Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lost and Found: A Daughter's Tale of Violence and Redemption, Blog 7

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 Washington 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.
    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.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Lost and Found: A Daughter's Tale of Violence and Redemption, Blog 6

When Gram made me a costume of purple cheesecloth on her sewing machine like a regular normal grandmother I was more thrilled with my flowing robes than my starring role in the Christmas play, or with the beautiful doll as the baby Jesus they gave me to hold . (Being chosen as Mary surprised and amused everyone because I was the only Jewish kid in the school.)
    Walking home one day after rehearsal I was concentrating on  avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk, because everyone knew Step on a crack you’ll break your mother’s back. I wasn’t sure just how that worked, but just in case, I watched, I was careful. We had enough trouble.
    Suddenly I felt a snowball sting the back of my neck. Turning around I got hit in the face with another one.
    “You cut that out!” I screamed at Ralphie Ryan and Kevin Webster.
    “Dirty Jew! Christ killer!” they hollered, pelting me with a barrage of snowballs.
    “I’m telling! I’ll telling my big brother on you!” I yelled.
    Crying, I ran as fast as I could, feeling the sting of snowballs pelt my back. By the time I got home I was covered with snow.
    Kenny was on his way out. “Kenny! Wait!” I screamed. “Wait! Ralphie and Kevin! They hit me with snowballs! They called me dirty Jew! I said  you’d get them!”
    “What’d you tell ‘em that for? Are you crazy?” And he slammed out of the apartment.
    I went in the bedroom to change my wet clothes. I was crying. Kenny had left me behind. He was in his teens. He didn’t want to be my big brother or my father or our mother’s husband any more.
    Although Gram complained constantly that she had too much work cooking and cleaning for the three of us, and that (although she seemed ancient to me) we’d send her to an early grave, she didn’t actually die for decades, not until I was grown. When the doctor told my mother that it was syphilis that killed her, my mother actually fainted dead away. But it also helped us understand that the disease had already penetrated her brain when she lived with us. At her funeral we all pretended we were a normal family burying a beloved mother and grandmother. But I didn’t mourn. She had made my mother cry too much.
I retreated to the movies. Presenting my dime to the lady in the box office, I clutched my ticket, walked a half dozen steps and was enclosed in the dark; a few more steps and my eyes could make out the seats. Finding my way down the aisle to the front row, I was ready to be taken into other lives.
    The strangers silhouetted around me were like silent comrades and the plots of films with titles like Stage Mother and For Heaven’s Sake made more sense to me than the furies swirling around at home. Event followed event in a semblance of order. Loose ends were tied up; problems resolved; virtue rewarded. You knew who the bad guys were (Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton). The women were beautiful (Constance Commings, Marion Davies); lovers were reunited; danger and all obstacles to happiness overcome. The heroes (Ronald Coleman, Franchot Tone) were saved, the endings happy. I loved the newsreels, too. The disembodied sonorous voice-over seemed to emanate from God himself in its omnipotent, awesome knowledge of all things from beauty contests to prize fights to the Kansas drought and the German elections.
     For entire Saturday afternoons at the Cedar-Lee Theater I watched the same movie over and over. When James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson died at the end I knew that as long as I sat there he would return, his reincarnated, shimmering presence on the screen in front of me as unreal and as real as my father’s. When Robert Young or Paul Muni disappeared after the last reel I knew he’d be back; I  was sitting with my daddy and his gossamer, magical comrades; I was in their stories; they loved me and I was safe. I sat there until Kenny came and hauled me out, blinking in the light.
     I could have told you the plot of every movie I had seen for the last six months, but once away from the theater’s friendly darkness, once back in the bright glare of real life, I existed in a willed amnesia. I forgot homework and my books, lost my coat, sweater, mittens, money. My mother got upset but I just shrugged. I didn’t mind. For all I knew my daddy’s sleight of hand had whisked my sweater or coat away; they vanished as mysteriously as he had. “Don’t ever have a baby,” my mother warned me. “You’ll forget and leave it on the streetcar.” But feeling pleasantly hazy and insulated within my skin like that lovely dreamy numbness you get after the first rush from one of the martinis I later took up, I was drunk on my father’s life after death, consumed into a pit of forbidden secrets, alone, neither rescued nor damned.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lost and Found: A Daughter's Tale of Violence and Redemption, Blog 5

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.