Two taps. Short. Tentative. Mommy’s knock.
Feet to the floor, I sat up on my bed, setting Black Beauty aside. My mother leaned into view, holding the doorframe. “Would this be a good time to talk?”
I nodded. She slid into the room and lowered herself beside me. Her lips pursed into a tight line, the way mine did when I had to say something I dreaded.
“At a certain time in life mothers and daughters talk,” Mommy began. She put her arm on my shoulder. She lifted it off. She rubbed her cheek and scratched her nose. “When I was your age, I knew about men-stew-ration from washing my older sister’s bloody underwear.” She ran her hand through her hair.
Men-stew-raton? I thought. Bloody underwear?
“When girls grow to women, their bodies prepare to make babies. Menstruation (it sounded smoother this time) happens every month when you’re not going to have a baby. Babies happen after you’re married.” She stopped talking and stared at her hands, frowning.
“I’m going to have six children, but only after I’m married,” I said brightly, hoping to cheer her up.
“There are special pads so the blood doesn’t get on your panties,” she continued. “We’ll get you a special belt that has hooks for the pads. You can tell it’s coming, because you watch the calendar and feel cramps in your stomach.”
“Okay,” I said, trying to sound reassured. I figured she meant the thing girls at school whispered about — your period.
Mommy had returned to staring at her hands. I felt sorry for her. “It’s time for you to learn how babies start,” she said, ”what happens when a man and woman sleep together.” Her face had turned red. She scrunched her eyes in a wince.
It’s The Talk. My head turned so light I floated up to the ceiling. I stayed a few seconds, then floated down.
My mother took a deep breath. Dizzy, I stared hard at her lips to absorb every word. “When two people love each other very much, they couple together and become one.” She exhaled.
I could see them, the man and the woman, lying in a great bed facing each other. The woman was wearing a skirt and blouse, the man slacks and a shirt — no tie. They gazed adoringly into each other’s eyes, gripped arms around each other’s back, their chests, their bellies melded as if made of soft clay. The intensity of their embrace reached its peek — a crescendo of squeezing between them — whereupon they fell back into the pillows as if drugged, overcome by a mysterious and powerful sleep.
That wasn’t so bad, I thought. I kind of liked the idea. I shifted taller and picked up my book.
“Any questions?” she asked.
She returned a relieved smile, then hurried out.
He hands me the needle.
“Here, now it’s your turn,” he says.
I glance at the woman in the chair. Emma is her name. She cleans the lab and I’ve been seeing her every day for the past month. A large woman from the south someplace, Emma’s fleshy arm is propped on the edge of the metal lab table. She looks at me.
“Come on child, get on with it,” she drawls. “Everyone uses me as their first stick, ya’ll do jest fine.”
She smiles and jiggles her arm almost begging me to inflict pain. And painful it is certain to be. Before this, my needle sticks have been with oranges. Emma will be my first human stick.
I was lucky to get this job. I was nervous, scared really, but happy to join this lab and up until now, quite content to spend my days with my test tubes and smears.
The man in charge of hematology stands at my elbow. Emma sits in front of me and several of the women from the lab hang back, watching. The cavalry, ready to step in should I really screw up.
With a deep inhale I encircle Emma’s arm with the rubber tourniquet, making a small loop to secure it in place. I tap the area in the bend of her inner arm and watch while numerous large veins bulge to the surface. They all looked perfect for sticking. No wonder she is everyone’s guinea pig.
Uncorking the needle and exposing its sharp tip, I choose the middle vein. The needle slides in easily and within a millisecond blood begins to fill the tube. I am thrilled; Emma looks up and smiles.
An arm reaches from behind me and yanks off the tourniquet just as blood starts to gush from the end of the tube.
“Always remember to remove this once you’ve hit pay dirt,” he says. “Nice job though.”
Emma chuckles and says I look whiter then my lab coat.
Had I not been on the cusp of a major transition, the suit might have been less enthralling. It was what my sister and I called “big lady” clothes, our definition shaped by the movies. You might have seen a suit like that, maybe on Rosalind Russell playing a sophisticated career woman or more likely, Jeanne Moreau or Simone Signoret because it was so distinctly French.
It was made of a fine dark gray wool, the sharp lapels and front edges finished with silky binding. The cut was superb, a perfect shoulder line and intricate seaming that subtracted two inches from your width and added them to your height. Under the jacket, softening the crisp tailoring of the ensemble, was a frilly chiffon blouse in the very dark navy favored by French women, extremely feminine, even slightly risqué like lace panties under blue jeans.
When I tried it on, I felt like crying, “Eureka!” I could hardly stand still while the seamstress did the necessary pinning.
Since my return to graduate school, I had been evolving from “only a housewife” to a self-confident professional. My closet, though, was still filled with clothes that were preppy, or hippie, or just plain frumpy. Here was the suit that would herald my true persona to the world.
My elation was short-lived. The next day my husband confessed, without preamble, that he was bankrupt. Like so many times in the past, I had caught clues to the impending disaster. As always, he had dismissed my suspicions as the product of my pessimism or paranoia, leaving me to pick up the pieces when denial was no longer an option.
I did what had to be done. My salary alone would not cover the cost of two sons in University and couture clothing. With a heavy heart, I called the shop and asked them to cancel the order if the suit had not yet been altered. At the same time, I silently resolved to cancel something else: my attire might remain unchanged for now, but not my marital status.
Three Days Ago
Three days ago my husband told me he was seeing another woman. He did. He said, “I’m seeing another woman.” I took it to mean: he’s sleeping with another woman. No. Not sleeping. Fucking. He said, “I’m seeing another woman.”
I didn’t say anything.
We were in a restaurant when he told me. Men have been coached to do that. If it’s something that might really upset her, tell her in a restaurant.
I was upset. But not horribly. It’s not that I expected it. Or suspected it. I was surprised. Surprised there was a woman out there who was willing to see him. Or that he could actually see her. I’m fairly convinced he’s never seen me.
Two days ago, my husband said, “I’m thinking of leaving you.” He didn’t say, “I’m leaving you.” He said, “I’m thinking of leaving you.” “Think away,” I said. I was rather pleased with my comeback. At the time I was ironing. I know most women don’t like to iron. But I do. And I love a well-pressed shirt. At the time I was ironing my husband’s shirt. As much as I love ironing, I stopped. I hung that shirt up in his closet. Half pressed. And half wrinkled.
Yesterday my husband told me he was leaving. He said, “I’m leaving.” “Off you go then,” I said, “best of luck.” After all I did have time to prepare my line, didn’t I?
Today my husband didn’t say anything. Because he isn’t here.
I am though. I’m here. And I’m not seeing anyone. But one day, one day, I hope I’ll be able to see me.
I took my six-year-old grandson Alexander to swim class, enthralled by his animated chatter. While we waited for class to start, he moved in closer to me giving my hand a squeeze. This lit my heart like a campfire giving me the best moment of my day. But, in my long life, I’ve learned that good moments and bad moments can happen simultaneously.
“You know what, Mana?” he said looking up at me with chocolate puppy eyes. “There’s something you can buy to take all your wrinkles away.” Just like that, my angel pitched an arrow through my heart.
“Really,” I said deflated. “What is it?”
“I can’t remember, but it really works!”
I think back and recall clearly when he was born, his mother screaming, get him out, after several hours of painful labor. He looked peaceful when he came out, like a guru who knew exactly what his purpose in life would be.
He gave me a thumbs-up and swam his little heart out while I watched — wrinkles and all.
A few weeks later, I took him to a hockey game and he spent the night. The next morning while washing my face, I heard a voice. It startled me at first; it was only 5 a.m. He appeared out of nowhere, still with morning on his face, inside blue plaid pajamas.
“I know what it is! I know what can make your wrinkles go away,” he said in that dramatic way of his. He had an epiphany and came to tell me before he lost the thought. Just above his sweet, round head was a faint halo with my collapsed ego circling around like a wrinkled powder puff.
“What might that be, Alex?”
“Lifestyle Lift,” he said flashing a million dollar smile, — “and it only takes an hour to make all your wrinkles go away!”
I could be the next poster face of hope for all aging hags everywhere. My grandma had a Lifestyle Lift and now she looks younger than my sister. “It would cost a lot of money,” I tell him.
But he was insistent and wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I have money in my bear. I’ll give it to you.”
“That’s awfully nice of you, little guy,” I said, giving him a hug, “but you need to save your money for college.”
A week later, I noticed a fat, brown-fuzzy bear on the nightstand. Alex! He had brought his bank over and left it for me.
Andrew, a five-year-old with brown curly hair and dreamy eyes behind round, shell-rimmed glasses, stood with hands holding onto his walker a careful distance away from the tepee his playmates were racing through on tricycles.
The tepee was a Master Gardeners project I had initiated at the Easter Seals Capper Foundation preschool, where children with and without disabilities run twice a day from their classroom to the freedom of outdoor play.
We built the first tepee out of willow limbs, wound together with heavy rope and fastened with a great knot at the top. With teaspoon trowels in hand, the children encircled the limbs with a planting of morning glory seeds. By the end of the first summer, it stood triumphant and aglow with purple-petal ornaments — a gardening phenomenon the first-time gardeners proudly claimed their own.
Like its Great Plains prototype, the first tepee had only one opening, too much turn-around challenge for the mobility of some of the children it was meant to serve. When the willow limbs rotted, we used PVC pipes, painted brown, as a replacement. The renovation allowed me an innovation: with an opening for both in and out, the playground tepee became a no-speed-limit traffic lane for tricycles and chairs-on-wheels to travel through without a turn or stop. I imagine the ride no less exhilarating for a Capper child in Topeka, Kansas, than one might have been for a young brave in moccasins racing his pony through a tall grass prairie.
Andrew, yet to be a brave, watched from a distance, yearning to race through the tepee like his friends, but fearing what danger he might find inside. With limitations of sight and hearing, without ability to speak, he could not muster the courage to surrender to the dark unknown behind the spooky shapes of leaves and tendrils he was afraid to trust.
After weeks of watching his playmates, one morning, holding his breath, steeling his grasp on the handles of his walker, carefully, cautiously — with one, two, three, four, five pushes — Andrew entered, and with speed he never dreamed was his, emerged triumphant on the other side.
A beam of accomplishment spread wide from cheek to cheek when his milestone, as much as mine, had been achieved. Even now, a decade later, I feel a sense of pride when each spring I see new morning glories racing up the tepee and think of Andrew crossing his finish line.
It is Yannek who suggests that I share my story of survival with the German students just as I have always done in America. I write a letter which he translates stating that I am a survivor of the Holocaust, and that I am an American living in Berlin, the once cherished home of my German parents, and that the students must know English.
On a Monday in October, I sit surrounded by a circle of eighteen-year-old students. I tell them that it is indifference that was the cause of genocide then, and now. I show them my pain and my anger at how enthusiastic the German people were about Hitler. I tell them how the actions of many in their own families had left me alone to live an unanchored life. I demand that they not dwell in guilt and shame for what happened sixty years earlier, but I beg them to put more love in the world. I cannot hold back my tears when I tell them about the French internment camp.
I give them a verbal picture of the children’s barrack: the lice-filled straw on the floor where we slept and the half-filled bowl of rotten tomato soup we were served once a day. I tell about the latrine with no partitions, just a long wooden plank with holes to squat over — a long walk alone in the mud for a three-year old. Mine are not the only tears when I share with them the day my pretty, red-haired, thirty-four year old German mother was deported.
The room is eerily quiet. It’s too quiet. Their faces are blank. I am very afraid. Are they angry with me? Will they attack me? I feel I have made a terrible mistake and that I really cannot do this. I thought I had gotten it out of my system. To forget the way I had learned to hate the Germans. I want to run out of this now claustrophobic room when suddenly I hear a hundred chairs sliding back. Chanting, “We love you,” the students stand to give me five minutes of thunderous applause.
“We will never forget you. We will remember your family. We will make a difference. We will put more love in the world,” they shout as I leave the room.
Were these young shame-filled, guilt-stricken students the Germans I have feared? Can they be related to the two-stepping, shiny black-booted, Heil Hitler-saluting murderers of my parents and a family I never knew. Is theirs the language that I have refused to speak because it is tainted with evil and loss? Something has changed. I am in new territory, yet I am not afraid. I sense that this is an omen, a sign from God.
I have fallen in love with these young people.