Time, Untethered

Her hand is in mine; clammy because it is hot on these streets that smell of burgers, oil, and urine. She tries to lace her fingers with mine. I pull away slightly, aware of the implications.

“My mother didn’t like holding my hand,” she tells the therapist casually. “Sweaty palms triggered her.” She is old enough to understand everything now. The therapist is helping her process the hugeness of it all.

We are on a family outing. She skips ahead with her brother as my husband wraps his arm around my waist. We look like an adorable family. I dress casually. My hair is cut short; shaved on one side. My husband’s Batman t-shirt attracts the attention of the crowds of teenagers gathering in the streets for a comic convention. My daughter dances when she walks. There is a constant beat in her head. My son follows her steps like a disciple. He worships her. Today she is 11. He is 8 and 16 hours. His devotion twists me up inside

and I am following him down the steep staircase because I would do anything for his attention. He is my god, and when he throws me aside, I am turned to dust. His love burns through me, shredding my sense of self and every future moment I feel a fragment of this moment poking into the bubble I will have to form around me so that I can breathe.

I love that they love each other. I love that we all love each other. I lean forward a bit so that I can have a lead on the time capsule that forever pursues me. I lean too far 

and I am holding my son in my arms and telling him he is big and strong and capable and it is ok for him to leave me. I am shattering my heart with a mighty hammer of lies. I am pretending I am able to let go. I have made a life of imaginary corridors I conquer with a presumed strength because I could not let the only grounding facts of my life weigh me down, drowning them with me. My home is emptying of the now and I am left without reasons to keep the monster at bay. My husband will feel the wrath of the past. He will welcome it and accept it as he has all the pieces of me throughout our love story.

I lower myself onto the grass, inhaling the end of summer. They are playing, the three parts of my present, while I 

run. He is chasing me with a hairbrush, screaming that I left it and he just wants to talk. I push past my friend and pull the door closed behind me. I bolt it and sink to the floor. I can still smell his desire. I am 15, and I am 8, and I don’t know where I am anymore as I

pull the blades of grass and run my fingers through the earth while my husband stretches out a stable hand to me 

and lifts me onto his lap and opens my mouth with his teeth and demands I learn to kiss because that’s what all brothers do

and I walk along in this postcard of a family full of joy 

and I don’t know how to be a grownup. My children resent me because they found out all the truths I still can’t say and ask me why I never told. My parched lips part

I scream in silence into time

and his tongue is in my mouth, and his hand is clammy, and I hate the body I am in and wander up into the lights where I hide the child I will never be

I am mother, wife, child, sister, friend, and I am worthy

and people are asking questions that confuse me so I stutter and they call me a liar 

and I take her hand in mine. It is clammy. I want to pull away.

My past, present, and future line up to challenge my memory bank. The transactions are mixed up. The numbers are wrong. I can’t find the point that is me on a timeline because once upon a time when time still ran its course, I followed the devil down to a place where time stands still and runs away, always and forevermore.

She is 11 and he is 8 and I am every moment I ever was and ever will be.

 

A Poppy Seed Cookie

“Ok, ok,” she said in what I think might have been an annoyed kind of tone.

“I’ll show you how. Come downstairs later and you can watch me. But I don’t know amounts…just watch…just watch.”

Later, I watched.

Her tiny hands, even smaller because of the arthritis that kept her fingers curling in, worked at a steady pace.

I took out my notebook.

I watched.

3 eggs…1 (glass) cup oil…1 (glass) cup orange juice (plus a splash or two)…1 teaspoon (small pile in middle of palm) baking soda…no that’s 2 teaspoons…1 tablespoon (big pile in middle of palm) salt…poppy… don’t forget the 1/2 cup poppy…handful flour…no two…three…three handfuls…mix…more handfuls flour…mix again…another handful…flour until doughy. Drop spoonfuls…medium sized…then shape them into ovals…stick a fork in each one…you have to do this…it’s important…bake until you can see the tiniest bit of brown on the bottom – no more.

“See?”

She smiled and we brought some of them upstairs and put the rest in plastic bags in the freezer.

That first Rosh Hashana, I made a triple batch of them.

We ate some on the chag. I put some in plastic bags in my freezer. The rest, I brought to my brother.

“Taste it,” I insisted. “It’s just like Bubby’s. I watched her.”

He put them in plastic bags in his freezer.

And then years passed. A lot of years. Too many years.

And today I thought of them…fleetingly.

I almost missed it.

But then I added some things to the list.

Orange juice…poppy seeds.

I pulled out my notebook…I measured…I mixed…I added a bit more flour…mixed some more…and I made sure to poke them all with a fork…and I took them out as soon as I saw the slightest tinge of brown.

I bit into the first available one.

The memories flooded me…poured through me relentlessly…and now I sit, with poppy seeds stuck between my teeth…and my heart full of a past begging me to let live on these pages.

So I write…

…about a car full of kids, traveling for forever until the sounds and smells of New York waft through the windows and suddenly no one is cranky anymore and everyone seems to have too much energy for one seven-seater van stuffed with at least ten people.

We’re finally here, but we have to work out the parking first. The driveway is never empty – no matter what year it is, and no matter that we are expected. Someone runs upstairs to announce our arrival and plead for help with the tricky navigation.

After circling the block too many times, we’ve squeezed in and now have to figure out how to squeeze us and our luggage out.

It happens somehow, and we race up the front stoop and across the porch, through the doors that squeak, up the stairs that creak, careful to skip those three steps that are mere triangles attempting to stand in for a gradual turn as we stumble through both the door to the living room and the door to the kitchen and suddenly stop in our tracks because at the end of the day, this is foreign.

The language is foreign, the people are foreign, the neighborhood is foreign and we are looked at here and made to feel like we are foreign.

“Ma?”

She always calls out to her mother in question form…and follows it with words jumbled together that make no real sense but we know it means she’s saying hello.

It smells like fried onions – never garlic – mixed with industrial cleaning agents and a hint of pine from an aerosol can.

It sounds old…creaking and cranking and gravelly voices speaking in tongues…and it’s maroon and orange and brown…but there’s some green and blue and even pink if you take a step back and really look for her little artistic touches.

When all our senses readjust to accommodate all…all THIS…we focus on her.

She’s smiling…not too broadly, but enough to put us at ease. She half hugs us all because there’s something in her hands because she’s always doing things when we arrive.

It’s late and we really should go to sleep, but first, we need a little something to eat.

There’s marble cake in the pantry, and popcorn and chips…chocolate mints in the fridge…and yeast cake in the freezer…and always plastic bags of frozen poppy cookies…mahn kichelech…but we never say it like that because it doesn’t come out sounding right.

We drink weird soda…Half & Half or 50/50, depending on the era…and we split up for sleep.

There’s the orange room…the one my mother used to share with her grandmother…and it still smells like her, especially in the closet where a lone dress hangs.

The blue room is the boy’s room, even when the girls sleep there. The laundry line hangs out the window and when all the beds are pulled out, it’s like a giant trampoline.

The living room is sometimes the favorite…when you get the bottom of the pull-out couch…because then you’re sleeping under the table. The sheets are shiny brown and you know it’s going to be a slippery night.

Then there’s the little room.

It’s off the master bedroom and there’s no real door. The piano is stuffed into the corner and covered with bags of old clothing. The bed has a pile of linens and blankets on it that slowly goes down as everyone chooses a spot and settles in.

I stretch out on the bed, my legs raised slightly above my head, and I know that I will wake up in middle of the night feeling like I have been folded in half and have to rearrange my body on the lumpy bed quietly as my Zaidy snores and my Bubby’s breath whistles through the air.

We wake up early in the morning.  Zaidy is already sitting at the dining room table after eating toast and cottage cheese, or stale cake dipped in milk, and Bubby is bustling around the tiny kitchen because, of course, it’s Erev Pesach…or Erev Sukkos, depending on the year.

There’s only so much we can do to stay out of the way, but we manage to do it all each time.

The porch game is the best. We step out onto the old, crumbly porch that’s off the room that’s off the master bedroom, and we play something we don’t know is called chicken. We have to venture away from the wall and slowly walk across the porch. It takes a good five minutes to get to a spot deemed far enough by the others, and less than a second to be back against the wall on more stable ground. We know someone is going to fall straight through the floor and die on the porch below. If not this time, for sure next time.

One year we arrive to find a new, smaller porch attached to the house made of something safer like iron or something, so the game is over.

We explore the attic. It is so scary. Scarier than the porch. The stairs are wooden and you have to lean over the banister to pull the string to turn on the light. Sometimes that part is too scary so we go up in the dark.

The rooms are gigantic and there are treasures we’d love to play with if we didn’t keep hearing ghosts.

We have to come up here if the bathroom is occupied downstairs. We try our best to avoid it. Sitting on the toilet in the corner, behind lines of laundry, not sure if you had locked the door but unable to run across the massive room to check, you do your business quickly and only wash your hands for like a half a second.

The bathroom downstairs is normal in size, but the claws on the tub and the sloping floor that makes you feel like you might go flying head first off the throne and have to be rescued with your underwear around your ankles is almost as scary as hearing the drums in the attic while you’re trying to remember whether or not you locked that too-big bathroom door.

I live the days out with little care.

I don’t know that the cow’s tongue I see unrolled on the counter will affect my taste for certain delicacies for the rest of my life.

I don’t know that I will remember the washing machine in the kitchen, or the way twenty people will shift around so that the kitchen door will open so that another family of ten can wiggle in and go looking for treasures in the pantry and the freezer.

I don’t know that the sights and smells and sounds that I am experiencing are embedding themselves deep in my soul and creating memories strong enough to make me stop in my tracks and forget to breathe.

All I know is that I am at Bubby’s house, and I am starting to feel a little less foreign than I felt when it was dark outside and the day had been long and I didn’t really want to sleep in a human sandwich-making bed and think about falling off the house with the porch.

A little piece of poppy just won’t come out on its own as the memories wist away and I pick at my teeth thoughtfully.

I once called my grandmother, at the insistence of my mother-in-law who feels strongly about that sort of thing.

Hallo?

Hi Bubby, how are you?

Who is this?

It’s Bracha…you know, from Israel.

Ah! Bracha’le! How are you?

I’m good. How are you?

Oy, Bracha’le, you don’t have to call. Your mother tells me everything.

Ok, Bubby. Have a good Shabbos.

But now, as my house fills with the smell of something old and precious to me, I think that maybe I’d like to call again…before it’s too late.

This is not a eulogy…this is a memory…one that I’d like to share with my Bubby, who still has a freezer full of treats that have the power to melt me and turn me into the child I thought could never live again.

Oh The Places I’ve Come From

“Cleveland, Cleveland, convention in Cleveland….Convention ‘97 will last forever……”

Ringing in my ears as an unwanted memory, the BY Convention song my mother wrote fourteen years ago plays in my head like a broken record.  I guess she got it right – about it lasting forever and ever and ever…but how I wish it would shut up…

Convention ‘97 was pretty uneventful when I think about it from here, but a bit of a commotion of any kind in Cleveland…well, that’s something to write about.

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio with real Brooklyn parents was a special sort of hell.  I needed to counteract the utter humiliation I experienced as an immigrant, so I worked hard on my accent and attitude.  By the time I hit third grade I could pass for a bona fide Clevelander.

When we would visit family on the other side of Pennsylvania my accent would thicken a bit, just to make sure I never forgot who I was.  It gave me great pride to be mocked by my New Yorker cousins as they chanted, “the baaaaaaaall in the haaaaaaaaaalllll hit the waaaaaallllll”.  White knee socks and sneakers with my denim skirt sealed the Out-Of-Town look.

I absolutely loved Cleveland.  I loved our house with the creaky stairs that had once been covered in bright red carpeting.  I loved the kitchen ceiling with the special opening that went up into the floor of the bathroom closet, making passing down medicine or bandaids so much easier – despite the constant drip when someone was in the shower.  I loved the laundry chute we would use as an intercom when we weren’t busy trying to unclog it.  I loved the attic with it’s sloping ceiling and the basement with it’s musty smell.  I loved our eccentric neighbors.  I loved the fact that I could get up three minutes before school started and still be on time.  I loved the Japanese crossing guard who, in retrospect, was probably a crackhead, and how she called me Broccoli and cackled.  I loved Kinneret Pizza and Gloria, the woman who used to tell on us when we tried to use the bill unauthorized.  I loved the hallways in Hebrew Academy and the auditorium with the awkward shaped chairs.  I loved my class.  I loved my friends.  I loved my life.

I thought I would never leave Cleveland.  I would have my year in Israel, where I would change slightly but bounce back after six months home, and then I would marry and settle down in good ol’ Cleveland.  My children would go to HAC and I would be the model Cleveland story.

The hitch was my parents.  In the back of my mind, I always knew Cleveland was a temporary idea for them.  It was as though they set out to break the bubble that surrounded C-Town.  They wanted to make changes.  Who would want to change Cleveland?  I mean, c’mon!

Well, the time came for the inevitable, and we moved.  I was fifteen.  I was really, really pissed.  I mean, like really, really, really, really pissed.

So away we went to the *gulp* Armpit of America and found a horrible shell of a house that was too new and too square.  And it didn’t help that it was in Lakewood…..NJ…..yeah, that’s right…

There I was, Miss Cleveland and proud of it, in a situation nothing in my life could have ever prepared me for.

It was the end of summer.  It was hot.  We were bored.  So we (me and all my siblings plus some cousins we now had to affiliate ourselves with because we were no longer OOT) took out all the riding gear we could find and biked to the main street in search of entertainment.  Not finding any, we stopped in at the local bagel store so get drinks before heading home.  Waiting on line was the principal of the school I was going to.  She inquired about me, my family and other humorless subjects and offered me a ride home.  I shrugged off her gesture and explained my bike and tag-along kids.  She raised her eyebrows.  Then she tilted her head and in a very patronizing voice proceeded to say that she is sure I didn’t know, and of course she’ll let it go this time, but it is really against the rules to…..ride a bike.

Obviously we had different ideas on life, and the school and I decided to end things early on.

By Channukah time I was back in Cleveland.

Only….it wasn’t really Cleveland.  It couldn’t be Cleveland.  Cleveland was good, and kind and wonderful.  What I experienced over the next year and a half was excruciating and shameful.  I was uncomfortable all the time.  I was misunderstood.  I had no one to talk to.  I was hurting so incredibly BADLY and NO ONE EVEN NOTICED!  Because, in Cleveland, the world is nice and rosy.  There are no bad people.  Everyone is trustworthy.  Everyone is one big family.  Everyone is safe.

I got out when I could.  I found someone, in faraway New York, who knew that people hurt other people.  He got the message across to those who needed to know, and my father came to pick me up.  I threw my things into garbage bags and ran for my life.

Years later I heard the rumors.   I joined Hells Angels.  I eloped.  I was pregnant.  I was crazy…

No one EVER called.  No one cared to find out where I disappeared to.

My utopia crashed around me viciously.  My hopes, dreams and aspirations ceased to exist and I found myself standing in Israel one day, with no place else to be, completely and utterly lost.

Now, after years of a search-and-rescue mission that has proved to be fairly successful, I sing the stupid Cleveland song and I wish it had never been.

I Miss You

It’s this time of year again and I’m thinking of you…wondering…how you’ve been.

Wishing you could see me now…look at me with those big, big eyes…maybe even smile.

It’s late…you should have come home from school long ago…I ache to see you burst through the door.

The bag we would have picked…together…slung over your slight frame…weightless.

Your face would have lit up…as you held out…the special treat your Rebbe gave…for Chanukah.

Chattering about your day…as I prepare your supper…and tend to the others…you flit about my mind.

And I miss you.

Five is a big boy now…I remind you gently to let me go…big boys know better.

You fade away from me…but cling…your tiny hand grasping…my pinky…forever.

Child of Mine

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, she comes to me.

Curling up inside my heart, she begs me to remember her.

She wants me to smile as I watch her play.  She wants me to giggle bashfully.

She wants me to be a child again.

She is a very persuasive bedmate, and I follow her in my dreams.

We cross streams, skipping over slippery rocks fearlessly, until she laughingly reminds me not to look down.   I do, and the depths of the raging river greet my falling body with a roar.

We skip through meadows, lush and green.  She leads me over a hill, and into thin air.

She takes my hand, soft and sure.  She squeezes it tight, and I watch my purple fingers fade away.

Her arms spread out; she spins around, faster and faster, until she is but a dizzying blur and a taste of bile in the back of my throat.

Her laughter, loud, boisterous, laughter, is ringing in my ears.  It echoes in my mind, daring me to listen to her silenced voice.

I cannot breathe, for she has stolen my air.

I cannot change, for she has stolen my courage.

I cannot believe, for she has stolen my faith.

She is everything I am not, and everything I could have been.

If only she would stop coming to me.

She turns, with a smile, and waves goodbye.

And I, I with my tortured dreams, grab her wavering shadow and pull her close.

I hold her, with shaking arms, and will not let her go.

She wants me to comfort her, to stroke her hair and ease away the pain.

And this child of mine, this child of mine, I will not let her go.