Marked for Life: A Story of Disguise, Discovery and Redemptionby Joie Davidow
Attractive and successful, Joie Davidow presents a confident face to the world. But her carefully applied makeup conceals a secret she has kept for decades. Marked for Life chronicles Joie's struggle to overcome feeling that she was grotesquely flawed, while hiding behind a cosmetic mask that granted her entry into a profession that puts a premium on appearance, culminating in the life-changing realization that in deceiving others, she was also betraying herself. Written with humor and refreshingly devoid of self-pity, it will touch anyone who has ever felt "different" from the rest of the world.
- iUniverse, Incorporated
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Read an Excerpt
Miss Grape Juice Face
I was born at the end of the Second World War, at the beginning of what would be called the Baby Boom. My father spent the war as a lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General's Office in Washington, D.C. He came home to practice law in the little New Jersey town where he had been born and raised.
Millville is a factory town, midway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City--not a rural town, neither urban nor suburban, just a small town among other small towns. It's not even a particularly charming town, though it may once have been.
The Maurice River flows through the South Jersey salt marshes on its way to the Delaware, but it slows down to little more than a creek as it passes through Millville. The mill company that gave the town its name dammed the river and, at the turn of the century, excavated part of it to create Union Lake. Two miles wide, it was once touted as the biggest artificial lake in the world, a tourist attraction with an amusement park on its shores. But by the time I was born the park had long been abandoned. The carousel and bandstand were gone, and the scrubby forest had grown back. Local people put up summer shacks and boat docks on land they rented from the mill company. The bottom of the lake was filled with rotting leaves that turned the water a dark rusty color, staining our skin and ruining our bathing suits.
Millville was a white Protestant town, so unabashedly conservative that the local newspaper was the Millville Daily Republican. The town's few Jews were mostly merchants with small shops along High Street. Morris and Bea Friedman had the shoe shop; Maxie Zeitz had the delicatessen. Lou and Faye Miller owned one drugstore;Bailey and Ada Abrahms, the other. The Ackerman family sold furniture. The Kleinmans sold toys. The Levensons sold groceries. There were a couple of Jewish doctors and a couple of lawyers, like Daddy. But no Jews worked in the factories.
In the 1950s, Millville's business district was a single street, High Street, just a few blocks of stores and banks, the post office and the Leroy Movie Theater, where we lined up on Saturdays for the twenty-five-cent Kiddy Matinee. All the stores closed at noon on Wednesdays so that the shopkeepers could make the trip into Philadelphia or New York City to restock their shelves.
My father's law office was on the second floor at the corner of High and Sassafras Streets, in a building that had once housed Davidow's Department Store, the crowning achievement of my grandfather's retail career. We lived only a block away, around two corners. My sisters and I could run back and forth between our house and Daddy's office even before we were old enough to cross the street by ourselves.
During Millville's boom years, at the turn of the century, some of the wealthiest people in town built homes on Second Street, where we lived. Half a century later, the street was just a row of middle-class homes, but remnants of the old architecture remained. Leaded-glass windows looked out onto front porches with lathe-worked posts and railings. Kitchens opened onto backyards neatly divided from the neighbors' by low fences.
Our house was half a double, a two-family structure built like Siamese twins. The two houses shared a common interior wall, and a low railing divided the porch in half. We had one side of the porch; the Brandriffs had the other. Chain-link fences, covered in the summer with honeysuckle vines, separated our little yard from two larger ones. On one side, Old Mister Brandriff grew roses. On the other, Old Man Friedman raised chickens and grew sunflowers.
Out our backyard gate, I take the shortcut across the empty lot. Hopping over mud puddles, I run through the narrow alley, holding my nose as I pass the big garbage bins behind the fish and vegetable market--and I'm on High Street where everybody knows I'm Daddy's daughter, one of the Davidow girls, the one with the purple-marked face.
I spend my allowance on a Three Musketeers bar at Miller's Pharmacy, handing my sweaty fistful of coins over to Faye Miller, who lives two porches away from us on Second Street. Daddy calls Faye Miller Faygeleh, which means little bird. But he never says that to her face, and I'm not supposed to say it, either.
Next to Miller's Pharmacy, I visit Friedman's Shoe Store, so I can put my feet into the machine that shows my bones. Morris and Bea Friedman live in an apartment over his father's house, next door to ours. Daddy calls Morris Friedman "the Chinaman" because his face is round and his eyes are slanty and his hair is black and shiny like patent leather shoes. His wife, Bea, dyes her long, curly hair bright red. She wears tight dresses and high-heeled shoes, even when she's working in the shoe store or doing the laundry. Whenever he sees Bea Friedman climbing the wooden stairs to her apartment, Daddy says, "There goes the tschotschkeleh." I don't know what it means, but he never calls her that when she can hear him.
On High Street, I'm safe--unless I run into a stranger, who might stare or ask questions about my face. I duck behind Mommy's skirt when she tries to introduce me. "Come on, Joie, can't you say hello to Ruthie's grandmother?" I look at Ruthie's grandmother sideways, showing her my good cheek, hiding the place where the angel touched me. I keep the birthmark cheek pressed against Mommy's knee, but Ruthie's grandmother probably sees it anyway.
Across Second Street, two massive nineteenth-century churches towered over us, their steeples thrust into the sky like arms raised in triumph. The brick First Methodist commanded one corner and the equally impressive gray stone First Presbyterian the other. Although we were Jewish, Mommy sent me to the Presbyterian nursery school, in that imposing bastion of white Protestant culture just across the street from our house, convenience trumping religious affiliation.
Westminster Day School was presided over by a very thin, very wrinkled, very white widow named Mrs. Shaw. A dozen four-year-old children assembled each morning at the grand porte cochere of the Presbyterian Church. In the colder months, we shivered under the covered walkway, holding tightly to our mothers' hands until Mrs. Shaw rang the opening bell. But in the morning sunlight of April and May, we raced around the little garden, running and dancing, shrieking under the flowering dogwood tree that dripped pink petals onto the grass.
Mrs. Shaw was a very strict teacher. For three hours a day, five days a week, she labored at transforming inadequately toilet-trained savages into miniature Presbyterian ladies and gentlemen. She knew that her task was formidable and she had no time for coddling and caressing or otherwise spoiling her unruly charges. Like a litter of puppies, we learned to understand and obey important commands such as "Keep to the right in a single file" and "Sit quietly with your hands folded in your lap." We learned that it was a very bad thing to get caught picking your nose or sucking your thumb. And we learned to raise either one finger or two when we had to go to the bathroom, depending on what it was we had to do when we got there.
We learned these things not because Mrs. Shaw kissed us or rewarded us or made us love her so much we'd want to please her. Nor did she ever hit us or punish us or even raise her voice to us. She was far too dignified a lady to stoop to any of that. She trained us with the calm skill of a lion tamer. Nothing we did ever fazed her. No snotty nose, no outburst of baby tears, no soiled panties ever so much as ruffled the folds of her perfectly starched handkerchief or caused a single hair to slip from the silky net that encased her head. Despite her physical frailness, she was imperious, rock hard on the inside, and we knew it. I feared her for no real reason, but I feared her mightily.
It was at Mrs. Shaw's school that I learned about Jesus. She told us that he was always watching us, every minute of our lives, even when we were asleep. He knew everything we did, everything we said, everything we thought. And even though we learned to sing "Yes, Jesus Loves Me," I didn't feel his love at all.
He was a scary man. I knew what he looked like. Mrs. Shaw showed us plenty of pictures of him and there were plenty more hanging all around the church. Jesus didn't look anything like any of the men I knew. I was afraid to undress or go to the bathroom because Jesus was watching me. I could see him there while I sat on the toilet, his hand raised in silent reproach.
And it was in my first weeks at Mrs. Shaw's school that I learned I was a strange child. "The little Jewish girl," I heard her whisper to another child's mother. "Such a pity about her face. They say the doctors can't do a thing for her."
Why? Why did something have to be done for me? What was wrong with my face? I stood in our living room and examined myself in the full-length mirror on the door of the coat closet. I saw the purple mark--not an angel's loving touch, but something wrong. Something shameful. Something pitiful. With the palm of my own little hand, I rubbed and rubbed, but I couldn't rub it off.
I couldn't face Mrs. Shaw again, couldn't face the other children, couldn't face being "such a pity." So I refused to go back to Westminster Day School. I begged and sobbed and clung to the blankets. But Mommy marched me back there, back across the street to the little school room in the great big church, where I now kept to myself in a corner, peering through the leaded-glass windows at our house across the street, wondering how long it would be before I could go home again.
I was a failure at nursery school. When we had to make lanterns from red construction paper, I couldn't cut the straight lines neatly with my blunt children's scissors. Mrs. Shaw made me do it over and over again, but I never got it right. When we had to play in the rhythm band, I was given sticks to bang together, the lowliest assignment, while pretty little Presbyterians Paula and Peggy got to play the toy piano and the xylophone I longed for. I was a child who could do nothing right. I even failed at raising one finger in time to be sent to the bathroom and piddled on the floor.
The entire curriculum of the Westminster Day School was an extended rehearsal for the elaborate commencement ceremony in May, when we would make Mrs. Shaw proud, another crop of little monsters tamed, ready to behave themselves, ready for kindergarten. On that Sunday afternoon, the boys were dressed in tiny suits and ties; and the girls, in frilly long white dresses. We each were called upon to demonstrate the impeccable deportment we had acquired under Mrs. Shaw's tutelage by reciting a poem from memory, then executing a flawless bow or curtsey. It was our coming out as proper children.
When commencement day finally arrived, I felt like a princess in the dress Mommy made for me, with puffy sleeves and a Peter Pan collar, my pigtails tied with white satin ribbons. In that long white dress, I was a beautiful lady, not a little girl with a pitiful face. And I would never have to go back to Mrs. Shaw's school again. The thought of kindergarten was terrifying, but that was months away, lifetimes away.
During the commencement ceremony I carried a basket full of flowers and recited Robert Louis Stevenson's lines, "Oh, how do you like to go up in a swing, / Up in the air so blue" from A Child's Garden of Verses. And when Daddy took my picture with his Brownie camera, the film was black and white, so the angel's bloody handprint looked like nothing but a shadow.
Our house faced the firehouse, a square, flat, one-room building hunched between the two great churches that flanked it. When there was a fire, an alarm went off loud enough to be heard by volunteer firemen all over town. All the kids on Second Street lined up on the porches. We punched our fingers in and out of our ears in rhythm, making our own music from the siren's deafening wail, while the grown-ups jumped into their cars to follow the trucks so they could find out where the fire was.
Behind the firehouse was the old brick Culver Elementary School, with separate entrances for boys and girls. I went to grammar school there, in the same building where my father had attended high school. Our house was so close to my school, I could run across the street at the last minute and slide in the girls' entrance seconds ahead of the bell. Better to be late, to cross the street after all the other children had already gone inside.
If I left my house too early, while the sidewalks were still crowded and noisy, I'd have to stand on the corner with the other kids, waiting to cross the street to the schoolyard.
On school days, Daddy stands at my bedroom door switching the lights on and off, yelling "Time to get up! Time to get up!" But I don't get up. I just pull the blanket over my head. Not even five minutes later, Daddy comes back, pulls the covers off my body, and tells me, "Okay, time's up. Out of bed! You're gonna be late." I really hate Daddy when he does that.
Daddy doesn't understand that I really have to be late. It's not just an accident. Daddy never talks about my birthmark.
I'm standing on the corner waiting for the traffic monitor to let us cross. A bunch of older boys are walking along on the other side of the street. When they see me they yell, "Here comes the Bride of Frankenstein! Hey, Miss Grape Juice Face! Purple Face! Burn Face! Hey, Kool-Aid Face! Ketchup Face! Hey, Ugly Witch Face! Monster Girl! Girl from Outer Space!" Some kids look away from me. Some kids start laughing. I want to run right back home. Our front porch is only a few feet away. But Mommy would just make me turn around and go out again.
As soon as the bossy traffic monitor puts his stupid arms down, I walk across the street really fast so that I can get way ahead of the other kids.
Meet the Author
JOIE DAVIDOW cofounded L.A. Weekly and founded L.A. Style and Sí magazines. She edited the anthologies Las Mamis and Las Christmas with Esmeralda Santiago and is the author of Infusions of Healing. She lives in Rome and Los Angeles.
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