Do criminals run in families like blue eyes and multiple sclerosis? I worried about that because in order for gangsters to exist there had to be gangsters’ parents and grandparents and all manner of forebears. All Kenny had to do was stay out late and my mother would worry that he was turning into his father, on his way to a violent death. Sometimes their arguments would turn into a free-for-all, with my grandma Anna jumping in, cursing in Yiddish, sucking on her false teeth, hollering louder than anyone. (Years later I realized that the only Yiddish words I knew were unrepeatable in polite society.) She had moved in with us because my mother supported her and there wasn’t enough money for a place of her own.
Grandma criticized everything my mother said, wore, and did. Kenny was going straight to hell gallivanting around with his wild ways, I was neglected, I was too skinny, I had never learned discipline or chores. If a man called my mother on the phone when she was out, she didn’t give her the message, and if my mother was home and answered the telephone, Gram would run the vacuum cleaner around her feet so she couldn’t hear what the caller was saying. Then, in between her rantings she sat on the couch in such utter silence it was as if she was carved in stone, coming to life only for a good fight.
She hollered about what the world had done to her. She battled about money or the lack thereof, or what someone did or didn’t do, or said or didn’t say, grinning in her rage, the smile on her face scarier than her hollering. My mother would yell back, or cry, or slam out the door. Sometimes she got an asthma attack. Her asthma was such an
ongoing fact of our family life that in utter familiarity Kenny and
I would hear her moist, rattling breathing, see her face drain of color, dash for the respirator, and watch in helpless terror as she bent over it with desperate gasps.
I hung around the fights -- my family was crazy but it was mine. I tried to get Gram to sit down at her place on the couch or push Kenny out the door. Eleven years old, I was a one person UN, a self-appointed minister of peace. If Amy, who lived a floor below, asked me at school the next day about the room-rocking commotion, it took no effort on my part to just shrug. If nothing can be done people stay calm--they pile furniture on the roof in a flood, stand in their pajamas in the driveway watching their house burn down, ride an ambulance holding a stricken child’s hand. Or maybe those fights made me feel, in my ridiculous calm, reassured of my own sanity.
Gram’s coming made us all worse. One night a policeman brought Kenny home after catching him driving around in our mother’s car. My mother had more of her temper fits, I rarely showed up in class and came home later than ever. Kenny began tormenting me, chasing me with the bugs I hated, making a monster face at night in my room with a flashlight under his chin, starting water fights, food fights, locking me out, pulling my hair, doing anything he could think of to torture me.
When they weren’t fighting, Kenny and my mother discussed politics and books and world events, arguing their positions like an old married couple. She depended on him for advice and attention, took his arm while walking and expected him to help her with her coat, listen to her complaints, open doors and light her cigarettes as if he were actually her husband or boyfriend. “Cigarootte me, toot,” she would say, and then try to puff like Bette Davis in the movies. Going to the deli, her arm linked with his, wearing her veiled hat, she could have been 25 -- she looked so young that Kenny, tall for his age and worried-looking, was sometimes taken for her husband. Which delighted my mother and turned Kenny sullen. He had the unfortunate role of adult male surrogate. My role was to keep the peace, not upset my mother and secretly watch out for her. Hers was to go to work, get paid, come home and not kill herself.
My mother and I had somehow reversed our roles, with me worrying about her health, her dates, her job, her. Even at eleven I knew she was hanging on by her fingernails. Even at eleven I knew that Gram had the resilience of the truly mean and disconnected, and Kenny the raw arrogance and strength of a fifteen-year-old male big for his age. It was my raging, crying, hysterical mother who was vulnerable and overwhelmed, who already at the age of 35 had had several lifetimes of misfortune dumped on her from a lopsided God who couldn’t seem to get his distribution of bad/good luck right among his helpless subjects. You’d think her sad, orphaned childhood would have toughened her for the unlucky vicissitudes of life, but it was the opposite, as if those heartbreaking years had stripped her skin away, her protective covering, leaving her with exposed nerve ends.
There was no one, as far as I could tell, whom she could talk to about what happened to my daddy, about her loss of hope and love. Her anger. Her loneliness and terror. The hysteria that lay just back of her throat. Her secrets or her shame kept her mute. What she had longed for and lost, or never had, was no more or less than anyone else in the world would want, and she tried to get it, or some of it, or a little of it, from a boyfriend or two, a married lover, an office friend. She was on the edge with no hand outstretched in love or fear or guilt to pull her back.
I thought it would have to be me.