Framed by the passions of the ’60s and the AIDS crisis of the ’80s, Just Like February begins with the wedding of Rachel’s parents when she’s five and ends with her sexual awakening as Jake is dying. As this poignant coming-of-age story unfolds, Rachel is forced to reckon with a home broken by the stormy love between her mother (a social worker) and her father (a Vietnam veteran) and a heart broken by the realities of homophobia and AIDS.
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a spoon and six dolls
The summer I was born, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Ted Kennedy put Chappaquiddick on the map, and my parents, along with my uncle Jake and me, set out on a pilgrimage to Woodstock. Only Jake got there. Midway across the George Washington Bridge, our car began sputtering, losing steam by the second. We made it just to the tollbooth. My father, who'd had reservations from the start, saw this as a sign that maybe the trip just wasn't meant to be. My mother accused him of being smug.
Cars passed by, there were offers of help, but the engine had died. Jake, at my mother's insistence, hitched a ride with a blond girl in a red Corvette. "I want details," she said, kissing him goodbye. It took two hours before a tow truck finally came and carted my parents and me back to Brooklyn. I wailed, my mother was silent, my father and the driver talked. "I could kick myself for not hitching a ride, too," my mother always says when she tells the story of that infamous day. Her voice is like glass: cold, clear, transparent with subtext. If it wasn't for your father ... Eventually she softens; the news reports, she had to admit, gave her second thoughts about being in a sea of mud with a nursing infant. Besides, my father had recently purchased an elaborate new sound system. All weekend long they listened to the crystal-clear voices of their favorite WNEW-FM disc jockeys bring up-to-the-minute coverage right into our living room; it was almost like being there.
A need to rationalize any simple twist of fate colors my father's perspective. "The last time I saw Jimmy Briggs was on a chopper leaving Saigon, and here he turns up driving the tow truck that takes us back home — that's more than just coincidence, even for a cynic like me." All the way back to Brooklyn, they talked about the endless nights and rain-drenched days in Vietnam, the buddies who had died and those still alive. They talked about Woodstock, too, which they agreed was nothing more than one big antiwar demonstration masquerading as a party. Not that my father wouldn't have loved to hear Jimi Hendrix and the Butterfield Blues Band and Santana and the Jefferson Airplane live, on the same stage, within the space of a few days.
The starting point for Jake is a spoon he came across at a small shop in the town of Woodstock. Candy, the girl he drove up with, wanted to go antiquing before heading over to Yasgur's farm. So they browsed antique shops — she bought an old piano stool that barely fit in the trunk of her car — had lunch in a funky café, and stopped in a gift shop, where Jake found the small wooden spoon that he bought as a present for me.
Shaped like a flower petal and inscribed with the words Make Love, Not War, the spoon ended up being more ornament than utensil. My mother kept it on the windowsill in the kitchen, next to the stained-glass sun that illuminated the window like a bright, smiling orange. Supposedly, it was the source of my first word. Squirming in my high chair, I'd point to the spoon. "Boon," I'd say, refusing to eat until my mother gave me the smooth-as-pearl spoon to hold while she fed me. When it came time for me to start feeding myself, the spoon mysteriously disappeared. My mother accused my father of "accidentally" throwing it away. My grandmother, who had recently bought me a silver spoon from Tiffany, said it was just as well. "Wood splinters," she reminded my mother. The admonishment irked my mother almost as much as did the disappearance of her one and only memento from Woodstock. "And silver tarnishes," she said.
The summer I turned five, I stopped — quite suddenly, it seemed — playing with my dolls. To my mother, a social worker, it was no big deal, just some latent anxiety over my parents' impending marriage. My grandmother, who was less prone to psychoanalyzing my behavior, immediately went out and bought me a new doll. The way she saw it, I was bored with dolls that looked like babies, so she got me a "more mature" one, with a silky black bob for hair and a red satin dress. Instead of putting her in the large basket where I kept my other dolls, I placed her on a green wicker chair in my room. The chair had a flat floral pillow, and, enthroned in it, she took on the aura of a princess.
I told my grandmother I loved the doll, just so she'd stop saying, "I hope you don't think you're too old for dolls already." Giving up dolls, she believed, meant I was growing up too quickly. Like my mother, though, she had totally misjudged the situation. Six tiny dolls, not the kind you could cradle in your arms and squeeze and pretend to feed, had captured my imagination.
"Every night when you go to sleep," said Jake, when he gave me the small painted box that contained the dolls, "you tell these dolls your troubles and they take them away." He had recently returned from a trip to Guatemala, filled with stories about dusty pyramids jutting through lush jungle foliage, and a king known as Great-Jaguar-Paw, and a ten-year-old girl named Carmelita who lived in a village called Chichicastenango. I laughed, tried repeating the tongue twister — Chichi ... Chichicha ... Chichicas — and laughed some more. It was Carmelita who, after a dream one night in which she saw herself flying on the back of a bird, had made the cloth purse that Jake gave me along with the dolls. I'd never seen anything like it. Running along the edge was a braid of black cotton that framed the remarkable bird woven into cross-stitches of red, blue, green, and purple. I traced the bird with my finger. Its beak was too large for its body, and its feathers, spread across the purse, reminded me of a king's robe. In short, there was nothing about this image that should have conjured flight. But, like all things that become the sum of their parts, the bird soared.
The name of this rare bird, Jake told me, was quetzal, and once, when he was sitting in the square with Carmelita, he saw one perched in a tree. He was about to take a picture, with Carmelita in the foreground, when, out of nowhere, it seemed, like a small boulder, her grandmother came barreling in front of him. She didn't say a word to Jake, just put her hand over the camera lens, and when he asked her why she did it, she pursed her lips, looked him squarely in the eyes, and said, with all the wisdom and superstition of a culture he later came to understand, "If you take a picture, you take away the soul." She then handed Jake a box of trouble dolls. For a child he loved.
I immediately turned my attention to the dolls, which lay in a jumble on the coffee table. At first glance, there was nothing striking about the six stick figures of paper and wire. Three of them wore woven skirts (one red and blue, one purple, and one blue and white), and three wore pants. Their shirts, each a different color, were made of threads coiled across them like shawls, and they all seemed to have the same face of painted dots and lopsided smiles. In a way, I liked their tininess, though I really did not know what to make of them. I tried standing them up; they fell down. I shook them as if they were dice, then dropped them to see if they would come up face up or face down; five out of six, or all six, always landed face up, which made me pay particular attention to the way their arms, outstretched like the arms of wooden soldiers on the march, were forever poised in a gesture of giving.
I picked up the dolls one by one and lined them up in my hand. They had no weight to them, they were hollow, but lying side by side in my hand they were somehow transformed, right before my eyes, into a flesh-and-blood family. Mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, and two more — maybe a girl and her uncle — became a unit that, if Jake was right, would somehow dissolve my troubles, whatever they might be.
I gently placed the dolls, one by one, in their box, slid the box into my precious new purse, and gave Jake a kiss of thanks. Then I took him by the hand and led him to the door. "Let's go to Chichicastenango," I said.
"Right now?" Jake asked.
"Don't we need to pack first?" No one indulged my whims the way Jake did.
"Nah — it's better to travel light."
Jake let out a hearty laugh, told me I had wisdom beyond my years. I didn't really know what was so funny — I was simply saying what my mother said to me whenever we went away for a weekend and I wanted to take half my toys with me — but I laughed along as we headed out the door. It was a soft summer afternoon, the kind of day that rings with the voices of children and the bells of ice cream trucks, and we made our way to the park, past baseball fields, and deeper into the park, where we sat ourselves on a shaded bench alongside a lake, pretending we were in Chichicastenango. All around us were children with olive eyes and thick, black, shiny hair, Carmelita's the thickest and shiniest of all. It was siesta time, Jake explained, and while the fathers slept and the mothers fed the leftovers from lunch to hungry dogs and cats, the children skipped around the square, singing their favorite songs, and Carmelita sat close by in the shade of a tree, humming along and patiently weaving dreams.
* * *
"If you live long enough, you see everything" is an adage that haunted my childhood and that, perhaps more than any other, captures the sum total of my grandmother's wisdom. She, like Jake, had a flair for narrative, and she always began with a phrase that set the tone for the drama that was about to unfold. I might be sitting at the kitchen table, playing tic-tac-toe with her or watching her unscramble the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle while I nibbled on cookies with rainbow sprinkles that she baked for me, when the phone would ring. No matter who called, no matter what the greeting — What's new? How's everything? — Grandma, letting out a deep sigh, would say, "Don't ask," or "You shouldn't know from it," or some equally weighty expression of dismay. She would then unburden herself of the day's or the week's or the month's disaster, leaving me temporarily to my own devices of amusement. My choices, as long as I remained in the kitchen, were to continue scratching out X's and O's by myself; start one of the half dozen or so jigsaw puzzles Grandma kept in her house ostensibly for me, or, as was more often the case, finish one she had already begun to piece together; get my crayons and color in the patterns on paper napkins — an art I learned from Jake; and, of course, to continue to eat cookies.
Each choice had its obvious satisfaction, but sooner or later the urgency in Grandma's voice and the way it registered an absolute command of life's inconsistencies, its rewards and punishments, or its debt to God (inconsistent or unfathomable as He may be) would distract me. Immediately I would become transfixed by this small, powerful woman. I mentally recorded her sighs and commentary, the reflexive way she reached for a cigarette and lit it as soon as she began a phone conversation, the way her forehead wrinkled when she became agitated. There was no telling what valuable insights into the complex web of life I might pick up just from listening to my grandmother and observing her mannerisms as she paced back and forth entangled in phone wire or, tired of pacing, leaned forward on the washing machine, nodding as she listened, smoking as she talked, all the time gazing thoughtfully out the window. The drama invariably centered on relatives or friends who were having problems — Grandpa's bad heart, Aunt Vivian's on again–off again affair with the "married I-talian," the constant fights between Grandma's lifelong friend Sophie and her lazy son Arnold — and the way she told it always left me feeling that struggle was the norm and unfettered happiness the exception.
That's not to say that all was hopeless. With struggle, Grandma implied, comes hope, or at least vindication. And nothing I have ever heard expressed hope more poetically than an eight-word phrase filled with the cadence of the shtetl: "If you live long enough, you see everything." How long, I wondered, did one have to live to live long enough? My father's father died of a stroke at fifty, and I never knew him, and his mother died when I was four, so I barely knew her. Did they live long enough? Did they see everything? I decided one day, when we were playing tic-tac-toe, to ask Grandma Ruth if Grandma Lilly had lived long enough to see everything.
"Who puts these ideas into your head?" My grandmother leaned back in her chair, folded her arms.
I smiled at her. "You. The other day you said to Mommy, 'If you live long enough, you see everything.' You were telling her that Arnold got a job working for an accountant."
My grandmother, about to take her turn, held her pencil in midair. "What else did I say?"
I rattled off everything I'd heard her say about Arnold and Sophie: he's a big boy, she babies him too much, he should be supporting her, not the other way around.
"What are you — five going on twenty?"
I took my grandmother's remark as a compliment.
"Oh — one more thing. You said there are worse problems than a sensitive nose."
Arnold, you see, suffered from hyperosmia. Odors that were mildly offensive to most people were unbearable to him, and fragrant smells were simply overpowering. Consequently, Sophie could never wear perfume (which she insisted was no major sacrifice), and even her cooking had to be tempered. Onions did more than bring tears to Arnold's eyes, and if Sophie cooked cabbage or cauliflower, she had to do it when Arnold was out of the house, which wasn't often, since his condition had turned him into a virtual hermit. Jake, who was six years younger than Arnold, once told me how helpless he felt when the other kids in the neighborhood made fun of Arnold, calling him the Schnoz or Elephant Nose, and when they did nasty things, like deliberately farting in his presence and then laughing while Arnold, stoic as ever, took a handkerchief to cover his nose. If it looked as if he were going to sneeze or blow his nose, one of them would incite the others into running from the monsoon of snot their meager imaginations conjured and Arnold would be left standing, handkerchief over his nose, until he mustered the strength to make his way home.
"I don't suppose you remember everything your mother said, too."
I nodded. My mother said the best thing Sophie could do now was to tell Arnold to find an apartment. Grandma became indignant. You don't send your only child out into the streets the minute he gets a job, she insisted. To which my mother replied, you're missing the point. No, Grandma shot back, you're missing the point. Frankly, I didn't know what the point was, much less who was missing it. I knew only that something about Arnold made me sad. And something about his getting a job made Grandma feel good. "I tell you," Grandma said to my mother, her face one big smile of pride, "if you live long enough, you see everything."
"Well," said Grandma, returning to my original question, "I would guess that your grandma Lilly — may she rest in peace — would have liked to see a few more things. After all, she was only fifty-two when she died. But with a granddaughter like you" — she kissed my forehead — "I guess what I'm trying to say is that she knew you, she knew what it was to have a grandchild. What else is there?"
The phone rang. It was Sophie.
"Got a minute, Ruth?" she bellowed. Sophie's voice was loud, and even though the receiver was against Grandma's ear, I could hear everything Sophie said.
"The job is kaput."
"What do you mean, kaput?"
Arnold had apparently gotten into a fight with his boss about the deodorizer in the office bathroom. The scent made him so sick that he couldn't bear to use the bathroom. I imagined Arnold, in the checkered cap he always wore even when he was indoors, eyes cast downward, asking his boss if they could do without the deodorizer.
"His boss says, 'What are you — some kind of nut?' Which was not the thing to say to my Arnold."
"The f-word, Ruth — he said the f-word to his boss." And he was out the door.
"I didn't bring my son up to talk like that," Sophie went on. "I taught him respect — and this is what he does?" Sophie told Arnold to go back to the office, apologize to his boss. "And you know what he said to me?"
"Oy vey," sighed Grandma, reaching for a pack of L&Ms, tapping it against the wall, and pulling out a cigarette. "I don't know how else to say this, Sophie, but maybe he needs help." Grandma, who was never one to mince words, uncharacteristically treaded lightly. "Could you maybe get him to go to someone? You know what I mean — a psychiatrist or something?" she suggested.
Excerpted from "Just Like February"
Copyright © 2018 Deborah Batterman.
Excerpted by permission of BookSparks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
a spoon and six dolls, 1,
a family undivided, 37,
skeletons in the closet, 131,
about the author, 247,