|Publisher:||Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.|
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About the Author
Robin Morgan lives in New York. She is the author of A Hot January: Poems 1996-1999.
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By Robin Morgan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Robin Morgan
All rights reserved.
Nothing ever wipes out childhood.
—Simone de Beauvoir
Every ancestry begins with the mother, but mine ends there, too.
I never met any of my grandparents. The maternal pair had emigrated from that permeable-membrane part of Eastern Europe that was one day Polish, another Russian, a third Prussian. My grandfather Reuben, for whom I was named, had been a rabbi in his village. According to family lore, he was a gentle, scholarly man with a sense of humor, an idealistic outlook, and a passion for softly scrambled eggs. However, his wife, Rose, was, according to all three of her daughters, a matriarch straight from the tales of the Brothers Grimm: fierce, strict, loud, a bully to her husband and children. She certainly looks formidable in the one picture I have of her and my grandfather: Reuben Teitlebaum, slouching, regards the camera with a slightly amused expression, just short of a smile, but Rose wears her frown like semaphore signaling a storm, and her posture is as rigid as the corset encasing her bulk.
Then again, she had reason to frown. Life had uprooted and disappointed her sorely. She had made a real "catch"—a man of prestige, a rebbe—married him, and started a family, only to be hauled away from hervillage into a strange new world where he couldn't find a synagogue to hire him, so had to clerk in a hardware store. She, who was to have lived her life as a rebbitzen, a rabbi's wife, the most respected woman in the village, became a nobody—poor, without prominence, burying three infants in childbirth and raising the two sons and three daughters who survived in an immigrant Jewish community based in, of all places, Atlanta, Georgia. He consoled himself with books, Caruso's phonograph records, and scrambled eggs. She consoled herself with rage.
The sons, naturally, were the hope of the family. My memories of Uncle Aham and Uncle Samuel are so hazy they might as well be cut from gauze; I was barely a toddler the few times (I'm told) I met them. By then my mother, Faith, was already in flight from what remained of her family, except for her two older sisters, Sally and Sophie.
These three women shared a lifelong bond: resentment. They co-cherished indignation as if it were a family heirloom, and their lives provided them with ample justification, as in the case of their brothers: the boys had been sent to college, but the two older daughters were flatly denied higher education, while my mother was permitted to sample it but was yanked out after one tantalizing year. My uncles and what families they eventually had accordingly vanished into a category that, had it been acknowledged, would have been labeled "Don't-discuss-around-the-child-unless-absolutely-necessary-and-then-only-in-Yiddish."
Both aunts, on the other hand, were vivid presences throughout my childhood. Much as each of the three sisters considered herself unique, they all shared the same body type (short and overweight), and they all exhibited certain similar characteristics. Among these was an excessive reverence for perceived authority: bus drivers and waiters were addressed as "Sir"—but this was definitely not out of any courtesy or respect for the working class; in Georgia, they were working class, yet under my grandmother's tutelage they carried themselves instead as Daughters of a Rabbi. More likely, such obsequiousness was rooted in first-generation-immigrant anxiety, or further back, in the periodic pogroms that would terrorize their native village. In any event, whatever rebellious energy the sisters possessed they reserved for use at the kinship level, to be expressed through continual railing against existence—in the guise of blood relatives.
They also shared a capacity for exaggeration that rocketed past puny art into stratospheric lie. No doctor could be merely good; to warrant confidence, he (and it was "he" then) had to be "the top in his field," "the best in the world," the medicine-magician "sheiks journeyed from Arabia to see." (I kept trying to figure out why he chose to practice out of a two-room office in Yonkers.) A low- or mid-level theatrical agent or a would-be producer became "the most powerful man in show business." Even a plastic necklace cleverly molded into fake coral spikelets was once vigorously defended as "rare coral, imported direct from the Great Barrier Reef." Since the sisters' own individual and collective histories were also prime subject matter for their exaggerative talent, they frequently reinvented themselves, their present, and their past. But they rarely did so in concert, which meant screaming matches over whose version was true. Sometimes I had a French great-grandmother named Yvonne who was "wildly popular at the court of the tsar"—and sometimes I didn't; sometimes the family had a branch of "great scholars among the Sephardic Jews back to the Middle Ages"—and sometimes it didn't. Consequently, I learned two lessons the hard way but early: that understatement was ineffective for making oneself heard at home, and that reality was decidedly relative. I grew up witnessing truth as the tennis ball in a match between Dionysus and Lao Tzu.
But however ectoplasmic facts may have been to these women, emotion was real—utterly, suffocatingly real. All three of them Drama Queens of Ashkenazic Family Theater, my mother and aunts performed their lives in operatic fashion and at decibels aimed for the fifth balcony's back rows. Each preferred arias, but they often went at it in duets, and their periodic trios were memorable.
The middle sister, Sophie, led the closest to what in those days was considered a "normal" life: she married (a distant cousin with the same surname, Teitlebaum), bore a son and a daughter, and seemed content to become an obsessive housekeeper and a wonderful cook. I can still remember the pungency of her cooking smells, their promise beckoning from far down the hall outside her apartment door: comforting chicken soups bobbing with kreplach, crisp noodle kügles, pot roasts with garlicky dumplings—and the heavenly, moist, almond-flour cakes she would bake in special molds the shape of lambs, then decorate with vanilla frosting and shaved-coconut curls, raisin eyes, and a maraschino-cherry mouth. Unfortunately, I also remember the yelling, tearful fights she waged with my cousins, her son Jerry and daughter Dorothy, both already teenagers when I hadn't yet started school. Jerry fled to enlist in the navy and was based at Pensacola, Florida (to my child's ear and logic, this became Pepsi Cola, Florida, named after a product as was Hershey, Pennsylvania, which I knew about since I had once appeared there in a fashion show). Dorothy's revolt took the form of as many boyfriends as could be crammed into a given day—a tendency that had persisted, until I lost track of her, through three marriages and three more live-in relationships.
Still, Aunt Sophie cossetted me, let me help with cutting out cookies and decorating the "lambie cakes," told me stories, and, unlike Aunt Sally, seemed to care more about my schoolwork than about my fan clubs. Her husband, Uncle Harry, a retired semi-invalid with a colostomy, made me nervous: he rarely said anything while shuffling through their apartment en route from bedroom to bathroom and back. Sophie could also unnerve me on occasion, as when she enjoyed removing her false teeth and snapping them in my face or chasing me around with her vacuum cleaner, an upright with a roaring motor and a single light glaring from its forehead like a robotic cyclops. Scaring young children is considered by many adults to be an act of good-natured fun, but it's always struck me as a sadistic display of grown-up power thinly disguised as "teasing." The small-bodied people—children—get the message on all levels, and learn to respond with manic laughter signaling not so much humor as submission.
Aunt Sally was very different from Aunt Sophie. For one thing, she lived with Mommie and me. For another, her approach to cooking was to boil all vegetables a uniform grey color the consistency of mush and fry chops until they were so well-done they bounced on your plate when you tried to cut them. If in my childhood archetypes Mommie was cast as the Good Mother, Sally was the Evil Aunt.
The oldest of what in my adolescence I would come to name the Weird Sisters, Sally had been born in the Old Country—Russia? Poland? it depended on who was telling the story—and claimed to remember the boat trip to the New World, a journey she nonetheless refused to discuss. It would take me decades finally to see Sally for the poignant figure she was. In her youth, she'd apparently had a glorious voice (all three of them actually agreed on this), and had longed to be an opera singer. But for a woman in that era and in the conservative European Jewish culture of her family, a life on the wicked stage was regarded as one lewd flounce away from prostitution. So her music was denied her. Then, so the story went, she fell in love with a Christian who cared enough to convert to Judaism in order to marry her. Rose, horrified at her daughter's defilement of the family by such a marriage, decided conversion was insufficient; she demanded that her new son-in-law be circumcised, a barbarous enough ritual when inflicted on a newborn and a particularly savage procedure when carried out on an adult. Still, Sally and her husband were, briefly, happy. Then she gave birth to stillborn twin sons, and, soon after, their father died in a car accident. My grandmother celebrated both tragedies as punishments from Yahweh, her jealous god's revenge on Sally for having loved a "goy." Sally, left a childless widow, shifted her grieving attentions to her youngest sister—and eventually to her youngest sister's child.
I now realize that Sally suspected I only pretended to love her, while most of the time I detested her. She was the hands-on operator of my childhood career as first a model and then an actor, so she functioned in my mind as the blameworthy stage mother. I've often suspected that the idea of putting the baby me to work as a professional model in the first place originated with Sally's seeing in my infant prettiness and toddler precocity her own second chance, albeit vicarious, at a stage career. To make matters worse, she'd adopted her mother's dictatorial style. My mother, on the other hand, had a wider repertoire, choosing confrontation only when manipulation failed (except in certain circumstances against which you could never prepare yourself for the shock of her full frontal attack). Poor Sally. In style and substance, she came to represent in my mind everything crude.
When I think of her, what comes to mind are the cast-and-crew jokes about her thick body's profile blocking everyone's view of the set monitor, and her sycophantic apologies before sidling up to it again. In one of those so unfairly preserved moments of perfect recollection, etched deep by the acid of embarrassment, I will never forget one particular Saturday. We were at home, in the little third-floor walk-up apartment she, Mommie, and I shared, when my teacher dropped in unexpectedly. Mommie was out, but Aunt Sally didn't tell me to entertain Miss Wetter while she made herself presentable. No, whether in a state of innocence, indifference, or defiance, she received the visitor just as she was, without flinching. Her hair stood in peaks stiff with peroxide bleach foam, reeking of ammonia that dripped onto the frayed towel around her shoulders. She sat large-bodied at the kitchen table in brazen undress: the heavily boned bra, pendant from the weight of her large breasts, hung from soiled straps that cut dark pink grooves deep into her shoulders; the batwing flesh rippled and hung from her bare arms; the huge underpants showed their outline under her faded pink half-slip. And all the while, she continued busily squashing the bright orange "Flavor Dot" into a brick of white oleomargarine—oleo for short—and kneading it with her bare hands through the oily blob until the whole pound marbled into one pale yellow. Miss Wetter managed to carry the moment off, but soon recalled another appointment and rushed away. I wanted to die. I swore silently with the intensity of a nine-year-old to will myself into forgetting the moment ever happened—which is doubtless why it remains so crystalline almost half a century later. Time may have lent me some insight into my childish snobbery and some understanding of the class context in this moment, but neither time nor understanding has quite erased the mortification.
As a child, I had a lively imagination, but like most children's it was centered on myself and the worlds I created in my mind; an imagination singularly lacking in the generosity that might extend it toward other people in real life—especially those who had power over me. So I couldn't imagine Sally young, slender, or talented; couldn't visualize her, face contorted with grief, bending over the empty crib that might have cradled her lost twins, or slowly folding her dead husband's shirts one last time before giving them away. I thought her grotesque. I loathed her coarse features, her facial moles that sprouted tiny hairs, her jowls, her neck wattle, her guttural Yiddish, her peasant ways. I blamed her for everything I could, and she obligingly fed me a glut of behavioral details to fatten my dislike. No matter how I struggled against it, she would spit on a hankie or tissue to clean my face—and the memory of her sharp spit smell can even now raise my gorge to nausea. I knew she was engaged in a guerrilla war with my mother for possession of me, and I reveled in the knowledge that my genteel, perfumed, delicately featured, porcelain-skinned mother would, if pressed, turn tigress to wrest control of her daughter's life from this interloper. (She would do the same to wrest control of it from her daughter, too—an insight I was mercifully spared at the time.)
The worst memory I have of Sally is of the one real beating, a spanking, I ever received. I was seven years old. It was a test of wills about a particular cotton dress I hated, which Aunt Sally insisted I wear two days running. With the powerless fury of a child, I screamed at her that I would never never forgive her for hitting me when my mother had forbidden it, that I hated her with all my heart, that I hoped she would die. Later that night, and nights after for weeks, instead of secretly reading by flashlight under the bedcovers as usual, I prayed for her death or disappearance with an intensity I recognize today on the faces of anti-choice picketers outside abortion clinics: that fanaticism able to bridge devout hatred with devout faith in a god merciful enough to answer one's prayer to destroy others.
My one tender memory of Sally goes back to my being four years old. We had been out getting groceries while Mommie was at work clerking lingerie in the Lerner store, and in one of the shops a radio bulletin had announced the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The grown-ups were all shocked and saddened, but I was indifferent until we got outside and Aunt Sally did something I'd never seen her—or anyone else—do. She took a few steps, stopped still in the middle of the street, and burst into tears. Mumbling about how "he cared, that man cared about little people," she dropped her shopping bags and sank to her knees on the sidewalk, hunched over with weeping. I stood watching her, awed. She was unrecognizable. I actually felt sorry for her, so I knew something major had happened.
When I turned eleven, the power struggle between Faith and Sally broke into the open. Sally lost. She was exiled to Florida, to a bungalow that, Faith announced between clenched teeth, "We bought for her, to set her up like an empress." Sally went bitterly, my mother quit her job to work full-time on my career, and she and I moved into Manhattan, just the two of us. Sally and Faith barely spoke for a while and never reconciled fully, not even when Sally lay dying of a cancer that, left ignored as a breast lump, colonized her spine. By then, she was deep into Christian Science, but her attempt to "pray away" the cancer was notably unsuccessful. In retrospect, though, that may not have been its real purpose: one final self-punishing gesture of revenge, instead, aimed at her mother's conservative Judaism.
Excerpted from Saturday's Child by Robin Morgan. Copyright © 2001 Robin Morgan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPrologue: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Memoir,
ONE Matrilineal Descent,
TWO Suffer the Little Children,
THREE On Air,
FOUR Possession Game,
FIVE All That Glitters,
SIX A Little Learning ...,
SEVEN Sex, Lies, and Fatherly Love,
EIGHT Storming the Gates of Mycenae,
NINE A Doom of One's Own,
TEN Alice in Bloomsbury,
TWELVE Fits and Starts,
FOURTEEN Mount St. Helens,
SIXTEEN Rights of Passage,
SEVENTEEN Gaining the World,
EIGHTEEN Hot Januaries,
Epilogue: Six Memoirs in Search of an Author,
About the Author,