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.