hen, twenty years ago, I began to light candles on Friday nights, I remembered my mother turning to the shelf in our kitchen where she lit candles, turning and murmuring something in Yiddish. But they weren’t Shabbat candles she lit; they were memorial glasses. The glasses would burn all night, all day. We’d use the empties as drinking glasses. My mother grew up in an Orthodox household. How could she not know the difference? And if they really were yahrzeit lights, 24-hour memorial candles, whom was she mourning and why only on Friday nights? Did everyone in her large family die on a Friday? Was it just a mistake?
She held her hand over her eyes and wept—though on Shabbat we are supposed to be joyous. She was solemn. I’d ask, Why, Mom?—but she wouldn’t explain. Now I understand: She was mourning her lost Jewish family, her sweet childhood, her lost hopes—mourning her stifled self. Shabbat, which my father and I didn’t observe, was the time for her life to become religious. And religious meant sorrowful for irretrievable loss.
If my father came into the kitchen and saw her, he’d slap the air, quick, back and forth, as if to expunge a stench, and say, “What a load of old-fashioned crap.” He wasn’t amused; he was irritated. He was counting the cost of the candles. My mother would turn to me and say, “You hear that? A real Jewish gentleman. What a charming, cultivated man I married.”
My mother, the American girl
he was the youngest child, her eight living siblings as much as a generation older. The pet of the family. Oh, how my father loved me. My mother? My mother was an angel from heaven. Running to America in 1905 after the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev—she said she came at five, the census says nine—she spoke no English. Yet by the time she moved to New York City and became a coat buyer for Bonwit’s in her late twenties, no one would call her a greenhorn. She spoke in her choice of voices and accents: a soupçon of American high society when she wanted to sound refined, Yiddish inflection when she was impressing me with bits of Jewish wisdom or cursing my father, British upper-class speech when she played the grande dame. She was charming, she was false, charming in her falsity.
And she knew it. She lied. I could never tell when she was lying. Did she really sail “every spring” first-class to Paris to copy and bring home the fall fashions? Perhaps not. I can find her on only one ship’s manifest. But truly she was a success in business. She lived, after all, on Central Park South. Clothes from before her marriage were beautiful, not high fashion but of high quality.
Then, in 1930, she married my “stupid bear” of a father and left Bonwit’s—as a “good Jewish wife” should. She’d assumed he would be a successful businessman. Instead, he worked as a peon for his brother, who treated him like dirt. Alas, alas. He faced his brother’s contempt at work, his wife’s and son’s at home, was saddled with a woman too smart and too demanding for him; as she was saddled with an “ignorant peasant.”
She spent much of the rest of her life looking back to the days of her childhood or the days of her glory. “You must think I’m an ordinary immigrant woman.”
“No, Mom. Never ordinary.”
“God grant me long life, as true as I’m standing here I was in Flo Ziegfeld’s apartment—some apartment, let me tell you—over the theater, and he said to me, ‘Myra, you’re something special. You know what’s going on. Where is your family from?’
“‘From Russia. I was born by Kishinev.’ Well, the whole world knew Kishinev because of the terrible pogrom.
“‘No!’ he said. I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Ziegfeld. I came to America when I was five.’ ‘My God,’ he said, ‘and you are every bit an American girl!’”
he was an American girl who identified with the Jewish comedienne Fanny Brice, who starred in the Ziegfeld Follies.
We get into the elevator at Sak’s Fifth Avenue—the metal inner gate, the outer doors, shut. I’m thirteen, fourteen. My funny mama. One glance and I can see in her face what’s coming—I knew her routine of tantalizing the folks in the elevator. She stage whispers, “So . . . there she was, almost naked!” Naked I didn’t expect. I’m embarrassed.
Looking around the crowded elevator to make sure no one’s overhearing, knowing everyone’s overhearing, she says, as if continuing to tell me a story, “So, you know about his luxurious apartment, the duplex at the Beresford. Remember, I took you there? And you’ve heard what a powerful man he is. And you know Isabel. Well, according to Isabel, he told her in his big voice, ‘Time to take off your clothes.’ And, he told her, she’d better listen. Well, she stands at the top of the stairs and begins to take off her fabulous clothes. She’s no prude, that Isabel.”
My mother swivels around to make sure no one’s listening. Ha ha. Everyone’s looking anywhere but at her. “But you can imagine, my boy, how she takes off her clothes. Slowly, half tantalizing him, half holding back, hoping that Charlie gets there.”
By now we’re on the second floor, doors open, doors close. “What happened, Mom?” I ask, collecting myself. “Did Charlie get there?” Now we pass three, we’re up to four. “The doorbell rings. It’s Charlie.” We’re up to six. Men’s clothing. My mother’s comic timing: As the elevator slows and just as the door opens, she says, “Now he takes out a pistol from an end table and points it . . . ” And we walk out of the elevator, while the customers, looking at the elevator ceiling, strain to hear. I relax. I almost pee my pants laughing. The elevator door closes, and no one finds out who the powerful rich man is, whom he points his gun at, or whether Isabel finally gets naked.
But now, 65 years later, I know who the powerful rich man is. Not just my uncle, whom she hates with murderous hatred and obsesses over with envy, but the original dream figure—a magical avatar of wealth and power and American success, the shape of the longing of the immigrant girl.
My mother does improv on a bus
e’re sitting near the back on a Madison Avenue bus. She points up at an office building. Not this again! I know what’s coming, and it’s embarrassing as hell. I look away.
“Lookh, mein Bennie,” she calls out in thick Yiddishe accent, “Lookh at all de big buildings!”
“Shh, Mom! Please.”
“Vatz the matta? You’s so ashamed by your immigrant modder, the way she talks?”
Passengers actually give me dirty looks—or I imagine they do. Your poor mother! Is it possible they don’t know she’s kidding? It’s possible. This is during the war—say 1944. I’m nine. New Yorkers are used to refugees. Me, I can hear the put-on—it’s so obvious. But my mother’s first language was Yiddish; her accent can be as authentic as she wants to make it.
“So, Bennie, mein boy, you don’t want be seen vit your immigrant modder who loves you?”
“She’s kidding,” I say loudly to a listening public. “She’s kidding. We’re American.”
No one’s looking our way. My mother says to everyone, in an upper-class British accent with clear articulation, “Lovely weather we’re having, don’t you agree, Benjamin?”
Look! I can turn myself into an immigrant or a privileged, educated American. Just like that I can invent myself and reinvent myself. And you, my son, can be my audience . . . and my scapegoat.
A nervous stomach
y mother initially took me to see Dr. Schiff because my stomach was “nervous.” She must have suspected that the high-pitched howling in my stomach—as if I were on a roller coaster or in a plane suddenly dropping—arose from the terrible fights, fights almost every night, my father shouting, my mother cursing him in an English that had the feeling of her home language. My blood is black, black is my blood, then slamming shut the windows—“so the neighbors won’t hear”—but actually so he’d feel shame. Furious, he jerked them open again. I knew, even at five or six or ten, that she wanted him to goad her to the next level of ugliness.
You can’t order me to shut up, he yelled.
You animal, you stupid, crude animal.
Each the other’s victim.
One evening, only once, a neighbor did knock on the door—“Excuse, mister, my child is sleeping. Can you please be a little more quiet?”—and my father—two hundred pounds of uncomprehending shame and rage, slammed the door, and, through the door, cursed the man: “You—you goddamn refugee!”
My mother never let him forget this. “Shh, shh!” she’d whisper, “a little more quiet or we’ll have the ‘goddamn refugee’ at the door”—but actually wanting him to yell, yell at her, yell at me. Let the wild rumpus start.
He wasn’t a hitter. All he did was yell. All he did was shove her into the bedroom and slam the door, leave her in solitary for the evening. I’d retreat to my bedroom. He stood outside my door. “You! It’s all your fault, you little bum!”
But the waiting for the nightly fight to begin, that was worse—electric air before a storm. It was a relief when the thunder came. He bellowed—what about? The length of my hair. The starch in his shirts. My mother’s cigarettes. But mostly money. “Come on, big boy, you want to fight?” she asked, putting up her fists.
She was, he said, “a goddamn spendthrift. You’re bringing the kid up to be a bum. Want him to think money grows on trees? You, you’re bleeding me!”
“Be careful, my dear. Did you know the ‘kid’ you speak of happens to be in the room?” She pretended to placate a monster: “Whatever you say, my dear, you must be right if you grunt so loudly. Yes, if you want to label me a spendthrift, fine, but remember your son.”
So he yelled louder. Now, as if her defenses had collapsed, all the charm, all the contempt, she feigned fainting, as if stunned, a cow at the slaughterhouse hit with a hammer. Her eyes were blank and rolling. Gaga. Her mouth hung open.
It was terrible, terrible each night, full of pain. But also . . . comic. It made me giggle—the stages were so fixed, predetermined. And now it was time to go all-in: She dug her nails into the skin of her upper arm till the blood came. She smeared the blood on her housecoat or on his shirt. Now it was time for Yiddish. In Yiddish she turned into a different creature—not the gracious, cultured matron she saw herself as being in the mornings after he had gone to work—my delightful mother—but a mad, hunched crone spitting curses in rhythmic Yiddish, flailing her nails at his face.
I retreated to my bedroom to play music on my wind-up record player.
Later, in the middle of the night, I’d wake to see her in a housecoat standing at the door to my room, smoking, watching me sleep, unable to sleep herself. I was afraid of her madness but—knowing how much she loved me—I was ashamed to be afraid, to imagine her burning up the house or doing something terrible with a knife. Yet didn’t she, many times, get on her knees in front of the oven and stick her head in? Didn’t she pretend to hunt for poison in the medicine cabinet? “Say—which do you think will do the job?”
“So, my son and heir,” she whispered. “How’s your stomach? Better tonight?”
“Okay.” Not so okay. “Better.”
“Go back to sleep.”
“You go back to sleep.”
“Shh. We’ll talk in the morning.”
A visit to the doctor
e went to see Dr. Schiff.
It was a time before medical insurance. You got a bill; you paid. My mother had a different opinion. Imagine her a princess who had to flee a revolution but expected tradesmen and professionals to treat her—and therefore her son—as special. She wasn’t begging; it was her due. So nu, if she wasn’t a princess, she was at least a great lady. For me, she was a great lady. But the contradiction between great lady and nightmare crone was bewildering. How were they the same person? Was she putting on an act?
Which was the act?
We’d go to “the best specialist in New York.” After seeing the doctor, and being approached by his receptionist with the bill, my mother smiled and waved it away. “My dear,” she said, “I never pay full price. I pay, au plus, ten dollars.” It was as if she felt embarrassed for the poor receptionist for not understanding.
She always got away with it.
But with Dr. Schiff things were a little different.
We took a taxi through Central Park, West side to the East side. She wore her beautiful, gray silk suit, and I was dressed in shirt, tie, and blazer. In his examination room the doctor asked me questions. Dr. Schiff had a long, handsome face, a shining bald skull and, speaking in his deep voice, emanated power that didn’t need to assert itself. From the first he took to me as I to him. Oh, did I play up to him! Oh, did my mother play up to him! Outside our happy home she became gracious, charming, beautiful.
He was in his fifties, she in her forties.
After his examination of me—I’m imagining it was mostly questions about my life—he told me to sit in the waiting room while he spoke to my mother. What was he saying to her? The waiting room was full, but Dr. Schiff and my mother remained in his consulting room for what seemed a long time. When they came out, he shook my hand. The receptionist handed my mother a bill. She tried out her usual: “But my dear, I never pay full price . . . ”
Dr. Schiff, standing nearby, turned to her. “That’s something I decide.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry,” she said.
“You don’t need to worry about a bill,” he said.
She was quiet in the taxi. There were tears on her cheeks, which she dabbed with a handkerchief. She wanted me to see the tears. “He understands my life,” she said.
After this, for a couple of years, when I got sick, Dr. Schiff came to the apartment. My mother was embarrassed at its ordinariness, its lack of elegance. It was an elevator building, but the walls of the elevator were scratched in curses. Still, the apartment was neat, the furniture from Sloan’s. She carried her ragged flag aloft. She served him tea.
Sometimes we went to see him at his office. Why? What could he do? But I didn’t mind. I remember one visit, one “check-up.” Afterwards, as we settled into our seats in the taxi, my mother said, “So, how do you like our Dr. Schiff?”
“A lot. I like him a lot.”
“And how would you like him to be your father?”
I peered at her to see if she was playing with me. Her face was solemn. “A lot, a lot! Really, Mom, did he say something? Did he want that? Do it, Mom. It’s so awful with you and Dad.”
How old was I? Seven, eight? Old enough to understand a lot. My father was out of town. For several months a year, when I was five, six, seven, my father took the train to L.A. and took care of his father. His boss, my uncle, paid his salary. My mother had no one to fight with. It left her depressed. I knew he was “out on the coast” to get away from us. When my mother asked about Dr. Schiff, a door opened in a wall. “Really, Mom?”
“I could go back to work,” she said. “Old man Bonwit asked me.”
“You could. You could. You used to make lots of money.”
“But no,” she said. “That’s not what a good Jewish wife and mother does.”
“Please, Mom? Please!” I could feel the door closing. “Did he ask you?”
“Did you think your mother is only the drab frump you see every day? Well?”
“But,” she sighed, “what would happen to your poor father?”
I didn’t answer.
“I’ve written him. I told him that if he doesn’t come home this month, we won’t be there when he gets back. We won’t. We’ll move to a hotel.”
“And what about Dr. Schiff?”
My father comes home
e came home the following week. We met him at Grand Central walking toward us up the red carpet they rolled out when the Twentieth Century Limited came in. My suntanned Daddy! I forgot Dr. Schiff. I loved my father, I was hungry to see him.
By the time we were home he was picking on me. My hair too long, my new clothes too expensive.
“Such nice weather,” my mother said in an elegant accent, as she often spoke when she couldn’t bear him.
Peace in the house
oward the end of their lives together there was peace in the house. I was foolish enough to mention it. “It’s wonderful. You’re not screaming at each other, Mom. You seem so peaceful together.” My father sat with us in the living room, my little girl riding his knee. He beamed at me.
“Screaming?” she said. “What are you talking about?”
My father’s skin sagged on his face. He was so depleted. He had lost thirty or forty pounds; I stared. He spoke in a soft voice. “You’re A-1 okay in my book,” he said out of the blue. The voice of an “American sport.” Now, putting my daughter down, moving as if he were made of glass and afraid to break, he stood outside the bathroom, rocking, rocking, listening down into himself, not wanting to leave our visit but afraid to miss the moment when he might be able to move his bowels.
“Screaming?” my mother whispered again. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know we’ve had a wonderful marriage, your father and I? Everybody has an occasional disagreement, my dear son. Just look at him—the poor soul wouldn’t know what to do without me.”
They loved each other
e died first—fell, she said over the phone, “like a tree in the forest. He never knew what was happening. Some gentle souls have special deaths. God felled him. He was dead before he touched the floor. I called your uncle. He’ll take care of everything. Your poor father’s body is already gone to Riverside Memorial Chapel.”
“I’ll be with you by this evening, Mom. Are you okay?”
“Your uncle will sit with me for a while. I covered the mirrors. The man from the chapel brought me a memorial candle. It burns a whole week.”
When I got there from Boston, she was alone. The funeral was to take place the next day. A small funeral. His brother and sister would be there. My parents had few friends. Instead of friends and family, she had candles—not just the seven-day memorial candle but a collection of 24-hour memorial glasses lit on the table—the table where, almost half a century later, I’m writing this. For decades writing this. The living room was full of light.
“You made each other so unhappy,” I said. “You don’t remember?”
“Nonsense. Your father and I loved each other. I was a happy wife and mother.”
I ignored this. “Maybe,” I said, “it was largely my fault.”
“You? You were our pride and joy.”
We sat on the couch facing the table full of candles. “It’s beautiful, the light,” she said. “When my little sister died of consumption, when my father and then my mother died, we had candles. By the light we remember.”
Or choose not to remember. I put my memories on a shelf in a closet. Most of my life I’ve been visiting that shelf. I remember. I remember her eyes, the cow in the slaughterhouse stunned with the hammer. I remember her in stained housecoat, middle of the night, standing at the door to my room, smoking. I remember her turning on the gas and putting her head in the oven. But I remember, too, my mother sitting at her 1917 Underwood, typing stories I’d dictate to her as I strode back and forth in their bedroom. I remember her ability to make the world come alive, funny and charming. I’m left with sorrow for her loss of that world—sorrow for our irretrievable losses.