Once at my friend Martha’s house I saw her father. He was sitting in the living room wearing an undershirt stretched over his big belly. He smelled of beer and sweat, and Martha and her mother seemed afraid of him. I didn‘t understand then all the importance everyone seemed to give to living, ordinary, mortal, powerless fathers who hollered and smelled and punished and took up space and were catered to and feared, while mine was flat-bellied and handsome and young and would never leave me to play golf or go bowling or to work or die of old age. He was dead so he was mine, all mine and always would be. He was brave and handsome and good and he loved me above all others.
Yet something was wrong. I couldn’t seem to reach my daddy anymore. He even forgot to send me a hanky. Well, maybe he thinks I’m still two years old. Or maybe time’s different where he is.
Or he could be too sick with pneumonia. I could take care of him! I clench my fists and shut my eyes trying to figure something out. But all I see is a silly old castle in a pink sky like a picture in a book for kids. And when I open my eyes again I see nothing but my mother’s room with the door closed.
If he were here like other fathers, he’d give me the dog I long for to keep me company or the bike that will give me wings. (Years later I had a three-speed bike. And a Duel Ghia--then just like Frank Sinatra’s car-- with my name engraved on a gold plate on the dashboard, and neither one could replace in my heart that Schwinn two-wheeler I never got.) Or a trip to an amusement park. Calm strong arms to pull me out of a nightmare. A lecture over a bad report card. My birthstone in a small box. Sundays at the beach watching that I don’t go out too far. A backyard swing, a hug. Order in my days. I stared at a father and daughter holding hands in the park; a baby held by her dad fascinated me. Fathers and daughters seemed so commonplace to me, it was as if I alone was unworthy of such an ordinary arrangement, and feeling a dazzling and depthless loss, I pressed my nose against the window of families like Martha’s and Helene’s.
So maybe having a phantom father in the sky wasn’t so great after all. Maybe a real dad who actually died in bed of respectable pneumonia was better. I needed to talk to my mother about which was which; I needed to know which one of us had made him up.
One morning I wrote down the questions I wanted to ask her:
Did he really die of pneumonia?
Did he get murdered?
Was he bad?
The shop where my mother had sold dresses on commission had gone under and she had been teaching herself shorthand and bookkeeping from a pile of library books spread out on the kitchen table. Although her new office skills landed her a job in the Engineering Department of the City Hall, she was exhausted from cramming and so nervous about starting the next day, she hadn’t been able to sleep for two nights.
Kenny remembers our mother as being frightened, and I remember her as being brave. I think we were both right. Fragile, lonely, asthmatic, often hysterical, frequently bewildered, it was as if she were watching for something or someone to rise up and provide her with information on how to proceed, on what to do next. But her ferocious pride kept us going during the Great Depression, she looked like a Duchess in the bargain-basement dresses she wore on dates and to work, read Hardy and James and Wharton, and saw everything on Broadway from standing room (“when everyone gets up I sit down,” she told me proudly). And no matter what, every single Saturday the radio filled our apartment with opera. Summers, she drove us 500 miles over unpaved roads to her sister’s when few women drove alone around the block, and she could make a rude saleslady wish she were dead with her amazingly inventive insults. Standing at the level of her shoulder, I was embarrassed, but also secretly pleased, as if she were my surrogate mouthpiece expressing my anger at the world.
She was only five feet four but when she stood she seemed to tower over everyone, electrifying a room with her brilliance and charm. Words spilled from her mouth as if she had to relieve herself of her teeming brain, but she didn’t know when or how to stop. People became restless; they looked away; they would leave if they could.
When Kenny and I were older we would sometimes imagine her in a different life--a Senator or the first woman Vice-President. A college professor lecturing in a perfect suit, her students frantically scribbling, trying to keep up with her racing mind. A lawyer arguing her case, pacing nervously in front of the jury. Not a doctor; she was too squeamish and on- edge to be a doctor. Rather one of those arrogant, grand
hostesses with the city’s powerful A-list at her perfect table, everyone vying for invitations. She would have been a natural for that role because it is true that in spite of her humble beginnings she was a snob. Washington
Or we could see her in another time: in a ballroom with flower-filled vases, Strauss waltzes and romantic secrets. Waving a flirtatious fan back and forth across her face against the summer heat. Seated at an elegant dinner table of candle-lit polished wood and gleaming silver, in a gown of mauve silk, jewels glittering at her ears and throat.
Given the miserable facts of her real life, these imaginings became a little silly, but Kenny and I would indulge in them every once in a while anyway. It made us feel better.
She had light-colored eyes and great bones, and when she was dressed up for a date in her high heels and jangling bracelets you couldn’t help looking at her. On Sundays, though, hanging around the apartment in her robe and slippers she always looked washed-out and sort of gray. Then, going to work in the morning, she looked different again, putting me in mind of the Duchess of Windsor in the newsreels; she had the same aquiline nose, thin mouth, and crisp elegance.
But now I could see she was tired, stretched out on the couch, reading the Sunday papers. She was wearing her faded blue and white flowered housecoat with the front zipper. There was a blazing August sun beating against the window and she had put a bowl of ice cubes in front of our fan which was blowing a nice little breeze into the room. Outside the streets were quiet with Sunday morning.
She put the paper down when she saw me. “Did you do your homework?”
I looked at her. Every once in a while she acted like a regular normal mother. But it was just another role and it irritated me. Of course I didn’t do my homework. I never did my homework. Which she knew full well.