How I Came into My Inheritance: And Other True Storiesby Dorothy Gallagher
In a singular voice–intimate, fierce, hilarious–Gallagher takes you into the heart of her Russian Jewish heritage with stories as elegant and stylish as fiction. From
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Dorothy Gallagher began her literary career fabricating stories about celebrities for a pulp magazine. Nothing she invented, however, could rival the facts surrounding her own family.
In a singular voice–intimate, fierce, hilarious–Gallagher takes you into the heart of her Russian Jewish heritage with stories as elegant and stylish as fiction. From the wrenching last stages of her parents’ lives, Gallagher moves back through time: to her parents’ beginnings, the adventures of her extended family, and the communist ideology to which they cling. Her aunt Lily sells lingerie to prostitutes; a family friend is found murdered in a bathtub; her cousin Meyer returns to the Ukraine to find his village near death from starvation; and a young Gallagher endures sessions in self-criticism at a Workers’ Children’s camp. Together these episodes tell the larger story of a generation living through tumultuous history, and record the acts of loving defiance of a daughter on her path to independence.
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After my mother broke her hip, I put her in a nursing home.
"You want to put me here?" she said.
The woman was certified senile, but she still knew how to push my buttons. Not that she didn't have reason to worry; had I listened when she'd begged me "Darling, please, please don't do anything
to hurt Daddy. It will kill him . . ."?
I swear, what I did, it wasn't just for the money.
You know that tone people take about old age? The stuff about dignity and wisdom and how old people (pardon me for saying old) should be allowed to make their own decisions. Allowed! My father treated nicely reasoned arguments like mosquitoes. As for dignity, let's pass over the question of bodily wastes for the moment; let's suppose that the chronologically challenged father of one such pious person decided to torture and starve his or her chronologically challenged mother. ("So she falls! She'll lie
there till she gets up! . . . What does she need orange juice for? If she's thirsty she'll drink water!") And not only that, but also gives away practically all that person's inheritance to a crook. Do you think you
might see any revisionism in attitude then?
Until the day I took him to court and the judge laid down the law, nobody, but nobody, interfered with my father. I mean, he was awesome. For instance, he owned this slum building. It was filled with some characters you wouldn't want to meet in broad daylight on a busy street. The tenants didn't pay rent, welfare paid the rent. But welfare didn't pay exactly as much as my father was legally entitled to. So every month, even when he was up in his late eighties, he'd get in his car and drive over to that building, haul himself up the stairs, bang his cane on every door, and demand his five or ten dollars. He got it. Nobody laid a finger on him. Nobody even slammed the door in his face. And the only way you could tell he might be even a little bit nervous was that he left his motor running. And the car was never stolen!
It wasn't easy to tell when my father began to lose his marbles, because he'd always been such a headstrong summabitch, as he called everyone who had a slightly different idea. But the winter he was ninety he took out the water heater. That was a clue. I went up there one day — they lived about sixty miles upstate in this house they'd lived in forever. Now, the house should have been my first clue. I knew that house. I grew up there. If ever there was a homemade house, that was it. My father built it all around us. First we were living in two rooms, then three; nine by the time he got finished, the rooms all stuck on in unexpected places, connected by closets you walked through to get to other rooms, short dark corridors and twisting staircases. He never got tired of making new rooms. When I was a kid I thought he had made the world. Like once, we needed a shovel for the woodstove. My father took a metal ice
tray, cut off one end, rounded it, put a hole in the other end, and stuck a bit of pipe in. Voilà! I idolized that man.
And now the house was a wreck: jury-rigged electrical cords you tripped over, water dripping from the roof, buckets on the floor, smells of accumulated filth. I'd piss in my pants before I'd go into the bathroom.
But the thing is, I still believed in my father; he'd always taken care of everything. So when I'd say, "Daddy, there's a leak over Mama's bed. Let me find someone to fix the roof,"and he'd say, "Don't you do anything, I'll take care of it," I'd think, Okay, I guess he knows what he's doing.
Or I might say, "I'll get somebody to clean the house."
"It's clean! Mama cleans!"
So I say, "Mama, when did you clean the house?" She says, dementedly, "You saw, I just swept out. You know it doesn't get so dirty in the country."
I say, "But it smells bad," and my father says, "It doesn't smell!" I'd think: He seems sure. I guess it's not so bad. And everything happened so gradually.
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Meet the Author
Dorothy Gallagher was born and raised in New York City, where she lives with her husband, the writer and editor Ben Sonnenberg. She is the author of Hannah's Daughters and All the Right Enemies.
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