean the jokes can be.) Ohio
“How do you you feel about him?”
“I just told you.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“How do I feel about him? Fine. I feel fine.”
I hear him stir in his seat. “Babette, why did you come here?”
“I came because--” I stop. “See, there’s nothing wrong with Nate. I just told you. It’s me who’s a mess. He’s always criticizing me. That’s why I’m here. To find out how to change. Isn’t that what psychiatrists do?”
“And what do you do?”
“What do I do?”
“When he criticizes you. What do you do?”
“Nothing? You don’t defend yourself?”
“No, we never fight.”
I told you! Because it’s always my fault!”
“What’s your fault?”
I am crying. “I don’t know.”
“We need to work on that,” he says, handing me the box of Kleenex.
“Work on what?”
“On why you feel so guilty.”
I breathe. “See, Nate’s a good provider.”
“A good provider?”
“Well, yeah. I have, you know, a house, food, clothes.” My words vibrate in my ears. I feel my face heat up. “Listen,” I say, “it’s not how that sounds.”
“How does it sound?”
“Oh, as if I’m like begging for my room and board like a waif or something.”
“Is that what you think?” I demand.
“You’re the one who said it, not me.”
“Well, it’s absurd.”
“You sound angry.”
Cowering for my keep? Subservience for room and board? No way. I made no such bargain.
“Our time’s up,” he says.
I rise to my feet and slam out of there.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
When I was in first grade Miss Charlton (whom we called Charlie because of her mustache) marched us into the auditorium to learn “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” She sat down at the piano and led us through the song word by word, playing the piano with one hand and directing us with the other. When we came to the phrase “Land where my father died,” I couldn’t figure out how they all knew. At home my father’s death was this big secret. There wasn’t even a photograph of him anywhere, as if a picture could suddenly whisper the truth. Since all the other kids had fathers I reasoned it must be my father who died on the land they were singing about.
He vanished without a trace of the ordinary clutter and details of a life, leaving not a shadow nor footprint. There were no letters or insurance papers or tax receipts to find. Not a watch or drivers’ license or birth certificate or deed to a house. No marriage license or diploma. No fading photograph that he had carried, maybe of me. Not a wedding portrait or snapshot at the beach. It was as if during the 29 years of his life on earth he was already a ghost.
My mother was as adamantly tight-lipped about my father as she was about everything else in her life. A walking, seething repository of secrets, she was willfully mute about her childhood, her husband, her marriage, and the secrets of her long widowhood.
So I embarked on a search not only for a father I never knew, but for my mother, who turned out to be even more of a mystery.
Although she never spoke of her 12 years in an orphanage, I learned of its horrors from reading Inside Looking Out; The Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum From 1868 to 1924 by Gary Edward Polster. The Rise And Fall Of The Cleveland Mafia by Rick Porrello gave me details of my father’s bootlegging activities, including events, dates, places and names. I read the family history my brother, Kenny, wrote after interviewing our relatives, as well as the lengthy newspaper accounts of our father’s murder.
Kenny, old enough to remember him first-hand, told me of his charm, violent temper and generosity. My mother’s sister talked to me about their marriage; a cousin remembered the night he and Uncle Addie were killed. Another aunt related details of the funeral; an uncle told me stories about his vitality and lust and ambition. And they all knew who his killer was.
I was given a few pictures. In one, my father is a dark-eyed child on a tricycle. Another shows a muscular youth standing with his brother, Marvin, in front of a horse and delivery wagon from the family bakery. The picture is slightly out of focus, his grin blurred, but you can see his physical strength and his readiness to use it. In another he stands serenely in a handsome tan suit looking for all the world like a gentleman of banking or the law. His lips are thick and sensual, his eyes deep set. He is a beautiful young man.
He wears this same tan suit on a date with my mother. It is probably 1915 or 1916. In my family it does not seem strange that I don’t know when my parents met, or even the month and year of their marriage. I come to this estimate by counting backwards from my brother’s birth. My father is 20 in 1915 (I know this from the date inscribed on his tombstone), my mother,18. I do know -- or think I know -- that they met at the Elysium, an indoor ice skating rink located in Cleveland at the corner of Euclid Avenue and 107th St.
He dresses carefully for his date. The tan suit and vest, a high stiff collar, a hat. His tie is silk, his wingtips gleam. He looks in the mirror and tilts his skimmer to a jaunty angle, tucks his gold watch in his waistcoat pocket, arranges the chain, and after another look in the glass pounds down the stairs.
When he arrives at my mother’s, the neighbors peek through their curtains at his Winston, and five or six children gather around and touch its gleaming black surface. He gets out of the car, reaches in his pocket and gives each of them a dime. He squeezes the horn, summoning my mother. He squeezes it again. He leans against the door, jiggling his leg. His energy crackles the air. It makes passersby look up and shopkeepers stare and whisper. He is a magnetic field. He paces up and down the sidewalk. He shoos the children away who are now climbing all over the automobile. Suddenly he starts pounding urgently on my mother’s door as if his energy will implode if he doesn’t expend it on something, somewhere. He burns. He makes you hot. In my dreams I see him emanating a glow, wired by his own power.
Finally my mother comes out. He takes her arm and almost runs with her to the car. She smells of soap and Coty’s powder from its flowered box. She is wearing her sister Mabel’s good blue dress and her mother’s feathered hat. When Mabel and Anna find out, there will be hell to pay, but now my mother is smiling. Aware of the neighbors’ stares, she proudly lets herself be handed into the splendid automobile by Mr. Lou Rosen.
Did this -- and what follows -- really happen the way I have written it? Did everyone do what I say they did -- think these thoughts and speak these words? I believe so. But It doesn’t really matter, not to me, because I have absorbed so many reports and whispers and been told so many confessions and recollections for so long that they have become part of me and are as fixed as the moon.
I have a blurred mental image of my mother coming home from my daddy’s funeral. She is wearing a veiled black hat that scares me. I am two years old and had been left at home, put to bed for my nap by a big colored lady. But I can’t sleep. The house feels too quiet. Something big is wrong. I stand up in my crib and scream. No one comes.
Finally I am taken downstairs. Grown-ups in dark clothes are standing around whispering. There is the cloying smell of sweet pastries, the sound of china; ladies in aprons are busy in the kitchen. One of them gives me a cookie. She is crying. I have never seen a grown-up cry before and I start to wail. A man picks me up; his face feels scratchy. I scramble down and look for my mother.
I see her sitting in a big chair and run to her. She pulls me onto her lap. I tug at the black veil knocking off her hat but, still, I cannot stop crying. “Babette, honey, shh, don’t cry, it’s all right,” she murmurs. I feel her heart pound through my dress and, weeping, hang onto her until someone wipes my runny nose and pulls me away.
My mother sits quietly in the big chair listening to the noises of the kitchen and the murmur of the mourners’ voices. Hearing a piercing screech she thinks it came from her own mouth. But no one turns to her and she realizes it was a screaming tea kettle. She stares at the mourners in their dark clothes and sorrowful faces as they move about the dining room table laden with platters of herring, smoked whitefish, smoked salmon, cream cheese, hard-boiled eggs, bagels and Kaiser rolls. Home- made sponge cake, macaroons and fig newtons, baked by the ladies in the kitchen that morning while her husband was being buried.
Upstairs, my daddy’s suits hang limply with their empty sleeves, neatly arranged by color and season, the dark blues and grays giving way along the rack to the summer creams and whites. Shallow drawers hold rows of jeweled cuff links, a rainbow of ties stretches along a wall, and dozens of stiff-collared silk shirts hang neatly in whites and pastels.
Now the mourners are filling the large, proud living room after first washing their hands from the pitcher on the front stoop. (Someone had set up the ancient Jewish funeral ritual as if this were a benign death and you could wash off the wreckage.) My mother looks around for my brother, a tow-headed blue-eyed boy of six, but he has already escaped into the backyard our daddy had equipped with swings, jungle gyms, even a child-sized car. Peering through the window she sees him riding his car on the hard, gray snow, his correct little tie off and already a rip in the scratchy suit jacket bought especially for his father’s funeral.
Earlier, at the burial, he had dutifully thrown a small handful of dirt into the freshly dug grave as the rabbi muttered the Kaddish. I see him there in the shimmer of a dream and imagine heat rays emanating from the open grave like the disturbed air of hell. Suddenly my mother’s knees buckle under her. The funeral director with his neat, black suit and blank eyes reaches out and steadies her with the expressionless efficiency of his profession, corpses and collapsing widows as unremarkable to him as an accountant’s pencil and adding machine. Her dizziness is actually due to the pill given her by a Dr. Magio who is said to be kept on a retainer for the time a bullet or two has to be discretely removed, and who was called when my mother was unable to stop screaming. She feels shame in her near-collapse and extravagant sorrow -- mixed as it is with a curious and confusing measure of relief that Lou Rosen’s vitality and violence are now subdued six feet under. She is only 27 after all, her flesh still young, her thighs still slender and surely not meant never to open to a man again.
But if she imagines freedom and options with a pounding heart she learns soon enough that the dead do not leave. Even without the lingering scent of his aftershave, the damp towel across the bed, the diamond stick pin and gold cuff links on the bedside table, Lou is an ongoing gauzy presence, everywhere and nowhere, hovering over her, over all of us.
Now, sitting in the living room, my mother watches a group of three men as they enter her house and hang up their coats and fedoras on the racks provided by the Berkowitz Funeral Home. She knows that the big man, the one with the drooping eyelids and heavy glasses, ordered her husband’s murder--she wonders if the two men with him were the actual killers. She also knows that the hundreds of white carnations and roses covering his casket were sent by their polite murdering hands. But she is not afraid; she has been a bootlegger’s wife long enough to know that as long as they keep their silence widows and children are sacrosanct. She has been a bootlegger’s wife long enough to understand the code; no one will harm her unless, of course, she breaks it and reveals his name, which she knows to be Joe Lonardo, the Cleveland Mafia boss who is now offering his clean hand to her in solemn-faced sympathy. She shakes his hand and feels her stomach rise to her throat. She is afraid she will vomit on his wingtips.
The rabbi in his black suit and beard and woeful expression is standing with Marvin, brother of the deceased. Marvin has thick black hair that looks windblown, or mussed from making love. Talking to the rabbi, gesturing with his hands, he is smiling as if he’s at a wake with believers of an afterlife, even for Lou Rosen. The rabbi is eating a wedge of sponge cake. He wipes his mouth with a dinky embroidered napkin. There are crumbs in his beard. He puts his empty plate down on the grand piano, straightens his yarmulke, and crosses the room to my mother. He leans over and kisses her on the cheek; she feels his beard brush her face and has an impulse to grab hold of it. She feels like laughing and has to duck her head and hold her handkerchief to her mouth.
“Mrs. Rosen--Are you all right?” the rabbi asks. His voice is deep, concerned.
She nods. She even smiles. She wonders if she is going crazy. Although the rabbi is older than she by at least a decade, she thinks he is too young to have anything to say to her. She wants him to go away, to leave her alone. But he sits down in a chair at her side, looks into her eyes and speaks. What? What did he say? She is too preoccupied to hear. She wants to ask him if her husband killed anyone before he was killed; if God had punished him, an eye for an eye. She wants to ask him if a bootlegger can get into heaven. Or a bootlegger’s wife, for that matter. She wants to ask him if there is a heaven. She wants to ask him if there is a God. Foolish woman! Not a question for a rabbi. But the truth is she receives little comfort from his respectful attendance or his pieties or from the funeral service or the Kaddish her son, a child of six, had dutifully repeated in a clear child’s voice at graveside, and has no hope of heavenly intervention into the life she has already found to be absurd. Sitting there, receiving condolences, she feels that God is unaware of her small mistaken existence and that it would be dangerous to get the attention of such a capricious deity who maybe has it in for orphan girls who get mixed up with gangsters. So she says nothing as the rabbi rises to leave, lowering her eyes and retreating into the hushed respect reserved for the newly widowed.
She notices her mother sitting across the room. When did she come in? Anna Wolf (Wolf being her second husband, now dead, who was said to have given her the syphilis that eventually killed her) is sitting on the couch with her purse on her knees. She has good bones, the same good bones as my mother, her face is sculptured like an aristocrat’s, and with her haughty bearing, could have been reincarnated from a former blue-blooded life. She is daintily eating a cookie with her pinky finger held aloft, sipping from her cup as if she were at a tea party. Now she puts the cup down on the coffee table, opens her purse, retrieves a mirror and tube of lipstick, and carefully applies it to her thin mouth with her reddened arthritic fingers. I do not like the feel of my grandmother’s dry rough hands on my skin.
Anna’s first husband was Jacob Smith, the name changed from Schmitko when he emigrated to
Cleveland from . But his new Americanized name and youth, his grand handlebar mustache and his young wife couldn’t protect him from the tuberculosis epidemic -- known in those days as consumption. He died at the age of thirty after a long illness leaving Anna with nothing but four children, a meager grocery store, and her own cold heart. Poland
Tending to her few customers, she left her small daughters to the streets of the
Scovil Avenue neighborhood. That is, until the day a neighbor paid a visit to the authorities and reported Anna Smith’s appalling neglect of her three little girls, who, dirty and hungry, had been running wild in the neighborhood for weeks, months. My mother, , was 3; her sisters, Lillian and Mabel, 5 and 7. Florence
Soon after, a high-bosomed woman and a man with a walrus mustache and a watch chain showed up at Anna’s grocery store. She led them upstairs to her rooms, telling her daughters to wait outside. They sat down obediently on the stoop in their grimy, torn dresses. A peddler passed, rattling his cart filled with pots and pans. It was July, and the air smelled of garbage, urine and the cabbage from someone’s kitchen. A baby was crying overhead and a woman leaned out of her window calling to her son, who was nowhere in sight. After awhile, the man emerged folding papers into his breast pocket. He nodded to the woman waiting on the stoop with the children and one at a time she lifted the three ragged girls into the wagon. (Della, too young at six months to be taken, was left upstairs with Anna.)
, my mother, started to scream as if she was the only one who understood what was happening, setting off her sisters. The woman reached in her bag and gave each weeping child a small lollipop. Even though their mother had a grocery store and a glass jar of penny candy stood on the dusty shelf, they were never given any, and they stopped crying, tore off the wrapper and began sucking greedily. The man and woman climbed into the wagon as the neighbors stared through their windows; the man jiggled the horse’s reins, and it disappeared, rattling down the cobblestone street. Florence
In my sentimental imagination I picture Anna running after the horse and wagon, arms outstretched, tears streaming down her face, crying, My babies! My babies! Like in a silent movie. Like Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid. But I know better. What I know of Anna is that she turned away to wait on a customer. Or simply stood watching them leave from her window.
When they arrived at the Jewish Orphan Asylum on
Woodland Avenue and 55th street, a smell of rot rose from the earth. The sisters stared at the high iron-spiked fence that surrounded the large buildings, the barred windows and the ragged children watching them from the playground. Sobbing in fear, they eyed still another frightening stranger come toward them on this bewildering morning. Later they would learn that he was Dr. Sam Wolfenstein, the director, whom they would come to regard with fear and awe as a surrogate for God himself, with his heavy beard and bushy eyebrows, weekly sermons, strict discipline and constant admonitions about the moral life.
“Now, now,” he said, lifting my mother, the smallest, out of the wagon. “You’ll have to stop that crying.”
But she didn’t. She was three years old but she knew that something very bad was happening; the disappearance of her mother, her lollipop and her freedom all tangled together into a confusing sense of terrifying loss. She couldn’t stop crying. She could not.
“Hush!” he said, louder.
But his shouts only brought forth a fresh cascade of screams.
“Stop it! This minute!” he shouted, unused to being disobeyed by his orphans. He held her small, dirty, screaming self at arms-length like a bad-smelling, noisy, squirming chicken and handed her to the woman from the wagon. As she took their screaming baby sister away, Mabel and Lill watched wide-eyed, their terror and confusion striking them mute.
The sisters were then separated into their respective age groups among the other 500 “inmates” (as they were called in their lives behind bars) enduring yet another loss--this time of each other.
My mother was taken to a large damp room in the basement (infested, like the orphanage’s other eighteenth-century buildings, with huge rats, lice and bedbugs). Staring with alarm at the large pool of green water with two ladders leading down into it, she was stripped and examined for lice. The probing of her head and body by yet another stranger set her off again into a rejuvenated fit of wailing until she was dragged into the tub and shocked into silence by the scalding water. After being scrubbed by one of the older girls, her hair was cut off--setting off a lifelong preoccupation with her hair. Over the years, following the fashion of the day, it was bobbed, upswept, permed, straightened, marcelled, streaked, and layered.
Scrubbed, de-liced, and shorn, exhausted and subdued, she was now put into thick, gray undergarments with long legs that itched winter and summer. Black stockings went on next, then a red flannel underskirt and finally a dress of wool that reached the ankles. Over that went a blue striped apron. Shoes were made of thick leather that laced up over the ankles. After being dressed she was assigned a number that was sewn on her uniform and by which she was henceforth known.
She was always hungry. While doing her dawn-to-dusk-chores, during her hours of Hebrew and Bible study, she was hungry. Attending classes in German, English and mathematics, history, social studies and geography, penmanship and spelling, she was hungry. Sitting among the five-hundred other orphans at long wooden tables of ten in enforced silence, there was never enough to eat, and for every hour of each and every day, for the next twelve years, she was hungry.
But she was also smart, every year performing academically at the top of her class. And at the age of fifteen, on a lovely June afternoon in 1912, my mother graduated valedictorian from the Jewish Orphan Home.
After the ceremonies, her Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Adler, climbed the stairs to her dorm where my mother was packing her few belongings. “You’re to go to the office,” she told her.
Clutching her valedictorian medal, she ran downstairs. Mrs. Goldstein, the secretary, was standing in the administration office with a woman
had never seen before. Florence
“This is Anna Smith,” Mrs. Goldstein said. “She is your mother.”
stared at the stranger standing there in a brown coat and feather-trimmed hat. Anna Smith had never visited her daughters. Not once. Not once in 12 years Florence
But my mother went home with Anna -- where else could she go? Her older sisters, Mabel and Lill, had preceded her, and their small apartment was so crowded the last one home had to sleep on the floor and the second one up in the morning got the last of the two pairs of silk stockings they owned among them.