At 19, just out from under my father’s roof, I was in an antique shop, a secondhand shop really, eyeing a copper teakettle.
“Sit!” the owner said sharply.
I sat. Then I saw a large dog, a Standard Poodle, behind me. The owner had been talking to his dog. I began to shake. My father was so menacing that when he gave an order if you didn’t follow it, his big fist would flash out and give you something to remember.
“Hey,” the owner said to me, “you can’t sit in that chair unless you pay for it. It’s from the Weimar Republic, pre-Nazi.” His Standard Poodle, no longer sitting, snarled at me too.
The chair was more likely from a ’50s dinette set, but I felt as cold as if the blood had been drained from me in the stuffy shop. My father had once hurled the cash register at my mother in his grocery store because “She wouldn’t shut her mouth already.”
In Russia, my father had seen five of his brothers murdered in a pogrom. He had lived on roots and berries when he and his mother and five sisters had to hide in the forest from the Cossacks’ dogs, the smoke from their burning village still in their noses and throats. Whenever I made a request, he’d throw back, “You don’t even know the meaning of what it is to want.”
Once I saw peaches in a fancy deli window that looked as perfect as if they were grown in Eden. I went in to buy a half dozen. “I want five of them,” I told the fruitier.
He bagged them, weighed them, and then said, “I see you love peaches. I’ll give you a bag of soft ones too, as a courtesy. If you eat them today, they’ll be just as good.”
I was 25, married by then and knew that the only fruit my husband would eat were apples. I didn’t want the soft peaches, but the guy, grinning like a peachy benefactor, had already bagged them. So I thanked him and went off, planning to throw the older peaches away. But when I got to the garbage can, I thought about my father sucking on stones in the forest. I thought of him as the little boy, his belly swollen with hunger. I decided to give the soft peaches away. Just then, a neighbor came along who had three children. I made a pitch for her to take the peaches.
“Here’s what you do with them if you have too many to eat at once,” she said, “you put them in a saucepan with three tablespoons of water or orange juice if you like, cinnamon, ginger, a pinch of sugar. Let it come to a boil. Then cover them and simmer ten, maybe twelve, minutes and you’ve got a fantastic compote. It’s great even on toast.”
This woman was a balaboosta, an ardent and capable housewife. Back then I was a lithographer working in a printmaking studio with ink under my nails. My interest was Picasso and Lautrec, but she was so adamant that I cook these peaches myself as if she was sure that doing so would somehow make me a better person. I went home, put on my ink-stained smock, and made the compote. I tasted it. Meh. I went for a real peach instead. It was then that I discovered that I had accidentally boiled the peaches of my dreams.
I began doing affirmations in front of the mirror. “I am a powerful person.” “I easily speak up for myself in all situations.” “I project authority.”
I thought I was doing better. Maybe I was and just had a backslide. But a couple of years later, a large, double-parked truck blocked me from getting my Honda out of a parking spot. I waited patiently for about fifteen minutes. I honked. It made no difference. I waited some more. I would have called the police, but my father had made me afraid of them too. He’d flinch every time he saw a policeman or a police car. He was terrified that they were out to deport him, never mind that he was a U.S. citizen. Also, in Russia, any official could take whatever he wanted from a Jew without the victim having any recourse. Instead, I lay on the horn. The driver of the truck didn’t come out of wherever he was, but shopkeepers and passersby ringed my car, shouting advice.
It was like the Aesop’s fable “The Man, The Boy, and the Donkey,” in which everyone was bullying this man and his boy about how they should be taking their donkey to market. In the end, the man and boy, to please the vocal onlookers, tied the donkey to a pole and carried him upside down over a bridge. The donkey kicked loose and fell into the water. Because the donkey’s forelegs were still tied, it drowned. I, too, followed everyone’s advice at once. I backed up as the yogurt guy urged. I turned the wheel first and pulled back slowly as the real estate agent pressured. I backed in again to get a better angle as the jeweler commanded. More onlookers chimed in. Not just chimed, but gonged. Everyone wildly gesticulating, shouting advice. I ended up somehow getting out of the spot, but the wide bumper of the truck, more like a sideways extension, pierced the front passenger window. Whether in embarrassment or shock, I kept going. The metal that held the window in place bent, and the rear passenger window was smashed too.
I figured that I could do no better than just accept the way I was. Fear had grafted itself into my DNA and I would, I thought, never really get out from under my father’s roof. And then, when I was 32 and sitting across from my four-year-old daughter in a booth at a diner, an ancient woman, more like a fairy-tale witch, wandered in from the street. She was bent over a cane, and there were long white hairs growing from her chin. I would have admired her for going about on her own, but she stopped at our table and cackled, “Little girl, I want to eat some of your lunch.” Her misshapen hand was headed for my daughter’s French fries. My mouth hung open, but nothing would come out. My father had always taught me, with his fists, to obey elders. I remembered all those older folks who had “affectionately” pinched my cheek, twisting the flesh until tears came to my eyes, and I wasn’t even allowed to whimper. I remembered the four-hundred-pound cousin who lifted me in the air when I was my daughter’s age, only to peek up my dress. “Look how Irv loves kids,” my father said. “Too bad he never had any of his own.”
“You can’t take my food,” my daughter told the woman. “You didn’t ask and say please.”
“That’s no way for a child to behave,” the old woman said, looking at me.
“Yes, it is,” I said. “It’s exactly the way a child should behave.”
The woman hobbled off, stamping her cane.
As I watched my daughter begin licking the ketchup off her fries, which was how she liked to eat them, I felt as if I were inside her. I could even taste the ketchup on my tongue. The switch lasted just a moment, but when I came to myself, I knew that I was no longer shivering in the corner of my father’s house. I had crossed the border into the land of freedom.