CHAPTER 1: A Gift from the Universe
“If you tell the truth it becomes part of your past. If you tell a lie, it becomes part of your future.” —John Spence
My mother’s death set me free. It was February 19, 1962. I was sixteen, a junior in high school, and in the throes of teenaged rebellion, hating her for being strict and old-fashioned, for never letting me do what I wanted or get my way. Like a typical teenager, I’d yell, “I hate you!” when she wouldn’t let me shave my legs or get my ears pierced or go to the drive-in movies with my friends. She would come after me and slap me wildly for being so disrespectful, which made me hate her even more. I remember running from her up the stairs and into the bathroom, the only room in the house with a lock.
“Open the door!” my mother yelled, banging on the door.
“No!” I answered from behind the locked door. I spent long periods of time in that bathroom with those dirty white tiles and graying walls that hadn’t been painted in thirty years. I lifted open the bathroom window and looked down from the second story. I could live in here, I thought to myself. There’s water and air, and I could sleep in the bathtub.
“Open this door right now!” my fantasy of a life free of harassment rudely interrupted.
“No, I won’t! If I open the door, you’ll hit me.” “I won’t hit you. Now, open it!” “You promise you won’t hit me?” I pleaded, so wanting to believe her. “Yes, I promise. Now open it!” And so, I gave in, helpless to stand up for myself in the face of
my mother’s demands. I glanced at the lock, the only thing standing between my mother and me, and slowly turned it. As I did so, my mother forced the door wide open like a hurricane on a stormy night and started slapping me.
What a fool! I believed her! She’s a liar! My mother lies, and she doesn’t even care, I cried as I tried to protect myself from her flailing arms. I choose to imagine that the best of me cleverly managed to leave that scene through the open window.
More than the bitter smart of her hand across my face, what lingers still is not the humiliation and sting of her blatant lies, but her lack of respect for me. I took it personally, not realizing that was just how it was done then. The irony is that respect was what was being demanded, and yet respect was the one thing that my mother couldn’t give me. Children were not respected. In the midst of it, the realization that my mother never ever apologized to me for anything fueled my indignation.
My father had his own version of disrespect if I was ever brave enough to venture an opinion or seek some justice for myself. “Shut up! You’re just a goddamn kid!” or “You’re still wet under the armpits from your first bath. What the hell do you know about anything?” were common refrains from dear old Dad. I often wonder how my life might have been different had I been treated with respect. I clearly remember promising myself that if I ever had kids, I would parent them differently.
My mother had a bad heart and was unwell from as early as I can remember. The night before she died, she and my father had a big fight. She desperately needed him to cut her toenails for her and he refused. I felt so sad for her because her toenails were really thick and hard, and she needed help cutting them.
“Harry, please, come up and cut my toenails. I can’t do it myself,” she pleaded from her bed upstairs.
“No, leave me alone, goddamn it! I don’t feel like it,” he yelled back from the living room downstairs. Harry was in one of his foul moods.
I remember that night because my Italian boyfriend, Sal, and I broke up for good after a big fight. I lay in bed upset and sobbing— overwhelmed with jealousy and hurt over a girl Sal flirted with. We had been together since freshman year. The problem was that he was Italian, not Jewish, like I was, and our love needed to be a complete secret from my family. For nearly two years, I had been sneaking out and telling lies to be with him. Jewish boys would pick me up for dates while Sal lurked down the corner waiting for me. When my father took a home movie of a Jewish stand-in giving me a corsage on prom night, I knew I was in over my head.
Our whole identity as a family was about being Jewish. Every Friday night my mother lit candles for the Sabbath. Wearing a piece of cloth on her head, she would bring the light toward her: one, two, three times with her big soft arms, and then, with her head slightly bowed, she would place her hands over her eyes and say a silent prayer the same way Jewish women have done for thousands of years each Friday at sundown to mark the beginning of the Sabbath.
Our family always hosted the Passover Seder to a house full of relatives. The Seder, the annual passing down to the next generation of yet another story of how Jews survived oppression, went on for hours. After the story was told and the prayers said, we finally got to enjoy the traditional Seder dinner that my mother had spent days preparing. We were told that passing Judaism to the children was the most important task for Jewish parents. It had something to do with survival, though I didn’t understand why.
The Holocaust ended shortly before I was born. My father, grate- fully, did not allow the awareness of that horror to be brought into our house. I didn’t even know about the slaughter of six million Jews until years later. But the Holocaust affected my life anyway. There was in our family—and, I’ve come to believe, among Jews in general—an undefined sense of urgency about things and a general feeling of terror mixed with a dose of shame about being a Jew who had survived.
From my vantage point, all I knew was that dating a non-Jewish boy was the worst thing imaginable. The problem was that Sal and I were crazy in love, and nothing was going to keep us from being together. I felt treasured by him and I couldn’t have that taken away. For me, there seemed to be more reasons to lie than to tell the truth.
The night of that fight, my mother wandered into my room. Perhaps she came to see if I would cut her toenails, but when she saw the state I was in, asked, “Why are you crying?” I couldn’t tell her. There was no way. She would kill me, I had repeated over and over to myself and to my girlfriends. I was certain of this. The lie had gone on too long. There had been way too much deception to imagine telling her now. I just turned my head to the wall and ignored her.
“What’s a mother for if you can’t tell her your problems?” she asked, as she turned to leave the room. Her question surprised me, but I said nothing. But something had changed for me. My mother never asked me about my life. Actually, it thrilled me! My mother had reached out to me, even if she did leave the room rather quickly after I turned away. But it was enough for me to notice that maybe I mattered, and with that bit of encouragement, I made a most courageous decision: I promised myself that tomorrow I would tell her about Sal and the lies that had taken over my life. The decision frightened me, but I was dying to be unburdened. I so wanted her to know me. I so wanted to feel like a good girl again.
The next day at school, I was a wreck. I felt nervous and scared the entire day, but I was determined to keep the promise I had made to myself. After school, I went directly home and began to straighten the house and set the table for dinner to assure my mother’s good mood when she arrived home from work. When she finally got home that rainy February night, she quickly threw down her raincoat and umbrella and ran right upstairs to the bathroom. The nurse who came each week to give my mother a diuretic injection was waiting in the living room. “What’s with you? You haven’t even had your injection yet!” the nurse joked about my mother’s urgency to use the bathroom beforeher injection.
My dad, who had recently discovered the joy of taking home movies and showing them to the family, had just gotten back his latest Super-8 reel and was excited to share it with my mother. He was threading the film into the projector, but the projector mal- functioned and spit out the film onto the floor. “Here, you hold the film while I feed it back on the reel,” he demanded of me, becoming frustrated and irritable. I obeyed and stood there, holding the film off the floor, when suddenly I had the sense that it had been too long since my mother had gone up to the bathroom. I dropped the film and ran upstairs.
“Ya goddamn kid!” my dad yelled after me. I knocked on the door. “Ma?” I called. There was no answer. I jiggled the doorknob. The door was locked. I banged on it again. “Ma! Daddy!” I yelled. My dad understood right away and ran for his tools and then up the stairs. The nurse followed. My dad managed to pry open the locked door, and there was my mother still sitting on the toilet seat, her body slumped over, motionless, her skin a shocking shade of blue. I cried out, “Mommy!” although fear stifled the words as the nurse yelled, “Oh my God!” My dad, the nurse, and I jumped into action as we carefully laid my mother down on the cold tile floor. The nurse took out my mother’s false teeth.
“You need to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” she said to me.
“But I don’t know how!” I cried, horrified that she even thought I would know how to do that.
“Okay, you pump her stomach up and down while I do it.” I did as I was told, wildly pressing up and down on my mother’s big soft belly with all I had.
My dad ran to call the ambulance. Soon red lights were circling the house, and guys in white rushed up the stairs to the bathroom. After a couple of minutes, I heard, “She’s expired.” I didn’t know what that meant and for a split second, I held on to a sliver of hope.
“Is she going to be all right?” I asked, my mind still considering possibilities, though my body already knew.
“No,” they said. “She’s dead.”
I didn’t want to believe it. It was too big for me to hear. I ran downstairs to my father. I needed him to hold me and comfort me. Instead, he gruffly pushed me away. “Go call everybody.” Stunned and hurt, tears streamed down my face as I made the calls. “My mom just died,” I repeated as I made each call. The words came out of my mouth, but my brain couldn’t connect to the reality: my childhood was suddenly over. My angry and sullen adolescent rebellion against my mother would be the legacy I would get to live with forever.
Soon people began coming to the house, including my oldest sisters, Billie and Irma and Claire. As we stood on the front stoop, I cried, “I was waiting for Mom to come out of the bathroom because I was going to tell her a secret I’ve had for a long time.”
“What was it?” Billie asked as she put her hand on my shoulder.
“I have a boyfriend,” I blurted out. “He’s Italian and his name is Sal. I’ve been sneaking out with him for two years, and now I’ll never get to tell her,” I wailed.
Billie looked straight at me. “Can you imagine if you told her and then she died?”
Oh my God! I would have thought it was my fault! And in an instant, I understood what grace is. The relief of not being the cause of her death trumped my disappointment in not getting to tell her my long-held secret. That I didn’t have to keep that solemn promise I had made to myself, to tell her what would have surely broken her already unwell heart, felt like a free pass. I had gotten away with not having to do the one thing in my life that would have taken great courage.
Reflecting back, I feel proud that I made the decision to tell her everything; in the end, it was a gift from the universe to not have to. Sometimes I ponder how it affected my life not to have had the chance to come clean with her. I got to take the easy way out, but surely not without paying a price.