I begin to make a habit of snuggling down behind the Shoji screen with a “Minka.” I hold my breath when my mother comes looking for me to help with the dishes. She is annoyed even before I protest.
The move to the church house is a way for my parents to make a fresh start. It might be working.
Months before we moved into the church, Dad and Mom were seeing a therapist. Dad moved out of our previous house right after I heard Mom screaming at him one day that she found a phone number on a matchbook in Dad’s pants pocket. “This is the last time, Leonard!”
Dad is a very popular college art teacher, after all, and is perpetually encircled by clucking women art students.
I don’t tell Mom that, back then, Dad had brought us kids over to a lady’s house where her kids sit with us in front of the turned-up T.V. watching Captain Kangaroo, while Dad and his friend make themselves scarce in the bedroom.
The first time, when Dad had moved out, he lived in a dingy walk-up in North Beach near the nightclubs with their lit up signs of scantily clad topless dancers, Carol Doda being the originator of toplessness, and not without something to show for it.
Inside the door leading up to Dad’s flat hung one light bulb over the stairs. For months, Michelle and I visit him on weekends. At first, this is novel. Whenever we come, we get some kind of gift from Dad, albeit not the usual stuffed animal or doll. More commonly, we are each given $5. to spend in a hardware store or auto supply on any things of our choosing, while Dad gathers a few purchases of his own.
Further, Dad’s habit of cooking us “boxed-taters” and chicken-hearts becomes even more untenable than they were the first time we visited. We sit with paper plates on our laps. Michelle and I sleep in sleeping bags on the floor. The place is a shambles with newspapers in great piles, and nowhere to dine because Dad does his painting at the table.
In a dark corner of the flat, sits the velvet wheel-chair, now covered with a thin layer of dust, making the once red plaything seem maroon and morose.
He tells us an unenthusiastic bedtime story, and, when he thinks we are asleep, I watch him sitting in the dark by the window. A neon light flashes outside which makes Dad’s face and the room dark red, dark green, dark red.
After a time, Dad begins to mail Mom cute postcards he draws himself. “Just snap your fingers and I’ll be there.” He makes a game of sending us girls home with goodies in gift baskets for Mom that he, Michelle, and I fill with exotic items from the new Cost Plus in Fisherman’s Wharf: a can of oysters claiming a real pearl inside, anchovy paste in a tube from Russia, Mom’s favorite Viennese hazelnut Manner Cookies, dense pumpernickel bread.
Dad agrees to go back to therapy. Mom will go too, but she insists they go separately. They’re going to try again. Dad moves back in. But differences begin to devolve into irritations, which turn into annoyances, that wind up as bickering, that grow into fights after which Mom sulks for days. Dad festers. Grandma Mutti stays in her bedroom with her easel and paints. Dad is the only one who talks to us…some of the time. He is the fun one, or at least, was.
My mother becomes convinced that Dad and I have it in for her, even though I don’t understand what “having it in” means. Dad perpetually stands up for me over Mom’s jealous slights. He calls family meetings Mom refers to as “kangaroo courts”. These sound like we will be playing a fun game. After all, Michelle and I like kangaroos. But, instead, accusations are leveled, voices get loud, various unkind names are volleyed, one or the other parent storms off, Mom taking Michelle, and Dad taking me.
I don’t understand “haven’t I been through enough persecution, Leonard?” He doesn’t see the connection between a daughter suspected of favoritism, Mom’s suspicious imaginings, and her war-time survival. He calls her a “mischugene,” or “crackpot”.
She insinuates, “It’s kind of INCESTUOUS,” she emphasizes the word, “the way you have more fun being with Nanette than with me!” This subtle accusation enrages Dad. “You’re targeting Nanette, and I’m just defending her.” His red face erupts into an enormous fit of anger that looks like someone may get hurt. He seethes, jutting out his lower jaw, curling his upper lip, and narrowing his eyes. I feel like I have, in my own child way, caused this trouble.
The next time Michelle and I irritate Dad, he starts to take off his belt, something he’s never done before. Instinctively, we scramble like a hundred mice and get away.
And Mom responds with days of cold-shoulder not only to Dad but to me, a disgusted look on her face. She discontinues her therapy announcing, “The therapist says I’m fine, considering what I’ve been through.”
Now the angry episodes escalate. “I’ve already been through one Holocaust,” my mother shouts, tilting her head and glancing toward me. Dad’s mood is explosive and frightening. Doors are slammed. Dad storms out of the house. His tires squeal as he drives away. Michelle cries and thinks it’s all my fault, because “she’s Mom’s,: and “I’m Dad’s.” Michelle has Mom, Mom who increasingly rages at me, and demands to be honored and doted on by Michelle.
Now, I have no ally at all.
By this time, I have made a permanent nest behind the Shoji screen in the living room out of pillows and a blanket. I sit back there, often with the same large hard-cover Life magazine book with oversized black and white pictures of dead and skeletal barely-alive Jewish people in concentration camps with barbed wire. Naked, bony, dead bodies of adults and children are piled in a trench as long as a river. In one picture, there is a line-up of girls with shaved heads. They hold up a sign that reads “COLLABORATOR.” I’m not sure what side they are on, and, hence, whether to feel sorry for these “collaborators”, or not, but I do anyway. There is even a picture of American soldiers on tanks coming to free Jewish people from their captivity. My dad was a soldier. My mother told me he helped her family, but he is not in any of the pictures. I go over and over the photos looking for my dad and wondering what the photos have to do with me.
I know I am Jewish. I know I learn a little Hebrew at Temple Emmanuel Sunday School. I know I love to do Israeli folk-dancing with my friends, and, I know my mother and Grandma Mutti speak German when they don’t want me to understand.
Sometimes I wonder, “maybe something happened to my mom.” I ask her if something happened, but she tells me “there are some things that children shouldn’t know about.” My dad doesn’t tell me anything either except that Mommy has bad dreams and he needs to be there for her, no matter what.
I continue to know very little about being Jewish. There is only one other Jewish child at my school. She gets ringworm and comes to class one day with a blue kerchief covering a shaved head. I fear that all the other kids will think that being Jewish means I have ringworm too. I play on the swings by myself. When I tell my mom about the Jewish girl’s ringworm shaved head, my mom washes my hair roughly over and over.
About being Jewish, I do see that Christmas is for “them”, with the lit-up trees and mountains of wrapped presents and days off from school. “We” have Chanukah with candles and one small gift a night for a week. However, without even a hint of reluctance from either parent, I am permitted to bus over to Union Square with a Christmastime chorus of children, each of us dressed in an angel robe and halo during the twelve eves of Christmas. We perform Christmas carols not meant for Jews, but somehow, it’s OK.
The Jewish Passover holiday with family friends goes on for hours, and means we don’t eat until we listen to the whole story of Jewish first-borns getting passed over by the “Angel Of Death” because the “blood of the lamb” is splashed above Jewish doors and that is what saves Jewish first-borns from being killed.
A question at the table is repeated as part of Passover: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Children at Passover read the answers. I never understand why this night is different from all other nights, but I suspect it’s because we’re supposed to celebrate that only the non-Jewish first-borns are slaughtered. I wonder, “what angel would volunteer to the be the Angel Of Death?” Repeatedly, in the story of Passover, seven times the stubborn ancient Egyptian ruler refuses to free his Jewish slaves. Each time he refuses, something terrible happens to all Egyptians: locusts, frogs, boils, and worse. The Egyptian ruler’s son even dies. This we celebrate?
In between reading the many versions of the same Passover question, it is customary that we “recline,” which means we finally dine a bit, and we forget about the death of “those” babies. “Reclining” means we all are to chat good-naturedly.
By the time we finally finish eating, Michelle and I have already snuck eating snatches of the traditional ritual foods on the table that speak to the meaning of the Passover during The Seder. Unfortunately, these include horse-radish, parsley, salt water, and one hard boiled egg which, on occasion, has been over boiled, the shell having a greenish hue. The only good thing to take bites of is the Charoset which is made of minced apples, walnuts, raisins, and honey with a splash of sweet wine, but there are only a few small bowls of that on the Passover table.
The festivities conclude with a sort of treasure hunt. We children try to find a matzoh that an adult has hidden prior to dinner. The finder gets chocolate in gold wrappers which are made to look like money. It’s called “gelt.” But it isn’t money, and the chocolate is stale.
Month after month, my parents’ battling grows. I never know where Dad goes when he gets angry and leaves, but, one day, while he is gone, Mom has a single bed delivered and places it next to the larger bed in their bedroom. On the larger bed, Mom creates a wall of library books, and, at bedtime, she turns away on her side and reads with her back to the small bed. The new bed is not for me or for Michelle. It makes me terribly sad, but I don’t know why.
Soon Dad’s artwork enters it’s “dark period.” His paintings become giant semi three-dimensional works with stuffed, grey, dead-looking bodies dangling in shreds of gauze off of the canvasses. There seems to be no end to the number of his dour works hanging in our cavernous living room. At night, the shadows from Dad’s sculpted paintings stop me from leaving my bed after he tucks me in. If I have to go to the bathroom, I run past the zombies. I run for my life.
Now, only bickering comes before art.
When Mom is not making art, she spends hours in her small basement studio working on freelance fashion assignments she draws for the San Francisco Chronicle and for Magnin. She smokes Salems which she exhales through her nostrils. She needs to be alone. She needs to concentrate. Once in a while, I look in the door. Through smoke that hangs in the air, I see her hunched over her drawing board and think better of disturbing her. When I peek in, she turns up the volume of her classical music.
Dad, one day, brings home a huge old antique farmer’s scythe that he has found at the dump. The curved wood handle is five feet long and worn smooth from handling. The rusty blade juts out angrily from the top of the wood handle in a perpendicular two-foot arc which ends at a well-used crude point. He hangs the tool at the end of our long living room as a sculpture, a slow turning Angel-Of-Death mobile. Michelle and I don’t want to invite friends over to play.
Mom takes on additional freelance assignments. Grandma Mutti occasionally makes chicken or wienerschnitzel, but Dad does most of the cooking. We eat a lot of scrambled eggs. When he is at work teaching, Michelle stands in front of the fridge eating cold raw hot dogs. I eat butter.
Now the house is filled with non-stop arguing upstairs in our parent’s bedroom, loud enough to hear through the closed door when Michelle and I are at the bottom of the stairs. Dad defends me. Mom yells out, mocking: “She’s become your sort of girrrrl-friend. She’s a little asshole.”
A week later, Mom walks into my room one day after school just as I am telling Michelle: “She’s an asshole.” Mom grabs my face, digs her nails in, and pulls as though my cheeks are a rubber mask that can be yanked off.
Dad’s therapist makes a suggestion for the next time Mom becomes loud, unreasonable, and irrational as Dad has described to him.
The therapist says: “Why don’t you shove her one… good and hard?”
For everyone, even Mutti and the cats, the house becomes a hall of silence. I don’t want to come home from school. Michelle and I play at the park until the street lights come on.
Dad moves out once again, and Michelle and I return to months of the same weekend routine as before, until we do the presents-from-Cost-Plus-and-Dad’s-cute-notes again. I yearn for Mom and Dad leaving things apart. It’s simple, Michelle can be with Mom, and I can go with Daddy.
But it doesn’t happen that way.
After a time, Dad can move back into the church house, but with a stipulation. He agrees to drop me off with a small suitcase at the home of artist family friends for a month. But he doesn’t tell me how long I’ll be there, I just have a kid-knowing why.
The family friends give me a small book: “Harold And The Purple Crayon.” I look at it over and over again. Harold draws whatever he wants in his life. He wants to take a walk in the moonlight, but there is no moon. He draws the moon. He needs a path on which to walk. He draws a path. He wants to go home, he draws a house, he draws a room, he draws a bed. And he lies down and peacefully dozes off to sleep.
I don’t know why Dad chooses to be with Mom over me when, clearly, he likes me.
“Why do they keep trying,” I wonder.
“Maybe it’s the ‘something that kids can’t know about’, and the ‘no baby’, and the ‘all being a little Jewish together’, and the ‘artists having parties and fun living in a church adventure’ is why.”
Every week, Dad picks me up and takes me to a modern pink-pebbled office building. We ride the elevator to the sixth floor. The music in the elevator sounds like Lawrence Welk, whom I now loathe. In the waiting room, Dad is not interested in the pile of “Popular Mechanics.”
“Nanette…Breger is it?”, a nurse looking at a file calls me through a door held open for me. Inside, I stand against a wall looking down at the brown linoleum tiles on which are stacked worn alphabet blocks, puzzles that I know are too easy which I also notice have pieces missing, and a stretched out Slinky. Various dog-eared stuffed animals line one wall. I don’t want to touch “other-kid” stuffed toys. That seems icky.
In the corner of the room is a small wood table with chair. A box of broken crayons has more black than any other color. The box is next to newsprint paper which I know from experience tears easily if I draw with too much intention.
I am confused by a small wood-framed sandbox inside the room, in which I see scattered khaki plastic soldiers, beach toys, and a rubber doll with strands of blonde hairs jutting out of tiny holes all over her head, one eye stays closed. I realize the doll probably has a name given her by another child. I wonder why the doll is not with her child and is now in a sandbox inside a room inside an office building.
A woman with glasses enters, closing a door behind her. She bends down. She shakes my child-hand in her grown-up hand. “Hello,” she says. “Hello,” I say back.
She plugs in the scuffed white cord of a small record player sitting in its square peach-colored case.
“Tubby The Tuba,” the record she chooses, is a story interspersed with music about a tuba who sits in the very back of the orchestra and plays only low oompahs as background to classical music played by all the other instruments. He is an utterly alone tuba. Piccolos mock him. Trumpets bark at him. Violins sneer together as a group.
But then, lo and behold, Tubby begins to play a beautiful tuba solo he learns from a frog friend. All the other instruments are horrified. Then, out of the hush, the conductor, Senor Pitzicato, asks, “What are you playing, Tubby? I’ve never heard a melody played by a tuba before! What is it?”
Tubby’s solo sweeps like a slow warm wind blowing like mossy skirts of a willow tree. His lamentation is the bottom-most leaves brushing gently across the ground, small swirls of dust becoming part of a transparent wind. The orchestra joins in, playing behind Tubby. I close my eyes.
The woman with the glasses, meantime, sits on a small wood child-stool. She observes me. She has a clipboard and pen.
Soon, every time I reach for a toy, the woman intently makes notes. I begin to pick up on her routine. I touch a block. She writes. I lift a soldier. She writes again. I start to touch the dolly’s dirty head, the lady writes some more. So I play with one toy after another after another after another very fast so the lady doesn’t have time to write before I pick up the next one and the next one and the next one. She scribbles furiously. I laugh inside myself. If I let my face have any expression, the lady jars the silence with an asking: “What do you do think you do to make your parents fight?” I answer: “Holocaust her.”
After the long playing-with-worn out-toys-for-no-reason, I rejoin Dad. Before he returns me to where I now visit or stay or live or sleep, he buys us licorice in the lobby pharmacy. It tastes like his Sen Sen smells, which I know he uses because of his smoking breath. Licorice is dour.
“How was it?” dad asks in the car. He doesn’t mean the licorice.
“I hate her old smelly toys,” I answer. I tell him about the note-taking and my changing toys quickly from one to the next so the lady has to scribble very fast and turn her rumpled pages. Dad laughs. He gets my joke.
And I decide I’ll always send Dad a Father’s Day and a Mother’s Day card.
And Mom, I’ll always remember something terrible happened to her and to Jewish people that kids can’t know about.