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The Optimistic Lesbian
There are a lot of brilliant doctors and scientists in the Jong family. The Jong family is also chock-full of great gourmet chefs and talented tennis players. Members of the Jong fam-ily are placid and sane; they enjoy large family dinners and even larger family reunions. Almost every single member of the Jong family is Chinese. Tragically, this family full of good-looking, tennis-playing, well-adjusted Chinese doctors is no relation to my actual family. My mother’s married name was Jong, and she acquired it during her second marriage, a brief legal coupling with an even briefer Chinese shrink. Sadly, my mother’s maiden name was Mann, and her mother’s maiden name was Mirsky.
Where the Jongs play tennis, the Mirskys play “ride the porcelain pony” while they suffer the effects of our two biggest inheritances—irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease. While the Jongs are perfecting the latest gourmet dish, the Mirskys are screaming at Lulu (the illegal Ecuadorian housekeeper) and chugging Manischewitz. While the Jongs are diagnosing cancers and radiating tumors, the Mirskys are being diagnosed with everything from West Nile virus to hepatitis C (sorry, Uncle Larry).
It all started with two Polacks. Great-Grandpa Mirsky had two daughters, Eda, my grandmother, and Kitty, my grandaunt. Both girls were born in England, and both came to New York City via Ellis Island before they were ten years old.
In the grand tradition of sisters, Eda and Kitty always hated each other. Mostly they hated each other because they did the same thing; both of them were painters. Grandma Eda painted flowers and children. Grandma’s flower paintings were filled with lavish colors, sensuous shapes, and the hand of her abused housekeeper, who’d been holding the flowers since early the day before. Grandma’s flower paintings were the stuff of midwestern hotel room walls. But Grandma’s portraits of her children and grandchildren seemed to express something more than just a love of flowers or housekeepers: Grandma’s paintings of her family highlighted her distaste for motherhood. For example, the only portrait Grandma painted of me showed me with hooved feet, horns, and hair made entirely of writhing snakes.
Kitty painted different subject matter. She painted dark, brooding seascapes. She painted the howling wind, the waves slamming into Fire Island, the spray from a huge hurricane-force wind, the harsh sand, and the pain she felt about the popularity of the song “Abra-abra-cadabra, I want to reach out and grab ya.” She also painted the occasional kitten.
Each sister thought the other’s work was of the hackneyed greeting-card sort.
Once I interrupted Grandma’s screaming about socialism long enough to ask her why she didn’t like Kitty. It was the late eighties. I remember little of that dark time in American history, except that I had feathered hair and thought white Keds worn with scrunchy socks were fashion-forward. Grandma was standing half-clad in a red silk Japanese kimono on a foot ladder in the bathroom of her apartment on ritzy Central Park West, where all the window curtains were made of old floral bedsheets, and all the toilet seats were painted with large red and pink daisies. Grandma had a stomach that looked like a tushy placed slightly higher up on the wrong side of her body. Through all clothing—sweaters, coats, dresses, and heavy wool cardigans—one could see Grandma’s enormous front tushy. Grandma had gotten rich by Grandpa’s foray into tchotchkes (Grandpa had started an import-export business aptly named Seymour Mann Imports), which had happened innocently enough when one night after smoking tea Grandpa had come home stoned with a showgirl on each arm. Grandma didn’t like showgirls. She didn’t like her husband bringing two of them home when she was busy with two other girls, her young daughters. The showgirl incident basically marked the end of Grandpa’s career as a drummer.
Yes, Grandpa had been a drummer; he had played in a Cole Porter review. He was immensely proud of his time as a drummer, but his first career was only ever apparent to me in one way—he was almost completely deaf. So deaf when he picked up the phone the first thing he would say was “I’m fine.”
Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment at 25 Central Park West always smelled of sweet, brown, fibrous stewed prunes. Asked why she did not like Grand-Aunt Kitty, Grandma Eda turned to me violently, thus accidentally (I hope) revealing her ample though sagging bosom, and replied, “She believes everything is good.”
Grandma Eda disliked Kitty because Kitty was an optimist. Grandma knew life was broken into three categories—the horrible, the miserable, and the stupid. Naturally people who believed otherwise always fell into the last category. Hence Kitty’s belief in the goodness of kittens (especially those painted on black velvet) was proof positive that she was a moron. Grandma blamed Kitty’s optimism on her being a lesbian.
Anyway, Kitty came to America, painted, fought with and generally hated her sister, and then married a man named Dayton Brandfield, and . . . “WAIT!” you scream. “How can this be?” you ask yourself and the man sitting next to you on the Number 6 train, who smells of coconut aftershave. Didn’t I just tell you that Kitty was an optimist, therefore a lesbian? Well, in the Mirsky family, you can be gay, but that does not excuse you from your constitutional duty to marry and pass on those irritable-bowel-syndrome genes (though Kitty never did have any children). Dayton was a painter, but then he got into the marketing and selling of little objects like battery boxes, otherwise known as tchotchkes. Tchotchkes were not good to Dayton, although it does sound from all the very reliable family testimonials about him that Dayton was no great rocket scientist, no Stephen Hawking, and not even a Noelle Bush, for that matter. And so, after Dayton failed at tchotchkes, at the ripe old age of forty, Grand-Aunt Kitty dumped Dayton to love the ladies.
From then on Kitty rode the pink pussy express. The first thing she did was move. Optimistic lesbians aren’t allowed to live on the Upper East or Upper West Side, they must live in Chelsea. The next thing Kitty did was find a place on Fire Island; all optimistic lesbians must have summer places on Fire Island. After that she bought a giant papier-mâché lion. This is crucial: 90 percent of all optimistic lesbians have at least one papier-mâché lion in their Chelsea apartments. The last thing Kitty did was find a lesbian lover: all optimistic lesbians have to have lesbian lovers; otherwise, they’re just gay till graduation, like some students at certain liberal arts colleges (Smith, Wesleyan, Oberlin, Vassar, et cetera).
And so life went on for Kitty Brandfield. She painted dark, brooding, despairing, feeling, crying, dying, sensitive, earth-changing, world-altering seascapes and the occasional happy kitten. She lived on Fire Island in the summers and frolicked with the other optimistic lesbians and with Calvin Klein. She lived in Chelsea in the winter and ate stale stuffed lobster at the Chelsea Hotel, while Sid and Nancy were upstairs killing each other. As in any good feud, Grandma Eda continued to hate Grand-Aunt Kitty, and Grand-Aunt Kitty continued to not quite understand why Grandma hated her. Grand-Aunt Kitty’s days were filled with all these things and with munching at the Y.
Mom dragged me to visit Kitty a few times in her loft in Chelsea. I hated visiting Kitty because she smelled bad, fed me weird stewed fruits, and pinched my cheeks. If Grand-Aunt Kitty had been a large-screen TV or had fed me huge quantities of chocolate, I might have loved her. Kitty would let me sit on the giant papier-mâché lion while she and Mom talked. Sadly, Kitty’s lion was also not TV.
“Well, Erica . . .” Kitty had a long, wrinkly neck like a turkey (in the spirit of karma I will probably have a neck twice as bad, so long and wrinkly that it touches the floor when I talk). “I . . .” And then Kitty would say something chockablock with ambiguity. Truly, I think one of the reasons Grandma hated Kitty was that Kitty was just totally unable to say anything without some degree of Al Gore–ish mealymouthedness. Where Grandma would say, “How did you get so fat?” Kitty would say, “Maybe you might have put on a little weight or maybe not. Maybe my eyesight is going, maybe that’s what it is.”
One note on the physical composition of members of the Mirsky family: Great-Grandpa Mirsky lived to be 99 years old. His father lived to be 210 years old. His father’s father was Moses. Unfortunately, Great-Grandpa Mirsky was not a charming old gentleman like, say, that lovable guntoter Charlton Heston or the cuddly Star Wars monger Ronald Reagan. Great-Grandpa Mirsky was addicted to kicking puppies, kittens, and goldfish.
Possibly the most interesting fact of the whole Great-Grandpa Mirsky debacle is that the puppy-kicking activities of his later years were actually a dramatic improvement over his youth. The same fact was true for Grandma Eda, who magically became a fuzzy and cuddly ninety-year-old with the help of dementia, a few minor falls in Central Park, and Prozac.
Kitty was about eighty when she forgot her name. Then, a few days later, she forgot everything about herself—where she lived, how old she was, where she kept her trusty bottle of the Jewish Jim Beam (Manischewitz), what her favorite fruit was, whether she preferred Sonny or Cher, and the angst she had felt about little kittens being so incredibly cute. She forgot about her deep and meaningful friendship with Calvin Klein (so did he). Each day washed more facts from her brain, and soon Kitty had invited a very pleasant young homeless man to come and live in her stark, still pretty much unconverted, steam-heated, concrete-floored, industrial Chelsea loft that had once been a circus peanut–candy factory.
Now we porn-writing toilet-seat-decorating Polacks aren’t exactly in the Social Register, and I actually have dated a few homeless men from time to time (positives about dating the homeless—no pesky utility bills, plenty of time to lavish attention on you, no place they need to be). But that said, taking a stray homeless person in to live with you can really be ill-advised.
Mom was not happy to hear that Kitty had invited a homeless man to come and live with her. Mom and her two sisters decided something had to be done. Around the time that Kitty lost her memory, her much younger girlfriend left her for Chastity Bono (blatant libelous falsehood). The sisters (Mom, Aunt Nana, and Aunt Claudia) found themselves in a sticky wicket not completely unlike the situation in King Lear, except with extra complications, like department stores calling them about special events, therapists selling them hours that were only forty minutes, and the difficulty of getting their children into Manhattan private schools.
Something had to be done! Grand-Aunt Kitty couldn’t just wander the streets looking for good-looking homeless men. That was my job. And so Grand-Aunt Kitty went to the place where all old people go when they’re too poor to live in Palm Beach and too homosexual to live in West Palm Beach: a classy nursing home in the Bronx.
Not just any classy nursing home in the Bronx would be good enough for a Mirsky. Our family’s strict requirements were that there had to be famous people in the nursing home, and furthermore, it had to have famous people or relatives of famous people living in it, and did I mention the part about the famous people?
Luckily, there are many families as classy as the Mirsky family. And they send their relatives to the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale. The best and the brightest aging, middle-class, incontinent Jews end up at the Hebrew Home.
But who are these celebrities whose very presence is assurance to us that our elder will get the best care? Barbara Walters’s mother lives (breathes, anyway) at the Hebrew Home for the Aged. So do Uri Geller’s mom and Henry Kissinger’s flamboyant second cousin.
And so Grand-Aunt Kitty moved into the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale. Various members of the family had various crises of conscience about putting Kitty in a home, but we were all able to reassure ourselves that if it was good enough for Barbara Walters’s mom, then it was good enough for Aunt Kitty. Besides Aunt Kitty wasn’t even sure who any of us were, so she couldn’t actively try to make us feel guilty.
And so Aunt Kitty moved from Chelsea to Riverdale. She moved from an industrial loft to a place where captains of industry wore diapers. She moved from a life that resembled the musical Rent to a life that looked more like the musical Urinetown. She had to get rid of the large papier-mâché lion, but she didn’t lose her optimism or her lesbianism.
Not right away, anyway.
Can I just interrupt for one second with a very telling sidebar, please? I recently visited my ninety-one-year-old grandma Eda and discovered a copy of Beyond Viagra on my grandpa’s bedside table. Grandpa was at work, so I was unable to question him about this startling (and needless to say very disturbing) revelation. I did ask my mom about Beyond Viagra. She smiled in a very Our Bodies, Ourselves way and said, “When you’re ninety, you’ll be happy if you can have sex with or without lubricant, Viagra, or the assistance of a nurse practitioner.”
But back to Kitty: Kitty spent her days at the Maurice R. Greenberg Wellness Center, which according to the Hebrew Home’s website (www.hebrewhome.org), “offers sophisticated exercise equipment and innovative fitness programs that are tailored to meet the individual’s needs.” She also enjoyed “the nationally renowned art collection, as well as numerous other displays of art, antiquities, live birds and fish. . . .” Nothing says “Barbara Walters’s mother lives here” like live birds and fish. And then there’s always “The Dorothy Doughty porcelain bird collection, one of only two complete and undamaged collections in the world.” Not exactly kittens, but at least kittens (the ones in cartoons anyway) eat birds.
She seemed to love life there (who knows?), day in day out, in the Bronx, listening to bad classical music, celebrating all the Jewish holidays (most of which, being the most reformed of reformed Jews, she’d never even heard of). She seemed to like the art therapy, the play therapy, the paper-crumbling arthritis therapy, the coping-with-incontinence classes, and the lying around waiting for God to take her to his kingdom. And if she had been a normal octogenarian, that might have been enough. But of course it wasn’t enough, because Kitty was a Mirsky and a lesbian, until one day.