ONE: BACK TO HERSELF IN NO TIME
By the spring of 1956, on Long Island's North Shore, my mother had acquired many things: a husband; two boys, ages nine and thirteen; four bedrooms; one mink coat; a housekeeper and a miniature schnauzer named Pearlie and Bambi respectively; and, despite the palpable salve of these possessions, a dreadful black hole in the center of her soul where her dreams used to be. Perhaps Estelle Berman (nee Esther Levin) was nothing more than a postwar cliche, one more survival-driven daughter of immigrant parents, two parts old-fashioned respectability and a dollop of modern movie glamour, inspired to grab at a life of security tinged with trips to Bermuda rather than one of possible passion and the dreadful results such frivolousness might invoke. Maybe it was the tediousness of too many lunches of nothing more than portioned-out Jujubes, or the shame of so many overheard hysterics; her mother was indignant over the price of day-old bread, fish, and fabric, and perpetually accused the butcher of cheating her; charging her for meat weighed with the bone. Or perhaps it was ultimately the dress, the blue silk dress with layers of sheer cobalt chiffon and delicate smocking across the chest; the dress we would hear about for years, the one that went not to my mother, who stood transfixed in front of Felterman's Dress Shop coveting it for weeks, but to Miriam, my aunt, her baby sister, because Miriam was "fragile." With a sister who had cornered the market on fragility and a mother adept at selective hysteria, Estelle was left with little choice except to embrace practicality. So, in the summer of her nineteenth year, the belle of First Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the most popular girl in the apartment complex above the candy store (Ach! It's some boy calling for Esther again!), the featured actress in Singer's summer-stock production of Showboat
that August of 1939, and a real "looker," as the fellows used to say, promptly withdrew from the theatrical and social scene, decisively put an end to all whimsy and girlish adventure, to marry my father and literally subdue herself with the pursuit of perfect domesticity. Soon enough she bought her own blue dress, two in fact, and a full closet and an even fuller wallet went a long way. Such items were able to plump her spirit and fill her belly for many months, years even. But there came a time when compromise began to feed on resolve and poison satisfaction, and no doubt resentment was the secret at the root of my mother's unhappiness. Then again, perhaps it wouldn't have mattered. Perhaps laying blame is merely the folly of a daughter fighting to rewrite the truth, a truth that precludes self-determination and marks the women in this filial line for genetic doom.
Whatever the cause, by April of her thirty-sixth year, the surface in her inner blueprint opened and spread like an emotional fault line, creating cracks in the facade that were impossible to ignore. She'd built her inner dream house with a diagram she'd adopted first from the movies, then from studying the uptown goyim, and finally by mimicking her aloof neighbors in tony Great Neck, New York. Now she was scrambling to repair the pretend foundation as it chipped and crumbled. She sobbed in the shower. The moment the warm water ran down her face the tears spilled out. Leaning against the cold tile, she liked the feeling of not knowing where the water stopped and the tears began. Sometimes she cried in the car—not for any particular reason and never in front of the boys, but if it was perhaps a windy day, and the sun caught a pile of leaves in just such a way, well, there was something about the fluttering down that made her think of dreams dying. She didn't understand. She thought she'd done everything right, acquired all the symbols of happiness, from her VKP sticker (the Village of Kings Point was Great Neck's most exclusive) to her summer membership at the Fleetwood pool. She could run up a charge with Rudy at the Great Neck Pharmacy and with Don at Prime Meats. Stewie and Lyle spent a full eight weeks at sleep-away camp in the Catskills and she had a standing hair appointment each week with Frank at Expressions, on Friday at 9:30 a.m., too; prime time. Her friends seemed happy and she didn't dare discuss it with them. They thought her life was perfect and she wasn't about to destroy that illusion just because of a silly little phase. Still, it became harder and harder to pretend, to relax the muscles of her face into a smooth mask. She began to take naps every day, first at three o'clock, then earlier, until she questioned the sense of changing out of her morning gown. She took two Bufferin as soon as she woke up, taught Pearlie how to prepare her string-bean casserole and salmon croquettes and spent whole days watching television in her bed. Bill Cullen gave way to Virginia Graham, a span of six hours that felt like seconds. Then she dropped out of her card games, gave up her place in the Wednesday matinee carpool, and didn't even mind when Lena Shore opined that missing Gwen Verdon's performance in Damn Yankees
was criminal. She realized she was in big trouble when she overheard her littlest son, Stewie, playing house with the girl next door.
"You're the dad so you have to get in the car and go to work." Leslie Frankel was ten going on thirty-two.
"Okay, smarty," she heard her delicious baby say, "then if you're the mom you have to take your pills and get into bed 'cause you have a headache."
My mother searched for strength. She had always been the reliable one, the dependable one; she would not give in to such nonsense. She forced herself to shower and dress each day. She forbade herself to nap, and only lay down for a little while on top of the covers each afternoon. She practiced several smiles in front of the three-panel makeup mirror Sol had installed for her, just the way she'd practiced smiling when Miriam had paraded and twirled for all of them in a cloud of perfect blue chiffon that should have been hers, and even though her heart wasn't in it, she went back to one of her card games. She tried hard. So hard, in fact, that when smiling and dressing and cards didn't really help, she was frantic enough to explore any option, which is where I come in.
In 1956 there were all kinds of female problems that could purportedly be solved by childbirth. Boredom and restlessness were not the worst among them. By the 1980s it had become common for children to be conceived, farmed really, for their genetically matched cells or blood or parts, to save the life of a relative. Still, I was shocked to learn that this twisted, newly improved logic applied to me. Of course, that may have been because of the slight variation. It was my psychological stem cells they were after. I was a new life-force, created to replenish my mother's ailing one.
In what I have come to regard as her typical misguided conviction, it is my mother herself who tells me the story, twenty-five years later and just days before I am about to give birth to a daughter of my own. She has come to stay with me in the final weeks of my first pregnancy, and, as is often the case near the end of her extended visits, I am testy with our superficial conversations and am probing her unmercifully for psychological introspection she is unable or unwilling to consider. I do not know her as the most popular girl on First Street or the coquette who posed seductively for my father on the library steps. I have my own nicknames, my own assessments, and my own grievances. At twenty-five I am unforgiving, not softened yet by years of living, parenting, screwing up. I am in what a baker calls "the hard crack stage," boiling, bubbling; I stiffen in just seconds. Years later I will tolerate more, I will challenge gently, with less guilt or bitterness, but now, in private, I make fun. She is the Grande Dame Pout Princess, Calorie Queen. We are in the middle of a discussion about women who work versus women who don't and she is defensive, stating that she can't imagine a woman going through life without fulfilling her true purpose.
"What do you mean, 'her true purpose'? Are you saying women have no real purpose unless they reproduce?"
"Well, I certainly couldn't have. The boys gave me purpose and then Thank God I was able to have you when I needed to."
"What do you mean, when you needed to?"
Already my mother is nervous. I can tell. She begins to twist a napkin to shreds. "Well, I just didn't feel right, Jule, I was, I don't know, anxious, I guess, for a while. So your father took me to see someone—"
"Who?" I interrupt. I don't want a name; I want a better description of someone.
"I don't remember who." She squirms. "What's the difference? The point is, he helped us." Of course it was a "he." In 1956 it was always a "he."
"Did he?" I try not to sound cynical, not because I especially want to be kind, but because I want her to continue.
"He told daddy"—my mother's voice deepens as she tries to imitate him—"Sol, I want you to get her pregnant as soon as possible, that's the ticket, you'll see. She'll be back to her old self in no time."
A nerve ending in my left side, just under my arm, starts to twinge.
"And so," my mother exclaims sweetly, "we had you."
Well. I am frozen. Not sure what to feel, how to act, what she wants. This is the greasy engine of the machine in which I have been raised, spun, tumble-dried. Wanted, yes, but for the wrong reasons, harvested, surely, to fill a need, loved, albeit in the way an asthmatic loves her nebulizer, as a relief from pain or panic. She looks at me expectantly; she is waiting for my smile, my acknowledgment that I have joined her in happy acceptance. She wants my confirmation, no questions asked, that all is well. But as I have suspected for some time, all is not—nor am I—well. I am not my mother, to her regret, and even more, I am that worst of all pests, a prober, a challenger, a dreaded truth-seeker. And I am blown away by this news on so many levels, not the least of which is that my mother seems so proud. This is a marvelous way for a child to come into the world, her expression says. So I struggle, ambivalent about giving her what she needs, which I have done to hypocritical exhaustion, and expressing my own needs, which has become more necessary. I know that in another moment it will be a moment too long, and I will disappoint her, because of the unwritten mother/daughter conversation rules that not only state how to react but how quickly, and in a moment the false bonding will dissolve into disappointed pouting (hers) and eventual apologizing (mine). In that disturbed, unnerving beat of time, whole snippets of my childhood pass through my mind: Twelve years old, I am crying over a boyfriend and my mother frets. "Don't cry. Stop it. This is not okay. No boy is worth your tears." Flash to junior high, I don't make the cheerleading squad but I am being given a present, a stereo. "You're our best booster!" Then I am seventeen, complaining that high school is boring, and within a day there are brochures spread out on the table offering early admissions to college.
So there I was, with my own belly just weeks away from repeating the cycle, when the truth finally hit. My life was a present for my mother, assembly required, few instructions enclosed. I came into the world to combat her depression and allow my parents' lives to resume their everyday, peaceful sameness. There would be no crying, no sadness for little Julie Ann Berman; that was not part of the arrangement. There would be excessive cheerfulness, laughter, forced if necessary, and scripted gaiety. If I encountered any bumps in the road, I would not have time to feel them, as they would be removed swiftly. I would not need to learn to handle disappointment or hurt, because there simply wasn't to be any. This was their silent pledge that they adhered to rigidly and consistently. I believe they called it love.
Just before my daughter was born, I made a promise to her and to myself. No matter how screwed up I was on the inside, she wouldn't pay the price for it and I would fight like hell to make sure we were normal in a way my family never was. Since I now understood the dynamics of my childhood, I could rise above them. In fact, I planned to become healthier than ever before. It's said that mental illness, like diabetes or glaucoma, is genetic. I vowed to prove that theory wrong. And for the better part of twenty years I've been able to keep that promise. And yet, strong as my conviction was back then, I confess it to be a shabby opponent in the face of the forces of middle age, forces that, paranoia aside, seem to be gathering together in a kind of cosmic, vengeful, midlife Perfect Storm. I find myself upended, tossed, and, worst of all, forced to consider that I've done no better at evolving than my mother. It's one thing to ceremoniously stop opening cans of Del Monte corn and start steaming my own fresh vegetables, organic if possible, or grab the Dove, fragrance-free, and not the Dial deodorant soap of my childhood. But eradicating the hidden and overt messages, the not-so-subtle manipulations, and the hurtful directives? Much trickier. Even items on the back shelves of long-term memory occasionally make their way to the front, especially if life happens to grab hold of the cabinet and rip it out of the wall.
I suspect that in my urgency to disassociate myself from the disturbing needs of my mother, I exorcised nothing, only ignored the infection, which now, after years of neglect, has evolved into a deep, festering, active toxic volcano. I don't know exactly what might be bubbling inside; I doubt that I will take an Uzi to the top of a tower or poison the drinking supply, but I do know I'm afraid. It's like a secret between me and me. On the outside is Eric's wife and the kids' mom, the PTO Class Mother, Chairperson of the Literary Circle for Kids, the woman who is doing everything right, but on the inside is the little girl who didn't escape, who is still trying to get it right and failing miserably and just one desperate act away from being exposed and vilified.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Lucky Me by Debra Borden. Copyright © 2005 by Debra Borden. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.