Authors: Susan Isaacs
My Aunt Estelle glided up behind me and answered. “She’s fine, darling. Just finishing a diet with a special metabolism doctor on Fifth Avenue, near the Guggenheim Museum. How are you?” Like my mother, she wore brown, but hers was a tissuey wool, finely tailored with a soft pleated skirt and high collar. It flattered her short body; she looked rich and well turned out, like an expensive roast.
“I’m fine, thanks.” My aunt leaned her head to the left, offering me her right cheek to kiss. I did so.
“Now,” she said, lowering herself into a straight-backed chair that was upholstered in a creamy silk, “tell me what happened today.” Her pale, fleshy arms rested on the carved mahogany ones of the chair. She was a queen granting an audience.
“Well, some woman offered him a knish—”
“And he took it, just like that?”
“Yes. I mean, it was an impulsive gesture.”
“It never occurred to him that she could be a Red China spy with poison?” My mother and uncle simultaneously pursed their lips in thoughtful expressions and, separately, nodded at my aunt’s sophisticated insight.
“Well, the woman looked ordinary.”
“How did they know it’s a knish? You turn on the radio in the kitchen and all you hear is knish, knish. It was probably one of those square cocktail egg rolls, full of shrimp and all those vegetables they use and God knows what other dreck.”
“Aunt Estelle, it looked like a knish to me.”
“Darling, have you ever heard of anyone choking to death on a knish?”
In my family, caprice always triumphed over logic, opinion slaughtered fact. Normal conversation was impossible because all rules of reasonable discourse were suspended. I found a five-minute discussion of my vacation plans more exhausting than a month’s worth of intense political campaigning.
Maybe it’s universal and there’s dementia released whenever two people from the same gene pool meet. I’ve rarely seen anyone who didn’t look paler returning from a family gathering than leaving for it.
“Aunt Estelle, let me explain what I saw.”
“Later, Marcia darling. It’s so upsetting. Come over here and let me see that necklace.”
I walked across the thick, spongy carpet and bent toward her.
“What a sweet locket,” she said, peering closely for a thorough inspection. “Is it new?”
“Jerry gave it to me. For Christmas.”
Silence. Sorry, my fault. My mother glanced down at the buff-colored carpet, ashamed. Uncle Julius stuck his paws in his pockets.
“Would you like to hear some more about this afternoon?” I offered. “About Gresham? I was only about ten feet…”
But Aunt Estelle endured. “Let me see it,” she cooed, lifting the dainty heart. “How nice. Did he pick it out himself?”
“Yes,” I snapped. I didn’t know what she had planned, but sensed it couldn’t be good.
“I don’t think so, darling. I mean, I’m sure he paid for real gold but I think it’s electroplated.” She rubbed it between her fingers and let it drop back to my neck. I stood upright. “He probably just walked in off the street. I mean, he doesn’t have a relationship with a jeweler, does he?”
“I don’t know.”
“Probably not,” she said, smiling again. She turned her head toward my mother. “They leave themselves wide open, unless they can afford to go to Tiffany’s, and then they pay for the name.”
“I’m sure he means well, Marcia.”
“He does mean well.”
“Good, good,” enthused my Uncle Julius, who began pacing the room, trying to escape the inevitable clash.
“He more than means well. He makes me happy.”
My aunt looked at my mother and demanded, “What is happiness?” My mother shrugged.
“Look,” I snapped, “every time we get together it’s the same thing. Can’t you just accept that I’m content?”
“A minute ago it was happy,” my mother observed.
“Goddamn it, you refuse even to meet him, to give him the chance—”
“He wouldn’t feel comfortable here,” my Aunt Estelle said. “Anyway, Marcia, before you lose your temper again, just remember that we don’t like these scenes anymore than you do. But you say you’re happy and what do we see in your life? Nothing. What does this man have to offer you? Marriage? Children?”
“Where will you be five-ten years from now?” my mother chimed in.
“Let me do it, Hilda,” my aunt said. “Marcia, he may be very sweet for all I know, but he could wander off to a bar and grill one night and never come back. Did you ever think of that? What would happen to you then?”
“Nothing would happen. Listen to me, try to understand. I can take care of myself. I’m doing that now. I have a wonderful job, friends—”
“Friends? Your friends are political people who stab friends in the back for a living.”
“Aunt Estelle, please—”
“Taking care of yourself! In an apartment without a doorman where any rapist could walk right in.”
Uncle Julius refereed. He pulled out an exceedingly large handkerchief and blew his nose.
Aunt Estelle rose, said “Dinner,” and gave my cheek two light pats.
The big rectangular dining room table was covered with a pale linen cloth trimmed with brown lace at each of its four corners. It was nearly obscured by the place settings and the platters and bowls of gold-leafed china, silver, and cut crystal. These serving pieces, as my mother and aunt called them, were filled with the usual Lindenbaum cuisine: rolls and white and rye bread, pot roast and tiny potatoes, kasha and varnishkas. Four thick slabs of stuffed derma steamed under a heavy blanket of flour-thickened pot-roast gravy. My family may have moved up to English bone china, French crystal, and Belgian linen, but in food, good taste remained strictly Eastern European.
Someone once described Jewish food as a brown cuisine, which is essentially true, although that definition did not allow for the ruby red of borscht or the deep forest green of sour pickles. That night, the table was further accented with a shimmery orange ring—a gelatin mold—and a crimson blaze of pickled peppers on Florentined Wedgwood.
“Hilda darling, another piece of meat,” my aunt urged. My mother only took one slice of meat at a time, although she’d invariably make two or three return trips. “What will happen now that he’s passed away, Marcia?”
“Gresham? Well, there will definitely be a primary. You see, the lieutenant governor really has a very narrow political base.”
“That should be exciting,” my aunt remarked. “Hilda, you’ve hardly eaten anything.”
“All right, one more,” my mother said, accepting the platter of meat my uncle placed on her uplifted palms.
“Do you want to hear about what happened this afternoon?” I asked.
“Later, Marcia,” Aunt Estelle said soothingly. “Not at the dinner table.”
Conversation did not cease, of course. Uncle Julius volunteered that I was too “petite” for a long-haired fur like fox or coyote. Aunt Estelle explained that in my case “petite” meant short. My mother asked if I wanted my copy of
The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot
or should she donate it to the library because I hadn’t looked at it since college and she needed the space on the bookshelves. Aunt Estelle whispered that her friend Miriam Zackheim’s sister had had a mastectomy and, lowering her voice even more, that a girl who was my age who also went to Queens College was a homosexual and she wouldn’t mention names because she had sworn not to but this had been a nice girl, a sorority girl who had never had any problems meeting boys.
And two cups of tea and a slice of jelly roll.
“No fruit, Marcia?”
“No, thanks, Aunt Estelle.”
“I ripened the peaches myself. They’re not hard.” I took a peach and was about to bite into it when I heard: “There’s a fruit knife right next to your plate, darling. That little knife with the mother-of-pearl handle.”
I took a few stabs at the peach and then excused myself, walking back through the central hall toward the bathroom. But on my way I was drawn by Aunt Estelle’s wall of pictures, a floor-to-ceiling gallery of photographs of every relative born since the invention of the camera. Each photo was matted and framed, whether it was a snapshot or a full-fledged portrait, like the one of my cousin Kenny, the littlest Lindenbaum, taken when he received his doctorate from M.I.T. The photographer had airbrushed out Kenny’s acne scars, so he looked quite handsome, like a fat-faced Montgomery Clift. Kenny lived in New Mexico, where he worked as a biophysicist for the army, doing some research that made him terribly nervous. During his annual Passover visit, his left cheek twitched and his hands trembled so that he could barely break a piece of matzoh. He was not his parents’ favorite.
There were other pictures too: Grandma Yetta cuddling baby Estelle while three-year-old Hilda stared at the floor, her toddler shoulders slumping wearily; Uncle Julius as a boy in Bensonhurst, slouching, trying to look cool and American. And Cousin Helen in her middy blouse, waving; Great-aunt Bertha, whose breasts were so huge, like two giant knackwursts, that her belt fit over them; Cousins Morty and Harold, grinning, their eyes obscured by the shadow from the peaks of their Brooklyn Dodger caps. There was even a picture of my parents pushing me in my carriage; I was sitting up but kept in place by a harness that attached to the carriage. I must have been less than a year old. I was bald and unsmiling.
But most of the photographs were of my cousin Barbara, the finest flowering of the family tree. There was Barbara as a child, pudgy-cheeked, in her Brownie uniform. Barbara on roller skates. Barbara dressed in a pink, gauzy strapless prom gown, a corsage of orchids on her wrist. With a tennis racket. With a bridal gown. With Buckingham Palace behind her. With Philip, her husband, beside her. With Michael and Peter, her sons. And again with tennis racket, this time on her private court.
On her wedding day, Barbara had turned to me, her matron of honor, and whispered, “Isn’t life wonderful?” I found myself smiling instead of gagging. She had seemed sincere. Barbara had been born happy and lucky. When she smiled, the world beamed back.
Aunt Estelle somehow wafted into the hallway, landing right beside me. I did not realize she was there until she touched my arm.
“Marcia,” she said, taking my hand into hers. Her hand was padded and soft, like the softest part of a baby. “Don’t be depressed, darling.” I turned to meet her eyes, but they were gazing at a silver-framed snapshot of her grandsons, dressed in identical blazers and slacks, the uniform of their country day school. “You’ll meet someone right. Your time will come too.”
It wasn’t until later, on the way home, that I realized I had been so upset with my aunt that I had forgotten to go to the bathroom.
My mother and I took the same subway. Her ride was only minutes long, and I had another three quarters of an hour to Greenwich Village, but our short time together was more frightening and silent than the rest of my ride, alone in the subway. Full-bladdered, I twitched about in my seat. She sat beside me for those few minutes, her legs pressed tightly together, her hands, clenched into hard fists, resting on unyielding thighs. I listened to the gut-churning screech of the train’s wheels, read a poster advising victims of violent crimes to telephone a Manhattan number for counseling, and learned from the writing on the wall that Carmen sucks cocks and Susan loves Jay 4-ever.
My mother’s silence felt stifling. I sensed she was hard at her wordless work, raking over her resentments. Her squat, thick trunk, seemingly detached from her mind and rigid legs, swayed and shook with the subway’s motion. First, of course, was her weekly humiliation by my Aunt Estelle. My mother saw herself forced to sit at a dinner table covered with meats and starches and condiments that cost more than she spent on food for an entire week. She saw herself accepting the castoff cashmere cardigan, the outmoded handbag, the dross of a wealthy woman’s life, the passé luxuries Aunt Estelle concluded were too good for her maid.
My mother ran her fingers over her cheek; both hand and face were covered with a veil of wrinkles. Her sister’s face was lubricated by the queen bee, colored with powders and gels so expensive that a half-ounce jar of night cream cost what my mother might spend on a new spring coat. To have such a sister as Estelle, to yearn to buy, despite shrugged disclaimers, nightgowns with hand embroidery and to be visited weekly by a little Polish lady who creams your cuticles, to go to a Florida health spa to lose five pounds, to gain it back at catered luncheons and restaurant dinners. To realize that while she cut coupons for 10¢ off Fab, her sister was cutting them from City of Utica bonds, 6.1 percent, due 1996.
It wasn’t right. My mother was smarter than her sister. While my Aunt Estelle skimmed the label of a blouse, searching for assurance that it was truly one hundred percent silk, my mother read books. Each Saturday afternoon she would visit the library, leaving an hour later with a shopping bag of ten or twelve books that would last her until the next weekend. She read everything, from ponderous translations of German allegories to modern gothic romances, where the heroine is ravished once every thirty pages. She read biographies of musicians, accounts of demonic possession, ghosted autobiographies of politicians and starlets, and every book that dealt, even peripherally, with American and Western European aristocracy.
So unfair, said my mother’s tight mouth, with dry little lines radiating from her lips. To have had only one child and then, at age sixty, to discover an inexorable law of nature: Losers beget losers. Her daughter was not dependable. She was not married. She was not elegant. Her humor was suspect. Hilda couldn’t even have the pleasure of a few warm chuckles with a bright, delicious daughter, a fair-haired Barbara who would invite her to lunch in Manhattan and tell her frothy tales of her joyous marital life.
“Good-bye,” she said as the train pulled into her stop.
I returned to an empty apartment. Jerry, I knew, was with Paterno, holding his hand and fielding telephone calls from cronies and reporters who wanted an eyewitness account of Gresham’s death.
The apartment we shared in Greenwich Village was about two blocks away from the charming section and a half block from where the old Women’s House of Detention used to be, until it had been razed when someone decided it was unfit even for whores and junkies. Our building, a five-story walk-up, was constructed from the same sort of dank brick that the jail had been, and it looked gloomy. If Emily Brontë had written about apartment houses, she might have seen the façade of ours in her imagination.