Saturday, February 25, 2012

Putting on the Ritz

By the age of 42 my Aunt Mindy was fed up with ironing her father’s handkerchiefs and reading the newspaper out loud to him every night. So when Sammy Fleischmann asked her “Will you?” she answered “I will.” They were married, and living in Queens, within the month.
After a weekend honeymoon in Atlantic City, Aunt Mindy was working beside her husband at Fleischmann’s Fish Market, up to her elbows in scaly things. From that day on she was known to everyone — family, customers and strangers — as Aunt Fishy.
She didn’t have an easy time of it. Sammy wasn’t a bad man, he just wasn’t a lot of fun. No movies, no theater, never a night out dancing. 

Aunt Fishy said she was lonely way out there in Queens, with everybody she knew still living in the Bronx. For a woman who had been so eager to get away from home, she was more than happy to have us come visit. Many a Sunday afternoon was spent in the Fleischmann’s house, a very tiny house, a doll’s house, my mother called it.
Even though they owned a fish store, we were never served fish in that house. Or meat. Or fresh vegetables. We never even got spaghetti. Aunt Fishy served only Ritz crackers. Crackers slathered with Skippy peanut butter or Philly cream cheese or Welch’s 100% grape jelly. Crackers decorated with slices of olives or pickles.  
Somehow Aunt Fishy got it into her head that Ritz crackers were classy. 

As soon as we left her house my father would drive us right over to the nearest White Castle restaurant so we could gorge ourselves on those square little hamburgers. Otherwise we would have starved.

Eventually, after a lifetime in the Fish Market, Uncle Sammy decided to hang up his apron and retire. He was getting too old to stand on his feet all day, he said. This was good news to Aunt Fishy. They planned their first real vacation since their honeymoon: a week in Miami Beach. 

But then, before they could even pack their bags, Aunt Fishy died. It happens like that, sometimes. There’s no rhyme or reason, and no one to complain to.
After the funeral service people crowded into the tiny house in Queens. There were trays piled high with deli meats; a carved turkey; bowls of herring, borscht, chopped liver; lox and bagels; knishes and danish. The mourners stood, shoulder to shoulder, balancing paper plates in one hand and plastic cups of seltzer in the other. 
“She was such a cheerful woman,” one of her neighbors said, “always ready with a how-di-do.” 

I wondered who she was talking about. I never heard a how-di-do come out of Aunt Fishy’s mouth. I tried to catch my sister’s eye but she was busy wiping away a tear with the corner of a cocktail napkin. I had to wonder if I was the only one who’d never gotten the “how-di-do” treatment.

After a while I realized Uncle Sammy was missing. Not that I really cared, but I figured he shouldn’t be ignored on this day, of all days. 
So I pushed past the cousins and the neighbors and some of the old customers, until I got to the little kitchen in the back of the house. 

That’s where I found him, hunched over the formica table, schmearing mayonnaise onto Ritz crackers, placing a single yellow raisin in the exact middle of each one. He held a cracker up to me, the first time he’d ever offered me anything, or even acknowledged my existence. 
We sat there, chewing noisily, until my mother found me and said it was time to leave.
We didn’t stop at the White Castle on the way home. Out of respect for Aunt Fishy, my father said. 

But I think maybe he was finally full, from all the herring and corned beef.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Rockaway Beach

I pick up the large pink conch shell with “Rockaway Beach 1955” spelled out in gold glitter script and hold it against my right ear. I don’t hear the lapping waves of the Atlantic or even a mermaid’s sigh. I hear kvetching.
—Herman, didja bring the Coppertone? Where in your bag? I can’t find nothing in here, you have too much junk.
—Ma, Jakie hit me.
—I did not.
—You did too.
—I did not.
—Ma, he’s lying, wash his mouth out good.
—I ain’t lying.
—There ain’t no ain’t in the dictionary, snot breath.
—I only hit you back, that doesn’t count.
—Herman, what is this? Pornography you’re bringing to the ocean? This is a family beach. Why’d you pack this magazine for? What, you're a playboy now, not a tailor? Don't be such a putz.
—Ma, can I go in yet, it’s been twenty minutes since I ate. Ten more minutes? I only had a half a sandwich. It was tuna, Ma, that’s a fish, you can’t get a cramp in the ocean from a fish.
My Grandma Essie had an apartment filled with kitsch, only we called them tchotkes. The plastic rickshaw with wheels that really moved. The yellow porcelain candy dish shaped like a pineapple. The tissue box decorated with pieces of painted macaroni. A door knob shaped like a breast. To be fair, I can’t blame her for the doorknob, it was a Mother’s Day gift from her son, my Uncle Arnie.
In fact, I can’t blame Grandma for anything. She was a simple, pious woman. She never did an unkind thing and, as my mother always said about her mother-in-law, “She never complains.” 

Zero taste in home furnishings, but she was a good woman.
Even so, I was not overly generous in my love for her. And I can tell you why. It’s because everyone always said how much I looked like her. My Aunt Mindy, My Uncle Herman, Tante Thelma — the entire clan opened their collective mouths to exclaim: “Look at those eyes, those are Mama’s eyes exactly.” “Is this Mama’s hair or is this Mama’s hair? It’s Mama’s hair!” 

Aunt Vivian would grab hold of my cheek, her red-lacquered fingernails squeezing until she broke skin. “You’ve got Mama’s coloring, Bubelah. I look at your face and all I see is Mama. Oy, you shayna maideleh you.”  

“She’s got Mama’s ass,” was  Arnie’s contribution, but I wouldn’t have expected anything less from him.
What were these people talking about? 

My grandmother was four feet tall. She had exactly two teeth in her head. Her nose slouched down and rubbed against her upper lip. Her thin gray hair was pulled back into a small rat’s nest of a bun. Her fingers were stained yellow from nicotine and her red fingernail polish was forever chipped. Her thick old lady stockings sagged; her shoes were ugly. 

Was the whole family crazy? I did not look like her. Forget the eyes, and the hair, forget coloring. There was no resemblance. None. None.

—Mamela, hold this shell up to your ear, you can hear the ocean.

—No, Grandma, I can’t, I don’t hear anything.

=== === ===

years later
conch shell
echoes Mamela, Mamela

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Such a Happy Day

“Once there was a girl and her name was I Can’t Hear You, and whenever someone asked her her name she said I Can’t Hear You, so then they’d ask her again and she’d say I Can’t Hear You, and then ....”

“Honey,” I say, “I get it.”
“You do?”
“Uh huh.”
“Do you think it’s funny?”
“Yes, it’s hilarious.”
“I made it up.”
“You’re a very clever girl.”
We walk on, she and I, west to east across the city, which isn’t as far as it sounds because we aren’t all the way west and we aren’t going all the way east. 

I push some stray hairs behind her ears. It’s very windy out today but she wouldn’t wear a hat because the sun is shining and she wants to feel it on her head.

“Once I owned the sun,” she says, “no, not owned, I mean once we were friends and we played together all the time. Even when nobody else could see the sun I could because she was my best, best friend. ”
“What happened?” I ask. 
“Hunh?” she asks.
“What happened with the sun? Are you still friends?”
“Of course we are. Can’t you tell?” She throws her head way back so that her face is exposed to even more of the sun's rays.
There’s an ice cream truck up ahead so I reach into my purse for my wallet, but she grabs my hand. “We can do better,” she says. It’s the first time she’s used this expression. I hear my mother’s voice in her; it makes me feel mushy inside, right next to my heart.
“Once,” she says, “there was a man and he wasn’t very nice and he carved an ugly face on a pumpkin, but then a fairy came and she made the pumpkin beautiful and she put the ugly face on the man.”
“That’s only fair,” I say. We stop for the light. 
“I like red,” she says. “Red Bed Dead Said Red Led Wed Fed Red.”
The light changes and we hurry across. We’re holding hands. I give her fingers a little squeeze. I could say something about that one word, dead, but I keep my mouth shut.
“I like green, too,” she says, and she starts to skip in that hop-jump way she has. “Green Bean Seen Mean Teen.” She gives a little laugh. “Teen Teen Teen Teen Teen Teen.” She looks up into my face and says it again. “Teen.” This is her favorite word.
“One day when I grow up I will be a teenager,” she says, for the umpteenth time, and I say, “You surely will, Honey.”
I don’t think she knows any teenagers. Her cousins are eight and three, her babysitter is 54. Still, she knows being a teenager is the best thing in the whole wide world. She tells me this all the time.
“Once,” she whispers, so I have to bend over to hear her, which is very awkward, but I do it, “there was an old lady who lived in a shoe and when she went to sleep at night she had to lace herself in so no one could hurt her, but what do you think happened?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“But what do you think?”
“Did someone come along and steal the shoe with her in it?”
“No, they did not.”
“Then I’m afraid I don’t know.”
“Don’t be afraid, I’ll tell you. A magic person found the shoe and sprinkled magic dust inside, in the holes, you know, for the laces, and in the morning when the old lady woke up she was an orange.”
“An orange?” I ask.
“Uh huh. The kind you eat.”
“Are you hungry?” I ask. 
“Yep. But not for an orange.”
“We’re almost home,” I say.
A woman on the other side of the street is walking under a huge striped umbrella. 
“It isn’t raining,” she says. 
“I know.” 
“She is wasting her umbrella.” 
“Yes,” I say, “she is.”
“Once,” she says, “a very silly lady who was also foolish, and had once been an orange, decided she wanted to learn how to fly so she jumped up onto a little bird’s back, but the bird was in a tree and it wasn’t flying that day so the silly lady never learned how to fly. 

Once,” she says, barely taking a breath, “there was a boy and he was very bad and his mommy made him eat nails, and they tasted like,” she pauses for a second to think, “they tasted like dirty nails.”
“Yuck,” I say, “that doesn’t sound so nice.”
“It isn’t nice, because you know why?”
“Because he wasn’t nice. He was — he was throw up.” I know where this is heading. “He was a big fat disgusting stinky blecky ball of throw up.”
“Okay,” I say, “that’s enough.”
“Is it?” she asks.
“Yes, I think it is.”
“I don’t think it is. I think it’s not enough.”
I give her hand a little squeeze and she squeezes mine back and she says, “Okay, it is enough, I guess.”
By now we’re at our corner and she waves to a stranger in the dry cleaning store. Whenever we walk past the dry cleaning store she waves, and if there’s no one to see through the big window she just waves at the window. She loves the dry cleaning store. She tells me every day that her favorite smell in all the world is the smell that's inside the dry cleaning store. I could worry about this, but I decide not to.
There are so many things I could worry about but today I decide not to worry about any of them.
We take the elevator upstairs and leave our sneakers in the hallway by the front door. We slip our feet into slippers. We both love doing this. She loved it first and I learned it from her. 
She runs to the bathroom to pee. I can hear her singing from her perch on the toilet: “Tinkerbell Stinkerbell Honeybell Moneybell Vunderbarbell.” She has a clear, strong voice. She sings very loudly.
I’m preparing two bowls of vanilla ice cream. Baby marshmallows and blue M & M’s go in hers. 
When she comes out of the bathroom we take our bowls to the living room and sit on the couch. Her feet don’t touch the ground. Not even close. For a second the sight of her legs dangling over the edge, in those blue dungarees with the cuffs folded back and the red plaid flannel showing, almost makes me sob. But then I laugh, instead. She wiggles her feet up and down until her fuzzy purple slippers fall off and she laughs, too. 
“This was such a happy day,” I say.
“What happened today?” she asks.
“Nothing,” I say. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Loretta Young's Horror Scope

Loretta Young is about to walk down that elegant spiral staircase. I wonder which gown she’ll be wearing today.
Oh look, it’s red! Doesn’t she look beautiful? Red looks so good with her black hair. And it goes with her lipstick, too, which is also red. She always matches.
Loretta Young glides down the stairs, she does not trip, she is smiling her perfect smile.
“Grandma,” I say, “isn’t she the most beautiful woman . . . .”
“Sha.” Grandma puts her finger to her lips.
“But Grandma,” I persist, “don’t you think she looks exactly like . . . .”
“Sha sha, it’s starting.”
I was going to say, “Don’t you think she looks exactly like Mommy?” because my mother has black hair, too, and she wears red lipstick. She never wears a red dress, though, and her smile isn’t that big or that white, but still I think they could be sisters, my mother and Loretta Young.
Grandma’s right, the show is starting, and we never talk when Loretta Young is talking, so I push back against the sofa cushions and wait to see who Loretta Young is going to be this time.
Today she is a housewife, so she doesn’t have any sparkling jewels around her neck and she’s wearing an ordinary sort of dress. Though not as ordinary as Grandma’s dress, which would be silly, because she is Loretta Young.
She’s standing in her pretty white kitchen and there are little lace curtains on the windows, and pictures of cows and chickens on the walls. Loretta Young is at the stove, making stacks of pancakes. Each one is perfectly round and golden-brown, and she’s humming to herself. She must really love to make pancakes.
Then the telephone rings and Loretta Young goes over to the wall and pulls down the receiver and says, “Hello,” in a happy voice. But then all of a sudden her face looks so sad and she says, “I see.” She says, “Yes, I understand, I’ll be there as soon as I possibly can.”
She hangs up the phone and sits down at the kitchen table. She has tears in her eyes. Even with tears she looks beautiful.
Loretta Young’s husband comes into the kitchen, holding a newspaper in one hand. He can see right away that something is wrong.
“Mama died,” she tells him, “and I have to go home for the funeral. I’ll take the train and I’ll only be gone a couple of days.”
“That’s a shame, Hon,” her husband says. He’s a nice man. Sometimes her husbands are mean. Once she had a husband who tried to make her do something she didn’t want to do and she said to him, “When hell freezes over.” I asked Grandma if Loretta Young was going to get in trouble for saying “hell” but she said when you’re Loretta Young certain allowances can be made.
I am just so relieved that this time her husband is kind. He says, “Billy and I can manage on our own for a few days, don’t you worry about us,” and she tells him there are casseroles in the freezer and he should help himself to the flap jacks. I ask Grandma what are flap jacks, but she just shrugs. 
Loretta Young’s husband goes over to the stove and carries a plate of pancakes to the table. So then we know what flap jacks are. 
Loretta Young starts to go upstairs to pack, but at the very last second she picks the newspaper off the kitchen table and takes it away with her. It looks like maybe she is being a little bit sneaky about it. I wonder why.
Now we have the commercials. Even though I’m allowed to talk during the commercials I don’t want to because I might miss something important.
“Brylcream, a little dab’ll do ya.” My daddy uses Brylcream. I’m hoping we’ll get plop-plop-fizz-fizz, but we don’t. We get Bayer aspirin, instead.
Loretta Young is back. She’s sitting on her bed next to her suitcase and you can see she’s put a few clothes in already. She must have done it while we were watching the Brylcream man. Now she’s reading the newspaper and she looks scared. Uh oh, her hands are shaking. They’re shaking so hard she can’t even hold onto the paper. She can’t even sit up on the bed anymore. She crashes to the floor.
Her nice husband must have heard her fall. He comes running into the room and Billy, too. Billy is around my age but skinnier. He looks sort of goofy. 

“Mama,” he screams, and I can tell he’s a big crybaby, like Michael Lifton in my class. His father tells him to go back to the kitchen and eat his flap jacks. Then he lifts Loretta Young off the floor. “What is it, Hon?” he asks her. She is too upset to speak. She points to the newspaper. 
“Have you been reading your horoscope again? You know how that upsets you.”
I look at Grandma. Horror Scope? She gives me her “Don’t ask me, I don’t know” look.
Loretta Young’s husband picks up the paper and reads: “Stay close to home for the next 72 hours. Travel could prove disastrous. Avoid doing anything out of the ordinary.”
Loretta Young is on the bed now, her whole body is shaking. Her eyes are really big, which is how you know she is truly scared.
“Hon,” her husband says, “this is nonsense. Some lonely spinster makes it all up out of her head. We’ve been over this a million times before. You cannot live your life according to your horoscope.”
They talk some more but Grandma and I don’t understand most of what they’re saying. All we can figure out is that Loretta Young is terrified. But she still has to go, even though her Horror Scope says she shouldn’t, because her Mama died and no matter what, she has to get on that train.
I’m scared for her. What if she dies, too? What would happen to Billy? What would happen to the Loretta Young show?
Oh no. More commercials. Prell Shampoo and Gerber’s baby food. No plop-plop-fizz-fizz. Not even a snap, crackle and pop. Grandma doesn’t like it when I pout, though, so I keep my disappointment to myself.
Loretta Young is walking in the front door of her house. Her little hat is on an angle and she looks happy. She puts her suitcase down and calls out, “I’m back.” 
Her husband and Billy come running to meet her. Everyone’s hugging and kissing and then Loretta Young’s husband says, “Hon, you look so — I don’t know — you look so — different.” 
“I am different,” she says. 
And then she tells him the most amazing story.
When she went home for her mother’s funeral she found out that the woman she always thought was her mother wasn’t really the woman who gave birth to her. An older relative told her that by the time she came to live with her Mama and Papa she was already a few months old. 

“Which means, “ Loretta Young says, “I am not a Scorpio.”
I look at Grandma. I don’t know what a Scorpio is. Neither does she.
“You’re not a Scorpio?” says her husband. “You mean . . . . ” 
“Yes,” Loretta Young says, laughing, “I spent all those years reading the wrong horoscope.”
“Oh, Hon,” says her husband. And he says it again. And the two of them laugh and hug and kiss. And then show is over.
“That was a good one,” I say, and Grandma agrees. Even though we don’t know what a Horror Scope is, or what Scorpio means, it was still a good one. Because we learned to call pancakes flap jacks and we got to see Loretta Young be happy. True, she did cry a little at the beginning, but it only matters what happens in the end. And in the end she was happy. 

And so are we.