In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Here’s what you should know about my father: He was an ophthalmologist, a tinkerer, a surgeon, a craftsman, an artist of the microscopic fix. He hoarded broken appliances and spent his leisure time repairing them. He brought home prisms and crystals and regaled us with tricks of refracted light. He kept a chart of the migration of the Sephardic Jews on the back of his home-office door. He ran the fifty-yard dash in record time, invited all the neighborhood boys to join him on our backyard basketball court, and sent yellow roses to all the women (or girls) in his life on their birthdays. He was my source, my reference, my guide and maker. I lived for his smile.
My mother, Edwina, and my stepmother, Jan, met long before they ever shared my father’s name. My mother thinks their first meeting was on a weekday. She had taken me, her youngest, for a checkup that included a shot, and the reward for my bravery was a visit with Daddy at his office. Jan was working at the reception desk. My mother recalls Jan’s “tarty” appearance, and that she was surprised by Jan’s “warmth” and “sweetness” toward me. Jan remembers my mother as imperious except when it came to me, with whom she was “sweet.”
My mother has always been tall and thin, with short, eye-catching salt-and-pepper hair. She was in her early thirties then, a Jewish doctor’s wife with a charming old house on a tree-lined street; three healthy, precocious children; an American-made station wagon in the driveway; country-club membership; a standing appointment with a manicurist; and a colorful but classic wardrobe that rotated with the seasons. She was also living a second life — one she had worked and fought for — as a tireless activist for women’s rights and the chief legislative aide to a Detroit city councilwoman. My mother had marched in the streets for social justice; remained in her integrated, inner-city neighborhood after the infamous riots of 1967; and sent her children to Detroit’s embattled public schools.
Jan was in her late twenties, a single mother of three. She’d never been able to go to college, but she’d worked her way through a nurse’s-aide certification program and was checking in patients, performing routine examinations, and readying equipment and medicine for my father. Jan was curvy, with teased-up, dyed-blond hair and makeup befitting a Las Vegas showgirl. Her clothes, including her nurse’s uniform, were always tight.
Not long after the day my mother and Jan first met, my father developed a pattern of inexplicable forgetting: first it was birthdays, then appointments, then picking me up from dance school and attending my brother’s tennis matches. Eventually he was forgetting to report a car accident and to pay taxes. We dismissed this with nervous laughter, saying, “He’s such an absent-minded professor,” or, “He has too much on his mind.”
When I was a sophomore in high school, my mother got a phone call from a man whose wife worked for my father. (She was not Jan.) The caller was sure that his wife and my father were having an affair; he had evidence. My mother offered the man a few choice words and hung up. Later she confronted my father, and, to her utter amazement, he confessed. Within weeks the woman was gone from my father’s office, and my father was gone from our house. My mother filed for divorce. I was sixteen and miserable, the last of her children living at home. My mother was forty-three, stunned and terrified. She hadn’t been without my father since she was fifteen.
After my parents’ separation, my father’s behavior went from bad to bizarre. He disowned the three of us children, leaving me to pay my own college tuition. He stopped returning our phone calls and finding the time to see us. He refused any contact with my mother’s family, with whom he had been remarkably close — so close that my mother’s younger brother Alan had followed my father to Harvard, lived in the same house as my father, worn his jacket and tie to meals, and eventually shared his college ring. They weren’t just brothers-in-law; they were brothers. My mother’s relatives called me to cry and express their bewilderment. Why wouldn’t he see them? What had they done wrong? But I was asking the same questions myself, about my father and me.
My father had moved into a tiny, sorry, nearly empty apartment near his office. Jan offered to keep him company, and he was desperate for someone to take care of him. My parents’ divorce went through in September, the day I sat down in the front row of my first class as a college freshman. By Thanksgiving my father was married to Jan. I found this out after the fact. The wedding had been quick and secretive. No one from our family had been there. When I told my mother about it, she asked blankly, “Which one was Jan?”
Then my father blacked out in the operating room. (He was assisting the primary surgeon, and no one was hurt.) The neurologists who examined him were stunned. His synapses were badly misfiring. They were amazed he could drive a car, let alone perform as a doctor. He had dementia at best, Alzheimer’s at worst. He had to retire, immediately. The diagnosis was a gift to my family. At least now we had an explanation for his erratic, mean, sometimes terrifying behavior: he was literally losing his mind.
I developed a theory that my father had been unfaithful so that my mother would kick him out. He could then marry the care-giving Jan and spare my mother the protracted torture of watching him disappear and eventually die. In my theory, he had married each of his wives because she was the right fit for what lay ahead: My mother had been a bride of promise, a righteous companion, the perfect person with whom to navigate adulthood, professional life, and family. Jan was a wife for the worst of times — the steadfast, selfless, faithful nurse. As admirable a person as my mother is, she was not ready to sacrifice her own career, emotional wellness, and health to care for my father during his slow demise. Jan was.
And Jan became a kind of mother figure to me as well, as she insulated me from the ugly truth of my father’s illness. His decline corresponded with my years of wandering in the wilderness of early adulthood, trying out careers, boyfriends, hairstyles, apartments, and cities, but thanks to Jan I never felt any pressure to stop this ignoble (but completely necessary) pursuit and move back to Michigan to tend to my father. She allowed me the freedom to travel my own path uninterrupted.
One day my mother was at the hairdresser’s, sitting under the dryer with an array of tinfoil antennae in her hair and a magazine open in her lap, when she noticed that the woman under the next dryer was staring at her. The woman whispered tentatively, “Are you Mrs. Davis?”
“Yes, yes, I am.”
“So am I,” the woman giggled. “I’m Jan, Jerry’s wife.”
After they’d gotten over their surprise, my mother asked how Jan and my father were doing. Jan said he hardly recognized anyone anymore, and he kept asking about Mary: “Who is Mary? Do you think there’s another woman in his life?”
My mother chuckled and explained that Mary had been his housekeeper growing up. She would cut the crusts off his sandwiches and took impeccable care of him. He hadn’t seen Mary in forty years.
Jan was relieved. My mother gave Jan her phone number and told her to call anytime she needed help deciphering my father’s ramblings.
And so my mother became her ex-husband’s informal biographer. From then on, it wasn’t unusual to find her on the phone, conveying my father’s history to Jan: his bar mitzvah, his high-school basketball career, his difficulty choosing a medical specialty. The two women met for lunch, and my mother unearthed photographs of weddings, babies, in-laws, vacations, and graduations. And when my father’s disease made him belligerent and dangerous, and he needed to be moved to a facility equipped to handle someone in his condition (something Jan knew was necessary but did not have the heart to do), it was my mother who offered her absolution. “It’s ok ,” I heard her whisper into the phone. “He’s sick. You’ve done all you can do. You’ve got to start to let him go.” She repeated, “Let him go.”
My father died on December 1, 1992, one of the rare Alzheimer’s patients who are actually killed by the disease. His brain simply forgot to tell his lungs to breathe, his heart to beat. He was fifty-seven years old. For days I could not tell anyone: I could not get the words to escape my throat. His death was literally unspeakable to me.
He left his organs to the Alzheimer’s department at the University of Michigan. The rest he asked to have cremated. Jan decided to hold a service at a Catholic funeral home. My mother offered to observe a few nights of shiva — the Jewish mourning period — at her home, but not the standard seven nights, saying simply, “I am not his widow. He had a wife.”
At the last minute, Jan called my brother and suggested he find a rabbi for the funeral; she thought my father would have wanted one. My brother spent hours calling Jewish organizations and agencies, trying to find a rabbi who would come to a Catholic funeral home, stand beneath a crucifix, and perform the funeral service for a Jewish man he’d never met. It took the better part of the day and night, but my brother found a willing young rabbi from a liberal temple in a remote suburb.
The day of the funeral was gray and cold, the sky a single cloud, the leafless winter trees of Michigan looking more bent and broken than usual. From my mother’s house north of Detroit we drove in a long, somber line to the funeral home an hour away. The place was solemn and hushed. More than a hundred people milled past the closed coffin. (We were surprised by the turnout; so many of my father’s friends and colleagues had given him up for dead when the disease had overtaken him.) The families gathered in the funeral director’s office. Jan’s three children were there with their spouses: the women wore evening dresses and glittery eye shadow; their husbands, three-piece suits. Jan stood alone in the middle of the room wearing a clingy black dress with a cascade of appliquéd, sequined flowers. Her jewelry was sparkling and abundant, and she teetered on four-inch stiletto heels.
My family sat across the room from Jan’s, slumped in chairs and leaning on one another. I wore a black skirt and garnet silk blouse that I would hastily give away the following week so as not to be reminded of the day I gave my father’s eulogy. Around my neck I had several strands of beads that my father had given my mother, and I fidgeted with them obsessively, fingering one stone after the other. All of us were numb with grief. Only my mother was animated, pacing in her low-heeled navy suede pumps, clutching the delicate white handkerchief with my father’s mother’s initial embroidered into the corner. Occasionally she would spin the ring on her right pinkie, the ring my father had given her one year for their anniversary; it spelled “love” in gold script.
The rabbi had trouble finding the funeral home and came in late, adjusting his glasses and mumbling apologies. I wish I could remember his name, because he was responsible for what happened next, one of the sweetest moments in the history of first wife–second wife relations: Gazing around the room at our motley assortment, he asked, “Who is Mrs. Davis?”
With one long stride, my mother appeared by Jan’s side, straightened up to her full height, took Jan’s trembling hand in hers, and said, “We are.”
That was more than a decade ago. My mother and Jan still meet, usually at the hairdresser’s, where they coo at photographs of each other’s grandchildren and exchange news of marriages, deaths, retirements, and breakups. Both are well, both single but happy and living full lives — Jan working and taking classes, my mother volunteering in Africa with AIDS victims and for women’s causes in Michigan. They both garden and take their grandchildren to the zoo each spring. They both continue to use my father’s name.
“The Mrs. Davises” first appeared in the anthology My Father Married Your Mother: Writers Talk About Stepparents, Stepchildren and Everyone in Between (Norton), edited by Anne Burt. It appears here by permission of the author.