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The Wholeness of a Broken Heart: A Novel

The Wholeness of a Broken Heart: A Novel

4.5 2
by Katie Singer

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Hailed as a masterpiece, this poignant mother-daughter novel revolves around the story of a young woman's troubled relationship with her mother. Narrated in the voices of four generations of Jewish women, The Wholeness of a Broken Heart explores the vastly different experiences which divide first generation Jewish Americans from their parents and grand-parents.


Hailed as a masterpiece, this poignant mother-daughter novel revolves around the story of a young woman's troubled relationship with her mother. Narrated in the voices of four generations of Jewish women, The Wholeness of a Broken Heart explores the vastly different experiences which divide first generation Jewish Americans from their parents and grand-parents.

"Katie Singer is a gifted and compelling writer who tells a good story and burrows into her characters' psyches."-Phillip Lopate

"Fresh energy, style and perception...Well-defined characters, emotion (but not sentimentality) and compassion (not pseudo-psychology) set this account of the survival tactics of Jewish families apart from similar tales...A novel filled with authentic human feeling, humor and hope."-Publishers Weekly

"Katie Singer...explores the mother-daughter relationship with rare wisdom...[The Wholeness of a Broken Heart] is both a social history of the American Jewish experience and a meditation on the bonds between women."-Self Magazine

"An entire matriarchy is imagined in this novel of multiple voices, a chorus that makes for a moving immigrant story."-Pearl Abraham, author of The Romance Reader

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Singer's first novel brings fresh energy, style and perception to a familiar formula as she traces four generations of Jewish women from Eastern Europe to modern America. Young writer-teacher Hannah Fried is disturbed and mystified when her doting mother, Celia, suddenly and brutally rejects her. She seeks an explanation from her grandmother Ida, her estranged father, and photographs locked in an old trunk in Ida's attic. Family history begins with two great-grandmothers: Channa, for whom she was named, and Leah, a Latvian peasant girl married to a widower with five children. Leah's daughter, Raisl, saves her brother Moshe from the czar's army by sleeping with a Cossack who helps Moshe escape to America. He becomes Moe, a successful, cold-hearted businessman, married to Ida, who cannot prevent him from abusing their daughter, Celia. Celia, in turn, grows up emotionally disconnected to all except her own daughter, Hannah. Maternal love, sacrifice, the breaking and mending of family ties, loss and reinvention--common themes in Jewish sagas--are woven together here in personal narratives, including heart-wrenching passages from Channa's stillborn daughter, Vitl, and Leah's ghost. The individuality and authenticity of each voice springs from Yiddish proverbs, old country syntax and an endearing practical idealism. Singer even captures with precision the varied multicultural voices of Hannah's writing students. Well-defined characters, emotion (but not sentimentality) and compassion (not pseudo-psychology) set this account of the survival tactics of Jewish families apart from similar tales. Focusing on mother-daughter and grandmother-granddaughter relationships, Singer has written a novel filled with authentic human feeling, humor and hope. Agent, Donna Downing at Pam Bernstein & Associates. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
In this accomplished first novel about four generations of Jewish women, we follow Hannah from age ten into adulthood. Growing up in Ohio in the Œ60s and Œ70s, Hannah is adored by her mother and encouraged to follow her dreams. But when she goes off to college, her mother inexplicably rejects her, refusing to give her any money, or even any affection. Hannah struggles to make it on her own, to believe in herself, to find love. She does, and eventually her mother reaches out to her again. Singer tells the story partly in Hannah's voice, and partly in the voices of Hannah's female ancestors, some of whom speak to us from beyond the grave. The writing is so rich and detailed we feel we are in Shaker Heights in 1970, in Latvia in 1869, in New York in 1926. Slowly, we learn of Hannah's mother's life: her troubled childhood, her father's abuse, her difficult first marriage. It still doesn't completely explain her total rejection of Hannah, but then, as in real life, the people in this engrossing novel are complex, difficult, and fascinating. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Penguin Putnam/Riverhead, 435p, 21cm, 99-33149, $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Fran Lantz; Author of YA Novels, Santa Barbara, CA January 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 1)
Library Journal
Four Jewish women spanning two continents and four generations serve as first-person narrators in this well-conceived debut novel. Told in alternating chapters, their stories of Jewish family life crisscross emotional, generational, and cultural boundaries, giving the book much dramatic tension. Hannah Ferber's close relationship with her mother, Celia, is shattered when Celia suddenly decides that she can no longer abide her college-age daughter. Hannah, a sensitive writing student, sets about trying to understand what happened by researching her past. Along with a cache of family photographs, her maternal grandmother and estranged father give her some clues. The reader is more fortunate; narrations from beyond the grave by great-grandmothers and others tell of life in Koretz (near Kiev), the Holocaust, and immigration to America. The piecing together of a complex family using a nonlinear time frame gives the reader a multidimensional picture of both a contemporary world and a world that is no more. Highly recommended.--Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, MD Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A first novel revisits, over four generations, the exhaustively plumbed relationship between mothers and daughters who learn to accept each other only when it's almost too late. Told against the background of recent Jewish history, the tale this time has several narrators. The strongest is 29-year-old Hannah Fried, a writing teacher and poet who, as she struggles to understand mother Celia's increasingly bizarre treatment of her, tells her own as well the family's story. That story is supplemented by contributions from Great-grandmothers Leah, who died in the Holocaust, and Channa, who emigrated from Russia; from Grandmother Ida in Cleveland; from Hannah's own mother, Celia; and from such voices beyond the grave as Channa's miscarried Vitl; and as Leo, a camp survivor who briefly dated Celia, then commuted suicide. These ghostly contributions serve mostly to describe the Holocaust and the fate of those family members who were unable to escape it. Until she was 20, Hannah and her mother were extremely close, but then abruptly Celia—who had divorced Hannah's father Allan when Hannah was three and married gutless Norm—tells Hannah to move out of the house. For the next ten years, as she graduates, moves to Boston to write, teach, and eventually fall in love with Jonathan Lev, a photographer, Hannah struggles to understand Celia. She's close to Grandmother Ida, but otherwise she spends a great deal of time thinking about her unhappiness. Her mother seems to have been abused by her own father, Moe, and then wounded by Leo's suicide; so that, fearing her closeness to Hannah, she was driven to reject her. And yet Singer's explanations for all her characters' behaviors remain strainedand schematic, though Hannah does eventually get through to Mom, who grudgingly suggests she can come back into her life—on her own terms, naturally. A novel written around an idea that, instead of liberating the tale's possibilities, confines them like a kind of conceptual corset.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.26(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Midnight, midwinter, northeastern Ohio.

    Like ghosts or angels, the towering trees that border and adjoin much of Shaker Heights are taking on snowy garments for morning. These elms and oaks and maples loom over brick and aluminum-sided houses with three or four or even eight bedrooms. They frame the apartment buildings, too, for the widows and single mothers. My family lives on the east side, furthest from Cleveland. Young honey locusts line our street, with stakes in the ground to ensure they grow straight.

    I'm awake in the dark. My ten-year-old skin feels like the thin layer of ice on the Shaker lake, near our house. I leave my room and go to my mother's. I lift her comforter, the heavy lip to her bed.

    Without questions, she takes me in.

    Against her hot body I slide my cold one. I nestle my back against her breasts; I tuck my feet between her thighs. I weave our fingers and bring her warm hand to my chest. In the cradle of her body, my chills subside. I feel warm enough to breathe again.

    My mother's body smells like the color olive. Like moist dirt. Like orange peels just beginning to turn in our garbage pail. What gives her this strange smell? Over and over, her scent draws me back to her.

    I sleep through this night, knowing I will melt in Mom's heat. By dawn, my gown is soaked with our sweat.

    "Change quickly, love," Mom whispers. "I don't want you late for school."

Mornings, my mother does not come downstairs until I've made the coffee and thenewspaper is on the kitchen table. She walks past our living room sofa, thinly striped in velvet greens, beiges, and orange-browns. It looks out toward the front doorway—not toward our two olive-green chairs on the room's other side, which face our dining room. Her small captain's desk, which holds drawers full of private papers, is right next to the doorway, without a chair.

    The dining area is small, just between the living room we hardly use and our family den. Here, in the den, Mom examines her plants before she walks back through the dining room to enter the kitchen. Wide thresholds, not doorways, mark the transitions between rooms.

    In the kitchen, Mom toasts a slice of bread, spreads cream cheese and blueberry preserves on it. She pours coffee into a blue Dansk mug, sits. While she reads the stock market quotes, she drinks her coffee and eats her toast. Done, she refills the mug, lights a cigarette. Quietly, I spoon the oatmeal I've prepared for myself into a bowl, and watch her read first the bridge column, and then the front page. I try not to read over her shoulder.

    After two cups of coffee, Mom leaves the front sections of the paper on the table, made of thick, butcher's block wood. I take the paper with my oatmeal to our dining room. We have a round cherrywood table in here, which can be extended to seat eight people, and chairs to match. Mom folds our laundry on this table. The chandelier is brass, with hand-blown goblets. The walls are painted off-white. Here and there hangs a still life of flowers or a seaside painting that once belonged to my grandparents. Like those of the living room and the stairs to our second floor, the dining room's carpet is a fine, thick wool, the color of rust. Mom says it warms the whole house; and she's proud that the men who installed it appreciated her unusual good taste.

    I curl up beside the dining room's heating vent to read quickly and eat while I keep warm. Daddy will be downstairs soon, dressed for work, wanting the newspaper sections with his coffee. Mom takes a pencil, a pack of cigarettes, and the crossword puzzle into the bathroom, where matches always lie next to the soap. She runs cold water while she sits on the toilet in a blue velveteen robe, its skirt pulled up around the seat, and works the crossword puzzle. She taps her ashes into the sink. The running water washes them down.

    Until she is out of the bathroom, we do not speak.

I am Celia's only child, born in Manhattan, in 1960. She named me Hannah, after her mother's mother, Channa Fried Horowitz, who died a few years before I was born. Mom doesn't speak much about Channa (the ch pronounced not as in church, but with a throaty h—as in ach!,) which is what she called her grandmother; and whenever she does I can tell they'd adored each other. Mom smiles, and her eyes get sparkly. Naming a baby after someone who's died is a Jewish tradition. But Mom really did it because she wanted to be reminded of her grandmother.

    Just after my fourth birthday, Mom divorced Allan Schwartzman—my father—and moved back with me to Cleveland, where she was raised, where her parents still lived. He's a social worker, Allan. He did not want their marriage to end. My mother refused to discuss the matter with him. She wanted a speedy divorce, and she made him go to Mexico to get it.

    When I was six she married Norm Felber, a pharmacist. He doesn't talk much. I call him Daddy, which pleases my mother. When I was ten he adopted me, and I became Hannah Felber. That made him and Mom happy, because before he married Mom, he got the mumps. So besides me, Norm can't have kids. Allan, who had visited me twice a year since the divorce, stopped calling our house, even on my birthday. That's good, because he and Mom never got along. My friend Karen thinks it's strange that I just stopped thinking about my true father. But Mom's enough for me. And I like the quiet house we have with Norm.

    We have a pretty normal life, I think, though I know my mother isn't typical in Shaker Heights. Our vegetables often come from the Stouffers outlet in Solon, where Mom buys frozen cauliflower or broccoli au gratin in bulk; but nearly every day she bakes a new dessert from scratch—brownies, rugulach, chocolate whipped cream pie. She lets dishes pile up in the sink; clean laundry can lie in a wrinkled heap on the dining room table for days. Once or twice a year, exasperated with her own housekeeping, she hires a woman to come weekly to scrub the floors and iron the clothes that overflow from the basket in our front hall closet.

    Usually, in the late afternoon, before her help's bus is due to arrive, the two of them will sit at the kitchen table to ponder their notions of God. Just under the butcher block, Mom slides her hands into her blue jeans' pockets. Quietly, she says she's agnostic. While the woman cautiously forms her response, Mom stares at the woman's eyes, into the pause.

    The women have dark skin, dark like the shadows in caves. I don't think their children are the black kids I go to school with, but I'm not sure. As if their bodies are deep wells, their words bubble up slowly. I listen from the next room, glad my mother has a friend for this little while. Mom rarely likes other adults, because they lack interest in philosophical matters. With these ladies, though, I think she feels met.

    But after two or three Thursdays with Martha, or Retta, or Jean, Mom will curl her lips inward, then stretch them back out and say, "I just don't like paying someone to do my dirty work." She tells each woman she won't need her anymore. Through my disappointment that she won't continue those conversations, I admire her, her admission of her own mess, her willingness to live in it.

    My mother takes public transportation more often than not, and prefers solitary card games and weeding the lawn over watching TV. She doesn't own a lipstick, and she never goes to a beauty salon. She has thick, wavy hair, slightly gray. She's proud of its color, which turned from dark brown just after I was born. She cuts it herself in a style I can only call short. She eats two candy bars a day between meals, and she's still a perfect size ten.

    Twice a year, on their birthdays, my mother and her sister Rita talk on the phone. Aunt Rita lives on Long Island, in a house much bigger than ours. She has two boys, both older than me. "Oh, they're impossible," Mom says, into the phone, which sits on one of the built-in bookshelves in our family room. I know she is speaking of my grandparents. "Impossible," she repeats to Aunt Rita. I sit just a few feet from her on the Stickley daybed, newly reupholstered in a mustard-colored plaid to match the den's brown shag carpeting, with homework covering my lap. I wish I knew what makes Gram and Grampa so hard to take.

    Sundays, Daddy drives us to my grandparents' house, a mile away. Mom carries the business sections from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and The New York Times, which earlier that morning were delivered to our front door. Grampa wants them for the stock market quotes.

    "Celia," my grandfather says—only that—just as we walk in. Sometimes his sister, Aunt Rose, is sitting in a wing chair when we arrive, just a few feet from the doorway. She was born in Russia, just like Grampa. When she lived there, her name was Raisl. Now she lives on top of a toy shop on Taylor Road, near the house where Mom grew up.

    Mom always nods to Rose when we walk in, and so do I. I've never heard her speak. Her face is scrunched, like dried-up fruit.

    Mom puts the newspapers on the hall table, which Grampa bought in Europe before she was born, and which has real gold on its legs. This table attracts clutter, including a used hand towel beside the newspapers Mom has set down, though there are many beautiful things on it: Hebrew prayer books sandwiched between marble bookends carved as bears; a metal lamp with a flute player at its base, and a fringe carved out of the metal shade; a royal blue elephant designed like a tureen and filled with shells, each large enough to require two hands when they're held. Many of the things here are antique and handmade; because the house is so dark, they're hard to notice.

    Mom follows Grampa's broad, slow-moving body to the spare bedroom. Through the closed door, I try to make out the meaning of what they say, what they hide from the rest of us. I hear my grandfather's Yiddish accent, his gruffness now soft from old age, and the edge in my mother's voice, coming out of her arched back. I think these conferences are about money matters. I don't think Mom likes Grampa, but when he asks for her opinion, she feels some kind of satisfaction.

    Daddy heads past the dining room for the TV in the den, to watch the end of a ballgame. That leaves me with my grandmother, Ida, until her sister Mollie arrives by taxi. Mollie is my grandmother's unmarried sister. She offers Gram a bag of pears or grapefruit when she walks in—payment for Ida's meal and the company of her family. Aunt Mollie has recently retired from working as the secretary to a judge downtown. She wears a knitted suit to our Sunday dinners; she dyes her hair to keep it brown. Gram's hair is white, her dress a plain blue—and usually covered all through dinner by an old apron. The pants and once-white, buttoned-down shirt that Grampa wears are old and stained. Our Felber family comes in jeans.

    "My neighbor, that nice young woman who just finished nursing school," Aunt Mollie begins, "well, her fiancé just broke off their engagement."

    "Oh?" Gram replies, interested to hear more.

    "Yes," Aunt Mollie continues. "Nancy's beside herself. Some days, she feels too ashamed to go outside."

    While Aunt Rose sits quietly in the living room, Mollie stands at the kitchen's alcove, telling her sister what news she has. I bring to the dining table the dishes Gram has prepared—cabbage soup or kreplach in chicken broth, pot roast or stuffed peppers, potato kugel, applesauce. Because we each have individual tastes, she often cooks the same dish two ways. The kitchen is dark, even with the ceiling light on. The windows look out to the neighbor's brick wall; the floor is bluish gray. Since she has such little cupboard space, Gram keeps her used grocery bags in a pile on the floor. There's an empty package of vacuum bags there, too, and a big bowl for making pastry dough and noodles.

    Gram hands me a plate of potato pancakes. "Es iz nito a gantsere zakh vi a tsebrokhn harts," she says.

    "I suppose," Mollie says.

    I catch my aunt politely eyeing the pancakes, their edges brown and crispy. I look up to Gram, then to Aunt Mollie. Their long bones make them both tall as trees, and they wear high heels, too. "What's that mean?" I ask. "Es iz nito a gantsere ...?"

    "Uhh," Gram says, tasting the cole slaw she's marinated all day, pausing to come up with a clear translation. "Something like there's nothing so open as the rift in a broken heart."

    I tear a pancake in half, give one side to Aunt Mollie and take the other for myself.

    Aunt Mollie lingers over her pancake. "I'd say it means there's nothing more whole than a broken heart."

    Gram gives a simple shrug, hands me a bowl of applesauce to put on the table.

    "Ma—your namesake Channa—used to use that expression a lot," Aunt Mollie tells me.

    "Mmm," Gram says. "Now, she had a big heart."

    "Yes," Aunt Mollie says, nodding in my direction. Neither she nor Gram will say so directly, but they want me to know I am lucky to be named for Channa—and that they're glad I got their mother's name. "She had a big heart for everyone. For our neighbor, Mrs. Fels, who hardly spoke English; for the mailman, our teachers—for everyone. And everyone loved her back."

    "Does that mean she had a broken heart?" I ask, feeling especially short with these tall ladies.

    "What kind of a question is that?" Aunt Mollie glares.

    Gram lets out a grunt. "Call everyone to dinner," she says.

    Grampa and Norm sit at the head and foot of the boxy, mahogany table, which this evening bears one narrow leaf. Aunt Rose sits next to Norm. There's a mahogany hutch for Gram's tablecloths and good silver, and the chairs are also large and chunky. Gram and Aunt Mollie take seats at the side closest to the kitchen; Mom and I take the other side. With the backs of our chairs up against the hutch, Mom and I have no room to move.

    We say the food is good. Aunt Mollie asks about the books I read in school, and if we've heard about an upcoming television program on Emily Dickinson. "More slaw," Grampa says, speaking for the first time.

    "Uhh," Norm says, "the roast, please."

    After our meal, unless I volunteer, Gram cleans up by herself. My mother will have no part in picking up, and Aunt Mollie never enters her sister's kitchen. Aunt Rose is still stoney and quiet. "Go on, Hannah," my mother says, reaching for another pecan roll, scarcely looking up from her second reading of the Times business news. Mom likes her mother's cooking, though Gram's complaint that we never take her out with us—shopping, or for a movie—irritates her. She thinks Gram doesn't have much to say that's positive.

    "Go on," she says again, while I pick at the crumbs on my plate. "Give Old Ida a break."

    As I rise toward Gram's sink, feeling the warmth of my new, brass-buckled belt and red plaid blouse, my two braids keep neatly at my collar bones. To Mom, I give my "thanks a lot" expression, my rolled eyes.

My grandparents' house is laid out much like ours, only they also have two bedrooms downstairs, and their den and kitchen are smaller. One night at their house, where I've been sent while my parents go to a movie, I go from the den through the dining room to look for a snack. I open Gram's fridge and search for ham.

    Mom keeps our ham stocked in the meat bin. She likes it scrambled in eggs, or on toasted rye with mayonnaise and a slice of cold tomato. I look everywhere, but can't find anything in Gram's fridge wrapped in white deli paper—only kugel and a tongue in Pyrex dishes, each covered by a plate.

    Finally I return to the den, where Gram waits for our Scrabble game to resume. I sit in Grampa's orange chair, in the deep dent in its seat. Grampa has been in bed for at least an hour. His tray table is beside his chair, cluttered with a butter knife covered in dried-up jelly, two plates with toast crumbs, a coffee cup, and a newspaper folded in half. Against the window ledge, Gram's violets sit neatly in a row.

    "You don't have any ham," I say.

    "Of course not."

    I scrunch one side of my lip toward an eye.

    "Ham's from a pig, Hannah. It isn't kosher."

    "What's kosher?" I ask.

    "You don't know what kosher is?" She looks disturbed.

    "Gram, I'm only ten," I say. "How should I know everything?"

    Gram sighs, a sigh that matches the room's old mess. "There are Jewish laws for your diet," she says. "They keep you healthy. I don't follow all of them. But I don't mix milk and meat. And I don't have pork in the house."

    While Mom drives me home the next morning, I tell her we shouldn't eat ham anymore, because we're Jews. She curls her lips in a smile: she adores me, even when I request things she doesn't like. "Okay," she says. "I'11 buy lox then."

    A few weeks later, though, she switches back to ham. "Lox is a luxury we can't regularly afford," she announces. Her voice has authority; the rules of our house are hers to make. Quietly though, I decide not to eat pork again.

My best friend's name is Karen Caplan. We're both in our school's modern dance club. Anyone can join the club, which our gym teacher, Ms. Hirsh, runs after school. We make up our own dances and perform them twice a year, in the gym. The dance club is mostly black, and Ms. Hirsh is glad our programs have variety: Karen and I like choreographing to "Switched-On Bach," while the black girls prefer Aretha Franklin. After rehearsals, we like to compare the lard in their mothers' cookies with the butter in ours; and Karen and I admire that they already have boyfriends. She often walks home with the other dancers, because they all live in an integrated part of town; I walk alone, toward a section that is mostly white.

    Karen and I are both short girls with short brown hair; but hers is straight, and mine is curly. Her nose has a bump in its middle; mine is plain. We both have small breasts. Karen has a brother older than we are, already off at college. Her father teaches philosophy at Cleveland State University. I like her mother, who bakes the desserts for a catering company, and sometimes gives me a cake or a pie to take home to my family. Mrs. Caplan has an accent, because she grew up in France. Sometimes, when I'm at their house, we'll all talk French so I can practice what I learn at school. Once, Karen told me, "My mother barely survived." Somehow, I knew she was talking about the Holocaust.

    At Hebrew school on Saturday mornings (which I asked to attend after Gram told me our religion's dietary laws, and after Aunt Mollie gave me a copy of Anne Frank's diary—even though Karen doesn't go, and Mom says she would never join a temple because they're all just interested in money), we learn the Hebrew alphabet and the meaning behind the Jewish holidays. We also see movies made by Nazis. Adolph Hitler filmed the rooms he filled with Jewish hair and jewelry. He filmed the people who lined up before the gas chambers, naked, thinking they'd be taking showers. Are any of these people our relatives? It's hard to tell, when people are naked and their heads are shaved, if we look alike. We see their dead bodies, the bones like dried birch sticks, bulldozed into trenches other Jews have dug.

    After the movies, which we kids have filled the auditorium to see, a teacher stands in front of us, and says things that I don't hear. We're all too dazed to talk. There are probably two hundred of us in this room, which is still dimly lit. I think I sort of look like Anne Frank, and she kept a diary, too. As we file back to class, Jenny Fein asks if I'm going to Ken Glickman's party that night. I've heard that people smoke grass at Ken Glickman's parties, which makes me uneasy; I've heard that David Jacobson and Ken are friends—and that makes me sort of want to go. "I'm babysitting tonight," I tell Jenny, "for my favorite kids."

    When the carpool brings me home, I tell Mom we watched those movies again.

    "Uh huh," she says. "That's rough."

    I can barely eat the macaroni and cheese she's prepared.

    "Don't let it get you down, love," she says. She starts a cigarette, and suggests we go to La Place after lunch, a new mall in Beachwood.

    I say, "Okay," but I am thinking about Karen's mother, Mrs. Caplan. I've looked for a tattoo on her arm, like the Jews in the movie, but she always wears long-sleeved shirts. And Mrs. Caplan is a little plump, not skinny like the people we saw through the concentration camps' barbed wires. What happened to her in the war? I wonder. I wonder if even Karen knows.

    I think our mothers could be friends. Mrs. Caplan likes to talk about current events, she has good taste in fabric, and she's always looking out for a good sale. Their house is similar to ours, but cleaner. But Karen and her mother fight as much as Mom and I get along.

    At La Place, Mom brings pants and sweaters made of fine cotton and wool to dressing rooms flanked with mirrors, then rests on the upholstered chairs in the lushly carpeted rooms. While I bare myself and bring the new clothes down over my head and my new breasts, my eyes still in the dark, Mom watches me.

    "Smashing," she says decisively, as I roll up the pants, which are always too long. "You'll have to get them." Or, "Take it off, love. That's not you." She observes me with the kind of look that honeymooning couples give to Niagara Falls. I love her gaze; I bathe in it.

After I start junior high, my mother reserves her Friday nights for playing bridge with Henrietta Leeder. One dry, windy, autumn afternoon in University Heights, a suburb next to Shaker, a few years before she and Mom became bridge partners, Henrietta's three children were raking leaves on their front lawn. Suddenly, the leaves caught fire: in a spontaneous chaos, without warning, the blaze appeared. The two younger ones, a boy and a girl eight and ten, were engulfed in flames. They died from inhaling the smoke. There was no reason for this tragedy, no culprit but dry wind. The firemen sobbed with Henrietta and the rest of her family, right there on her lawn. A tinge of smoke hung in the daylight. The trees were untouched.

    "The gods can be cruel," Mom says, when she tells the story.

    She's moved by Henrietta's life, pleased to be close to her. The life of someone whose children died so unreasonably has depth and meaning; and once Henrietta begins to venture out again, Mom is proud to give her an ordinary evening of cards.

    My mother returns from her bridge games and tells me, "She does her makeup in such a lovely way." Normally, the wearing of makeup is considered gaudy and vain. But on Henrietta, Mom admires it.

    One night after cards with her friend, my mother removes her trench coat and hangs it neatly over a chair before she greets me. I lie on the living room's striped sofa, feeling grown up in the matching maroon sweater set Mom wore in the fifties, as a college girl. I'm reading Gone With the Wind. Daddy is already in bed. Mom says, "Hi," then clears her throat. I fold my book together and give her my attention.

    "I want you to know why I don't display photographs of you like other parents," she says somberly. "It's because static images serve mainly to remind one of the dead."

    A chill ripples through me, but I don't let it show. My body is unusually agile, even wiggly; but I can also sit very still. I do so now, with Mom. I'm not sure I agree with her idea. Somberly, though, I nod.

    As if I've concurred with her, Mom continues. "I don't want photographs on a mantel if I can see a person, or talk with them on the phone."

    I nod again, more slowly. I understand the gravity of her feelings, though the idea sounds strange to me.

    A half hour later, just as I turn out my light, Mom appears at my bedroom doorway. "And when I'm dying," she says, her voice floating into the darkness of my room, "you are to get as far away from me as possible—no matter what I might beg for then."

    "Okay," I say, in a tone that sounds as close to promise as I can muster.

    Then Mom walks away, toward her own room. "And," she says, returning with an afterthought, "do not attend my funeral."

    "Okay," I say again, figuring it's going to take me a long time to get to sleep tonight. It doesn't occur to me to ask what she's talking about.

Afternoons, when I return home from the eighth grade, I go to Mom's room, where she's been napping, and climb into Daddy's side of the four-poster bed. Like most of our furniture, the bed is a Stickley. It's covered by an Amish quilt, and has matching cherrywood dressers—one for Mom, and one for Daddy. There's a black-and-white TV on a plastic stand from Norm's bachelor days. Between the TV and Mom's closet, there are usually a pile or two of dirty clothes or other things Mom needs to put away. I wonder sometimes why her housekeeping is so sloppy, whether the mess protects us from gods looking for a clean house to stir.

    I bring a snack we can share, maybe chocolate chip cookies and milk. Mom's in a padded bra and white underpants that go up past her belly button. Her smell, as always, is nearly intoxicating. It seems to come from deep inside the sheets.

    I tell her that in the library, I learned that Mark Twain is not the author's real name. Other writers, too, have used pen names when they published their books. "You still want to become a writer?" Mom asks.

    "I do," I say, nodding at her recognition of my innermost desire, and feeling my face light up. "Writers can change the world. When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he made a joke that she started the Civil War with her book, Uncle Tom's Cabin. But really he wasn't joking."

    Mom bites her cookie, and twinkles her eyes. I know she's proud of me. "When I publish my stories," I say, "I'm going to make my name Hannah Fried." Before she married, Fried was Great-Gramma Channa's name.

    "How'd you know Channa's maiden name?" Mom asks, retrieving a crumb that's fallen under the covers into her lap.

    "Gram told me," I say.

    She nods, my cue to go on. I tell her about the fight Karen had with her mother before she left for school: in their laundry pile, Mrs. Caplan saw a pair of Karen's underwear soiled with menstrual blood, and she started calling her nasty names in Yiddish. Karen knows her mother loves her, but she can be really mean sometimes.

    While I share my stories, Mom smokes in a recline, just upright enough to keep an eye on the length of her cigarette ash. "Well," she says, "for most people, mothering's not so easy."

    We both know, of course, that for her it is.

Eventually my mother has to get out of the house. "Out of this bloody bed," she says. So when I am fourteen, she begins working as a substitute teacher in the Cleveland public schools. One day when Mom returns home after I do, clearly exhausted, she asks me to squeeze her a glass of orange juice. She makes her way to the family room. I notice that her dress is unzipped in back. "Mom," I say, "your dress ..."

    "I know," she says. "It's the least of my worries. Just bring me the o.j., love. I'll be on the La-Z-Boy."

    "What happened?" I ask, handing her the juice, seating myself across from her, on the daybed.

    "I just spent seven hours with twenty-eight children, each with enough energy to turn the world upside down. I got there just before the bell had rung, and already the room was in chaos. All I could do was stand in front of them and keep whispering, 'Can anybody hear me?' until they got quiet."

    I imagine her students, sixth-graders just two years younger than me, ill at ease with my mother's gentle demeanor, startled by her whisper like when a baby's finger caresses your thigh. I imagine them bewildered. I imagine them more awake today than they'd been in a long time.

    Mom takes another sip of juice, closes her eyes, and leans all the way back in the recliner with her dress still unzipped. I know she wants to be alone now.

    I go back to the kitchen and plan a menu. I stir minced garlic and dried oregano into hamburger meat and form it into patties. I put potatoes in the oven to bake. I chop up a head of broccoli and put water in the steamer. Once Daddy gets home, I can have dinner ready in fifteen minutes.

Once every few weeks, late into the night, after our parents are asleep, Karen and I meet to do homework at our own kitchen tables. Our telephones are turned up, off their hooks, so we can each hear the other's calls for help. Sometimes, on a Sunday afternoon, we'll study at her house or mine.

    "Does your mother smoke weed?" Karen asks, breaking my attention to a play by Lillian Hellman.

    "I don't think so," I say. We are fifteen, sitting across from each other at my kitchen table, working on English papers. Mom has gone upstairs, to nap. She's never said so, but I don't think she's comfortable around Karen. When Kim Johnson comes over, Mom will stand at my bedroom door, and proudly watch us choreograph a short duet. On three-day weekends, she often suggests I invite Jane Fitzgerald over, for a Monday afternoon marathon of triple solitaire. Mom will bake brownies with walnuts, and splurge on Breyer's ice cream, too. She'll stop smoking to speed through her decks, pointing out cards she'd like Jane or me to play. Jane and I slink back to our chairs, our rhythm lost while she wins, again and again, and declares, "That's all there is to it, guys. You can't beat me."

    This afternoon, Karen persists. "The way she sucks on her cigarettes looks like she's smoking weed."

    "No," I say, feeling the ache of a new pimple on my cheek, certain that Mom wouldn't smoke marijuana. "No way."

    "Well, when did her eyes get crossed?"

    "I don't know," I say. "They seem okay to me."

    But Karen's question startles me, because I've never noticed anything strange about my mother. I can't imagine she's smoked marijuana, since I never have.

    Now, I wonder if Karen has tried it, and I watch Mom more closely. When she inhales from her cigarette, she pulls the smoke into her parted lips and spirals it down a passageway to her pelvis. From the bottom of her torso, she retrieves the smoke, then blows it out with brutal grace. It disperses around the room in long-suspended clouds that curiously make me wonder about sex.

    I look through the clothes in her closet: a pair of corduroys, a few T-shirts, sneakers. A plain, denim dress by Oscar de la Renta, a gray tweed pantsuit by Yves St. Laurent, a green blazer by Calvin Klein. These are the outfits she wears to the furniture store, where she works now as a bookkeeper. In a zippered, plastic case, she keeps a strapless black dress and sling-back pumps with a delicate strap around the ankle. Where does she wear this gown? If she and Daddy go out—this happens maybe a few times a year—they go to a movie, in jeans.

    I watch what Mom wears. I watch for what she doesn't wear. I can make her Calvin Klein blazer look like it fits me by putting on a bulky sweater underneath. She lets me wear it like this, and gives me her favorite necklace—two strands of perfectly chiseled turquoise that she bought at an auction of Indian jewelry. While I dress, I wonder if the jacket looks too big; I worry that the necklace is too grown up.

    But then I come downstairs, and Mom says, "You look sensational."


What People are Saying About This

Alix Kates Shulman
Katie Singer is a natural story teller. Some of her characters are so rich and recognizable that they might have stepped out of my own life. (Alix Kates Shulman, author of A Good Enough Daughter)
Pearl Abraham
"An entire matriarchy is imagined in this novel of multiple voices, a chorus that makes for a moving immigrant story about Russian Jews and the residual mark the family history leaves on the new generations settled in Cleveland, Ohio. (Pearl Abraham, author of Giving Up America)
Phillip Lopate
Katie Singer is a gifted and compelling writer who tells a good story and burrows into her characters' psyches.

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The Wholeness of a Broken Heart 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I could so much relate to the story. I feel as if katie wrote my history in this book and switched a couple of things around. Its good to know that not only I had a life like that and that others know how it feels. Cely.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A lovely blend of luscious/sweeping family history and present-day angst. Both the modern and the historical characters are so three-dimensional, they're in your mind after you finish the book as if they were people you actually knew. A real page-turner, hard to leave behind when the last page is turned. I'm eager to read Katie Singer's next book ...