City of One: A Memoirby Francine Cournos
In the literature of childhood loss and adult redemption City of One stands as a remarkable and powerful addition. The memoir by Francine Cournos, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, is an eloquent, clear-eyed look at the death of both her parents by the time she was eleven. Temporarily taken in by her mother's family, Cournos and her younger sister were then sent away to live with a foster family on Long Island. Looking back at these soul-shattering upheavals in her childhood, Cournos is able to unlock and reveal a child's emotional landscape as we rarely see it. Feelings of guilt, unworthiness, mistrust, and confusion are heartbreakingly rendered. And so is Cournos's determined journey toward academic achievement and personal success, which led her through a fierce adult depression to a final triumph over despair. Poignant and uplifting, City of One is a compelling study of the human ability to persevere in the face of overwhelming loss.
"A moving, heartbreaking, and insightful story of a child's triumph over adversity." --Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters
Francine Cournos, M.D., is on the staff of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where she teaches, conducts research, and runs a community-based mental health program.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
I stared down her housedress as she bent over to bathe me. One breast moved with the motion of her scrubbing me. Where the other would have been, there was just a scar. Something frightening had happened; I just didn't know what. I could see the evidencethe bandages covering one part of her body and then another, the swollen armand I furtively examined the padded bras in her drawer. But I remained mystified.
As a child, I was preoccupied with things that disappeared, but my mother's breast was what I noticed most, its absence an inescapable reminder of what was no longer. This was an essential mystery, one I could not solve, and whose contemplation led only to a fear of what might disappear next.
My mother and I never talked about her missing breast. I don't know if I was scared to ask her, or if I sensed that talking didn't suit her and I was trying not to upset her. Once in a while, I got up the courage to ask about something. "Why is your arm all swollen up?" Mom said it was because of her operation, but I really didn't understand what a missing breast had to do with a swollen arm. Mom sort of joked about how she looked with two arms that didn't match. I loved both her arms, the fat one and the skinny one, but I couldn't help thinking that something had gone terribly wrong.
We didn't talk about my father, either. He had vanished with barely a trace when I was three. No picture of him existed in our house. No member of his family was present inour lives. For the brief time he was sick, I stayed with my Aunt Milly at a rented summer cottage. I was lost, wandering on an immense, beautifully manicured lawn, crying for my parents. I was all alone, but Aunt Milly found me. After that, Dad never showed up again, and Mom never spoke of him. Once in a while, one of my aunts would make some complimentary reference to him. "Your father loved children. If he was walking down the street and a child had a runny nose, he would stop to wipe it." Dad had worked at night as a proofreader for the New York Times. "He was so considerate, when he came home from work he would take off his shoes and tiptoe into the bedroom so he wouldn't wake your mother up." And sometimes they would say, "He was much older than your mom," a remark to which in time I silently added the words I imagined they left out: "So no wonder he died and left her all alone with three children."
I have three memories of my father.
I'm sitting behind my father on the edge of the bathtub watching him shave. Our eyes meet in the mirror in a moment of total mutual adoration. I am entranced by the careless grace with which he carries out the morning ritual that for me defines his masculinity. And I can see how pleased he is to have his very own little girl.
My father is sitting at the kitchen table, and my brother and I are competing to climb into his lap. In the end, we both get a piece of him, my brother ascending one leg, me the other.
The bathroom door is slightly ajar and I peek in to see my father teaching my brother to pee standing up. They take aim. I'm about to enter when my mother pulls me back and indicates that I'm not part of this. But I want to learn to pee standing up, too! I feel left out, excluded.
Gradually I wove these three memories into my own private theories. Being an adorable girl had not been enough to hold on to my father. No, I would have to compete with boys, be just as good as them, and, of course, outdo my brother Henry. And then, if I still couldn't get my father back, I could preserve him within me by being just like him, replace him as Mom's most devoted helper and favorite companion, show how well we could manage without him, and prove I was just as good as kids who still had a father. My extravagant theories seemed much better than admitting that the loss was permanent and harmful, that Dad was irreplaceable and irretrievable, and that I would just have to finish growing up without him.
My father was dead, my half brother Henry was five years old, I was just turning three, and my mother was two months pregnant. Shortly before the new baby was born, I was sitting next to Mom on the living room couch. She said, "Feel this," and put my hand on her stomach. Thump! What was that? Mom said it was the baby kicking. One person inside another! This remarkable encounter was my first meeting with my baby sister Alexis.
When Mom brought Alexis home, I somehow picked that moment to fall out of my crib and hurt my back. I was lying on the living room couch nursing my injuries when they walked in. "Mom, I fell out of my crib and I hurt myself." Mom was carrying Alexis, and she ignored me. When my demands became too much for her, she paid no attention at all. By the time she got mad, you knew things had gone entirely too far.
Alexis, born seven months after Dad died, was the closest thing to a reminder of our father, Alexander. If Dad had not died, she would have been Lydia, which became her middle name. Since neither Henry nor I had a middle name, I figured this was something extra Alexis got, compensation for never meeting Dad, not even once.
But if Mom could produce a new person with Dad's name, was she then responsible for his disappearance in the first place? I couldn't quite grasp how this replacement had happened, but I feared Mom possessed some ineffable power, and each subsequent disruption served to increase my wariness.
Losing a father so young left me with little sense of loyalty to him, so being fickle seemed no problem. Every new man who came along became the next opportunity to replace him. Grandpa was my next true love. He and Grandma moved in with us to help Mom after Dad died. Grandpa, bald and stout, worked in a haberdashery. I loved the moment when he came home every evening, because you could never tell what hat he would be wearing. "Grandpa, how come you have so many hats?" I'd ask, and I would stare at him admiringly as he answered, always smiling: "Because I work in a haberdashery." That wonderful word again, rolling off his lips.
We lived in the Bronx, on the second floor of a four-story building. Our apartment went all the way through from the front to the back, six big rooms with lots of furniture. Right next door was a little plot of grassy land where tombstones were sold. It looked so much like a cemetery that it was hard to believe no one was buried there. One block away was Bathgate Avenue, a jumbled array of bustling stores and outdoor stands selling what seemed to me the entire universe of imaginable things. Just one block more and you came to Crotona Park: a huge expanse of trees, walkways, and benches, a playground, and a swimming pool.
Mom's family all lived nearby. She was the oldest of four childrenthere were two more girls, and then finally a boy. My Aunt Lillian worked for the Bulova watch company, and sometimes she had chest pains, but I didn't know why she'd chosen to marry the monstrous Hy, big, swarthy, and scary with dark brown eyes that stared with cold disapproval. I did my best to stay as far away as possible, and fortunately he had little interest in me. Next came Anne, the family beauty, who had red hair and worked as a waitress. She didn't like it when customers tried to save money by ordering a bowl of plain broth and then putting their own pieces of chicken in to make soup with itthey would leave her only a five-cent tip. She was married to my favorite uncle, Jack, who worked as a chef. At family dinners he did the cooking with a happy-go-lucky demeanor that set him apart, as if he'd arrived from some alternate universe and hadn't yet learned to be discontented like the rest of us. But his cooking was delicious, and you could get all the tastes you wanted while he was workinghe never said you'd lose your appetite. He was very sweet, quite a contrast, from what I had heard, to Anne's first husband. I never met him, but he was even meaner than Uncle Hy, and sometimes even used to beat Anne, or so the story went when anyone was willing to tell it. Finally, there was poor timid, bald Milton, always being bossed around by his wife Milly, always trying to please her, always failing. It was painful to watch, and sometimes I wished he'd just stand up to her and stop being such a sissy.
When I was five, Grandpa disappeared just as suddenly as Dad. Lots of grown-ups came by and sat in the living room while I wandered around the apartment, everyone ignoring me. He died of a bleeding ulcer in his stomach, they said. I imagined blood gushing into Grandpa's stomach, but I wasn't sure why that would make someone die. I heard one of the visitors mention that before you die, you change color. That was a clue. I went into the bathroom and stood on the toilet seat so I could secretly stare into the mirror to check my color, fearing pink, or blue, or chartreuse. I was relieved to find myself the usual color, but for years after that I kept checking just to be certain. Surely children don't just disappear without warning, do they?
It seemed there was no one to talk to, so I went to my bedroom and lay there, curled up on top of the covers, facing the wall, worrying about what happens to people after they die. The idea of life after death seemed horrible. Suppose it was as boring and disconnected as things were right this minute, except that I wouldn't be able to escape the feeling because I'd be dead, and of course there is no escape from being dead. No, it's better if there is no heaven and everything just ends.
I was five years old, isolated from the adults in mourning around me. I felt painfully estranged, an inconsequential speck. As an adolescent, I was amazed to discover that the term "existential despair" was the label for this condition, and that my feelings were only peculiar in having started so young and persisted so long. It wasn't until middle age that I finally managed to create a world in which I believed it was both safe and realistic to feel significant.
Just after Grandpa died, Mom went into the hospital for her first operation. Henry hadn't taken well to any of this, and he didn't plan to hide his feelings like the rest of us. Henry had always been eager to attract attention. He had thick brown hair and big blue eyes and liked to strut around like a movie star, singing "Oh, my papa, to me you were so wonderful" to any audience willing to listen, and to Alexis and me even when we weren't. It took me a long time to figure out that Henry had a different fathersince he'd forgotten all about Henry and almost never came to visit. Henry liked to parade around naked to show us he had a penis and we didn't. But his angry excursions into imaginative new kinds of mischief were more than Mom could abide. He set off firecrackers, fought with other kids, played mean tricks that made Alexis and me cry, spent his milk money on candy so that the school had to write to Mom to ask why he never had money for milk. Henry was just one too many things for Mom to handle. She sent him to a foster home. "What's it like there?" I asked him one weekend when he was home visiting.
"I live in a basement. They don't give me enough to eat. They feed me with the dog." I was sorry for Henry, but a little relieved that he wasn't around to torment me, then guilty that I found even small satisfaction in his misfortune. And, of course, I had to consider whether Mom might send me away next. I could not fathom how the mother who yelled and screamed at Henry was the same one who was so calm and patient with me. It felt like Henry was gone forever, but years later his foster-care records would show that he lived there for six months, when he was seven years old. Finally, Mom took Henry back. When he returned, they still fought. I implored Henry not to provoke Mom, and covered up for him when I could, trying to believe this helped a little.
Mom had to work now, because someone had to make money. I spent my days in nursery school, a vast room filled with kids and toys, interesting enough for the most part, except for the moments I stopped feeling any connection to my new surroundings, overcome by the same sense of estrangement I had when Grandpa died. One spring Sunday, Mom took us on a Circle Line cruisethe tourist boat ride that begins at a pier on the Hudson River. I stood out on the deck of the huge boat, where I could see the water and the skyline and feel the breeze on my face. The ride lasted a long time, and when we came into shore, Mom took my hand to disembark. "Why are we getting off here? Don't we have to go back to the other side where we came from?"
I was thinking we'd crossed over, and now we had to go back. "But we are back," said Mom, and then, when I remained incredulous, she drew me a picture. "We went in a circle, like this," she said, penciling the outline of Manhattan on the scrap of paper and indicating our route. I had no idea what she was talking about. As far as I was concerned, we'd gone in a straight line and landed on another shore, the opposite bank. Since I was completely baffled by Mom's explanation, I made up my own: while we were gone, the whole world reversed itself. We used to live on one side of the water, but now we lived on the other side. The world had simply turned itself inside out.
The event weighed on my mind. Why doesn't the world stay as it is? As soon as I learned to read, I began to try to figure things out. I sought answers for my questions in books: Why does it rain? Why does sound come out of a radio? Where does electricity come from? How do whirlpools form?
I was afraid of disappearing into a whirlpool. If I fell into one, I'd get sucked down and drown and never come up again. The idea of quicksand gave me the same shudder of fear, so I was careful where I walked. I knew from the radio that children disappear into wells all over the placelike little Chrissie who fell into a well in Texas and stayed there for twenty-two hours until the rescuers got her out.
I went to the movies to see Fantasia. One broom carrying a pail of water starts to multiply, and pretty soon there are hundreds of them, all carrying buckets, and so much water that it makes a gigantic floodI sat in the dark, terrified by the thought of being unable to get a breath of air. I took a swimming test. I'd been doing well in the shallow water, but to pass I had to go into the deep water. I jumped in, started to sink, and became paralyzed with the fear that I would suffocate. Someone had to rescue me. Even a broken water faucet scared me. What if they never came to fix it, and the water never stopped, and we all drowned?
Losing things always worried me. I was playing outside with my friends when a tooth fell right out of my mouth. I was bleeding and I started to cry. I ran upstairs, "Mom, my tooth fell out!" I was panickedwhat else might fall out? Mom reminded me that I was getting big, and that my baby teeth would fall out and I'd get new ones. Now I rememberedof course!and I felt embarrassed for crying like a baby.
Once I got lost in Crotona Park. Mom was tending to Alexis when I ran down the stairs and out of the park, restless for a new activity. I couldn't find my way back, so I began to wail. A passing police car stopped. "What's wrong, little girl?" The two very nice policemen let me get in the backseat of their car and we drove around searching for Mom. I was inconsolable, convinced that because I'd carelessly wandered off, I would never see her again. To cheer me up, the policeman handed me a giant bag of chocolates, which I proceeded to gobble up, one by one, crying all the while. "There she is!" Mom had left the park to search for me, and I had finally found her. I immediately lost all interest in the nice policemen, but by this time I had eaten every last chocolate.
Disaster never seemed far away. My pink rubber ball rolled into the street and I raced after it. As I bent down to pick it up, I heard a terrible screeching sound right behind me. Ball in hand, I turned around, and there was a bus, not two inches away from me. My God, the driver really made an effort not to kill me! My heart was beatingwith sinking fear, blessed relief, and painful guilt at my carelessness all at once. How many times could I escape death? When would my luck run out? Once Mom and I were coming back from shopping and we were standing on the corner waiting for the green light when a little old lady walked up behind me. "Let the lady go first," Mom said. Just as I did, a car came screeching around the corner, skidded right onto the sidewalk, and ran over the ladyright where I had been standing a moment before. Mom saved me! I tried not to look at the mangled body lying in the street. It was gory and terrifying, and it was almost me. But whatever I could not bear to know and look at as a child, I would feel compelled to pursue as an adult.
It is more than twenty years later, and I'm the medical resident in charge of the emergency room when they bring the old woman in. She was crossing the street in front of the hospital when a car ran her over. The driver fled, leaving her bleeding in the road. We bring her in on a stretcher and lift her onto the examining table. Only then do we discover that her right leg has nearly been severed from her torso; her femoral artery is pumping blood all over the table and onto the floor. We descend, trying to clamp the artery while simultaneously transfusing blood into her to try to replace what she's losing. Her heart keeps pumping, pumping her blood onto the soaked sheets with grim efficiency. She stares right at us, stunned, wordless, but slowly her eyes shut and she loses consciousness. Within a few minutes, she has bled to death despite the swirling frenetic activity of the doctors around her. As I watch her die, a wave of nausea comes over me, and I am not alone: I see my own pale reflection in the faces of my colleagues. I have become familiar with death, learned to look squarely at it. I have figured out how to practice a physician's objectivity in the face of things that once paralyzed me. But every once in a while, the old fear and horror and revulsion overtake me.
I knew Mom wasn't banishing me the first time she sent me to sleep-away camp when I was six years old, but I was scared anyway. You weren't allowed to bring your own clothes, and that now familiar feeling of detachment began to blossom as I watched counselors count out the camp-issue socks, shorts, and T-shirts. We stood on line for everything: to get clothes, to shower, to eat. A large semicircle of identical cabins was set on a huge lawn. I panicked when I couldn't figure out which one was mine. My mother, undaunted, tried another camp the next summer, and this time she found a place I loved.
Masonic Camp Seven became my favorite part of summer. It was run by the Masons, whoever they were, and it was only for girls. I got to go for three weeks, and we sang, and played, and put on shows. Every day at rest hour I wrote my mother a letter. The moment of greatest suspense occurred when the counselor distributed the mail. When a letter or postcard arrived from Mom, which it did most days, I was thrilled, and when there was none, I fought the profound feeling of disappointment. Sometimes she sent me something really speciallike new stationery or the Weekly Reader, a four-page newspaper for kids. I learned, after all, to enjoy being away from her. When the three weeks ended and it was time to go home, I was nervous at the bus stop, unsure if Mom was going to meet me, or if she was sick or at work and had sent someone else. And still later I'd wonder if it was during some moment in the summer when I allowed time to pass without thinking about Mom, let my need for her lapse, that I created the opening through which she slipped and forever disappeared.
Back home, the same frightening things were still going on, but Mom and I did not talk about them. Most of our relationship didn't depend on words. Really, I was old enough to bathe myself, but I loved the feeling of my mother's hands on me, gently washing my arms and legs. I liked how she set out my clothes every morning (except for the one ugly gray dress I hated to wear). I loved when she combed my hair, making it just right with the colorful plastic barrettes she used to keep it from falling in my face. If my clothes got dirty, Mom changed them all over again. She liked me to look pretty, and she even took me to her beauty parlor. I had thick, thick hair, and the lady cut it with a special scissors. I felt very grown-up.
Mom loved it when I scratched her back and tickled her feet. I touched her arms as if I could feel the thousands of freckles that dotted the upper surfaces. She had auburn hair and blue eyeseveryone said I took after my darker-complected dad, but I couldn't picture what he looked like. I admired Mom in her fancy dress and high-heeled shoes, decorated with jewelry, perfumed and made-up, ready to go out on Saturday night, and I loved the snack she prepared for us before she left. Three little bags on the kitchen counter, one for each of us, containing our favorite foods: almonds, dried apricots, and chocolate. Then we watched TV while we ate, and I knew she was thinking about us even though she wasn't home. And in the middle of the night, when I had bad dreams, Mom didn't mind if I woke her to comfort me.
Sometimes I kept Mom company when she was busy with housework. She was ironing the clothes when a popular song came on the radio. We were singing along, and then instead of Mom singing "Is it all going in one ear and out the other?" which is how it was supposed to go, she sang, "Is it all going in one ear and out the earmuffs?" I started to laugh, and then Mom laughed, and then we laughed even harder, and soon I was laughing so hard my stomach was aching, so I lay down on the floor and just went on laughing to the point of exhaustion. I have almost never experienced these extended moments of uncontrolled, pure delighted laughter in adulthood, but they happened often when I was a child. Mom hung Henry's pajamas on the clothesline to dry, but it was winter, and when she brought them in, they were frozen. This was funny enough, but when she accidentally dropped them, they broke in two! General stomach-clutching hilarity ensued.
One day we visited the observatory at the Empire State Building. For thirty-five cents you could make your own three-minute record. Please, Mom, please! She gave in. Alexis and I started to sing "If All the Rain Drops Were Lemon Drops and Gum Drops," but as the time began running out, our squeaky little voices went faster and faster, and we never did get to finish, and the record ends stuck on the words "gum drops, gum drops, gum drops...." If you let it, the record will say that forever. But our singing was not the best part anyway. The best part was when Mom said, "Speak into the microphone," her words forever etched there, so that long after she was gone I could still hear the sound of her voice instructing us, trying to make it come out right.
But despite the many ways my mother cared for and protected me, despite my attempts to make logical sense of how things disappeared, I still believed in bad magic. Lacking any way to grasp the idea that things could happen over which even powerful adults had no control, I watched warily for Mom's evil intentions, and secretly worried that she was purposely making things vanish. She tried to give me an enema because I was constipated. Standing naked in the white porcelain bathtub, I refused to let her near me, screaming as loud as I could at her approach. No one was going to steal my insides! Mom never tried that one again, but I kept up my guard. I went to the movies and saw Snow White. When I came home, Mom had made mushroom soup. She's never made that before, I thought suspiciously. My own version of Snow White played on the movie screen in my mind. Once upon a time, it began, a little girl lived with her older brother and her baby sister and her mother, who seemed to be pretty nice, at least most of the time. But scary things kept happening in this house; people kept disappearing, one by one. So the little girl wanted to make sure she didn't disappear, too! I refused even to taste Mom's soup. She got annoyed and insisted I couldn't leave the table before finishing, but I knew that if I ate that stuff, I'd be dead. I wasn't going to eat it even if she made me sit there for the rest of my life. I had nothing to lose: I'd sit there forever, I'd never eat or sleep again, I'd never go to school. Faced with this kind of determination, Mom could do nothing but admit defeat. But by the time the next meal came around, I'd completely forgotten about poisoned soup. And the normal developmental task of integrating the good and bad images of my mother was one I would not achieve as a child. My fear that Mom wanted to harm me was just as alive as my love and admiration for how hard she struggled to take care of us, and I made no attempt to resolve the contradiction.
One day, when I was six years old, good magic happened: Mom picked me up at nursery school and we went outside and walked down the three stone steps to the sidewalk. I looked up, and there he was, a stranger waiting to meet me.
"This is my friend Sam," Mom said, but by the way he smiled at me I could tell that this was no ordinary friend. This was Mom's new man, and for me, it was love at first sight. A warm, familiar feeling came over me, as if someone important had returned.
After that, I looked forward to every weekend, because that's when Sam came to visit. He had thick, wavy gray hair, and the beginnings of wrinkles on his face. His voice was rich and deep with a heavy foreign accent, and his fingers were stained yellow from smoking Camel cigarettes one after the other. Sam's name was really Salvatore. He was from Italy, which was someplace in Europe. He liked anchovies on his pizza. I hated anchovies, but I adored Sam. He was a housepainter and plasterer, and he couldn't read or write, just like Grandma. He was a lot older than Mom. Sam let me sit on his lap, examine his discolored fingers, and decorate his hair with my pretty bows and barrettes. Mom told me to stop doing that, I guess because men don't need decorations in their hair. But I loved to feel Sam's hair, and Sam didn't mind, so I kept right on with the game.
Every so often we went to visit Sam at his house. That's how I learned that Sam lived with his mother, which seemed odd for a grown man. The apartment was tiny, crowded with dozens of statues of the Virgin Mary placed on little white doilies on every table and dresser, crucifixes and pictures of Jesus on every wall. In one, Christ had stakes through his hands and legs, and drops of blood flew through the air in gory little arcs. I wondered why anyone would want such a gruesome picture hanging where you have to see it all the time. I sat there quietlythere was hardly room to move, and I was afraid that if I did, I'd knock over one of the statues and break it.
My school was near Crotona Park. First I would take Alexis to nursery school, where she spent the day, and then I walked the five blocks to P.S. 4, all with no help from Mom. I learned a new word in class: posthumous. "Alexis! Guess what! There's a special word for what happened to you," I told my sister. "You were born posthumously, after your father died, and that's what they call it." It surprised me that there was a label for what happened to Alexis, and now I could see it wasn't so peculiar after all. I felt sure Alexis would be delighted to know that she was not alone, that it had happened so often they'd invented a word for it. But after I told her, she only looked at me quizzicallyI could see that her enthusiasm for being a member of this group was limited.
After school I usually went to my best friend Sarah's house. Sarah's mom didn't work, so she was always home waiting for us with cookies and milk and chocolate syrup. In Sarah's apartment building lived two families, one with four boys, one with four girls. Each mother was pregnant, hoping, hoping for a baby of a different sex. When they each, true to form, produced the same sex they always produced, my first thought was: Why not just trade babies? Then everyone will have what they want. Of course, I realized it wasn't so easy to switchyou couldn't just insert a different kid into a family, any more than you could insert a new father when you'd lost the one you had.
Sometimes I was there when Sarah's dad came home. His name was Julius, and he was a lithographer, but we had no idea what he actually did all day. He was very patient and gentle, and smart, too. Sarah's parents hid in Europe during World War II so they wouldn't get killed like most Jewish people did. They were lucky to have lived, and Sarah was lucky to have them. She shared her parents with me, or at least that's how I felt when I visited. One day I spilled chocolate syrup all over the floor and her mother came in and started to yell. Sarah immediately said that she had done it. I couldn't believe she was taking the blame for me. I should have spoken up and admitted my carelessness, but I was so afraid of falling out of her mother's good graces that I just said nothing, feeling silently grateful to Sarah. I never heard her dad yell, not even once. I wished he was my dad, too.
By dinnertime I headed off to the Jewish Ladies Day Nursery, which was for kids whose mothers worked. The food there was not too good, and Sylvia, who was very fat and bossy, tried to make us eat it all up. I had no intention of submitting, but opposition to Sylvia the scary witch-mother required a covert operation. My technique for dealing with food I preferred not to eat was to stealthily stick it in my shoe. Suppose they were serving mashed potatoes with spinach mixed in, a stomach-turning combination if ever there was one. I was seated with seven other children, and Sylvia was on patrol, roaming from table to table. When she was looking elsewhere (and when no children could see eitherthey can tell on you), I would grab the gushy potatoes with my right hand and stick them in the back of my shoe. Then I would casually raise my left hand to ask to go to the bathroom. Walking on my toes to avoid squashing the potatoes (but not so much on my toes as to look suspicious), I would make my way to safety. There, I would flush the evidence down the toilet, clean out my shoe, dry it with paper towels, and coolly return to the scene of the crime. Once you learned to do this with mashed potatoes, string beans and carrots were easy.
It was there that I learned the facts of life. I was nine when some of the other girls told me, and I couldn't believe such a preposterous story, because you wouldn't think something a man uses to pee with could be used for such an entirely different purpose. Jill was the first to get breasts, but I was the first to have pubic hair. I know, because we all compared anatomies in the bathroom.
Sometimes it seemed fine being a girl, but other times I wished I was a boy. I loved to put on my dungarees and polo shirt and climb steep rocks and scale fences. I especially liked the fence around Crotona Park, black metal slats about four feet high, topped with a flat metal strip perfect for tight-rope walking. Except one time I slipped, landing painfully with one leg on each side of the fence. I hoped that landing hadn't ruined my virginity! I once heard a story about a girl who got married, and her membrane was already broken, so she didn't bleed on her wedding night and her husband gave her back. When we took an aptitude test in school, it showed I was the only girl in the class who wanted to grow up to be a mechanic. If I were a boy, I thought, I could marry a woman who would take care of me while I did something importantlike discovering a cure for a disease. And I knew how to fight. Once I got into a brawl with two boys, and I won.
But other times I just wanted to snuggle with boys, especially with Henry's friend Benjamin, who was a little fat and very cuddly. And then there was dancing for Sam. Alexis and I would wear nothing but our underpants and gossamer scarves to carry out our little performances.
Sometimes I disguised myself so that no one could tell what sex I was. The white sheet draped over me was a boring ghost costume for a Halloween Day parade, but the pleasing part was that no one could figure it outwas I a boy or a girl? In my mind, I liked to pretend I could be bothan adorable girl when a handsome man was around, and a competent boy when I realized that I had to take care of myself and my mom without a man to help.
Of course, when I was acting like a boy, it was important to be a little bossy. At school, I was class president. And then after school I rummaged through the closets at the Jewish Ladies Day Nursery, gathered my art supplies, and then announced my own art classes, as if I'd been authorized to step into the role of the teacher. I was the gardener there, too. I invented that job by bringing seeds and planting them in the little bits of dirt that surrounded the concrete of our playground. Then, on hot summer days when I had to be there because there was no place else to be, and the dreaded rest hour came, I got to excuse myself and water my seedlings and fuss over the bigger plants so they'd look just right.
Naturally, when Alexis was with me I had to instruct her in everything. For the most part, I was nice to her, but sometimes I wondered if it was right to make her play horse and carriage by looping a rope around her waist and having her drag me around on my roller skates, all the while giving her little candy pellets to help her keep up her energy. When I saw something interesting lying on the street, I would yell "Whoa-oa-oa!" and stop to inspect. Once I collected a handful of shiny little hard brown beans. I had a feeling my brother would try to take them from me, so I hid them under a rock in front of our apartment building. A week later, I came back to get them and picked up the rock: no beans! Instead, about twenty little seedlings slowly righted themselves as I watched! I was sad to lose my beansand maybe a little embarrassed for not realizing that they were seeds. But neither of those emotions was as powerful as my astonishment at the spunkiness of these little seedlings, growing like that under a rock and then standing up straight as soldiers as soon as they had the chance!
Finally, I would be back home again, and remember that Mom was sick, so I strove to be the helpful child. This was my special role. Henry got to be the troublemaker: Mom was always getting mad at him for something. And Alexis was the adorable babyshe was sweet and quiet, and oh, what pretty eyes she had! Everyone said so! Mom had a special set of pictures of herjust the two of them sitting on a park bench on a beautiful spring day. Henry and I didn't have pictures with Mom. But I did get to be Mom's most devoted helper, and I was much more loyal than Grandma, who went to that rundown part of Miami Beach where all the old Jewish ladies gathered every winter, leaving Mom and me to be the responsible ones.
But my longing for more attention from fatherly men stayed with me. One day a really nice man stopped me and asked for my help. I remembered Mom's warnings: Never go with strangers. But this man seemed so kind. And I had to admit his offer of fifteen cents was very tempting. With that much money, I could buy three big candy bars! So I followed him up a flight of stairs to the second story of an apartment building where, he said, I should help him look for his friend on the roof. He picked me up and I peered through a crack at the top of a heavy metal door out onto a small piece of tarred rooftop. But while I was doing that, I felt his hand slip into my underpants and he touched me. I felt a shiver of fear. "Put me down now! I have to go!" He immediately released me and I started to run away. "Wait! Your fifteen cents!" he shouted. And he was true to his word: he gave me the coins. I took them, but the money seemed tainted and dirty, so when I got home, I put it away instead of spending it on the candy I had dreamed of. I felt guilty because I hadn't listened to Mom, and very worried, because I wondered if a man touches you like that maybe you get damaged. I wished Mom could reassure me, but provoking the wrath of someone who could make people disappear seemed much too risky. Besides, I was too ashamed to tell anyone. The worry persisted: I shouldn't have done that, and now I was irreparably changed.
I'm listening to a senior psychiatrist comment on a case I have just presented. "Little girls without fathers," he says, "are more likely to be molested. They're tempted by the attention of men who are strangers." My mind wanders back to the man with the fifteen cents. No, I want to protest, we are not more vulnerable than little girls who still have fathers. I feel compelled to alternate between two contradictory beliefs: that my father's death was of no great importance, and that it damaged me forever.
I had nightmares almost every night. I especially disliked the one about being trapped, unable to escape, but I had it repeatedly. The bus driver and I are the only ones left on the bus. As I get up to leave, I find I'm attached to the seat or the floor with a sticky substance. I start to free myself. First an arm, then a leg, and the other leg. Just as I'm about to escape, I get reattached and the process starts all over again. It was hard to be attached to men who no longer existed, then to believe that either my mother was responsible or I was.
One day Henry and I went to the movies and there was a contestthe winner would spend a day with Gene Autry. The lady on the stage made the grand announcement: "808 is the winning number! Whoever has 808, please come up here!" Ticket number 808 wins a day with Gene Autry. My heart was pounding. I had a knack for numbers, and I remembered them very well. I couldn't believe it: I had the winning ticket, 808! I'd never won anything before. A day at the rodeo with Gene Autryit seemed unimaginable. I'd never met a famous person. In fact, I had rarely left the five-block radius that surrounded my house. Now I would get a whole day of attention from a handsome man I had long admired. I was a little scared at the thought, but I was also thrilled. I started to search for my ticket. I was horrified! Where was it? I looked everywhere, but I couldn't find it. The woman on the stage announced, "If 808 doesn't come forward, we'll have to draw another number." But I have 808, I desperately told the usher. "Nothing I can do about it," he replied. Time passed. "808," she shouted again, and no one answered.
Later that day, when the movie was over and another winner had been selected, I was sitting on our stoop feeling forlorn, and I reached into my little paper lunch bag. My ticket stubnumber 808sat at the bottom. I wished I could run back and demand my day with Gene Autry, but I didn't even try. It was too late. I was thinking: Maybe it's for the best. I'm not so sure that someone as ordinary as me should be spending the day with a famous cowboy. What would I say to him? Maybe he would just ignore me. Maybe he would seat me in the stands and simply forget me there. But I couldn't rid myself of the image: me riding on a horse side by side with Gene Autry, just like on television. Why did I have to find that ticket now? Wouldn't it have been better if I had dropped it, or remembered the number incorrectly, instead of being a foolish kid who put her ticket stub in her lunch bag for safekeeping and then forgot all about it? I had my chance with an important man, and I lost it. The feeling was intolerable. I wished it had never happened. I wished I could escape. Is there any escape from feelings you don't want to have anymore, don't ever want to remember again?
As Mom got sicker, Sam's visits became the only carefree time we had together. Sam was more like a playmate than a father. He never got mad or ordered us around. On Saturday night, Mom and Sam would go to a nightclub. Mom had a beautiful photograph showing the two of them seated side by side at a fancy little table, smoking cigarettes and drinking liquor. Then, on Sunday, Sam would come back and take us out, to the Bronx Zoo or Palisades Amusement Park. The zoo was unimaginably big, and I loved the animals. For five cents, you could buy a slimy little fish, walk out onto a platform above the sea lion pool, and throw the seals their lunch. We could take the subway to the zoo, and sometimes I saved Mom money by sneaking under the turnstile, which seemed OK to do since I was just a little girl and hardly took up any room anyway.
I had a specific technique for visiting Palisades Amusement Park. First, I went on the merry-go-round and the roller coaster. Then an assortment of rides that whip you around and turn you upside down and spin you in circles. Then I got hungry, and Sam would buy me soda and cotton candy and anything else I wanted to eat. Then I would pick out one more ride, a good fast spinning one, become totally sick on it, get off, and throw up. Occasionally I contemplated skipping the last ride with its inevitable physiological consequences, but it was so tempting that vomiting seemed a small price to pay. One time I persuaded Alexis to go on the roller coaster with me, even though she was terrified of it. The ride started, Alexis began crying hysterically, and I screamed for the operator to stop. He didn't hear me, and even if he had, I'm sure he wouldn't have listened. I felt painfully guilty, waiting for the ride to end. Alexis remembered this betrayal for a long time. Once Sam won a goldfish for me by tossing a Ping-Pong ball right into the little glass jar containing the fish. I got to bring it home, and Sam was my hero.
At Christmas, I would tell Sam which doll I wanted, and he would deliver precisely the one I asked for. At Easter, he brought me a gigantic chocolate Easter bunny, with a bow tied around its neck, carrying a basket filled with jelly beans. The base of the bunny was solid chocolate, so it took almost a week to finish the whole thing. Sometimes before he came over, Sam would call and say he'd be passing the ice cream parlor, so what flavors did we want. Then we would wait eagerly until he walked in the door, bringing exactly what we had ordered.
When Sunday night came, I couldn't bear to see Sam leave. A whole week would pass before he would return. I grabbed his leg and made him drag me to the door before letting him go. Mom told me to stop, but when Sam was around I didn't listen very well.
Since I barely remembered my father, I struggled over what his loss meant to me through my relationships with every suitable substitute, and each played a role in my private battle over how to preserve or destroy his image. My love for Grandpa, Julius, and Sam seemed a continuation of the magical connection to the handsome father I had known, another chance to be the adorable little girl I once was in his eyes. And then, alternatively, when no man was around, I held on to my father by emulating his masculine behavior, being one of the guys, good at male pursuits, a hardy survivor who could protect Mom and be her most reliable companion. But sometimes I just couldn't forgive Dad for deserting me, and then I wished I could be rid of him altogether. So my competition with my unruly brother and my contempt for sadistic Uncle Hy and ineffectual Uncle Milton became a way of dismissing the usefulness of men completely. I didn't need what I didn't have. When this failed to console me, I stewed in my envy of all my classmates who had fathers, and when I got tired of doing that, I just felt sad.
I was only three when my father died, his influence on me unquestionably significant yet barely recorded in my memory. But losing my mother would be another matter entirely. The details of our life together were indelible in my mind. The longer I knew her, the more she served as my center, and I built my life and sense of self around my connection to her, the one person I knew, and loved, and remembered like no other. She was all I had left, irreplaceable, and it was impossible to think of going on without her.
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I am a Child Psychiatrist and often work with children in foster care. Often those children cannot articulate, nor do they understand, what they are going through. Fran Kournos gave me an opportunity to enter her inner fantasies and conflicts in a remarkably honest and eloquently written autobiography.