Sunday, January 13, 2013



On a gray day in 1947, I stood on the deck of the SS Westerdam, in the port of Hoboken, New Jersey, as my mother's face receded into the distance. There had been a long and tedious customs ceremony, a baggage ceremony, a ticket ceremony; the coming aboard of other passengers and their clutches of relatives, who like us were photographed and re-photographed in different combinations, and finally, the interminable raising of the gangplank. At last the ship set sail with a shudder, and I discovered the extraordinarily gentle but powerful throbbing of the motors. Thrilled for the first time in my life, I turned to tell my father that tea was being served right there, by a waiter all dressed in white, with impeccable white gloves, as the deck rocked gently on the expanse of gray water on this surprisingly mild December afternoon.

"And all you care about is tea?" my father retorted, emphasizing the last word. Turning to my stepmother Bette, who was already feeling seasick, and switching to the theatrical tone they used together, he decreed that I was without heart. Alas, I didn't know how to deal with irony; I knew only head-on battles, hysterics, screams. Mute with shock, I failed to point out that I was only exhibiting the inner strength I’d had to develop to endure the woman he had fled. For years I had wanted to live with my father because I thought we were alike. How could he expect me to cry when my wish was being fulfilled? Perhaps he was remembering the defiance with which May left him, seeing me in her image. On a second level, though he knew May had made me unhappy, perhaps he felt the need to unnerve me, precisely because I was her child, a fact he would confess with rage years later.

This was the first in a long series of misunderstandings between me and the world. But there is a deeper explanation for the nonchalance that many people would criticize; by liberating me from a mother who was as harmful as any illness, my departure for Europe threw a line to the belly-flopped girl on the sled, ensuring that from then on, curiosity would win out over anxiety and fear

t.11. On board SS Westerdam, 1947

[On the SS Westerdam]

Another picture in my first photo album shows me standing on the deck of the SS Westerdam looking at least eighteen, leaning backwards into the wind, eyes closed, hands trustingly in coat pockets. The dreamy smile suggests the way I would confront life, open to what it brought but often accused of living in a world of my own. Having been transformed from a happy child into a somber one rejected by both parents, I created my own space, blind to the pitfalls of certain realities because they represented an indispensable elsewhere.

After my parents separated, Howard’s visits had been too rare to make up for May’s lack of warmth. Then the war came, and he was drafted. His last visit before being sent overseas took place indoors on a cold and rainy afternoon. I sat on a straight-back chair near the front windows, Howard folded his 6'4" frame into my grandfather Jake’s armchair, and with that gentle patience that charmed all women, taught me to knit the way his mother did, with the wool intricately wrapped around the fingers of the left hand.

War accorded perfectly with the dramatic atmosphere that reigned in Jake and Rose’s home, insinuating itself into the space that already separated me from that Rinso-White world. Years later, during one of the few times May talked about herself, she told me that when she was about three, Rose had reacted to her misbehavior by screaming that she wished her child had never been born. Now, discovering her early pictures, I realize she must have been a mischievous child and a flirtatious teen-ager. It’s easy to imagine her being the apple of her father’s eye, and Rose being jealous. No wonder that, forced to endlessly affirm her existence in the face of a mother’s curse, May would maintain a lifelong determination that her needs come first. On her death-bed she confessed how, as a child she had firmly believed Jake should have married her.

As I remember Jake, he is almost bald, his nose scarred by pock marks acquired during his childhood in Odessa - or was it already Kishinev? In a family portrait taken shortly after they arrived on Ellis Island, he’s an earnest ten year old looking out at the world over big feet. Father and sons drove milk wagons, then set up small candy stores. In the family album, Jake is more slender than when I knew him, but shows the steadfast Ukrainian kindness that was so different from Rose’s somber Bela Russian ethos.

Jake provided generously for his family with a bar-restaurant in old Philadelphia. He watched over the roast beef, kosher sausages and sauerkraut, stuffing bagels with lox, or darting out from behind the cash register to help a waiter, without losing a beat or a smile. From time to time, he downed a small glass of Bourbon, and at all times, he put up with Rose. (Rose held sway over the communicating bar, and rare was the client who crossed her!) I was taken to this place of exotic delights for an ice cream after my tonsillectomy; but for the child who continued to see in her dreams the round face, white beanie and blinding headlight of the surgeon, it was its charms were overshadowed by the resigned gait of horses drawing the city’s last wagons.

Divorce was rare, and hence dramatic. But the strident sounds of my mother’s family were aggravated by political tensions. For Rose and Jake, who had escaped the Russian pogroms, America was everything, while May’s subscription to the left-wing New Masses caused the FBI to ransack her bookcase on behalf of the House un-American Activities Committee. This did not deter her from taking me to a rally for Roosevelt’s Vice-Presidential nominee Henry Wallace, during the 1940 election campaign. Distributing leaflets in the great hall, I was part of a reassuring wave whose vibrations would recur at other, similar moments.

The seeds of those emotions had been sown a few months earlier, on the summer evening that marked the end of my childhood. We were sitting on the cement stairs beside Jake’s house which, as in many Philadelphia neighborhoods, led to a wide back driveway that served as playground and access to the basement and garage. The sky had an eerie greenish hue as the day ended. With a heavy step, Jake came out of the house where he had been listening to the news. I can still hear the unfamiliar tone of his voice, low and grave, as he said: "There will be war.” I now realize that he was probably reacting to the French debacle of June, 1940, and wondered how there could be war when we had such a great president. Roosevelt's energetic, smiling portrait sat on the side table next to Jake’s chair, and Rose spoke of him with emphatic reverence.

Tensions with Rose eventually escalated to the point where May and I went to live with May’s sister Rachel and her husband Walter, who allowed us to occupy the two-rooms and bath on the third floor of their new house. Rachel taught me to wash dishes to perfection, ensuring that I never forgot - and creating a life-long conviction that there were more important things to do. One day I would have a husband who put dirty pot lids back in the closet, and couldn’t believe this was happening to me. Husbands would be a recurring theme in my life, as would less formal relationships, but my children and the wider world were ultimately what counted most.

Between first and sixth grade, May and I moved several times between Rose’s and Rachel’s. I went in and out of the same schools, left and found again the same friends according to the needs of the two high-strung women who alternated as my caretakers. I had inherited the Oxman family’s myopia, and by the time I was seven it was ‘galloping’. To limit reading outside of school and avoid electric light, I was ordered to bed as soon as I had finished the dishes, with only the radio to keep me company in the dark. Notwithstanding three years of this regime, I accumulated five degrees of myopia, a good astigmatism and a slight strabismus which some people later found attractive. But also, an ability to be alone, and hence to reflect.

For my seventh birthday, instead of the bicycle I wanted, I was given a piano; luckily, with hands unusually big for a girl, practicing was almost never a chore. On Sunday morning, after serving pancakes, Jake would settle in his armchair to listen. During the periods of my life with piano and those without, I would remember how he praised my light touch. Another solitary pursuit was a puzzle of South America: seeing how its eastern coast seemed to nestle into the western coast of Africa, it occurred to me that the two continents might once have been joined. But in a family where learning was revered, no particular attention was paid to my intelligence.

When May got a new job visiting soldiers' dependents all over the state, leaving me at the mercy of the Oxman women’s temper. I insisted on moving to the home of my paternal grand-parents Regina and Morris, where I had spent happy weekends and holidays. Rose’s door was always bolted; Regina’s I discovered, was always open, and a few blocks away, her sisters always seemed to be talking about, making, or serving pastries.

Life at Regina’s was also centered on the making and enjoying of food. The oven was located next to, rather than beneath the burners, a precursor of the wall oven whose advent was probably delayed by the war. It was often lit, especially on Fridays, when Regina made bread and pastry. The ivory-painted metal table in the middle of the kitchen was transformed into a work surface by folding back the ironed-thin tablecloth, and lunch was taken on the covered part during a suddenly decreed  halt. (Regina probably had a pre-diabetic sugar curve, as I do, since she died of diabetes.) I watched her freckled, wrinkled hands, sunburned from working in her small garden, knead bread, pour marble cake, shape apple strudel, and layer my favorite noodles with apricot jam - too many tasks for her to teach me these skills! I did however help my grandfather Morris fill out the arrears cards for his low-income insurance clients on the round mahogany dining-room table, and perhaps this suggested that numbers and letters counted more than flour and eggs.

3.Morris and Regina

[Morris and Regina]

Right after their wedding, in 1902, Morris had decided that his bride would make the 500 mile trip from Eastern Hungary to Trieste by train, while he hitchhiked to elude Emperor Franz-Joseph’s recruiters. The trip from the town with the almost unpronounceable name of Nyreghasza, to the Mediterranean port which is now in Italy, took Regina through the capital of what was still the Dual Monarchy, and this was the only time she saw Budapest. When I finally walked in her steps, I regretted that the only thing she remembered of that journey was being “oh so seasick”.


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