NONFICTION November 4, 2011


Reason #37 why it is a bad idea to leave your potential stepdaughter alone with your mother

Adam and I share a room, down the hall from my father’s.  He wants us to be quiet when she comes over.  We don’t do quiet well. We sleep on opposite sides of the room.  Adam’s bed fits in a nook created by a closet and wall and this makes me wild with jealousy.  My bed, in contrast, is out in the open, right under a picture window where any robber or escaped lunatic can get me.  I keep a flashlight under my pillow and a book so that after my father turns the light off, I can read under the covers.  Adam doesn’t read. He jumps up and down on his bed and throws his army men at me.  He hits me in the head with his pillow.  I hit him with mine.  We are quietly beating the crap out of each other with our pillows when my father comes in and yells at us to go to sleep.  “God. Damn. It.”  We listen as he goes back down the hall and then Adam hits me in the head with a truck.  Then we start wrestling again. I usually get the best of him because I am bigger and not afraid to fight dirty.  This will change.

On the nights that she is there, my father comes in our room and scoops us up, one at a time, and lays us in the back seat of the station wagon.  We are wrapped in the blankets from our beds. I wake up off and on as we drive her back into the city.  These are long, dreamy drives that if I close my eyes I can still be in that back seat - my legs tangled up with Adam’s, the cool night air flowing through the car smelling of the end of autumn, the car moving smoothly, more boat than car, gliding, magically erasing any bumps in the road. And there are stars, thousands of them, in the sky, ahead of us, behind us and in front of us.  Even underneath us.  I hear them talking in the front seat but not what they are saying.  I really don’t want to hear their words because their voices sound like music from the radio.  The rides back home are silent.

Within weeks she takes us to meet her family.  The stairs to her apartment are white and gray marble worn down in two trails all the way up the five flights from so many feet. We can hear the lives going on in some of the apartments we pass by – dogs barking, televisions blaring, kids yelling.

She opens the door like a TV game show hostess revealing a dark foyer with four anxious people.

“This is my mother, my younger sister, my brother Ira, and,” she pauses, like the big prize is being announced, “my grandmother.”  There is a lot of fussing, hair ruffling, and hand shaking.  I realize that they must have already met my father because they are not as happy to see him as they are to see us.  Ira shows us around.  The grandmother’s room looks tiny but heavenly. It is painted a pale blue and has two tall windows that let in the palest blue light. The parents have their own dark room that looks out over an ocean of brick.  Her sister is sitting on the couch in the living room reading a magazine.  She has shorter hair than her sister but it is just as thick and pretty.  She frowns all the time, like everything in her life is a disappointment.  Ira is her opposite. He smiles a lot and looks us right in the eyes when he talks to us.  He has long arms and legs and a large nose that looks somehow perfect on his face.  I think he looks like he doesn’t belong in that apartment.   “Where is your room?” I ask him.

“We sleep in here,” he says pointing to the living room.  “I have the couch and my sisters have the pull-out.”

I nod but think that although I have always shared a room with Adam at least we sleep in real beds, not couches.  I am trying not to judge.

A clock on the wall looks like the sun, wooden dowels radiating in alternating lengths from the center.  There are two big windows in the living room that look out over the street corner that we first met her on. Everything looks brown and gold and tired.

She and my father leave us in the apartment and they go out on their own.

Adam and I wander into the kitchen.  The mother is cooking. She is wearing a sturdy floral dress and gold-rimmed glasses.  It is a long narrow space, with a table at the far end near a window that also looks out over the park.  The floor has white hexagon shaped tiles, dull with wear, arranged in a daisy pattern with a single black tile in each center.  The kitchen smells like wet, dead bodies.

“What stinks?” Adam asks, pinching his nose shut.

“Liver,” the mother says.  “I’m making Molly her dinner.” She looks down at a small dog, black with white spots, or white with black spots depending on how you looked at her.  She is sitting at the mother’s feet waiting for the liver.  I can’t wait for her to eat it too so the smell will be gone.  I choose a seat closest to the window.  It is open a crack and I breathe in the fresh air, waiting.  There are flowerpots on the windowsill. They have silverware shoved into the dirt. This really gets Adam.  “Why do you guys have knives and forks in your plants?”

“Because we’re kosher.  And someone used them for dairy when they should’ve only be used for meat.  This cleans them so we can use them again.”

“You put them in dirt to clean them?” He is laughing now.

But the mother is patient and describes how the silverware is contaminated and it is a symbolic gesture to clean them in the dirt.  She explains Judaism – how some people keep kosher, some are conservative, some orthodox, and some are Hasidic like the men we saw wheeling the garment racks on the street.

“We go to church,” I tell her.  “Not all the time though.”

She nods like this does not surprise her.

“My father says most religious people are hypocrites. They fight in the church parking lots or something like that.”

She snorts and keeps stirring.

“He talks about Jesus all the time.  It’s always Jesus Christ this or Jesus Christ that.”

“But your Dad’s family is Jewish,” she says.

“Are they?  They don’t put forks and knives in plants.”

“You don’t have to do that be Jewish,” she says.

“When the kids in school ask me I tell them we are Agnostics. Dad says that will shut them up.”

She looks at me like she is trying to open me up, like I am what my father says about me, a hard nut to crack.  I don’t think he means it as a compliment because he says it when he is angry with me, when I give him a hard time.

When she is done cooking the liver, she puts it on a wooden board and cuts it up into little squares and puts in a real cereal bowl, and gives it to the dog, patting it on the head.  She then cooks for everyone in the apartment, one at a time.  They all eat something different and none of it looks good.  Ira comes in with his hair wet and slicked back, wearing a black leather jacket.  He says good night.  I fall a little in love with him.

The grandmother waddles in. She looks like her daughter except she is softer and wider. Her eyes crinkle like everything we say and do is hilarious and special.   She has white hair like cotton candy. We have to speak loudly so she can hear. The mother is finally done with the cooking and can sit down at the table.  We can hear the cars outside still honking. Music is playing from the teenagers’ radios in the park.

They start to tell us who they are.  Adam goes under the table to play with the dog that has finished its liver. The mother is a secretary in a company.   Shamoon Industries.  I remember the name because we had pads of white paper with that name in bold black letters on them for many years.  The grandmother has had seven children.  Five girls and two boys.  The mother is the youngest daughter.  They tell us how the grandmother was a co-founder of the Henry Street Settlement.  They tell us about the work she did there, helping the immigrants.  The grandmother seems not to be of this earth, maybe because she is so old and cannot hear so well, maybe because of the stories they tell me about her goodness make me think that when she dies, which looks like it can be any minute, she will fly like a rocket right up to the gates of heaven where God will open the door and let her walk right in.   No questions asked.

The mood in the apartment changes when the teacher’s father comes home - like we were having a party and then we were not.  He is tall and thin with a face like a hound dog that always looks sad even when he smiles.  The mother takes a deep, hard breath when she sees him and gets up to make him dinner too.  He says he works at a liquor store.  I ask him about robbers.  I always worry about robbers.  He says he has run into his fair share of robbers.  He has a gun under the counter.  Adam hears this and sits at the table again.  “A gun?” he asks.  “How big?”

The father holds up his hands and puts his palms about a foot apart.

“Did you ever shoot anyone?” Adam says, like he is hoping that he had.

“I pointed it at someone once,” he says, shaking his head, “but I never had to use it.”

“Why not?” Adam asks.

“I give them what they want,” he says.

They are still not back.

The mother says it is bath time.  Adam goes first.  He comes out wild and cleaner.  He sits, bounces, on the couch and watches television with the father. It is my turn.

The mother sits on the edge of the toilet and turns on the bath water.  The bathroom is small so her knees touch the edge of the tub.  She rests her elbows on them and her chin fits in one of her upturned palms.  She looks tired from all that cooking.  I wash my hair.  I wash my entire body.  I answer all her questions.  I know somehow I am doing something wrong by answering all her questions but it feels so good to tell her our story that I can’t help myself.  Even then as I tell her it sounds like a book I read under the covers, or a dream that happened to other kids.  I am giddy with the revelations.  I sense that she also knows that somehow she shouldn’t be asking me all these questions that lead to other questions that lead to other questions but she can’t help herself, either.  None of my stories make her happy.  I tell her about the other one and her daughter and how mean they were, how happy I was when they left.  But sad too cause somehow having a bad mother might be better than having no mother. You just don’t know.  I tell her how my father left us for a really long time with another family.  I tell her about my father’s mother who is no help to my father but I love because I believe that she loves me too.  I am careful to tell her only the highlights.  I don’t want to bore her.  I tell her the story much like I am doing now, backwards and forwards, because that is how we reveal ourselves.

About five years later, she says, “My parents were none too thrilled about you spilling the beans.”

“What beans?” I ask.

“We weren’t, we decided not to tell them all of it.”

She says this without anger at me, which surprises me because by then I am a problem, the thorn in her side, the pea under the mattress.

“Until later,” she adds. “We would have told them later.”

I guess when choosing to tell his own story my father also didn’t want to bore them with the details. I had become bitter towards my father by then and ungenerous.

“My parents were furious,” she says in the way you do when you still feel bad about things. “Your dad tried everything to win them over.  He used to go pick up my father from the liquor store and drive him home so he wouldn’t have to take the subway.”

“What did your dad say, did he yell at my dad?”

“No, all he kept saying was, ‘I don’t see it, I don’t see it.’”

Until then, I hadn’t seen her as someone’s treasured daughter, with desires to please and piss her parents off simultaneously.  Just like me.  I guess we all tell our stories like myths – and they understood, as did I, that getting involved with a widower with two small kids can be one kind of sweet story, but getting involved with a widower with two small kids, who left his kids with a co-worker and also had a flaming brief marriage to someone else, changes the story and adds some question marks.

She tells me how my father had to come over and sit at the kitchen table and explain his past to her parents.  How he had to come clean.  Just like I came clean.  I try to picture my father sitting at the table in that long, narrow kitchen trying to explain the lies of omission.  I can’t though because nothing is ever his fault, he is not good at apologizing, because he cannot speak about my mother.  The words cannot come out of his mouth.

I want to tell her that I wasn’t trying to sabotage their beginning because by then there is so much that she is angry with me about.  I want to say that questions were asked and then answered.  But that is not true and I know it.  Things are not always so simple.  I knew what her mother wanted and I gave her it.  We used each other.  I had a story she wanted to hear. Her gift to me was that she let me tell it.

When Allison Gehlhaus is not driving, cooking or doing laundry for her five kids, she works at her husband's amusement park on the Jersey Shore. And she writes. She is grateful for her many trips to the Sirenland Writer's Conference for this. Until now, her work has only appeared on her laptop. This excerpt is from her memoir, House of Mirrors.