Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoirby Lillian Faderman Professor
Born in 1940, Lillian Faderman was the only child of an uneducated and unmarried immigrant Jewish woman. Her mother, whose family perished in the Holocaust, was racked by guilt at having come to America and left them behind; she suffered recurrent psychotic episodes. Her only escape from the brutal labor of her sweatshop job was her fiercely loved daughter, Lilly,… See more details below
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Born in 1940, Lillian Faderman was the only child of an uneducated and unmarried immigrant Jewish woman. Her mother, whose family perished in the Holocaust, was racked by guilt at having come to America and left them behind; she suffered recurrent psychotic episodes. Her only escape from the brutal labor of her sweatshop job was her fiercely loved daughter, Lilly, whose poignant dream throughout an impoverished childhood was to become a movie star and "rescue" her mother. Lilly grew up to become Lil, outwardly tough, inwardly innocent, hungry for love and success. A beautiful young woman who was learning that her deepest erotic and emotional connections were to women, she found herself in a dangerous but seductive lesbian underworld of addicts, pimps, and prostitutes. Desperately seeking to make her life meaningful and to redeem her mother's suffering, she entered the University of California at Berkeley and worked her way through college as a burlesque stripper. A brilliant student, she ultimately achieved a Ph.D. At last she became Lillian, the woman who in time became a loving partner, a devoted mother, an acclaimed writer, and a charismatic, groundbreaking scholar of gay and lesbian studies.
Told with wrenching immediacy and great power, this is an extraordinary memoir: the nakedly honest -- and very American -- story of an exceptional woman and her remarkable, unorthodox life.
Indeed, this is a classic tale of the child of an immigrant who gets to live the American dream that eluded her mother. Faderman was born in the Bronx in 1940, the only child of an unwed Polish immigrant who came to the Bronx with her sister Rae in 1923. Her father refused to marry her mother or acknowledge Lillian as his daughter, and Faderman soon accepted responsibility for her adored Mommy, woefully unprepared for either a career or maternity and subject to bouts of incapacitating depression, especially after she learned all her relatives had been killed in the Holocaust. Their only solace came from regular moviegoing, and after they joined Rae in Los Angeles in the late ’40s, Lillian decided that she would become a star and rescue her mother from a terrible job and unhappy life. Though she felt betrayed when Mommy married a nice (though odd) Jewish man who worked in a pathology lab, it lightened her burden; Faderman took acting classes and to make money began posing as a teenager for girlie magazines, though she was already cruising women at gay bars. Tempted to drop out of school, she was rescued by a marvelous counselor who pointed out the benefits of education. Though there would be some rough moments--an encounter with a tough lesbian pimp, a brief marriage to an alcoholic gay man, and work as a stripper to pay for her college fees--Faderman was essentially on the road to a distinguished teaching career, a lasting relationship with anotherfemale academic, and motherhood (by artificial insemination).
Relentlessly honest and perceptive, but also loving toward an emotionally frail parent.
"Relentlessly honest and perceptive..." Kirkus Reviews
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Read an Excerpt
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
sauce. "What will madam have?" the waiter, who wore a little black bow tie,
asked my mother, and me also. He wrote our order on a pad with the stub
a yellow pencil he pulled from behind his ear.
Or we took the subway all the way across the city, with me
clinging to her skirt so I wouldn't lose her, and we went to the Katz Deli on
Delancey Street, with sawdust on the floor and great bowls of sour pickles
the table. Huge corned beef sandwiches, so big that she and I could split
one. Lox and cream cheese on Russian rye bread. Scrumptiously greasy
I was almost always the only child in those restaurants, and I
forgot I was a child. I took my ordering very seriously. I saw how the men at
the other tables did it for themselves and their wives, and I did the same: "I
believe I will have . . ." I said, in a voice I tried to deepen so I would not be
mistaken for a child.
How many dresses she must have had to drape for such outings.
think whatever money she had after paying for the furnished room and the
sitting services of the Missus she spent on our entertainment. Though we
could afford nothing better than a furnished room, we lived lavishly on
and dining out.
"Mother and daughter," I said as we walked back home through
the Bronx streets in 1946. Now I was six years old, and it wasn't so hard to
reach her arm.
I don't know why we moved to an even smaller furnished room on Longwood
Avenue, but it was then that my mother enrolled me in P.S. 62. I went to
school until three o'clock and then to a day care center a block away—a
nursery school, it was called—until my mother came to collect me after
That first winter in day care I was taken with the other children to
a holiday pageant, where a play was performed about an infant and a stable
and wise men. "Jesus is God," the little actors shouted at the finale.
I'd been bored, but now I was troubled. My mother or aunt told me
about words such as "Jesus" and "Christ" and "gentile," and I knew they
meant some ancient horror, Cossacks galloping on fiery horses, running
swords through women and children and setting fire to the shtetl at
Eastertime after the village priest enraged them against the Jews.
we passed two nuns on the street, my aunt said it meant bad luck and you
were supposed to say "Tsu, tsu, tsu," like spitting something out. One nun
could mean good luck, but it was safest not to pass any.
I was so shaken to hear the dangerous words in an auditorium
that I must have been oblivious when my schoolmates were ordered to form
line and walk to the yellow bus on which we'd come. Soon I found myself
surrounded by strange children in maroon uniforms.
I stood there, stunned, at the end of the row where I'd been sitting
with my schoolmates. A harried woman wearing glasses that slid down her
nose appeared out of nowhere and barked at me, "Underprivileged or
Catholic?" I'd never heard either of those words, and I stared at her with an
open mouth. "Underprivileged or Catholic?" she repeated.
One of the teachers who was herding a group of children out
overheard her and peered at me. "She looks like a little Eye-talian or Porto
My inquisitor took my hand and rushed me toward a bus packed
with more children in maroon uniforms. "Up you go," she said.
I obeyed her and squeezed into a seat near the front, next to a
faced fat boy who stuck his tongue out at me and yelled, "Oooh, cooties."
I looked around, thinking I'd move to more hospitable ground, and
there, in the middle of the bus, shooing children into seats, were two nuns
black, their gigantic crucifixes gleaming on their breasts. I burst into
exasperated, horrified tears, which caught the attention of one of them.
"She's not Catholic Elementary," she said, and gruffly taking me
by the hand led me out of her bus and finally settled me in the right one,
my underprivileged schoolmates.
I'd learned two new words.
Though I'd looked forward to going to school, I wasn't happy there. One day
cut my finger on the jagged edge of something in the playground, and the
other children gathered around me to see the ooze of blood.
"Ooh, look how bright it is," one little girl observed. "Her blood
looks so clean, and she's so dirty."
I must have been dirty. In the hot months, my mother came back
from the shop sticky and dripping. She ran a cool bath for herself in the little
bathroom we were allowed to use, pulled her clothes off, threw them in a
on the floor. Then she sank into the tub while I sat on the edge.
Sometimes I cooled myself by placing my lips on the delicious
wetness of her back. "Onekiss, twokiss, threekiss, fourkiss." I could count
to a hundred and aimed to give at least a hundred kisses, though always
said, "Enough, Lilly, enough," before I could get out of the twenties.
But I don't remember ever being in the bathtub myself. Baths were
to get cool in. Probably her mother had never cleaned her in a bath when
was a child either. They probably had had no baths in the shtetl.
The children at school must also have noticed my hair. It was a
long time before I realized that a comb was supposed to go through one's
hair with ease, that knots were not inevitable if you combed your hair every
day, that most people in America washed their hair. My black head was a
tangled mass of unruly curls. The hair seemed to grow out in a great bush
rather than down. In the morning, when she got me ready for school, my
mother sometimes passed a comb over my head, but if she combed deep
enough to hit the knots, the pain was awful. "Stop, stop," I screamed at her,
and she did, leaving my head to announce to the world the story of her
One day my first-grade class went to the Bronx Zoo on a field trip,
and Victor, an immaculate blond boy who wore a clean, starched white shirt
every day and a little gold ring on his pinkie finger, ended up next to me on
the bus. "I'm not going to sit there," he proclaimed after one look at me and
popped up, then cried when the driver yelled back at him to sit down and
I squeezed myself toward the window, trying to give him as wide a
berth as possible so there would be no further protests, and I clamped my
lips together so I wouldn't cry too.
It didn't matter, I tried to tell myself. Because what did matter to
me, passionately, was Miss Huntington, my teacher—a blond goya, my
mother would have called her. She was a woman in her forties, not beautiful
the way the movie actresses were beautiful, I knew, but to me totally
captivating. Her eyes were blue, as I remembered My Rae's had been, and
she was tall like my mother. But in no other way was she like them. She
an American. Her voice was low and cool. She had no accent when she
spoke, and she could read English. She smiled a lot and laughed at things.
Someone like that didn't carry heavy burdens on her heart, dark sorrows
made her whimper in the night. Though I felt a little guilty toward my mother
and maybe even toward the memory of My Rae, I was madly in love with
Would I have been so attentive to learning otherwise? I hung on
her every word. I watched her lips form the letters she had written on the
board and I copied her accent; I modulated my voice to imitate her tones.
Bee, Cee—it was easy for me. Many of the letters looked like they
S like a snake, K like a crash, L like a leap, O like an oooh. I memorized
them right away, hearing her voice in my ears.
"Who can say the whole alphabet?" she asked, and my arm shot
"Me, Miss Huntington. I can." I ripped the letters off at great speed
while some of the children tittered at my intensity.
One day she explained silent letters to us, and cases when
letters made unusual sounds: "'G-h' sometimes has a fff sound," she told
Then she wrote letters on the board. "Who knows what this word is?" The
class was silent.
"E-n . . ." I struggled with the code. I knew it! "Enough!" I shouted,
floating through the air on diaphanous wings. The secret of reading was
The class murmured, awed by my miracle. "Wonderful, Lillian," she said,
beaming at me, pronouncing my name in American, making it sound as
wonderful as she was.
One morning we lined up in the schoolyard, waiting for Miss Huntington to
come and take us in to class as she always did. Instead the vice principal,
Miss O'Reilly, came, a no-nonsense woman of great girth and steely gray
hair. "Miss Huntington is sick," she announced, "and I will be with you
But Miss O'Reilly had important administrative papers to tend to,
so she had no time to stand in front of the class and deliver lessons. "You
must be very good boys and girls, very quiet," she told us, passing out the
picture books that were reserved for reward days.
She sat at Miss Huntington's desk, absorbed in writing and
figuring, ignoring the din until it couldn't be ignored any longer, then rapped
on the desk with a ruler. "Silence. Do I have to give out demerits?" The roar
died down briefly, then rose on a wave again.
"All right," she announced. "We're going to have a contest.
Whoever can be the quietest for the longest will get a very valuable present,
toy that you'll love." The class tittered, but she had struck a chord. There
silence for a while, then only occasional whispering. From time to time she
looked up. "It's something everyone would love to have," she reminded us.
The boy in the row next to me was sitting with his hands folded,
eyes straight ahead, lips sealed. "Look at Shlomo," she said. "Are you
to let Shlomo be the one to get the valuable present?" Some imitated his
posture for a few minutes, then tired of the game.
Shlomo's shoes had low tops and were made of the smooth, rich,
dark brown leather such as I had lusted after, not like my cheap-looking,
scuffed high-tops. He carried his lunch and his homework to school in a
leather satchel with a picture of Pinocchio on it. I had seen him one day
walking with his father and a happy-looking mother and sisters. He had
everything. It was I who needed the valuable present.
I folded my hands and extended them in front of me, much farther
than Shlomo's. I peered into the distance with glazed eyes. I pressed my
together tightly, as though I never cared to open them again. I became as
rigid as a soldier, a corpse. A fly buzzed around me and I did not
acknowledge it. Only once in a while did I dare to glance over at Shlomo to
see if he were still in the running. I mustn't let him beat me—he couldn't
It felt like hours later when Miss O'Reilly announced that it was
time for our nutrition break. "I have finished my work," she said. "And now I
will keep my promise." She left as the monitor passed out milk and graham
crackers, and she returned with a large paper bag. "Class, which student do
you think should get the present?"
My heart sank. She was leaving it up to them. They would never
choose me. I had no friend who would speak out for me.
"Barbara Ann," one girl said, naming the prettiest girl in class.
"Barbara Ann is a chatterbox," Miss O'Reilly said abruptly.
come up here."
She had noticed. There was justice in America! My blood beat a
"Shlomo, you come up here, too." For him she pulled a big box
out of the bag. "Shlomo, do you know who Albert Einstein is? This is a
chemistry set. You work hard with this chemistry set and someday you,
Shlomo Schwartz, will be another Albert Einstein." There was a bored
pattering of applause as Shlomo returned to his seat.
To me she said, "Now, Lillian, you have a choice. Would you like
a toy or a useful present?"
She looked at me expectantly. I knew the answer I was supposed
to give. But maybe she had a doll with blond hair and blue eyes that opened
and closed in that bag. I had never had a doll before. Maybe it was a pair of
skates, or a bow and arrow, or something else more wonderful than I could
even imagine. My classmates held their collective breath along with me.
would have chosen the toy, I knew. And the toy, the lovely, frivolous luxury
it, was what I wanted.
"Come on, Lillian," she prompted. My name had never sounded so
heavy, so adult before. I hated the way she pronounced it, impoverishing me
even more by cutting a whole syllable out of it: Lil-yun. I could not open my
mouth to say what I knew she wanted me to say, what a little girl who was
so serious that she would sit for hours as still as a corpse in order to win a
valuable present should say.
"I would like the toy, please," I blurted out.
"What?" she asked in disbelief, or perhaps to bully me into
"I would like the toy," I said again.
"Shame on you," she came back. "I know how hard your mother
has to work to support you, a girl without a father. Don't you want to help
out? Don't you want something serious that will help her out?"
I expected my classmates to giggle at the news of my fatherless
state, but they were silent, as solemn in the battle now as I was.
"I would like the toy, please," I repeated.
A half dozen of them clapped their hands; one cheered, "Yeaa."
"Quiet," Miss O'Reilly admonished them. "All right, Lillian. I'm
surprised at you. That was not a good choice, but you may have it." She
out of the sack a book with a worn gray cover. "The Last of the Mohicans,"
she informed me. I sucked in my breath in disappointment, and it seemed
me that I heard the class echo my sound.
"And because your mother needs all the help she can get, I'm
going to give you the serious present too." Now she handed me a little bag.
opened it just enough to see that it contained beige cotton stockings. "But
the future, I want you to remember to make a wiser choice," she said,
dismissing me back to my seat.
They applauded for me again, and this time all of them joined in. I
couldn't decide if it was in commiseration over the way I'd been tricked or
preached to or if I'd really won their admiration by standing firm for my
When we went out to the playground at noon, I was alone again,
as though their tribute had never happened. But I felt somehow that I'd
a victory over forces that weren't sympathetic to me. I'd learned that I could
win, I could earn applause, but, even better, I could be strong enough to
demand my desire. I might not get it, but I would get the satisfaction of
knowing I couldn't be daunted.
Those Saturday evenings when my mother dressed up and left me I knew
where she was going, though she never told me. I knew she would never be
finished with him, that man she thought looked like Charles Boyer. The
I became aware of how overwhelmingly I loved her, the more I despised him.
"You have me, Mommy," I said one Saturday evening when she
didn't make up her face to go out and I found her crying in our room.
"It's not the same thing." She made a sad little smile. And I knew
for sure that she was crying now not about the lost relatives but about
Moishe and how much she missed him when she wasn't with him. "To who
can I let out my bitter heart?" she sighed to the air.
Moishe, that hated name. I wanted her not to need anyone else. I
wanted to be everything to her.
But her life was so hard, so full of losses, her work so exhausting.
She had to stand on her feet the whole day, she told me, because it was
job to drape the dresses on the tall, stuffed mannequins. "No sitting," the
forelady barked at any draper who might be weakened for a minute by her
period or her troubles and tried to pull up a stool from the finishers' station.
the steaming New York summers it was especially bad: My mother's
mannequin was next to the pressers, and she'd be bathed and scalded by
vapors from their hot machines. And there was no escape: She had to
support us. "My whole body is breaking from tiredness," she'd sigh as we
walked the block and a half together from my nursery school, and I could
the tremor of her tiredness in the fingers I clutched. Once in our room, she
threw off her clothes and stretched naked and immobile on our bed, where I,
sitting on a corner of it, watched over her as she stared up at the ceiling
she could drag herself to cool off in the bathtub. "Rateveh mich, save me.
Save me from the shop, Lilly," she said once, gazing at the ceiling with a
little smile on her lips that confused me. My mother didn't joke. Was she
joking now? "Save me from the shop," she said again and sighed.
"How, Mommy? What should I do?" I asked, primed to do
anything in her service.
"You can't," she admitted. "How could you?" Then, "Become a
Did she mean it? Could I become a movie star? I would do it, I
promised myself. That's what I would become! She needed my help, and I
would not fail her!
One evening, when my mother and I returned home after our long day, a
squat little person was waiting in our room, wearing a small brown hat and
veil, balancing an enormous black patent leather purse on her lap, sitting
stiffly on the edge of the room's only chair.
"She's back. My Malech Hamovas is back," my mother said to
the air. "Angel of Death, now you come back, after you left us for so long
alone!" she turned to the veil and yelled.
My Rae lifted her veil, gathered me into her arms, wet my cheeks
with her tears. "Shepseleh meine, my little lamb."
"My Rae!" I threw myself at her, then pulled away. My mother
wouldn't like it.
"The mameh ohn a boich vaytik is back, the mama without a
bellyache," my mother translated bitterly for my benefit, though I didn't need
"Why you didn't answer my letters?" My aunt wept to my mother
in English. "Why you disappear and my letters come back to me? Thank
God the old super heard where you moved and took pity on me. You want
kill me? You almost killed me," she shrilled.
"You're the murderer, you!" My mother outdid her, resuming the
litany I hadn't heard in a while. "You cockroach, you. You bigmouth, you."
But after my mother emptied herself and my aunt shed all her
renewed tears, after both women yelled themselves to hoarseness, My Rae
suddenly declared, as though they hadn't been screaming about death and
destruction for the last hour, "The baby needs eats."
We went to the Automat. Neither woman spoke to the other, but
both piled my plate high. They had no family except each other, no children
in the next generation except me, and they were signaling a kind of truce,
one we would live with for a while.
"Look how pale and skinny she is." My aunt felt my ribs.
"I need you to tell me how to take care of my kind? Where were
you when I needed you? Now we don't need you. Go back to California." My
mother tossed her hand and grumbled, yet, it seemed to my ear, less
vehemently than before.
My aunt did go back to California, but not alone.
I'll never know what got into my mother a few weeks later. I'd been
watching her in the mirror, just as I had on so many Saturdays, while she
on her makeup. This time, though, I wasn't sad because My Rae had said
she would take me to the Automat. She stayed with us now, sleeping on
Missus's couch in the living room. It hadn't taken me any time at all to
remember how much I'd loved her.
"When you were a little tiny puttzeh-ruttzehleh," she reminded me
to my giggly glee, "I took you into my arms and I held you next to my heart.
And you know what you did, little gonif, little thief? You crawled right in, and
you never crawled out again."
Though I'd lost the image of her over the last couple of years, she
had crawled deep into my heart too, I realized. I'd never stopped loving her.
How I loved her now! But different from the way I loved my mother. My
I would have to take care of. My aunt would take care of me. I needed them
"Can I have lemon meringue pie? And then can we go see the
Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall?" I'd asked for the biggest treats I could
think of, and I knew as sure as I knew the sun would rise the next day that
she would give them to me.
My mother looked distracted now as she put on a blue low-
necked dress, but suddenly, as though she'd resolved something that was
troubling her, her face in the mirror was suffused with a brightness, and she
turned to me and cried, "Lilly, I'm taking you."
"Where am I going?" I asked. What about the lemon meringue pie
and the Rockettes?
She didn't answer. Instead she pulled me to her and passed a
comb through my knotted hair. "Let's make you look nice." From
she produced a big wrinkled bow that I remembered seeing only in a picture
of me that My Rae had had a photographer take long before she'd left us.
mother pinned the bow to my head with a bobby pin that scraped my scalp.
"Ouch!" I yelled, but she didn't seem to hear me.
"Where are you taking the baby?" My Rae cried.
"I have to try just one more time."
"Mary, you crazy, leave the baby here with me," My Rae yelled,
her hands scrabbling for me.
But my mother clutched my wrist and pulled me down the
stoop. "We're late!" She seemed like a different person—excited, worried,
happy too, all at the same time.
A big yellow car passed. "Taxi," my mother cried and waved at it
until it pulled up to the curb.
I'd never been in a taxi before. "They're for rich people," she'd told
me once, though now we were rattling along in one. I pressed close to her,
but she seemed to have forgotten I was there. The taxi driver stopped in
of a restaurant that I'd never been to in all my excursions with her, and she
clutched again at my wrist to pull me out. The strangeness of it all. My
mother looked up and down the street and I looked with her, but none of the
passing people was the one she wanted to see.
Who were we waiting for? It was him, I was sure, the one she
dressed for every Saturday and left me for. I stood with her in front of the
restaurant, squeezing her hand hard, leaning my weight on her arm,
balancing on one foot, then on the other.
The El train roared above us. Now she freed her hand from mine
and paced up and down.
I hopped to the lamppost near the curb and twirled round and
round it, making myself dizzy. I didn't want to think. A starched pink and
white little girl about my age walked by, snug between her father and
She stared open-mouthed, as though I looked funny, and I put my thumb to
my nose and wiggled my four fingers at her, making a rude sound with my
tongue and lips.
She did the same to me. "Stop that, Marsha." Her father slapped
her hand down, and they walked on.
When I next looked at my mother, she was talking to a man who
was wearing a gray suit and a pearl gray Homburg. Charles Boyer. I held
tight to the lamppost, watching them.
I saw him glance over at me, and his lip curled before he turned
back to my mother. "Why did you bring her?" I heard him say in Yiddish,
mouth twisting around the words.
The El train again roared overhead and I couldn't hear my mother
answer, but her back was bent, her hands open, imploring.
He shook his head, then glanced at me again. Was this stranger
My mother came to me and I clutched hard at the lamppost.
"Come, Lilly, come," she said and pulled at my hand. "Say hello
to your father." She nudged my back.
Father. I knew what the word meant, but what did it mean to me?
stared at the gray cloth of the man's coat in front of my eyes. "Hello,
I said, raising my eyes, suddenly shy.
"I'm not your father. This is crazy," he snapped to my mother.
"No, Moishe, please," she cried.
"What are you trying to do?" His voice dripped distaste. Then he
turned, and I watched his legs scissor away from us. He must have been
wearing taps on his heels. Tap, tap, tap, tap, his shiny black shoes went,
and my mother stood there weeping.
I was glad to see his form grow tinier and tinier. He hated us. I
nuzzled hard into her chest, wrapped my arms tight round her waist, and
only sobbed louder.
That night My Rae tucked me into bed, but I wasn't asleep when
she stood in the hallway with my mother and told her, "You leave and you'll
see. He'll come after you. What do you have here? There we'll be together."
My mother answered with groans. "You stay here," my aunt kept on, "and
won't stop thinking you're his kurveh, his whore."
Then, a few weeks later, I was taken to Gimbel's department
store, and My Rae bought me two dresses, dark plaid, "so they shouldn't
show the dirt," and a dark green coat, "to travel," she told the saleswoman.
And then my mother and I were sitting together with My Rae on a train,
chugging across the continent.
"To California," my mother answered when I asked where we were
going. "Where the movie stars are."
So she really had been serious! She did think I could do it. She
did want me to become a movie star and rescue her from the shop!
My mother had taken me to see Al Jolson in the movies. He was
a big star, she said, and he was Jewish. I knew enough about
by then to understand that being Jewish could be a handicap. But he had
made it. With my Semitic hair and eyes and my nose that was slightly
convex where it should have been slightly concave, I knew already that I
would never be beautiful like the shiksas, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford,
Barbara Stanwyck. But I could be like him. I had heard him sing "Mammy"
and "California, Here I Come." I could do that just as he did, falling on one
knee with my arms open wide. My mother told me that sometimes movie
directors found their stars in the most unexpected places. Lana Turner was
discovered at a drugstore soda fountain, she said.
I did a soft-shoe up and down the aisle of our train as we sped
west for four days: "California, here I come, right back where I started from."
waved my arms and belted out my chant. "Where bow wows of flowers
in the sun, where birdies sing and everything." No one had ever told me that
songs had tunes that your voice was supposed to follow. When my mother
had sung, on her good days as we walked together in Crotona Park, it was
her words I heard, not the tune—she had no tune. She just let her voice
up and down: "Oh, my man I love him so, he'll never know," she half sang
half said. "When he takes me in his arms the world seems swell." I put
expression in my voice, like Jolson did. Some of my train-mates smiled at
the intense, scruffy seven-year-old. Others looked irritated or buried their
noses deeper into their magazines or embroidery. I continued regardless.
How could you tell what a movie director looked like?
I knew I'd failed when my aunt said we were arriving in Los
Angeles early the next morning. No movie director had discovered me; my
mother would have to find another job in a shop.
But how could anyone feel like a failure in the Southern California
sunshine? It had been cold when we left New York, but when we stepped off
the train in Union Station it was springtime. He, her lover, was thousands of
miles away. He would not come for her, I knew. And hadn't she forgiven her
sister? She'd agreed that we would go to California together. The future
seemed as cheery as what I remembered of the end of All This and Heaven
Outside the station the lawns were green, like the ones in Crotona
Park. In Los Angeles, I saw, the streets were like parks. Even better. There
were tall, skinny trees with huge zigzaggy leaves that sprouted only on the
trees' very tops, like messy wigs on long giants. They were as enchanting
the pictures in the Dr. Seuss book that Miss Huntington read to the class
a special treat. I had been transported to another world, where the sun
even when winter was not over, where everything looked magical and
amusing. I would live happily ever after with my mother and My Rae. It was
more wonderful than if I'd been given the doll with blond hair and blue eyes.
What joy! What joy!
And I would be discovered. I would learn to sing and dance and
act, and maybe to ride horseback or play the violin, and I would become a
child star. I would work hard. I would never be lazy. I would get up early in
morning and start practicing, and I would practice until late at night.
Every nerve of me was set for the race. Not just for that moment,
there at Union Station, but forever. It might take a bit of time, but a movie
director would discover me.
And then I would rescue my mother from the shop.
Copyright © 2003 by Lillian Faderman. Reprinted by permission of
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