Here are the collected autobiographical writings of memoirist, poet, and professor Faye Moskowitz. Known for both her sense of humor—even in the bleakest of circumstances—and her insight into the relationships that define who we are, where we come from, and where we hope to be going, Moskowitz shares her own life stories in “a book that will make you stand up and cheer” (The Detroit News).
From her childhood in Detroit during the Great Depression to the time when her mother abandoning the family to pursue her own dreams; from helping a dying friend simply get through another day to a hilarious account of binge eating at a wedding; from finding love and leaving home to building her own family and legacy, these recounted experiences give us “her piercingly tender observations about unlikely friendships, transgressive love, disappointing plants, and sacred Jewish rituals of the kitchen” (Lilith Magazine).
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OUTSIDE THE WINDOW OF MY daughter's old room where I lie in bed alone, the homely night scenes of my street play themselves out. The aftermath of a spring shower drips from leaf to leaf, slides down the trunks of stately trees; night birds chirp their silver chain of melody and couples coming home anticipate in easy whispers a last drink, a page or two, or the familiar comfort of making love before calling it an evening. No such closure for me; my bones intimate terminal diseases, and my heart loses time. The window curtains hang limp, all their starch, like mine, eaten away by the sodden air.
This is the room I come to nights when sleep refuses to come to me. I smoke cigarettes and eat smuggled chocolate, wrestle the New York Times Sunday puzzle all week for the one word that will break it open, or look at pictures of quilt patterns: "crown of thorns," "trip around the world," "rocky road to Kansas." It isn't so much insomnia that's brought me here tonight as it is washcloths. We never have any, or at least that's what Jack says. He's been trying to get a washcloth in this house for ten years he tells me when I hand him a dampened hand towel to wash his face and hands with. When you've been married for forty years, it's convenient to argue in decades.
Jack is having an attack of sciatica, a pinched nerve, one of those supposedly humorous afflictions, like lumbago or the gout, I first learned about from comic strips: Major Hoople in his fez with pain stars radiating from his hip or Jiggs resting his bandaged foot on a little stool while Maggie brandishes her rolling pin. For four days I've been doing the stairs two at a time, bringing Jack movies from the video store and food I hope will tempt him and a king's ransom of muscle relaxers and pain relievers, none of which seem to deliver their promise. I feel terrible for him; I imagine sciatica as a kind of root canal of the hip joint, and he hurts so much my picking up the newspapers in our room makes him wince. I would do anything to make him feel better; he knows that, and I know he knows it, but it still makes me angry when he blows up at me about washcloths.
I wish washcloths were all of it. At People's, where I had the prescriptions filled, the clerk looked straight at me and said without apology, "Senior citizen's discount?" Jack and I are both frightened. What if this all just doesn't go away? A moment ago I had a fast-forward flash: he never gets better. For the rest of his life he is confined to our bedroom and an excruciating hobble across the hall to pee. I can see his beard growing out and his cheeks caving in, my world shrinking to the limitations of this house. Selfish? Isn't it Mersault's father in The Stranger who witnesses every execution he can find because he considers walking away from death life's greatest triumph? Is that so crazy? Don't most people leave a sick room thinking, deep down, thank God I got off this time; for the moment, at least, I'm still okay?
From our bedroom I can hear the radio playing softly: "Blues in the Night." Ahooey-da-hooo-ee. Jack would say this is just like me — magnify something until I've worked myself into a state, and what good does it do anyone? Well, my insomnia does someone good once in a while. When my first grandchild was born, I went over and spent the night a few times so the new parents could get some uninterrupted sleep. Getting up in the middle of the night is nothing to me. But that thin little wail, blue as skim milk, brought it all back, ripping through my sleep with the insistence of heavy muslin sheets tearing. I felt for a moment as if I were once again bent over in the rocker, cradling my own baby, and she, rooting, head bobbling, then mouth fastening onto my nipple cracked and sore, my whole body recoiling from those blind blue eyes, that first searing suck, and then my womb contracting in empathy and relief. I used to have fantasies about bombing La Leche headquarters; those smug women suckling away, while I could never get the hang of nursing at all.
Jack won't let anyone but our children come up to visit him. "I don't want people to see me like this," he says. Being sick is embarrassing to him. I don't help with the Florence Nightingale shtick, making him feel like a real invalid with my carrying of trays and recording of doses. What else can I do? Men make lousy patients; I'll bet any nurse would tell you that. Still, when I stay here in this other room I feel as if I have deserted him; when I hover, he only gets cross.
I worry I'm not sympathetic enough. I can't understand why his pain makes me feel lonely. Maybe the problem is that pain is invisible, shut up inside the person so it's impossible for another to be part of it. A gaping wound — now that would make my own flesh quiver in response. As it is, I keep looking for some outward manifestation of the hurt, have to force myself not to get into a no-win contest over pain thresholds. Meanwhile, cocooned in his misery, Jack has exiled me to this spare room.
My friend Jenny needed me sometimes in the middle of the night when she couldn't sleep. She was dying of a cancer that consumed her body like a fast-burning brush fire, and toward the end even painkillers and sleeping pills didn't help. We had signals worked out between us: she would dial my number and let the phone ring only once so as not to waken Jack. It was spring then, too. I'd throw on a raincoat over my thin cotton nightgown and go out the back door and through the neighbors' yards to her house on the next street.
I remember the beam of my flashlight and the way it grew fat when it illuminated my sandaled feet or stretched long and skinny when I pointed it ahead of me. Here or there I saw the gold medallion of an illuminated bathroom window; sometimes the Beatles throbbed on a third floor where teenagers were supposed to be sleeping. Cool green leaves brushed against my face, and the fine webs of spiders; there were no dogs living along the way, only a cat that sometimes arched its back across my legs, leaving the memory of its fur a moment on my flesh.
We didn't worry so much about intruders in those days. I had my own key and even knew the stairway well enough to avoid the third and seventh treads, the ones that might waken others who surely needed their sleep. I can't tell you what a gift it was for me to be called upon that way. I never felt more alive than in those few months Jenny let me help her die.
I came at her call one night bringing a little basket of polish and implements to do her nails. She lay curled on the edge of a king-sized bed filled with pillows of every size: European squares, neck rolls, small down-filled circles smooth as Necco Wafers. On her bedside table a half dozen pieces of perfect fruit filled a small crystal bowl that gave back lamplight in miniature, over and over. Flowers were everywhere: bouquets of peonies bending over with the weight of their bloom, crisp yellow and white tulips, a precious bunch of lilies of the valley from her own front yard, scenting the room like dimestore perfume.
This was still a feminine room despite white enamel basins and collections of pills and capsules in childproof caps; the woman in the bed steadfastly insisting on remaining a woman, not merely a patient. Her bright blue-and-green-flowered nightgown slipped from shoulders where the flesh now stretched taut as canvas prepared for a painting. Her eyes were closed when I tiptoed in, trying to compose myself, trying to think of something to say that would not be trivialized by her drama. "How was your day? What's new?" Even the talk we call "small" seemed bathed in irony.
"I feel just awful," she said without opening her eyes. "Sit here on the bed next to me. Don't talk. Just hold my hand." Her pulse threaded under my palm. "What can I do for you?" I said at last, and when she didn't answer I picked up a heavy wooden hairbrush and smoothed her hair. Over and over I pulled the bristles through the still-gleaming black strands. "Such beautiful hair," I crooned, petting her, caressing the wasted arms, the bent shoulders, the submissive back.
I said, "Look what I've brought you," and spread the little bottles and tools on a nearby table. One by one, I filed her waxy-colored nails into almond shapes, chose from the assortment the sauciest red I could find, and made of each nail a defiant flag. "Don't move," I said as if she had somewhere to go. She spread her fingers on the coverlet, her gypsy coloring, always so vivid, almost garish now that her cheeks glowed faintly yellow under her tanned skin.
Ours was a recent friendship though I had known about her for years: an artist, what I would call a patrician, with her impeccable WASP credentials, her prominent husband — just the kind of person whose acquaintance my reverse snobbery would keep me from pursuing. Merely comparing her upbringing to mine made me feel like someone just out of steerage, a bundle in one hand, a squawking chicken in the other.
But we did meet, at the home of a neighbor who knew us both, and in fifteen minutes over coffee Jenny and I discovered correspondences only women in their late forties will admit to; by the time we agreed to lunch the next day on egg salad sandwiches at the People's on Wisconsin, we were anticipating the kind of deep, new friendship each of us had stopped expecting long before. For about two years after that we saw each other almost every day, commiserated about our teenagers, laughed about the gray in our hair (the dread badge of courage) but refused to cover it, took classes together at GW and drank coffee in the student union, talking politics and gossiping about favorite professors with classmates half our age.
I never stopped being surprised that she had chosen me. Her house, crowded with upholstered evidence of old money, still left me tongue-tied, and I changed clothes four times before I got the courage to walk over and meet her mother one day, a shriveled woman in a wheelchair, my childhood dictionary definition of "dowager."
I was in my kitchen the morning Jenny called me from the doctor's office. "It's cancer," she said, almost in amazement, "the galloping kind. There's no hope, darling." I held my breath, and the protective shutters slammed down like those formidable barricades in front of little shops in France. What did that mean, "no hope"? Who said the word "cancer" out loud? What kind of doctor told patients they had nothing to pray for? This was the gentile world with a vengeance: stiff upper lip where my people would have rent their clothing, howled about the injustice — and consulted another doctor. But secretly I shuddered with a kind of relief. Lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice. Perhaps my own body would be safe for a little while. We talked second opinions; I hung up the phone and wept.
"There's one more thing you can do for me," Jenny said, cupping her fingers so she could blow her nails dry. "I'm dying for a shower." She rolled her eyes. "Joke," she said, and then, "Do you think you could help me?" She drew her legs up and pulled herself to a sitting position, biting her lower lip until it was pale between her teeth. Outside, on Newark Street, an automobile passed, radio blaring. "Please," she said. "Sponge baths just won't do it. I would feel so much better if I could only get under the water."
She saw my reluctance. Did I really want this responsibility? What if she stumbled, or fainted in the tub? For a moment I was struck by an absurd shyness; our 2:00 a.m. assignations seemed suddenly juvenile to me, something kids might do, not two grown women, one of whom was dying. Jenny pushed the blankets behind her. "You can't hurt me, you know. I'm past all that."
I put my arms around her waist and held her in front of me while we inched forward to the hallway, stopping every few feet for her to catch her breath. Each flaw in the polished wood floor, even the metal strip that anchored the hall carpeting, presented an obstacle. By the time we reached the bathroom, we were both sweating. While I steadied her, Jenny reached down, gathered up the silk hem of her gown, and drew it over her head.
It was clear I needed to turn my face from her as much to preserve my own privacy as hers, but Jenny was too close to me in that small room, her nakedness palpable, something I couldn't avoid, no matter where I looked. If Jenny noticed my hesitation, she didn't acknowledge it. "Quick," she said, hugging her elbows, swaying. "Help me!"
I sat her down on the closed toilet seat and adjusted the faucets so the shower ran a gentle blood warm. Then, taking her under the armpits, I half lifted, half dragged her into the tub. When she was standing under the spray, I pulled the plastic curtain over my body between us, partly to shield myself from some of the water, and partly because it was one more way to define myself as separate from her, another way of saying that when all this was over, I could walk away from her dying.
"Are you okay?" I kept saying. Steam fogged the window and the mirror and beaded the toilet and sink. Water ran down the arm with which I held Jenny and began to soak my cotton gown. "This is heaven," she said, lifting her face to the stream. "I wish I could stand here forever." And I thought, these are the elements to which we are finally reduced. After the refusal to believe, after the wrenching leave-takings and the resignation, come the small gifts freshly seen. Days before, I had cooked young carrots, no bigger than a thumb, and brought them to her in a pale blue bowl. We both cried when she licked the crumbs: another spring, all she was leaving — a smear of buttery sweetness on her fingers.
No way to stay dry and I hadn't the heart to call an end to the bathing just yet. On an impulse, I stripped off my dripping gown and stepped into the tub with her. As she leaned her back into my body, I shampooed her thick hair with sweet-smelling soap and let the water plaster the strands against her head. I soaped her neck and shoulders, down her arms and then the backs of her legs, which had begun to tremble from fatigue under my hands.
Later we sat drinking tea in her room, our heads wrapped turban-style in white terry towels, Jenny back in bed and I, wearing one of her robes, in a chair nearby. She was exhausted, her bit of hoarded energy expended, spilled like sugar from a cloth sack. I said, "Jenny, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have let you do this. You'll be a wreck today." But all the while I kept thinking of my father, on his deathbed, refused the cigarette that had become his final shamefaced request. "They're bad for you, Daddy," I had told him, still pretending at the very end. I wish now I had given him that smoke; what difference would it have made to anyone but him?
When Jenny's hair was dry, she lay back against the pillows, as if asleep. The room was so quiet I could hear someone in another part of the house murmur in a dream. Through trees in full leaf, the sky, starless, appeared as patches of blue enamel. "I never knew it would be so hard," Jenny said, turning her head to me, eyes still closed. "Hard to die, you mean?" She opened her eyes for a moment and looked straight at me. "Hard to keep on living," she said.
And now, in the spare room, I dream I am embracing a lover, whether man or woman, I do not know. On my back for the moment, I look up at the high ceiling that seems to shoot through the roof, and see, staring down at me, the face of a beautiful young girl. Her hair is the bright yellow of school crayons and frames her face in a scrawl of curls. Even though she is made small by distance, I can clearly see that the girl's eyes are blind-blue like a newborn's, and her arms, which appear suddenly as objects do in dreams, move with the slow thoughtful motion of underwater plants. Centuries pass before the girl realizes what she is witnessing. I feel as if my lover and I are at the bottom of a deep well and the girl is peering over the rim at us. Eons more before it occurs to me that orientation is everything; perhaps the situation might actually be reversed, perhaps all this time I have been looking down the long cool cylinder at her.
This afternoon, when I brought him lunch, Jack said, "What would I do without you? What do sick people do who are all alone?" This is the way he tells me he loves me, and remembering that now, I go back to our own room and crawl gingerly into bed beside him, where I lie very still, my knees grazing his back, trying not to cause him any more pain.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "And The Bridge is Love"
Copyright © 2011 Faye Moskowitz.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
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