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Copyright © 2004 Lillian Faderman
All right reserved.
How I Became an Overachiever
How could I not have spent years of my life lusting after the golden apple—
the heft of it, the round, smooth feel of it, the curve of it in my small hand?
When I was three months old and a war was raging across the ocean, my
mother rocked me in her arms in a darkened theater. On the silver screen,
here in America, in the Bronx, was Charles Boyer, a duke with a mansion
Paris, another in the Loire, another in Corsica. His sumptuous abodes were
concocted by a lunatic confectioner: furniture, curtains, ceilings, walls—all
billowy whipped cream. If the movie had been in Technicolor, everything
would surely have been ivory, heaven blue, sun gold. My mother—a
an immigrant, no husband—stared with open mouth, rapt, all but drooling at
Boyer and paradise. When she remembered, she dandled me a bit in her
arms, praying I would be silent long enough to let her see—one more
of the duke, of his mansion, of the story. This she told me.
I did not cooperate. From fitful sleep I awoke to bawl, to shriek
with new lungs, with all my strength.
To the lobby and back with me. One more glimpse for her, and to
the lobby again.
"See," she softly crooned. "Look,see." Standing in the back of the
theater, she held me up to better see the screen. It was the handsome
she wanted us to see, and the many mansions. For a moment my mouth
was open too in rapt attention.
We went home together, I in her arms, in the late October cold
sunset to our little rooms in the Bronx. She wrapped the blanket tighter
around me and held me to her breast so that no cold could reach me. But
head was full of Duke Boyer with his bedroom eyes and kissy mouth and
For my first three months we"d been living on "relief," as welfare
was called in New York in 1940, and my mother didn"t have to work. We
could go to movies together to our hearts" content. But it couldn"t last.
"You have to sue the baby"s father," the relief worker told my
mother in the loud voice she used for people who didn"t speak English
well. "The Bronx can"t be supporting you and her forever." She printed the
address of the public lawyer in big, careful letters and told my mother what
subway to take.
"That"s not my baby," my father swore on the stand, and the judge
believed him. He didn"t have to pay my mother a cent.
The Bronx didn"t have to pay any more cents either, the relief
worker said. That was when my aunt—the funny monkey, my mother called
her—came to live with us and take care of me, and my mother went back to
the garment factory where she"d been a draper before I was born. No more
movies and outings in the cold for me.
My aunt kept me well bundled in the cramped and overheated
apartment and crooned Yiddish lullabies to me all day long. Unter Lililehs
viegeleh . . . Under little Lilly"s cradle stands a pure white goat. The little
went to market, to buy you raisins and almonds. A foghorn voice came out
her short body. I stared up at her with huge love eyes. She held me to her
heart and I crawled in forever, she said. A kush on dyneh shayneh
a kush on dyneh shayneh pupikel, a kiss on your pretty little cheeks, on
pretty little belly button. Smack, smack would go her lips in big goopy
on my briefly exposed skin, and I was beside myself with glee.
My mother called her Rae, and I"d never heard the word aunt, so
when I began talking I called her My Rae. I became roly-poly because My
Rae was always sticking into my mouth big spoonfuls of whatever she was
cooking in our small kitchen—prune compote, potato and carrot tzimmes,
boiled chicken with noodles, My-T-Fine Chocolate Pudding. "Open the
moileleh, the little mouth," she said and grinned ecstatically when I did. In
went the compote, in went the tzimmes. "A michayeh, a pleasure," she
I learned to walk months later than most kids because when My Rae wasn"t
cooking or making her sewing machine go whirr, whirr with the piecework
did for money, she never let me out of her arms.
They were the only two of their family who, in 1923, had made it
the safe shores of America, long before Hitler marched through Prael, their
shtetl in Latvia, and wiped out everyone else—a crippled brother, two
the sisters" husbands, the sisters" five children. It was not supposed to work
out that way. "This is what you must do," the grandmother I never saw told
her eldest daughters, my mother (a sylph, an eighteen-year-old beauty) and
my aunt (a bulldog, the chaperone). The poorest of the poor were going off
America and sending back dollars and pictures of themselves dressed like
the nobility. Why should her two daughters be any less lucky? They were
marry rich men in America and bring the rest of the family over.
They"d been in America for almost twenty years, their parents had
died, and neither my mother nor my aunt had married, not even by the time
was born to my mother and her lover in 1940. She"d been with him for eight
years. He"d told her from the beginning that he wasn"t the marrying kind,
she loved him, so she couldn"t help herself.
Then, not long after my mother lost the paternity suit against my
father, Hitler invaded Latvia. When the silence from Prael continued, month
after month and year after year, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, my mother blamed
My Rae for all of it.
"You! It"s all because of you. I could have brought them, but you
said no. "First we get married," you said with your big mouth. Lousy bitch,
tear you to pieces like a herring. A fig on you," and she thrust her thumb
between her index and middle fingers, waving it in front of My Rae"s nose in
shtetl version of giving someone the finger. I sat on the bare floor and
bawled. "And Moishe would have married me, but you had to butt your
two cents in."
"The cholera should take me. I should die in their place." My aunt
wept for her multiple sins.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was getting dribbles of
information during the war about the fate of those overseas. My aunt went to
them and kept going back. Nothing. Then at the end, in 1945, came the
news that in the summer of 1941 the Jews of Prael had been made to dig
their own graves and were murdered on the spot. No one survived.
My mother shrieked, tore her hair, fell to her knees. I fell on top of
her, shook her to remind her, "You have me, Mommy. Mommy, don"t cry." I
didn"t know to weep for the relatives I"d never seen, but something terrible
was happening to her. I wailed. Now we shrieked together, high keening
sounds, and my scalding tears were fluid fire down my cheeks.
My aunt, wailing herself, still remembered me. She lifted me up
and held me to her heaving breast.
My mother sat upright on the floor and stared. "Everything you
took from me. Now you want to take my baby," she screamed. "A mameh
ohn a boich vaytik, a mother without a bellyache you want to be. You lousy
bitch, you can"t!" She threw a shoe at my aunt"s head.
Maybe my aunt reasoned that since so many in the family had
been killed, she had a moral responsibility to remain alive. She left us still
keening and came back to the apartment a couple of hours later with a train
ticket to California in her hand.
"I can"t no more. I"ll die," she yelled at her sister as she threw
things into a cardboard valise. She wet my face with kisses and more tears
and left me alone with my mother. I was five.
I cried even louder and harder than my mother for a long time. And
then My Rae"s image faded from my mind. As hard as I tried, I could only
remember her foghorn voice and her long blue eyes.
My mother cursed the walls, naming both her sister and her lover,
my faithless father, whom she hadn"t stopped loving. Then, despite the
paternity suit, she and my father began again. Maybe they"d never stopped
and I didn"t know about it because my aunt had kept me distracted with
lullabies and tzimmes. Now we moved into a furnished room on Fox
Street, "by a Missus," my mother called it, who would take care of me while
my mother worked and on Saturday nights and all day Sunday, when she
was with her lover. Mrs. Kalt, the woman"s name was. She talked to me in
Yinglish and patted my back with gruff, absentminded strokes when I cried
because my mother was gone, and sometimes she gave me three pennies
so I could run to the dark, sweet-smelling candy store on the corner and
myself a charlotte russe with a little mound of whipped cream that I could
wrap my tongue around.
My mother and I slept in the same bed, and some nights I was
startled awake by soft whimpers, like a forlorn child"s, but they were my
mother"s. Was she crying for Moishe? For the lost relatives? I didn"t know,
but I cried too, the same wretched little sobs. We held on to each other and
But we weren"t always miserable. Some Saturday mornings, to
my ecstasy, she took me to Crotona Park. I struggled to reach her arm as
we walked along the paths. "Mother and daughter," she said. Our skirts
in the gentle breeze, and I held on to her tightly.
Sometimes we"d stop to rest on a bench and she"d sing—her
voice sliding up and down—songs from "Your Hit Parade" that she must
heard from the other women in the shop. It had to be you, wonderful you. It
had to be you, wonderful you, she knew the lyrics imperfectly. "On this
me and Moishe sat the first time I went out with him," she confessed to me
or the wind one morning.
Of course our movie-going resumed: All This and Heaven Too,
Together Again, Back Street—that was her favorite; I saw it at least four
times. "What"s a backstreet, Mommy?" I asked. If she knew, she never told
Though I didn"t understand most of what I saw, I learned to speak
English without a Yiddish accent through the movies. And it was there that I
came to understand female gorgeousness: women with glossy waved coifs,
spider-leg eyelashes, and bold lipstick, elaborate drapes and .ounces over
statuesque, well-corseted figures, shapely legs (but never as shapely as
mother"s) in seamed nylons and high heels; women who were
glamorous. My mother tried to copy them on the Saturday nights she went
out with my father.
I watch as she looks at her face in the speckled mirror. She burns a
match and the cooled tip becomes a brush that she draws across her lids
once, twice, a third time. I hold my breath just as she does in her
concentration. The smudges are uneven, and she rubs her fingers over
smoothing them out. Now her eyelids look heavy over her eyes, which are
luminous and large
Next she takes her tube of lipstick and pokes her pinkie finger
over the top of the worn-down stick, then dabs the color on each cheek.
rubs, rubs, rubs, rubs with her finger, and her cheeks become rosy. I know
those cheeks well because I have kissed them with loud, smacking kisses
and with soft, butterfly kisses. I don"t know if I like the new color, but I know
from movie posters that glamorous women must have rosy cheeks.
Her lips are next. She applies the blood red stick directly. I see
she has not followed their lovely outline. The blood red laps over and makes
her lips larger, like Joan Crawford"s. For a moment I want their delicate pink
back, the graceful shape I sometimes studied while she slept. But now they
look like a movie star"s lips, and she nods at them with satisfaction.
"Hubba, hubba," I say in my best Bud Abbott voice. She smiles,
but I"m not sure whether she is smiling at me or something she sees in the
Next she combs her dark curls, then puts Pond"s cold cream on
her already creamy shoulders and neck.
My eyes do not leave her for a second; but after she kisses my
cheek and slips out, they well up with tears.
Him I never see.
I watched her so many times as she made up her face to look right with her
makeshift cosmetics. Did she see in the old mirror the beautiful face that I
saw? Did he tell her how beautiful she was?
Her lovely figure should have clothes like the movie stars", I
thought. But I knew, because she told me, that we were too poor for her to
buy herself nice clothes. "Someday, I"ll wear the beautiful dresses," I
promised myself, trying to picture my grownup self in them and not
remember the sound of the door closing behind her.
It was through the movies that I learned to think big: I would
become a movie actress, since my mother admired them so much. Though
she hardly read or wrote English, and she never lost her Yiddish accent,
knew the names and lives of all the actresses as though they were her
sisters: Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Greer Garson, Greta Garbo, Joan
Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck—those were her favorites. She remained in
with Charles Boyer. "He looks like Moishe," her lover she meant, my father.
hated Boyer and his big lips.
Her eyes and mouth almost always looked sad when she didn"t
make them up, but on Saturdays during the day and in the evenings during
the week I had her to myself, and I was happy just being close to her. What
else could I need? We had "kitchen privileges" with our furnished room, but
she didn"t like to cook, and we both loved to dine out, as she called it.
Sometimes we went to the Automat, where you could put nickels in a slot
and, like magic, the little window popped open so you could take out the
wonderful goyishe dishes on display. Lemon meringue pie. Peanut butter
jelly sandwiches on squishy white bread. Mashed potatoes and gravy with
ham steak—forbidden and for that reason delicious.
Or we went to a little restaurant on Southern Boulevard, with a
menu in Yiddish and white tablecloths. Calves liver and fried onions.
Gedempfte flaysh with apricots. Stuffed cabbage in a sweet and sour
Excerpted from Desnuda En La Tierra Prometida by Lillian Faderman Copyright © 2004 by Lillian Faderman. Excerpted by permission.
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