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If in childhood I'd been only praised and told I was the best thing since zippers, I'd have grown up, encountered reality, be come disappointed, and eventually recovered. If I'd been only abused and humiliated, I'd have grown up, been scarred for life, and probably killed myself. Since I got both, I got confused.
But that understanding is thanks to hindsight, and anyway confusion was endemic in my family, so let me begin with Mom, an illegitimate child born in Indianapolis in 1913. Her father visited her once in the hospital, sent Bernita, the mother, a check for five hundred dollars (a small fortune in those days), and moved to San Francisco where he was never heard from again, though he continued to live vividly in Mom's imagination. "He became a lawyer," she often told me. "I meant to have you look him up when you were out there, but I forgot, darn it. George Krebs-is that Jewish? They said he was Jewish and that was why him and Bernita didn't marry, but I don't know. I would've given anything to meet him. I always wanted to ask Bernita about him, but I was afraid she'd have killed me."
She well might have, for Bernita Gakstetter had a temper that could turn homicidal in an instant-like the morning her own mother walked in on her as she was climbing into her corset and saw that Bernita was seven months pregnant. "She laced herself real tight so no one would know, see, but that morning Grandma walked in before she got dressed. Well, Bernita got so mad she threw an iron at Grandma's head. She'd have killed her if she'd hit her."
Mom relishes these fragments of family mythology, but she tells them as if she's talking of someone else, and forgood reason. "Grandpa wouldn't even look at me at first, but then he got so he was crazy about me." Not so Bernita, who a few months later sold Mom for ten dollars to a black couple she knew from work. Mom's grandmother found out her whereabouts and bought her back, cash and carry.
Mom was installed in the Gakstetters' apartment one flight up from their shoe repair shop, and Bernita's brothers and sisters took care of her so Bernita could continue at her printing company job. Bernita was a "gatherer," which meant that she sat at a revolving table assembling the pages of books as the table whirled past. Mindlessly absorbing work, and just right for a woman who, still young, already had a lot she didn't want to think about, none of which her parents would let her forget.
When Mom was three, Bernita married Earl Hunt, a man with a thick head of hair whom we called "Baldy," though I never knew why. Baldy was a pattern-maker who drank a lot and played the horses. I liked him for his risqui ways and mischievous humor, so I could never understand why he'd married the dour Bernita. People said she'd been a great beauty in her youth, in the wasp-waisted, pigeon-breasted fashion of the day, but by the time I got to know her she looked like a Mack truck upholstered in doilies.
"They fought something terrible, Bernita and Daddy did, sometimes with knives even. Boyohboy, that used to terrify me. One time they had an awful fight, Daddy locked Bernita out, and do you know she ran her hand through the glass to get back in- and then went after him with a butcher knife!" By the time Mom was ready for school, she must have been in a state of chronic shock, permanently scatterbrained-an especially annoying form of confusion.
Since Bernita found every house she ever lived in too "grand" (meaning too expensive), she moved Mom and Baldy in and out of eight increasingly modest homes before Mom started high school-the only case I've ever known of planned downward mobility. By the time I was born in 1937, Bernita and Baldy were living in a converted garage just beyond the city limits-a dismal place without plumbing or indoor toilet or telephone or most other amenities of life. They got their water from a pump in the yard, their heat from a coke-burning stove, and their meals from cans. Bernita kept the garage obsessively tidy, even to the piles of romance and crime magazines that were her only reading. Her only satisfactions were money and work, for they were sure things. It was feeling that frustrated Bernita, for feeling had led her to a man who'd sweet-talked her, made her pregnant, then abandoned her and her bastard. The first time in her adult life that Bernita had ventured into the world of feeling, she'd botched it, so she was careful never to venture there again. She was always one for the sure bet, the money in the bank- five hundred bucks here, ten bucks there, it all added up to some thing she could count, and count on.
Bernita was in fact such a miser that if stinginess were a religion, she would have been a saint. Her favorite boast was that she'd never spent a penny on a doctor or a dentist, and for years she locked Mom in a closet to save money on a babysitter. She bought Mom one new dress a year (always on sale and often regardless of size), and put her to work at summer jobs beginning at age seven.
"Did I ever tell you about my pet dog Babe?" Mom asked not long ago. "Oh, how I loved that dog. She was a stray and a little bitty thing, but she got out one night and mated with another dog, a big one I guess. When it came time to give birth, she couldn't pass her pups. I heard her that night whimpering out in the barn, and I begged them to take her to the vet. Daddy was willing but Mom wouldn't hear of it. She hated spending money on things like that. Next morning Babe was dead, and all the pups too. It just tore my heart out. But you can't dwell on the past."
A good thing too, considering Mom's lacklove childhood, but Mom also ended up adopting a variation of Bernita's favorite remark. "Well, now that's over," Bernita would observe with a sigh at the end of no matter what occasion-movie or spring cleaning, funeral or family picnic, Christmas dinner or World War II: "Well, now that's over." It was Bernita's motto, and it conveyed her sense that she'd maneuvered another step forward in the progress of a hazardous life. Or maybe she meant that nothing in itself was ever as remarkable to her as the fact that it always ended. Bernita wasn't saying, except for "Thanks and goodbye" so she could get home and go to bed in time to get up and go to work. Nothing but work and more work and scrimp and save and stingy pleasures until that June morning shortly after Baldy died when they found her in her front yard, flat on her back in the uncut grass. "Well, now that's over."
It wasn't though, for a week later Mom called me in my dorm at Columbia with the news that Bernita had left her almost a quarter of a million dollars-a tidy sum in 1958, but not nearly enough to repair the damage Bernita had done to Mom, and anyway it was the wrong currency. Mom needed love, not money. While Mom was talking on the phone, I could hear Bernita addressing her from the grave: "You always thought I didn't love you? Well, there's a quarter of a million bucks: I guess that'll show you!" She stands there in my memory, feet planted wide, hands on hips and arms akimbo, while something mean and determined has its hand in the small of her back and is pushing her forward against her will and better judgment, smack dab into life-a bitter business.