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Joy usually entered our house on four legs, sometimes on two webbed feet or a pair of wings. When I was growing up, no matter how little money we had, there always seemed to be enough to feed another tiny amphibian, canine, or feline mouth. My mother loved animals, and I think having them around helped keep her sane. There was Lion Face, the big orange tomcat who fathered innumerable kittens. There were the African frogs, who accidentally froze on the windowsill one sudden winter's day, their limbs captured midstroke, trapped in an icy grave. And there were the gerbils I won at school by guessing how many beans were in a jar. My cat ate them and left their carcasses on my pillow--her pillow. Perhaps it was an innocent offering, or maybe a warning not to betray her with other animals. I accepted the violence in my animal world. It had rumbled around my human world ever since I can remember.
I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I lived with my grandparents, my older sister, Alexandra, and my mother during one of our many separations from my American father. My grandfather always sat in his wheelchair by the fireplace; one of his legs had been shot off in the First World War. In our bedroom, an old grenade lay on the mantel piece, a daily reminder of the danger lurking outside. The "Troubles," as people in Northern Ireland called their bloodshed, were still brewing but had not fully erupted yet. It was 1963. When we crossed the ocean to America, turmoil came with us and took root in our home in New Jersey. I found sanctuary with the animals.
When we got a dark Siamese cat, my mother said I could name her. I was paralyzed with indecision. "How about Lap Sang or Soo Chong?" my mother offered, referring to the names of Oriental teas. I was too excited to choose, so we combined them into Lap Sue. I hoped that since I had named her, she would be mine. As it turned out, nobody else could stand her. She could be vicious, clawing and scratching anyone who went near her, but I loved her. I tried to stay on her good side, giving her my pillow each night, and when her long feline limbs sprawled across it as if it were her throne, I craned and twisted my neck to the side so as not to disturb her. Once Lap Sue savaged the leg of a visiting child so badly the girl needed stitches, and I was terrified her mother would demand the cat be put to death and I would lose her. My mother defended Lap Sue valiantly. I wished that she would defend me the same way. When my mother had something to express to me, she directed it at Lap Sue. In our house, humans were discouraged from showing emotions. Instead, we learned to show our feelings with the animals.
I relied on Lap Sue. She purred so loudly that when I curled up and laid my head against the soft fur of her belly, her inner motor drowned out the yelling. It would start when my father came home. It was usually late and we would be in our bunk beds. Alexandra was on the bottom; Lap Sue and I were on the top. I'd stroke her silky body and stare into her pale blue eyes. She'd stare back, half squinting, her eyes reassuring me. I would lie quietly, my body tensed, hearing but not wanting to hear, knowing I had to listen to make sure nothing bad happened, to make sure my mother was OK. I would creep out of bed and crack open the door. "Go back to your room," she'd say. "I'm fine."
One of my clearest early memories is of a summer's day when a whale washed ashore at the beach. It was my first contact with the world that would one day dominate my life: television. I was six, Alexandra was seven, and our baby sister, Francesca, was two. We were in Kennebunkport, Maine. It was a treat to trade New Jersey's sweltering summer heat for the cooler New England beach. Even rarer, we were all together, a mother and father and three little girls with sand pails and bathing suits, staying in a motel room with a kitchenette, on a real family vacation. Some nights we got to eat dinner out, with the thrill of grilled cheese and French fries, which we never had at home. Other nights my mother cooked fresh seafood, including lobsters. We made friends with the crustaceans en route from the fish market, and when they were lowered into their liquid graves, the cauldron of boiling water on the stove, it broke our hearts. During the days, we frolicked in the giant waves of the Atlantic. My parents were born on either side of this ocean, and by now the gulf between them had grown as wide and as deep. The beach was my father's domain; my mother's fair skin kept her out of the sun, so it was my father who played with us by the sea. Out in the waves, he held us tight so we wouldn't go under. We squealed in delight.
One morning the tranquil scene was spoiled. Surrounded by a gathering crowd, an enormous gray blob was lying on the beach. At first I could not figure out what it was. I had never seen anything like it. It was giant and smelled sickly, choking the freshness of the sea air. A moat of gooey oil streaked with blood surrounded it. Finally I understood that it was a baby whale that had been hit by a boat, its big blubbery corpse now washed up on the beach. Soon a local TV reporter arrived. It was the first time I had ever seen a TV camera. The crew filmed the giant ocean casualty and then turned their camera on me. Now I realize what a perfect television image it was, a small girl weeping at the sight of this huge, wasteful death. Later, viewing the world's pain through a TV lens became my way of life.
My mother was Scots-Irish, from a well-to-do Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the daughter of a barrister with a houseful of servants. My father was the son of an overbearing immigrant Jewish mother who landed in New Jersey and burdened her children with all the pain and paranoia of the small Russian village she grew up in. When my parents met at medical school in Belfast, their romance spoiled each other's plans to be a doctor. Years later I came to see what an act of rebellion their union was for each of them. For my father, my mother's proper British ways were a distinct step outside the insular family life of Jewish immigrants whose ambition--to turn their son into a doctor--was more important than love or happiness. For my mother, befriending a clever and charming American was an escape from the cloistered life of postwar Northern Ireland. They married quickly, and Alexandra and I were born within a couple of years. My mother quit medical school to take care of us. My father was unable to finish either, and was reduced to taking odd jobs.
By the time we moved to America in 1964, there was already tumult in my parents' domestic life. My father had been so afraid of his domineering family that he could not bring himself to tell his own mother that he had married a non-Jew. He didn't tell her that he was married at all, or that her first grandchildren had been born. When he went home to New Jersey, ahead of us, he still did not tell his family. No doubt he was afraid that his mother would blame his failure at medical school on this Protestant woman, this shiksa who had lured him into marriage.
When my mother, Alexandra, and I arrived by ship, he met us at the pier. But there was no home to go to. For a while we lived like vagabonds, traipsing from the house of one acquaintance to the next. Once he finally confessed to our existence, my father's mother and sister refused to see us. They wielded enough emotional power over him to make him unwilling or unable to stand up to them, and he often went to see them by himself.
Although I never really got to know him, relatives told me later that my father was a highly intelligent and emotional man who had trouble holding a job for long. Most of what money he did earn went to his mother, so deep was his guilt about marrying outside the tribe. As a result, his wife was essentially stranded in a foreign land with small children she could barely feed. As we grew up, we lived a half hour away from my grandmother, but she still would not see us, her only grandchildren.
Uncle Leon, my father's unmarried older brother, was the only member of his family who broke ranks and came to visit. He had no wife or children of his own and lived with my grandmother, so we were the closest he ever got to a taste of family life. He probably braved a lot of wrath from his mother by coming to see us, but he came anyway. He was the only connection I had to my father's family.
As a child, I worshiped my mother. She was beautiful, strong, and regal, despite the decidedly unregal circumstances in which we often lived. She held her head high in a town where people were generally judged by their income. Perhaps she was spared harsh judgment because she was an outsider and appeared sophisticated even while lugging our dirty clothes to the Laundromat or paying for our groceries with food stamps. I knew how badly we needed the government-sponsored food aid, but I was embarrassed when she pulled out the blue-and-green booklet while we were standing in the supermarket line, wishing she would take them out at the last minute so nobody but the checkout person would see. With this shame, I often weighed whether or not to go to the supermarket with her, but my desire to be with her usually won out. She was devoted to us, and we to her. She worked three jobs to pay for our ballet classes and my oboe lessons. After all she sacrificed, I was terrified of failing her by bringing home a bad report card. She was a firm disciplinarian, determined to see us work hard. She always corrected our grammar, forbade gum chewing, and hounded us to do our homework. I could always get out of doing menial tasks like the dishes if I went and practiced my oboe.
My mother never let our poverty define us. With whatever she had, she always bought the best. We ate Swiss chocolates or none at all. She concocted exquisite meals on our food-stamp fare. It didn't matter how tatty our apartment was; it was often full of distinguished academics from a nearby university who, oblivious to the surroundings, were drawn to my mother's charm, beauty, and excellent cooking. My mother felt superior to most Americans: she thought American wealth was vulgar, so often unaccompanied by good manners, education, or social refinement. She had nothing but contempt for the parents of my more affluent friends, whose children would go home to an empty house and whose mothers took them to McDonald's. We often had no money for new school clothes but were brought up to believe we were somehow better bred than the other children.
Having been brought up with servants, my mother wasn't born to housework. She always seemed to be ironing or sorting clothes, but despite her valiant attempts, our house always looked like a mess. There were mountains of laundry, piles of dishes, stacks of books. And the newspapers. They were everywhere. My father collected them and refused to let my mother throw them out. They lined the walls of my parents' bedroom, yellow, dusty, and half-read. The electricity and phone were often turned off because my father had not given her money to pay the bills, but our sheets were ironed meticulously, as were the linen napkins. Perhaps it soothed her to make some order in the chaos that she fought so hard to hide.
To my mother, expressing an emotion was a bad American habit to be discouraged. "It's vulgar to talk about yourself," she would often say, though sometimes she talked of the grand life she had left behind in Belfast. I loved hearing her stories, partly because her life seemed such a mystery. She had lived in the country with horses and dogs. It seemed a lot to give up to be with us. I often feared that she'd tire of our life and go back to her exalted country, leaving us behind. I wanted to be good and not let her down, to give her every reason to stay. I stuck to her side like glue, terrified to let her out of my sight. Many years later, I thought that maybe because I spent so much time keeping track of her, somewhere along the way I lost track of myself.
I learned to subsist on tiny crumbs of love. My mother was an extraordinary cook, but emotional sustenance was scarce. It must have taken all her strength to hunker down and survive and bring us up practically on her own. Maybe she couldn't let down her reserve, even for a minute, for fear it would all unravel. She seemed to pour all her love into feeding us elaborately. But I still felt emotionally malnourished. I learned to sate my hunger in unsavory places later on, with men so incapable of showing affection that they always left me in a state of near-starvation. I thought it was like indulging in fast food: when you eat greasy French fries, you know you'll regret it later. But sometimes I was so ravenous I didn't care. I seemed to accept almost any man who took notice and paid attention to me. I often failed to look them over and see how unappetizing they were. Always so well fed, yet starving.
Since my father wasn't around much, I lived in an all-female world with my mother and two sisters. My towering flame-haired mother with her long, chiseled, aristocratic nose looked as if she had stepped out of the Victorian era. Alexandra looked wild and woolly, with an exquisite face that also looked as if it were from an earlier century, a face more at home on the walls of Europe's finest art galleries than the streets of New Jersey. I, too, had corkscrew-curly hair, and no amount of ironing or hair rollers would straighten it enough to let me look like my classmates. Francesca, the youngest, with straight blond hair and huge blue eyes, always seemed the most American. We used to call her Marilyn, from The Munsters, that seventies TV show about a family of assorted freaks and vampires that had one normal-looking relative.