I am mesmerized by the photograph of my father, staring at me from solemn dark eyes just like mine. He is dressed splendidly in a striped suit and white shoes; I cannot tell the colors of anything else because the faded sepia tones of the photograph reflect only subdued lights and darks. A dandy, my father was, with a handkerchief in his pocket and a flower in his lapel, his dark hair perfectly parted on the side. There is an anger in the way he stands, and a shyness; the look on his face is sullen and inviting. He was younger then than I am now, that father, when the photograph was taken. He meant it to be for his mother. She died, suddenly, before he had seen the proofs, and since he had paid in advance he gave the photo to his girl, the girl who came all those miles to marry him and become my mother.
That gay young gir1, so full of hope and romance, who left everyone behind, who made herself deaf to the pleas of her mother, who knew his mother and so knew what he was: that girl, my mother, looks at me from the photograph next to his on my table. Her look is not like his: she is beautiful, and smiling, and she has raised her head to gaze into the lens with an expression of happiness I have never seen on her face. Her photograph is colored, by hand, in lovely light pastels. She is so very young.
“Well, of course you knew, darling, that he was married before? Well, of course she knew, Hannah, didn’t she?” It is my aunt, Birdie, sitting in one of the blue chairs in our kitchen, drinking tea, her body all awkward angles; she is too tall and too blonde and too thin, and she has turned to my mother in terror, aware in the silence that she has made a terrible mistake, aware that, of course, I did not know that my father had been married before, aware that she has done something irreparable. Seven years later, just before I am to be twelve years old and am wearing a new lilac pique dress with lace on the bodice, Birdie jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge.
My mother and father have been fighting; they always are. He has been cursing her and she is crying. Birdie’s husband, my father’s brother Lou, telephones to tell us what has happened, and my mother takes the call. When she hangs up, she screams at my father, “Birdie is dead! You’d like to see me like that, you son of a bitch, wouldn’t you? You’d like to see me dead!” I stand in the hall, between my mother and my father, fingering the lace on my new dress, and wonder if this will spoil my birthday party which is planned for the next day. I have never before heard my mother curse, and I find it thrilling.
Aunt Birdie, her daughter (my cousin Corlene), and Birdie’s little sister Marian, who married my father’s brother Len and then died, were the only people I knew who were not Jewish. I dream of beautiful Marian still; in my dreams she is turned away from me, intent on the garment she is ironing, and I can never, no matter how hard I try, see her face. Corlene had all the Nancy Drew mystery books in a special bookcase that Uncle Lou built for her. She was four years older than I, and glamorous; she had her mother’s blonde hair and angular body, and I wanted to be her more than I wanted anything in the world. She was always generous to me. She let me watch her put on makeup, and let me take the pin curls down from her hair and comb it, and once she took me to the Golden Gate Theatre to see Frank Sinatra. I’ve never forgotten that.
My father had six brothers, and only my uncle Julius is left. All but one came from Montreal to San Francisco to work at their father’s trade: they were kosher butchers. The eldest brother Leo became a psychiatrist somewhere in New Jersey. The first time I told someone that, he laughed, and I didn’t know why. The mother, the father, the brothers and sisters all sacrificed so that Leo could get an education. The other boys slept three to a bed; Leo had his own room, because he needed his sleep so he could study. If there was anger or resentment l never heard of it: there was only pride when any of them talked about Leo.
We visited Leo once, and I remember that he held me up high and pretended he was going to throw me away, and I was terrified. There were five girls in my father’s family, all of whom stayed in Canada and married good men. I met them a few times but 1 was never sure which was which except for the oldest, Fanny, who looked like my grandmother, as I do, and was kind to me. She baked wonderful white cakes with white frosting, and she never used a recipe.
They were strong people, my father’s family; strong in the way that someone, or something, endures. They could get through anything. Stubborn, like me. Smart. Sharp. Funny, sarcastic, hard-working people who were good to their children and careless of themselves. They were always shouting, always on the edge of anger. I never knew who in the family my mother and my father were and were not talking to.
Julius was different from the rest. He married a quiet, fragile girl named Alise, and late, when their first two children were nearly grown, Alise gave birth to a little boy who was deformed. Alise tried twice to kill herself. They put the baby in an institution and he died when he was a year old. Julius never went to see him; he couldn’t bear the pain. Julius was the first, after the brothers went into business together, to leave the trade. He became a property manager.
I think that finally they all patched things up, the rest of my father’s family, that they found a way to be friends most of the time. My family was alone, on the outside. My father didn’t care. He seemed to need no one but himself, but my mother was very lonely. My mother never understood what went wrong, why the happiness she deserved did not come. She didn’t know why my father didn’t like her or my aunts or uncles. When I was a very little girl she began to talk to me about it; I was her only friend, the only person she could trust in that terrible aloneness. She taught me that she was right and that my father and his people were wrong. She taught me that I was hers, and that we had to stand together against the others or we would be lost.
It is hard to be my mother’s daughter and my father’s daughter. When he died five years ago, I thought it would be easier. It is not. I continue to stand in the hall between them, thinking of all the spoiled birthday parties, all the spoiled lives, and I wish I could tell my mother how it could have been different.