Mom's meddling and my madness...
My mother might tell you I’m lying if I wrote that she told me she married my father for sex. If so, I would have to co-opt her favorite saying, and remind my spunky, eighty-four-year-old, intellectual mom that “memory lies.” I don’t know if she would laugh or scowl if I wrote that it was the only way for a nice Jewish girl to get laid in 1942 and she might ignore me or take a few centering breaths if I wrote that she knew, as well as we four girls did, that she should have married Uncle Jake instead.
Yet, in spite of her denials and general annoyance at my routine bluntness, or perhaps because of it, Mom accused me of always saying what people thought, but didn’t say. And she is not without blame for this: Having a mother who had a weakness for the truth didn’t help me to sugarcoat my claims or soften my insights.
As a child, I protested to Mom about my violent father, “Why did you marry him? Why couldn’t we have had a father like Uncle Jake instead?” I would have insisted that she divorce Dad to find someone more my type, but her ensuing denial would have grated on me in that unique way of Jewish mothers, which could cause an unscratchable itching in my brain. It was an irritation so tenacious and full of possibilities that I feared it might someday interfere with my brain function – a risk I preferred to take on my own.
Not yet the feminist she is today, my mother seemed to believe that if you and someone else were on a life raft and one of you had to drown, it had to be you: While doing the right thing can be costly, being at odds with your siblings and parents can cost you a lot more.
Although Uncle Jake and Mom might have been made for one another, my uncle had met my mother’s sister first – and Mom believed that you always put your sisters before yourself (and stuff any resentment about doing so). I took on the job of proving her wrong. My wisdom told me to get what you want or die trying. I had to be selfish or I would have remained an extension of my twin. I tried to teach Mom that if you were to have a self to give up later when you got enlightened, you had to think of yourself.
I always felt warmed by the easy rapport between my uncle and Mom. She smiled and was able to laugh at herself when he came around, instead of nervously tending to hurts between us kids and Dad or trying to protect us against Dad’s potential blow-ups.
When Jake speaks, she watches him closely. Mom has short, dark brown, curly hair, modestly tweezed eyebrows, a clear complexion, perfect teeth, and a face shaped like a plum. She has full, round breasts and short legs. She is wholesome and not the slightest bit vain.
Uncle Jake has movie star good looks: a large, square face with dimples, full lips, and a broad forehead. His brown eyes are rimmed with thick, dark lashes. Everything about him is tasteful, caring, and intelligent.
Jake and Mom discuss psychology and politics, swap advice, and argue happily, sharing a Sunday brunch of bagels and lox, white fish, and cream cheese. They sit at the kitchen table in the light yellow kitchen that is filled with potted window plants and academic writings posted on the refrigerator.
Dad, meanwhile, pores over his jet engine diagrams, spread out on the roll top desk in the front den. He seems to be in a trance over his work, but frequently stops and fusses. Sometimes he removes a white cotton handkerchief from his shirt pocket and blows his nose loudly, or wipes his oversized glasses. He chain smokes Lucky Strikes dangerously close to his yellow-stained, square fingers.
When I look at him, I feel fear. His bushy, dark eyebrows frame brown eyes that seem sometimes warm and sometimes pained, as if light hurts them.
While Mom was always working on Dad to be more patient and understanding, Uncle Jake gave her advice like, “When he does something that bothers you, Millie, tell him how it makes you feel.” Uncle Jake, the comic shrink, was playful without being ridiculous like my father, the chronic war hero who made dumb jokes, tickled too hard, and basically had no idea how to meet kids on their own turf.
I felt cheated when my uncle would wipe his mouth and raise his mythically tall frame (so uncharacteristic of the rest of my family) from the kitchen table, to callously return to his own life.
Much later, when I was in my twenties and living in a commune, I learned that Uncle Jake had suddenly divorced Mom’s sister and dropped his adoring nephews and nieces without so much as a goodbye. He explained this abandonment to my mother, saying sadly, “Millie, I promise more than I deliver.” Had I not been busy abandoning of the rest of the world myself, I would have been devastated.
In my early thirties, I married Roy, a man who had dated my sister years before, and who was similar to Uncle Jake: funny, well-liked, and a people person. Years later, when it became evident that Roy, like my idealized Uncle Jake, promised more than he could deliver, I started reconsidering a few of Mom’s views: For one thing, bells and whistles didn’t necessarily point to good marital material. For another, I learned not to mistake intensity for intimacy. I began to see that the men with great acts were simply great actors, and not the loyal soul mates I’d romanticized them to be. Roy, like uncle Jake, had hung in there for decades, pretending that one day he’d make good on his vows to love, honor, and obey a mate who unnerved him.
Mom is preparing a roast chicken with potatoes, garlic, and onions. As a housewife, she is married to the house. Dad is married to Mom, his job, and maybe the piano, in that order.
An old white Rambler pulls into the driveway. My grandfather, Max, slams the door and amicably blocks my brother from throwing his ball into the basketball hoop, then comes through the screened entryway into the kitchen, holding a newspaper. Mom wipes her hands on her apron and goes over and gives him a kiss on the cheek. My father gets up from the piano in the living room to shake his hand. They talk about the stock market.
I am playing with magnetic clothing and cartoon character cutouts on the living room floor when they come in. I get up and go to sit on my grandfather’s knee, and he lets me sample his ice cold beer. I don’t like the smell and I don’t stay long.
Max is a simple man who praises his cabbages and says not to pick all the weeds in your garden because you never know which ones will turn into something beautiful. After he gave up farming, he always had a garden with vibrantly happy vegetables that he would talk to and compliment: “You are SOooo beautiful and BIG!”
Max is a farmer turned businessman who never forgave his wife, Sonia, for “making him” give up gardening to go into business. He has little affection for his fearful and constricting spouse. Max’s guiding principles include, “Work hard and be responsible for what you do. Women must be modest, helpful, and cheerful. Men must be strong and not take any shit. Never complain. Be loyal to family, above all others. Be loyal to your country, no matter what. Persevere. Moderation in all things. Pretend there is no sex. Eat good food.”
Max says things like, “Take what you want, but eat what you take,” and “A man without a family is like an island: water all around but not a drop to drink.” My favorite is, “The truth is the best lie.” (Of course, my brand of truth-terlling (along with later obsessions like sex) never washed well with Max. Nor did it wash well with Mom, who, as an adolescent, fantasized getting pregnant before she was married, and committing suicide.)
Max is grinning broadly as he tells my parents that a man came to his warehouse asking for a job. Max said, okay, he would give him a job. But when the man replied, “You know Mr. Karp, you’d have to hire me anyway, because I’m a Jew, and Jews have to hire Jews,” he bellowed, “What! You’re a Jew! I don’t hire Jews! You’re fired!”
We often go to Uncle Julie and Aunt Ettie’s oversized contemporary home on the hill in Manchester. “God has been good to me,” Max announces from the head of their long dining room table. These family gatherings are the best, with Max boasting and telling stories, and giving away or hiding dollar bills for us grandchildren.
One night, he explains that he spent much of his business life with immigrant Italians, and that he often enjoyed speaking like a genuine Italian when in their company. In the mid-’40s, he was negotiating with a man from whom he wanted to rent a beach cottage for the summer, when, just before the deal was to be signed, the man said, “And you know, Mr. Karp, the best thing about this place is that there are no Jews!” Max exclaimed,” Why you goddamn Guinea; what the hell do you think I am?”
Max always says, “You don’t get something for nothing.” He only exacts from us one price, and it is meant especially for our parents: “Remember who helped you,” which tacitly includes, “Always kiss an adult who hands you money.”
Max had become the “little man” of his house after his father, a produce store and inn owner, died when Max was five. When Max was six, his mother gave him the job of regularly taking the chickens to the local slaughterer. Once, when my mother asked Max why he, at age six, had to work instead of his mother, he’d snapped, as if it was obvious, “She was only a poor widow!”
As the new man of the house, he was obligated to regularly walk seven miles each way to the slaughterer, past dense woods, holding a squawking chicken so tightly that he could have saved himself the trip altogether, were it not unkosher to strangle it.
Mom asks him, “What did it feel like, being so young and running alone through those dark woods at night? Weren’t you afraid they were haunted? Weren’t you terri…” Just then Max breaks in on this inquisition into his vulnerabilities, roaring (like Mel Brooks’ two-thousand-year-old man), “Feelings, shmeelings! You did what you had to do!”
Max ran away from home at age eleven to avoid apprenticing to a tin roofer, leaving behind an older brother and a younger sister. At age fourteen, he worked for his uncle who lived near Kiev (not in it, since Jews were forbidden to reside within the city). He asked the peasants who regularly robbed his uncle’s wagon of the grain, “When you steal from us, please steal from the bin marked ‘received.’” That way, at least, his uncle could get reimbursed.
Later, he joined the army. A day came when Max was denied permission to attend the classes in reading and writing because he was a Jew. That night, he threw on an overcoat to hide his layered civilian clothes and walked to Germany from wherever he was stationed, fully knowing that if he were caught, he would be shot by a firing squad or sent to Siberia. Max could never bring himself to blame the Czar, toward whom he always held an irrational, patriotic allegiance, for his trials.
When he came to the United States, he traveled in the lowest level on a boat, in what was called steerage. In steerage, it was common policy to throw passengers overboard when they became seasick. He arrived in New York in 1910. With a few dollars from his brother, who was to join him later, and with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization with an office in Ellis Island that helped Jews to immigrate, Max relocated to Hartford. There, he reconnected with his older sister, Tanta Malka, who was engaged and getting ready to move to California. Max immediately started working in a factory. After one week he said, “Not for me!” and went down to a bar on Front Street, where despairing immigrants discussed their options. A man suggested they rob a train together, and Max told him that he was crazy.
Someone owed Max some money and had none, so he gave Max his milk delivery business instead. Max bought the horse and wagon for ten dollars and began making milk deliveries. The horse had a problem getting up. Max had to hoist her before he could get her to work. Delivering a food staple excused Max from having to serve in World War I.
Max adored animals as much as his cabbages and tomatoes. I’m sure he observed, unknowingly, the Jewish law requiring us to feed our animals before ourselves. After a couple of years, Max sold his business for twice his investment and began peddling fruits and vegetables. Within a year, he had enough money to send for his brother, Morris. A few years later, as his business grew to include fruit stands and wagon deliveries, he sent for his cousin, Sonia, whom he married shortly thereafter. Sonia died when I was two.
Max dreamed of farming. Sonia discouraged him from farming, and he resented her for it for the duration of her life. She died much younger than he, from a weak heart. Mom believes her early death was due to the effect of the shocks and horrors she had sustained from the pogroms, of which Sonia never spoke.
By the ’30s, Max had developed a relatively booming business, United Fruit and Produce. “Money will come, money will go,” he insisted, and when he was persuaded to sell his property on Front Street for thousands, he sold it because it sounded like a lot of money. When he learned it was worth millions, he didn’t lose sleep, but shrugged, saying it was only money. But when his son Julie and he disagreed, he was too anxious to sleep.
Neither Max nor my Dad talked about feelings. “Max wasn’t angry, was he?” Mom might ask Dad if Max had snapped at her.” “How the hell would I know what he felt?” Dad would snap back – which would have been just what Max would have done.
Max had an impatient bluntness that could either charm or shut people up as he saw fit, a useful survival skill for a wandering Jew who refused to remain a stranger in the world, and a trait upon whose influence I would later draw.
While Mom is ruled by the tyrannical clock, I’m time traveling. I repetitively draw a cat’s head on a human body. Over and over, I struggle with the image in my mind, trying to get it out onto the paper, right. But what am I seeing that I am trying to get right? It wasn’t until I got older that I first recall seeing a picture of the sphinx and being absolutely confused and astonished-who had seen my drawings? How did they get into these books?
I am having conversations with everything, especially the big maple tree which I draw on with crayons in the front yard. I am amazed to see that when I draw reds and blues on top of each other they become purple. I am looking at flecks of dust in the sunlight and seeing that the flecks aren’t really white, but that each one has all different glittery colors.
I am obsessed with the sparkling sheets of silver mica in the rocks behind our house. I peel back each sheet, trying to get the mica thinner and thinner without breaking it. I hold up the thinnest sheets to the sun and look through them, inspecting the textures and the colors, which change as I move them. I place them on my tongue to see what they taste like.
Before I was born, I must have said, “Let’s see… Who will not “get” me at all? I’ve got it! My parents!” Mom and I were opposites. While she suffered from cold hands and feet, I complained about sweaty extremities. She didn’t whimper, purr, wail, or whine. She was thrifty and singular, and monetarily and emotionally anorexic, while I was a glutton for attention and favors. I had not grown up in the Depression, as she had... and the depression that I was working on in my head apparently didn’t count.
Mom’s early myths and rules included, “Trust people. It is selfish to trust yourself. Don’t be selfish. Say what you think. Don’t express negative feelings or it might kill people. Don’t be angry. Don’t think too much or you’ll go crazy.”
Mom was not ruled by love, recklessness, or intuition, as I was, but by her unique mix of fear and her personal scale of justice. She was not prone toward indulgence or spontaneity, and she put away her easel and oil paints to care for her children and to work as a dental hygienist. When Millie had a goal, it was carried out efficiently and against the grain of nature, as exemplified by the methodical way she put us away for the night, always much too early. She was a slave to the almighty clock.
My mother was a humming, buzzing stove mistress, washerwoman, dryer-spouse, and refrigerator wife, her feelings compressed and stilled like chilled preserves in a sealed jar. She was constantly making telephone calls and buying and returning things with the driven efficiency of her Singer Sewing Machine. Every morning, she jumped out of bed to the alarm, fussed over Dad and all five kids at once, and fought with the twins about matching clothing she’d bought without their consent. Then she shuffled us all out the door to walk the mile and a half instead of driving us, lecturing us on how it was “when I was a girl.”
What did she run on? My hunch is that whatever it was, it was driven by her perception of herself as having no real needs of her own, beyond the maintenance of her body.
I thought she was simply crazy for organizing her life around the petty, endless needs of the energy-gulping household, and I had no respect for the authoritative stance from which she issued orders, warnings, and admonishments in order to safeguard against the spoiling of the minds and bodies of her children.
Mom was often so busy that when I would walk into a room, rather than stopping and looking up to recognize me, or asking, “Which one are you?”, as she sometimes did when she didn’t know if it was Mindy or I standing in front of her, she would run through the whole gamut of my sisters’ names until she hit the right one. I was “MindyLauraEleanorJenny,” all in one breath.
Had I been some kind of household utensil, Mom would have returned me, having failed to read or understand all the directions. Sometimes she handled me as if I were a foreign material, and at arm’s length, as if she were trying to read fine print. The world she had emerged from was one her own mother treated like glass, as if the best way to cope with it, was to avoid it. Mom said her mother, Sonia, was, “fear personified” and attributed her weak heart to being symptomatic of her having been raped in the pogroms. Mom had inherited some of Sonia’s myths, it seemed, including, “The world is a bad place for women and children. Sex is dangerous. Children don’t know anything, and the females in my family must never mention sex or look provocative.”
Mom acted as if she owned my body, including some choice orifices. This ownership of my orifices continued the tradition begun in the hospital by the doctors and nurses who regularly probed the orifices of all preemies, to make sure they were clear (and that they would freeze up later in life). Mom confined her raids on my holes to butt probes for parasites and to vigorous tooth and gum cleanings in an obsessive search-and-destroy mission. She embodied the persona of post-war and cold war America, with its probing, searching, paranoid mentality.
Mom habitually exiled us to bed early, especially when my parents had company. I felt like a trapped animal. I was itchy with energy, tight in the head, and I couldn’t keep my eyes closed. They would flutter open and I would feel panicky and claustrophobic, twitching with desire to go out. The adults were in a privileged, sensuous, talkative world, and I was like a pet that was locked in the garage. My room was my jail.
I have my eyes closed when I realize that it is not completely dark behind my lids, that I am seeing pricks of moving light. Instead of darkness, there are spots and points of colored light, swimming and swirling. I open my eyes and they are not there. I close them and they are. White silvery specks and paisleys swim wildly and randomly in every direction. They give the impression of fuzzy dots on a defective TV set. I try to make them disappear. They persist.
I throw back the covers, jump out of bed, and scramble toward the living room. I stall in the hall, fretfully beckoning my mother. She looks at me with puzzled concern and comes to me. I try to explain what happened, and when she stares, I begin demanding explanations. Wide-eyed and baffled, she finally reduces my experience to saying, “They’re just dead cells floating around on your eyelids. Now go back to bed.”
They didn’t act dead, not one bit.
I whimper and stall until my father looks over and starts to get up, and then I go back in a huff. I close my eyes and there they are, alive as ever. I panic. I can’t make them go away. I lie awake until the sky is almost light. Every night it seems, from then on, I avoid going to bed.
A child’s nature is so inconvenient. When I studied psychology in graduate school, I learned that the very root of the word child refers to interfering with people’s lives. In Mom’s view, surrender to her authority was a small concession, since, at that age, I couldn’t possess a self, could I? Wasn’t I simply a lump of unformed clay, as far as my personality went?
But how far did my personality go?
I was filled with questions, which I continually put to my mother. “What is before the beginning?” I ask her one night as she is putting me to bed. Instead of answering, she pushes back my hair from my eyes, because, she says, I have to keep it out of my face in order to see.
When I ask, one night at the dinner table, “What if I don’t really exist?” she tells me not to make crumbs. And when I demand to know what “never” and “always” really mean, trying to comprehend the meaning of the infinite with a finite brain, she only tells me to sit at the table and pull up my chair.
My questions got tougher. “Why are we here?” My mother reminds me to do my dishes. When I ask, “What exactly is time; would it exist if it didn’t have a name?” or, “How can there be such a thing as not existing?” Mom answers suspiciously: Did I do the dishes – all of them? If she gets desperate, she goes into a litany: Did I use Brillo? Did I dry my hands and face? Let me see them.
When she is truly worried about my impending insanity she goes on ceaselessly, just to be sure to drive me there herself: Come here in the light. Don’t frown. What were you and Mindy fighting about, and yes, you were fighting. Why are you so mean to her when she loves you so much. What else had I eaten? When? Had I washed my hands? Was I biting my nails and did I know there were microorganisms under them that were very bad for me? Why was I scratching – did my behind itch? You could get an infection. Go wash your hands. Aren’t you hot? Get your bangs out of your eyes! You must be freezing! You are tired! You need to rest.
I was sick. I was going into a trance over a Romantic era painting of a dog howling over a dead sheep in the snow. I loved that picture that hung by my bed.
When Mom came into my room to force more ginger ale down my sore throat, she found me transfixed, as if I’d actually stepped into the painting. She looked at me anxiously, thinking I was traumatized by what was depicted there. She lied, “The dog is howling because the sheep is sleeping.”
I snapped out of the trance. “No, the sheep is dead!”
Death wasn’t an issue for me until my kindergarten teacher, Miss Wright, read “The Headless Horseman” to us. And it wasn’t so much death as headlessness that got to me. The first day she read us the story and held up the picture of the headless horseman, I hid my face in my hands. Miss Wright said that I needed to face my fear. She dragged me into the hallway and shoved the dreaded picture into my face, informing me that she was going to make this a daily procedure until I could make my eyes look at it for a whole minute without looking away.
I told Mom about this incident, and she went to talk to my teacher. Miss Wright told Mom that she had sent me out of the room so that I wouldn’t be frightened.
Once, as Miss Wright continued the relentless pursuit of her goal, meeting me in the hallway outside the classroom in a daily ritual to frighten me out of my wits so that I wouldn’t be frightened, I wet my pants. When we were back in the room, Miss Right smelled the odor and demanded that whoever was responsible for it confess. When no one raised a hand, she went around and felt everyone’s bottoms. She publicly chastised me for lying and sent me home.
Mom did and said nothing, except to decree that under no circumstances could I quit kindergarten.
After that incident, Miss Wright would not allow me to go to the bathroom without her. She stood by the toilet to supervise me and make sure that I actually went, so that I wouldn’t piddle on the classroom floor. She probably would have rubbed my nose in it if I did.
My sadistic teacher and I spent a great deal of time together that year in the bathroom, as if this were her calling in life.
Had she not been sleepwalking, Mom would have scolded Miss Wright for her cruelty. I fantasized Mom forcing Miss Wright to put the head back onto the horseman with her own bare hands. Then Mom would force her to buy me my own horse. Then she and the principal would require Miss Wright to go to the bathroom only with my special permission, and only with an assistant who would watch her to make sure she did it cleanly. Then I would cross-examine her in front of the class.
Of course, Mom did nothing to alleviate the situation. Instead, she turned everything around with that amazing quasi-logic of adults, worrying that I was magically becoming disturbed by the undisciplined contents of my own mind. Was that easier to face than the reality that my emotional disturbances arose from a problem that she could help to resolve? Why didn’t she intervene more in my school situation? And why did Dad seem to be altogether out of the picture, apparently unable or unwilling to rescue me?
In Miss Wright’s presence, my brain jams up. I feel that defiant energy within me screaming, “I am alive!” as it spreads, racing and tingling, throughout my body. But I also feel a void growing inside my being, a void created by the lack of acknowledgement of my experience. It threatens me with a growing, terrible secret, an endless, gnawing doubt that there is something wrong with me, that there is something malevolent in my head.
In my forties, I went to visit Mom and I saw a squirrel jumping onto her bird feeder. I was quietly cheering its antics: It had to throw itself onto the window ledge and then bolt towards the feeder. So clever!
Mom was horrified. She yelled like a cop to my step-dad to come quick and shoo it away: “That one! That little shit with no manners! The nerve!”
I shrank away, half-thinking she was talking about me, until she added, “They’re so damn wasteful. I saw that squirrel the other day stealing apples from the tree – you know what that little rat did? He took an apple, one bite, ONE, and threw it on the ground and reached for another!”
Neither that “rat” with the big tail nor I grew up in the Depression like she did, and we will forever be on her shit list.
Millie was the middle daughter in her family of origin. Her mother, Sonia, had survived rape in the pogroms in Russia, and Millie said that she was “fear personified.” Sonia’s guiding principles included, “The world is a bad place for women and children. Children don’t know anything. Women in my family must never mention sex or look provocative. Sex is dangerous.”
By the time I reached adolescence, I began to take back some of my power, and I let Mom know what I suspected: that underneath her proper exterior, something subversive stirred, something that defied her awareness. She couldn’t see it, but I could, and I tried to name it. “You’re not nice,” I charged Mom, who looked blank and wounded beyond reproach.
As we aged, she gave up trying to understand children and absorbed herself in less confusing topics like Einstein’s theories of relativity, Jewish history, and Zen Buddhism. At age 40, she decided it was time for a change. She enrolled in Florida Atlantic University and changed her career from dental hygiene to teaching learning-disabled kids. Her job expanded from saving Dad or us, to the more realistic arena of educating the world and rehabilitating inner city gang leaders.